So much for the hosepipe ban: The sprinklers that keep the grass lush outside Parliament are still pumping out water... but from tomorrow the rest of us will face £1,000 fine for washing the patio

  • Neighbours urged to 'spy' and report hosepipe users. Offenders face £1,000 fine after a single 'yellow card' warning
  • Banned activities include washing the car, watering plants, cleaning windows and hosing down children on a hot day

With a strict hosepipe ban set to be introduced across southern Britain this week, you would imagine the nation's politicians would be keen to appear to be setting a good example.

But a powerful sprinkler was left pumping out gallons of water to keep the lawns outside Parliament looking lush and green, and not a single MP saw fit to nip down and turn off the tap. Meanwhile much of the country is preparing for the strictest hosepipe ban ever imposed.

A list of eleven activities banned in the 2010 Water Management Act includes using hosepipes to wash the car, water plants and clean windows; fill fountains, ponds and paddling pools and even hose down children on a hot day.

And that's where it gets confusing. Water companies are allowed to interpret the rules however they wish, meaning some activities are banned by one water company and allowed by another. Southern Water customers will be able to wash their cars with a hosepipe, but neighbours supplied by South East Water will not.

Those who flout the ban could be forced to pay a £1,000 fine, after being sent a single 'yellow card' warning in the post.

Water bunch of hypocrites: A sprinkler sprays the grass outside Parliament two days before a strict hosepipe ban is set to be introduced across Britain

Marston Reservoir near Tring in Hertfordshire is looking dry, dusty and parched, like most in the South

Signs of drought: The River Pang in Berkshire has run dry from Bucklebury to its source, seven miles upstream

Rain showers on Tuesday did little to alleviate drought conditions across Britain and seven water companies are going ahead with 'temporary use bans' which go into effect at midnight tonight - affecting 20 million people.

The water companies insist they have no plans to spy on users - instead they'll be relying on neighbours to report anyone they see using a hosepipe during the ban.

The temporary bans will affect 20million people in the South and East of England which is facing one of the worst droughts in a generation.

Rainfall totals for the month to date range from between just a quarter of that expected in an average March for the south west, to little more than 65 per cent of norms for East Anglia.

River levels have also continued to decrease to well below normal levels, according to the Environment Agency.

It is advising people to reuse bathwater and reduce time in the shower to help cope with the drought.

The severe water shortage has highlighted to growing divide between surpluses in the north of the country and deficits further south.

The stocks in Thruscross Reservoir, in North Yorkshire, are well within normal levels, yet just 50 miles away is the drought zone, with residents in Doncaster, Hull and Scarborough blighted by arid conditions.

The imbalance shows no sign of abating after yet another week with no rain amid a mini-heatwave that made for the sunniest March since 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash.

After two dry winters, reservoir levels are below normal across the country and in some cases extremely low. Swithland in Leicestershire is holding just 39.6 per cent of capacity, and Ogston in Derbyshire has plummeted to 53 per cent.

Reservoirs at Bewl in Kent and Ardingly in West Sussex have been urgently refilled from already-low rivers, but are still only up to 50 per cent.

It was a stark contrast to the scenes at Cow Green Reservoir, in County Durham, where excess water was blasting out of valve pipes.

And in north and west Cumbria, reservoir levels are holding a very healthy 99.6 per cent of capacity – after February floods deluged roads.

United Utilities drew up ambitious plans to lay a £2.6 billion water pipe alongside the proposed HS2 high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham and beyond to bring water from the North to the parched South.

The idea was first proposed in the early 1970s, but it was thought to be too fraught with logistical problems.

Dr Barnaby Smith of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology said: ‘There are issues to consider, as water has a different chemical composition in the North and the South which can affect the ecosystem.

But following privatisation and devolution it is now more important than ever that we have a water instability plan for the whole country.’

As Britain heads into the driest six months of the year, suppliers have warned restrictions are likely to last until October.

While forecasters have warned cold weather and even snow are on the way from tomorrow night, even weeks of rain wouldn’t be enough to remedy the drought conditions in the South and East.

With hosepipe bans forecast to become more common in future summers, experts say gardeners may have to change their strategy, replacing traditional English blooms with drought-resistant plants such as cacti.

One such garden has been created by the Royal Horticultural Society at Hyde Hall, Essex, one of the driest places in the UK.

It gets just 24 inches of rain a year, less than Jerusalem and Beirut – yet curator Ian Le Gros says it hasn’t needed a hosepipe or watering can for 11 years.

Meanwhile, more than a third of those living in drought-hit areas would shop a neighbour for breaking the hosepipe ban, a poll has found.

As the restrictions were set to begin at midnight tonight, 36 per cent said they would report those found cheating.

It comes as water companies unveiled a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy against cheats. Those caught persistently breaching the rules will be served with two official letters before being threatened with criminal proceedings.

