Delays on water metering threaten UK rivers

Posted: Monday 6th September 2010

Water meters offer a key part of the solution to Britain’s water crisis yet figures from the water regulator Ofwat show there continues to be a worryingly low take up around the country with just over a third of households benefiting from being on a water meter. Following a summer of dry weather and water shortages, WWF-UK is calling on the new Government and water companies to take action now to ensure universal water metering is in place by 2020.

Current legislation allows water companies, with government approval, to install compulsory water meters for customers who live in ‘water scarce’ areas, largely in the south and east of England. Yet this opportunity is being sidelined around the UK with some companies metering barely a fifth of homes (1) despite warnings of severe water shortages.

Rose Timlett, Freshwater Policy Officer at WWF-UK says:
“Not only is the current water charging system unfair and outdated, it is also piling huge pressure on our rivers and their wildlife. One third of our river catchments are facing damage because we are simply taking too much water out of them, a problem that is set to get worse with climate change and a rising population. With the current water shortages across the country, water companies and the Government should be doing all they can to help more households install a water meter.”

Last year, the government published a review into metering and charging (the Walker Review) which recommended that England and Wales should move to 80 per cent metering by 2020, acknowledging this as the fairest way for customers to pay for water. Yet progress on these targets has been limited, with only 37 per cent of households in the UK currently metered. The latest company 5 year plans show that this number is planned to rise to 50 per cent by 2015 – still only half of what is required.

Rose Timlett says:
“The UK remains one of the only European countries where the majority of households do not pay for water on the basis of what they use. We pay for most things by what we use, as it seems the fairest way, so it is ludicrous that most households have no idea how much water they are using and how much water – and money- they could potentially be saving. Universal metering will lead to better awareness and understanding of water use by the householder, but also better understanding of water demand by the water companies and more innovative demand reduction schemes.”

WWF is working with water companies to support their metering projects. In addition WWF is working with the water industry, the Government, and its regulators, as part of its Rivers on the Edge project to restore water flows to English rivers by reducing demand for water. One such scheme, Save Water Swindon is challenging Swindon’s residents to reduce their water use by 20 litres per person per day. However, there is a need for a nationwide approach to ensure that we stop using water wastefully and protect the future security of our water supplies.

Rose Timlett adds:
“The new government has committed to examining the Walker recommendations and reforming the water industry. WWF looks forward to working with the Government to ensure the new Water White Paper includes a requirement for every home to have a water meter by 2020.”

Using water efficiently is good for customers and the environment.

The value of meters in helping people use water more wisely is recognised throughout the water sector: by companies, regulators and ministers. Research shows that in households where a meter is installed demand routinely falls by around 10% with no perceived loss of service.

The number of domestic customers using meters has steadily increased and is set to reach 50% of households by 2015. Almost all commercial customers pay a metered charge for water services.

Today's statement from WWF about the importance of water meters is therefore in tune with public policy and industry practice. But in seeming to suggest that universal metering is a panacea for potential threats to rivers and wildlife, the group is stretching a point.

Single measure

The problem is in highlighting a single measure of progress towards a shared goal - enhancing the water environment - while sidelining other relevant matters, including:

• differences between catchments in different parts of the country that affect the needs of the environment and rationale for compulsory metering

• the wishes of customers who may have strong views on compulsory installation

• the financial impact of the change to a meter on some customers who currently pay an unmeasured charge.

In recent years water companies have been responsible for big improvements to the health of the water environment. This work continues and will account for a large part of the industry's planned £22 billion capital investment in the next 5 years.


A core focus of this work is on ensuring a balance between supply and demand that meets the expectations of society with least impact on the environment. This is achieved through statutory 25-year water resource management plans approved by regulators and government. The aim is a sustainable water service that takes full account of financial, social and environmental costs. Among the methods companies use to hold water abstracted to the minimium necessary:

• increasing use of meters

• constant attention to reducing leaks

• better connectivity between companies' supply zones

• water efficiency promotional campaigns.

Water companies work in partnership with many environment groups, including WWF, in promoting policies and actions to protect the environment in the face of climate change and the pressures of a growing advanced society.

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