About 1.5 million customers currently living in water poverty would have their bills made affordable under the proposals set out today (Wednesday) by the Consumer Council for Water (CCW), which has led an independent review into the affordability of water on behalf of the UK and Welsh governments.
As part of the review, Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) was commissioned by the CCW to evaluate approaches to affordability support across a range of essential services and assess their transferability to the water sector.
The research concluded that a greater level of consistency and coordination within the water sector between water companies and other essential service providers was needed to better meet the needs of vulnerable customers.
'We recommended a sector-wide vulnerability commitment'
They also found that inconsistency, in terms of eligibility, delivery and the nature of support offered, raises challenges for the exchange of good practice and presents a challenge to vulnerable customers trying to navigate this complex support landscape.
A previous review led by CRESR on behalf of CCW led to savings of over £250m for vulnerable water customers.
The latest review was led by Aimee Ambrose, Professor of Energy Policy at Sheffield Hallam University.
Prof Ambrose said: “CCW are to be applauded for their conscientious approach to affordability support, their concern for vulnerable customers and for looking to learn from other sectors such as energy, housing, health and advice organisations experienced in targeting affordability support at those who need it most.
“We recommended that the water sector move towards a sector-wide vulnerability commitment, similar to that seen in the energy sector; do more to diversify the make-up of those designing affordability support initiatives and associated communications and do more co-production with service users. We recommended that person-centred approaches to customers engagement are consistently adopted across the sector.”
CCW’s review found that five out of six customers who cannot afford their water bill were not receiving the help they need, despite a significant rise in water company support schemes over the past decade. That’s because some of these schemes remained hampered by insufficient funding and large regional variations in eligibility criteria – creating a ‘postcode lottery’ of help.
One of the key recommendations to overcome this would be the creation of a single social tariff for England and Wales that would ensure no-one ever has to spend more than five per cent of their income on water bills. This would end the patchwork of support provided by different water company schemes.
Golden opportunity to create a simpler and fairer system
Emma Clancy, Chief Executive of the Consumer Council for Water (CCW), said: “We have a golden opportunity to create a simpler and fairer system and end the indignity of people skipping meals or other essentials to pay their water bill.”
“Many people are craving certainty in these difficult times and these proposed changes would give millions of households one less thing to worry about and greater peace of mind – whatever the future holds.”
Rebecca Pow MP, Environment Minister for the UK Government, said: “We want to have a water sector that delivers for all and I’d like to thank CCW for their hard work to review the effectiveness of the existing schemes.”
“The review sets out practical recommendations to deliver on our levelling up agenda, exploring new ways of doing things that could help the most vulnerable customers. I look forward to considering these further and working with the sector to build a stronger, better and fairer water service for those who need it most.”
The report also recommends water companies take steps to develop a better understanding of their customers’ needs and raise awareness of the support they can offer.
The industry would be expected to continue to help fund a wider range of measures designed to prevent at least 3 million more households on the cusp of crisis slipping into water poverty. These would include giving water customers greater choice and control over how they pay their water bill using the latest technologies and providing more tailored financial help.
Companies would also be asked to write-off water charges while social tariff applicants are waiting for their first payment of Universal Credit and to offer long-term bill incentives for low-income households with relatively low water use to switch to a water meter.
Read the full report here.