Angry councillors this week took Thames Water to task over its move to start billing council tenants directly.
The decision, which took councillors by surprise over the winter, is not one over which the council has any control, with Thames rolling it out in multiple local authorities to secure a more “direct relationship” with residents.
However, councillors on the Town Hall’s housing scrutiny committee raised concerns over the lack of notice, with the changes due to take effect from 1 April, and the potential impact on vulnerable tenants.
Cllr Phil Graham said: “It would have been nice to have a heads-up, if this has been going on for four years. I don’t know if it was Thames Water or officers who kept everyone, including councillors, in the dark. To get this letter arriving shortly before Christmas was fairly shocking and got a lot of people worried.
“We have vulnerable people in our homes, and when they get these changes they don’t deal with change very well. Sometimes they need longer to take the whole idea on board, so the time people have had has caused a lot of consternation amongst the residents.
“At the offset, the relationship is poor with the residents, because we speak to them every day, and the residents we’ve spoken to, the whole way this has been handled has been shocking. Myself and other councillors really were angry when those letters went out, because nobody told us about it.”
Graham went on to warn that it would take a “long while” to heal the relationship with Thames, with representatives present at the meeting apologising for any upset in response to his statements.
The company also assured those listening, in response to Cllr Marian Spall’s taking up of queries from residents as to whether the now-separate charges amount to an extra bill which could rise, that the changes will not cost residents any more, pointing to the “heavy regulation” that governs the water sector.
Thames have pledged that whatever residents were paying the council previously will remain “exactly the same”, though councillors warned there was a “high chance” that residents who have not set up a direct debit or have not caught up might have a missed payment, which would be reflected on their credit history.
Cllr Gulcin Ozdemir said: “The likelihood of there being missed payments and it then going on people’s credit file is a big concern, especially for vulnerable residents and those who don’t speak English as their first language who have not been able to set up a direct debit or don’t realise their water bill is not included in their rent anymore.”
Thames Water has promised that its its teams would work with residents, even if they fell into debt, pledging not to suddenly file with credit agencies as a first instance, pointing to a multiplicity of payment options and schemes to keep people on track with their bills.
Vulnerable residents are expected to be written to directly for extra information on how they can get support, according to the council.
Thames Water relationship manager Andy Mitchell said benefits of the changes were opportunities to access tarrifs to help any tenant with income of less than £19,000 a year would qualify for half off their bill, or have their water metered.
Thames Water service delivery lead Kevin Dix said: “We’ve been running this programme of transitions over the last four years, the idea being to bring to an end the relationships we have with local authorities to collect water charges on our behalf to the benefit of the customer.
“The reasons for this are it gives us an opportunity to have a more direct relationship with them, but also brings about other benefits that each tenant can take advantage of.
“We’ve got the benefit of experience, and over the last four years I’m not going to say we’ve got everything exactly right, but what we have done is learn from it and the journey that we help take local authorities is one that makes sure that we are communicating with customers along the way.”
The meeting was marked by housing boss Cllr Diarmaid Ward pressing Thames on whether they had been forced into the decision by water services regulator Ofwat, with Dix responding that they had not been ordered to make the changes, but had simply taken on board a suggestion that one of the ways to have a more direct relationship with customers is by billing them directly.
Thames responded that the reason remained that under the current existing system there is a set price that Islington passes on to its residents, whereby under the new system, it will allow the company to find out more about the personal circumstances about the individual residents, allowing them to help provide support or reduced tariffs, though Ward pointed out that this could have been done under the current system.
Dix added that under the previous arrangement, all the company had was residents’ addresses, adding: “There is absolutely nothing behind this at all. Yes, Ofwat did say to us that a way to get a more direct relationship with customers is for you to bill htem directly, and of course we have taken that advice, and had a four year programme of bringing all of those who had a simialr arrangement to Islington into something where we can make sure we have that direct relationship. Before they were quite distant, because our customer was the local authority.”
Ward said: “The council have been left in an unenviable position here, because we don’t have a choice – this is something Thames Water are doing. [You’ve] talked about the direct relationship with the customer; nothing that you have talked about are things that could not have been done under the existing system.
“[Thames] need to explain more clearly to members why this has happened. There is more to it than establishing this direct relationship, that needs to be explained to members.”
You can find out more about the changes here: https://www.islington.gov.uk/housing/council-tenant-services/thames-water