More than half a million low-income households are now receiving financial help to reduce their water bills, according to the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater).
But the Water Watchdog has warned that about three-quarters of nearly 3 million customers who say their water bills are unaffordable will not receive a penny of support unless water companies dip into their own pockets to bolster assistance schemes.
CCWater’s new report – Water for all: affordability and vulnerability in the water sector 2017/18 – shows that good progress was made by the industry last year in increasing the number of households in vulnerable circumstances receiving support with their bills or other specific needs.
This included just over a 50 per cent rise in the number of people on a low income receiving subsidised water bills through customer-funded social tariffs. But the growth and impact of these schemes remains heavily constrained by other customers’ willingness to fund them.
That’s why CCWater has repeated its call for water companies to pour some of their own profits into the schemes to ensure they have the potential to reach more than just a quarter of households who say their bills are unaffordable. Some companies are already leading the way in this regard by re-investing into social tariffs or other assistance schemes.
Andy White, Senior Policy Manager of the Consumer Council for Water, said: “Our lives depend on water so none of us should have to worry about whether we can afford it – but for nearly 3 million households it’s a serious concern.”
“We are calling on water companies to bridge the gap by dipping into their own pockets to expand the support available, rather than exhausting the goodwill of their customers. People are far more willing to chip in when they see their water company playing its part.”
CCWater is also urging companies to work together to address the significant regional variations which mean customers’ access and levels of assistance are largely dependent on where they live. The watchdog wants to see a more uniform approach which would help to simplify the system and offer protection to those that are most financially vulnerable.
The report also shines a light on the good progress being made by many companies in increasing the number of customers signed up to Priority Services Registers. These allow customers to access additional services tailored to meet their needs due to a disability or other specific circumstances. Nearly 345,000 customers are currently registered for extra help, up 37 per cent since 2013/14.
However, the lack of support provided to many customers who needed additional help when freezing temperatures disrupted water supplies in March this year exposed some water companies’ failings. CCWater wants companies to focus more on improving their support for customers who suddenly need extra help due to unexpected events, including bereavement or illness. Earlier this month the watchdog published new guidance to try and help the industry meet this challenge.