Posted June 10, 2021
Andy White, Senior Policy Manager at the Consumer Council for Water (CCW), discusses their new Independent review of water affordability and the action needed to tackle water poverty in England and Wales.
Mention the word ‘poverty’ in the UK and water is unlikely to be the first thing that springs to mind.
More often we might think of people’s struggles to feed themselves and their family or the bleak prospect of having to choose between heating or eating.
For a long time CCW has been acutely aware of the difficulties many people face in affording their water bill. As far back as 2014 our own research showed that some households were cutting back on other essentials in order to pay their water company. Missing meals or rationing water use were just some of the decisions customers were making to stay afloat. That’s despite the fact households cannot have their supply cut off for non-payment.
Ending the postcode lottery of support
It is not right that anyone should have to worry about affording something as essential as water. That’s why we were delighted to be asked last October by the UK and Welsh Governments to lead an independent review into the existing support for households struggling to afford their water bill.
CCW cast its net far and wide to capture the expertise and experience of organisations including the Money Advice Trust. We also commissioned a fresh wave of research exploring everything from the scale of water poverty and effectiveness of existing support to identifying the best ways to engage with the most hard to reach customers.
It revealed a patchwork of support across England and Wales. Huge variations in the funding and eligibility criteria of different water company social tariff schemes had created a postcode lottery of help. A family facing the same financial pressures might receive a bill discount of up to 90 per cent or nothing at all depending on where they live.
This lottery was compounded by other obstacles to help. Mental and emotional barriers – including people’s reluctance to confront their financial difficulties – a lack of trust in large utility companies and the complexity of some schemes were just a few of the hurdles that had be cleared to get support to the hardest to reach customers.
Creating a single social tariff to end water poverty
Our review came up with a series of recommendations which we believe can break down these barriers. Central to these would be the creation of a single social tariff for England and Wales. It would ensure no household spends more than 5 per cent of its income after housing costs on water bills. Introducing this tariff - which could be funded through a cross subsidy or public expenditure – would lift 1.5 million people out of water poverty.
But we want to go further.
We know there are also at least 3 million households across England and Wales that are only just about managing to pay their water bill. Through a raft of other recommendations, we could ensure these customers are caught before they fall into water poverty.
Many of these changes could happen almost immediately including giving customers far greater choice and flexibility over how they manage their payments. The adoption of an industry-wide approach to crisis funds and simplifying the application process that covers all support schemes would also improve access to help.
Breaking down barriers to help
We also want to see all water companies help to bolster existing affordability support. This could cover the cost of writing off bill charges during the Universal Credit application process or providing debt advice and income maximisation reviews to struggling customers.
In the longer term we want to help water companies develop ‘common branding’ for all the main support schemes to help bolster awareness and end confusion over assistance. We’ll also work with water companies to create a framework that will help them gain a better insight of the communities they serve, who might need help and how best to reach them.
Some pilot projects are already up and running with more in the pipeline. South Staffs and Cambridge Water is already trialling giving a 100% discount on water charges while customers applying for its social tariff await their first Universal Credit payment. In Wales, Welsh Water is testing out increasing the visibility of financial support on bills and the envelopes they come in.
As different schemes come on stream we’ll assess what is working well and share best practice across the industry.
What excites us is the prospect of not just ending water poverty but also giving millions of households greater peace of mind and one less thing to worry about - at a time when many of us are craving certainty.
Read our full report
“Andy White heads up the Social Policy team at the Consumer Council for Water (CCW), the statutory body which represents the interests of Water and Sewerage customers in England and Wales. He led CCW’s work to deliver the independent review of affordability support for the UK and Welsh Governments. The report and recommendations were published at the end of May 2021. View all posts from Andy White.