The North West has one of the largest populations of economically deprived households in the country (as measured by the Government’s Indices of Multiple Deprivation), and higher than average unemployment.
Low average incomes, combined with the recent impact of the Government’s welfare reforms, mean that a sizeable number of customers in our region have found paying their water bills more difficult this past year. For example, we have seen an increasing number of customers spreading their payments or going on extended payment plans, as household budgets have become tighter.
We don’t want to leave our customers struggling, especially when there is a genuine desire to pay, and over the past 12 months have continued to improve and expand our package of assistance for customers in financial difficulty.
We have a range of tailored schemes to ease the financial burden, and a dedicated outreach worker to raise customer awareness of the support available.
2013/14 saw us help even more customers than in previous years, through the following initiatives:
The United Utilities Trust Fund: managed by independent trustees, this fund provides grants for those customers who are in severe financial hardship, allowing them to get back on an even footing. The initiative, funded partly by our company, and partly by contribution from customers through their water bills, has an annual budget to allocate of £5 million - swelled to £7 million in 2013/14 through an extra £2 million contribution by United Utilities. Our evidence shows that 70 per cent of customers helped through the Trust Fund continue to pay their bills 12 months later.
The Arrears Allowance Scheme: an opportunity for customers to clear their water bill debts more quickly. For the first six months of the scheme, for every £1 that a customer contributes to their debt, we also put in £1. After six months, we match every £1 paid with a £2 contribution, until the arrears are cleared. Currently over 8,800 customers are benefiting from this scheme.
The Support Tariff: a means-tested tariff promoted in conjunction with debt advice agencies in our region. Currently run on a trial basis, there are almost 4,000 customers benefiting from this tariff. To qualify, customers must be in receipt of a means tested benefit, be in arrears and must live in rented accommodation (it’s harder for us to collect bill income from non-payers in rented properties – hence our focus on this sector). Customers are then allocated to one of six bands of the tariff, based on their level of household income.
WaterSure: a financial support scheme designed for customers with water meters who receive benefits and also have a family member with a medical condition that requires the use of large amounts of water. There are currently over 6,000 customers on this tariff.
Local Authority Discount Tariff: we have several collection agreements in place with local authorities and housing associations in the region. For tenants who pay their bills via this method, we provide a £10 reduction in their annual bills to reflect the lower administration costs of these arrangements.
PayPlan Referral pilot scheme: we have launched a pilot with PayPlan, one of the UK’s largest free money advice providers. We recognise that customers who face debt and affordability issues for water charges are highly likely to face them for other creditors also. Under the pilot, we are supporting customers to get help for all their debts by introducing them to the support mechanisms that PayPlan provide.
If you would like to send us a comment about this report, please email our Head of Sustainability, Chris Matthews