Hard lessons for water sector following “Beast from the East” review
Ofwat yesterday revealed the full impact of the “Beast from the East” on water customers in England and Wales, with a report that shows more than 200,000 customers did not have water supply for more than four hours and tens of thousands were left off supply for days.
A review launched by Ofwat in the aftermath of the Beast from the East has found that water companies’ frontline staff worked tirelessly. While some water companies were well prepared for the severe weather – which had been forecasted – others performed badly, causing significant hardship for their customers.
Ofwat found too many incidences of poor advance planning, inadequate communication with customers and a lack of basic support such as bottled water. Research by the Consumer Council for Water suggests that almost three quarters of customers who were affected did not receive alternative supplies of water. In some cases, customers were left to fend for themselves or depend upon the support of local bodies or volunteers.
Common failings across a number of water companies included:
- Poor preparation and planning, with several companies lacking adequate emergency response plans and mainly reacting to events as they happened;
- A lack of coordination between companies to share resources such as bottled water suppliers or best practice in handing the incident;
- Limited or inaccurate data on where problems were occurring and whether they had been resolved, with several companies having limited capacity to remotely manage their networks and move resources which also hampered their response;
- An inconsistent approach to identifying and supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances, with some companies lacking accurate or up-to-date data on customers who needed priority help; and,
- Poor communication with customers and stakeholders, with only 60% of affected customers surveyed by the Consumer Council for Water receiving direct communication from their company and many priority stakeholders (councils, local resilience forums, emergency services, schools) receiving little or no proactive communication before, during or after the event.
Following the review, which was carried out in close cooperation with the Consumer Council for Water, Ofwat is requiring four water companies (Thames Water, Severn Trent, Southern Water and South East Water), to submit, no later than 28 September, a detailed, externally audited, action plan setting out how they how they are addressing the issues identified. Ofwat will take further action against any water company that provides an unsatisfactory response.
Companies have paid out £7m to customers in compensation, but Ofwat’s review has also concluded that the compensation arrangements – the Guaranteed Standards Scheme (GSS) – are not reflective of the impact on customers unable to access to water. As a result, the regulator will work with the UK and Welsh Governments to consider changes to the rules on compensation and will open a consultation by the end of next month.
Ofwat Chief Executive, Rachel Fletcher said:
“The freeze and rapid thaw earlier this year was forecast and was not unprecedented. A number of water companies showed what can be done to serve customers in the face of bad weather. But too many companies were caught off guard and let people down, causing real hardship as a result. Our report shows there is no excuse for this level of failure.
Four companies have three months to satisfy us that they will be ready to perform at the level customers deserve the next time there is bad weather. We will take action if they don’t rise to this challenge. We expect every water company to take action on the back of this review and the industry as a whole to transform how it works together in situations like these.
Water is an essential service. Water companies must be prepared for whatever the weather brings.”
Ofwat Press Office:
Fintan Hastings, Senior Associate – Media Relations
Tel: 0121 644 7642
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