LEADING ARTICLE : Gummer needs a watertight plan

Roll up, roll up. It's the political spring fair, alias the beginning of the General Election campaign. See the man dip his hand into the bran tub and pull out ... hand-me-down policies, gimmicks and "bright ideas" to be dusted off as shiny and original. Grammar schools. Cottage hospitals. And now, the water wheeze. Today Environment Secretary John Gummer will publish a consultation paper on increasing competition in water supply which will, though he is unlikely to admit it, amount to a confession that the very basis on which water was privatised in the 1980s was mistaken. We must insist that he does not press a glass of water on a young relative, however forceful the paparazzi.

Cheaper water would be welcome, and might win votes. But first Mr Gummer and his colleagues owe the public something by way of purification. What is now being admitted is that integrated river basin management, one company for each water region - the principle on which the industry is structured - is not good for consumers. Competition only works if there are more suppliers, bringing water in from further afield. That must imply that the Government will forbid, say, the proposed takeover of South West Water by Severn Trent and Wessex. It ought to tell the Stock Exchange, and quickly.

A year ago the Director General of Water Supply put out a paper which advocated easing rules for new suppliers. He also argued for more "network competition" - selling water from one area into another. But, he warned, opportunities for inter-regional sales, as in gas and electricity, are likely to remain limited.

The Government has been embarrassed by greed in the utilities' boardrooms but must not pretend that introducing competition will be easy. Changes in supply to industry can be networked, at least where water companies' pipes are already linked. Domestic supply is less straightforward. Competition must not jeopardise water quality or lead to reduced standards in sewerage and the treatment of waste water.

As well as safety and reliability in supply, what matters to consumers is how water is paid for. The Government's plan for metering has now been abandoned. Instead of meters for all, as the 21st century dawns most people will still pay for their water on the basis of a tax - rateable value - which was abandoned in the 1980s.

Unlike gas, water is heavy and expensive to transport. Unlike gas, water quality differs considerably from one part of the country to another - the fur in Lancashire kettles is different from the kitchens of Yorkshire - that is, when Yorkshire kitchens are supplied with running water. The Government thinks short-term, when the question is how to guarantee supply over the decades to come. Global warming is a fact, its ramifications set out in the second of the "Our Scorched Earth" series in Section Two today. Rainfall deficiency is becoming usual and needs to be planned for.

This is not a regional issue to be left to the prize-winning managers of Yorkshire Water plc. Government alone has the vantage and time horizon to plan a water grid, even if the pipes are built by the companies. A strategy must embrace conservation, reductions in leaks and a plan for new supplies. All of those will call for more imagination and resolve than the Department of the Environment and the Office of Water Supply have yet shown; achieving them will take more than political showmanship.