In recent years, the Trust has reported significant increases in the number of people falling behind with utilities and other household bills. In a guest blog, Andrew White, Senior Policy Manager at the Consumer Council for Water, outlines some of the ways in which the water sector is responding to the challenges of affordability.
Whilst fuel poverty has continued to grab many headlines, a quiet revolution has been taking place in the water sector. Over the last few years the Consumer Council for Water has been working with water companies to ensure that more help is available than ever before for the 1 in 8 customers who tell us that their water and sewerage bill is not affordable.
By April this year all water and sewerage companies in England and Wales will have introduced social tariffs, which can reduce the water bills of certain customers who might otherwise struggle to pay. The tariffs in place have already helped about 200,000 low-income customers and are just part of a range of assistance schemes offered by water companies. These include debt allowance schemes, trust funds and WaterSure which caps the bills of lower income metered customers who have high essential water use needs.
However, whilst more help is available than ever before, customer awareness of that support remains too low. Customers simply don’t expect to receive help from their water company when they encounter financial difficulties. Following on from our ‘Living with Water Poverty (2014)’ research we have been pressing companies to re-frame their relationship with customers. They need to be seen as a source of help in times of financial difficulty. Our recommendations included partnering with trusted third parties and the advice sector to promote the availability of help and identify those who need it most.
The Consumer Council for Water has also raised its game to boost awareness of the support that is available. We have strengthened our links with other advice agencies, stepped up our social media activity and we now also offer a range of tools on our website to make it easier for customers or their advisers to identify what help is available. For some customers the most effective way to cut their bill is by switching to a water meter, although this isn’t the best choice for everyone. Our Water Meter Calculator helps customers work out if they might save money by having a free meter installed. Our Social Tariffs Guide helps customers navigate the various schemes which are available from companies and identify if they are likely to be eligible for a lower bill. We have also partnered with debt relief charity Turn2US (who also link to National Debtline’s My Money Steps) to host its Benefits Calculator and Grants Search tool on our website, enabling water customers to identify opportunities to boost their income. During the past year water consumers have identified eligibility to annual means-tested benefits amounting to more than £3.25 million, through using the calculator.
Last year we also worked with Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research to look at activity across utility sectors and advise what more water companies can do to deliver support to their customers. The report identified good practice in the water sector, but also pointed to other opportunities including:
- The development of links to the health-based Make Every Contact Count (MECC) agenda and adoption of MECC principles when engaging with customers.
- Situating water affordability within more holistic debt advice approaches.
- Taking advantage of ‘moments of change’ within customers’ lives to embed messages around affordability assistance.
We’re continuing to work with the water industry and other agencies to take these recommendations forward and help ensure the support which is now available reaches those who need it. If you’d like to know more about our work in the water sector we would love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact me Andrew.White@ccwater.org.uk