Water poverty or just poverty
The line "April is the cruellest month", from TS Eliot's poem The Waste Land is gaining an alternative association in terms of the Government's slash and burn on welfare. Otherwise known as the Welfare Reform Act, it is hitting the poorest households with punitive reductions in their already meagre incomes and it arrives next month.
The components of this toxic basket of measures include the Universal Credit, benefit cap, removal of council tax benefits and the new ‘bedroom tax’, a particularly vicious new rule for residents of social housing. Aside from the other vast logistical problems with this latest stipulation, the cost of the bedroom tax to households already on housing benefit could be from £12 to £22 per week.
While the Government will have its own reasons for wishing to define a percentage of the UK population as ‘scroungers’ as it erodes their tiny budgets – the water sector has no such luxury. All are customers and users of its services – rich and poor, benefits or no.
Given the increased difficulty these households are going to have to meet the cost of basic services, we should be thankful that water is a service that (so far) cannot be terminated through non-payment of bills. However, this is unlikely to give succour to those managing utility budgets, who must be looking on with considerable anxiety as this squeeze on the poorest gathers in fervour.
A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that “Water poverty is the new fuel poverty.” At a glance, this might seem unlikely, given that energy is so much more expensive than water – how can anyone be in water poverty?
But spending more than 3% of its income on water puts a household in water poverty. At an average of £376/year for a bill, that’s an income of about £12,500. Last year, Yorkshire Water said nearly a quarter of its households were already in water poverty.
Customer debt is already costing about £15/year to paying households and that is now only likely to rise. The water industry is more inclined to bemoan the failure of customers to understand the ‘value of water’, but such abstract concepts will not achieve traction with those whose only relationship with the font of all life is a red bill on the carpet.
It is not hysterical to say that the incomes of the poorest customers are being reduced to a level below that which is necessary to securely provide food, shelter and essential services. Where people are in work, incomes have fallen by 5% nationally as water, food and all other costs have risen.
The Government has already conceded that water bills in the South-west required public subsidy. Along with managing and maintaining their assets in the most cost-efficient way to help keep bills down, water companies should be positioning for a making the case for subsidy much more strongly. ‘Water poverty’ is a term that should not exist in such a relatively rich country.
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