LEADING ARTICLE:Nothing will come of nothing, Cordelia

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The Independent Online
Once again, John Gummer has proved that he is not one of nature's crowd pleasers. Just when popular discontent with the privatised water companies is reaching a crescendo, up pops Mr G to tell consumers that there is not much that government or water companies can do - but if only the public would be a bit more responsible.

This is not what people want to hear. That's not just because they are fearful of a rash of publicity photos of Mr Gummer's unfortunate daughter, Cordelia, demonstrating the lo-flush in action. It is also because many sense they have been told that the era of privatisation meant the solving of all problems by the millionaire magicians of private enterprise.

In this belief they are amply represented by Frank Dobson, Mr Gummer's ebullient shadow. He is very cross about the emphasis in the report. He believes - as do the Lib Dems - that it represents buck-passing from the Government and companies to the consumer.

But Mr Dobson's equation - that devoting only nine paragraphs to what the water companies can do, compared with 56 paragraphs to what the consumer can do - is more than a touch simplistic. It is an unfortunate fact that conservation ultimately always has to be paid for by the user, whatever the ownership pattern of the utility involved. Back in 1976 in the balmy Labour days of left-wing drought, Denis Howell presided over significant restrictions in water usage.

The problem is that, subsequently, little or nothing was done to solve the conundrum of water shortages in a wet country by either the state monopoly or the new private companies. And always for the same reasons - that the best solutions simply weren't practical. The most effective means of ensuring the rational use of water is, of course, metering. But it would be prohibitively expensive and take far too long for large sections of the country to be attached to meters. So metering remains a partial solution only.

Investment by the companies in dealing with leakages is more likely to do part of the trick. Such a programme must be embarked upon and there is no excuse for delay. But this too will take a very long time to bear fruit. So other measures must be found.

Which brings us back to the poor old water user. There is no alternative to the recognition that if we want to go on washing our cars, sprinkling our lawns and bathing in deep baths, we must be prepared to help in other ways to conserve water. But Mr Gummer must know that we won't do it - whatever Cordelia says - unless we're convinced that the water companies are also doing their bit. So convince us.