If you have just received a water bill you can’t afford, what can you do? If you ignore it, can they cut off your water? This article looks at the questions people often ask about paying water bills in England and Wales.
But first, have you looked at how you reduce your next bill? This may not seem like a priority at the moment, but if you can pay less next year you can afford to repay your arrears sooner. Check out How to cut your water bills for ideas.
Making an arrangement to pay
The best thing is to phone your water company when you find you can’t pay the bill. Sometimes there is a phone number for people who have payment problems – if you can’t see it on the bill, check your water company’s website.
You need to offer to pay a monthly amount which will cover your current use and pay some extra towards the last bill. That’s why it matters if you can get your future bills down.
Do tell the person you speak to if any of the following apply:
- you are on benefits, have children in the house or are a pensioner;
- anyone has any medical problems;
- your household has got smaller so you will use less water than last year; or
- you think you qualify for lower water charges (see How to cut your water bills for more about these).
If you are benefits such as income support, JSA, ESA and Universal Credit, you can ask for the arrears and future payments to be deducted straight from your benefit. The deduction for arrears is usually £3.70 per week. This is called Water Direct and it’s currently used by 240,000 households. It suits a lot of people as it is simple and you can’t get into more debts.
Companies are usually prepared to accept lower offers towards the arrears through Water Direct than other payments method as they know they will get paid.
Get help to make an arrangement
It’s important that you don’t offer more towards the arrears than you can really manage, or you will end up unable to pay it after a few months or you will get into debt elsewhere.
If you aren’t sure what to offer, or the water company won’t accept your offer, go to your local Citizens Advice and ask for their help. Drawing up an Income & Expenditure statement with CAB will help you know what you can afford and you can also show it to the water company.
“What can they do if I don’t pay?”
Water is a necessity and you cannot have your supply cut off. But if you don’t make an arrangement to pay the bills, the water company may take you to court for a CCJ, which will increase your debt with the court costs added on. This could then mean you have trouble with bailiffs or have an attachment of earnings so the money is taken straight from your wages.
Most water debts are reported to the credit reference agencies, so you will find it harder and more expensive to get other credit with unpaid defaults on your credit record.
“I can’t repay that much”
Many water companies have other schemes to help. For example, some water companies will match payments towards arrears, so if you can pay £30 a month, this would take £60 off your debt.
You can see the different schemes in this booklet: Help with Water and Energy Bills. That can be a bit confusing, especially if there are a lot of options in your area. Your water company will be able to tell you about the alternatives that might work for you in more detail.
If you are really worried about contacting your water company – perhaps you are scared they will make you agree to more than you can afford – go to your local Citizens Advice. They will know what help is available in your area. They may also be able to assist with an application to a charitable trust to get you a grant.
“I have a lot of other debts as well as water arrears”
If you have a lot of other bills and debts, it’s a good idea to look at the big picture so you know what all your options are and how much you can afford to pay to each debt.
The first step is to make a list of all your debts, including things like overdrafts, catalogues and HP payments. Then sort out which are the most important. You will probably guess that your mortgage/rent comes top of the list, but read What are priority debts? as some of the others may surprise you.
An Overview of debt solutions looks at your options. It has links so you can look at which may be best for you and who can help you with them. Once you know you have a debt problem, the sooner you get help the better.
“My partner has left and his name is on the bill”
All adults living in a property are jointly responsible for paying water and sewage charges. If your ex’s name was the only one on the bill but he hasn’t paid it, the water company is likely to chase you to pay the previous bills if you are still living there.
If splitting up has left you in a difficult financial situation, you may be able to get help with the arrears from your water company’s charitable trust, see above.
“I’ve been told I owe money from years ago”
This can happen in several situations:
- check the dates on it are a time you were living there. If they aren’t, tell the water company in writing. If you are a tenant and the dates are wrong, also send a copy of the bill to your landlord;
- a backdated bill can turn up if the water company has just realised you have a separate supply. Or if they have made a mistake and not billed you before. There isn’t a limit to the time they can go back, but they should be reasonable in allowing you to set up a payment arrangement, especially if they have been at fault. Also the water company’s charitable trust may be able to help you with a large back bill;
- it could be an old debt from a previous property. Perhaps there was a house share and you thought someone else had paid the final bill. Or perhaps you didn’t tell the water company your new address, so the last bill never reached you. If the bill was issued more than six years ago it may be statute barred, but if it is more recent you are probably going to have to make an arrangement to pay it. If you are not sure if you are liable to pay this, go to your local Citizens Advice;
- you may even find you have a CCJ you knew nothing about as the court papers were sent to your old address. If this happens you may be able to get the CCJ removed by applying to have it “set aside”.
“I went bankrupt and they have sent me a new bill”
Water arrears and the current year’s water bills are included in your bankruptcy or Debt Relief Order, so you should not have to make any payments until the next April when the new billing year starts.
But sometimes you may be sent a bill for the rest of the current year. For example if you went bankrupt or your DRO started on June, the company is saying that the April-June debt is wiped out but you have to pay from July to March. This is wrong! If it happens to you, contact your local Citizens Advice or go back to the adviser who helped you set up the DRO.
Which approach will work for you?
If this is the first water bill you have a problem with, getting an arrangement to pay is probably your best option. But if your arrears are large and you have a low income or other debts, then it’s good to explore the other alternatives.