Troubled Water: Council tries to block 'pay for wash' meters

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The Independent Online
Revolutionary 'pay as you wash' water meters are being installed in Birmingham against the opposition of the city council.

Labour leaders in the city believe that the new meter, described by Severn Trent Water as a 'world first', will put public health at risk and make life more difficult for the poor. The council has refused to allow the meters to be put in council homes. However, about 10 were installed in private houses in Birmingham this week.

Angered by the move, Birmingham City Council is now convening a meeting with other local authorities to oppose the use of the meters. The council is obtaining legal advice on whether the device could be outlawed on the grounds that it cuts the water supply off without the water company or the council knowing.

The new meter, developed by Severn Trent in collaboration with Schlumberger Industries, of Oldham, allows water to be paid for as it is used.

It can be programmed to charge for the quantity of water used or to collect an annual charge. The meter can also be instructed to collect arrears and give credit.

People with meters are given a 'smart key', a two-inch piece of plastic containing an electric circuit which can be charged with units of credit.

The meter bleeps and flashes when credit is running low and the householder must then take the key to an appointed agent, probably a post office, and pay for it to be recharged. When payments have run out a week of credit is given before the water supply is automatically cut off. Severn Trent is eager to introduce the new meter because it is having difficulty collecting water charges from homes with low incomes. The company has been unable to come to any arrangement with Birmingham City Council for collection of water charges which it used to collect along with rates and rent.

Severn Trent wanted to introduce 3,000 of the new meters to council houses in Birmingham on a trial basis but negotiations with the council ended in acrimony with city representatives accusing Severn Trent of 'duplicity'.

Sir Richard Knowles, leader of the council, wrote to Severn Trent in July, saying: 'The 'trial' you propose is a complete sham. It is in reality simply a first phase of a programme you will go ahead with anyway irrespective of the results . . . Why else have you agreed to buy 10,000 units from Schlumberger when the proposed trial was only for 3,000 units?'

The council was concerned that people who were cut off would only be contacted after 30 days. People would wash less frequently with the danger of spread of diarrhoeal diseases among old people and mothers and babies. They also feared that 'improper sewage disposal' - faeces jettisoned from high-rise flats - would cause a nuisance.

Severn Trent plans to make an extra charge of 50p a week to cover the cost of the meter. The council feared that this extra charge, which might increase to pounds 1 when the full cost of the meter was accounted for, would put undue pressure on poor families. The council would prefer stamps to be used to help people make convenient payments - a system used by the BBC for television licences.

Brian Duckworth, director of finance at Severn Trent, denied that the company misled the council. He said: 'Stamps are not a very clever way of doing it - people lose them. Next year we are planning to install three or four hundred of these budget payment systems each month. We intend to install them in the whole of the area which goes across the East and West Midlands.

'A lot of people who have difficulty making payments would like to have one of these to help them. If they have difficulty paying arrears we will come to an arrangement with them to pay off their debt at, say, pounds 2 a week.

'Some people can pay but won't. They spend their money on other things. We cut off their water and they pay up within hours. These meters will ensure they pay regularly.'