Thursday, 1 December 2011

Water bill relief

Late last year I had a meeting with George Osborne to discuss the current issues affecting the South West. He asked me what single thing he could do in his budget that would help people in Cornwall and I said “sort out our water bills”. The problem is well known and has been rehearsed for many years: three percent of the population pays for the cost of maintaining 30 percent of the nation’s coast. It means that annual water bills in the South West are typically fifty percent higher than the level charged in other regions such as the South East and, in some cases, as much as double.

But, in politics, it is no good just talking about problems. In the end, you have to secure agreement for a solution and the confirmation this week that all households in Cornwall will receive a £50 discount off their water bills represents a really important breakthrough.

I have had many constituents approach me who are struggling to cope with their water bills. I remember, in particular, one pensioner on a low income who had a bill of £700 per year. In many cases, people find that they are far better off if they switch to a water meter and this is something that the water companies are keen to encourage. In other cases, people on low incomes are eligible for what is called the “Water Sure” tariff which offers a special discount to those on low incomes who are struggling.

These measures to deal with affordability are welcome, but what we really needed was a policy that would make our water bills fairer and this week we finally got it. The scheme is worth £40 million per year and it is a good example of where Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs working together have been able to really deliver for our county.

MPs from Devon and Cornwall have had many meetings with Ministers to maintain pressure since March and to ensure that the pledge remained intact. We have also managed to maintain a high profile for this issue within the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee which made some recommendations at the end of last year to spread the burden for those on lower incomes.

There had been quite a lobbying operation from other water companies elsewhere in the country who thought that they should have a share of the fund but this would have defeated the object of the scheme. To his credit, George Osborne has refused to budge on the announcement he made back in the spring. Water bills in the South West have been too high for too long and it is great news that we have finally managed to deliver a meaningful policy to restore some balance.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.