The Water White Paper - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

3  Water Efficiency

33.  The Environment Agency published an analysis of the impact that climate change and population growth will have on future water availability alongside the White Paper.[50] Their modelling predicted that less water would be available in the future for businesses, people, and the environment, and that pressures on availability would not be limited to the south and east of England. As water resources come under increasing strain, it will become imperative that water is used wisely and its waste is minimised.

34.  Water for Life includes proposals to improve water efficiency by encouraging and incentivising consumers to use water wisely. Measures include Defra working with companies and regulators to carry out a campaign to save water and protect the environment; research into the reasons why individuals currently do or do not seek to conserve water; and using the opportunities presented by the Government's "Green Deal" programme to promote water efficiency. The possibility of using product labelling to inform customers about the efficiency of products such as dishwashers and washing machines is also discussed in the White Paper.[51]

35.  Blueprint for Water was critical of the White Paper's overall approach to water efficiency:

...the policy drivers for water efficiency are distinctly lacking. We are concerned that the expectations on reducing demand are too oblique and not supported by policy instruments (such as incentives for demand management) that will deliver real savings.[52]


36.   At present, about 40% of domestic customers across England and Wales are metered,[53] meaning that for over half of the population there is no direct connection between the amount of water that they use and the size of their water bill.

37.  Previous reviews and inquiries have examined the case for increasing levels of metering. Anna Walker's Independent Review of Charging for Household Water and Sewerage Services concluded that universal metering could save about 16% of average household demand.[54] Walker concluded that the benefits of metering varied from region to region and that, perhaps unsurprisingly, benefits were high in those areas where water was scarce. She recommended that Government set a target for metering penetration to reach 80% in England by 2020.[55] The Committee on Climate Change has also considered the issue: the Chair of its Adaptation Sub-Committee, Lord Krebs, told us that his Committee believed that "consumers will not make sufficient effort to reduce water use unless there is a clear price signal".[56]

38.  We heard persuasive evidence about the role that metering plays in reducing demand during the course of our inquiry. Wessex Water told us that metering was the single most significant measure in promoting water efficiency and that fitting a meter on a change of occupancy reduces average consumption by 15% and peak consumption by over 20%.[57]

39.  The White Paper does not contain any specific objective to increase levels of metering, but simply encourages water companies to actively promote metering to those who would benefit.[58] Environmental groups were highly critical of what the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management described as a "weak" approach to metering,[59] with WWF-UK saying that they were "extremely disappointed".[60] The suggestion that water companies promote metering to those who would benefit was described as "pointless; clearly they would take up the option and the rest would necessarily pay more to compensate".[61] There was a call for a more strategic approach to metering, with Waterwise commenting that it was:

disappointing that the Government rules out a strategic transition to full metering in favour of a patchwork of local solutions... A Government commitment to a managed increase in metering, to meet Walker's 80% target for England by 2020 - supported by water efficiency retrofit and advice, and social tariffs - would have been more effective.[62]

40.  The Minister defended Defra's approach, saying that whilst metering is "an important part of making people more aware of the water they use", it was not "the total solution". He cited particular concerns about the costs of switching to a metered supply for households on lower incomes.[63] We consider affordability issues later in this report, but it is worth noting at this point that Anna Walker concluded that paying for the volume of water supplied was in fact the fairest method of charging customers.[64]

41.  It is extremely disappointing that a White Paper that places such an emphasis on valuing water says so little about metering. With water set to become an increasingly scarce resource, we believe that the Government must use water meters as a means to encourage responsible use of water. We recommend that the Government set a clear and ambitious objective to increase levels of metering, taking account of Anna Walker's recommendation that metering penetration reach 80% by 2020.

42.  We are conscious that a switch to metering could see bills rise for some poorer households as their bills reflect the amount of water that they use rather than the value of their homes. We believe that the provision of appropriate support for such households is a distinct issue which should be addressed alongside, but separately from, the clear imperative to increase levels of metering.

