Richard Benyon’s speech at the Waterwise conference

Richard Benyon’s speech at the Waterwise conference.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Richard Benyon

I’m really pleased to be given this opportunity to acknowledge publically the excellent work carried out by Waterwise to promote water efficiency.   And I’m pleased to be here today to address some of the challenges we face in both the both short and longer term.

The conference theme  - Engaging Water Users  - could not be more timely.  We’ve been talking about drought since last year, and the recent drought summit Defra convened coupled with the recent announcement of temporary water restrictions by seven water companies brought the issue into sharp focus again. 

So it is a good time to reflect on the need for us now to better value water, to use water wisely and to demonstrate to others our commitment to water efficiency.  These were key threads of the Government’s Water White Paper - “Water for Life” - published at the end of last year which set out our objectives in delivering secure, sustainable and affordable supplies of water. 

The White Paper also outlined the longer term challenges that climate change and population growth present for future water resources; and set out the case for action to build resilience and to enable a good quality water environment for the future.


Of course, drought is at the forefront of our minds.

Low levels of rainfall during winter can have serious impacts on the supply of water since winter rains are essential to replenish ground water and reservoirs.

We have now seen two consecutive winters of low rainfall and the Environment Agency are predicting severe drought this spring and summer and report that river flows and groundwater levels are exceptionally low. 

But droughts happen in the UK.  The one most commonly referenced and the one that some of us here will remember is the drought from May 1975 to August 1976.  And when I say some of us I say so with some sadness to the passing of time.  I remember the summer of 1976 well - I was busy not revising - but only one of my Defra private office team was born then. 

So for the younger members of the audience, 1976 saw the lowest 16 months of rainfall in England and Wales since 1766.  The majority of British rivers experienced their lowest flows on record. 

But we’re we’re not at the same stage as 1976 - yet - why?

Both Defra and the Environment Agency recognised early that the outlook for water availability in 2012 was poor.  The Secretary of State convened drought summit meetings in May and June 2011 and last month to plan our response.

We have taken early action to protect the availability of water for essential purposes in those areas where the supply of water is at its lowest. Between November and February 2012, three Drought Permits and a Drought Order have been issued to enable water companies to refill reservoirs more quickly.  And as I mentioned on 13 March seven water companies announced temporary use bans, commonly referred to as hosepipe bans, to place limits on water use and to protect existing supplies to take effect from 5 April.

Defra, the Environment Agency and the water companies are working to encourage people to think about their water usage and to reduce it wherever possible.  Businesses and Farms are also being encouraged to think now about how they can help minimise the consequences of reduced water availability an issue I know has been high o their agenda for a number of years.

Early action will help to mitigate the effects of the drought. But we have to be prepared for a more serious situation by establishing an emergency command structure both centrally and at a local level.

At the last Summit it was decided to establish a national drought group, to be chaired by Paul Leinster to manage strategic co-ordination and planning. Other groups have been set up to co-ordinate specific actions including one led by the public water supply companies and a second led by the Environment Agency.

And at local level, water companies lead on sending messages to their customers and local authority resilience will work to co-ordinate activity within the public sector.

But in dealing with the immediate issues we must not lose sight of the longer term challenges - in particular how we respond to the increasing demands that climate change and population growth will put on our water supplies in the future.  We have to manage our own water use effectively now and to instil the appropriate behaviour change that will help us to manage the future pressures on water resources. 

Everyone, businesses and householders, needs to be aware that there will be less water per person in the future.

So what is Government doing?  The Green Deal offers an excellent opportunity to provide targeted advice to households and businesses on water efficiency. Water companies and Green Deal providers could create partnerships to see a range of work being done in a property at the same time.

We welcome all water large scale water efficiency retrofit programmes and schemes which give confidence to customers about the competence and recognition of those carrying out their work.

The Bathroom Manufacturers Association Water label is an excellent example of an industry led voluntary labelling scheme, providing information to those who want to select the best performing bathroom products. We are working through WRAP to help to improve update and visibility of the label.

But research shows that water is not seen as a resource that should be used efficiently and conserved. Across all segments of the population, people think that they have a right to water and there is little spontaneous awareness that its conservation is a serious environmental issue.

We are funding research to build on this understanding and to develop a range of messages to address the factors that currently hinder more of the population adopting water efficient behaviour.   I hope that the measures people are taking to respond to the drought will change this. 