Following two years of low rainfall, seven water companies in south and east England – where 20million live – have introduced restrictions which are likely to last all summer. The survey of 1,200 on the website follows water companies releasing an 11-point diktat of banned activities.

Using a hose or sprinkler is banned for watering plants, washing a car or boat, filling fountains, swimming pools or paddling pools, for recreational use or to clean patios, driveways or windows. Breaches are punishable with a £1,000 fine.

Allotments and public parks will be affected by the regulations although special dispensation has been made for rare plants in Kew Gardens in London and for ‘international sporting events’ to allow the Olympic sites to stay green.

However there was confusion last night as loopholes appeared for filling up ponds containing rare fish and washing patios and drives fouled by dogs.

The most recent major hosepipe ban in 2006 saw widespread accusations of cheating. Thousands were reported to water companies by their neighbours or served with ‘yellow card’ letters warning them to obey the law, but only one person was prosecuted.

Water, water everywhere: With water in short supply down South, up North it's a different story and there's too much for Thruscross Reservoir, in North Yorkshire

Water lot of water: At Cow Green Reservoir, in County Durham, the stocks are building up

While the South suffers, Leighton Reservoir, in North Yorkshire, is well-stocked with water

A Thames Water spokesman said: ‘We are relying on people understanding the need to save water, and having a quiet word with their neighbour if they are not doing so.

‘But if we do get confirmation that someone is breaching the ban there will be a letter, and if they persist they will be sent another letter warning that it is a criminal offence. It is three strikes and you’re out.’

Anglian Water has set up a hotline for reporting those who flout the ban and said those who are reported will be spoken to by a representative.

Sutton and East Surrey Water and South East Water have said offenders will receive letters or a visit from an inspector.

Hundreds of parents took to the website Mumsnet to compare notes about beating the ban.

One user planned to ‘fill the hot tub and get that up and running’ hours before restrictions began.

Dozens commented on a question about whether to fill children’s paddling pools now to use during the summer.

There's too much water for the reservoir at Scar House, in North Yorkshire, that is now near full capacity

One said: ‘You’ll have to be aware of idiotic neighbours who might decide to report you for using your own water – will the water people believe that you filled the pool months ago?’

A keen gardener wrote: ‘I have a large vegetable patch which is going to be a nightmare to water with watering cans. Watering vegetables is for food, it should be allowed!’

Some attacked water companies for failing to fix leaks, which lost 300million gallons a day last year.

Despite a surprise drizzly afternoon yesterday, the past two weeks have seen hardly any rainfall in the South and East, with this March being the sunniest on record.

Fifteen counties from the south-east coast up to Yorkshire are now officially in drought.

Levels of groundwater, which is needed to fill underground aquifers, are low at the majority of sites measured by the Environment Agency, and it is feared that the drought zone could extend further towards the South West by the summer.

Experts say that if there is  below-average rainfall again next winter, for the third year in a row,  the pressure on supplies could become desperate.

Professor Colin Green, an expert  in water economics at Middlesex  University, said that with increasing population pressure in the South East making droughts more likely, water companies may have to  introduce financial incentives to  make the public and businesses use less water.


Hosepipe ban threatens severe snack shortage

It's not just our cars, gardens and windows that will suffer because of the hosepipe ban, which goes into effect from midnight tonight.

Our snack foods are under attack too.

Crisp makers warn the drought is threatening a severe shortage.

One of Britain’s leading brands today predicted problems as water resources dwindled to record low levels.

Kettle Chips, who traditionally get more than 80 per cent of their potatoes from the fields of East Anglia, claim that there will be 'significant shortages' of supplies if the drought continues.

The firm’s managing director Dominic Lowe said: 'We need farmers to get priority for what water there is - gardens should come second to keeping the rural economy going.

'If there is no significant rainfall there will be a significant shortage of good potatoes and that will hurt everyone.'

The Potato Council which represents UK growers, said some of its members were facing 'very challenging times' and it was now issuing guidelines for growers on how to deal with a drought.

Brits crunch their way through an estimated six billion bags of crisps a year - and consumption rose by 5 per centlast year alone.

Anglian Water's four million customers will be subject to a hosepipe ban from midnight tonight.

It is the first such restriction for twenty years - and is backed by fines of up to £1,000 for anyone who breaks the ban.

A total of 20 million Brits will be affected.


Wall of water: A passer-by watches as a torrent cascades down from Thruscross Reservoir, in North Yorkshire

Sign of the times: Tankers queue up at Longnewton Reservoir, near Darlington in 1995, when water from reservoirs across the north of England was transported to restock drought hit reservoirs in the south of the country

Quite a difference: Bewl Water Reservoir looking full in 2006, even though a drought was supposed to be on

Dry spell: The restrictions on water use will continue until at least October in southern England and London as any rainfall from now on is unlikely to replenish reservoirs