THE BLOG
22/11/2013 06:36 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

Illusions in a Land of Plenty - Why Cutting Household Water Bills Won't Stop the Price Rises

Cutting the cost of household bills is big news - but Government moves to get water and energy companies to control price rises risks creating an illusion that we live in a land of plenty and limitless supply. We don't.

Controlling the inexorably rising utility bills that plague households requires a longer term, more sustainable approach. In short, it needs us to learn how to use less.

The UK is one of the most energy and water inefficient countries in the EU. Its housing stock is among the most poorly insulated in Europe and, according to figures from the WWF, the UK is just 38% self-sufficient in water.

Staggeringly this makes the rain-soaked UK the sixth largest net importer of water in the world, with much of the water we use embedded in food products and materials we buy from other nations.

Yet rather than looking at ways to cut our water and energy use, and slash household bills through using less, we are obsessed with merely reducing the cost of our consumption through lowering bills.

Now don't get me wrong, I completely understand why households are so concerned about rising utility bills. The scale of energy price rises, and some of the recently reported water bill increases are huge and deeply concerning for households already struggling with static incomes.

However, I believe price control is a short term solution that is ultimately bad for the country and the environment and won't prevent the relentless rise in water and energy bills into the medium and long term. In fact I think price control will actually increase costs not reduce them because it pushes the need to control water use further down the road.

If we want lower water (and energy) bills, we have to get used to using less and that means innovating to find new ways to allow us to clean our clothes, consume food and drinks, get the clothing and goods we want and live in the controlled environments we like, without draining the world's natural resources at the rate we currently are.

The EU recently announced that it is to look at developing a standardised cistern design for domestic toilets in a bid to cut water use across Member States - the announcement was met with howls of derision from some quarters and suggestions that it was 'red tape' gone mad.

However I think the EU has it right on this point. Actions from national Governments and the EU to encourage industry to develop environmental innovations and products, and to incentivise consumers to use less water and energy, is key.

When it comes to water and energy use, cutting the amount we use is unpopular. It is seen as imposing discomfort and suffering on people. The public backlash following suggestions that those facing higher energy bills should wear more clothing, and turn the thermostat down, shows that consuming less is a hard message to sell.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Living more efficiently and using less energy and water doesn't have to mean compromising on comfort or performance.

Legislation and changing the rules of the market place can drive positive change and create a paradigm shift that stimulates the development of new, disruptive technologies. The car industry is a good example -legislation has forced the development of vehicles that are far more fuel efficient than cars in the past yet which are also faster, more comfortable and stylish. There is no compromise.

When it comes to energy and water use, the legislative incentive to force a paradigm shift in technology has yet to emerge. Yet the need for alternative, disruptive and efficient technologies is getting more urgent.

Research Xeros has just developed shows that UK households now use 343.2billion litres of water every year, equivalent to draining 20 Lake Windermeres, just washing clothes. Energy costs for washing machines also add a further £2.43billion a year to our energy bills (equivalent to £92.05 per household).

The debate around controlling price rises is a short term viewpoint that needs a long-term solution. We have to cut water and energy use if we are to cut bills, prevent costs rising further and protect the environment.

Rather than obsessing about price control, I think the UK needs to focus on encouraging business to create more water and energy efficient products; incentivise and encourage households to consume less; and create an environment where we understand the true cost of the water and the energy we use.

This is a cost that is measured in something far more valuable than pounds and pence.