Don’t be fooled by the rain – the UK needs water metering

This is a guest post by Nicci Russell, Policy Director at Waterwise

After the wettest ever June, the average total rainfall for July had already fallen by the middle of last month. And the drought earlier this year was dubbed the wettest ever. But drought it was, and groundwater levels were at record lows in many areas. Water companies are planning now for the possibility of a third dry winter, which really would put the cat amongst the pigeons. These increasing extremes of weather mean it is vital for us to get a grip on how much water we all use – and waste – every day.

Two years ago, Waterwise produced a cartoon illustrating how most of us pay for our water in the UK – showing a woman going into a petrol station, and the pump saying “thank you for paying the standard amount – now take as much as you like!”.

The UK is an outlier
It’s worth repeating that the UK is almost unique in Western Europe in this sense: only a third of homes in England and Wales (half by 2015), and fewer than one per cent in Scotland, pay according to how much we use. (In Northern Ireland customers aren’t even charged for their water, let alone metered).

But in the face of less water due to climate change, and more people, metering is an essential tool – alongside water efficiency advice and free fixing of gadgets in homes – in making the water we do have go further. Successive reports to government make this point.

Calls for metering
The 2009 Walker Report, backed by all parties, set a target for 80 per cent of homes in England to have a water meter by 2020.

The Adaptation sub-Committee recently recommended that the government should take further steps to increase household efficiency in water use, including through water metering and pricing.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs sub-Committee, in its recent report on the Water White Paper, was even more explicit, saying, “It is extremely disappointing that a White Paper that places such an emphasis on valuing water says so little about metering….. We recommend that the Government set a clear and ambitious objective to increase levels of metering, taking account of Anna Walker’s recommendation that metering penetration reach 80% by 2020.”

The government itself, in its Water White Paper, recognised that “Metering can have advantages for customers and help tackle affordability. It is a fair way of charging for water….. also provides a direct incentive to reduce water usage, which can help to reduce a household’s bills and control prices for all customers.”

So why don’t we have a meter in every home?

There are several reasons. The most salient is that successive governments (this one and the last) have been nervous about consumer reaction to metering. In fact, as Southern Water’s Universal Metering Programme has shown, customers are extremely positive about the whole thing. In 1997 Labour pledged not to introduce universal metering, because of the potential negative impact on large, low income families.

This remains a concern. But as the WWF and Waterwise campaign Fairness on Tap pointed out, as time has moved on, the existing system has exactly this effect. Walker, too, made this point. Leaving it to a patchwork of local solutions makes it more likely that vulnerable customers will continue to foot the bill for those who opt to have a meter to bring their bills down. A strategic approach to full metering, supported by social tariffs and a water efficiency package of advice and kit, is the ideal way to reverse this. Meters allow the use of smart tariffs which not only act as a social tool but encourage people to waste less water.

Unpredictable climate impacts
Another issue is the regulatory framework. The previous government defined areas of serious water stress, and changed the law to allow full metering in them. This government is reviewing that methodology, because the original one didn’t include climate change impacts. As part of the Blueprint for Water NGO coalition, we are urging the government to remove the legal barriers to metering every home, in the forthcoming Water Bill. Certainly, as the Environment Agency Case for Change documents make clear, more demand management will be essential across the country. No water stress now doesn’t mean no water stress in coming years – climate change impacts are unpredictable.

And Ofwat’s regulatory framework doesn’t lend itself to companies with no projected supply-demand deficit in the next  five year period being able to justify large scale metering and water efficiency programmes. Thames fell foul of this when its proposed metering programme fell down because it was justified on the basis of climate change.

Fair and efficient
We all seem to agree that in the context of climate change and population growth we need to waste less water, and that metering is not only an important part of this but also the fairest way to pay for water. But we differ on how long it should take us to get there. Waterwise continues to push, with the Blueprint coalition, for the government to sign up to 80 per cent metering in England by 2020.

We urge the government to take into account the evidence of Southern Water’s metering programme and plan for a strategic move to full metering. This will help address water poverty as well as water scarcity. And research shows people are positive about it. What’s not to like?

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