Policy Papers

Hosepipes, history and a sustainable future

Vanessa Taylor , Frank Trentmann |

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Executive Summary

  • In the light of the 2006 drought and potentially permanent 'water stress', the government has been reviewing its policies on drought-time restrictions.
  • Droughts have been a constant feature of modern life, irrespective of different systems of water-supply ownership, so the proposed reforms are right to emphasise the importance of making drought contingencies and increased water efficiency a normal part of consumers' future plans.
  • However, there is a 'civilising contract' at the heart of the issue of water supply and drought, for ever-increasing water use has for a long time been a positive feature of civilised life.
  • As a result the history of droughts in the UK reveals a mismatch between consumers' willingness to accept drought-time economies and their unwillingness to reduce consumption in the long term.
  • There is a danger that distinctions between acute (and temporary) drought and chronic (permanent and accumulating) water stress may be obscured by a generalised reference to water scarcity. Greater clarity is needed about the implications for UK consumers, both of more frequent drought-related restrictions and of permanent water stress.
  • Since consumers' routines and perceptions of entitlement have always played an active role in shaping how systems of supply operate and break down, it is time to revisit the 'civilising contract' which underpins their long-term expectations.
  • Similarly, as the category of water 'waste' is expanding with the increased focus on drought and scarcity, it is important to recognise that what is 'waste' and what is 'rational' consumption have historically been the subject of heated controversy and conflict.
  • It is therefore vital for the success of any reforms that consumers are actively involved in the discussion over what supply systems and demand-management strategies might look like in the future. Definitions of drought and scarcity, rational use, waste and consumer entitlement have always been, and must remain, fluid and open to political contestation.


On 11 July 1921, a Metropolitan Water Board inspector noticed water pouring down the gutter of a Belgravia mews. On closer investigation, he found a chauffeur, Joseph Gorton, washing a car with 'a hose-pipe ... thrown down by the side of it, the water still running'. The water 'was allowed to run to waste', the inspector later told a police court. The country was in the grip of a drought: this was the hottest month on record. There was water rationing in some towns. London had seen repeated calls for voluntary water saving. One result was the first prosecution in London for wasteful water use while washing a car: Gorton received a fine of 20 shillings.

The 2006 drought in the south east of England, created widespread indignation amongst consumers at inconsistencies and inequities in the water restrictions. Alongside banned activities - car washing and garden watering - were a range of legal domestic and commercial water uses, including filling private swimming pools and hot-tubs, hosing down driveways and patios, commercial car washes, and watering golf courses and racetracks. In spring 2007, the government announced plans to reform the hosepipe ban and other 'non-essential use' restrictions in England and Wales, extending and 'modernising' them in line with the current range of water-use practices.

These proposals are part of a wider policy concern: with 'water stress' set to become a permanent feature of British life, the government is committed to a principle of 'behaviour change' and sustainable consumption. 'Demand management' in preparation for future change is a key element in the water sector's strategy for a sustainable future. It features prominently in the government's new water strategy for England, Future Water, published this February.

Drought history and consumers

Conflicts over water in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Britain form a prehistory to current concerns about water shortages and sustainable consumption. This period brought constant supply, baths and water closets to cities. But the late-Victorian period was also a time of droughts and disruption, with heated conflicts over how water was priced, who should own and manage it, and, indeed, what was legitimate and what was wasteful supply.

In the Victorian era of private (monopoly) water supply, consumer activism was a politics of taxation. Householders paid for water through a tax based on the value of their property, as the majority of Britons do today. The first consumer bodies challenged water companies and their charges in the courts. Water Consumer Defence Leagues were formed across London in the early 1880s, and succeeded in reducing rates for thousands of metropolitan consumers. Meanwhile, in Sheffield the Bath Defence Association opposed 'non-domestic' charges on fixed baths. Baths, they insisted, were entirely domestic, not luxuries subject to extra charges. This campaign went to the core of a new civilising sensibility. Increased water use was equated with progress and modernity. The bath campaign highlighted the gap between consumers' expanding sense of entitlement, based on the spread of new technologies, and water providers' restrictive, supply-side approach to water use.

