Thursday, 1 March 2012


I blame Wimbledon, myself. I was at the press conference nearly 10 years ago when they announced they were putting a roof on Centre Court. ‘It’ll never rain again in June,’ I said, as did every other wizened and cynical tennis hack.

And it barely has rained during late June and early July since the roof became usable in 2009. Wimbledon has had two days in three years on which it has used the roof. The problem is that it’s raining less and less in the rainy season too, which is why we have a problem. A big problem. When the South East is declared a drought zone in February, you know it’s a big problem.

In our culture, a knee-jerk reaction to a problem is to find someone to blame. Of course we can blame global warming for the lack of rain, but that doesn’t help us. What we have to do is look at likely rainfall, look at likely demand for water, and make sure the two tally. A bit like an income and expenditure balance sheet – we can’t spend more than we earn, only in this case the currency is water rather than money.

In my role as a district councillor, I have had dealings with South East Water, and it has led me to a number of conclusions and realisations. I don’t want to get too harsh on SE Water, as what applies to them applies to other water companies, but I get the strong impression that our water management is not in good hands.

For a start, the water companies have far too cavalier an approach to water leakage. SE Water felt it was ‘acceptable’ to have a staggering 16 per cent of its water lost through leakage. This is actually rationalised in their accounting. All water companies do it – they have a formula for costs, according to which they work out at what point it’s economically more efficient to let water seep through cracks in pipes than to fix the cracks.

I don’t doubt the need for the formula, and at times you have to let a bit of water seep away rather than spend masses of money fixing small cracks. But 16 per cent? – that’s a sixth of the water supply! Something has gone wrong with the economics of water management when you get that high.

It would be wrong to blame it all on the water companies, but I also believe the former utilities have done too little to encourage us to save water. When I first worked with Nick Clegg back in 2007 on environmental issues, he said something very clear: ‘We need to get the point where doing the right thing is also the easiest thing.’ Given the paramount need to cut down on our water consumption, we have to make water saving easy and attractive.

The biggest thing we should do is to get everyone onto water meters. We all know that if you leave a light on when you don’t need it, you’re throwing money away. So why should water be any different? Yet large numbers of households are still on fixed charges, so once you’ve paid, you can use as much as you like for no extra cost. That has to be wrong. (Of course we have to ensure that poorer multi-member households don’t get penalised, but that is no reason not to have metering.)

Once we have metering, water saving aids like water butts and other rainwater capture technology become financially more attractive. It’s a virtuous circle, and fortunately the water companies are – belatedly – becoming wise to the possibilities.

We also need to rethink our attitude as a society to living. There is a current move towards lots of smaller living units, including one-bedroom flats. This means an increase in water consumption per person, whether through things like using more water per person to wash up or things like not being able to share the bath water with a family member. Can we as a society afford the environmental cost of fewer and fewer people per bathroom and kitchen? Such questions are seldom asked.

My biggest concern is that the people managing water resources in this country are private monopolies. I’m not dogmatically in favour of nationalised or privatised industries – there are pros and cons to both. But a private monopoly is the worst of all worlds, and that’s what our water companies are.

If they’re private, there should be competition, and we as customers should have the right to choose who supplies our water. When that happens, incentives to reduce leakage from pipes and consumption will flow as freely as the rain used to fall over Wimbledon before the roof was built.