The submission of business plans for 2020-25 is a prime opportunity for water companies to show they’re listening to the issues customers care about, writes Steven Hobbs, Senior Policy Manager at the Consumer Council for Water.
On 3 September, water companies in England and Wales will submit their business plans for the 2020-25 period, giving customers their first insight into the shape of their bills – and how water companies plan to invest this money – in the coming five years.
While 3 September is by no means the end of the price review process – and business plans aren’t set in stone – their publication represents an important opportunity for companies to demonstrate that they’ve listened to customers and developed plans that fully reflect customer priorities for the years ahead.
Here at CCWater, we’re adamant that there should be a clear and obvious link between the issues customers have told water companies are important to them and water companies’ planned investments for the next price control period.
Most importantly, we want to see water companies making plans to invest in the areas of service that customers value most. The recent spell of hot weather has placed a spotlight on the issue of leakage, and our research tells us that consumers are much more willing to ‘do their bit’ to save water if they can see that their water company is also making an effort to cut leakage. Because of this, we want to see business plans that outline particularly ambitious long-term resilience improvements that not only significantly reduce leakage, but which also improve drinking water quality and reduce the risk of lengthy supply interruptions and sewer flooding in both the short and long term.
Price is, of course, a top concern for customers and a fundamental area where companies can really start to make a difference to customer satisfaction. Recently, our research showed that customer satisfaction with fairness and value for money has remained disappointingly static for seven years, with only six in ten customers agreeing that their water bills are fair. To help make a start in improving these perceptions, we want to see customer bills remaining the same or reducing over the 2020-25 period, with customers’ expectations of the service they receive clearly reflected in how companies intend to use customers’ money.
For those customers in challenging circumstances, we also want to see at least a doubling of the number of customers receiving meaningful financial assistance in the next price control period. While good progress has been made on social tariffs – with all water companies now offering them – 80% of customers who have affordability issues still do not receive assistance, showing that there is scope for tangible improvement from 2020.
One way in which companies will be able to prove they’ve listened to customers is by testing their plan against a representative selection of their customer base. We’ll be looking for a high level of customer acceptability – both of business plans and draft determinations later in the process – and you can read more about the importance of acceptability testing in my recent blog.
What’s clear is that September 3rd represents a milestone in the price review process, but it’s certainly not the end, and we’ll be watching closely to make sure those water companies whose plans do not meet customers’ needs take fast and decisive action to amend their plans and address the issues that matter most to customers.
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