Thursday, 16 January 2014

A Cautionary Tale

In a reply to a recent comment, I mentioned my tendency to send "purple ink" emails to my Member of Parliament.  In fact, both I and my partner are subject to periodic fits of outrage, generally on different subjects, which can only find relief by offloading an angry but incredibly well-argued diatribe onto The Tory Woman, a.k.a. Caroline Nokes, MP.  Her replies are, considering the political distance between us, remarkably patient, polite and accommodating.  They also generally come in the form of a proper letter, on House of Commons stationery.  Our long-suffering postman must wonder what we've been up to.

Last year, I had cause to complain about Southern Water, the privatized utility monopoly that supplies our water and sewage services.  Our street had recently had water meters fitted, which, as fairly "green" types, we welcomed, in principle.  As we never wash our cars, only bathe once or twice a week, have no dishwasher, and allow nature to achieve its own low-maintenance balance in our small front and back gardens, we fully expected a reduction in our water rate.  Instead, it more than doubled.  We were, apparently, despite our frugal ways and according to the objective measure of the water-meter, high-level water users.  Really? Cue surprise, outrage, and an email to our MP, demanding to know what Southern Water -- a privatized monopoly, paying dividends to shareholders -- was actually doing with all the extra cash it was presumably milking from its "customers".

In response, we drastically reduced our water consumption.  Toilets were only flushed after "solids", bath-water levels were reduced, and, most helpfully, both children left home for university and to find gainful employment. Last week, we received a letter from Southern Water informing us that our monthly payment would need to be more-or-less doubled again.

Now, by remarkable coincidence, there was a "File on Four" programme on Radio 4 on Tuesday night about the way the privatized water utilities have got themselves into hock to multiple tiers of greedy financial pirates by borrowing vast sums of money, using the same sort of dodgy financial instruments that did for the banks back in 2008.  The main claim of the programme was that ensuring cash-flow from customers -- to service these debts and to pay out shareholders' dividends -- had to be their main priority, well above customer service.  Southern Water was singled out, as a particularly egregious example.

OK.  I summoned my full reserves of calm, and phoned Southern Water.  According to the woman I spoke to, it seemed we had been using the equivalent water supply of a particularly water-happy family of five.  I said this was not possible.  She said, perhaps you have a leak?  I said, how would I know?  She said, let's do a tap test.

A "tap test" simply requires you to turn off all water-using devices in the house.  You then inspect the meter in the street and, if the disk indicating flow is still turning, you probably have a leak inside your grounds somewhere: which, of course, is not their problem.  Ours was absolutely still.  As we live in a semi-detached house, and the meters are under hatches in the street, I also looked at our neighbour's, which was merrily spinning.

A radical thought occurred to me.  I read our meter and asked the helpful woman on the phone what the latest reading was.  Now, these new meters are smart: they are read electronically in a drive-by van -- no human meter-reader ever actually comes by to pop the hatch as I had just done.  It seemed the reading on record for our address at Southern Water was more than twice the number I had just read off.  So I then asked, is there any way of identifying which meter is being read for which house?  She said, sure, your serial number is printed on the top of the meter, and the one for your house is this -- she read me a long code.

I checked again.  I looked at both meters.  My radical suspicion was correct: the wrong numbers had been recorded by Southern Water's sub-contractors when the meters were installed, and we had been receiving bills based on next door's usage -- a household of five young professional types -- and they had been receiving bills for us, a couple of smelly old lefties with filthy cars and unflushed toilets.  Result!  I now look forward to our revised bill and, hopefully, refund.  Our neighbours, whom I have alerted this morning, not so much.

So, if you, too, are puzzled by the size of your water bill since meters were installed in your street -- either too big or too small -- I suggest you would do well to check which meter your utility company thinks belongs to you.  Unless, of course, you are a family of ten living next door to a wealthy old couple who are "too posh to wash", have no car, no central heating, and a concreted garden, in which case I'd keep very quiet about it.

In the meantime, I'm trying to decide whether our MP would find this cautionary tale an amusing follow-up to last year's rant.  It's been a while since she heard from me, after all.  Hey, Caroline!


Martin Hodges said...

Hmm, I'm making a note of this, Mike. We've recently had meters fitted.

Andrew Sharp said...

I think you may have prompted me to finally get on with my scientific-lyte investigations into the washing up.

A couple of months ago I got a set of bathroom scales (to see how much water I use)

If the heating's off I can just nip outside and read the gas meter (to find out how much energy I've used)

And there's a clipboard left over from the 4 Corners Walk into which I can clip a sheet of paper (to record the results).

Watch some other space...

Mike C. said...


I think you'll find "bathroom" scales are intended to weigh people in the bathroom, not the bath (or indeed the bathroom) itself.

Nonetheless, I await your conclusions with interest. It's good that you can recycle a clipboard -- too many people regard their clipboards as disposable. Our local council recycling unit has a dedicated skip full of perfectly good clipboards ;)


Mike C. said...


If your neighbours match your own demographic, then it's probably not worth worrying. The Prof bumped into John Denham, MP, on the station platform this morning, and told him our story -- apparently he's been monitoring this very thing. It turns out most people's metered water rate is either the same as or a little lower than before -- just a few outliers get hammered. He sees no political mileage in it...


Andrew Sharp said...


In post natal care circles there's the story of the mums that are shown how to weight their babies. First the mum weighs herself, then she weighs herself with the baby. The difference is the babies weight.

At this point one of the assembled mums pipes up "but I'm her aunt".

Martyn Cornell said...

Well, obviously that was wrong - the woman should have been at an auntie-natal class.