More compulsory water meters in the pipeline

Water meters could be rolled out across England's dry South East following proposals to give water companies new powers to impose compulsory metering in water-scarce areas.

Under the proposals water companies could include compulsory metering in their 25-year resource plans, to be finalised by 2009, environment minister Ian Pearson said. Defra also wants to remove the barriers to companies wanting to introduce compulsory metering, but which could be discouraged by the long and complex process involved.

The proposed measures would not bring in nationwide metering nor would they force water companies to bring in compulsory metering, Ian Pearson said as he announced a forthcoming consultation on the proposals.

“Increasing the coverage of water metering in areas of serious water stress must get proper consideration by the water companies, because of the water savings it will deliver,” he said.

The proposals echo recommendations from the Water Saving Group, an advisory body composed of of water company representatives, regulators Ofwat, the Environment Agency and consumer groups.

Water metering brings water use down by about 10% on average, with most (70%) customers paying less for their water use and 30% paying more, Government figures show.

Around 28% of English and Welsh households are already metered on a voluntary basis, but obtaining permission to bring in compulsory metering remains a long and complex administrative process for water companies.

For Folkestone and Dover Water – currently the only water company with the right to force water meters on its customers – the process took almost eight months. F&D has just started a pilot scheme in Lydd, Kent.

The water metering proposals came days after Ofwat urged water companies to prepare for another dry winter by reducing leakage and encouraging water efficiency.

Ofwat’s director of network regulation Dr. Melinda Acutt said: “Although south east England experienced one of the most severe droughts of the last 70 years, its effects were limited by the actions that companies took and their customers’ support in using water wisely. But the drought may not be over yet and the industry as a whole will need to remain vigilant.”

Hosepipe bans remain across a number of supply areas in the South East, including Thames Water, East Surrey Water, Mid Kent Water, Southern Water, South East Water and Three Valleys Water.

Customers are unhappy about water use restrictions imposed by water companies that had failed to meet leakage targets – these being Thames Water, Severn Trent and United Utilities, or three out of a total of 22 water companies in England and Wales – Ofwat said.

Water metering is only part of a strategy that includes water efficiency, cutting leakage, and finding new supplies, and must factor in the effects on customers’ bills, said Ian Pearson.

The Consumer Council for Water, which represents the interests of water users, warned that vulnerable customers must be protected from the impact of compulsory metering.

Large low-income families can already apply to pay no more than the average bill for their area under the “vulnerable groups scheme.” New Ofwat figures this week show that the number of people on the scheme rose by 37% last year, up to 13,000 in 2005-6.

Goska Romanowicz

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