Discussion concerning water poverty tends to be in the context of international development. It would probably come as surprise to many people to realise that for some, water poverty remains a serious problem in the UK. Anyone in any doubt of this should read the Consumer Council for Water’s recent report ‘Living with Water Poverty‘. It highlights the kind of examples that my constituents have been raising with me for years, such as incontinence suffers incurring high bills arising from the need wash extra laundry or struggling single parents who do not flush the toilet when they need do because they cannot afford their water bill.
In the far South West this problem is particularly acute. When Michael Howard privatised the water industry in 1989 he not only left Devon & Cornwall with a customer base too small to derive good economies of scale, but he also left us to pick up the bill for the environmental clean up of our coastline and a ‘green dowry’/debt write-off that was not fit for purpose. You may think this is fair enough, but we are talking about less than two million customers – or 3% of the population – paying to clean up 30% of the coastline of England. As a result we have the highest water bills in the country – an average of £100 more than elsewhere.
At a time of recession this is a burden that hardworking families and individuals could do without. However, high water bills hit hardest those least able to cope, such as those on low incomes, the elderly and disabled. Despite the chocolate box view of the South West, our part of the world actually includes some very poor areas. Cornwall is the only part of the country of significant scale to get European Convergence Funding and when I was first elected I inherited from my Conservative predecessor the poorest council ward in England.
There is a strong argument to view large parts of this investment as a public good. We all benefit from clean waters around the British Isles and the recent announcement that broadband extension to households in outlying rural areas could be paid for by a national levy, seems to suggest that there is an understanding that those on the periphery should not have to pay more because of their geographical location.
Defra have commissioned Anna Walker to lead an Independent Review of Water Metering & Charging which proposes capping bills for those on Council Tax benefit to the national average. This could mean a drop in costs of around £170 for those in most need in Devon and Cornwall. The report also sets out for the first time what would be involved in pooling the cost of the cleaning up our coast with the rest of the UK. I will be lobbying the government to ensure we take these recommendations and run with them.
The development of an effective clean water and sanitation infrastructure in the 19th Century probably did more to advance public health and inner city conditions than any other measure. But a minority in the South West can barely afford their water – this is not acceptable. Of course water bill affordability needs to be addressed wherever it exists and the Walker Review will need to look at its proposals to achieve this across the country.
Labour rightly prides itself on its historic mission to tackle poverty at home and aboard. We have made some significant strides over the past years in taking children out of poverty, tackling pensioner poverty and promoting warm homes. The Walker Review offers a chance to turn the full force of our attention and commitment to ensuring everyone in this country has access to affordable water and sewerage services.