The water industry has had a torrid time lately. Multi-million-pound fines for leaks and poor maintenance.
The utter failure to invest in the underlying structure of the industry – like maybe building a reservoir or two. And of course, something VERY nasty spilling in to our rivers and seas. Public anger has been building steadily throughout the year and it’s safe to say our views of the sector have never been lower.
Yet we are stuck in a relationship that we just can’t leave with water companies. Conversely that means complaint levels are not as high as you might expect to see in comparison to other utility sectors. When I speak to people about problems with water bills and services, I’m often told that there’s ‘no point’ in complaining, or ‘it’s hard to know where to go and what your rights are’.
Those complaint numbers are expected to rocket though in the coming months. As an exclusive investigation in the Times/Sunday Times has revealed, some water companies have been aggressively ‘encouraging’ people to take out smart water meters. These meters will more accurately measure your water consumption which will mean some bills will go down – while others will increase, some considerably so.
While some firms have been granted the powers to compel people to have the meters, this whole process has been shrouded in mystery – despite the fact it could lead to much higher bills for many families struggling during the cost-of-living crisis.
So what are your rights if you need to make a complaint about your water company? Here’s my guide.
Do you have to have a smart water meter?
This April, water bills didn’t increase at quite the same rate as much as inflation, but the average rise in bills was still around 7.5%. Because we’re stuck with our water supplier, most people have two options when it comes to saving money on bills. Reducing your water consumption and/or agreeing to have a smart water meter fitted.
Having a water meter installed could actually save you some money, though many people have contacted me to say that they have ended up paying much higher bills.
Water bills are traditionally estimated based on the ‘rateable’ value of the property in most parts of the UK (but not in Northern Ireland where this form of water billing doesn’t apply). What this means is the size or value of your property affects how your bill is estimated. So if you have a small flat and only you live in it, then a meter may save you hundreds of pounds. If you’ve got a big family, a garden and the washing machine is always going, you could end up paying more.
If you are considering getting a water meter fitted, the Consumer Council for Water (CCW) have a free calculator here – though your local provider may have a one that factors in a few more things relevant to your local area.
Scottish Water also has a water calculator that you can use to see if you’d save some cash. Getting a meter fitted is free but sadly you have to pay the cost of fitting it, unlike in the rest of the UK. You can find out what that cost might be here
Can my water company force me to have a meter fitted?
In the past, water meters were optional. But as the Times/Sunday Times investigation found, a few companies have been given the power to ‘compel’ people to have water meters fitted. This can only happen in ‘water stressed’ areas and permission to do this has only been formally granted to six companies.
However, if a water company tells you that you have to have a meter fitted, don’t assume that’s the case. I’ve heard unconfirmed reports that people in non-water stressed areas have been incorrectly told they have to have meters fitted. You can find out more about the areas where there are compulsory water meter fittings here [link to article]
People struggling to make ends meet are understandably concerned about yet another bill increasing. So can you refuse to have a water meter? Sadly, if you live in an area served by of the seven water companies who have been given permission to compulsory fit meters, then no. However, fitting everyone with a water meter is a massive job – so there’s no reason why yours has to be done first. I’d contact the business and ask them if they can fit your meter at the end of the process when – hopefully – the cost-of-living crisis has eased.
This is also a good time to ask the business about their support services for people who are struggling financially.
Compensation for poor service
You could be entitled to compensation automatically if your water supply is interrupted. Under regulator Ofwat’s guaranteed standards scheme, water companies must ensure that water pressure is right, appointments to fix issues are kept and ultimately deal with supply interruptions. This applies in England and Wales
Some compensation is paid to you automatically, meaning you’ll either receive a payment directly or a credit on your water bill. Don’t assume though – lots of people tell me they haven’t been auto-compensated. For other situations, you may have to make a claim.
In Scotland, Scottish Water has a consumer charter that lists the compensation payable under a range of circumstances. In Northern Ireland, there is no automatic compensation as domestic customers do not pay water rates.
If money is tight then potentially being cut off from an essential service like water can be a real worry. There are lots of options though, but the golden rule, as always, is act sooner rather than later.
If you are in receipt of benefits or have a low income you can get potentially discounts on your water bill. You’ll need to speak to the water company and give them details about your income and circumstances. They should also come up with sensible payment plans to help you get out of a sticky financial situation too.
In fact there are loads of really useful schemes available for people struggling with water bills. Just ask – you may even get support or a grant from a charitable organisation.
WaterSure is a special scheme designed to help people with financial difficulties keep on top of their bills. You’ll need to be receiving certain benefits to qualify, or need to use more water than usual due to a medical condition or a large family.
The scheme caps the amount of money you have to pay so it can be a really effective way to reduce bills even with a smart water meter. You apply through your water company by filling out a form on their website. Citizens Advice has a great overview of the scheme here
Taking things further
If you’ve made a complaint to your water company but you aren’t happy with the response, you can take your complaint to the free Consumer Council for Water. The CCW is kind of like an ombudsman or mediation service for problems with the water the industry. They also have a wealth of advice and guidance about water consumption, compensation and support on their website
If you are still unhappy, the Water Redress Scheme (WATS) is the official alternative dispute resolution scheme for the industry. You can make a complaint to WATS here
Reducing water consumption
Everyone loves a freebie and most water companies offer some handy gadgets to help you with your water consumption. You may have to pay for some after claiming the first ones free but it’s worth considering all the options. These include shower nozzles that help reduce flow (the same for taps and hoses too). These can be surprisingly effective. Type ‘water saving’ into your water provider’s website.
Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James