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‘Payment holiday’ for 2,800 OAPs with water bill arrears

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Up to 2,800 pensioners in Cambridgeshire – but not in Cambridge itself – who are in arrears with Anglian Water are to get a ‘payments holiday’.

The hand out will come from Cambridgeshire County Council which could have up to £800,000 to get rid of quickly and which must be used to help the elderly.

The council says the money – part of the authority’s Household Support Fund allocation from the Government to support vulnerable households – has to be spent by the end of the month.

And to ensure the part of the allocation ring fenced for the elderly goes to the right people, arrangements have been made with Anglian Water to identify those in arrears.

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Paul Fox, the county council’s interim deputy director for communities, employment and skills, explained to councillors that customers of Cambridge Water won’t benefit.

He said: “Broadly we have discussed with Anglian Water how we might best use their offices to support those in need.”

Mr Fox said Anglian Water had been able to identify pensioners who are in arrears with water bills and the unallocated amount from the Household Support Fund would help them out.

The actual amount available was expected to be around £800,000 and the council was working with Anglian Water to agree what level of debt would trigger the payment holiday and for how long.

“Cambridge Water has been unable to come to the same arrangement,” he said.

He accepted it would create “inherent inequity across county but it is not one we can close”.

The second tranche of the Household Support Fund covers the period 1 April 2022 to 30 September 2022 inclusive.

Cambridgeshire was allocated £3,581,424 to spend to support vulnerable households in most need of support to help with significantly rising living costs.

At least one third of the total funding was ring fenced to support pensioners.

Councillors heard that for the pensioner element, the council partnered with Age UK Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (Age UK CAP).

“Age UK CAP have a dedicated team processing applications to the fund, both as direct applications and referrals from other partners,” said  a report to councillors.

“As part of the application, the team also assess for and offer other support that is available.

“Once the Age UK CAP team have identified that an award is appropriate, the details are passed to the Council’s Anti-Poverty Hub team, who process the award.”

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However the report added: “While this offer was widely publicised with partners and directly to the public through print materials, social media and local media coverage, take up was slow.

“Several factors may have contributed to this, including:

1: The pensioner cohort are less likely to consume online media which means communications campaigns take more time to gain traction.

2: The pensioner cohort are less likely to apply for support.

3: The pensioner cohort have been inundated with anti-scams and anti-fraud messaging over a long period.

“This has been successful in reducing the number of pensioners who are victims of such crime, but this also means that legitimate offers of support can be viewed with distrust,” said the report.

The report noted that some authorities have taken the approach of issuing vouchers by letter to large numbers of individuals.

But the council felt there were a number of downsides and risks to this approach”.

Some will not redeem the voucher at all, either through fear of being scammed or belief that it is marketing material.

And where cash out vouchers have previously been used in large numbers over a short period of time, there have been reports of shops and post offices refusing to redeem the voucher.

There was also the issue of mobility and/or transport challenges involved in accessing a shop or post office with a cash out facility to redeem the voucher. (iv) Most voucher schemes cannot be personalised, and vouchers could be at risk of misappropriation.

“Given the challenges around delivery and redemption of vouchers, the council has been seeking ways to put support directly towards people’s bills,” said the report.

“Targeting those pensioner households who are in arrears on their water bill would mean that the council is supporting those who are starting to struggle with their bills (water bill arrears are often an early indicator of financial distress), as well as those who have been struggling for some time,” said the report.

“The number of households who would be supported – Anglian Water indicate there are approximately 2,800 customers of pensionable age in Cambridgeshire who are in arrears on their water bills.

“The council does not currently have similar data for Cambridge Water customers.”

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