Widowed farmer, 78, threatened with bailiffs over water bill error

More farmers have come forward over water billing errors and overpayments.

The issue was first highlighted by Oxfordshire livestock farmer Jeffrey Warhurst, who featured in a Farmers Weekly article last month after being wrongly charged for water used for livestock and crop spraying.

See: Farmer outraged by incorrect charge for water disposal

Now the case of 78-year-old widower Arthur Alsop has come to light.

Mr Alsop has refused to pay bills he believes he should not have received and has twice been threatened with bailiff visits to collect debts.

For 25 years Mr Alsop, a Warwickshire livestock farmer, was charged an annual fee by Severn Trent Water for only the domestic water returning to the sewer.

Billing error

But two years ago, Mr Alsop’s account was switched to a retail company, Water Plus, as the non-domestic water market opened to competition.

The move coincided with a tragic period for Mr Alsop, and a billing error went unnoticed.

“Just as Water Plus was set up I lost my wife who used to look after the farm accounts,” Mr Alsop explained. “I unwittingly paid the next bill.

Then on the second bill I realised that I was being charged a sum that assumed all the water was returning to the sewer.

“Last summer I carted near 200,000 litres of water to cattle on outlying land and I should not be paying for that,” he said.

Mr Alsop paid for the domestic water he had used and explained that he had withheld payment for the non-return water. But this only complicated the matter.

“They just kept adding the charges to my bill, so I stopped paying any bills at all, thinking it would make them sit up and take notice.”

Baliffs

Mr Alsop also returned the bills by post, writing directly to a named Water Plus office manager and calling for an urgent response.

But instead he received a warning letter from a debt-collecting agency to recoup the cost, which had mounted to about £2,000. “The letter said that if I did not pay, bailiffs would be sent in to collect the debt.

“All this aggro at 78 years old is not good for my health or mind, as I have never owed anybody a penny in my life and I could do with it settled before it’s too late,” he added.

Farmers Weekly highlighted Mr Alsop’s case to Water Plus, which has now contacted him to resolve the issue.

A spokeswoman said: “We’re really sorry about the problems that Mr Alsop has experienced. 

“We’re talking to him, and the wholesaler, about the charges on his account and what we can do to help him.”

She added that Severn Trent, the wholesaler in this case, had a standard process for reviewing and granting non-return to sewer allowances. 

“They wrote to customers about this when the non-domestic water market opened to competition. 

Water Plus, as the water retailer, works with eligible customers to help them complete the required steps of the process,” the spokeswoman said.  

New water meter could provide a solution

Leicestershire-based beef farmer John Lawton has been battling with the same companies – Severn Trent and Water Plus – for more than two years.

Despite completing forms to apply for the non-return allowance, Mr Lawton was billed for all the water used – including what was going to livestock troughs.

He opted to stop paying that part of the bill and the amount he owed accumulated to about £2,000, prompting threats of court action to recover the debt.

However, after a long correspondence, Water Plus agreed to write off the cost, provided a second meter was installed at a cost of £500 to monitor water returned to the sewer.

But the company has taken a year to fit the meter. During the 12 months Mr Lawton continued to refuse paying for all of the water entering the sewer, instead paying a set amount of 20% of the amount billed.

“That should cover the domestic use by some margin so it was more than fair as an interim,” he said.

However, Water Plus has insisted he should still have  paid 100% of the cost attributed to water returned to the sewer.

The dispute means debts have mounted to £1,500 with a further £300 levied as a penalty for non-payment.

Mr Lawton is hoping the new meter, which is finally being fitted this week, will show how much water he is using.

Review bills

The growing number of cases of disputes with water retailers has prompted the NFU to encourage all farms to review their water bills.

NFU water specialist Paul Hammett said it was impossible to put a figure on how many farms were facing the issues.

He suggested that anyone using mains water for the farm which was not being returned to the sewer could be caught up.

“It is particularly so where they have livestock troughs or other systems in place so that a significant amount of the water used on the farm doesn’t end up in the sewer.” 

Mr Hammett advised farmers to check their bills to ensure they are only paying for the water and wastewater services received.

If rainwater goes to ground or natural watercourses rather than to the public sewer, a surface water drainage rebate could also apply.

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