FEATURE |Social tenant debt
The industry is expecting customer hardship and bad debt to worsen as
welfare reform bites. Collaborating with housing associations could offer a
lifeline in coping with affordability problems among social tenants.
fwat’s December ruling that water bills will fall
by an average £20 to £376 in 2015-20 was a welcome Christmas present for customers. But water companies are under no illusion that it will
be a universally happy new year.
In fact, for those on low incomes, 2015 is looking pretty
bleak. While inflation will take the sparkle off the numbers
for everyone, companies are expecting welfare reform to bite
the poor and to lead to growing payment problems and water
bill debt. This is a particularly grim prospect for those directly
affected, but also a problem for customers in the round who
already stomach a £15 a year charge to cover unpaid bills.
This situation, together with possible responses to it, was
explored in late 2014 at a workshop for water companies and
Universal Credit
Universal Credit is a new type of financial support for people of working age who
are looking for work or on a low income. It replaces and will merge together many
existing benefits and tax credits, namely: income based jobseeker’s allowance,
income-related employment and support allowance, income support, child tax
credit, working tax credit and housing benefit. The government argues this will make
the system easier and simpler.
Universal Credit will be a single, monthly payment into a bank account. Partners
will get one payment for the household. Recipients will be responsible for paying
their landlords themselves.
It is being introduced in stages. Until now it has only affected claimants in certain
areas earmarked for pilots, including Ashton-under-Lyne, Wigan, Warrington, Oldham, Hammersmith, Rugby, Inverness, Harrogate, Bath and Shotton. It is now due to
be extended to the rest of the country by 2017.
30 January 2015
housing associations hosted by Accent Market Research. One
water company presenter said his employer was well aware of
the looming problem: 42% of social tenants and 32% of private tenants are already spending more than 3% of their income on water bills; meanwhile debt is climbing, living costs
are rising, welfare support is being cut, and people are staring
down the barrel of stress, isolation and despair as well as actual financial hardship.
According to research for housing association The Hyde
Group, the introduction of Universal Credit, now set for national rollout (see box – Universal Credit), is a “terrifying”
prospect for tenants. The concept of having to budget for a
month is expected to prove too much for many of those who
struggle to make weekly payments last all seven days. They
fear that as rising utility bills further reduce their income, they
could fall into debt or in some cases even more debt, despite
efforts to keep up their monthly payments. Moreover, the fact
that Universal Credit will be paid in arrears will leave a gaping
chasm in household budgets. Borrowing from high interest
payday lenders is expected to rise, compounding existing financial problems.
Bad to worse
For water bill affordability and debt, welfare reform looks set
to make an already bad situation a lot worse. The water company presenter mentioned above explained his company segments struggling customers into three groups:
❙ non-payers – can’t or won’t pay
❙ help-seekers – those who have approached the company for
Social tariff research
Accent director Rachel Risely reviewed the social tariff research undertaken
by the industry. Among her key observations were:
❙ A large proportion of companies have undertaken dedicated research on
social tariffs.
❙ Mostly this has been focused on the willingness of benefactors (the broad
customer base) to support a social tariff scheme, with little work done among
potential recipients on how to reach out to them and help them to pay.
❙ Discussions proved “highly complex”. In the majority of areas, support
was established for a tariff after extensive dialogue; in the minority, finding
a consensus proved impossible. It was “just too complex to introduce a fair
❙ In terms of identifying recipients, it was “an obvious solution from a customer perspective” for water companies to work with the DWP. Respondents
THE WATER REPORT were concerned involvement from other parties may just complicate the
❙ A minority expressed a desire to be able to opt-out of cross subsidising others, though the majority felt this would be unfair and problematic.
❙ The majority supported match funding, under which the water company
would match the funds raised through the customer cross subsidy. Some
however were suspicious that this would lead to customers paying twice.
❙ The type and level of support tested varied considerably company to
❙ Receipt of benefits as an eligibility qualifier was unpopular – it was found to
be tied up with the whole ‘state scrounging while spending on fags and flat
screen TVs’ argument. An ability to pay assessment was preferred, though
would be more complex to administer.
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FEATURE |Social tenant debt
❙ making-doers – those unlikely to ask for help, who pay
their water bills even though it is a struggle.
Going forward, the company is planning to proactively
help those in the latter category who don’t currently present
it with a problem, because it knows they will find it harder
to make ends meet. “We are expecting the third group, the
strugglers, to tip into either the non-payment or asking for
help categories,” the presenter said. “Our challenge going forward is to identify and reach this third group.”
