The beginning of April and the start of the new tax year is typically when a flurry of household bills are hiked – but the government and utility companies are doing more to help as the coronavirus outbreak plunges many into financial trouble.
Some local councils have stepped forward with a two-month council tax holiday until June and mobile phone providers are offering free data and access to the NHS website to keep people connected.
Such moves will provide welcome relief as will cuts in energy costs and water that were already in the pipeline.
Here, Which? rounds up the household bills hat are changing, whether there’s any help available to cope with the impact of coronavirus and offers tips to save.
1. Council tax
Council tax is going up across England and Wales for 2020-21.
In 98 local authority areas, bills will bust central government’s recommended 4% tax cap and 24 councils have gone above 5%.
Wales will see the biggest percentage rises with bills everywhere rising 8% or more – much more than in England. The highest increase is in Pembrokeshire at 15.4% with £1,252.41 levied on Band D properties.
The average band D council tax bill in England will increase by 3.9% but the picture varies widely. The highest rise of 6.84% is in Wycombe while the lowest is in the East Riding of Yorkshire where bills will rise by 0.72%.
The biggest increases don’t spell the most expensive bills. Band D residents in Rutland will pay the most at £2,125.25.
For all you need to know about your new council tax bill, read our story on 2020-21 council tax increases.
What coronavirus means for your bill: In response to coronavirus, the government is providing a £500m hardship fund to cut council tax bills of low-income working-age people and support the vulnerable through local welfare.
This is in addition to the existing hardship relief for those experiencing exceptional hardship for reasons beyond their control.
Some councils have paused payments for April and May by flipping the two months when they don’t usually collect council tax from the back end of the year in February and March to the start of this tax year.
The Local Government Association wasn’t at the time of writing able to say how many councils were doing this. But those who need to pause payments can do so in the city of Derby and across Wiltshire and Shropshire. People in Cheshire East can spread their payments across 12 months.
It’s important that you contact your council if you are struggling to pay your council tax bill and don’t simply cancel your direct debit. Council tax is a ‘priority debt’ which means there can be severe consequences if you don’t pay.
Money-saving tip: There’s no real way to avoid council tax hikes (unless you downsize or have your property revalued to a lower band) but you could be eligible for council tax discounts.
You can get a 25% single-person discount if you live alone or with a full-time student or you are living with someone with a severe mental impairment such as dementia.
- Find out more: reducing your council tax bill
2. TV licences
From 1 April, a colour TV licence will go up £3 to £157.50 a year – a 2% increase based on inflation.
The licence fee was set by the government to follow inflation for five years from 1 April 2017. The exact rise is worked out by averaging the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rate of inflation for the 12 months to September.
Currently, over-75s don’t have to pay licence fees, but this was meant to change on 1 June 2020.
What coronavirus means for your bill: The BBC has delayed the move to scrap free TV licences for over-75s until 1 August because of coronavirus, giving as many as 3.7 million people a break.
On Monday 16 March, BBC chairman Sir David Clementi announced the delay saying these are ‘exceptional circumstances’ and ‘now is not the right time’.
He added: ‘We are fully focused on delivering our services to the public at this difficult time.’
‘As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a vital role to play in supplying information to the public in the weeks and months ahead.’
The BBC said it would cover the cost of the two-month delay and would keep the situation under review.
Money-saving tip: You could beat next year’s increase by buying or renewing your licence before the next rise in April 2021.
You can pay in instalments or in one go but as long as you start your year’s licence before 1 April, you’ll continue to pay the old rate until its 12 months are up.
You could save £104.50 by swapping to a black and white licence at £53 from April – perfect for old or art-house films.
Check if you qualify for a special concession. If you are 75 or over and receiving or living with someone getting pension credit, the licence is free. If your sight is severely impaired or you are blind, the licence is half price at £78.75.
- Find out more: 50 ways to save money
3. Energy bills
The price of energy will fall for around 15 million households thanks to lower caps after the underlying price of energy dropped last year.
Two caps come into effect on 1 April and will last until 30 September 2020. Energy providers are forced to comply with both.
Customers on tariffs governed by either the default price cap such as standard variable tariffs, or the pre-payment meter cap, will see costs nudge down – provided use stays the same.
A typical user affected by the default price cap will see their bill drop £17 or almost 1.5% over 12 months to £1,162 but they could save £305 over a year – 18 times as much – switching to a cheaper deal, according to energy watchdog Ofgem.
What coronavirus means for your bill: On 18 March the government announced new measures for those struggling to pay their gas or electricity bill as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Any customer in financial distress will be supported by their supplier, the government says. Different options will be offered by different energy firms, but could include:
- Your debt payments being reassessed, reduced or paused.
- Your bill payments being reassessed, reduced or paused.
For more information on what your supplier is doing to help with bills check out our story: help with energy bills announced by the UK government.
It’s vitally important that you contact your provider if you are struggling to cover your energy bill and don’t simply cancel your monthly direct debit.
If you cancel the direct debit, this will be considered a missed payment and could be registered on your credit report, potentially affecting your chances of obtaining credit in the future.
Money-saving tip: While the unit price cut is good news, energy costs could still rise because of increased use because of self-isolation and home working. As well as switching using an independent website like Which? Switch, it’s also worth cutting consumption. Check out the Energy Saving Trust and government energy efficiency schemes.
- Find out more: Good news – your energy bills could be going down
4. Water bills
Average household water and sewerage bills in England and Wales will fall by £17 or 4% to £396.60 after pressure from regulator Ofwat.
