Watering down guidelines

Climate SOS_4.jpg
With summer coming earlier and lasting longer each year, we can comfortably predict the annual summer headlines ‘A Water Meter for Every Home’ covering many a front page whenever no fresh photographs of Posh and Becks are to be had.

According to Ofwat, the water regulator, all newly built homes and individual apartments in newly built blocks should have their own water meters. That is what we’ve probably all read. The unspoken argument from Ofwat is that there is nothing like a nasty water bill to turn people’s minds to water conservation.

Water bans on their own have not been effective. The great British public has found sneaky ways to break any water bans by sprinkling the lawn at night. Numerous hotlines to water companies to report the worst offending sprinklers have failed to stop water overuse during shortages, and despite water conservation announcements, many people like nothing more on a hot, sticky summer’s day than a morning and evening bath with their favourite Bodyshop bathballs.

Others, much to their shame (or delight), discover their inner curtain-twitcher each summer when they tut-tut to their neighbours about the people opposite… who used the sprinkler again.

With England becoming the most densely populated country in Europe, many planning officials sense the carrot may have to give way to the stick. Hence the reports about guidelines from Ofwat to all the water companies.

In fact, the statement I received on this from Ofwat was… well, a bit watery. It said: ‘Individual apartments in newly built blocks ideally should have their own water meter. However [my italics], the developer can agree with the water company to fit just one.’

What is mildly concerning is that building new apartments with individual water meters is 100 per cent feasible; if they are included in the plans and measurements for each apartment then installing them is a cinch. It is the older, Victorian homes, now converted into flats, where individual meters will be harder to install. The water companies have promised roll-out programmes to ensure most homes have water meters, but is hard to see if the will is there, given how accommodating they can be with developers.

In practice, the landlord in a property with a single meter for all the apartments can pay the water company directly for the tenants’ water use. The landlord recoups this by dividing the cost equally between the tenants and charging them service charge. As such, those tenants who are profligate with their water use have no incentive to cut down.

There are incentives for the developer and the landlord to have a central water meter, one being that a single meter for the whole block is far cheaper to install. There is certainly less building work. Another is that in addition to charging for water use, landlords can charge an ‘administration fee’ to pay for the cost of dividing the water bill between tenants. This administrative fee is added to the weekly rent, presumably because the water company bills the developer each week for water use.

In my case, I was told to expect a weekly water charge of nearly £6. This charge, which included administration, would have brought my bill to around £300 a year – a whopping £120 annual increase on my water usage costs, compared to when I lived in an apartment with a meter.

I discovered a new emotion called green
rage. It comes over you when you know that despite your best efforts to collect rainwater to water the plants and putting nice little sacks into your lavatory water tank to cut down on water with each flush, your next door neighbour could be whooping it up and you could be subsidising them.

My lobbying for my own water meter was aided by Darren Johnson. I hoped he, as the chair of the London Assembly Environment Committee, could apply some green muscle.He emailed then-Mayor for London Ken Livingstone to ask whether he was using his planning powers to ensure developers installed water meters for each property in new apartment buildings.

Ken replied: ‘All new properties are required to be fitted with a meter, as stipulated in my supplementary planning guidance. However [my italics again], I have been made aware that this may not always be the case and therefore I have asked the Water Resources Group to look at the issue of how we can ensure compliance.’

One might be tempted to think ‘much good will that do’, but we ecologists should never be cynical (well, not too often), and no doubt the Water Resources Group is powerful enough to force the developers and Thames Water to comply to the letter of the planning guidance of the, er, former Mayor of London.

Contacting the water board directly was also frustrating. It could not install water meters without the permission of the landlord. As tenants, we could not give permission for how we paid our water bill.

Several more letters to the landlord, including one from the local MP, finally ensured that we could be billed directly by the water board. As the developer would not install water meters, tenants would have to pay a flat water charge to the water company of around £250 a year. This bill was still less than we would have paid if we had been charged by the landlord. This ‘nominal water rate’ from the water board was based on the average water bill per household throughout the capital. Most of us are single, so we were paying more than we should. There was no longer the unfairness of subsidising your neighbour’s water use. Instead, a single householder such as myself could be subsidising a family of five down the road.

After a final battle, the landlord gave us permission to ask the water board for individual water meters. We each contacted the water board and had to stay in while they came round to install them. The developers were under no compulsion to see they were installed before we moved in.

The song and dance we tenants went through makes me question the resolve to make householders cut down on water use. In my case and that of the other tenants, lobbying won the day over porous guidelines.

Without tougher measures, headlines such as ‘A Water Meter for Every Home’ seem no more than green gestures, but hope could be on its way. Thames Water recently made the headlines with its launch of a 10-year programme ‘aiming to meter all buildings connected to the mains water supply by 2020’.

Apologies for creating another italic.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008