The principles of a good hardship fund

Woman at home calling a plumber about a leaking pipe in her sink

One of the Affordability Review’s actions was that funds which help customers who are struggling financially should have consistent operating principles. We worked with the sector at our Affordability Workshop and then with Water UK to develop the below principles:

  • The availability of a scheme should be readily accessible on water companies’ websites, in customer literature and targeted to relevant third party agencies
  • Schemes need to be flexible so they can match a person’s needs, for example, the timescale for the award process should be provided to ensure the urgency of the customer’s situation is recognised
  • Awards should offer help in other ways that are over and above* just helping with their water bills and arrears
  • The decision-making process for awards should be independent of the company (such as at a minimum, a Non-Executive Director being involved). The decision-making process should be transparent and easy to understand.

* We see “over and above” as paying for items such as white goods; bedding; essential cooking equipment; curtains; food and fuel vouchers; bankruptcy fees; debt relief orders; funeral costs; plumbing repairs.

Lower bills for using water efficiency interventions

close up of a large shower head sprinkling water

Thames Water wanted to see how much money people could save by using their water-saving home visits. They’ve discovered that long-term savings can be made by installing devices like water-saving shower heads. The people they can help the most use more than 500 litres of water per day on average. They discovered that terrace houses provided the greatest savings on their bills. Find out more about their findings on their website (pdf).

Highlighting financial support in Priority Services Register welcome packs

Wooden singpost with "help, support, advice, guidance" arrows against blue sky.Affinity Water looked at the effectiveness of adding information about financial support to its welcome to customers joining its Priority Service Register. A call to action ‘We may be able to lower your water bill’ was added to its communications. This directed customers to a trackable web link to measure effectiveness. The application process was simplified with multiple options to do so being offered, including through WhatsApp. The pilot based on e-mail was started in April 2021 and welcome letters added in October. About 15000 welcome packs were sent out by the end of the year which resulted in 678 visits to the webpage and 135 applications. The pilot has been adopted as business as usual by the company, which is now looks at how to improve the click-through rate. View the Affinity Water’s report here (pdf).

Clear line of sight – improving the visibility of financial support

South Staffs and Cambridge Water looked at improving communication with customers who could benefit from its help. This included showcasing the availability of support on bills and making sure customers had clear channels for contact as early as possible. It used a variety of methods to get its messages out to those sections of the community most likely to need help – from messaging on envelopes to a face-to-face hub. It found that segmenting customers and tailoring its approach to communicating with different groups was an important part of the success of the scheme – not only in getting financial support to those in need but also in improving the experience of customers. The company has adopted the innovations piloted as business as usual going forward.

The company also trialled an 8 week 100% bill discount for customers transferring onto Universal Credit through its Assured Assist scheme. Read the company’s presentation on its pilot (pdf)

Wessex Water’s simplified application process

Wessex Water have completed a pilot on seeking views on what people would find the easiest way to access support, and what type of language and imagery to use, so any application form is easy to understand and complete.

The research by Blue Marble has now been completed and from this, nine key principles have been created that the industry and others can use to create a simple application process. This insight can also be considered for the design of the single social tariff process.

The findings including the principles were shared with the industry and other organisations in a dissemination event held on 16 March 2022.

Envelopes deliver messages on support to customers’ homes

Welsh Water used carefully worded messages on its envelopes to highlight the availability of financial support to customers. The company took advice from partner agencies and considered how easy the messages were for customers to read. While this new approach hasn’t resulted in an immediate increase in contact about support schemes, the company view it as an important part of its wider engagement with customers. It believes that seeing messages multiple times might be necessary before they have an impact. Read Welsh Water’s- Promoting support to customers report (pdf).

Vulnerability Commitment

To deliver on our recommendation that “water companies should improve their understanding of their customers and the communities they serve, through research, engagement, and increased transparency” Water UK has committed to embedding inclusive service delivery. This will be demonstrated by companies:

  • All water companies achieving BS 18477 Inclusive Service Provision standard or BS ISO 22458 international standard for the design and delivery of inclusive services
  • Working collaboratively with other water and sewerage companies, consumer groups, charities and experts to share experiences, good practice, and innovative approaches to benefit all customers and communities
  • Making good progress in implementing the recommendations from CCW’s Affordability Review

This blog from Water UK outlines the commitment in full.