Large areas of south-east and central England were declared in drought as Caroline Spelman, environment secretary, warned households to expect early restrictions on water use, including hosepipe bans in the worst-affected areas.

Speaking after a drought summit at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Monday, Ms Spelman said Met Office forecasts suggest the prolonged periods of heavy rainfall needed to alleviate drought conditions across large parts of England were unlikely to occur.

“Drought is already an issue this year with the south-east, [East] Anglia and other parts of the UK now officially in drought, and more areas are likely to be affected as we continue to experience a prolonged period of very low rainfall,” she said, following the meeting with water company and farming industry leaders.

The minister urged all water users to “use less water and to start now”.

Her remarks came as the Environment Agency extended its list of areas officially in drought across much of south-east England. The eastern counties of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, as well as parts of Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and west Norfolk, were declared to be in drought last June.

Peter Simpson, managing director of Anglian Water, said the drought was “close to the situation in 1976”. Then, Britain’s worst drought in living memory led to widespread water rationing and public standpipes.

Water companies on Monday agreed to co-ordinate restrictions on water use, such as hosepipe bans, from an early stage in the spring, according to the government department.

Low water levels and restrictions on water abstraction for agriculture set by the Environment Agency also threaten levels of permitted crop irrigation and output by farmers this summer.

Farmers are being encouraged to consider on-farm storage while the Environment Agency is aiming to issue early advice on the likely risk of restrictions on spray irrigation and wider irrigation bans should dry conditions persist.

The National Farmers’ Union has called for changes in regulations to allow for the building of larger reservoirs by farmers to deal with future drought threats, as well as asking water companies to produce emergency plans for supplying drinking water for livestock, particularly pigs and poultry.

Following the summit, the Country Land and Business Association said farmers should have priority over water resources to prevent food shortages.

Harry Cotterell, CLBA president, said: “Agriculture is under incredible pressure as a result of the lack of rain through the winter. Other sectors have statutory powers and priority over agriculture, but to ensure food and environmental security it is vital we are given our fair share of water.”

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