Jackie Baillie urges water bills freeze during Covid-19 crisis

The Scottish Government has been urged to freeze water bills for the next few years, after above inflation price rises were due to be recommended.
Scottish Labour's finance spokesperson, Jackie Baillie, has urged the government to freeze water bills during the coronavirus crisis.Scottish Labour's finance spokesperson, Jackie Baillie, has urged the government to freeze water bills during the coronavirus crisis.
Scottish Labour's finance spokesperson, Jackie Baillie, has urged the government to freeze water bills during the coronavirus crisis.

Scottish Labour’s Deputy Leader Jackie Baillie has written to Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham asking that a hike in charges be delayed while people’s bank balances and jobs are hit by the coronavirus lockdown.

Ms Baillie says the Scottish Water Industry Commissioner’s strategic review of water charges would lead to an above inflation price increase which could hit “individuals and businesses hard” and should not be implemented until 2023.

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Her demand comes just days after Citizens Advice Scotland warned of a “cost of living crisis” in Scotland as people were increasingly concerned about how they will continue to pay bills, debt, rent and mortgages.

In her letter, Ms Baillie said while the charges review was set in motion “long before we knew of the challenges of Covid-19”, the economic impact of the virus was yet to be “fully understood”

She adds: “As I am sure you are finding too, in my constituency, local businesses and households are experiencing severe financial trauma and are extremely worried about their economic future. I know this to be the experience across Scotland and the recent research from Citizens Advice Scotland has highlighted what they have called a “cost of living crisis”.

“Any above inflation charge increase at any time would warrant very close scrutiny, public debate and the opportunity to respond to a consultation. This would not seem an appropriate time for that with everyone rightly focusing on Covid-19.

“I would urge you to suspend the strategic review of charges and therefore not add to the financial worries of people currently. In addition it would seem appropriate not to increase charges at all for at least the coming two to three years – freezing them at current levels.”

The recent tracking poll for Citizens Advice Scotland of more than 1,000 adults across Scotland found significant concerns about people’s ability to meet a range of everyday financial commitments.

A third of Scots are concerned about their ability to pay for food and essentials, four in ten with debt repayments are concerned about paying those, while a similar number of renters are also concerned about being able to meet rent payments; this compares to 31 per cent of those who have mortgages being concerned about making those payments, Around a third of those who pay utility bills are concerned about paying for those bills.

The poll cames as both the Scottish and UK Governments, as well as industry regulators, announced a range of measures to help people with the cost of living during the coronavirus crisis, including worker retention pay for employers, increased availability of the Scottish Welfare Fund, further funding for Council Tax Reduction and an increased value of benefits like Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits.

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Ms Baillie, Scottish Labour’s finance spokesperson, said: “The fact that the Water Industry Commissioner found it acceptable to consider increasing water charges to significantly higher levels than inflation fails to reflect our current circumstances and the struggle that individuals and businesses will face.

“What we currently know about the economic effects of Covid-19 is only the very tip of the iceberg. It is vital that the Scottish Government commits to a complete freeze of water charges for at least the next two to three years until people and businesses across Scotland manage to get back on their feet.

“I hope that it considers this proposal. The Scottish Government should commit to a freeze for water charges as this would go a long way in relieving the public and businesses of any increased burden for their water at a time of great financial difficulty.”

The Scottish Government does not directly set water charges, and a spokesperson said: “A charge review process is ongoing, with a consultation into the objectives and principles of charging just recently concluded.”

He added: “We are supporting domestic customers through a discount for those claiming council tax reduction and also for single occupancy households, and as we do not meter household customers they are not facing higher bills due to increased water use whilst staying at home.

“In addition we are supporting businesses through this extremely difficult period and we have invested around £60 million worth of support into the water retail market to help customers with payment terms - measures that will be extended as necessary.

“Our total package for businesses now totals £2.3 billion and actively works to fill the gaps in the UK scheme. We would encourage businesses to liaise with their local authority on what other support might be available to them.”

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