Couple sitting on sofa looking stressed over their bills

Proposals have been unveiled to end the postcode lottery of support for millions of households across England and Wales who are unable to afford their water bill and to improve access to wider help.

About 1.5 million customers currently living in water poverty would have their bills made affordable under the proposals set out today (Wednesday) by the Consumer Council for Water (CCW), which has led an independent review into the affordability of water on behalf of the UK and Welsh governments.

It’s just one of a number of proposed measures that would improve the lives of millions more households through making it easier for them to access help from their water company on everything from making payments and clearing debt to reducing their water consumption.

The review found that 5 out of 6 customers who cannot afford their water bill were not receiving the help they need, despite a significant rise in water company support schemes over the past decade. That’s because some of these schemes remained hampered by insufficient funding and large regional variations in eligibility criteria – creating a ‘postcode lottery’ of help.

One of the key recommendations to overcome this would be the creation of a single social tariff for England and Wales that would ensure no-one ever has to spend more than 5 per cent of their income – after housing costs – on water bills.1 This would end the patchwork of support provided by different water company schemes.

Emma Clancy, Chief Executive of the Consumer Council for Water (CCW), said:

We have a golden opportunity to create a simpler and fairer system and end the indignity of people skipping meals or other essentials to pay their water bill. Many people are craving certainty in these difficult times and these proposed changes would give millions of households one less thing to worry about and greater peace of mind – whatever the future holds.

Rebecca Pow MP, Environment Minister for the UK Government, said:

We want to have a water sector that delivers for all and I’d like to thank CCW for their hard work to review the effectiveness of the existing schemes. The review sets out practical recommendations to deliver on our levelling up agenda, exploring new ways of doing things that could help the most vulnerable customers. I look forward to considering these further and working with the sector to build a stronger, better and fairer water service for those who need it most.

Julie James, the Welsh Government’s new Minister for Climate Change, said:

I am grateful to CCW for undertaking this review. Ensuring access to fair and affordable water and sewerage services, for people and businesses, is an important factor in reducing poverty and this is the first step in a process of evaluating how we achieve this. I look forward to working closely with our stakeholders to consider the recommendations. The Welsh Government are committed to reducing the number of people who have water affordability issues – creating a stronger, greener, fairer Wales.

A single social tariff would ensure people received consistent and fair support based on their income and need – not where they live. Those that were eligible would benefit from an average bill reduction of £190. The scheme could be funded through public expenditure or a customer cross-subsidy.

The report also recommends water companies take steps to develop a better understanding of their customers’ needs and raise awareness of the support they can offer.

The industry would be expected to continue to help fund a wider range of measures designed to prevent at least 3 million more households on the cusp of crisis slipping into water poverty. These would include giving water customers greater choice and control over how they pay their water bill using the latest technologies and providing more tailored financial help.

Companies would also be asked to write-off water charges while social tariff applicants are waiting for their first payment of Universal Credit and to offer long-term bill incentives for low-income households with relatively low water use to switch to a water meter.

Many of the recommendations in the report could be rolled out immediately with the support of water companies and a number of pilot schemes are already in the pipeline.


1 In line with common approaches the review defined those in water poverty as spending more than 5 per cent of their income (after housing costs) on water bills.

The independent review was supported by new research from a number of sources including Sheffield Hallam University Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, DJS Research and Yonder.

CCW – the voice for water consumers

We are the independent voice for all water and sewerage consumers across England and Wales. Our work includes providing advice and information on water matters and investigating complaints if water customers have tried and failed to resolve issues with their water companies and retailers.

Up until January 2020 we were known as the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) but we were relaunched as CCW – the voice for water consumers – in February 2020.

Over the past 15 years we have supported consumers with more than 400,000 complaints and enquiries and helped to return more than £30 million in financial redress to aggrieved household and business customers.

We provide a strong and influential voice for consumers by keeping a close eye on and scrutinising the performance of water companies, retailers and the regulator Ofwat. Our research, expertise and insights also help us to ensure the views and interests of consumers remain at the heart of the industry’s price-setting process.

Download Independent review of water affordability (pdf – 10 MB)