BUSINESS HURTING: Chair of Regional Development Australia Tony Riddle has gone into bat for Sunshine Coast businsses hit by services charges.
BUSINESS HURTING: Chair of Regional Development Australia Tony Riddle has gone into bat for Sunshine Coast businsses hit by services charges. John McCutcheon

Unitywater defends price hike

UNITYWATER has defended its price rises after a Coast business leader hit out at the utilities company accusing it of sending small businesses broke.

In Saturday's Sunshine Coast Daily Tony Riddle, chair of the Sunshine Coast branch of Regional Development Australia, said bureaucrats had no idea what it was like "in the real world" where profits and costs were finely balanced.

In a hard-hitting opinion piece written for the Daily, Mr Riddle took particular aim at electricity and water providers whose price increases could cripple a business owner.

However, Unitywater Executive Manager Retail Services, Judy Bailey, said the organisation was "very aware" of the pressures facing small business and was committed to keeping fees low.

A new pricing structure rolled out between 2013 and 2016 had driven savings for many business owners and replaced a "very complex set of fees and charges" inherited from six former councils.

"It also has more of an emphasis on user-payers, with customers having more control over their bills," Ms Bailey said.

"Access charges", such as those cited by Mr Riddle, were not an extra and not new and helped cover the cost of vital water and sewerage infrastructure.

"They are also in accordance with legislation but, most importantly, they are applied consistently and help to safeguard the quality of life for our customers.

"During the transition to the current pricing structure, we worked closely with many business owners to help lower their bills.

"We had a proactive program encouraging business customers to take advantage of a number initiatives, including a subsidised review to determine if their water meter could be downsized, thereby lowering access charges," Ms Bailey said.

But Mr Riddle said he'd seen examples on the ground of the impact of rising costs for essential services.

"It's the death of a thousand cuts."

In one example, he said the owner of a chemical manufacturing business which employed about 50 people, had seen its annual water bill jump from $40,000 to $60,000 simply because UnityWater decided to change the way it calculated costs.

"Instead of just the amount of water used, this company was now going to be charged for the size of the pipe that brought water to its factory.

"I just cannot see that the UnityWater board, or the regulators who have allowed this to happen, can look this small business in the eye and say that the process is fair and just.

"And, while I'm on the subject of water, can somebody tell me why I should be expected to pay a fee because a property I own is connected to a water pipe that runs past it, but from which I never take water?

"I'm told it's because I could access the water should I ever require it.

"It's about the best business model I've ever heard of.

"Maybe I should start up a coffee shop near UnityWater's head office and charge UnityWater for the cost of all the coffee their employees don't buy as they walk past my shop!

"Utilities like Unitywater and other government agencies and listed corporates that operate similar monopolies have a responsibility not just to their shareholders, but to the customers they purport to service."