Trust in water companies hits new low amid pollution woes

Sewage pollution problems are having a detrimental effect on the way customers view their water providers.

A series of nationwide surveys, carried out by Ofwat, reveals that consumer confidence in water companies is in rapid decline across the board.

Ofwat’s report –Trust and perceptions: People’s views on the water sector – uses seven metrics to measure consumer trust. Consumer confidence declined in all seven areas throughout 2022 (see table below). 

Ensuring good quality drinking water remained the most trusted function of water companies, while investing sufficiently, acting in the best interest of the environment and responsibly dealing with sewage all saw significant drops in public confidence.

“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,” said Claire Forbes, senior director of corporate communications at Ofwat. She said the survey results reflected what the regulator had heard from stakeholders.

“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.”

Ofwat’s report also shows that almost half (49%) of customers now believe that the water sector puts the interests of their shareholders or owners first compared to just 26% who believe the sector acts in the best interest of the environment.

“These findings echo many of the concerns raised through our own recent research which revealed that while engagement with the water industry is generally low, people’s perceptions are heavily impacted by the regular drumbeat of negative stories in the media,” said Karen Gibbs, senior leader for the environment at CCW.

“Awareness of storm overflows and river pollution is high but actual understanding of these complex topics is very low. This fuels the feeling that there is a lack of transparency and openness over how water companies operate. This could be improved through clearer and more honest communication from companies about their current performance and what they are doing to put things right.”

Only one-third agreed that water companies understand customers’ needs and just 23% felt companies acted in the interests of their customers.

Perceptions of how the sector treats communities is also low with less than a quarter (24%) of respondents believing that water companies act in their best interests.

The most widely held impression of water companies is that they are “profit driven” which was cited by 41% of respondents.

Slightly more people described companies as trustworthy (21%) than untrustworthy (17%) and more than one-fifth said their company was helpful (22%).

Only 9% of those surveyed described water companies as transparent, but this rose to 11% when people described their own supplier compared to the wider sector.

Ofwat tracked customer trust across England and Wales throughout last year, with surveys carried out in March, October and December.