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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 16:51 GMT
Q&A: Compulsory water meters
A water meter
Customers with meters are thought to use about 10-15% less water
Folkestone and Dover Water has been given water scarcity status, which means it can force all its householders to install water meters. But what else does water scarcity status mean and why has the company been granted it?

What is water scarcity status?

Water firms can apply for water scarcity status under the Water Industry Regulations Act 1999. It is the only way water suppliers can force their customers to have meters installed, after the government stripped suppliers of the right to impose them without this status six years ago.

Why do water meters help?

Water companies believe customers will waste less water if they have meters installed. Having a meter means the customer is charged according to the amount of water they use, rather than their bills being based on a flat rate charge imposed on them irrespective of how much they use. Folkestone and Dover Water expects customers with meters to use between 10% and 15% less water.

How many people does this affect?

Folkestone and Dover Water covers a relatively small area, supplying water to about 160,000 people in Kent. The company wants to have 90% of its homes using meters by 2015. But more firms could apply for water scarcity status if the drought in the South East continues, so more people could find themselves with water meters over the next few years.

How many people already have water meters?

About 25% of homes across England and Wales have water meters. Some companies have meters for about half the homes they supply, including Anglian Water, Cambridge Water, South West Water and Tendring Hundred Water.

About 40% of Folkestone and Dover Water's customers have meters, but until now they had the option to refuse them.

How did the company prove it needed to make its customers have meters?

A hosepipe
Four water firms in the South East have banned use of hosepipes

Folkestone and Dover Water applied for water scarcity status on 7 July 2005. The company needed to prove to the government it had explored all avenues for new water resources, had done what it could to meet customer demand and that it was likely to have problems with water levels for the next 10 years.

Why is the company so short of water?

The whole of the South East is short of water after 15 months of well-below average rainfall. Four water suppliers in the South East have imposed hosepipe bans.

But Folkestone and Dover Water is the first to apply for water scarcity status. It claims one reason its situation is different is linked to the geography of the area it covers.

The firm's main source of water are aquifers - layers of porous rock into which water soaks and is stored before being extracted through wells or groundwater streams. The small area it supplies water for - about 10 miles around the towns of Folkestone and Dover - does not have a reservoir or space to build one.

Folkestone and Dover Water managing director David Walton said: "A reservoir would be great but it would have to be so far from our operating area that metering becomes a more cost-effective option."

Why don't all homes have water meters?

Politicians have avoided imposing meters compulsorily, because of water being seen as a vital resource. Before coming to power Labour opposed water metering, describing it as a tax on family life. But environment minister Elliott Morley said allowing them to be imposed on Folkestone and Dover Water customers was not a U-turn, because nationwide introduction of meters was not being considered.

Bewl Water reservoir on the Kent/ Sussex border, about a third full in January 2006
Reservoirs in the South East are far emptier than usual winter levels

Are water meters likely to become more common across the country?

The Environment Agency says it believes there should be more meters across England and Wales and has told companies in the South East they need to make "rapid progress" with metering.

Director of water management David King said: "We would like to see up to 75% of households across England and Wales to have meters by 2025, with the majority in place within the next 10 years. But water companies need to ensure that vulnerable households, such as low-income groups, are protected."

Will customers have to have water meters forever?

Folkestone and Dover Water says once customers have meters installed it intends for them to keep them. It says the move to make customers have meters is not just in response to the current water shortage, but also as part of a strategic long-term plan. So even if there is heavy rainfall in the future and the water shortage decreases, customers will not be able to opt out of having meters.

Will customers with meters get cheaper bills?

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that 70% of customers will see their bills go down once they have water meters, while 30% will pay more. Folkestone and Dover Water agrees with that estimate.

Are water meters used elsewhere in the world?

The UK is virtually alone in western Europe in not having compulsory water meters. Meters are also used in parts of North America.

Taps
A tap running for one minute can use up to five litres of water

What other steps can be taken to tackle water shortage?

Companies are urging their customers not to waste water, investing in publicity campaigns to encourage people to takes steps such as turning the tap off while brushing teeth, watering gardens in the evening when less water will evaporate, only using washing machines and dishwashers when they are full and replacing worn washers. Even firms which have not imposed hosepipe bans have discouraged people from using hoses and sprinklers.

The water companies themselves are also trying to limit waste, with attempts made to cut the number of leaking pipes. Thames Water estimates replacing seven miles of Victorian mains in West Brompton, west London, with plastic pipes has saved 1.7m litres of water a day - enough to supply more than 10,500 people.

The Environment Agency wants five new reservoirs to be built in the South East over the next 25 years and water firms in the region are also looking at re-opening reservoirs which have not been used in recent years because they became polluted or were being "rested".

Water companies say moving water from areas with a surplus to areas with a shortage would cost too much and be too complex to be practical.




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