Minister refuses regional water charge assistance

Environment Minister Elliot Morley has refused any form of regional assistance for customers of South West water despite them having the highest charges of any region in the UK.

Mr Morley met with members of industry watchdog WaterVoice South West, this week, to discuss the issue, but ruled out any return to regional price equalisation for water users.

A spokesperson for WaterVoice SW told edie news the Minister was listening and does seem to understand the problems, but: "His hands are tied as to what he can actually do. He said the Government were now conducting a review of the tariff structure and would keep the south-west in mind, but that basically, this government doesn't work regionally."

Water charges in the south west region are already 75% higher than the national average and due to rise much faster than inflation over the next five years. Households are looking at average annual bills of well over £600 in the near future, sources say.

The problem stems from the fact that the region contains 30% of the British coastline with around 150 public bathing beaches. South West water is responsible for maintaining these to a high standard under the terms of the Bathing Water Directive.

As late as 1990, sewage went out crude into the sea in many parts of the coast through long pipes to ensure that it was not washed back to shore. However, this is no longer acceptable under the terms of the Directive, and SW Water has had to fit numerous treatment plants and storm sewage outlets.

These have been very expensive and the investment has been recouped through customers' bills.

However, the region contains only 3% of the country's population, many of whom are on fixed incomes and benefits, such as pensioners, and cannot afford to pay such a substantial part of their income on water charges.

WaterVoice SW had suggested that the government reinstate elements of the Water Charges Equalisation Act. This sought to equalise water charges across England and Wales so that all users paid a standard price in all regions.

It meant that some money from other regions was re-directed to the SW to cover the higher associated costs.

However, this was repealed in the 1980s to make way for water privatisation.

Dr Noel Olsen, Chairman of WaterVoice SW said: "Since privatisation, 3% of the population of England and Wales have had to pay unaided for cleaning up 30% of the coastline. Domestic and business customers have also had to bear the cost of problems such as highway drainage, which should properly fall to all taxpayers."

A WaterVoice spokesperson gave the analogy of the M25. "When the M25 was built, nobody suggested that only those within its radius should pay for it. It was built with general taxpayers money. Well, why should this be any different?" she asked edie.

Other suggestions put to the Minister were that there should be some form of benefits reform or subsidy for those on low fixed incomes.

However, the government has made it clear that, for the time being, there will be no action, saying that it could not come up with a plan which only benefits one region.

In addition, the south west is far from being a Labour stronghold. With only three Labour seats in the entire area, and an election at least four years away, the government will lose nothing by failing to act.

"There has to be government action on resolving this imbalance, although we are grateful to MPs of all parties who have raised the issue many times in adjournment debates, and at Question Time," Dr Olsen added. "Virtually all South West candidates included the issue in their election manifestos, and two new members have highlighted the issue in their maiden speeches."

By David Hopkins


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