George Osborne confirms £50 water bill discount


Chancellor George Osborne confirmed today plans to underwrite a £50 discount on water bills for hard-hit families in south west England.

South West Water customers are paying the price of cleaning up the region's long coastline over the course of the last two decades, resulting in the highest average bills in the UK.

In March, Mr Osborne announced in the Budget that the region's bills were "unusually high" and money would be set aside for relief payments, a recommendation made by a review into water bills in 2009 that was resisted by the then Labour government.

Today the Chancellor announced the £50 payment per household would begin from April 2013, a move welcomed by South West Water chief executive Chris Loughlin.

"This is great news for our customers. We're delighted that the Government is committed to tackling the unfairness which has seen 3% of the UK's population pay for the clean-up of 30% of the nation's bathing waters," he said.

"We have worked closely alongside MPs of all parties, consumer groups and the region's media to highlight the South West's case at the highest levels. Now we look forward to helping the Government implement this annual reduction from April 2013."

Behind the idyllic West Country image of charming coastal villages and old-fashioned seaside towns is the reality of water bills that will, on average, see South West Water customers in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset paying £517 per year in water bills this year, a 5.1% increase year on year. Some non-metered ratepayers will see an increase of 8.1%.

The main cost passed to South West Water's customers has been from the £1.5 billion it has spent over 20 years since privatisation on completely revamping the region's sewage system that until the 1990s was spewing untreated effluent on to beaches from 250 pipes, damaging its reputation as a tourist area.

The poor quality of the bathing waters also led to the formation of campaign group Surfers Against Sewage in 1990, by a group of surfers who were "literally sick" of surfing in the sewage polluted waters of beaches at St Agnes, Chapel Porth and Porthtowan on the north coast of Cornwall.

South West Water's Clean Sweep programme, as it was known, was completed several years ago, but despite assurances from South West Water that bill rises would stabilise, there has been considerable anger as they have continued to rise at more than the rate of inflation.

In 2009, an independent review of water bills by Anna Walker, chairman of the Office of Rail Regulation, recommended that a one-off £650 million Government payout should be considered to bring down bills.