Select committee delivers damning assessment of government's "lack of leadership" when it comes to managing England's water supply, warning that public awareness campaigns and better oversight over companies water leakage performance is needed
There is a "serious risk" that some parts of England will run out of water within the next 20 years, the Public Accounts Committee has today warned.
A stark report published yesterday by the committee of MPs notes that the country loses a fifth of its daily water supply - more than three billion litres - to leaks every day.
The PAC said water companies have made "no progress" on reducing leakage over the past two decades, and accused the government, Ofwat, and the Environment Agency of having "taken their eye off the ball".
As such, it urged the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) to now "step in and substantially step up efforts" to ensure a reliable water supply in the years ahead.
The Committee delivered a damning verdict on the Department's efforts to manage water supply risks to date, criticising its "lack of leadership" in getting to grips with issues that could threaten water supplies.
"Empty words on climate commitments and unfunded public information campaigns will get us where we've got the last 20 years: nowhere," said Committee Chair Meg Hillier. "Defra has failed to lead and water companies have failed to act: we look now to the department to step up, make up for lost time and see we get action before it's too late."
PAC argued that Defra must now provide more guidance to water companies on the level of investment needed to ensure resilience over the years to come and how to balance business plans with pressure to reduce consumer bills.
It also recommended that Defra should produce annual league tables for water companies that measure their performance on tackling leakage by the end of the year. And it urged the government to step up efforts to promote water efficiency and run an "effective" public awareness campaign to encourage water saving measures.
The PAC also warned that it was "not convinced" that the UK's 2050 net zero target was sufficiently embedded in the oversight and regulation of the water industry. It asked Ofwat to explain, within the next three months, how it plans to ensure water companies are accounting for their carbon emissions in the planning process.
The ongoing abstraction of water from English rivers and other sources poses ongoing environmental risks, the PAC warned, noting that the government's planned HS2 rail line presents "particular risks" as it will require the removal of up to 10 million litres of water per day to facilitate tunnelling in the Chilterns. The PAC has therefore asked the Environment Agency to set out clear objectives detailing how it intends to eliminating environmental damage from over-abstraction and sewage outflow from rivers and other sources, in particular chalk streams, across England.
Next week, the Committee said it would take evidence on the issues raised in its enquiry from four water companies.
Responding to the report, a spokesperson from Defra said it had embraced a "tougher approach" to poor performance and wastage within the water industry, and urged citizens to be careful with their water use.
"We absolutely recognise the need to safeguard our water supplies for future generations, which is why our National Framework for Water Resources [launched in March 2020] sets out a bold vision for bringing together consumers, businesses and industry to sustainably protect our water supplies," the spokesperson said. "We are already taking a tougher approach to poor performance and wastage within the water industry, while also finding ways to increase supply. But everyone has a part to play, and we urge people to be mindful of their usage and look at practical ways to save this precious resource in their daily lives."
An Environment Agency spokesperson flagged that the public body had made changes to more than 300 unsustainable abstraction licesnses since 2008, saving 47 billion litres of water a year - the equivalent, it said, to supplying the cities of Bristol and Nottingham with water for a whole year.
"We know that if we don't take action now many areas of England will face water shortages by 2050, which is why we are always striving to ensure water supplies are sustainable," the spokesperson added.
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