The number of low-income households in England and Wales receiving financial help from their water company has almost doubled to more than 400,000 in the past year, according to the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater).
The water watchdog has welcomed the rise in support for cash-strapped customers but warned that it remains a drop in the ocean compared to the 3 million households that say their water bills are not affordable.
CCWater’s report Staying afloat: Addressing customer vulnerability in the water sector (2016/17) shows that more than 260,500 low-income bill payers have seen their water and sewerage charges slashed through social tariffs – up 93 per cent on the previous year. A further 141,000 households are also registered for the industry’s WaterSure scheme. This can cap the bills of low-income customers who have high essential water usage needs.
But the watchdog remains concerned that ongoing financial assistance with water bills is only available to around one in five customers who need it.
The consumer body has worked with the industry to boost awareness of customer-funded social tariffs but funding for some of these schemes has already dried up.
CCWater is now challenging water companies to find the additional money needed to reach a greater number of customers.
Andy White, Senior Policy Manager at the Consumer Council for Water, said: “Water companies have taken big strides towards helping more customers in financial hardship, but it’s still only scratching the surface.”
“No one should have to struggle to afford something that is so essential for them to live a healthy life. Water companies have the power to change this by dipping into their own pockets to increase the amount of support on offer.”
CCWater’s report also shows there has been a steady rise in the number of customers in vulnerable circumstances who have signed up for the wide range of additional support services that are available through water companies’ Priority Services Registers. These services might include extra help for customers when a water supply is interrupted or bills in large print, braille and audio formats.
Over the past five years the number of customers signed up to these registers has increased by nearly 40 per cent but CCWater remains concerned about the large regional variations in take-up. This suggests some water companies have a lot more to do to raise awareness of the extra support customers can tap into.