2. Water - the separation of 'customers' and 'consumers'

Renters are not eligible for the same concessions as owners

Contracts for the supply of drinking water and sewerage services are linked to a property. Owner occupiers and landlords are defined as ‘customers’ of water providers and tenants/renters are defined as ‘consumers’.

The Customer Contract for water services does not apply to the ‘consumer’ occupying a property as it is the landlord who is party to the Customer Contract. This leaves tenants without important consumer protections, such as access to water concession discounts.

The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) is responsible for regulating the Operating Licences and Customer Contracts for water providers, but does not have the power to legislate changes to the rights of renters. IPART has made past recommendations for a review into a user pays framework for water services.

Water providers have taken steps to improve the rights of tenants by extending individual sections of Customer Contracts to apply to tenants. For example, Sydney Water and Hunter Water extend some payment difficulty assistance options to tenants. Tenants also have some other limited protections around water services. For example, the Sydney Water Act 1994 and Hunter Water Act 1991 require that tenants, in some circumstances, be allowed to pay outstanding water charges owed by the landlord and deduct those charges from rent.

However, as renters are overall not direct parties to the Customer Contract, and instead receive their water charges from their landlords, their pathway for dispute resolution remains less clear. There are significant hurdles discouraging renters from complaining about a high bill, concealed leak, unplanned outage or water quality. For example, according to research in the report Unsettled – Life in Australia’s Private Rental Market by Choice, National Shelter and the National Association of Tenant Organisations, one in seven renters have not made a complaint or requested a repair out of fear of adverse consequences.

This means that a customer with a high water bill will be much less likely to complain to their landlord or water provider. This contributes to a cost of living divide between renters and homeowners and is unlikely to change without a review of the system for water providers in NSW. EWON receives complaints from tenants but cannot always work towards a fair outcome when the complainant is not the account holder. This creates a further divide in consumer protections, as access to external dispute resolution is limited.

Case study

Case study Renter experiences three-day supply interruption

A renter contacted EWON to complain that she had experienced a three-day water supply interruption and that she was not entitled to a rebate for the inconvenience. She was aware that other residents in her area were provided with a one off $200 deduction to their water rates because of the event. The renter contacted the water provider to see how she could claim the rebate. The water provider explained that as she did not pay for the water account directly, she was not eligible for the payment. The customer contacted her real estate agent to follow up on this payment, and she received no response.

"" EWON referred the customer to Fair Trading to make a complaint about the real estate agent, and to the Tenants' Union of NSW for advice.