Regulators battle over increases in water bills: Rivers body days spending will only maintain quality of water, not improve it. Nicholas Schoon and Mary Fagan report

WATER BILLS have been rising faster than the rate of inflation since the mid-1980s and the upward curve is getting ever steeper. At the same time, few customers will have noticed any difference in the service.

Low income households have been especially hard hit because many used to pay for water as part of weekly council rent and rate payments. Now water is billed separately and the disconnection rate is rising.

Ian Byatt, the industry's economic regulator in England and Wales, soon has to decide how much above the rate of inflation the water companies can raise their bills between 1995 and 2000. He argues that relentless increases driven by ever higher standards for drinking water and the environment are intolerable. And he believes the public are behind him.

But the National Rivers Authority (NRA), the water industry's chief environmental regulator, has been infuriated by some of Mr Byatt's claims.

Michael Howard, the Secretary of State for the Environment, has to make the final judgement and both regulators are making increasingly strident appeals to him.

Up until 1995 water bills will increase by an average of 5 per cent a year above inflation. That cannot be altered. The main reason is that water companies have promised to undertake huge investment programmes required to bring the quality of drinking water and level of effluent from sewage works up to UK and EC standards set more than a decade ago.

Mr Byatt, Ofwat director general, wants to stop water bills rising in the same way in the second half of the 1990s. 'It is not an escalator that the public is prepared to ride,' he said, pointing out that the long-term average growth in household income is only 2 per cent a year above inflation.

The NRA fears the public is being fooled into believing that the current investment in sewage treatment is to meet unnecessarily high standards. Not at all, Lord Crickhowell, NRA chairman and a former Tory Cabinet minister, said in an impassioned letter to Mr Howard last month.

An extensive NRA survey found that the rivers of England and Wales became dirtier between 1985 and 1990. The poor performance of overloaded inland sewage works was one of the main causes. The NRA says the bulk of current spending on these works is needed to sustain river quality, not improve it, and to belatedly meet the requirements of the Control of Pollution Act of 1974.

The Government has also ordered the water companies to meet the standards of the EC's drinking water directive by 1995, 15 years after it should have come into force. That alone requires an investment of more than pounds 2bn between 1990 and 1995. The water companies and Mr Byatt feel the directive sets health standards which cannot be justified scientifically.

This European legislation bans tap water which contains any pesticide above a concentration of one part in 10 billion. When the directive was proposed in the 1970s, no scientific instrument could detect chemicals at a lower concentration. It was the EC's way of saying there should be absolutely no pesticides in drinking water.

The World Health Organisation has maximum levels for pesticides in drinking water below which, in its judgement, there is no threat to human health. The water companies would prefer to use the WHO limit and have begun a campaign, along with their continental colleagues, to have the directive altered.

This is a complex process which will take years of negotiation and require the unanimous consent of EC environment ministers. In Britain, in the meantime, the money will have been spent and the standard met.

Belated compliance with the EC's bathing waters directive is also driving up bills. Hundreds of pipes which discharge sewage a few yards off the beach are being replaced with systems to pipe it further out to sea.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager - Events, Digital, Offline

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager (Events, Digit...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable