16.The government has relied on water companies, which have a statutory duty to promote the efficient use of water to their customers, to promote the need to reduce water consumption. But there is no evidence of the impact on consumer awareness or behaviour of what water companies are doing. Personal consumption now stands at 143 litres per day, an increase of 3% since 2014–15, significantly higher than Germany at 121 litres (2016–17) and the average of 128 litres for EU member countries (2017). Saving energy is much more engrained in public consciousness than saving water. The NAO highlighted the need for the Department to consider ways of promoting the need for water efficiency more coherently to ensure there is a coordinated and credible message. Ofwat told us it was something that the regulators, government and the industry collectively want to address.
17.In July 2019, a group of organisations, including the Environment Agency and Water UK, the trade association for water companies, launched the ‘Love Water’ campaign to raise awareness of the importance of water and the role everyone plays in protecting it. We asked the Environment Agency about the funding the campaign had received. It told us that the campaign has no direct funding and that it is a collective campaign, supported by voluntary water company contributions, Water UK and the Environment Agency. The Department told us that, as yet, although some water companies had provided staff resources, it had not yet secured any direct financial contributions towards the campaign from water companies.
18.After its first year there is little to show for the campaign besides a Twitter feed with fewer than 1,000 followers and the initial press release. The Environment Agency accepted that there was more to do but explained that these are early days and that they are nowhere near meeting the height of the ambition of the campaign. The Agency said the first year was about establishing the structures of the campaign, and they are not yet where they need to be, but the campaign is long-term and they have further ambitions for it.
19.To reduce water usage by non-domestic customers, including schools and hospitals on the public sector estate, the government introduced competition allowing customers to choose the water company they want to deliver their water services. Ofwat reported that the market has now been open for three years. It told us that, last year, the number of businesses that are engaging in the market and the benefits they are seeing in water efficiency are disappointing. Only 4% of consumers switched or renegotiated a deal during 2018–19, with 3% doing so in the previous year, and only 0.3% of switchers and 4% of renegotiators have received water efficiency advice or leakage control services as part of the package of benefits. Ofwat told us that, last year, only about £10 million had been saved through switching. Ofwat and the Environment Agency, wrote to all retailers and wholesalers in March 2020, and asked them to think about what they can do collectively to improve water efficiency in the market. They are expecting them to produce a plan on this in the autumn.
20.Government recognises that there is still a huge amount to do to reduce water consumption. Alongside awareness raising and education, Ofwat said that white goods labelling and building standards are desperately needed. Water companies and other industry stakeholders have been calling for this in the UK for some time. An efficiency standard that all new homes must be built to a standard water usage of 125 litres of water per person per day was added to the building regulations in 2015. A study carried out by the Department in 2018 recommended a government-led mandatory label for all water-using products to start pushing down consumption.
21.These ideas are not new and have been talked about for some time but water efficiency lags far behind energy efficiency in policy and public perception. In its 2019 Spring Statement, the government committed to future-proofing new-build homes with low-carbon heating and world-leading levels of energy efficiency, but made no commitments in relation to water efficiency. The Department explained that in July 2019 it had consulted on making changes to building regulations, and on reducing the current water efficiency standard to 110 litres per day for newly built houses. This consultation also covered changes to product labelling, which the Department recognises is some way behind energy in terms of adoption. The Department was not able to tell us when it would respond to the consultation, just that it hoped to do so shortly.
22.We asked why it had taken so long for government to move forward on this. The Department told us that it recognises its role in driving forwards this action and told us that it was clear it would have to work with other departments that had responsibility for the relevant policy areas to make it happen.
23.Around 85% of the world’s chalk streams are in England and provide valuable habitats and ecosystems. The aquifers (underground layers of rock that hold groundwater) that feed these streams also provide drinking water for the hundreds of thousands of people that live in the region. Last year the Rivers Trust, and others, published the “Chalk Streams in Crisis” report. The Environment Agency explained that the needs of the environment must be balanced with the needs of the people and that they must have regards for both. To do so they must stop unsustainable amounts of water being taken from the environment.
24.The Rivers Trust’s report came five years after a report by the World Wildlife Foundation found that more than three quarters of chalk streams were failing to meet the required ‘good’ status. We questioned whether the Environment Agency was showing enough urgency to deal with this problem. The Environment Agency explained that it has established the Revitalising Chalk Rivers programme which has improved over 70km of chalk stream habitat so far, although it recognises that more work is needed and that there remains a clear and present danger to chalk streams. The Department told us that partnership grants are provided to charities and stakeholder groups. In 2020–21, this will include £882,000 to projects specifically for the improvement of chalk streams and chalk habitat, which through match funding and partnership contributions the Department said it had secured would result in a total investment of over £2 million.
25.On top of the pressures exerted by over-abstraction, chalk streams are also facing damage from agricultural run-off and sewage discharge. The Environment Agency told us that it was working with farmers to give them advice about how to farm in ways that would prevent run-off and that one of its duties is to regulate water companies to make sure they conform to the terms of their permits specifying what can be discharged into rivers. If those conditions are not met, the Environment Agency said it takes action. It has prosecuted Thames Water on a number of occasions for breaching the conditions of its permits and allowing sewage to enter rivers from its treatment plants.
26.Major infrastructure programmes can also pose a threat to chalk streams and other delicate river environments. In the Chilterns, HS2 is likely to require over 10 million litres of water a day for its tunnelling operations. The Environment Agency told us that it will not give approval to any parts of HS2’s plans until they have identified and set out any potential groundwater impacts and agreed acceptable mitigation actions.
29 C&AG’s Report, paras 16
30 C&AG’s Report, paras 3.4, 3.23
31 Qq 54, 60
32 C&AG’s Report, para 22
33 Q 60
34 C&AG’s Report, para 3.23
35 Q 54
37 Q 58
38 C&AG’s Report, para 17
40 C&AG’s Report, para 3.13
41 Qq 85, 86
43 C&AG’s Report, para 3.17
44 Qq 78–80
45 C&AG’s Report, para 3.19
46 Qq 31–32, 80
47 Q 81
49 Q 36
50 Q 37
52 Qq 36, 40
53 Qq 40–41
54 Qq 42–43
Published: 10 July 2020