Water firms pledge to offer free pipe repair

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Indy Politics
The Government claimed success for its water summit meeting yesterday, after all the water companies in England and Wales pledged to offer at least one free repair to any customer with a leaking supply pipe.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said the initiative could save over a billionlitres of water each day, but only if all customers were able to detect and report every leak.

"By intervening with the summit we are now starting to achieve our aims and get that better deal [for customers]," said Mr Prescott, who ordered all the water companies to attend the event two months ago.

``When necessary, tough talking does work. I believe that the water companies are beginning to show vigour, imagination and enthusiasm in promoting water efficiency. They will need to keep on doing so."

However, what has been agreed differs from Labour's stance during the election campaign. It said it would insist on water companies repairing all household leaks, not just those in the supply pipe which connects them to the mains. That would have cost the companies very much more.

Recent heavy rainfall has also lowered the political temperature of government relations with the water industry. Yesterday, Thames, the biggest company, said it could now guarantee to get through the summer without any hosepipe or sprinkler bans.

At a press conference yesterday, Mr Prescott was pleased that many water companies now offered their customers devices to reduce the flush volumes of their lavatories, free of charge. He urged them all to do so.

But the most important work on boosting water conservation and cutting leakage still remains to be done. The water regulator Ofwat is drawing up leakage targets for all companies. And the Government is still consulting on standards for water-using appliances and plumbing, changing the licensing regime for extracting water from aquifers and rivers, and on how to charge for water.

Many groups have argued that the wider use of water meters is needed to encourage conservation, something the Government has qualms about.

Meanwhile, a watchdog organisation representing water customers demanded companies be compelled to cut their prices after the 1999 price review by Ofwat.

Jim Gardner, chairman of Ofwat's National Consumer Council, said: "Customers want to see an immediate and substantial cut in average water bills and bills thereafter kept below the rate of inflation." But he warned that the European Commission was pushing up the price of water by promoting laws which demand companies spend more to secure cleaner tapwater, rivers and beaches. The legislation, still to be approved, would raise the average UK bill of pounds 230 a year by about pounds 21, he said. But there was no reason why water companies could not pass on to customers efficiency savings which could amount to a 10 per cent cut.

He added that a leakage level from mains as high as 15 per cent might be economically justifiable, because there comes a point at which the money would be better spent on other ways of conserving water or finding new supplies.

The Water Services Association, representing nine of the biggest companies, said: "Rising standards and lower prices do not sit comfortably together. Many people are constantly pressing for higher standards; they are not all in Brussels."