Author: Claire Forbes, Senior Director of Corporate Communications
“Trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback.” This old proverb was quoted recently in a discussion about trust in the water sector in England and Wales. It sums up the predicament the water sector finds itself in.
We all rely on water. It is essential for getting through the day – for drinking, cooking, cleaning. It is one of those things that we may take for granted when we have it, but soon feel the effects when we don’t.
Trust is a key part of this. We can take water for granted because we trust that the water we drink is safe, and that when we turn on the tap it will flow freely. And trust relates not just to what we drink, but what happens when we flush the loo and when wastewater and sewage is treated.
This year, trust in the water sector has started to feel precarious. Against a backdrop of rising concerns about the release of untreated sewage into rivers, drought warnings and leakage, customers and stakeholders have told us that their trust in the sector has been shaken.
To find out more about how people view their water company and their perceptions of the water sector, we commissioned research agency Savanta to conduct a survey across England and Wales in late 2022.
The findings show declining trust in water and wastewater companies to deliver key parts of their service. People’s trust in them to take away wastewater and sewage and deal with it responsibly has fallen. Trust to act in the interests of the environment has fallen. Trust to provide a reliable service has fallen.
The picture is clear: the decline in trust is not confined to those issues making the headlines, but rather is spreading to activities such as ensuring good quality drinking water.
Trust and wider perceptions are inextricably linked. Survey respondents were asked a series of questions about whose interests’ companies consider. The findings show that people are almost twice as likely to agree (scoring 8-10 on a ten-point scale) that their water provider puts the interests of shareholders/owners first than they are to agree they act in the interests of customers or the environment:
- 47% agree that their water provider puts the interests of their shareholders/owners first
- 27% agree that their water provider acts in the interests of the environment
- 25% agree that their water provider acts in the interests of customers
There has been an increase in the proportion of people who disagree that their water company acts in the interests of the environment (scoring their company 1-3 on a ten-point scale). One in six now feel this way, compared to the one in ten respondents who held this view a year ago. There is a real risk to water companies and to the water sector that negative views will become more entrenched.
Companies will need to be ambitious and bold to achieve the scale of change that is needed to secure customer trust and improve outcomes. Crucially, they need to communicate with their customers about this change – telling them what they plan to do, when they’ve done it, and what difference it will make.
Companies should immediately update customers on their river water quality action plans. Almost a year on from their introduction, what have they achieved, what are the next steps, and are they delivering what customers want. The research shows customers will be receptive to this – almost half (47%) want to hear more from their water company on what steps they are taking to improve river water quality.
Communicating openly and fully with customers should benefit both customers and companies. The research found people who report hearing from their water company via two or more channels are more likely to think the company understands what customers need.
When companies don’t tell their customers what they are doing, the gap is filled by others. There is no value to be gained in keeping quiet or trying to avoid this conversation.
At Ofwat, we will be continuing to push companies to be ambitious, to take responsibility and to provide customers with the service they expect and deserve. We will be listening to customers and stakeholders to understand companies’ progress to rebuild trust. We will back companies with ambitious and high quality business plans in PR24 and hold companies to account to deliver for customers and the environment.
The full report, data tables, and questionnaire for the Trust and Perceptions research are available on Ofwat’s website.