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24 June 2021

Turning the tide on water poverty

Professor of Energy Policy

Thursday 24 June • Viewing time: 1 minute

Our research is helping the water industry rebuild trust and reduce bills for struggling households.

Millions of us have missed the odd water bill at some stage in our lives. In fact, around 25% of water industry income is tied up in owed payments1.

But for some UK households, this is an ongoing problem. Water poverty is when people can’t afford to pay water bills, or use less water than they need to reduce their costs.

It’s linked to wider social and economic issues in the UK. One in five of us live in poverty, and there are 1.5 million destitute households in the country who can’t afford basic necessities2.

So how can the utilities sector help? As a Professor of energy policy, I’ve worked extensively with gas and electricity companies in England and Wales to help them engage struggling households with empathy, flexibility and good communication.

In 2016, I led similar research for the Consumer Council for Water (CCW). They commissioned me and my team at the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research to find ways for water company affordability schemes to reach the people who need them most — and put a stop to water poverty.

Hard to reach and vulnerable communities

Water suppliers run a background, monopoly service, so they have less engagement with their customers than other service providers like energy companies.

For the many vulnerable or ‘hard to reach’ households across the UK, this disconnect from suppliers of essential services is exacerbated by geography, social issues, confidence and language barriers. 

Our research found that water affordability schemes — such as initiatives to cap bills, spread costs or reduce debt — weren’t being taken up in these communities. 

One problem was communication. There was little awareness of the schemes, or meaningful two-way dialogue between water companies and their customers. 

Some of the service users we spoke to found water companies unapproachable. Often, they only contacted their providers at a moment of crisis, like when they called to contest a final demand. 

As you might imagine, this rarely led to a constructive conversation. The often anxious, angry or scared callers were not receptive to advice.

A more open, empathetic and proactive approach was needed to engage struggling customers. 

To find it, we looked to essential service sectors like health, social housing and energy, as well as charities like Citizens Advice.

water meter

Good communication and human interaction

Next time you get a letter from the water company, you might notice a bold message about help with water bills. This is an example of a communication technique called Making Every Contact Count (MECC). 

The NHS and Public Health England pioneered the use of MECC. It utilises the millions of day-to-day interactions service providers have with the general public to reiterate public health messages — say, how to stay active or quit smoking.

We drew inspiration from MECC in our recommendations to the water industry. Water companies send regular letters, texts and emails to their customers about everyday issues like drainage and service interruption — why not use these to promote affordability schemes too? 

We also suggested water companies reach out to their customers during ‘moments of change’. These are times in our lives when we might be more receptive to advice, like when moving house, having children or retiring.

To maximise responses and build trust, we recommended taking affordability schemes directly to communities. Doorstep conversations are sometimes the only way to build trust, rapport and get sign-ups in disengaged communities. 

Another recommendation was for the industry to build a more collaborative, joined-up relationship with community organisations, debt charities, food banks and local authorities — making it harder for people who might need help to fall through the cracks between service providers.

The industry standard

After publishing our report in 2016, we disseminated our research through a number of industry events, activities and workshops with users, providers and regulators. 

Now, all water companies in England and Wales have adopted our recommendations in full, as their baseline standards.

The results are clear. Between 2017-19, two million extra households took up affordability assistance. The savings totalled £212,000,000 to vulnerable households. Water company representatives can now be found in communities, at food banks and in close collaboration with other public service providers.

However, there’s still more to be done across the utilities sector. Since our 2016 project, we’ve conducted more research to help gas, electricity and water companies go further to engage hard to reach communities across the UK.

While we should all be mindful of how much fuel and water we use, no one should have to turn off their radiators, lights, taps and stoves because they can’t afford the bills. 

By taking the time to understand what vulnerable customers need and want from their providers, the utilities sector can end water and energy poverty.

Staff

Aimee Ambrose

Professor Aimee Ambrose

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About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Research partners

Citizens Advice

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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