Ofwat on the Open Water Programme

Posted on by Helen Robinson-Gordon

Helen Robinson-Gordon, Head of Communications for Retail Market Opening at Ofwat, discusses the Open Water Programme, which will offer non-household customers a choice of supplier and access to tailored packages.

As we head through the autumn, the English and Welsh water companies have embarked on a significant step in a process that should see evolutionary, possibly, some would say, revolutionary change to the industry. You will be forgiven for not necessarily knowing much about it – the benefits for the business customer come next year…But right now, water companies are busy testing a whole raft of systems and processes which will in turn allow businesses and public sector to switch service suppliers – just as they do for gas and electricity.

But let’s just pause a moment to explain what’s going on here. From April 2017, over 1.2 million eligible businesses, charity and public sector customers in England will be able to choose their water and wastewater retail services supplier. From the smallest high street shops to the largest public authorities, all who are eligible will be able to shop around and choose their retailer or discuss their existing deal with their current supplier.

Retail services mean things like billing, water metering, support and information about water efficiency measures. If a business is eligible – and broadly speaking that means an organisation based in England that currently pays a water bill, in most cases will probably pay business rates and is not supplied by a water company based wholly or mainly in Wales – then it could benefit from:

  • lower bills and better value for money
  • better customer service
  • more tailored services to suit the business needs and
  • help to become more water-efficient

There is a handy interactive ‘eligibility checker’ on the Open Water website, www.open-water.org.uk. to help customers check if they are eligible to switch.

Once open, this will be the largest market of its kind in the world and the water companies will be using the next few months to test their processes within the operating systems that have been created to make the market work. All the companies have completed their final data uploads to the Central Market Operating System (CMOS) and that is largely due to a huge amount of work by companies themselves and the private company they set up create the market and its systems – Market Operator Services Limited (MOSL). MOSL is one of the partners in the Open Water programme – the body set up to bring the retail market to life. The other two partners are the water regulator, Ofwat and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

When the market opens, eligible businesses and other non-household customers will be able to shop around for their water and wastewater retailer, just as they do for other goods and services. Licensed retail suppliers – some of which will be existing companies with new retail ‘arms’, some will be new kids on the block – will compete for customers and those customers will be free to choose their water retailer by looking at who has the best deal for them.

But all of this assumes the customer knows that such choice exists and at present, surveys and anecdotal evidence tells us that many don’t. Ofwat has recently commissioned a qualitative and quantitative survey of eligible customers in England to better understand the levels of awareness and understanding. Alongside that, one of the most important pieces of work now for the Open Water programme – led by Ofwat – is to raise awareness of the market and of choice, for the customer and of the fact that a customer can switch suppliers at any point once that market opens.

Understandably, existing companies will be communicating with their business customers to try to retain and reassure them and new entrant retailers will be marketing their services to prospective customers. For the Programme and for Ofwat in particular there is a clear need to ensure there is independent, impartial and reliable information available and that it’s out there, easily accessible, free from market bias. With that in mind and in conjunction with Water UK, there are plans to run a national awareness campaign early in 2017. Alongside that the Open Water website has recently been relaunched to be far more customer facing and programme partners are embarking on a series of workshops, meetings and attending more regional and local events to help raise awareness respond to queries and feedback.

Ofwat is also working on developing a voluntary code of conduct for third party intermediaries. While Ofwat does not currently have powers to regulate them, it will be spelling out what it expects to see from responsible brokers and agents. It has already published a Code of Conduct for customer protection which gives greater protection to eligible businesses, particularly micro-businesses.

So with less than six months to go, it’s clearly a busy time but also an exciting time for the water industry and for the 1.2 million customers who stand to benefit from the opening of this market.

 

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