Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Aiming to get lower water charges in the South West

One of the first things I did when elected in May was stand for election on parliament’s Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Having spent the first ten years of my working life in the farming industry, I thought it was an area where I had something to offer.
DEFRA is also responsible for policy on water and just before Christmas, we published our first report which identified some of the current challenges in the water industry. The current high level of water charges is a contentious issue in Cornwall. Despite having some of the lowest average incomes in the country, our water bills are the highest. While people on meters generally enjoy lower bills, the average unmetered water bill in Cornwall is almost double the national average and this reflects the fact that just three percent of the population have to pay for the cost of maintaining 30 percent of our national coastline.

For many years people have talked about the problem, but the key with all things is to try to find a solution. There are two ways of addressing the problem. The proposal that works best for Cornwall is to add a small levy on the water bills of people in other parts of the country to deliver a significant reduction in all South West Water bills. The only problem with this is that it is not easy persuading MPs in other parts of the country that they should support such a move. There is also the counter argument put forward that it would be wrong for someone on a very low income in the north to subsidise the water bills of a wealthy second home owner who has retired in Cornwall.

The second option would be what is described as a “national social tariff” where you would have a national scheme targeted only at those on the lowest incomes. This would not help everyone in Cornwall but it would be better than nothing.

The idea that I have put forward is to have a mixture of the two. First it would address the affordability issue by only being targeted at those people who spend more than three percent of their household income in water. That would help around 70 percent of people in Cornwall, but only a small percentage elsewhere in the country. But secondly, you would address the issue of fairness by introducing a taper on the amount of discount offered which would be relative to the extent to which water bills in a given area varied against the national average. A place like Cornwall where bills are almost double the national average would get the full discount. Those areas where bills are perhaps just 10 percent above the average would get much less and those areas where water bills are below the average would not qualify at all.

It might just get wider support but there is more work to do.