Protecting customers in the forthcoming retail market for water

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Most ‘non-household’ customers must currently use services provided by their local monopoly water only or water and wastewater companies.

However new provisions in the Water Act 2014 will allow eligible non-household customers to choose their supplier of water and wastewater retail services from April 2017.

So NFU members who rely on mains water for business purposes can look forward to some interesting developments over the next 15 months.

As non-household customers they will be able to shop around and switch to the best deal.

Opening the new market is a complex challenge – and there are many ongoing issues with the de-regulated energy market that all parties are keen to avoid repeating - but the design of the new system is almost complete.

A key element of the design process is to ensure that customers are appropriately protected in the new retail market.

As part of this process, Ofwat has launched a public consultation that focuses on the customer protection arrangements that will be necessary to ensure that the new retail market operates effectively and in the best interests of customers.

In its response, currently in draft form, the NFU highlights the special characteristics of farming and growing businesses. Farmers and growers are, by their nature, geographically isolated in rural areas and so the level of service received in terms of supply is paramount to them.

So whilst some NFU members will no doubt be interested in low input prices that non-household retail competition could bring, many others may be apprehensive about operational issues surrounding their continued access to  a secure supply of mains water.

Farmers’ apprehension will no doubt be elevated during times of water scarcity and droughts if they have to contend with, for example, reduced mains pressure (at the end of the pipe) and reliable access to water for livestock drinking. We suspect that farmers are a good example of customers who could be vulnerable and in need of protection when things go wrong.

We therefore agree with the proposed introduction of a mandatory Customer Protection Code of Practice, and a range of measures proposed by Ofwat and design to offer particular protection to small business.