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Page last updated at 17:17 GMT, Friday, 18 June 2010 18:17 UK

South West water bills 'unfairness' divides opinion

A rocky coastline
Lovely - but who's paying for it?

Water bills in the South West are the highest in the country because the region's residents have to pay for the upkeep of 30% of England's coastline - even though they make up only three per cent of the population.

And that means, says Plymouth Moor View MP Alison Seabeck, that some of the nation's least well-off families are paying for the upkeep of beaches that are largely used by wealthier holidaymakers from outside the region.

But Environment Minister Richard Benyon told the Labour MP in a Commons debate this week that there were "no easy answers" to the problem.

An independent review of water charges, led by Anna Walker, was published in December and recommended increasing the number of households with water meters and help for those struggling to pay bills. But nothing has happened since.

The Walker Report put forward three options to help South West Water customers.

The first is a one-off subsidy to South West Water - a private company - that would cost the Government an estimated £650 million. It's a sum ministers may be hard pressed to find.

The second option suggests a Robin Hood approach that would mean water customers across the country each having to pay a bit more to help customers in the South West.

The third option would see the introduction of a seasonal tariff with water costing up to four times more in the Summer.

Transformed

But Winter charges would be significantly lower, saving the average domestic customer about £50 a year.

Keith Richards of South West Water prefers the first two options, pointing out that the company has had to spend £2 billion over 20 years on improving the South West's coastal bathing waters.

"Three per cent of the population have paid for 30% of the bathing waters in England and Wales to be transformed in quality," he told The Politics Show.

"Ultimately, the solution is for the other 97% to pay a little bit more."

Charles Howeson of the Consumer Council For Water, speaking last year, said he preferred option one as it would involve the Government accepting that it should pay the £650 million to South West Water so that customers in the South West would be in the same position as those in the rest of the country.

"That's the only one that works," he said.

Adam Southwell of the Fairwater Head Hotel near Lyme Regis is concerned about any prospect of seasonal tariffs.

Burden

"It's a tight business to be in at the moment," he tells The Politics Show. "We would have to look at putting our prices up just because of the increase in the price of water.

"I would have to add four to five pounds per person per night to the bill just to cover the increase in the seasonal tariff."

Speaking in the Commons debate, Alison Seabeck told the Minister: "The problem we face is simple: water rates in the South West are 25% higher than the UK average, placing an unfair burden on the budgets of my constituents and all residents across the South West of England."

The debate heard that the Prime Minister himself acknowledged the problem when he said, while holidaying in the region: "I understand the unfairness that people feel in the South West that they are paying a lot of money so that there are clean beaches for people like me from Oxfordshire to come and play on."

Mrs Seabeck went on: "The bill payers I have spoken to feel it is unfair and indefensible to expect some of the nation's least well-off families to shoulder the burden of the cost of a system that requires them to pay for the upkeep of beaches that are largely used by wealthier holidaymakers from outside the region who do not pay for the coastline in the South West.

"A solution to that long-standing injustice must be found. I appreciate that many of the options would have consequences for bill payers elsewhere, but we must resolve to produce a fairer system that does not penalise low-income families merely for living on a peninsula surrounded by the sea."

The Government has refused to be drawn on dates but says legislation to improve the affordability and fairness of water charges are among its priorities.

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