Water 'cannot be taken for granted'

Government officials, industry representatives and consumer groups discuss the water shortage
Government officials, industry representatives and consumer groups discuss the water shortage

Water is no longer something people can take for granted, environment minister David Miliband said today.

He said the use of water metering, already present in 28 per cent of households, was likely to be increased, and insisted people must find ways to cut their water consumption.

Mr Miliband was speaking after a meeting with industry bodies, the Environment Agency and consumer groups to discuss how to deal with the water shortage gripping the UK.

Despite last week's torrential rain, about 130 million people are currently living under a hosepipe ban after two dry winters left supplies very low across the south east.

One water firm has already imposed a drought order, while two others have been granted permission to do so but are yet to implement it. The cost of water is also going up - a subject of controversy, particularly given record profits enjoyed by many water firms.

Today United Utilities, which provides water in the north east of England, posted profits of £481 million last year, up 21 per cent on the previous year. They increased their water bills by 6.3 per cent to March, and by a further 7.6 per cent since then.

Pennon, which owns South West Water, has also announced it made profits of £110.9 million, an increase of 24.6 per cent on the previous year. Their bills increased by 2.6 per cent to March, and have been put up by another 9.4 per cent since then.

Such price increases, although within the limits set by industry regulator Ofwat, are controversial given the amount of water lost by the various companies - last year, the equivalent of the daily water consumption of ten million people was lost every day.

Pressure is growing for radical action - last night Liberal Democrat trade and industry spokeswoman Lorely Burt said anything agreed today was likely to be "nothing more than a short-term sticking plaster".

"After nine years the government has failed to produce a joined-up and sustainable strategy for the future use of water resources in Britain," she said, and called for a "full and comprehensive" review to establish what was going wrong.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are reportedly considering plans to use rain water - so-called grey water - in toilets and washing machines as a way of solving shortages.

It would be a radical move and would face fierce opposition, but the Environment Agency estimates it could cut household water use by up to 50 per cent.

Speaking after today's meeting, Mr Miliband said both consumers and the industry must take action, saying: "The simple fact is that water is a resource we can no longer take for granted without consequences for ourselves and for the environment."

He said the Environment Agency had agreed to work with water firms to make provisions for a possible third dry winter, while plans are also in place to improve consumers' information about how to cut their water consumption.


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