With a noticeable chill in the air after the scorching summer, water companies must ensure they don’t leave customers “out in the cold” as some did in the extreme weather earlier this year.
At the end of last month – on 28 September – companies across England and Wales were required to submit plans to Ofwat detailing how they intend to address the shortcomings identified by their handling of the “Beast from the East”.
Widespread disruption was caused to the network throughout the UK when temperatures plummeted in late February/early March. In the subsequent rapid thaw, numerous pipes burst and more than 200,000 people were without water for up to four days.
While some companies demonstrated they were well prepared for the severe weather – which had been forecast – others performed badly.
On 10 March, in the immediate aftermath, Ofwat launched a review. It published its report – Out in the Cold: Water Companies’ Response to the Beast from the East – on 19 June. It cited issues including poor advance planning, inadequate communication with customers and a lack of basic support, such as bottled water.
The regulator ordered Thames Water, Severn Trent, Southern Water and South East Water to submit detailed externally audited action plans setting out how they will address the issues identified.
Ofwat will now scrutinise the plans and has warned it will “step in” if it feels any company has not gone far enough.
Rachel Fletcher, chief executive of Ofwat, says: “The harsh weather in the spring left many customers out in the cold with no running water, in some cases for days. While a number of water companies and their hard-working staff stepped up and did well by customers, others fell well short, particularly when it came to providing bottled water, help for the most vulnerable, or clear, timely communication.
“We expect the companies that let their customers down to have learned the lessons of what went wrong during the freeze/thaw, and to show that they are now prepared to protect their customers, whatever the weather brings. This would be a great result for customers. If companies do not convince us of this, we won’t hesitate to step in.”
Meanwhile trade body Water UK says the water industry is “better prepared” for extreme weather because companies have been acting since the Beast from the East.
Such action falls under three broad categories: planning and preparation, stakeholder and customer engagement, and incident response.
Water UK has also identified priorities for further “collective action” to complement what is already being done by companies. For each priority identified in its report – Learning from the impacts of the 2018 freeze-thaw – Water UK outlines actions for companies collectively to take forward over the next 12 months, with emphasis on action in the shorter term.
The programme of activity needed will be overseen by a newly formed “operations strategy group” comprising senior operations leaders from water companies. The trade body says quarterly progress reports will be published and a fuller 12-month review of what has been achieved will be carried out by the end of September 2019.
“The impact of the Beast from the East varied across the country, with Ofwat’s official report revealing that fewer than 3 per cent of all customers were affected,” says Michael Roberts, Water UK’s chief executive.
“But we’re sorry to say that in some areas some significant numbers of customers experienced disruption and hardship, and we are determined to prevent this happening again in the future,” he adds.
“That’s why we are committing to collective action alongside the measures which companies have already put in place, to ensure that the industry is in a far better place to deal with extreme weather this winter and beyond.”
The day before water companies submitted their improvement plans to Ofwat, the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) published new guidance for the water sector. It included suggestions on how companies can improve the way they deliver priority support to consumers in vulnerable circumstances.
The document referenced the severe cold weather in March, which put a “spotlight on the water sector”. 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 extra support.
Tony Smith, chief executive of the Consumer Council for Water, says: “Water companies need to prove that they have listened to consumers and really learned lessons from the service failures we witnessed in March.
“Customers will want to know that these plans are tested and ready, and we’ll be expecting a tough response from Ofwat should any of the company plans fail, or further problems occur in future.”
Ofwat intends to publish a response to the reports by mid-November.
Actions taken since the Beast struck
Water UK says water companies have been taking action since the Beast from the East.
Those actions fall into three categories:
Planning and preparation: carrying out preparedness exercises, with lessons learnt from recent events, enhancing leakage detection and updating modelling scenarios.
Stakeholder and customer engagement: reviewing the effectiveness of wider communication strategies and understanding what worked well in the deployment of alternative water supplies, and improving communications to customers ahead of the winter.
Incident response: working proactively and collaboratively with multi-agency partners, such as local resilience forums, and with the supply chain, to maximise the deployment of resources and facilitate a stronger response across larger numbers of affected customers.
Companies under scrutiny
Steve Robertson, chief executive of Thames Water, says the company’s report outlines how it will make a “step change” in the way it supports customers – especially those who are most vulnerable – “when we inevitably face similar challenges in the future”.
Robertson adds: “We have listened carefully to our customers, stakeholders and regulators. We have also asked ourselves what we could have done better. The result is a comprehensive set of actions that will embed fundamental changes in the way we plan, forecast and manage incidents whether they are caused by a rapid freeze/thaw or any other reason. Anticipating, preparing, communicating, managing, resolving, compensating, supporting our customers in the moment and in the aftermath – all aspects of our incident management capability have been examined. Actions to fundamentally improve our response have been put in place.
“We cannot promise that a similar incident will not happen in the future. What we can promise is that our ability to manage the impact will be transformed.”
Severn Trent says it has structured its plans to improve its operational resilience around “Ofwat’s helpful ‘avoid, cope, recover’ framework”.
“Our customers quite rightly expect us to be able to avoid, cope and recover from a wide range of weather and other scenarios, recognising that ‘extreme’ could be the new ‘normal’ and that historical experience and trends may no longer be a reliable guide for the future,” the company says.
The company adds: “We have sought to make sure that we have learned from our own experience and that of other companies. We have also looked at best practice abroad in Denmark and Singapore and at home in the energy and airline industries.”
A spokesperson for Severn Trent says: “By putting in place the actions we’ve highlighted in our report we’re confident we’ll reduce the likelihood of future weather-related events becoming incidents, and be better prepared for, and equipped to deal with, those that do.
A spokesperson from Southern Water says: “We are already implementing key improvement programmes to deliver significant changes to the organisation and enhance our overall operational resilience.
“In developing our action plan, we have consulted with the Customer Challenge Group, (including Sussex Chamber of Commerce) and CCWater and continue to develop improvements in our incident management plan with the local resilience forums.
“We are collaborating with other organisations and Water UK and the Water Resources in the South East group (WRSE) in areas such as mutual aid, non-household retail, stakeholder engagement, bulk supplies, and bottled water provision.
“We are committed to transforming Southern Water in order to achieve our ambition to create a resilient water future for customers in the South East.”
The company said the freeze/thaw event led to 7,700 (0.33 per cent) of its customers being without supply for up to four hours and 2,246 (0.01 per cent) of its customers were without water for up to three days.
South East Water
South East Water says it has published a 61-point action plan. Paul Butler, South East Water managing director, says: “We have listened to a wide range of views, whether that was from customers who were without water, our employees who volunteered at bottled water stations, or local resilience forums and community groups who helped us manage the alternative water supplies – and used their experience and suggestions to help build our action plan.
“Importantly we have collaborated with others in the industry and we will continue to work with Water UK and other water companies to put our action plan into practice.”
South East Water says the dramatic change in temperature caused a significant increase in burst pipes, leaks and demand for water. This increase led to the draining of several of the company’s service reservoirs, which hold treated water, and in turn, saw 27,000 customers lose their tap water supply, with up to 6,000 of those having no water for more than 48 hours.