Time for universal water metering?

With recent announcements of potential impending water shortages, everyone is being urged to do their bit to avert further draconian measures. Yet, according to OFWAT, the government’s water industry regulator, less than 30 percent of households in the UK have metered water supply. The other seventy percent can use as much water as they want, with few limits in a normal year and not that many at the moment given the current drought. So is it time for universal water metering? Dr Jonathan Chenoweth of the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey argues the case.

Imagine the situation: Rises in the price of petrol have an unequal impact on society. Price rises force car-dependent people on low incomes to spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on what for many is a basic need. Meanwhile, the wealthy notice little effect on their household budgets. Clearly, the government should deal with this inequity. One solution would be to make people pay a set fee for petrol based not on consumption, but on their ability to pay. All car users could pay a set percentage of their income towards petrol supply and petrol could then be made available to all car users as needed. Travel would become more affordable for the poor and a major social inequity solved. Would this be a much fairer and more efficient way to manage petrol consumption than our present system?

Introducing un-metered petrol supply across Britain and expecting people not to waste petrol would, of course, be absurd. Fortunately, despite the unequal effects of recent petrol price rises, the idea is not under consideration. No one would ever promote the unrestrained use of a limited, scarce resource, whose use has major environmental impacts. And yet, in the case of water, this is exactly what is happening in 70% of UK households.

Replacing the washer of a leaking tap is an easy DIY job costing next to nothing, but why bother? There is little point buying any water efficient appliance either. Under the current system it would be far better financially to put the money saved by buying a cheaper but water-inefficient washing machine towards a more fuel-efficient car. The current system suggests to consumers of water that it is not a scarce resource and there is little point in trying to conserve it.

In most countries with scarce water there is universal water metering. However, moves towards universal metering raise serious issues of equality and the potential impact on those with the least ability to pay. No-one in a wealthy country like Britain should ever be denied access to water because of poverty, and no-one should be forced into water poverty – i.e. being forced to spend a disproportionate percentage of their income meeting their basic water needs. A study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs done in 2004 found that the poorest households, such as single pensioners living on the minimum pension credit allowance, spend approximately five percent of their income paying an average water bill, whereas the average household spends only one percent. Clearly, the current system has its own inequalities.

A move towards universal water metering need not come at the expense of equality, but could be done in such a way that ensures those with the least ability to pay are not denied access to water for basic human needs. One way of doing this is to give all households a free (or nearly free) basic minimum water allocation and couple this with price-escalating charging for all consumption above this level. Charging could thus be set so that average water consumers meet the real costs of supply, while households with excessive water consumption would, in effect, subsidise very frugal households using only their basic minimum allocation. Excessive water users would also have a real incentive to use less as the more water used, the more would be paid for each litre of water received.

If we are serious about the availability and supply of water in Britain, perhaps it is time we gave people a real incentive to save water. The message of the need to save water is not very convincing when water consumption is not even measured. Maybe it is time to follow the lead of other countries and send an unambiguous message to all water consumers that water is a scarce resource, so much so in fact that you should actually pay attention to, and pay financially for the amount you actually use.

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Stuart Miller alfa

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