A series of droughts and water shortages in East London in the 1890s brought a new phase. A consumer politics of taxation gave way to an expanded politics of provision. With water supply restricted to a few hours each day, public health concerns and questions of absolute need came to the fore. Broad coalitions emerged. The East London Water Consumer Defence Association joined forces with Progressive Liberals and others supporting the municipal takeover of the water companies. The identity of water consumers now expanded from a focus on propertied male taxpayers to the needs and rights of all water users.

The issue of water 'waste' featured prominently during these 1890s droughts. Indignant consumers blamed shortages on the burst pipes and profiteering of the East London Waterworks Company. The company, by contrast, pointed to low rainfall and wasteful consumers.

The municipal argument put forward by consumer advocates gained official sanction in the run-up to the public takeover of London's water supply in 1902: a publicly owned resource - available on the basis of universal, constant provision and managed for the good of the community - would be used responsibly by consumer-citizens. This was the essence of the civilising contract.

Drought proved a driver for change, but supporters of municipalisation were naïve to presume that placing water in public hands would eliminate scarcity. Droughts and other forms of disruption continued. Severe droughts in the inter-war years - in 1921, 1929 and 1933-34 - revealed a fundamental split between urban and 'backward' rural provision. Many rural areas were without piped supplies or sewerage. In areas with piped supplies, water providers now had to cater for the continuing spread of the water closet, the bath and the garden, but also for the motor car, the swimming pool, tennis courts and golf courses. Tensions within the civilising contract of water use were becoming evident. During the 1934 drought, critics of piecemeal government policies noted the irony of appeals for 'civic' economies in domestic consumption after people had been encouraged for years to consume more water in the pursuit of a middle-class ideal of cleanliness.

Where the implicit contract between suppliers and consumers broke down in times of drought, suppliers used powers at their disposal to try to compel consumer compliance. Hosepipe bans were not specified in primary legislation until the 1945 Water Act (Section 16), but since the nineteenth century suppliers' bye-laws have allowed for restrictions on hosepipes and other 'wasteful' uses during drought. The East London Company prosecuted consumers ignoring their hosepipe and sprinkler bans in the 1890s. Drought restrictions on car washing were first introduced in London in the 1929 drought.

After the Second World War, the problem of urban water again came to the fore. A series of droughts in the 1950s brought severe disruptions to water supply for industrial and domestic users, especially hitting the industrial north. Supplies to industry in ten Lancashire towns were suspended in the Irwell Valley Water Authority district in September 1959. 170,000 domestic consumers were prohibited from using washing machines or even baths, being advised to 'sponge down'. Concern began to focus on the long-term costs of aspirations for a continually rising standard of living. Alongside increased industrial and agricultural water use, there now appeared to be potential for open-ended expansion within the home, with the spread of washing machines and other appliances. This period saw the return of the nineteenth-century debate over the domestic water meter, as a way of curbing consumer behaviour by turning water into a priced commodity.

Droughts and other forms of disruption, then, have been a constant feature of modern life and endemic to the relationship between water providers and consumers. Consumers' routines and perceptions of entitlement have always played an active role in shaping how systems of supply operate and break down. Their behaviour during drought has been varied and unpredictable. What is rational for consumers has often been at odds with what is rational for providers. East End consumers in the 1890s left backyard taps open all night to catch the intermittent supply when it returned. The water company prosecuted for 'waste'. In London in 1921, while many consumers responded positively to economy appeals (with a 10% saving), some poor consumers stockpiled water as a precaution against shortage. In fact, in September 1929, amidst hosepipe bans and appeals for economy, consumption in London rose by 33%.

In general, who owns and manages water is probably less relevant for more or less sustainable water use than people's daily routines and their perceptions of entitlement. At times of drought and disruption, however, public perception of the legitimacy of supplier priorities is significantly affected by the context of ownership.

Droughts have been more politicised in private water-industry settings. Consumer protest in Yorkshire during the 1995 drought - the first following privatisation of the industry - was more intense than anything seen during nationalisation (1973-1989), despite the widespread drought restrictions and public standpipes that marked the 1976 drought. The relationship between Yorkshire Water and customers was so poor in 1995 that some declared they were deliberately turning on their taps to let them run.

