‘Firm and flexible’ is the way forward on reducing water debt

Water companies show signs of improvement but the industry and other agencies need to work hard to get consumer debt under control, the water champion for England and Wales said today (Friday).

Figures published today by Ofwat show that in 2005-06 the industry billed just under £6 billion to its household customers. By the end of that year, 7.5 per cent remained unpaid. Meanwhile, £491 million of debt was more than 12 months old, an increase of 6.5% on the £461 million in 2004-05.

Dame Yve Buckland, Chair of the Consumer Council for Water, said: “The water industry, Government and consumers all have a role in keeping down debt. Today’s figures show a lower increase in debt than we feared, following last year’s sharp increase in bills, but the underlying problem is still huge. There is no room for hand-wringing – all agencies need to find better ways of reminding customers that they owe money, and how they can pay.

“Some water companies are leading the way, finding out about why some of their customers aren’t paying and making the right intervention at the right time. This means getting tougher on wilful non-payers while being more helpful and flexible with those who are struggling on low incomes – and prompting those who are just bad at budgeting.”

Dame Yve added: “One of the more radical proposals has been to introduce a trickle flow system for those customers who refuse to pay. Water companies are not yet ready for this, and must first know their customers better. Until water companies develop a robust way of distinguishing between those that won’t pay and those that can’t, it would not be right to introduce this type of water rationing.

“Meanwhile, consumers should not suffer in silence. If you find it hard to pay, contact your company as soon as you are aware of the problem. Companies can arrange flexible payment plans, or help to clear outstanding charges by taking deductions direct from benefits. Some will operate schemes to help consumers who have already fallen behind with their payments to catch up with and maintain regular payments in the future.”

Customers also have other limited, but useful options to soften the blow:

  • Consider transferring from rateable value charging to a meter (usually smaller households and/or those with a high rateable value will benefit);
  • If you already have a meter, look at ways of saving water without compromising on essential usage – water-saving measures include using a rain-collecting water butt in the garden, taking showers instead of baths, washing the car with a bucket and sponge rather than a hosepipe, and installing a water-saving device (known as a ‘hippo’) in your toilet cistern;
  • Apply for the vulnerable customer tariff, if appropriate. This tariff scheme assists metered customers receiving certain benefits who either have a large family or a medical condition requiring extra water usage;
  • If you are likely to struggle to pay the higher water bill from April, contact your water company – they may be able to offer flexible payment methods.

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