MILLIONS of people unable to cope with soaring water bills face a “postcode lottery” of inadequate support, according to opposition MPs warning of the growing problem of so-called ‘water poverty’.
Wakefield MP Mary Creagh, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, has slammed the Government for new legislation that will offer financial relief for people living in the South-West of England on their water bills – but nothing at all for those living in other parts of the country.
The Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill is currently making its way through Parliament, offering each household in the South-West £50 towards the cost of their bills. People living in the South-West typically have markedly higher bills than in other parts of the UK due to the cost for water companies of maintaining the region’s beaches.
But Ms Creagh said measures should also have been introduced to force water companies to support people struggling with their rising cost of water bills in other parts of Britain.
“This ‘financial assistance’ bill is poorly named,” she said. “It extends no financial assistance to anyone except those living in the South-West.
“It is conceived in haste, is silent on the wider affordability issues, and it ignores the cost-of-living crisis for households hit by this Government’s assault on the squeezed middle.”
The problem of ‘water poverty’ has been growing since the financial crash, with bills continuing to rise much faster than stagnant or shrinking wages.
Regulator Ofwat estimates around a fifth of households are spending more than three per cent of their income on water bills.
The previous Labour Government introduced a scheme called WaterSure to assist large families or disabled people with their water bills, and in opposition the party is now calling for the scheme to be extended to help more people get onto cheaper social tariffs.
Ms Creagh said: “The design of social tariff schemes is left entirely to the water companies. Indeed, it is their choice whether to implement a scheme at all. This is the big society in action: a postcode lottery for millions of customers facing water poverty.”
Water bills in the South-West are typically nearly 50 per cent higher than in other parts of the UK.
However, the large number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs in that region have led to accusations of American-style ‘pork barrel’ politics.
Ms Creagh said she would “leave it to others to speculate” why a “Tory and Lib Dem Government wanted to extend £40m a year in financial assistance to a region dominated by Tories and Lib Dems.”
But the Government put up a fierce defence of its bill, insisting support for water customers in the South-West is long overdue and paying tribute to Coalition MPs who have lobbied for funding.
Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said: “The diligence with which South-West constituency members raised awareness of this historic unfairness is the reason our Government have sought, finally, to do something about it and stop turning a deaf ear to families struggling with that historic legacy, which is what had happened for too long.
“There are limits to the help that we can give, because of the vast economic deficit that we inherited.
“However, we believe that the Government should help to correct the historic inequity that has left water bills in the South-West so markedly out of kilter with those elsewhere in the country.
“We have therefore committed to funding South West Water to enable it to cut bills by £50 a year for all household customers.”