Watchdog increases pressure on South East Water

While Kent and Sussex buckled down for the first day of a hosepipe ban on June 26, water regulator Ofwat has demanded an “urgent” meeting with South East Water (SEW) to address the ongoing water crisis, while threatening potential “action” against the supplier.

The first day of the hosepipe ban coincided with a burst water main that left Five Oak Green without water for several hours, while further burst pipes and leaks were reported in Crowborough and Tunbridge Wells.

Although reports of burst pipes and other leakages have been widespread, SEW has blamed increased demand during hot weather for water outages in and around Tunbridge Wells and across the South East.

On Monday (June 26), Ofwat wrote an open letter to SEW Chief Executive David Hinton, asking for an urgent meeting and criticising the company’s lack of resilience.

Highlighting a pattern of supply problems in both winter and summer, Ofwat Chief Executive David Black said there had been “a freeze-thaw event in December 2022 in which 286,000 properties were impacted, and a high-demand event leading to up to 6,000 properties experiencing supply interruptions, low pressure, or being off supply during the week of June 12 2023”.

“The resilience of supplies is well below what would be expected from an essential service provider, and that transformative change is required at South East Water to ensure customers receive the levels of service they deserve,” said Mr Black.

“These incidents also took place in the context of South East Water being one of the sector’s worst performers with respect to supply interruptions for the last two reporting years.”

In his letter to Mr Hinton, Mr Black said Ofwat “urgently” wanted to discuss the utility firm’s “recent and underlying performance problems; the significant impacts these have had on your customers; your understanding of their underlying causes; and what actions you are taking to address this and improve reliability of service to your customers for the future”.

Mr Black said that further action by Ofwat might follow, “including but not limited to enforcement action”, he added.

Increasing the political pressure, Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark told the Times that he was seeking a separate meeting with South East Water’s leadership.

“[Following the events last winter] South East Water provided a plan for increasing resilience, but the events of the past couple of weeks show this needs to be accelerated,” he said.

Wadhurst-based Jutta Wrobel, who started a petition calling for “meaningful” penalties for the company – including a ban on shareholder dividends – was delighted to see the regulator publicly involved.

“This is really what I was hoping to achieve with the petition – to get Ofwat to properly scrutinise South East Water,” she told the Times.

“Ofwat now need to apply rigorous scrutiny to South East Water.”

Following Ofwat’s intervention, SEW CEO David Hinton confirmed to the Times that the water company and regulator would be “meeting shortly to discuss”.



REGULATORY and political pressure comes after a torrid weekend for South East Water CEO David Hinton.

Writing to customers last week to explain the introduction of the hosepipe ban, Mr Hinton said: “The rise of working from home has increased drinking water demand in commuter towns by around 20 per cent over a very short period, testing our existing infrastructure.”

Hot weather was another key factor, as were dry conditions, with a “severe lack of rainfall since April”.

Mr Hinton insisted SEW had enough “raw water” at its disposal, but lacked the capacity to treat enough water to meet demand.

Speaking to the Times after Ofwat’s letter, he said SEW was producing up to an additional 120 million litres of water daily.

Addressing the issue of leakages, Mr Hinton stated that SEW’s rate was currently around 18 per cent. This was, he said, “lower than the industry average of around 20 per cent. Of this 18 per cent, about two-thirds happens on our pipe network, and about a third happens on customers’ pipes.

“We plan our resources to deal with leakage, which includes 52 teams repairing leaks reactively, and more than 60 leakage technicians searching for and finding leaks proactively.

In response, Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark told the Times: “There’s a lack of infrastructure to get it from the reservoirs and boreholes.

“No one is saying there’s a lack of water. This is about capacity.”

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