Common Descriptors for financial support schemes

At a time when more people are searching for help with bills, water companies have agreed a suite of common descriptors for the financial support schemes they offer. Debt advice agencies asked for this when responding to our affordability review call for evidence as the many different names of schemes made it difficult for them find the help for their clients.  Research also showed that people wanted the wording to be short, literal and descriptive so they too can easily find and understand what support they can get.

The common descriptors are:

Type of scheme Common descriptor
Support scheme for older people Low income pensioner discount
Support schemes to help with debt Debt support
Reduced or stopped payments for a limited period Payment break
Support schemes that cap bills e.g. WaterSure Bill Cap – WaterSure
Hardship Funds Financial Hardship Fund

Vulnerability Commitment

To deliver on our recommendation that “water companies should improve their understanding of their customers and the communities they serve, through research, engagement, and increased transparency” Water UK has committed to embedding inclusive service delivery. This will be demonstrated by companies:

  • All water companies achieving BS 18477 Inclusive Service Provision standard or BS ISO 22458 international standard for the design and delivery of inclusive services
  • Working collaboratively with other water and sewerage companies, consumer groups, charities and experts to share experiences, good practice, and innovative approaches to benefit all customers and communities
  • Making good progress in implementing the recommendations from CCW’s Affordability Review

This blog from Water UK outlines the commitment in full.

Clear line of sight – improving the visibility of financial support

South Staffs and Cambridge Water looked at improving communication with customers who could benefit from its help. This included showcasing the availability of support on bills and making sure customers had clear channels for contact as early as possible. It used a variety of methods to get its messages out to those sections of the community most likely to need help – from messaging on envelopes to a face-to-face hub. It found that segmenting customers and tailoring its approach to communicating with different groups was an important part of the success of the scheme – not only in getting financial support to those in need but also in improving the experience of customers. The company has adopted the innovations piloted as business as usual going forward.

The company also trialled an 8 week 100% bill discount for customers transferring onto Universal Credit through its Assured Assist scheme.  Read the company’s presentation on its pilot (pdf)

The principles of a good hardship fund

One of the Affordability Review’s actions was that funds which help customers who are struggling financially should have consistent operating principles. We worked with the sector at our Affordability Workshop and then with Water UK to develop the below principles:

  • The availability of a scheme should be readily accessible on water companies’ websites, in customer literature and targeted to relevant third party agencies
  • Schemes need to be flexible so they can match a person’s needs, for example, the timescale for the award process should be provided to ensure the urgency of the customer’s situation is recognised
  • Awards should offer help in other ways that are over and above* just helping with their water bills and arrears
  • The decision-making process for awards should be independent of the company (such as at a minimum, a Non-Executive Director being involved). The decision-making process should be transparent and easy to understand.

* We see “over and above” as paying for items such as white goods; bedding; essential cooking equipment; curtains; food and fuel vouchers; bankruptcy fees; debt relief orders; funeral costs; plumbing repairs.

Financial support measures provided by water and sewerage companies

Not all customers will have access to every scheme. Some of these schemes will be offered selectively based on individual circumstances.

Company Financial hardship fund Debt support scheme Payment breaks Benefit entitlement checks Water efficiency support Lowest bill guarantee (meter option) Money / debt advice referral
Coming soon
Not applicable*
Anglian and Hartlepool
Dŵr Cymru
Hafren Dyfrdwy
Northumbrian and Essex and Suffolk
Severn Trent
SES Water
Coming soon
South East Not applicable*
South West and Bournemouth
South Staffs and Cambridge
Coming soon
Not applicable*
United Utilities

*Not applicable due to universal metering schemes

Reviewed in August 2023

Outcomes of Pilot Schemes

Making it easier to apply for support

Company Pilot scheme Findings Adoption into practice
Wessex Water Wessex Water undertook research with customers and stakeholders to co-create a simplified application process that will cover several aspects of support. It looked at what would be the easiest way to access support, and what type of language and imagery to use, so any application form is easy to understand and complete. The company identified principles (pdf) for companies to utilise in creating a simple application process.

A key message was that applying for help should be a positive experience for customers and raising awareness of the assistance that is available remains the most important improvement that companies can make.

See the support schemes pilot Industry report (pdf)

15 out of 17 companies have now implemented a simplified application process.

Creating a clear line of sight to help

Company Pilot scheme Findings Adoption into practice
Dŵr Cymru/ Welsh Water The company used messaging on envelopes sent to customers to raise awareness of financial support.

The company has chosen to persevere with this approach despite not seeing any immediate increase in take up of assistance.

The company didn’t detect any immediate increase in contacts seeking help which could be attributed to the initiative. Evidence from the advertising industry suggests messages often need to be viewed many times before they have an impact.

The company consider there is long term value in the approach and have adopted the envelope messaging as standard practice.

See how Welsh Water are promoting support to customers (pdf).

13 out of 17 companies have now taken steps to enhance the visibility of affordability support messaging.
South Staffs and Cambridge Water The company made its contact channels more visible on bills and envelopes so people were encouraged to get in touch about help schemes and alternate payment arrangements.

Different approaches were also used to get its ‘Here for You’ messages out to the sections of the community most likely to need help, including through a face-to-face hub.

Breaking the community down into different groups and tailoring the approach to communicating with them was an important part of its success.

This helped to get financial support to those most in need, and at the same time boosted the company’s customer experience rating. It has now permanently adopted this approach.


