Water metering should be made compulsory for all households in England, the government is likely to be told this week, as water supplies come under pressure from increased demand and more frequent droughts and floods.
Strain on the UK’s water networks is increasing under the more extreme weather conditions generated by the climate crisis and, under increasing demand, investment by water companies has not kept up.
No new large reservoirs have been constructed in England in at least 30 years, and leaks from pipes still amount to about a third of water wasted.
Managing demand through metering is therefore unavoidable, a panel of independent experts convened by the government is likely to find.
The National Infrastructure Commission will publish its comprehensive assessment of the UK’s critical infrastructure, the first for five years, on Wednesday.
Covering everything from energy and transport to water and waste, it is expected to find large gaps in investment and many areas in which the UK’s existing infrastructure is poorly maintained and inadequate.
The commission, set up under George Osborne when he was chancellor of the exchequer with the aim of advising government on vital investment, is also likely to warn that the UK is falling behind on the infrastructure needed to meet the legally binding goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to protect against the probable impacts of the climate crisis.
Many of the commission’s findings are likely to be controversial, particularly in light of recent government announcements. The cancellation of the northern leg of HS2 has thrown out plans for public transport across the north of England, and delays to the phase-out of gas boilers have implications for gas use and energy needs for decades.
Water is likely to be one of the most hotly contested issues. Sewage in rivers has provoked widespread public anger and, although few people have yet experienced problems with their water supply, that too is likely to start happening, as water supplies are not keeping pace with demand.
Water companies have extracted about £72bn in dividends since privatisation, but are asking for investment of about £96bn to alleviate the sewage crisis and safeguard supplies. Most or all of that will have to come from billpayers under the current system.
The commission is likely to find that up to nine new large reservoirs are needed, as well as enlargement of some existing reservoirs, and a plethora of water recycling plants. Nine new desalination plants could also be necessary.
Increases in supply are unlikely to solve the problem on their own as the climate crisis gets worse and droughts and floods become more common across the UK. Managing demand will therefore be necessary, and compulsory water metering is viewed as the best means of achieving that.
Water metering has been controversial in the past, as social campaigners have raised concerns over the impacts on large families on low incomes. However, water companies could be empowered to offer a range of tariffs that would mean large households, or households with special needs, could afford their bills.
Water metering would also ensure that people on high incomes who use outsize quantities of water for leisure purposes were fairly charged.
At present, people with large water usage, such as for big gardens or swimming pools – including the prime minister, Rishi Sunak – are able to use as much water as they wish, without having to install compulsory meters.
Downing Street did not respond to the Guardian’s question of whether Sunak had a water meter installed with his swimming pool at his home in North Yorkshire. The pool required an upgrade to the local electricity grid, with the cost paid by the prime minister, the Guardian revealed earlier this year.
Government intervention will be required to install compulsory meters, as in many areas water companies lack the powers to install them, outside areas judged to be under water stress.
A legally binding target is already in place to reduce water consumption by 20% a person by 2038, falling further by 2050, from about 145 litres a day to 110.
The National Infrastructure Commission has hinted in the past that more water metering would be needed, though it has previously stopped short of making it an official recommendation.
Sir John Armitt, chair of the commission, said as drought gathered pace last summer that he viewed water metering as a necessary step.
Source : The Guardian