COMPULSORY water meters could be installed in Buckinghamshire homes within three years in a bid to protect dwindling resources.

A consultation paper has set out plans that may allow water companies to force meters on people who live in areas with severe shortages.

Thames Water supplies water right across Buckinghamshire and the sector has been described as one of 11 serious water stress areas.

The Environment Agency based the level of the area on the availability of water, current and forecast demand and the population.

Trials have been held in Croydon and Bromley and, if successful, the company hopes to bring it into operation throughout its coverage area by 2010.

Hilary Bennett, press officer for Thames Water, said: "We feel that metering is the fairest way of supplying and billing people for water. You pay for what you use so by being on the meter there is more incentive for water efficiency.

"At this stage there are no plans to make meters compulsory."

Ofwat, the water regulator, has the authority to make meters compulsory, but has not decided to do so yet. Any plans will have to be agreed by the Secretary of State for the Environment.

The aim is to reduce water consumption by at least ten per cent, but some households might need to drop it by as much as 15 per cent.

A water meter works along the same lines as an electricity or gas meter, by recording all the water you use for drinking or washing.

In Britain last year the average unmetered bill was £149 compared to £126 for a metered bill. Only 28 per cent of households across the country are metered and the current target is for 45 per cent by 2015.

The south east's two-year water drought, the worst for 73 years, ended this month. The nine-month hosepipe ban was lifted earlier this month.