The price of success
The south-east is a popular place to live and work, but with popularity come problems, not least with regard to water availability. Louise Every of the Institute for Public Policy Research assesses the issues
The current drought affecting southern England has (re)awoken public debate on the sustainability of the region's water supplies. For some the timing could not be more potent. With future rates of housing growth being decided, the drought forewarns of the impact of climate change on an already stretched resource. The question 'Will there be enough water?' is now firmly on the political agenda. But, as the Commission for Sustainable Development reports, for there to be sufficient water to go round, robust policies will be needed to curb household demand and ensure planning and water management are better co-ordinated.
The commission, whose final report was launched in July, was set up by independent think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). Its aim was to forge consensus around some of the challenging issues facing a prosperous, high-growth region like the south-east. Issues such as economic growth, quality of life, transport, housing and, of course, water.
If the south-east wants a sustainable future, says the commission, it must pursue 'smarter growth', by addressing intra-regional disparities, developing incentives for sustainable choices, meeting infrastructure needs and improving governance and planning arrangements.
The commissioners were drawn from the business, voluntary and environmental sectors with cross-party political representation from the south-east and London. While gaining a consensus on some recommendations was definitely a challenge, the recommendations on water, which focused on household use, received broad support.
Water has been touted as a potential 'show-stopper' to increased housing growth, with some painting a picture of a grim future with near-permanent water shortages. Therefore a key question for the commission was, 'Is there enough water to meet the rising demand for new housing and domestic consumption in the south-east?'.
A stretched resource
To help answer this, the commission drew on work by the Water Resources in the South East Group (WRSE Group) for the consultation on the regional spatial strategy, the South East Plan. The WRSE Group consists of representatives from the water companies, Defra, the South East Regional Assembly and the regulators. Their report explored the impact of various housing growth scenarios on the water supply balance, taking into account different water resource and water efficiency projections, and, latterly, the spatial distribution of housing allocations.
The comission's main conclusion (with caveats) was that 'increased demand from new development in the south-east can only be accommodated through a combination of demand and supply-side activities'. The commission agreed, adding that although it would be necessary to achieve both efficiency savings in new and existing homes and provide new resources in a timely fashion, the likelihood of either occurring to a sufficient degree was uncertain. For example, reservoirs and desalination plants require planning permission, which could prove difficult in some areas. Also, the contribution from demand management relies on the co-operation of households, which is risky as it is difficult to predict the savings that could be achieved. Furthermore, even if these measures were delivered, there are some locations where concerns over water quality would require significant new investment and could limit further development.
The WRSE Group aside, a major problem is the lack of co-ordination between development planning and water resource planning. In most cases, the planning bodies are unaware of water resource limitations or potential infrastructure costs, while the water suppliers are uncertain over housing projections, affecting the way infrastructure investment decisions are taken.
Improvements could be made by producing development plans in tandem with water resource plans. For this to happen, water companies should be statutory consultees for regional and local plans, and planners should have guidance on development and water issues. The availability of water resources and the impact on water quality over the lifetime of a development should become material considerations, with planning permission refused in cases where further resources and improvements in water efficiency cannot be identified.
One surprise consequence of the drought has been the growth in support for metering, which, according to water industry research, can reduce consumption by an average of 9% pa. Higher levels of water metering should be actively encouraged in areas of current and predicted low water availability. However, compulsory metering should be monitored, and help with water bills for large, low income and vulnerable households more effectively marketed.
Moves to improve efficiency in new build are under way, with a review of building regulations and the development of the Code for Sustainable Building, both of which will include water efficiency. The code is intended to incentivise developers to build to greener standards, but will only be mandatory for publicly-funded developments. Therefore it is imperative that the building regulations require new homes to meet a suitably high standard of water efficiency, with 20% efficiency (compared to the national average) regarded by the Environment Agency as achievable, although this assumes no change in behaviour. If the building regulations are set too low, there is a strong case for local authorities to have discretion to impose the code's water efficiency standards in water-scarce areas.
While the focus on improving new build is welcome, the opportunity to improve the existing building stock is yet to be explored. In the south-east there are 3.46M existing dwellings - six times the amount of new build expected in the South East Plan. The commission supported calls for the government to consider introducing a water industry counterpart to the Energy Efficiency Commitment. This would set each water company a water-saving target, with a proportion to be met in low-income and vulnerable households.
Waste not, want less
Finally, leakage. Targets have proven an effective tool in helping to manage leakage, with most companies in the south-east meeting theirs. However, Thames Water's consistent failure to meet its targets continues to cause concern. Not only is this wasteful, but it increases householder apathy towards saving water, both generally and in response to drought. Ofwat must rigorously enforce leakage targets, making clear to the public the penalties facing companies which consistently fail to meet them.
Clearly, then, there is the potential to 'get it right' on water. However, there is also the potential for things to go wrong, with serious implications for the economy as well as the environment and public health. It is decision time for the future of the south-east. The water sector's ability to think differently and act in partnership with other stakeholders will be crucial in ensuring that the region maintains its standing as a desirable place to live and work.
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