Water for all: Meeting the needs of customers in vulnerable circumstances

Water is an essential service – it should be affordable to all customers and delivered in a way which meets everyone’s needs, whatever their circumstances. Our Senior Policy Manager Andy White considers what our latest report on companies’ performance on affordability and vulnerability support reveals about the progress they have achieved in meeting those needs.

Bills we can all afford

About 1 in 9 households tell us their water bills are not affordable. It’s vital that companies not only have a range of schemes available to help these customers, but also improve awareness of this support to ensure that those that need it most don’t miss out.

One way they can help is by offering discounted or capped bills. Companies have been growing the number of customers registered for such support rapidly in recent years. We’re pleased to be able to report a further increase of more than 50 per cent in the number of households being supported by social tariff schemes. More than half a million low-income customers are now receiving lower bills through water companies’ financial assistance schemes.

Companies have made good progress in implementing recommendations from our work to identify good practice in getting help to those who need it. However, there is still more they can do to ensure they are seen as a source of help in times of financial difficulty. More than a quarter of customers tell us they would be unlikely to contact their water company if they were worried about a bill.

Companies must also find ways to expand their financial support. Social tariff schemes are largely funded by customers, so are constrained by what others are willing to contribute through their bills. We estimate that the current schemes might only be able to support around a quarter of those who need help. We want companies to bridge the gap by dipping into their own profits.

Help when life catches us off guard

Most companies are also making good progress in increasing the number of customers signed up to Priority Services Registers. These allow vulnerable customers to access additional services tailored to meet their needs due to disability or other specific circumstances. Nearly 345,000 customers are currently registered for extra help – up 37 per cent since 2013/14 – but these registers are only part of the solution.

We want companies to focus more on improving support for customers who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves in vulnerable circumstances, for example, due to illness or bereavement. Our research following March’s freezing weather and sudden thaw showed that in the worst-affected areas, 93 per cent of customers who identified themselves as vulnerable did not get any additional support.

We hope the recent publication of our guide ‘Vulnerability in the water sector’ (pdf), which includes examples of good practice, will help to inspire companies to meet this challenge.

Download our latest report, Water for All: Affordability and Vulnerability in the water sector 2017-18 (pdf).

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