Can I treat the premiums like water bills and get the tenants to pay them for me?
It would be a nice idea and I suppose anything is possible. But in reality few tenants are likely to sign an agreement that requires this, just as they won’t normally be expected to pay for something like buildings insurance. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discuss insurance with them. Official surveys show that large numbers of tenants don’t have any contents insurance, though anecdotal evidence from landlords suggests that those who do tend to be better, more responsible residents. The extra benefit is that if tenants with cover end up accidentally damaging the property they might be able to claim for it against their policies, rather than forcing you to use yours.
So it could be worth raising the issue of insurance with your tenants. Endsleigh and HomeLet are the biggest players in the tenants’ contents market and it is worth suggesting that your tenants contact them for quotes.