Government more trusted than water companies on higher bills to protect rivers

Posted: Wednesday 10th October 2012

A new Fabian Society report backed by WWF has revealed government is more trusted than water companies when encouraging consumers to pay more to tackle environmental damage caused to rivers by taking out too much water.

It is now clearly established that the rate at which water is being taken out of the environment to supply homes and businesses is causing damage to rivers across the UK, with the government white paper “Water for Life” stating that, unless the water system is reformed, rivers will be damaged “beyond repair”. Official licences in a quarter of river catchments across England and Wales – mostly clustered in the south and east - already allow unsustainable amounts of water to be taken, which can cause environmental damage.

Running Dry: Investigating people’s willingness to pay for river protection”, by Natan Doron and supported by the WWF, calls on government launch a public information campaign to raise awareness of the real dangers posed to rivers by the continued abstraction of water for public supply in these high risk catchments.

The research showed that, even in the current economic climate, 58% of people would be willing to pay extra on their water bills in order to stop environmental damage when government provides them with information on the environmental degradation and on the limits to the amount of water that can be taken from the system. In contrast, there is less trust for water companies with less than half of those polled saying they would be willing to pay more for environmental protection.

There was also widespread support for payment according to level of use of water to provide for increased river protection, a finding that further support for calls for the implementation of universal water metering.

The research also comes in the context of Ofwat’s review of water company plans and prices for the period 2015 to 2020, which has just started and will finish in 2014. As part of this process, the government sets guidance and water companies are required to involve their customers in setting out their pricing strategy. Part of this is finding out how willing customers are to pay in order protect the natural environment in their area.

Natan Doron, Senior Researcher at the Fabian Society said:

“We face huge challenges in ensuring that Britain has a water supply that is fit for purpose and sustainable in the long term. If we’re going to reduce the amount of water that is taken from rivers, we need to start making provision for this now.

“This will involve additional costs, some of which will have to be met by consumers. Our research shows that customers are more willing to pay more for environmental protection if government throws its weight behind support for river protection.

“That is not to say there is no role for water companies. Government and the private sector need to work together to protect our rivers. The challenge we face is enormous and we need everyone to step up to meet it.”

Rose Timlett, WWF’s freshwater expert said:

“Recent events have highlighted just how unsustainable our water supplies can be – low rainfall experienced earlier in the year combined with unsustainable abstraction resulted in low flows and dry river beds across the country. This report shows how the majority of people are not willing for environmental damage to continue in their name and would rather pay a little more to stop it. There’s a clear need for government and water companies to work together to give people information and the confidence that their money will go towards protecting our precious rivers and wildlife.

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