Even in the most apocalyptic of biblical times, drought and floods didn’t happen at the same time. So, as the images of floodwater swilling around Tewkesbury Abbey dominate the news, and dozens of flood alerts remain in force in England and Wales, pity the poor environment secretary Caroline Spelman trying to explain why standpipes might still be necessary next summer. Pity, however, should not deflect reality – that successive governments have ducked the hard questions about where water comes from, who uses it and how much they pay for it. And on Wednesday – just as a House of Lords report called for urgent action on the rules about taking water out of rivers, it was being reported elsewhere that the government’s proposed water bill addressing precisely that issue wasn’t going to make it into the new legislative programme.
It seems a straightforward enough problem of supply and demand. The water companies are still not efficient enough, the regulatory regime allows too much water to be taken out of the ground, and domestic users still waste it (though not nearly as much as they did). The only part of the equation that no one can do anything about is how much rain falls, where, and when. But sensible planning has to recognise that weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable and resilience has to be built into the system. There are two reasons why it isn’t as simple as it looks. Although we know that water is a scarce resource, we are reluctant to adapt the way we use it to reflect its real value. In polls after the latest hosepipe ban was announced in March, a third of those questioned weren’t planning to observe it. The explanation for that is taken collectively, the 22 major water and sewerage companies are the most unloved and least trusted of all the privatised utilities. Second, most consumers still pay for water according to the rateable value of their home, which does nothing to encourage conservation. But meters – sensible when accompanied by support for the vulnerable – are regarded with suspicion, feared as a way of lending cover to inefficient suppliers, a feeling reinforced by every unattended leaking main.
One way round this is to make water companies listen harder to customers. In the next round of price setting, Ofwat is compelling companies to justify higher bills to the people who will be paying them. They will have to argue for their investment plans too: that could mean fewer high-profile, high-cost reservoirs or desalination plants, more small scale local networking schemes, or water trading. But Ms Spelman also has to get her water bill time in the legislative programme, and introduce stringent efficiency standards on new homes. Whatever they may wish, governments haven’t privatised the problem.