Current drought reforms and the consumer

One of the lessons of 1995 was the need for greater understanding between providers and consumers in the new private industry, reflected in the prioritising of consumer cooperation in the 2006 'Beat the Drought' campaign, a partnership between the Environment Agency and South East Water companies. Supply-side interpretations of demand management have given way to a greater concern with understanding consumer behaviour.

An emphasis on maximising consumer consent by responding to public concerns also underlies both the current proposals for drought reform and the recent increased pressure on water companies to meet leakage and service standards. The 2006 drought was marked by public criticism of burst pipes, 'fat cat' profits, and Ofwat's failure to impose fines on major leakers. Last winter saw a series of heavy fines for poor service.

In recent years, the concern with drought has expanded in the light of potentially permanent water stress. If water providers today are increasingly recognising consumers as 'co-partners', they are now up against a historical dilemma. The success of campaigns to conserve water in short-term crises has not been matched by people's willingness to reduce consumption in the long term.

The current proposals, promoted by Defra and the Welsh Assembly, have two strands. The first concerns 'discretionary uses' and affects mostly domestic consumers. Under current legislation (the Water Industry Act, 1991, Section 76), hosepipe bans can be imposed on the watering of private gardens and washing of private cars. The government proposes to extend the list of restricted uses by hosepipe (and 'similar apparatus') to include, among other uses, filling private swimming pools, hot-tubs, paddling pools and ponds, washing private boats, and washing patios and driveways.

The second strand concerns the more extensive set of restrictions (under the Drought Direction 1991) affecting the 'non-essential uses' of commercial, as well as domestic, consumers. These currently limit the use of hosepipes (and 'similar') for watering gardens (other than market gardens), allotments, parks and sports grounds, filling swimming pools, cleaning windows, and operating automatic car washes.

The current proposals would uphold these existing restrictions, while transferring some to the 'discretionary use' category. Restrictions imposed under the 'Drought Direction' can be imposed only following a Drought Order, in the event of an 'exceptional shortage of rain'. 'Discretionary uses' can be restricted by water companies more flexibly.

Consultees' responses to the current proposals

In the consultation process for these reforms, the government has had to balance the complex demands of differentiated consumers. Of the 600 groups consulted last year, eighty responded, including water-consumer representatives, water companies, environmental bodies, groups representing commercial water users, recreational and sporting bodies, horticultural and agricultural groups, and individuals. While most welcomed the principle of reform, many expressed resistance to any curtailment of their own consumption. The consultation highlighted the ongoing challenge of reconciling the contrasting rationalities of consumers, providers and regulators both in times of drought and in the long-term.

Three areas of tension stood out. One concerned tensions between enforcement and voluntary economy. Most of the water companies in the 2007 consultation saw a need for more effective enforcement strategies in the event of persistent non-compliance; some proposed the introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. There are powers to prosecute, but legal proceedings are costly. 'Neighbour pressure' is seen as more effective than company inspections. In the 2006 drought (which saw savings of between 5% and 15% on normal levels), 4,200 customers were reported to Thames Water for using a hosepipe for cars and gardens. In an ICM poll in July 2006, however, 29% admitted breaking the hosepipe ban; 54% would 'turn a blind eye' if they saw someone else doing it. There were few prosecutions. Compliance generally followed warnings, and prosecutions run counter to a collaborative approach. Public consent and self-enforcement are crucial to providers' drought management strategy.

This is evident also in the water industry's discomfort with the language of compulsory restriction. Bournemouth and Hampshire Water suggested in 2007 that '[t]here is a general issue in the use of terms such as "ban", "restrict" or "prohibit" where customers do not like being told what to do, but may be more inclined to help with a positive and combined effort to avoid more serious supply problems'. Similarly, Water UK, the representative body for the water industry, suggested replacing 'negative' language with 'additional water conservation measures or similar' (which the government rejected in the interests of clarity).