Available schemes
The industry’s hardship schemes are numerous and wellmeaning but patchy and imperfect. Currently around
760,000 people benefit from some form of financial support
from their water company. As well as the national WaterSure
scheme (and Welsh Water Assist), initiatives include debt
write-off, bill capping, charitable trusts, single occupier discounts, low use discounts, grants and special tariffs, as well
as more holistic assistance such as funding money advice services, training or charities. Some initiatives are linked with
reducing water consumption; others aren’t.
The most recent addition to this armoury is the social tariff. Due to a protracted and difficult process, few firms have
as yet rolled these out in earnest, though this will kick into
gear from April. According to Ofwat, the number of people
benefiting from financial support will more than double to
around 1.8 million by 2020, with social tariffs forecast to help
an additional one million people.
Nonetheless, eligibility criteria and assistance levels will
vary company to company, contributing to the patchy national assistance picture. Social tariff research conducted
by the industry underlines the thorny and complex na-
Bill behaviour
Accent’s research for Ofwat among customers in debt or struggling to pay their
water bills aimed to provide companies with a greater understanding of how behavioural economics can be deployed to develop effective charging practices and
improve debt and revenue collection. Among the key findings were:
❙ Carrots are better than sticks: encouraging people to pay on time is far more
sensible than penalising them for paying late, except for won’t pays.
❙ Participants felt there was little understanding of – or attempt to understand – individual circumstances, which resulted in a generalised approach and communications which were often wide of the mark in terms of content and tone.
❙ The most popular charging schemes were ones which empowered struggling
customers to make payments – for instance, via debt write off, substantial discounts,
trust funds, social tariffs, Water Direct and payment holidays.
❙ There was widespread lack of awareness about existing assistance schemes,
which fuelled suspicion of water company motives. Respondents felt schemes
should be widely publicised and it be absolutely clear who is eligible to apply.
❙ While customers falling into difficulty should contact their supplier, in reality people
often bury their heads in the sand. Therefore it is imperative for companies to proactively contact such customers, ideally within two months of them falling into debt.
❙ Schemes allowing regular payments were preferred over gimmicks such as prizes
or discounts for encouraging others to sign up to special schemes.
The study recommended companies: review their communications with struggling customers (what is sent? at what point in the debt timeline? what is the tone?
etc); scrutinise debt-related complaints to establish where they are going wrong;
accept different strategies work for different types of customer and develop alternative payment schemes based on behavioural biases; and share evidence across the
32 January 2015
Social tenant debt | FEATURE
ture of this new help mechanism (see box – Social tariff
research p31)
Can’t give it away
However, the biggest problem facing water companies is not
the type or amount of assistance available to vulnerable customers, it is quite simply finding the right people to give it
to. As one workshop participant put it: “We’ve got a host of
different schemes, if only we could get them to customers.”
Ofwat updated its debt guidelines in July 2014 covering
how it expects firms to approach debt and those who find
themselves in it. But there is no direction from government
on who specifically should receive assistance outside of WaterSure, and no accessible central repository of information
about those in hardship.
The industry has long argued for access to Department
of Work and Pensions (DWP) data, but to little avail. Water
UK is understood to have renewed its efforts in light of social tariff expectations, but few are holding their breath. One
housing association representative who had worked with
the DWP on information sharing hinted the department’s
data might not be a panacea anyway. He was distinctly nonplussed by the nature of the data, reporting the department
initially referenced individuals solely by national insurance
number (though it was now progressing to use name and address details too).
Likewise industry efforts to force landlords to hand over
tenant contact details have hitherto fallen on deaf ears in
England. There is a more positive picture in Wales, where the
policy is expected to be implemented this year.
But for now, companies are pretty much left to their own
devices to decide who to help, and how to source and assess
the eligibility of potential beneficiaries. This is nightmarishly
vention; and an understanding of how different customers
might react in different circumstances.
Ofwat made a good start in looking at the human-side of
water bill payment in 2012 when it commissioned a study
from Accent to improve its understanding of behavioural responses to charging practices in the water industry among
groups at risk of affordability problems (see box – Bill behaviour). This recommended some practical solutions and
remains relevant for companies today.
However, the avenue explored in detail at the workshop was
how water companies might get to know their customers better through working more closely with third parties – for example, local authorities, community groups, care agencies and
in particular housing associations. Many such groups will be
trusted by customers and have established relationships with
them. They could help to identify those in need of water company assistance; encourage customers to trust rather than be
suspicious of the company’s motives; administer help; and take
account of each individual’s broader economic situation.