However, some people will see rises, in some cases of 4%, because prices vary among service suppliers.
What coronavirus means for your bill: No special measures have been brought in yet to help households going through financial hardship because of the impact of coronavirus.
However, Ofwat says that customers should get in contact with their water supplier for help if they can’t afford their bill. You can find out who your supplier is using the Water UK tool.
The regulator said it expects companies to:
- Consider schemes such as payment holidays and payment matching.
- Continue to help customers pay their bills through WaterSure, Social Tariffs and other affordability schemes.
- Continue to keep in close contact with their customers to make sure their customers are aware that such schemes are available in the event that someone is struggling to pay their bills.
If you are unhappy with the response from your water company, you can contact CCW, the statutory consumer body for the water sector in England and Wales, which will be able to offer further help and advice.
Again, it’s vitally important that you contact your provider if you are struggling to pay and don’t simply cancel your monthly direct debit.
If you cancel your payment it could be registered on your credit report, potentially affecting your chances of obtaining credit in the future.
Money-saving: Unlike other utilities, you can’t change your water provider.
One way to save could be to switch to a water meter. Your bill is worked out based on how much water you use.
Typically if you have more people in your house than rooms, you’ll probably save money by having a meter
People who use a lot of water for health or family reasons could get help with their bills as water companies look to double the number of people they help with their bills in the next five years.
- 5. NHS prescriptions
The prescription charge is rising 15p to £9.15 on 1 April in line with inflation.
What coronavirus means for your medication: Some medicines including paracetamol and ibuprofen are becoming increasingly hard to get hold of as people stock up to ride out the coronavirus lockdown.
But even before the pandemic hit, there were issues with prescription medicine shortages in the UK. In December 2019 we found that one in four Which? members had experienced problems getting hold of the medicines they needed because of stock shortages in the past year.
You can find out more about prescription shortages and what to do about them in our story coronavirus and medicine shortages: what’s going on?
Money-saving tip: If you need a lot of prescriptions, a pre-payment certificate (PPC) is worth considering. Their prices were held last year but will go up this time.
A three-month certificate will cost 55p more at £29.65 but you’ll save if you need three or more prescriptions in that time.
A 12-month PPC goes up £1.90 to £105.90 and gives savings on 11 or more items.
- Find out more: who qualifies for free NHS prescriptions?
6. Car tax
Vehicle excise duty is going up in line with RPI on 1 April except for fully electric cars, for which you don’t pay any car tax because they don’t emit CO2.
For owners that have to pay, that’s rises of between around £2 to £40 for the most polluting.
However, most other new cars are likely to be taxed more than identical models registered before April. A new pollution test that’s more reflective of real-life driving has found cars to be dirtier than previously recognised.
This means many models are likely to be bumped into higher-paying tax bands from £20 more shooting up to £535 more, although this rate is only payable in their first year.
The government has lopped off the expensive car supplement on brand new zero-emission cars, saving owners up to £1,600. Such cars with a list price of £40,000 or more registered on or after 1 April will no longer be taxed an extra £320 in their second to sixth year.
- Find out more: car tax explained
7. Mobile phone bills
Vodafone pay-monthly customers who took out contracts on or after 5 May 2016 will see their bills rise by 2.5% in April.
Others including BT and EE put them up at the end of March, so customers will start to feel the impact this month.
Mobile networks are allowed to raise their prices based on inflation but the exact increases vary depending on which measure of inflation they pick (CPI or the typically higher Retail Prices Index, RPI) and which month the measure is taken from (both CPI and RPI are measured monthly).
BT, for example, increased bills based on January’s CPI of 1.3% and put this into effect from March 2020 for mobile and broadband customers who signed up or re-contracted between 11 January 2019 and 16 January 2020.
But O2 and Three’s 2.7% rise is based on January’s RPI and will come into effect in April and May respectively. O2’s rise applies only to the Airtime Plan for Refresh customers.
EE used December’s RPI to raise bills by 2.2% from 30 March for pay-monthly contract customers.
Mobile network price hikes for 2020-21
Virgin Mobile is not shown on the graph because its exact rise for pay-monthly and Sim-only plans won’t be known until at least late April as it will be based on March’s RPI and tariff changes.
What coronavirus means for your mobile bill: BT Mobile, EE, O2 , Three and Vodafone are all giving customers access to NHS websites without it eating into their data allowance.
Vodafone will boost allowances for half a million pay-monthly customers with 30 days of free, unlimited data as well as automatically giving the same help to other pay-monthly customers it considers as vulnerable. The vulnerable will be texted while the ones not on unlimited data will need to go via Vodafone’s app and onto the VeryMe rewards scheme.
Virgin Media offered 2.7 million pay-monthly mobile customers unlimited minutes to landlines and mobiles from 23 March plus 10GB of free data for a month. It may continue these measures depending on how long the UK lockdown lasts.
Sky has also offered a free 10GB boost and free UK calls to landlines up to 30 April. It is not counting data to access NHS websites against use.
If you are struggling to pay your mobile bill, resist the urge to cancel the monthly direct debit. If you are in the middle of a contract it will be registered on your credit report and impact your credit score which will impact your ability to obtain credit.
Money-saving tip: If you’re out of contract you won’t have to pay to leave so you could consider switching either to another operator or to pay-as-you-go. Providers usually raise prices annually and as most increases have been announced, now is a good time to start shopping around.
Find out if you can cancel your contract without a penalty in our cancellation rights guide.
- You can keep up to date on our latest coverage over on our coronavirus advice hub.