Utility Week

UTILITY Week 11th December

Utility Week - authoritative, impartial and essential reading for senior people within utilities, regulators and government

Issue link: https://fhpublishing.uberflip.com/i/613137

Contents of this Issue


Page 5 of 31

6 | 11TH - 17TH DECEMBER 2015 | UTILITY WEEK People & Opinion Help is out there for those who know to ask for it The most vulnerable customers are often the least likely to ask for help – because they don't know it's there or are too embarrassed to ask. Chief executive's view Tony Smith, Consumer Council for Water T he scale of debt facing many water customers was brought into sharp focus last week when Ofwat revealed the industry has failed to collect £2.2 billion in unpaid water bills. Our own research reinforces the size of the problem, with one in eight households currently saying they cannot afford their water bills. But these headline- grabbing figures only tell part of the story. Debt is a very obvious and visible sign of water poverty but it doesn't take into account the metered customers who will cut back on their water use – and other essential items like food and heating – in a desperate bid to avoid slipping into unmanage- able debt. This is the hidden side of water poverty which we can- not afford to ignore. That's why so much of CCWa- ter's work in recent years has focused on tackling affordability and pressing water companies to show a greater willingness to help customers struggling to pay. Our efforts and those of water companies have brought nota- ble successes with a big surge in eligible customers signing up to WaterSure and the launch of new support schemes like social tariffs to help low-income house- holds. Collectively this means there is now more assistance available to water customers than ever before, so why does affordability remain a significant problem? Lack of awareness remains one of the biggest obstacles, along with the perception among some customers that their water company will not, or cannot, help them with their bills. We know from our own research that when customers get into difficulty many will actually avoid contact with their water company due to feelings of hope- lessness or embarrassment, or because they fear any negotia- tions will only exacerbate their financial problems. Changing these negative perceptions will help to ensure more customers get access to the assistance they are entitled to. Of course, this is an enormous chal- lenge and one that will not hap- pen overnight. But we've been encouraged by the commitment shown by some water compa- nies in pursuing our recommen- dations to improve their direct communication with customers struggling to pay. In some cases that has meant having to make short-term concessions in order to establish a long-term rela- tionship with customers. Adopt- ing a more positive tone with customers in debt is also vitally important, through shiing the focus on what support is avail- able rather than the money that is owed. As well as direct communica- tion with customers, water com- panies need to use every channel at their disposal to promote cus- tomer assistance. This includes everything from social media campaigns with trusted advice agencies, to closer partnerships with frontline community groups such as foodbanks. Through these and other posi- tive changes we hope water com- panies will ultimately begin to re-frame their relationships with customers, so they are viewed as supportive allies in the battle to stay out of debt. "The Treasury wanted the flotation pulled because it feared that an American-led war against Iraq in early December would wreck western financial markets" Roger Barnard, former head of regulatory law at EDF, recalls the uncertainties of electricity privatisation. See p28

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of Utility Week - UTILITY Week 11th December