Sussex's water supply is under “serious stress”, with the Government now urging firms to adopt compulsory metering.

Both Southern Water and South East Water have been identified by the Environment Agency as covering drought-prone areas, with more than a quarter of reservoirs, lakes and rivers short of water.

Ministers have now ordered the firms, which cover Sussex, to consider compulsory metering in all the homes they serve.

Water companies argue the equipment is the fairest way of charging customers, but some users claim the new approach is being used as a “cash cow”.

A report by the Consumer Council for Water, a water industry watchdog, revealed some customers thought Southern Water’s meters are a money-making scheme for water companies.

Southern Water customers had been “surprised” to see their bills increase and families complained of “a blatant rip-off” when meters were installed, according to the report.

Some customers also believe they had been mislead by the advertising of the water meters, and one family said: “I think the whole change by Southern Water into the metering system is for the benefit of the shareholders rather than the benefit of the planet and rather than for the benefit of people living in this country.”

But the complaints have been rejected by water companies.

A Southern Water spokesman said: “Ofwat the industry regulator controls the amount of money we receive and any change we want to make to our bills.

“We simply are not allowed to make more money from water metering.”

Southern Water’s chief customer officer Darren Bentham told The Argus: “We, like the majority of our customers, believe that paying for the water you use is the fairest way to charge. In addition, metering puts our customers in control of their bills.”

Southern Water started a five-year programme to install nearly 500,000 meters in 2010, of which nearly 300,000 are in homes.

Southern Water hopes to have most customers using a water meter by 2015 and South East Water has set itself a target of 2020.

Some 60% of Southern Water customers who have subsequently received a metered bill have experienced a reduction of about £12 a month, whereas 40% have seen their bills go up by an average of about £14 a month.

Mr Bentham added: “Although the majority of households in our region are benefiting financially from a meter, we understand this isn’t the case for everyone.

“For those whose bills go up or who are in financial hardship we offer a range of help schemes to make payments more affordable.”

Charles Healey, South East Water metering manager, said: “We also believe metering is a fairer way for customers to pay for their water as they only pay for what they use.”

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