And new figures show that leakage has increased since privatisation in most of the water companies' areas: in one case it has almost doubled.
These disclosures - which suggest that expenditure has slumped as water company profits and chairmen's salaries have soared - will embarrass ministers and water bosses who insist that privatisation has increased investment in the industry.
Anne Kirkby, general secretary of the Society of British Water Industries, which represents the firms that lay the pipes, said: "Contractors have experienced a sharp decline in work on repair and maintenance of the mains system. This is despiteclaims by water companies that they have made huge investments in the last five years. Our members report that levels of investment indicated are certainly not apparent in expenditure on the distribution system." She provides figures from the water regulator, Ofwat, showing that, after a brief boom in 1991-92, spending on water distribution crashed by 27 per cent over the next two years, while the length of water mains relined or renewed fell by 16 per cent.
She says that about 10 per cent of the society's member companies have gone out of business or stopped doing water mains work in the last three years, and adds that last year only one per cent of Britain's underground mains were replaced. At present rates, pipes in some areas will not be replaced for three centuries, though they have a life expectancy of only 50 years.
While 18 million people are suffering hosepipe bans, more than a third of water supplies in England and Wales are wasted through leaks amounting to to nearly 300 billion gallons a year.The society says leakage could be reduced economically to around 10 per cent "with a proper repair and maintenance programme".
According to the authoritative technical journal, Environmental Data Services, leakage in the Yorkshire Water area has jumped by nearly 50 per cent since privatisation - from 24 per cent to 35.6 per cent of supplies. In Wessex, leakage has almost doubled.
The Water Services Association, representing the privatised water companies, rejects figures showing increases in leakage since privatisation as "incredible".
n According to a Gallup Poll published yesterday, 83 per cent of Britons say companies should spend more on reducing leaks.Reuse content