Improving understanding of communities

Company Pilot scheme Findings Adoption into practice
Severn Trent Water Severn Trent experimented with ways to engage with communities to find out what works in different local and regional areas. The trials included working with schools to educate children so they can influence adults in their household and exploring whether community centres and places of worship can help spread the message about priority services.  It also investigated whether using behavioural science can increase take up – for example, using messages showing how other people are signing up to support.

The company published a Playbook detailing findings from the pilot (pdf).

All companies are taking steps to understand the communities they serve and to engage with them to raise awareness of support.
Yorkshire Water The company has put in place a team entirely focused on reaching out to a community in a financially deprived area of Sheffield, where awareness of financial support and priority services is also below the regional average. The team raised awareness of the financial support that is available through working closely with local authorities, community groups and charities. It is also using a variety of media from local radio to advertising billboards. Through social media alone messages have reached 150,000 people.

Community officers held coffee mornings and presentations with local groups, all aimed at raising awareness of support – as well as educating people on other issues such as preventing sewer blockages, with advice on what not to flush down the toilet.


Forging stronger links between reducing bills and water efficiency

Company Pilot scheme Findings Adoption into practice
Thames Water The company wanted to work out how much its Smarter Home Visits (SHVs) could reduce water use and cut people’s bills. Thames Water found the visits could reduce usage by an average of 75 to 90 litres per day.

One in ten visits identified water being wasted through problems like leaking toilets and fixing these issues could produce savings of 229 l/d. It also found that fitting devices – such as showerhead water savers – could lead to long-term savings.

The company found this to be most effective when targeting households using over 500 l/d, which is about 20% of Thames Water’s customer base. The biggest savings often came from terraced houses with the most significant being in deprived areas and households using more water due to higher occupancy levels.

Thames Water has published its findings (pdf)

All companies except one have strategies in place to link their water efficiency and financial support

Developing a single online support hub

Company Pilot scheme Findings Adoption into practice
Northumbrian Water Northumbrian water explored the creation of a central hub that allows energy and water companies to share details of who is on their priority services registers (PSR). These registers feature customers who have signed up for different forms of practical help. For example, the delivery of bottled water to their home during periods of disruption to their water supply. The ambition is for this to eventually lead to data being shared between utility providers to make it easier for customers in need of financial help to be identified and helped at an earlier stage.


A cross-sector steering group has taken the project forward

A more flexible way to pay

Company Pilot scheme Findings Adoption into practice
United Utilities (UU) UU has adopted a Pay As U Go scheme that allows people to pay more or less money depending on how much they can afford at the time. This flexible approach could be particularly beneficial for customers with unpredictable income that can vary from week to week. The company has been promoting Pay As U Go through targeted communications, as well as highlighting the payment option on its billing leaflets and early debt reminders.

Take up of this option was relatively low so the company has reviewed and tweaked the promotional materials on its website and in other customer communications to try and increase awareness and uptake of this scheme.

UU is continue to offer the payment option and will continue to monitor.

Only 4 companies have implemented schemes offering this level of self serve payment flexibility.

A number of companies have indicated that they will consider implementing when system changes allow for this.

Helping people during the wait for Universal Credit

Company Pilot scheme Findings Adoption into practice
South Staffs and Cambridge Water The company has been offering a 100% discount on water charges for customers applying for Universal Credit. This lasts for an eight-week period while their Universal Credit application is processed. After the initial discount, the customer is moved to its social tariff with lower discounts (60% for year 1; 40% for year 2). Problems associated with Covid-19 hampered the pilot and restricted its take up. However the company believe it has provided a critical lifeline to a small number of customers during a period when they had no income.

That has been enough for the company to continue to offer the scheme to those who need it.

No other companies have taken steps to specifically support customers awaiting the award of Universal Credit. Reasons cited include the temporary nature of the problem and that backdated benefits are ultimately paid to claimants.
United Utilities The company stepped up its promotion of the support available to people transitioning to Universal Credit at the end of September 2021. It rebranded a previous scheme and relaunched it to raise awareness of the help available for people struggling to pay, while waiting for their first Universal Credit payment. The company will now allow people to defer their first payment by up to eight weeks to support them while they wait for their first benefit payment. It will also work with partner organisations to promote the additional support on offer, while considering eligibility for other forms of assistance. N/A

Highlighting financial support to people registering for other forms of help

Company Pilot scheme Findings Adoption into practice
Affinity Water Affinity water added information on financial support to its welcome packs (pdf) for people who sign up to its Priority Services Register. The packs carry a clear ‘call to action’ that states ‘We may be able to lower your water bill’. People are directed to a webpage and an online application form for financial help. The company also provide a QR code, telephone number and WhatsApp options for people to find out information and apply. The company found 20% of webpage visits had led to social tariff discount applications. It has adopted the practice into normal operations and is seeking to further boost the number of people clicking through to explore financial help. 15 out of 17 companies are now highlighting financial support to households when they enrol on the Priority Services Scheme.

More frequent billing

Company Pilot scheme Findings Adoption into practice
Southern Water The company trialled giving people who are on smart meters the option to have a monthly bill that is based on the water they have used. The idea is to help people manage their budgets and keep on top of their payments. The company developed a process to identify different groups of customers for the trial and tailor its communications. A sample of more than 300 people began monthly meter reads and billing in January 2022. However there was significant drop out of participants during the trial.

Southern Water concluded that it may well be a preferred option from some customers, the risks and costs associated with the manual effort required with its current billing system mean it is not really viable to take forward, but it is something the company will return to when it implements a new system.

Only 4 companies have implemented schemes offering this level of billing frequency.

A number of companies have indicated that they will consider implementing when system changes allow for this, and that the future roll out of smart metering will also make this more viable.