As businesses start to re-open after months of lockdown, we recognise that some of you will be facing a lot of uncertainty over their future. Part of this will be concerned with whether you can afford your water bill, especially if normal trading does not resume for some time.
It is understandable that during this difficult period, you may have been unaware of some of the measures in place to help certain businesses during the pandemic. As these are now starting to end, we wanted to provide you with some information on what took place, and also some help and guidance on what you can expect once you re-open.
As you will know, the government required certain types of businesses to close on 23 March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Following this, the industry regulator, Ofwat, introduced a change to ensure that affected businesses’ water charges would more accurately reflect the reduced level of water being used during the period of restrictions. This change allowed business premises to be marked as temporarily vacant, which meant that no estimated charges would be due. In addition, no ‘fixed charges’ (such as standing charges, or surface water/highways drainage charges) would be due either.
In order for a business to qualify as being ‘vacant’, the premises had to fall into either of the below categories:
- A business premises that had closed to the public, it’s workers, and visitors;
- A premises where the water usage has reduced by 95%.
If either of the above criteria are met, a business could be marked as vacant from 16 March to 31 July 2020. The 16 March marks the point that the public were first advised to avoid visiting non-essential places of business. It was therefore considered reasonable that water usage would have started reducing in line with a decrease in trade.
Your retailer is responsible for marking properties vacant. They should either have done this based on the property information they have on record, and/or contacting those customers they think may have closed.
From 31 July, retailers have a 2 month period to contact all businesses temporarily marked as vacant to determine whether they have re-opened, or had to close permanently. Excluding those that have closed down, all premises will automatically revert back to being ‘occupied’ by the end of September 2020. This means that usage and fixed charges will once again become due.
My business has re-opened. Does this mean I will start being charged from 31 July?
This will depend on when your retailer contacts you, or from when you are in a position to contact them. Once it has been established that you have re-opened, you will start being charged for your water usage, along with fixed charges as well. You may well be contacted before the 31 July if you are a business that has been given permission to re-open.
The key thing is to ensure that your charges reflect what you are using (this may be less than before the lockdown due to either less customers, or limited opening hours). We would advise trying to provide your retailer with regular meter reads so your bills are as accurate as possible.
Your retailer also needs to ensure you are billed accurately, so if it’s not always possible to take your own meter reads, you should ask them to do so. Your retailer is also obliged to offer you a payment plan up to 31 March 2021 if you are struggling to pay your bill as a result of Covid-19. You should visit their website for details on the schemes available, and how to apply.
My business is not allowed to re-open yet. Does this mean I will start being charged from 31 July?
Again, this will depend on when you are contacted by your retailer. Even though you are still closed, once it has been established that you have not permanently closed, charges may become due once again (this will include estimated usage, and fixed charges). However, as the decision not to re-open is outside your control, we would expect retailers to be understanding of your circumstances.
If you remain closed to the public and your staff, it’s likely you are not using any water. Where safe to do so, it would be advisable to submit regular meter reads to ensure your usage charges reflect this. If it is not possible to submit these yourself, you should ask your retailer to take reads instead.
You may find that your estimated charges are not reflective of what you are currently using. If it is not possible for either you or your retailer to take meter reads, you should ask for your retailer to assess your current situation, and produce a bill based on a more accurate estimate of your current usage.
Your retailer is also obliged to offer you a payment plan up to 31 March 2021 if you are struggling to pay your bill as a result of Covid-19. You should visit their website for details on the schemes available, and how to apply.
My business has had to close again due to a ‘local lockdown’. Can I be marked vacant again?
After 31 July, retailers will be unable to mark any properties as temporarily vacant. This means that you may continue to be charged for estimated usage, and fixed charges. However, we would expect your retailer to be taking into consideration your circumstances, which would include offering you a payment plan if you are struggling to pay.
As above, it would be advisable for either meter reads to be provided, or for your retailer to bill you based on a more accurate estimate.
If ‘local lockdowns’ become widespread, we are concerned at the impact this will have on business customers. In such a situation, we will be urging Ofwat to consider strengthening protections for people who have been forced to close again.
My retailer is billing me for water used while I was closed. Can they do this?
If you have used water, then your retailer is entitled to charge you for this. We agree that people should pay for what they use, but also recognise that during this difficult time, people may struggle to afford it.
Remember: your retailer must offer you a payment plan if you can show that your business has been affected by Covid-19.
If you think that the usage bill is too high compared to what you have used, you may have a leak. If the excess water has been recorded by the meter, it is likely that the leak is on pipework that you are responsible for. It would be advisable to arrange an any necessary repairs, and then inform your retailer as soon as possible. You may then be able to get a reduction in your bill, taking into account the excess water that was used.
My retailer is billing me for fixed charges for the period I was closed. Can they do this?
Retailers may wish to do this if they determine that you were incorrectly marked vacant. For example, they may have identified that despite being closed, you continued to use a normal amount of water (this would be shown by meter readings). In these cases, you may receive a bill for fixed charges backdated to 16 March 2020.
We are concerned about the impact that backdated fixed charges will have on customers. If you were not informed of being marked vacant, or had been previously assured that you would not be liable for these charges, you should challenge your retailer on this. In response, we would expect them to consider either reducing the charges, or allowing you more time to settle the amount.
If you think you were correctly marked vacant, you should try and provide evidence of this. The crucial point is whether your usage decreased significantly or not (meter readings are the easiest way to try and prove what your usage was). However, you should discuss the issue further with your retailer, who will advise what type of evidence they will consider.
I was charged for estimated usage, and fixed charges, while my business was closed. Why?
This will be because your retailer did not mark your premises as temporarily vacant, which would mean these charges would have continued applying.
If your business premises was closed to both the public and your staff, you were entitled to be marked as temporarily vacant. You should contact your retailer with evidence of this (for example, a website notification of your closure, and/or your latest meter reading) so they can correct their records. If the retailer accepts your evidence, they should cancel all the charges that applied between 16 March 2020 and the date you re-opened.
Your premises may have been closed, but staff were still using the water (e.g; for cleaning purposes). However, if the usage was significantly lower than your normal amount then you may meet the temporary vacancy criteria. The key evidence needed here will be your latest meter read, so this should be provided to your retailer as soon as possible. A fair assessment should then take place to see whether or not your usage decreased enough to warrant you being marked as vacant.
What help should my retailer provide me?
We would expect retailers to be providing clear information on their website, and in response to contact received from customers. This should include the following:
- An explanation of the temporary vacancy criteria, and the process used for determining who qualifies
- What charges will apply to you depending on your circumstances
- The type of evidence that you would need to provide to appeal a decision, and the timescale for a decision to be made.
If you are unhappy with how your retailer is handling your situation, you should put your concerns in writing to them, and follow their written complaints procedure. If the issue is still unresolved after that point, you are entitled to contact us, where we will review your case. If we feel there is a challenge we can make, we will do so on your behalf.