Guest post by Rob Cunningham, Head of Water Policy
Water has been big news this year, two years of poor winter rains left our rivers and wetlands drying out this spring only for torrential summer rain and floods to grab the headlines. While I’m not going to claim this weather is directly a consequence of climate change, as the excellent analysis that underpins last year’s water white paper illustrates, it’s a foretaste of what’s to come.
So what, we might ask, is to be done to protect the water environment which we all rely on? Well if you were expecting answers in the recent draft Water Bill you will be bitterly disappointed. Because, while the public has been preoccupied with droughts and floods, the Government has chosen to use this Bill to increase competition in the water industry. I’m sure economists everywhere are excited, but should this really be a priority for Government action in the water sector?
To answer that, perhaps we should turn to the Efra committee report which just last week gave a damming verdict on the Water White Paper finding
The recent drought has underlined the importance of introducing a reformed abstraction regime able to provide sustainable and reliable supplies of water. The timescales set out in the White Paper lack ambition and unnecessarily risk further environmental damage.
Hooray to that but, of course, managing supply is just one side of the equation. As the recent Adaptation Sub-Committee report highlights, water consumers in the UK have one of the highest per-capita demands in Europe. So what about universal metering and tariffs which deter waste and protect vulnerable customers, as championed by the RSPB and our NGO colleagues including Age UK and the Institute for Civil Engineers? Well the Government closed the door on that approach in its water white paper so instead of change by design we simply face a business as usual drift towards higher levels of metering, an approach that will almost certainly fail vulnerable customers, the environment and be more costly overall.
So why is Government seemingly powerless to tackle the really big issues that face the water environment which we all ultimately rely on? Well, the official answer is that it’s all very difficult and we shouldn’t rush into reform, an argument that I’m sure has a kernel of truth. But Defra’s definition of ‘rush’ is not so much pedestrian,as glacial.
And this isn’t the first time newly elected ministers have promised to sort out water management. When Labour came to power in 1997 memories of drought were fresh in people’s minds, summits were held and strategies containing many of the ideas being discussed today were produced, only to be forgotten.
So will things be different this time? Even now, memory of drought is fading and, if challenged, ministers can point to a host of projects, studies and consultations that constitute ‘progress’ while knocking the really difficult decisions about who wins and who loses under reforms firmly into the court of future politicians. But there is a glimmer of hope. We now have the Adaptation Sub-Committee reporting progress, and a growing consensus among NGOs, civil engineers, consumer groups and parts of the water industry that we can’t simply wait for jam tomorrow. After all, the danger of accelerating change now will surely be insignificant compared to the risk of having policies dictated by public outrage the next time drought hits, and summer rain doesn’t come to save us.