Watchdog to probe South East Water for ‘failing’ customers

Greg Clark has previously criticised South East Water

The national water watchdog Ofwat has launched an investigation into South East Water over its service to households after ‘too many customers have been failed too often’ by the supplier.

The regulator announced on Friday November 17, that it will investigate whether it has failed in its statutory duty to develop and maintain an efficient water supply system.

The Times has previously reported on South East Water’s supply issues which reached crisis point at the end of last year when thousands were left without water in the run-up to Christmas.

Supply issues began during the cold weather snap in mid-December and were exacerbated when the snow and ice thawed, which resulted in burst pipes.

Around 15,000 customers in Kent and Sussex, including some 3,000 in and around Tunbridge Wells, were affected by the water issues that saw many relying on bottled water and even using snow and rainwater to flush their toilets.

At the time, Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark criticised the company publicly and in parliament, saying at the time that the whole South East Water system was ‘clearly fragile and vulnerable’.

Earlier this summer South East Water then launched a hosepipe ban, blaming people working from home for ramping up demand and ‘testing’ its infrastructure. The firm was then summoned to an urgent meeting where it was flagged that its supply resilience was below what was expected.

South East Water is currently the worst performer for water supply interruptions in England and Wales, Ofwat said. It serves about 2.2 million households and businesses in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire.

Over 2022-23 an average of more than three hours of supply was lost per property, compared with the company’s performance commitment level of about five minutes and 45 seconds, according to the regulator.

Ofwat chief executive David Black said: “Providing reliable water supplies is at the heart of a water company’s responsibilities. Too many customers have been failed too often by South East Water. That’s why we are now carrying out a thorough investigation into the company and its service to customers.”

He added: “We are clear that water companies must do more to regain public trust and it must start with better service. Where this does not happen, we will use all of our powers to ensure the sector delivers better value for both customers and the environment.”

Greg Clark welcomed the move after holding a series of meetings with David Black, to press for action following the failure of South East Water to supply water to constituents in and around Tunbridge Wells in December 2022 and
June 2023.

“Following my conversations with the Chief Executive of Ofwat, I am pleased that the regulator has started formal proceedings against South East Water following their failure to supply water to thousands of my constituents twice in the last 12 months.

“Three things are essential: the network must be upgraded so that these outages cannot happen again, the responsiveness to customers must be transformed, and the company should be fined as a sanction for the chaos that it caused. I will continue to liaise closely with Ofwat until all three requirements are met.”

The formal investigation will centre on the lack of resilience of South East Water’s network and on its responsiveness to customers during the periods of disruption. If the company is confirmed as having failed in its duties, the regulator has the power to direct more investment to be made by the company and can impose fines of up to 10 per cent of turnover, which would be up to £26million.

A spokesperson for South East Water said: “Resilience forms a major focus for South East Water both now, and as a significant part of our PR24 (2024 price review) business plan which has been submitted to Ofwat. We intend to fully cooperate with Ofwat on this matter.”

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