Drawing the line

Barrie Clarke, director of communication at Water UK, considers the wide range of attitudes to the thorny issue of demand management

When is it right to tell users to cut their demand for water? How hard should you try and what is the best way of going about it? These are tough questions for any company aspiring to a genuine customer service model. In a recent Coldplay single, Chris Martin suggests a ‘tough love’ answer: it’s ‘when you get what you want, but not what you need’. Most people agree with action to secure long-term supply and protect the environment. But opinions vary about where we are now on the line between want and need and the right level of ‘education’.

People’s views reflect cultural preconceptions as well as responsibilities, so it might be instructive to look at the positions of government, regulators, activists, the industry and one model customer.


Ministers are committed, but cautious. They are influenced no doubt by the total disappearance of demand management from macroeconomic policy and the unease of all politicians faced with less consumption. The Sustainable Communities plan for south-east England depends in part on new homes being more water-efficient, so there is real enthusiasm. Revised building regulations out soon will be much clearer on fixtures and fittings. On the other hand, ministers are more circumspect about promoting or granting water scarcity status and compulsory metering. The inconsistency is understandable, but provides odd signals, not least to regulators.


In the lead, naturally, are the bodies responsible for water resources, the environmental protection agencies. For the Environment Agency in England and Wales, demand management colours all resource activity. Its opposition to new reservoirs and other resource development has always been driven by the conviction that water companies could do more to manage demand.

To be fair, the agencies accept the need for a twin-track approach to securing public supply. On the want/need spectrum they are nowhere near the puritanical end of sustainable consumption. Yet it often seems that by insisting on the tracks being sequential, rather than parallel – managing demand down to a minimum before even thinking of increasing supply – they hold up developments that are necessary in the long term.

Economic regulators have a different perspective. Demand management is expected but not directly funded: wouldn’t it seem odd for customers to pay to limit their use? Well maybe… but (note to all those reviewers of the AMP system) more co-ordination between regulators – on this and other issues – would help.


Green NGOs and their political supporters are the most committed. For some, developed economies are going wrong, period. Where governments and environmental agencies speak of ‘decoupling growth from environmental damage’, the gloomy sustainable consumption lobby would cut demand – for everything.

Practical contributions are also available, however. A forthcoming Green Alliance/RSPB paper will point to the value of comparative studies and a water efficiency campaign in Frankfurt that reduced demand by 20%. And Penney Poyzer, primetime’s full-on ‘Queen of Green’, offers real gain without much pain and a lot of laughs.


All water companies have a good record in promoting water efficiency in accordance with their duty; and some are outstanding. If you doubt it, check out websites, customer newspapers, promotional offers and public campaigns. Last year a Water UK pamphlet underlined the industry’s commitment to demand management to help meet climate change and improve resource productivity. It concluded that co-operation was the best way of creating ‘a culture that rejects waste and puts true value on the benefits of a secure water supply’.

Collaboration is also the basis of an industry-funded conservation initiative launching next month. Waterwise, a spin-off from Water UK, will make the business case for large-scale water efficiency projects – and it has a clear rationale about wants and needs. Describing its aims, project director Jacob Tompkins says, “This isn’t about constraining lifestyles, but using new technology and education to improve living spaces and add value to the built environment”.

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