Many customers experienced widespread and significant disruption to their water supply during December 2022. This was prompted by prolonged low temperatures and snowfall, from 8 to 18 December 2022, followed by a rapid thaw. In this ‘freeze thaw event’ water companies faced a significant level of burst pipes and leaks that resulted in supply interruptions.
This experience echoed extensive customer disruption prompted by the ‘beast from the east’ severe cold weather and rapid thaw in 2018. At the time, our report revealed significant customer service failures on the part of water companies, and we set out how they needed to improve.
This time round, we wanted to understand whether companies had adequately prepared and implemented plans for responding to a freeze thaw event; whether companies had properly supported their customers, how their customers were affected, whether companies demonstrated an appropriate level of resilience, and whether companies had learned the lessons from 2018.
Where we’ve seen progress
Overall, we saw most companies had learned some key lessons from the 2018 freeze-thaw event and had taken action to improve their response to incidents. The companies that had prepared better for the incident, performed better with customers experiencing fewer problems as a result. This included taking proactive measures before, during, and after the incident such as:
- Having winter preparations developed and in place by the end of October, with company communications preparing customers for adverse weather beginning as early as November 2022.
- Some companies held preparatory meetings with local resilience forums in advance of the freeze thaw, collaborating with local authorities to ensure plans were in place just in case of problems, including refreshing arrangements for the location of bottled water stations.
- As problems began, many companies reprioritised non-urgent planned works and increased the number of staff across multiple business areas, such as phone contact centres and engineers to respond to customer problems.
- There were also good examples of mutual aid and collaboration across companies to ensure that customers experiencing supply interruptions received water. This included focus on the most vulnerable customers and sites.
- For water companies experiencing supply interruptions, most companies have ensured that customers entitled to compensation received their payments promptly.
Where we need more progress
These incidents illustrate the need to better understand and anticipate the risks of future climate change impacts. Such variable weather conditions will be increasingly the norm in future and have the potential to affect supply networks and bring widespread disruptions for customers. This means water companies ensuring that:
- Assets and infrastructure are in good health so that networks and services are resilient to future challenges. For example, service reservoirs are maintained at appropriate levels in readiness for events.
- Priority Service Registers are fit for purpose to support vulnerable customers when things go wrong, comprising accurate and up-to-date customer contact information and details of customers’ individual needs.
- Current data sharing arrangements between utilities and relevant local partners improve further, with better co-ordination with local resilience forums before, during and after events so there is a coordinated and customer-centric approach.
- Communications to customers are proactive and across multiple channels so customers are kept up to date, receive accurate information, and know when issues are likely to be resolved.
- Alternative water supplies are readily available, with bottled water stations distributed in accessible locations for all customers and ensuring the most vulnerable customers are properly supported.
These are initiatives that water companies should be taking throughout the year to ensure that they are prepared for supply problems. Water companies need to be continually adapting in the face of future challenges, rather than taking a just in time reactive approach as and when problems happen.
Examples of how companies prepared for and performed during the 2022 cold weather event
South East Water particularly requires improvements in its planning and preparedness, and both South East Water and Southern Water require improvements in their provision of bottled water in response to loss of supply. Ofwat is continuing to investigate South East Water’s handling of the event and is gathering further information to get to the bottom of what happened. We are not satisfied with the information South East Water has provided so far and we are requiring more detail as to what went wrong and what it will do to better protect customers in the future. If we do not get a satisfactory response, we will not hesitate to take further action.
Following our discussions with Southern Water it has committed to make significant improvements to its approach to supplying bottled water during supply interruptions. We will monitor its future performance in this area and expect it to engage with local stakeholders. We will also work with other regulators and water companies to hold them to account for their resilience to similar future challenges.
We are feeding our learnings and insights on incident management into sector preparatory work for a possible drought event.
In partnership with CCW, we are commencing research on customer experiences of water and wastewater incidents, including supply interruptions. This will allow us to understand more about customer needs and how companies are responding in practice.
We are consulting on introducing a customer-focused condition into companies’ licenses, to provide a clear regulatory basis in relation to how companies treat their customers, including customers in vulnerable circumstances.
During 2023, we are updating our guidance to companies on support for customers in vulnerable circumstances. This will include encouraging companies to improve on current data sharing arrangements between utilities and relevant local partners in order to unlock the full benefits of data sharing for vulnerable customers. Our learning from this freeze-thaw event will inform our update, notably with respect to customers on a priority services register.
We have liaised and collaborated with DWI and CCW as part of our review. DWI has published its own consolidated review of the freeze/thaw event. We will share our findings with CCW for its project considering possible changes to the statutory customer service standards (Guaranteed Standards Scheme).
Ofwat’s letter to water companies (Jan 2023)