Water company faults must never feel like the norm


Author: David Black, Chief Executive

Since I took over the helm at Ofwat I have been clear: water and wastewater companies need to transform both their customer service and their environmental performance. Too often sewage ends up in our rivers, in our homes and on our beaches, while leaks aren’t fixed. This has to change and, as the regulator, we are taking action to make change happen.

To start with, companies need to invest in their services – after all, they get around £10bn every year to do so. Companies need to anticipate the impact of climate change and be resilient to both drought and intense rainfall. And they need to manage their networks and treatment plants better to deal with sewage discharges into our rivers and waterways.

Most importantly, companies need to act in the interests of their customers and the environment. When things go wrong – and they sometimes will – this should be the exception. It should never feel like the norm, as has too often been the impression recently.

People also rightly want to know that, as a regulator, we are willing to step in and take firm action when companies fall short. We can and do step in, and we will hold companies firmly to account if they do not meet their obligations.

Over the past few years, water and wastewater companies have faced penalties more than a quarter of a billion pounds as a result of their failings. We have pushed shareholders to contribute more than £2bn to tackle poor performance and we’ve secured firm commitments from companies to make big cuts to leakage and pollution. And if those commitments are not met, companies will have to pay out again.

The water sector has reduced leakage by over 11% in recent years, but we’re clear that companies need to go much further. Customers are understandably frustrated by seeing water leaks at a time when lawns are brown and the ground all around is parched and dry. We don’t want to see companies wasting water when they are asking their customers to cut back on the water they use. We will continue to challenge companies to reduce leakage further and faster.

On environmental pollution, data that emerged at the end of last year suggested widespread shortcomings in how wastewater companies were running sewage treatment works. As a result, we have opened our biggest ever investigation which has resulted in Ofwat looking closely into six wastewater companies while continuing to keep others under review. We’re digging deep into what these companies have been doing, with the prospect of formal enforcement against them if we find they are failing.

We have also secured commitments from companies to take urgent action to reduce sewage discharges, with four wastewater companies committing to a 40% reduction against the sector average by 2025. We and other regulators will be monitoring them closely to make sure they make these improvements

It’s not just sewage in rivers where we are taking action. Sewage flooding of homes is rare, but if it happens it’s one of the most distressing things that can happen in a home. But we’ve heard directly from customers how wastewater companies’ poor response can make a bad situation worse. Earlier this year, together with the Consumer Council for Water, I pulled in all water company CEOs to send a clear message that urgent action is needed. We will be meeting with them again shortly for a progress report and will take action if they are not moving fast enough.

As we have seen over the past few months, water is hugely important to our lives and the environment around us. We know water and wastewater companies can do better and we will use all our powers to drive the sector to deliver the service that their customers deserve.


This blog was originally published in The Independent on Monday 22 August 2022.