The region has been chosen in recognition of the proportion of low income households facing relatively high water and sewerage charges. The pilot scheme will assess the combined effect of benefit checks, water efficiency measures and metering on low income households, and will investigate the possibility of running the scheme alongside the Warm Front initiative.

Environment Minister Elliot Morley said Government had been working with Ofwat, water companies and CCWater to find a solution to the issue of water affordability.

“I am mindful that there are particular affordability issues in the South West. I have met several times with parliamentary colleagues from the region, and with WaterVoice South West, and have listened carefully to their concerns,” he said. “My hope is that this pilot will contribute solutions to the problem of water affordability, not just in the South West, but across the country as a whole.”

The successful bidders for the pilot are Eaga Partnership for the fieldwork, and WRc for the evaluation of the project.

It is expected that work with South West Water customers will begin early 2006. The initial phase – including benefit checks and installation of meters and water efficient devices – will take six months, followed by twelve months of monitoring. Results are expected mid 2007.

Water charges in the south west region are around 75% higher than the national average and due to rise much faster than inflation over the next five years. Households are looking at average annual bills of well over £600 in the near future, sources say.

The problem stems from the fact that the region contains 30% of the British coastline with around 150 public bathing beaches. South West water is responsible for maintaining these to a high standard under the terms of the Bathing Water Directive.

As late as 1990, sewage went out crude into the sea in many parts of the coast through long pipes to ensure that it was not washed back to shore. However, this is no longer acceptable under the terms of the Directive, and SW Water has had to fit numerous treatment plants and storm sewage outlets.

These have been very expensive and the investment has been recouped through customers’ bills.

However, the region contains only 3% of the country’s population, many of whom are on fixed incomes and benefits, such as pensioners, and cannot afford to pay such a substantial part of their income on water charges.

Earlier this year, WaterVoice had called for regional assistance but the Government made it quite clear that none would be forthcoming (see related story).

David Hopkins

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