This time last year it’s hard to believe that the UK was shivering in sub-zero temperatures. Twelve months later and many degrees warmer, Janine Shackleton, Policy Manager at the Consumer Council for Water, shares lessons learned by water companies from the Beast from the East and the importance of working in partnership with others to reach vulnerable groups.
“It’s a year since we were caught in the icy grip of the Beast from the East, which disrupted the water supply of more than 200,000 customers. Since then the water industry has had to confront the failures which left many people out in the cold.
What quickly emerged from the complaints we received from consumers and our research was that some companies were on the back foot despite the weather warnings. A lack of preparedness made life needlessly more difficult for thousands of customers – some of whom were left without running water for three days, or longer in some cases. Poor communication and the absence of support for many people living in vulnerable circumstances compounded their misery.
In the aftermath, these same companies have had the task of trying to rebuild confidence, trust and thaw some frosty relationships with those customers who felt let down. But winning back trust is no easy task, particularly when it comes to providing such an essential service like water.
One of the ways we’ve pressed the industry to meet this challenge is by addressing the shortcomings identified in our own conversations with affected consumers. Companies digested our findings and responded through action plans submitted to the regulator Ofwat in the autumn.
But are we confident these plans can withstand a similar wintry blast?
Our view is that some companies need to go much further in improving their communication with consumers during disruption. That includes making sure the information and channels they use to communicate are effective in reaching all affected households and businesses.
People also need to have confidence that they will not be given the cold shoulder again if they need free additional support, like the home delivery of emergency bottled water. Companies need to work with a wider range of organisations, such as local councils, cultural groups and the emergency services, to get a better grasp of those people who might suddenly find themselves in a more vulnerable position, perhaps due to illness, bereavement or unexpected events.
We hope the recent publication of our guide ‘Vulnerability in the water sector’ – which includes examples of good practice – will help to inspire companies to meet this challenge.
The report focuses on helping vulnerable customers by raising awareness, offering the right support, and delivering the right support at the right time. It also showcases some good examples of where water companies are working with others to help promote the priority services they offer to those that are often the hardest to reach – for example teaming up with the fire brigade to talk about a water company’s Priority Services Register at the same time they are fitting free smoke alarms.
Of course not all problems stem from the company’s pipework and often disruption can be traced back to a customer’s own pipes, which are their responsibility to look after and maintain.
That’s why CCWater, water companies and WaterSafe, the UK register of approved plumbers, have come together to ensure homeowners play their own part by helping themselves, and highlighted the importance of insulating their water pipes to prevent them from freezing and bursting in severe weather.
Other winter precautions collectively shared include advice to leave the heating on low if going away; fixing dripping taps; and locating your stop tap in case you need to turn off the water in an emergency.
And that’s where WaterSafe can also bolster consumers’ trust and confidence, by giving them access to a plumber that is backed by the water sector and can always be trusted to work safely with your drinking water and fix the problem at a reasonable cost. “
To find your nearest approved WaterSafe plumber, use the postcode finder on the right. Click here for winter advice on protecting water pipes and what else consumers can do to protect their plumbing from cold weather.
Find your local water supplier and their contact details here.
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