Six million households could be forced to install water meters in a bid to cut usage after the Government declared new areas at risk of running dry, despite a fifth of supplies being lost to leaks every day.
Water companies have been told to “lead by example” by cutting on waste in their own network by the Government-backed consumer advocacy group for the industry.
Water companies are allowed to force households to install a water meter in areas that have been declared as being at “serious” water stress risk where demand threatens to outstrip supply.
Households that refuse water meter installation are placed on a more expensive flat rate, which can add about £200 to annual bills.
However, companies have been criticised for relying on households to cut their usage while they lose more than three billion litres of water every day through leaks.
South West Water, which has had two of its areas newly declared as eligible for compulsory metering, increased its leakage last year despite a target to reduce it by three per cent.
Thames Water, which has the worst record for leaks, at levels twice the national average, started rolling out compulsory monitoring in 2013.
Southern Water, which also forces households to install meters, last year missed its target to reduce leakage by 50 per cent.
A spokesman for the Consumer Council for Water, a Government-backed body, said that companies should act on their own leaks before asking households to take action.
It added that water companies should provide support including reduced bills for households that would be worse off by moving to compulsory metering. That could, according to the group, include a family of four with relatively high water use that may have previously been on a low flat-rate tariff.
A spokesman added: “Metering programmes have proven successful in identifying and fixing leaks on customers’ own pipework. But water companies should be leading by example in reducing the enormous volumes of water that are lost every day and which dampen households’ own motivation to save water.”
The eight new areas declared at serious water stress risk include Severn Trent Water, Wessex Water and South West Water in Bournemouth and the Isles of Scilly.
The Environment Agency has warned that parts of England could run out of water within 20 years because of the impact of climate change and leaks.
The Commons public accounts committee has accused the Government and Ofwat, the regulator, of taking “their eye off the ball” to enable “wholly unacceptable” levels of leaks in England.
Companies operating in areas declared to be under serious water stress can roll out compulsory metering if they have shown that there is customer support, it is cost-effective to do so, and they have considered other options.
Water companies are not required to roll out compulsory meters in these areas, but the National Infrastructure Commission, which advises the Government, has called for them to be introduced across the country by 2030.
Some water companies have also called for the power to force households to meter their water usage regardless of their water stress classification and could make flat-rate tariffs more expensive to encourage the switch.
A four-person household on Thames Water’s metered rate can expect to pay about £390 a year, comparable with the national average of £419 on a non-metered rate.
However, customers who refuse to have a meter installed will be placed on Thames Water’s “no access charge” of £661 a year.
Winning back customer confidence
Ofwat said it was important that water companies tackle their own leakage or risk losing customer confidence.
“We have pushed companies to cut leakage, issuing leakage challenges during the past price review, and we will continue to do so,” a spokesman said.
“Whilst some progress has been made, there is more that can be done. Customers need to have confidence that water companies are cutting down on leakage so that they take steps to reduce their consumption.”
Southern Water said it was committed to tackling leakage, but that its work had been affected by Covid-19. Water use patterns during the pandemic meant that more was being used at home, and there was also an extreme freeze-thaw event in 2018.
Water UK said: “By 2050, we expect an additional seven million people to be using water just as climate change reduces our supplies by 15 per cent. Water companies have a key role to play by reducing leakage from pipes.
“Thanks to new innovations such as intelligent networks, smart sensors, satellite technology and drones, companies have successfully reduced leakage in recent years to the lowest levels on record.”
It added: “We also see it as a key responsibility to provide customers with information and advice about the benefits of saving water, including metering where appropriate, given the future challenges posed to water supplies.”