Simon Read: The water firms believe a price cut has washed their images clean - but it will take a lot more than a spin cycle

Water bills are set to fall from April because the industry regulator forced the companies to cut prices by 5 per cent over the next five years

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The Independent Online

Here's a subject I seldom write about: water bills. What prompted my interest in them this week was a fairly self-congratulatory announcement from the industry body Water UK.

It said: "Water and sewerage bills will fall after April 2015 and even more help will be available for customers struggling with cost- of-living pressures."

That's good news, isn't it? The average water and sewerage bill in England and Wales for 2015-16 will fall by £9, or 2 per cent. Pamela Taylor, Water UK's chief, said: "Water companies understand the pressures their customers are under and are delivering lower bills and even more support for struggling households."

That's obviously designed to make us all break into a rousing cheer for the caring water companies for cutting bills and offering more help to the vulnerable. However, the claim is a little disingenuous, to say the least.

In fact water bills are set to fall from April because the industry regulator forced the companies to cut prices by 5 per cent over the next five years while improving services.

And while water firms have promised to introduce social tariffs for vulnerable people who are struggling with bills, only 14 out of 18 will have them in place by April. The other businesses say they either intend to have social tariffs in place by 2016, or are currently consulting their customers about introducing a tariff scheme.

Let's also have a closer look at the claim that water bills will fall by £9 or 2 per cent. Sadly that's just an average and consequently it isn't true for everyone. So while those in the Anglian area will be handed £29 off their bills, a cut of 7 per cent, homes in the Northumbrian area will be forced to pay £4 extra – an increase of 1 per cent.

So it turns out that water isn't such a transparent business after all. But there's more. A reader contacted me this week with a complaint about her water company. The 72-year-old moved from London to be near her daughter but says she has had a catalogue of problems with her new supplier ever since.

Apart from the fact that the bills are much higher, on a much smaller property, she says she's had a running battle with the firm over billing. This ended up with the firm taking her to court.

I won't go into further detail now as I'm still investigating her complaints with the company concerned, but one thing she mentioned stuck with me. "They're a monopoly that takes advantage of customers as we have no choice."

It's true. If you're unhappy with your water company, because of poor service or high prices, you can't take your business elsewhere. And that does seem a charter for water firms to take advantage of us. I can't think of any other industry where that's the case. Can you?

twitter: @simonnread

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