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Right time, right place, right speed on water metering
The Consumer Council for Water today backed Defra's announcement that in future water companies in areas of serious water stress will be able to seek approval to compulsorily meter their customers where there is an economic case for doing so, but warned that the potential financial impact on customers must be properly taken into account and appropriate protection provided for vulnerable customers.
The champion for water and sewage customers in England and Wales agreed that companies in southern and eastern England should consider metering as an option in their plans to tackle growing pressures on water resources - but argued that companies must not rush into metering as the pace of any such programme will have an influence on the costs that will be borne by customers. It will also be important to have proper protection in place for those customers who are on low incomes who are likely to see their bills increase. Clear and effective communication with customers will be essential.
Dame Yve Buckland, Chair of the Consumer Council for Water, said: "We support the Government's view that metering is essential in water stressed areas, but have argued consistently that compulsory metering will make it difficult for low income, larger households to afford their water bills - and there is currently no credible support system to help them."
The document published today (16 August) acknowledges that there will be some winners and losers; for example, larger households in lower rateable value properties tend to have higher bills after switching to a water meter, as they use more water than average.
The Consumer Council for Water is concerned that the cost of companies installing meters will impact on water bills; the organisation therefore supports introduction over a longer period of time to spread costs and allow time to allow appropriate communication with customers.
"Concerns about metering can only be addressed when a comprehensive support mechanism is in place," continued Dame Yve. "Water companies should pilot new tariffs, where feasible, to demonstrate how effective they might be once metering becomes more widespread, but Government also has an important role in creating a framework for such support.
"Metering is not the complete answer to driving down water use, but it can work together with increased customer awareness and more specific actions such as the use of water efficient appliances.
"In terms of water bills rising to pay for metering, this will form part of the discussion for the Price Review 2009, where we will strongly put customers' views, based on research we have carried out."
The Consumer Council for Water's Fair Charging research (March 2007) showed that the majority of consumers think that metering is fairer than other charging systems. However, many customers also worried that metered tariffs would rise, that it would become a struggle to pay bills, and even that they might become anxious about using water.
Dame Yve also explains that despite the current wet weather consumers shouldn't assume that the problems of water stress are over: "One wet summer won't solve this problem. Water supplies will remain under longer term pressure in some areas - particularly those that are densely populated or have low average annual rainfall. Companies and consumers will have to work together to ensure sustainability."
Notes for editors
1. The Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) represents consumers in England and Wales. Consumers can contact CCWater on a national number, 0845 039 2837.
2. CCWater is the statutory water consumer body, and operates as a non-departmental public body reporting to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Welsh Assembly Government. It has a committee for Wales, and at local level it is supported by nine regional committees in England.
Public enquiries to CCWater's national number, 0845 039 2837 - or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Victoria Square House
Birmingham B2 4AJ