Water firms face tough drought controls

The privatised water companies face the prospect of tough new official controls as concern grows over the threat of droughts. The Environment Agency is pressing for the power to force firms to share supplies between regions when shortages happen - even when it is contrary to their commercial interests.

The agency, one of the country's biggest quangos, also wants the right to oblige the companies to draw up contingency plans for droughts - which some of them have still not done. And it would like to impose financial penalties on firms which introduce drought orders, in the hope that this would concentrate their minds.

These proposals, which would require legislation, are being discussed with senior Department of the Environment officials and have been submitted to the House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment.

They reflect mounting anxiety about the threat to water supplies posed by recent dry weather, increasingly attributed to global warming.

The agency is particularly worried that profit-oriented privatised companies are ill-prepared to cope with a crisis, even after last year's Yorkshire Water drought fiasco.

High on the agency's list of concerns is transfers of water between companies. An agency report says: "Since the drought of 1976, the ability to make transfers has increased. However, the incentive to reach agreement to transfer water between companies is not the same as within a company's boundary, especially now that the water companies are privatised."

Under the new proposal, water companies with surplus water could be compelled to transfer it to neighbouring companies in need, despite any commercial reluctance they may have.

Geoff Mance, director of water management at the Environment Agency, said of the proposed new powers: "The object at the end of the day is to ensure that these issues don't slip off the list of management priorities and that the companies have no excuses left and no reason for senior managers not to address the issues."

The official concern about the effect of drought will be underlined by new evidence this week that action by water companies is threatening some of the most important environmental sites in England.

A report commissioned by English Nature, due to be published in the next few days, will show that the future of 56 sites of special scientific interest (SSIs) is at risk because too much water is being taken from surrounding areas.

In two- thirds of the most seriously affected sites, the report will show, the water authorities are the culprits.

The problems are caused by the abstraction of water from rivers or aquifers - a standard response to shortages of rainfall and low reservoirs. The effect is to lower the water table on the SSSIs, threatening their ecological balance.

"We need to make sure that steps are taken to protect these sites from any further damage," said English Nature's senior freshwater officer, David Witherington. "We feel there needs to be a national water resources strategy and that it needs to rely less on abstractions from rivers and aquifers during the summer and more on storage of winter rain."

Long-term planning of this kind is also a concern of the Environment Agency, which includes among its latest proposals a request for powers to insist that companies draw up plans to ensure that water supplies can be guaranteed far into the future.

Michael Meacher, Labour spokesman on environmental protection, yesterday gave his support to the idea of tighter regulation of the industry. He said: "This latest evidence [from English Nature] shows the short- sightedness of privatisation and the way it acts against the public interest. We have clearly got to reverse that. The Environment Agency is an obvious candidate for that role."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
film
News
people
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
i100
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

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Management Accountant

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Manag...

Recruitment Genius: Manufacturing Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a rare opportunity for ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'