Because if we can maintain the water-saving behaviours we adopt in response to drought conditions, we can reduce the ‘business as usual’ demand for water. Such long term behaviour change will allow us to offset the anticipated increase in demand from increasing population; lead to increased resilience of our water supplies, and reduce the need for new  infrastructure such as reservoirs, thereby offset increases in water bills.

But we need to see a step change in behaviour - the sort of change we have seen over the last twenty years or so when it comes to energy efficiency.  It is now almost unthinkable not to have energy saving measures in the home be they insulation, energy saving windows, energy saving lightbulbs or simply the lowering of the thermostat. 

I hope this drought proves just the sort of stimulus to bring about a similar change in attitude to how we use water so that water saving behaviour and devices become the norm not the exception.  With the pressure on water resources we should not be having to tell people not to run the cold tap while brushing their teeth!

Looking beyond the home or business, as always at times of drought, the suggestion is made that the answer to water availability is better interconnectivity within and between water companies, and even that the answer is to pipe water from north to south.  You would be amazed how many helpful suggestions I get along these lines.

Water companies are already joining up their sources of supply to help them move water to the areas of greatest need and build resilience. Interconnections, such as the United Utilities East-West link, are building flexibility into our water supply network and reducing the costs of meeting future demand.

Large scale infrastructure investment is expensive, and water is heavy, difficult and costly to move. Relatively local connections are likely to be the best options, incrementally building a wider and more integrated network.  

We need to ensure that we develop further water resources in a sustainable framework as set out in the Water for Life. Ofwat will consider water company future proposals and ensure that they are sustainable and cost effective for consumers.

The Government attaches great importance to the water resources management planning process, and we intend to strengthen the planning guidelines to deliver reduced costs to customers and improved environmental outcomes. 

In particular, we will be looking to companies to reflect the longer term supply challenges through to 2050; to more accurately reflect the cost of abstraction to the environment; to set ambitious goals for reducing average water consumption and support them with robust plans for delivery.   

The last round of WRMPs saw an increasing use of demand measures, including metering in water stressed areas and some large scale information campaigns to reduce household and business usage. We expect these plans to lead to average demand for water levelling out or decreasing over the planning period

However, we must not be complacent. Continued action will be needed to be taken by water companies to tackle demand pressures, especially in areas of current or likely future water stress.

As we said in Water for Life, in the next WRMP round all companies will be expected to show how they will reduce water use per person.  All demand management options must be seriously considered. There is a growing evidence base on what measures are effective, there really is no excuse for companies not taking cost-effective interventions that are proven to reduce water use. 

Where companies are in a designated water stressed area, or where they have demand that is above the national average, we will expect companies to produce a plan that will deliver overall demand reduction in the first five years.  Looking further ahead, we will expect all WRMPs to demonstrate that the demand trend is significantly downward.

We will reinforce this message about the importance of options to reduce demand over the first five years and beyond in our strategic policy statement to Ofwat.

I understand that representatives from most water companies attended a very useful informal session yesterday which looked at the opportunities for, and potential barriers to, designing and executing large scale water efficiency activity. We were keen to hear about the activities you are undertaking but also wanted to understand the barriers you may have experienced in developing larger scale water efficiency programmes as part of future WRMP options.  These could be regulatory and policy barriers, less tangible ones such as lack of clarity on the risk attached to such projects, or cultural ones within both water companies and regulators.  We’ll reflect on what we heard and it will certainly help to inform policy development  in advance of the next round of WRMPs and Ofwat’s price review.

Ladies and gentlemen, ensuring we have enough water is an issue of national importance, and we must act now!  Water companies, businesses, people in their home and their work, all have a role to play.

At last month’s drought summit, the water companies in areas affected by drought agreed to reduce water losses and increase leakage detection; engage and communicate with their customers to encourage them to use water wisely; co-ordinate temporary restrictions on water use, such as hosepipe bans, and continue to talk to the Environment Agency about drought permits. I wholeheartedly welcome this level of engagement. 

Within Defra, we are looking to commission projects that will reduce potable water demand now and into the future. Rainwater harvesting tanks have been installed at five Defra properties where the captured water is used to flush toilets and two further major projects are earmarked for installation in 2012/13.

We are also installing Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) devices on water meters across the portfolio. When complete (May 2012), over 95% of Defra’s water consumption will be logged at half hourly intervals. Monitoring and analysis of this data will enable better management of water and assist the identification of reduction initiatives.

So we’re doing our bit, both as regulators and as user.  The industry is doing much as are organisations like Waterwise.  But much more has to be done.  But by working together - as is currently being demonstrated in response to the drought - we can respond to the challenges both in the short and the longer term.

Published 22 March 2012