Ofwat has today (19 June) published its report on the water sector’s response to the so-called “Beast from the East” weather front that battered Britain in February and March of this year.

More than 200,000 customers without water supply for more than four hours, while tens of thousands were left off supply for days, according to the report.

But while some water companies were well prepared for the severe weather – which had been forecast – the review launched by Ofwat in the immediate aftermath found others performed badly, and caused significant unnecessary hardship for their customers.

The report cites “poor advance planning, inadequate communication with customers and a lack of basic support, such as bottled water.”

Ofwat is now requiring four water companies – Thames Water, Severn Trent, Southern Water and South East Water – to submit a detailed, externally audited, action plan setting out how they are addressing the issues identified. The plans must be submitted no later than 28 September.

But in the meantime Utility Week got in touch with the four companies in question, to discuss their immediate reactions…

Steve Robertson, Thames Water CEO: “I am pleased Ofwat has recognised that frontline staff worked tirelessly in extreme circumstances to restore customer supplies. As the report notes, we rapidly increased water production by 15 per cent to minimise disruption, with less than a third of one per cent of our customers affected for more than 12 hours.

The scale of leaks and bursts was the worst in living memory and the rapidity of the thaw had an unprecedented customer impact.

We’re really sorry we could not protect those customers impacted and it is right that we have compensated them at a level considerably higher than the statutory rate.

We are committed to working with Ofwat and all stakeholders to protect customers from future supply disruption and have already learned lessons following our own thorough analysis.”

A Severn Trent spokesperson said: “We’d like to apologise again to our customers who were affected during the extreme weather in March. Customers rightly expect water whenever they need it, and we’ve been working hard since March to make improvements to our incident response processes.

We accept Ofwat’s findings and are committed to submitting our action plan in September. We’ve already announced a significant programme of investment in our network, including plans for additional monitors in our network to enable us to respond much more quickly and accurately in the future, should this ever happen again.”

A spokesperson from Southern Water said: “We welcome the publication of Ofwat’s report today on the water industry’s response to the Freeze Event of February to March 2018, and would like to apologise again to our customers who were affected by impact of the Beast from the East and subsequent rapid thaw.

Ofwat’s findings focus on issues we have identified in our own far-reaching enquiry. Although we tripled front line staff during the event, there are a number of lessons learned from the event which will allow us to meet the highest standards our customers expect and deserve in the future.

We are already implementing root-and-branch changes to how we will handle every aspect of such a major event, including:

.              New measures to assess when severe weather is likely to have significant impact on water networks

.              A complete overhaul of our incident management system, from identifying the potential for an incident, through preparation stages and actual incident handling to post-event management. Crucially, this will also us to update our customers faster and in a more targeted way during such an event.

.              Major investment to improve the resilience of our networks. In particular we are adding many more remote sensing devices to the water network to better monitor flows and help us better understand how an incident is affecting our resilience in real-time.

.              We will be working more closely with Local Resilience Forums.

The changes will enable to us to have greater resilience when dealing with long-lasting incidents. Our thanks go to all our affected customers for their patience and understanding while we worked round the clock to find and fix the issues.”

South East Water’s operations director, Dr Simon Earl, said: “We will carefully review the report published today by Ofwat and use this, together with our own thorough internal review which we conducted soon after the freeze thaw event, to improve our emergency plans for the future.

We have been keen to listen to our customers about how we can improve our service if an emergency of this magnitude and nature should happen again. We’ve been out and about holding customer drop in sessions in our areas which were worst hit by the extreme weather and also working with our partners to see where we can co-operate further.

An event of this scale in such a widespread geographic area and an unprecedented number of customer plumbing issues accounting for around 70 per cent of the water lost is something we have not experienced before and we are sorry we had not prepared for the impact this had.

Work is underway to revise our emergency plans and we will share these with our local community to ensure we have implemented all the lessons learned.

Throughout the incident, our customer care team delivered bottled water to all vulnerable customers listed on our Priority Services Register in the areas affected by supply interruptions and made repeat visits to check on their welfare.

We also worked with volunteers and community groups to get alternative water supplies to isolated rural locations, including to farmers who needed water for their livestock.

Using all the communication channels we could we talked to our customers and let them know what was happening and what we were doing to get supplies back to normal. The Ofwat report has noted some of our engagement was good practice, but we will look to make improvements in areas where we fell short.

Our next step is to complete the report Ofwat has asked for, which will include the regulator’s recommendations and feedback we have received from our customers.

We know it was difficult for our customers who were without water for an extended period during the extreme weather we saw and we would like to reassure everyone we are doing all we can to improve our service in the future.”