Are water meters enough to plug the leak?

Consumer groups fear the Government’s decision to allow Folkestone & Dover Water Services to make water meters compulsory for domestic customers could prompt a flood of applications from other providers.

Consumer groups fear the Government’s decision to allow Folkestone & Dover Water Services to make water meters compulsory for domestic customers could prompt a flood of applications from other providers.

Reservoir levels in southern England are low; rainfall was 10cm below average for October to February and four water companies – Mid-Kent, South East, Southern and Sutton & East Surrey – have already imposed hosepipe bans. Amid growing concerns about water supply, the Environment Agency last month declared its support for metering.

Folkestone & Dover’s application for “water scarcity status” is the first to be granted under the Water Industry Regulations Act of 1999. The company, which supplies 50 million litres each day to 160,000 customers, already meters 40% of its customers, but aims to increase that to 90% by 2015. Nor is it alone in promoting the use of meters, most water companies now advocate the practice and all new-build homes are fitted with a meter as standard.

Some consumer groups warn that poorer families will be hit with higher bills, but water companies claim that metering would be cheaper for most. Mike Moran, former global sales and marketing director at Thames Water, says: “About 70% of consumers benefit from lower bills. Some people would be worse off, but why shouldn’t people pay more for using more water?”

Other water companies in the South say plans to introduce compulsory metering are not in the pipeline while in the North, concern about water levels is minimal, as there is no lack of rain. A spokesman for Thames Water, which actively promotes metering, says the company is monitoring the situation, but adds: “Installing meters in London would be complicated by the fact that 40% of the population lives in flats. There are obstacles to metering in flats due to mains pipework.”

Conservation is a priority, he adds. Thames Water is rolling out a campaign promoting water efficiency in conjunction with London Mayor Ken Livingstone. He supports the initiative but hasn’t put his weight behind Thames Water’s proposals for a &£200m desalination plant. Detractors say it will have high energy costs, and argue that if Thames reduced leakage levels it would save more water than the new plant could produce.

Moran agrees that water companies should be doing more to plug leaks. “Companies have to do more themselves,” he says. “They can’t expect customers to conserve water if they are not seen to be doing so.”

Folkestone & Dover highlighted its work to stem leaks when it announced the compulsory metering policy. According to an Ofwat report last year, the UK’s 23 water firms have reduced overall leakage by about 1%. Yet Thames Water still loses 915 million litres a day, enough to fill 366 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Moran suggests water company marketers need to produce a united, nationwide “stream of consciousness” campaign. He says: “Over time, the message to conserve water would get across. It would prompt the necessary behavioural shift.”

With government proposals for a swathe of new homes in the South-east, demand for water will only increase. Patterns in water consumption will have to change, and so will companies’ efforts to plug leaks in the system.

Nathalie Kilby

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