The Third Leader: Tap dancing

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I s the tide turning in favour of tap? A new poll for the National Consumer Council has found that 70 per cent of people think restaurants charge too much for bottled water. Eighty three per cent believe waiters should offer tap water off their own bat, rather than waiting to be asked.

Yet 16 per cent of people are nervous about asking for it. And five per cent admit to being too scared to do so. It is no surprise where this hesitancy springs from. Even the determined, when confronted with the furrowed brow of a waiter or the exasperated sigh of a barman after requesting tap, will have suffered a frisson of inadequacy.

And anyone who has had a tepid glass of water plonked down rudely in front of them will understand why people occasionally bottle it, so to speak.

The story of bottled water is an interesting example of how a fad can become something of a tyranny. Once, choosing to buy bottled water in countries blessed with clean, public supplies of the stuff was considered eccentric.

But now it is a global industry, worth £1.6bn year. It is also worth a good deal to restaurants, which have got away with charging vast mark-ups for years. This explains their institutional hostility to tap water. But that is not the customers' concern. Bottled water in the rich world has always been over-priced and bad for the environment.

And now it seems people would rather have tap. It is time the service industry jettisoned the bullying tactics and gave customers what they want. And if that means some diluted restaurant profits, few will be turning on the waterworks.