HC Deb 24 June 2004 vol 422 cc1443-5
7. Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

What measures her Department is taking to promote the take-up of water metering in homes. [180210]

The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment (Mr. Elliot Morley)

We expect individual water companies, under the guidance of the Office of Water Services, to keep customers informed of their rights of choice in their method of charging, including the right to a free meter.

Mr. Key

Does the Minister agree that we all need to explain to people that the ever-increasing rise in demand for water relies on unsustainable levels of abstraction in southern England, especially in the Avon catchment? The only answer is to use less water. The best way of using less water is to relate the volume of water used directly to price.

Mr. Morley

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. He has been a long-standing campaigner in relation to unsustainable abstraction in the chalk rivers in his constituency. He knows that I share his concern. I very much welcome the fact that the number of households moving to water meters is increasing, and I agree that it is the most sustainable way to manage water. He will also be aware of a working group involving Wessex Water, English Nature and the Environment Agency, which is examining the problems of abstraction in his area. It reports to me, and I take a personal interest in that.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

I am one of those who already have a water meter, although I wish that I did not. My hon. Friend will recognise that water pricing policy and conditions vary from region to region, and that the north-west is very different from the region of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). Now that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the level of increase in charges for sewerage and water services, is it not important to find a way to replace the rateable values, which no longer exist in reality but have teen preserved as the system for charging most customers? They now have no relevance at all, and it is time that a new system was found.

Mr. Morley

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but the alternative is for people to switch to water meters. Legislation provides for the free installation of water meters. An increasing number of people are choosing that option, and I expect that to continue. However, the price issue is very important, which is why we are carefully following what is happening in the price review and the work of the regulator. It is important to have a link between what people use and how they pay for it, and water metering is the best way of providing that.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD)

But is it not simply indefensible, as the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) says, to continue to base most water bills on the theoretical value that a person could get from renting their property in 1973? Is it not indefensible that there is no link at all between consumption and the bill that lands on the doormat? Is the Minister aware that, in my constituency, South East Water plans to install a desalination plant, of all things—we normally associate such plants with the middle east—to produce enough water, because the Deputy Prime Minister wants more housing in the area? Would it not make more sense to have a proper system of universal metering? Should not the Government give a lead, rather than having metering by stealth, as at present? A system of metering with safeguards for those on low incomes would be sensible for the environment and better for consumers.

Mr. Morley

The hon. Gentleman will be aware, because he served with me on the Water Bill, that water companies are free to apply to the Secretary of State to have powers for metering in their areas. So far, no water company has made that proposal, but the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that we have supported the move to metering. We think that that is the right way forward, but while there are many properties that are not on a meter, there has to be some means of calculating the price that they pay. I am sure that there are many weaknesses. with the present system of rateable value, but the costs of moving to an alternative system would also produce winners and losers, and that system would still have problems. It would not necessarily give anyone a better advantage. A greater advantage is gained by continuing to encourage people to move to water meters, which is why they are provided free of charge.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

Is it not a paradox that some parts of the country are awash with water while others suffer drought? What consideration have the Government given to constructing a national water grid?

Mr. Morley

That has been discussed. My hon. Friend is right to say that there are huge regional differences in water. The eastern region of England has less rainfall per head of population than Sudan. This issue is one not just of development but of proper water resource management. The costs of establishing a national grid through pipes are very high, and the establishment of such a grid by linking river systems would have environmental and ecological consequences that we could not ignore. We must take those factors into account.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con)

This question is about not just how, but how much, people are charged for their water. The Minister will be aware that prices are going up, but has he fully absorbed why? The reasons include national insurance and pension liabilities, a new tax and financing regime and, worst of all, a lack of investment in infrastructure because of an artificial price cut in the run up to the last election. The pigeons are now coming home to roost, with a 30 per cent. rise in water charges. Will the Minister accept that that is wholly the result of Government action?

Mr. Morley

No, I most certainly will not accept that. We have an independent water regulator, although that seems to have escaped the hon. Gentleman's attention. Of course there are issues relating to price pressures on water and I do not dispute that there is a combination of those issues at work, which the regulator must take into account. Companies take them in to account in their draft business plans. The biggest single factor is, of course, continued investment and maintenance of capital assets, which has led to a major clean-up of our rivers and beaches. That has led to the best quality water that we have ever had in this country. While no one welcomes price increases, people nevertheless want continued improvements in the quality of water that they enjoy—both for drinking and in relation to the aquatic environment of this country.