People who have their homes flooded with sewage are frequently being let down by wastewater companies, whose response can leave customers facing long-term distress.
New research by Ofwat and CCW finds that sewer flooding has a significant negative impact on customers, regardless of the severity of the incident. Despite providing a good service initially, wastewater companies are falling short when it comes to longer term communication, resolution and compensation.
Between April 2020 and March 2021, more than 6,000 households in England and Wales experienced a sewer flooding incident inside their home. These ranged from bad smells to blockages to destroyed properties and personal belongings.
The research shows that, for many, poor communication and the lack of resolution from companies makes their distressing experience worse. These unsatisfactory responses leave customers feeling anxious, angry, frustrated and sometimes trapped. Furthermore, the psychological impact can be long-lasting: participants in the study reported sleepless nights and feelings of shame.
One customer said:
“I’m normally quite a laid-back person, but this has reached the point that I get quite cross with it now… when we had the flood at Christmas, I was in tears, and the guy was really rude. He’s the only one I’ve ever shouted at.” [Woman who lives with husband and two children]
Sewer flooding victims also report not feeling adequately compensated for the damage caused by sewer flooding. Many participants reported that they did not receive compensation, while some who did felt that it did not cover the costs they incurred or recognise the physical and emotional impact they endured.
Emma Clancy, Chief Executive of CCW, said:
“Being flooded with sewage is one of the most distressing things that can happen to you in your home, and this research has exposed a cross-sector failure which is leaving people who experience sewer flooding in vulnerable circumstances. Through CCW’s End Sewer Flooding Misery Campaign, we’re calling for improved compensation and clean-up standards for sewer flooding victims.
“Individual customer service agents are showing empathy to sewer flooding victims, but too often the perception is that the company’s empathy stops there. We want to see companies’ senior leadership teams showing commitment to ensure that flood victims feel that their water company is proactively there to help throughout their experience, from the initial response through to compensation and resolution.”
Jonson Cox, Ofwat Chair, added:
” The distress caused to a customer by their house being flooded with sewage, followed by the time for clean-up and remediation, is unthinkable.
“When it happens, customers rightly see sewer flooding as an emergency. Yet our investigation shows that companies’ response can make a bad situation even worse. The stories we heard were harrowing and unacceptable. Companies must urgently address how they communicate with customers who suffer this, how they fix the problem, and the compensation they provide to victims.
“As a result of what we have uncovered, Ofwat and CCW are calling water company CEOs to an urgent summit on service to call for immediate action.”
Participants also felt that wastewater companies could be leaning too heavily on perceived ‘loopholes’, such as flooding being caused by “exceptional weather”, to avoid taking responsibility. Some companies have already pledged to end their “exceptional weather” clause, with CCW campaigning to encourage others to follow.
Companies shouldn’t wait to act. There are a number of actions highlighted in the report that they can implement immediately:
- Provide an emergency service to victims of sewer flooding.
- Make all communications proactive, clear, empathetic and helpful, with a single point of contact to support the customer from incident to resolution.
- Respond quickly to incidents, be transparent about the cause of flooding and timescales on when it will be fixed.
- Ensure clear information on, and payment of, compensation alongside good record keeping so customers automatically receive the payments they are eligible for
Notes to editors
Note on methodology
The findings are based on qualitative research conducted by the research agency BritainThinks between 31 January and 7 March 2022.
BritainThinks conducted 50 interviews with participants who had experienced sewer flooding. They then ran six follow up workshops with participants. In total, 26 interview participants took part in a workshop.
Participants were recruited to ensure a range of experiences were included in the research. These experiences include a mix of: sewer flooding inside homes (internal) and around the outside or in the garden of homes (external); single incidences and multiple incidences; low, medium, high and very high severity; locations – with recruitment across wastewater companies in England and Wales; housing tenure and type; socio-demographics – including age, gender, ethnicity, inclusion on priority services register.
Research participants who appear in video clips have given their permission for these clips to be used in communications, including social media. Participants have the right to withdraw their permission at any point. If a participant does withdraw permission, we will ask for the clip not to be used and/or to be taken down if it has already been used.
Ofwat are the economic regulator of water and wastewater services in England and Wales.
CCW – the voice for water consumers
CCW are the independent voice for all water and sewerage consumers across England and Wales. their work includes providing advice and information on water matters and investigating complaints if water customers have tried and failed to resolve issues with their water companies and retailers.
Over the past 15 years they have supported consumers with more than 400,000 complaints and enquiries and helped to return more than £30 million in financial redress to aggrieved household and business customers.
CCW provide a strong and influential voice for consumers by keeping a close eye on and scrutinising the performance of water companies, retailers and the regulator Ofwat. CCw’s research, expertise and insights also help them to ensure the views and interests of consumers remain at the heart of the industry’s price-setting process.