How ‘fair’ is mandatory water metering?

Picture of Richie Kavanagh, an older white man with long, curly fair hair wearing blue dungarees over a white and blue stuffed shirt, standing behind a red plastic barrier of the sort used to fence off works on pavements. Behind him is a stone house festooned with blue and yellow flags.
Richie Kavanagh singing his Water Meter Song

This week my family got a letter from the local water company, Thames Water, telling us that water meters are going to be installed on our street some time this month and that they will be coming to dig up our street to do it. The meters in question sit under the pavement unlike, say, traditional gas or electricity meters which are in the house and which you can read easily (or as easily as you can access the cupboard). A few weeks ago, a relative who lives in nearby Ewell, just across the border in Surrey proper, was told that her street was going to be dug up for the same purpose by the same water company which provides water and sewerage to most of London and the Thames Valley region (i.e. the Oxford and Reading areas) but not to the south beyond London which has its own water providers. I mentioned this in a tweet and was asked by the company to talk to them privately, which I do not want to do as it is clearly a matter of policy rather than a particular issue my household has with them.

I Googled phrases like “kingston water metering” and “thames water metering” and got no specific results about water metering being imposed on this area; there were a few stories about “rolling out” of “smart meters” (which send hourly reports to the company electronically) across various parts of TW’s territory over the next few years. They have the legal powers to do it under the Water Industry Act of 1991 and switching to meters has been encouraged over the years; newly built houses and flats always have them installed. But there has been no public announcement, no coverage of it in the local or national media and no public debate, and TW’s website tells us that metering is the ‘fairest’ way to charge for water use, because people only pay for what they use. But how fair is that?

It sounds to me like the standard Tory definition of fairness: that public services are mere conveniences that people may choose to use or not, and should pay for as they use them. The same logic is used to demand payments from people who use social care and other services for disabled people: it’s not ‘fair’ that people who do not use the services pay for them through their taxes. Similarly when councillors in wealthy districts or counties complain that their business rates or Council Tax cannot be used locally rather than being redistributed via central government. It’s never about people with the means to pay for services they might need paying more so that everyone benefits. Water is not used more by rich people; it is used more by large families, especially those with young children. True, households with large gardens which use the mains to water the garden might also use more, but this is not a reason to penalise the couple with young children or the disabled person who has extra laundry needs because of incontinence so that a person who lives alone, or a wealthy childless couple, can pay less. When water really is scarce, we have a system of hosepipe bans and drought orders to prevent water being wasted to wash cars or irrigate grass. We do not need to use this system every year, even during hot summers.

Water stress is an issue, of course, but it’s not the only environmental issue we face: another is the overuse of disposable products, such as nappies, most of which contain plastic and which all go to landfill, and we only have so much land we can use for that. The alternative is washables, but they require water, either from the household’s own supply or from a commercial laundry service. Where water is particularly scarce, disposables might be the better option, but in London right now it is not; washables clearly are better for the environment. Why is it fair to penalise people (mainly women) trying to conserve finite resources and reduce the amount they throw away (which also reduces the local refuse workload) for needing a resource which, at least in the immediate future, will not run out?

This may be related to something I have noticed out and about in recent years: that water pumps are being removed from filling stations and replaced with paid-for screenwash pumps, and that water pressure in toilets available to the public (in filling stations as well as cafes) is miserly. Public toilets are scarce, and in town centres the only available facilities are often in out-of-the-way places such as the second floor of a shopping centre or the back of a shop (and then, not on the ground floor) and again, with inadequate pressure. Even after two years of a pandemic whose risk can be ameliorated somewhat with hand washing, it is difficult to find anywhere to do that in a lot of public places, including supermarkets. At motorway service stations, the toilets (which are usually the only place to wash one’s hands) are often located at the far end of the service building, past all the shops and restaurants, and easier access routes to them blocked. Councils are no longer required to provide public toilets, leaving this often to private businesses loath to give anything away and whose toilets are often reserved for their own customers; many were removed in the 1980s, partly as a result of a moral panic about gay men using them to solicit others for sex (known as cottaging). The provision of clean water used to be regarded as a matter of public health; now, it is presented as an avenue for private profit, and water companies do not want to pump water for free.

I find it astonishing that meters can be imposed on a whole area with no publicity and no public debate. Meters have been available for years; if take-up has been less than the companies might want, this may be because householders want the security of a fixed bill rather than one which could rise dramatically for reasons beyond their control. And in future years, once everyone has been forced onto meters, the savings might be reduced as they are the norm, rather than a “good choice” that is encouraged.

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