Troubled Water: Meters trigger a water war

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The Independent Online
AS Britain slumps, the water industry booms - dividends paid to shareholders have increased by 11 per cent in real terms since privatisation in 1989. Investors know that the water will not stop flowing and that customers will not stop paying for it - so water company shares are among the stocks most favoured by investors.

But consumers are not so happy. Average bills are now about pounds 170 per year - an increase of 23 per cent in real terms since privatisation.

A generation of people who have been able to bathe whenever they like is now confronted by meters which may compel them to take shallow baths or share water. Once more the poor are without the means to wash or flush when they wish, while others who will not, or cannot, pay water bills have turned to throwing their faeces out of the window.

These developments are a significant risk to public hygiene. Stringent restrictions on use of water will inevitably lead to spread of diarrhoeal diseases.

Nevertheless new measures to clean up rivers and beaches must be paid for. And water must be conserved or more rivers will run dry.

In this series on Troubled Water, OLIVER GILLIE examines problems that arise when a public service becomes a private monopoly.

A WATER WAR has begun in Carshalton, Surrey, where residents are preparing defences to prevent Thames Water from installing meters.

On five estates, residents are blocking access to contractors to the only road entering the area. On other estates in Carshalton, commuters are parking their cars over stopcock covers where meters are normally installed before they go to work. And in a few cases access to stopcocks has been completely prevented by sealing the units with cement.

The water war has been fomenting for months, triggered by Thames Water's determination to meter water input as a basis for charging for sewage disposal, even though the company which supplies the water, Sutton Water plc, has decided not to charge on a metered basis. Opposition to Thames is consolidating under the slogan: 'Stop the meters - we want to wash.'

Residents do not dispute that most of the water entering the house leaves by the drains and that meters will give a fair approximation of the quantity of sewage that needs to be disposed of. But they believe that if Sutton Water is prepared to allow its customers to choose their method of payment then Thames should do the same.

Sutton Water raises its water from 24 bore holes in chalk strata south of London. It supplies water to 120,000 homes compared with more than 3 million homes served by Thames. However, Sutton Water has tried to find out what its customers want. An independent market survey, conducted by George Gaskell of the London School of Economics for Sutton Water, has found that 70 per cent of customers want to pay for water by means of a licence fee and only 20 per cent prefer metering. The majority, 80 per cent, were in favour of customers being given a choice and that is presently the policy of Sutton Water. Keith Simmonds, its managing director, said: 'We charge on the basis of a licence fee but customers can opt for a meter if they wish.

'Three-quarters of our costs are not affected by the quantity of water consumed and so, after considering our position, we decided that a licence fee was the best method of charging. Installing meters incurs costs of pounds 18 to pounds 20 a year for reading and repair, apart from the capital cost of the meter which is about pounds 150.'

Last week residents in the Carshalton area received a letter from Thames Water's metering manager, Howard Webb, indicating that the company has decided to meter the properties and will use legal powers to force householders to comply. The letter, dated 15 October, said: 'It is our policy to meter every household which receives our services and was connected to the system after 1st October 1989; a current total of some 70,000 new properties. Your property falls into this category . . . The Water Industry Act 1991 gives us the legal powers to require these meters to be fitted.'

The meters being installed by Thames in Carshalton must be attached to pipework which belongs to Sutton Water. But Sutton Water is in no position to object since it is under pressure from Ofwat, the industry regulator, to go over to water metering.

Ofwat believes in installing meters in new properties, where it can be done most economically, because it means people pay for what they use and so supplies are conserved. Ofwat is aware of the local survey of consumers in Carshalton but prefers to quote a national survey which supports its policy. This survey of 3,700 adults in England and Wales undertaken for Ofwat found that 54 per cent favoured metering. Others were evenly split between a licence fee and a sliding scale based on size of property.

Carshalton residents have formed the Campaign Against Metering Enforcement to oppose the installation of meters against their wishes. Neil Fishpool, spokesman for the campaign, was on the streets with other residents last week ready to turn back contractors' vans wanting to enter the Butterhill Development to install meters. Some roads, he said, had not been adopted by the council. 'They are still private property and so we are entitled to refuse entry if we wish.'

(Photograph omitted)