I am struck by the debate on water resource management and metering that has followed the EFRA Select Committee's Report on the Government's Water White Paper.
These are two important and closely related issues – but they cannot be considered independently of the affordability of water bills for household customers.
Each time a household living in a property with a high rateable value switches to a meter, it is likely that a cross-subsidy in favour of poorer households has been unwound to fund the lower bill that the household that switched to a meter now pays. In many cases the household that opts for a meter could have a lower bill even if they use more water than they did before they had the meter installed! Such an outcome would be neither more sustainable nor more equitable.
Metering households also costs around £50 a year – over a quarter of the average household water bill. That cost may be justified if we were able to develop tariffs that encouraged more responsible use of water. Unfortunately, this will be difficult to achieve in quick order. A metered bill quotes usage in cubic meters of water consumed. When I ask around, few people know that this is 1,000 litres of water and that the average citizen uses about this amount every six or seven days.
Perhaps we could learn from smart meters and energy. A large proportion of our water use is heated and as we learn to control our energy use better so we may also learn to use less water.
In the shorter term, what can we do to manage water resources better? I suggest we start to think more about water re-use. If we started to put treated waste water back into the environment at points closer to points of abstraction, we could substantially mitigate the environmental impact of abstraction. Perhaps we could also avoid some of the high upfront and ongoing costs (in both cash and carbon terms) of transferring water over even longer distances.
One of the lessons of retail competition in Scotland has been that there are many opportunities to use ‘grey water’ (otherwise known as recycled) for washing vans, flushing toilets and so on. Perhaps we could learn this lesson and take a look at building regulations. Could we not consider dual piping of homes such that we re-use rain water from sustainable drainage systems for watering gardens, flushing toilets and other such purposes?
Metering may be a part of the solution if we are to achieve better management of water resources but it is not the only approach. And it should be considered carefully unless and until we have worked out how to support those customers who find their bill difficult to afford.