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UK must modernise aging water infrastructure or face more shortages says report

The UK must take "decisive and prompt action" to modernise its aging water infrastructure or face worsening droughts, according to a new report by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).12 Jun 2012

The industry body's State of the Nation: Water (11-page / 2.4MB PDF) report calls for the construction of new water storage facilities across the country and the removal of regulatory barriers to allow more interconnection between networks. It has also proposed the phased introduction of universal "discretionary" metering, with higher tariffs for non-essential use, and for a "Water Security Taskforce" to plan for dwindling supplies.

"We are a populous nation facing a growing gap between what we can supply and what our water users need," said Michael Norton, chair of the ICE's water panel. "Sadly it's only when hose-pipe bans are inflicted on us that the public has any glimpse of this reality. We have a valuable opportunity while water is in the forefront of the nation's minds to impress on the public the real value of this resource and we mustn't squander it."

Currently most households pay a flat rate of £1 per day for unlimited water use according to the ICE, a rate that it says is "unsustainable" given the cost of water treatment and the volume of water used for activities, such as watering the garden, that do not require treated water. A 30% reduction in the amount of water used per home and the introduction of higher tariffs for those who use more than this amount would encourage a "shift in public attitudes", it said.

A ban on the use of hosepipes for recreational use, to water gardens or clean vehicles or premises came into effect across much of the south east of England in April. Thames Water, which supplies nine million customers in the London area, intends to reconsider the ban at the end of the month following recent heavy rainfall.

Although the recommendations would require "some upheaval" to the current regulatory regime, the effects would be seen "relatively quickly", said Norton. A "time-bound" plan by the proposed Water Security Taskforce could put the UK at level 8 or 9 on a 1-10 water security level scale by 2025, according to the report, as opposed to the UK's current score of 4.

Water and sewerage services in England and Wales are provided by private companies overseen by an economic regulator, while in Scotland and Northern Ireland they are provided by publicly-owned companies. However, the ICE said that water was a "shared resource", and called on all of the administrations to cooperate on its proposed water security 'roadmap'.

Encouraging the individual water companies to collaborate on new resources would allow them to "share both investment costs and risk," the report said. It suggested the increased use of smaller "distributed infrastructure" projects at local level, such as household and community-scale rainwater harvesting and home recycling, rather than the creation of a "costly and environmentally damaging" 'national grid' or pumping water across the country to areas where supplies are more restricted. Water companies should also be encouraged to share supplies with adjacent regions if necessary, it added.

The report also called for a "new approach" to the type of large infrastructure projects proposed and constructed, calling for "significant investment" from Government and regulators rather than the current incremental approach to infrastructure maintenance.

The recent Water White Paper and last month's announcement of a draft Water Bill contained "some positive steps", according to the report, but these intentions must now be delivered "without delay" and in the context of a UK-wide vision, the ICE warned.

"ICE is disappointed that the UK government will not present a full Water Bill for water industry reform in England and Wales this Parliamentary session," it said in the report. "The water security challenges faced by the UK require urgent attention. Without this important legislation the changes needed to manage water more sustainably will be delayed further and the risks to water security will only increase."