Historically, water providers have used drought as an opportunity to press for greater demand-management powers, with varying degrees of success. The authorities have been reluctant to interfere in the private world of individual consumers. In the recent consultation, too, the government shows unwillingness to allow temporary drought restrictions to be converted into permanent solutions. It rejected Veolia Water's suggestion for the compulsory fitting of meters following persistent non-compliance, on the grounds that this was permanent rather than temporary change. To most people, water is still not a typical economic good. Domestic water charges in Britain have historically been linked to property rates rather than to the volume consumed. Water use is woven into routine practices around the home. The civilising contract has, in the past, preserved both the temporary status of enforced reductions and the ambiguous status of domestic water as an economic good.

A second tension concerned the heavy water dependency underpinning activities across a variety of different sectors - domestic, municipal, commercial, industrial, agricultural and horticultural. This has created on-going problems in categorising water-uses as 'essential', 'non-essential' or 'discretionary'. The government consultation documents clarify the nature of providers' supply obligations for 'domestic purposes', specified as 'drinking, washing, cooking, central heating or sanitary purposes', and for other household uses, drawn from an indoor tap 'without the use of a hose'. Consumers are reminded that the primary function of mains water is public health and hygiene. Although there is an 'aim' to meet all normal domestic demands, 'infrastructures are not designed to cope with unlimited demand', which would entail unacceptable consumer costs and environmental stress.

Many water user respondents, however, stressed the vital importance of their constant supply, seeking exemption from restrictions on grounds of health and safety, of the potential impacts on business costs, and of their increased vulnerability to competition from larger firms. The Association of Professional Water Cleaners pointed out that many businesses had paid large sums for water-fed poles allowing cleaners to work safely from the ground. Private swimming pools were highlighted by the Environment Minister last spring as a glaring omission from the hosepipe legislation, but the British Swimming Pool Federation rejected accusations of waste. It compared average consumption levels favourably with the daily bath, and highlighted the health and safety benefits of swimming and its role in the fight against obesity.

Thirdly, there were tensions across different sustainable consumption agendas. The Car Wash Campaign Group pointed to the 'environmentally safe and water efficient' nature of automatic car washes: restrictions would create a 'disincentive' to further investment. The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, and others growing their own food, highlighted contradictions in the government's approach. Home-grown food reduces the carbon foot print, it was argued, suggesting a more holistic modernising vision for a sustainable future.

The government's response

The government's October 2007 Summary response to the consultees has a two-pronged approach to appeals for exemption. First, the potential cost of drought is identified as a risk to be incorporated in the business plans of commercial users and small firms (and in the contingency plans of heavy private users). Second, water companies are encouraged to use concessions and the phasing-in of restrictions to reward greater water efficiency (and carbon efficiency in the case of allotments), and to recognise different degrees of consumer vulnerability. This business plan model of drought management recognises that drought is a normal, recurring feature of modern life that should shape consumer expectations. It has the potential to encourage innovation and permanent behaviour change on the part of larger water users.

However, the model also implies a high degree of predictability and there is still much uncertainty over the nature of future water scarcities. Although the government's drought proposals have been introduced in the context of permanent water stress in the future, the relationship between future droughts and permanent water stress is ambiguous. Climate change, it is said, may mean more frequent droughts, but not necessarily more frequent water restrictions.

The Drought Order - affecting commercial users, especially - offers more certainty to commercial than to domestic customers, as well as more incentive for permanent behaviour change. Water companies' drought plans offer some guidance: most anticipate drought-order applications once in forty years; some expect once in twenty years. Discretionary water restrictions - especially affecting domestic consumers - are imposed more frequently. Some expect hosepipe bans once in ten years; most, less frequently. In 2006, 13 million people across the south east were affected by hosepipe bans; only one Drought Order was in operation. Uncertainties reflect, to some extent, the inevitable open-endedness of the possible impacts of future scarcities: which consumers will be affected, where and how, will depend on the specific consumption strategies adopted in the future. Greater clarity is needed at this stage, however, because water stress presents a distinct set of challenges.

Implications of drought history for policy

Droughts have been a constant feature of modern life, irrespective of different systems of ownership. The proposed reforms are right to emphasise the importance of making drought contingencies and increased water efficiency a normal part of future plans.

