Troubled Water: Analysts question figures used to support change

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The Independent Online
Questionable figures are being used by Ofwat, the Government's water regulator, to promote the metering of domestic water supplies.

Figures from one Ofwat survey, frequently quoted by the organisation, suggest that 64 per cent of people think that metering water is the best option. However, analysts warned: 'We have reason to suspect bias in the results.'

Nevertheless, these figures are being used by Thames Water and other companies to impose meters on customers who do not want them.

The 64 per cent figure was obtained in response to a questionnaire sent out with water bills. It came from a small, self-selected selection - only 1.6 per cent of people bothered to return the form.

The answer obtained by Ofwat is completely unrepresentative. Two thirds of those who wanted metering used less than average amounts of water - an obvious reason for preferring metering and returning the questionnaire.

Figures from a second, more comprehensive survey, conducted for Ofwat by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, have also been given a pro-metering gloss. The OPCS survey found 54 per cent preferred metering - but only if their choice was restricted between metering, banding and a licence fee. Only 46 per cent preferred metering against the existing method of payment using a scale based on rates as well.

But even this figure proves to be misleading. When confronted with the real cost of metering, the vast majority rejected it. A quarter of those who had chosen metering at first said that they would not want it if there was any increase in average bills.

The cost of installation of a meter is between pounds 100 and pounds 200 and the annual cost of servicing, reading and extra work in billing comes to between pounds 20 and pounds 30. When this is taken into account less than one person in four favoured water metering, according to the survey figures.

OPCS warned their survey needed to be treated with caution. 'It would appear that many respondents had not thought through the issues before the interview and modified their views as the interview progressed.'

Faced with good and meaningless statistics, Ofwat has chosen to fudge the issue. Ian Byatt, the director general of Ofwat, recognises that there is strong opposition to metering but concludes in a pamphlet, Paying for Water, that 'half of those interviewed in the OPCS survey and two thirds of those who filled in our questionnaire . . .said that they wanted to pay by reference to the amount of water used'.

George Gaskell, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics, who supervised the survey on metering in the Sutton area, said: 'Many more people voted for flat rate metering. People often do not have the information to make an informed answer to a questionnaire. If you want to know what their view will be when a real debate occurs you must put the pros and cons to them.'

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