Most water companies already enlist third party help to
one extent or another but again the picture is patchy. On
social tariffs, for instance, some schemes are or will be administered by trusted third parties including Citizens Advice
and expert relief administrator Charis. Others are or will be
administered by water companies directly. There is no right
or wrong answer, but some going it alone are already finding
it hard going. One participant reported his company’s social
tariff scheme had been designed to cope with demand from
around 70,000 customers but that so far only around 200 had
been signed up. He questioned: “Is our [application] form
wrong? Is our eligibility criteria [3% of household income
spent on water] too strict?” The company is conducting a full
strategic review of its practices, with a view to taking a new
direction this year.
Who you know
Collectively, the Accent workshop concluded companies’ best
bet for finding the right people to help in the absence of government assistance and in the face of imminent welfare reform is to get to know their customers better. Quite simply, to
begin to understand individual circumstances – who needs
help, when, why, how and how much.
The Hyde Group research mentioned earlier is instructive
here. It found, as might be expected, genuine hardship: falling
incomes, rising costs, heating curtailed, luxuries gone – a picture of social tenants just about holding it together, propped
up by “secret support” from family and friends, one step away
from being tipped into serious trouble.
But it also turned up some lessons useful for water companies. For instance, that any form of digital approach – for
example, emailed bills/reminders or online account management – would be a waste of time for many. There was reluctance to use to online channels (often from older people);
ignorance of how to use devices and websites; and repeated
incidence of broadband self-disconnection to save money.
Moreover, the research suggested that helping customers
to pay would require more intimate knowledge of individual
circumstances. This would enable vital early diagnosis when
payment problems arose; an appropriate approach to inter-
House mates
Housing associations could prove especially valuable partners for water companies grappling with affordability and
debt problems among social tenants. The housing representatives at the workshop highlighted a number of extremely
useful roles they could perform, including:
❙ Data sharing (see below).
❙ Using their knowledge of their tenants to flag up households where bill reductions are likely to be either welcome
– for instance, those hit with the bedroom tax – or fair – for
instance, single occupants in flats where metering is impossible could be suggested for assessed charge reductions.
❙ Using their expertise to analyse, interpret and add meaning
to water company customer data.
❙ Acting as a channel for water company communications
– for instance, carrying information leaflets in tenants’ welcome packs or at six-week follow up visits. They could also
provide tenants with ongoing advice on water relief offerings,
if companies keep them up to date (one water delegate said
her company had trained housing officers to this end).
❙ Applying for assistance schemes on tenants’ behalf if the
company permits this (some already do).
❙ Comparing and contrasting water company behaviour to
help pin down and enhance industry best practice.
THE WATER REPORT ❙ Partnering to deliver specific initiatives. One water company, for instance, reported it had held a special event at a
housing estate to promote keeping bills down through water
efficiency, metering and appropriate charging. This featured,
among other elements, community engagement and education, knocking on doors, and leafleting as well as post event
customer engagement. A year on, debt levels on the estate
had risen only 1% compared to 10% on a control estate, while
metering was up 11% compared to a control 3%.
❙ Assist with relief reapplication procedures. Affordability is
a dynamic concept. Some companies insist on full reapplication after 12 months. Others opt to minimise the administrative burden by automatically re-enrolling beneficiaries but
auditing a set percentage. Housing associations could advise
on whether tenants’ financial situations had changed.
Data sharing
If housing associations shared their tenant data with water
companies, “it would give us a fighting change of understanding the customer,” said one workshop participant. He
gave the example of two customers who on paper look to be
in the same financial situation but one pays and the other
doesn’t. Richer tenant data could help establish why. Meanwhile, if water companies reciprocated and shared their data,
this could enrich housing association knowledge and understanding of tenants’ circumstances.
At present, data sharing of this sort is hit and miss. At the
workshop, participants had different understandings of what
data they could legally share, with one for instance advocating there was no obstacle to sharing as long as both parties
agreed, while another said he had been advised to the contrary.
So it falls to each company and housing association to decide how much they share with the other – if at all. A participant remarked it simply “depends on your lawyer”. One water
company said it willingly shares data with all HAs in its area,
regardless of whether or not they reciprocate. Another that it
has access to data from around a quarter of associations in its
area, but that its policy is not to share anything.
Beggars can’t be choosers
It is a crying shame that helping the most vulnerable members of society afford as essential a service as water and sewerage should be left to companies who themselves struggle
to deliver that help. It is incredible that ad-hoc partnerships
with third parties should be deemed progressive.
But in the absence of an alternative, and with welfare reform looming, it is more important than ever for companies
to do what they can to get closer to their customers, understand their situations, anticipate their behaviours, communicate effectively and respond appropriately.
Working more closely with trusted third parties is part
of the solution, with housing associations an obvious
first choice on the social tenancy side. At the very least,
both parties would benefit from the rules on data sharing being clarified and best practice pinned down. TWR
❙ For more information about The Hyde Group research, contact
[email protected]
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