Farmers and water bills: time to charge ahead for accurate billing

Paul Hammett, the NFU’s National Water Resources Specialist

Paul Hammett, the NFU’s National Water Resources Specialist, discusses the impact the retail water market has had on farmers’ bills – and how they can avoid falling foul of inaccurate wastewater charges.

“At the NFU we have again been reminding livestock farmers to carefully check their water and wastewater bills, particularly where they have livestock drinking troughs.

Indeed we advise all non-household customers of water and wastewater services to check the accuracy of their bills wherever a significant amount of the water used on site doesn’t end up in the sewer.

That’s because where a water supply does not have an associated sewerage connection – like, for example, a cattle drinking trough – then sewerage charges should not apply.

In practice, the charging process has always been complicated because only some water used on the farm will be eligible for this ‘non return to sewer’ (NRTS) allowance. Water is essential on the farm for many more activities than livestock drinking.

Before the retail market opened, different water companies followed different procedures for making allowances where there is no sewerage connection. Some companies offered farmers a fixed percentage allowance based on historic water use, while others asked customers to install a sub-meter to accurately record NRTS use.

This charging system is well established and, while hardly perfect for all customers, has proved broadly problem-free for many years.”

So what’s the beef with livestock farmers now?

Since April 2017 farmers and other non-household customers no longer deal with their water and wastewater company (now known as their wholesaler). Instead, billing services are provided by a new tier of companies called retailers.

To add a bit of extra confusion, the retailer might share a similar name or logo with the original water company – even though it is an entirely separate entity.

The problem is that the data on which bills are based are passed from the wholesaler to the retailer to raise an invoice, and there are numerous cases where the transfer of that data has not been as robust as it should have been.

Some information about sewerage connections and historical NRTS allowances failed to migrate during the transition from water companies to retailers. As a result, inaccurate bills are arriving on farms because allowances have changed or disappeared all together. 

What can customers do?

Customers should regularly check their bills to ensure they only pay for the services they receive.

Compare the bills over the past few years to see if any unexpected charges have been applied. An old bill can be used as evidence when asking the retailer to adjust the charges.

Even if no invoice anomalies are spotted, customers should check they are receiving an allowance consistent with current NRTS policy.

Also think about rainwater drainage on the site. If rainwater goes to ground or natural watercourses rather than to the public sewer, a surface water drainage rebate could apply.

What about fixing the system failure?

The NFU and CCW are working together to resolve these problems proactively.

We do this by alerting retailers and wholesalers, as well as the water regulator Ofwat, to try to resolve issues of principle as well as individual cases.

By rebuilding direct access with wholesalers as well as retailers, we hope to fix multiple NRTS problems at once – there are still billing errors out on farms waiting to be found!