There is a 'civilising contract' at the heart of the problem of water supply and drought. In the light of climate change, the re-negotiation of this contract is a necessary challenge for consumers, providers and regulators. While consumers will have to acknowledge limits to entitlement, the identification of ever-increasing water use as a positive feature of civilised life itself needs revision. Consumers and suppliers are both active in the two-way flow between supply and demand: consumers' routines and perceptions of entitlements have contributed to the operation and vulnerability of systems of provision.

While the experience of past droughts should inform discussions of future water stress and behaviour change, the two should be kept distinct. Climate change and water stress represent a new challenge for the civilising contract. Per capita water consumption is estimated to have risen around 1% a year since the 1930s, to a current level of 150 litres. Continued expansion is expected in the immediate future, both per capita and with increasing numbers of households, with particular implications for the water-stressed south east of England. If reduced consumption targets are seriously considered - a 10% reduction has recently been identified by Waterwise as both 'achievable and sustainable' - consumers will have to use significantly less water than they have they have in the past.

The history of droughts in the UK reveals a mismatch between consumers' drought-time economies and their unwillingness to reduce consumption in the long term. Ordinary consumption levels are related to routine practices and to technologies for washing, heating, cooking, drinking and gardening. These are embedded in complex, material systems of water provision. Creating a 'joined-up' approach to the challenge of permanent behaviour change goes beyond the business planning of individual firms and water company concessions: consumer routines and systems of provision require broad-based and fundamental revision. The current collaborative approach to understanding water-use practices, being pursued by policy-makers, regulators, and bodies such as UKWIR, the Consumer Council for Water and Waterwise is a recognition of this. Achieving connections between different sustainable consumption agendas adds to the complexity of this task.

There is a danger that distinctions between drought and water stress may be obscured by a generalised concept of water scarcity that limits debate over consumer entitlement. The prospect of increasing permanent water stress will exert pressure on voluntarist models of demand management. Future changes will have significant implications in terms of the re-definition of use, waste, consumer entitlement, water restrictions, and affordability.

The revaluation of water is underway. Policy-makers and water providers have begun to re-address the ambiguous status of water as an economic good, through the piecemeal introduction of domestic water meters - after 150 years of inconclusive meter debates. The category of 'waste' - like those of 'discretionary' and 'non-essential' - is likely to expand. Public debate is vital to this process of re-definition. If consumers need to acknowledge their active, historic role in expanding systems of water provision, they also need to be actively involved in the debate over what these systems and demand-management strategies will look like in the future. The history of consumers' practices and conflicts is a crucial component of this debate. Definitions of drought and scarcity, rational use, waste and consumer entitlement have always been, and must remain, fluid and open to political contestation.

The authors would like to thank the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (research grant RES-154-25-0022).

Further Reading

Bakker, K. 'Privatising water, producing scarcity: The Yorkshire drought of 1995', Economic Geography, 76 (1) (2000), pp. 4-27.

Defra and Welsh Assembly, Consultation on Proposed Changes to Powers to Restrict Non-Essential Uses of Water (23 March 2007).

Defra and Welsh Assembly, Summary of Reponses to the Consultation ... on Proposed Changes to Powers to Restrict Non-Essential Uses of Water (Oct. 2007).

The Defra documents and consumers' consultation responses are held at Defra Information Resource Centre, Lower Ground Floor, Ergon House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR defra.library@defra.gsi.gov.uk.

Defra, Future Water: The Government's Water Strategy for England (Feb. 2008) at www.defra.gov.uk/publications/2011/06/16/pb13562-future-water/.

Medd, W. and E. Shove, The Sociology of Water Use (London: UKWIR, 2007).

Taylor, V. and F. Trentmann, 'Liquid politics: water and the politics of everyday life in the modern city' (Nov. 2007), Working Paper No. 37 at http://www.consume.bbk.ac.uk/publications.html#workingpapers.

Trentmann, F. and V. Taylor, 'From user to consumer: water politics in nineteenth-century London', in F. Trentmann (ed.), The Making of the Consumer (Oxford/New York: Berg, 2006), pp. 53-79.


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