Rainwater Harvesting and Recycling Water

43.  The recent drought has highlighted the importance of retaining the water that falls as rain. The Rainwater Harvesting Association suggested that rainwater harvesting should be better incentivised and in some cases required, for example by incorporating it within the Code for Sustainable Homes and encouraging its incorporation in the design of schools and commercial and industrial buildings.[65] The Environment Agency agreed that the planning system could encourage water efficiency without the need for legislative change:

It may be that, instead of going for all-out legislation to achieve it, just by doing some relatively small things with the planning system, with new construction and with making guidance available to everyone, you could actually get quite a lot of change.[66]

44.  The White Paper recognises that there is scope for recycling of 'black-water' which is not treated to drinking water standards but could be used for other functions such as flushing toilets or irrigation.[67] The Environment Agency said that they were "actively looking" at this area[68] and Defra told us that they expected that the White Paper's market reform proposals would encourage new entrants to come forward with solutions to improve levels of water recycling.[69] We recommend that Defra take more active steps to promote rainwater harvesting and water recycling and seek to incorporate incentives or requirements for their inclusion in the design of new developments.


45.  With 3,365 million litres of water lost to leaks every day in England and Wales,[70] reducing leakage levels could play a major part in improving water efficiency. Water companies have already made some progress, with a 36% reduction in levels of leakage since 1994-95.[71] Leakage targets for each company are set by Ofwat with the aim of moving companies to the Sustainable Economic Level of Leakage (SELL), the point at which it would cost more to reduce leakage further than it would to save water in different ways or to develop additional supplies. The Water White Paper notes that the current methodology used to calculate SELL does not fully reflect the long-term sustainability of the water environment, and Defra has committed to review SELL.[72]

46.  In addition to the water wastage that is directly attributable to leaks, the Consumer Council for Water argued that leakage can have a damaging effect on efficiency by making customers less likely to take their own measures to conserve water. They describe customers' negative perceptions of leakage as the "biggest barrier" to customer engagement with water efficiency and argue that this should be taken into account in the calculation of SELL, noting that at times of water scarcity customer engagement becomes increasingly important:

Obviously, the perception issue becomes that much more acute during times of drought, because they are being asked to save water and if their perception is that companies are not doing the same then obviously that can affect their appetite to actually play their part. It is a very important point and one we should not underestimate.[73]

Water companies acknowledged this, with Anglian Water commenting that "one visible leak that is not repaired undermines... all the messages we send out to customers as to what we want them to do in terms of water efficiency. That is a clear challenge we have to take on."[74]

47.  We recognise the progress that water companies have made in reducing leakage levels but urge companies and the regulator to do more to reduce the amount of water that is wasted through leakage. We recommend that in reviewing guidance to companies on the Sustainable Economic Level of Leakage, the Government and regulators should take account of the impact that leakage levels have on customers' willingness to engage with efficiency measures, if necessary carrying out further research to seek to quantify this impact.

50   A Case for Change: Current and Future Water Availability, Environment Agency, December 2011 Back

51   Water for Life pp 86-88 Back

52   Ev w44 Back

53   Exploring the costs and benefits of faster, more systematic water metering in England and Wales, Ofwat, October 2011 Back

54   Walker, p74 Back

55   Walker, p81 Back

56   Ev w52 Back

57   Ev w10 Back

58   Water for Life, p65 Back

59   Ev w36 Back

60   Ev 63 Back

61   Ev w5 Back

62   Ev w15 Back

63   Q 268 Back

64   Walker, p70 Back

65   Ev w18 Back

66   Q122 Back

67   Water for Life, p58 Back

68   Q 96 Back

69   Q 261 Back

70   Figures provided by Ofwat Back

71   Water for Life, p50 Back

72   Water for Life Back

73   Q 149 Back

74   Q 189 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 5 July 2012