The Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) suggests “collaboration, communication and consistency” are three key ways water companies can improve how they deliver priority support to consumers in vulnerable circumstances.
New guidance published today (27 September) by the water watchdog references the severe cold weather in March this year, which put a “spotlight on the water sector”.
Widespread disruption to the network in the aftermath of the “Beast from the East” left more than 200,000 people without water for up to four days.
Ofwat’s review into the sector’s response during the freeze-thaw period required four water companies – Thames Water, Severn Trent, Southern Water and South East Water – to submit a detailed externally audited action plan of how they will address the issues identified. These plans are expected to be handed in to the regulator tomorrow.
CCWater said consumers who found themselves in vulnerable circumstances were among the worst affected during the incident. The vast majority (93 per cent) said they did not get any additional support from their company.
The watchdog’s good practice guide, entitled “Vulnerability in the water sector: Informing, supporting and protecting consumers” advises that water companies should collaborate with other organisations.
It suggests the sector needs to open wider channels of communication and deliver consistent access to services for vulnerable consumers all year round and not just in a crisis.
CCWater said: “Although all water companies operate schemes that customers can register for which provide free additional support, known as Priority Services Schemes, many customers reported finding themselves in vulnerable circumstances either unexpectedly or temporarily during March’s freezing conditions.”
The watchdog argues this “transient vulnerability” highlights the need for water companies to take a more dynamic and flexible approach to identifying and assisting all consumers in vulnerable circumstances.
The guidance aims to encourage innovation in the provision of additional support and offers examples of good practice from the water industry and beyond.
It demonstrates how water companies can meet the challenges in delivering priority support more effectively.
CCWater outlines companies need to raise awareness of what support is available, offer the right kind of support and deliver it at the right time.
Janine Shackleton, policy manager, said: “There has been some positive progress towards improving vulnerability services in the water sector, resulting in 18 per cent more people registering for priority services in 2017-18. But we think more can be done to offer consumers a tailored service based on individual needs.
“Our examples show that by working together with other organisations – such as local councils, cultural groups and emergency services – water companies can successfully reach out to a wider range of consumers to make sure that as many people as possible are aware of what help is available should they need it, now or in the future.”
CCWater’s chair Alan Lovell, said: “Addressing the needs of those who find themselves in vulnerable circumstances is priority for CCWater. We will continue to push the sector in this area and press for innovation that will truly benefit consumers.
“Water companies have already made a good start in offering consumers a tailored service based on individual needs. However, the spell of severe cold weather in February 2018 starkly demonstrated that water companies still have a lot to do to assist customers in vulnerable circumstances.”