The Government must set clear targets for increasing the number of homes with water meters as part of efforts to better manage England's water supplies, MPs urged today.
Current plans to reform the regime for taking water from rivers by the mid to late 2020s will not take effect swiftly enough given that rivers are already running dry, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee said.
The committee's report into the Government's plans for conserving scarcer water resources in the face of climate change and population growth, outlined in the Water White Paper, warned more urgent action is needed by ministers.
The report comes in the wake of drought and floods, with two unusually dry winters in a row leaving parts of England parched before three months of record-breaking rainfall caused flooding across much of the country.
Clear targets are needed to increase metering levels as the most effective way to improve more efficient use of water by households, the report said.
Around 40% of homes in England and Wales are metered, which means more than half the population has no connection between the amount of water they use and the size of their bills.
The report said it was "extremely disappointing" that the Water White Paper did not have targets for meter coverage.
It called for a clear, ambitious target to increase metering, pointing to the recommendation in a key review which called for 80% of households to have meters by 2020.
Water companies and the regulator also need to do more to reduce the amount wasted through leaks.
The Environment Department (Defra) should help make sure bills are affordable by tackling bad debt in the water industry, which costs households £15 a year on their bills.
Ministers must implement measures to improve management of surface water, which can cause flash flooding during heavy rain, the MPs said.
The report said it was "deeply worrying" that the Government had not reached an agreement with insurers about providing cover for homes in flood risk areas.
The MPs called for the timetable for reforming the abstraction regime from rivers to be brought forward to ensure sustainable and reliable water supplies.
Current Government plans for overall reform of the regime over 15 years risk "further unnecessary environmental damage" and the changes should be in place by 2022 at the latest.
The committee's chairwoman Anne McIntosh said the MPs had heard "persuasive evidence", during hearings on the Government's Water White Paper, about the environmental damage unleashed by over-abstraction from rivers.
She said: "The Government's current plans - to reform the abstraction regime by the mid-to-late 2020s - will not take effect rapidly enough given that our rivers are already running dry.
"It's hard to see how the White Paper's call for water to be managed as a precious resource can be reconciled with the lack of any clear target to increase metering levels.
"Installing a meter is the most effective way to improve water efficiency, providing a clear incentive for householders to minimise wastage.
"It is simply unacceptable that hard-pressed yet honest householders are subsidising those who are able but unwilling to pay their water bills.
"Defra must implement existing legal provisions rapidly to tackle this problem."
The MPs welcomed plans to increase competition in the water industry, but warned the White Paper's proposals for reform would not deliver a well-functioning market.
Responding to the report Friends of the Earth nature campaigner Paul de Zylva said: "Our precious wildlife is being left high and dry because too much water is being sucked out of England's rivers.
"The Government must urgently develop a wildlife-friendly water strategy by plugging the holes in its White Paper and renegotiating licences to siphon off river water.
"Despite the recent wet weather, drought is still a major threat. Ministers must ensure our water is managed effectively for the sake of households, farmers and wildlife."
WWF's freshwater expert, Rose Timlett, said the Efra committee's report was a "wake-up call" for the Government with "exactly the right sort of proposals we want to see urgently put into action".
"It's been a difficult few months for the country's water systems - we've gone from drought to deluge with the wettest June on record.
"Whilst people may think everything's all right now, recent events show us all how important it is to deal with our water resources longer term to try and minimise the risks to people, to wildlife and to our environment."
Shadow water minister Gavin Shuker said: "We all know what must be done to secure our water supply and keep bills low: greater efficiency, competition for business customers, better infrastructure and changes to prevent the harmful abstraction of our rivers.
"But more than anything we need a Government which is not afraid of taking on vested interests and making reform happen."
Water Minister Richard Benyon said: "I don't believe a one-size-fits-all solution is the best way forward and companies should work with their customers to find the solution that works best in their local area.
"Metering can cause some household bills to rise and I do not want to see anyone struggling to pay.
"Those companies that are introducing metering should protect vulnerable households."
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