Sir: I was surprised to see the generally favourable rating accorded to Ian Byatt, Director General of Ofwat ("Just who are the regulators?", 10 March). As water is a natural resource, essential for human life and critical for the maintenance of public health, it would seem that the regulator of the privatised water companies should be held to an even more stringent standard than those of the other utilities. I question in particular the description of Mr Byatt as "balanced and fair". Since assuming his post in 1989, Director General Byatt has shown himself to be less than sympathetic to the needs of low-income consumers living in newly constructed social housing who, in most regions of the country, are subject to compulsory water metering.
Study after study has demonstrated that low-income families on water meters are paying two to four times more for water than their neighbours in council houses, who are still being assessed according to the old system of rateable values. Among the predictable results of this unjust policy have been an increase in debt among metered customers, the imposition of self-rationing, and, in some cases, disconnection of their domestic water supply altogether as a sanction for non-payment. Families feel unable to flush their loos regularly, to wash fresh fruits and vegetables, and bath water is often shared.
All of these measures have serious health consequences, not only for those particular households but for the general well-being of communities at large. There is evidence to suggest that residents of low-income communities on water meters are particularly vulnerable to infection by largely preventable and highly contagious diseases such as scabies and dysentery.
Director General Byatt continues to insist that all customers living in housing constructed since 1990 be charged for water use on a metered basis, regardless of their income level or particular needs. Even the Victorians recognised that the need to provide a source of clean water for everyone was essential to improving the health of the citizenry and to preventing the spread of communicable diseases. It is a shame that the Director General of Ofwat, a century later, does not see fit to hold to this same sound principle.
SUSAN B. HYATT
University of Durham