Utility Week

Utility Week 27th September 2013

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Comment Chief executive Colin Skellett, Wessex Water Truth and perception Leakage and hosepipe bans provide the water sector with plenty of bad headlines, but the truth is that the privatised water sector does not receive the credit it deserves for the work it does. T he water industry in England and Wales is a story of success. Since privatisation – 25 years ago next year – the industry has raised over £100 billion to deliver major improvements in customer service and environmental quality. According to Ofwat, customers' bills are a third lower than they would have been had the industry stayed in the public sector. And it is certain that had we still been in the public sector, much of the investment would not have happened. Customer service levels are higher than ever, and better than for most private companies. Last month Wessex Water answered all customer calls in an average of 5.5 seconds. I recently spent one-and-a-half hours on the telephone to PC World trying to get a laptop repaired. Despite this success, the media portrayal of the industry frequently reflects a different perception – of leakage and hosepipe bans. Customer confidence must be affected when there are headlines about non-payment of tax and opaque financial structures. I believe part of the problem is the "utility badge", which implies a focus on creating assets rather than providing services. I would like us to be seen not as utilities, but as customer service companies, and ones that provide service excellence and value for money. It is no good us complaining that it is unfair, we need to deal with the issues proactively. Partly, this is about telling our story more effectively, but it is also about listening to customers and being much more responsive to their individual needs. As part of the development of our business plan, we have consulted more than 18,000 customers and incorporated their views into the plan. This engagement needs to be ongoing and our online customer panel will help us do this together with much greater use of social media, etc. The Water Bill that is about to go through Parliament puts competition firmly on the agenda, but when it comes to tackling affordability and flooding, more could be done, and these are two key areas that influence the way we are seen by customers and the wider public. We also need a catchment-based Ofwat has rightly flagged the importance of companies responding to the current eco- approach to managing flooding and water nomic climate and most companies are pro- resources. This needs to include sustainable posing holding or reducing bills in real terms land management, more permeable paving over the next five years. We clearly do need and clarity on the management of sustainto respond to the economic climate, but in able urban drainage systems. Not only would particular we need to focus on those who are a catchment-based approach help in dealing least able to pay. At the time of privatisation, with flooding, it would also help to protect water and sewerage services represented the environment and provide more costeffective solutions. We need a lead 0.9 per cent of average household from government and regulators in expenditure, and it is now 1.1 per adopting catchment-based regulacent, so not a significant change. tion rather than focusing on point However, there are a growing numabstraction or discharge. ber of customers who have real difWessex Water and many other ficulties, so the extension of social companies have demonstrated that tariffs is very important as we plan working in partnership with landfor the future. Wessex Water was owners and farmers can provide the first company to introduce a much more cost-effective solutions social tariff and we now have more to problems such as pesticides and than 8,000 customers not paying nitrates. We need a focus on sustainthe full bill, but making a contri- The exten able solutions rather than energybution that they can afford. This sion of will grow significantly over coming social tariffs intensive and often very expensive solutions. This approach is years. is very im capitalholding down bills. key to The government could help in The forthcoming price review the application of social tariffs by portant as giving companies access to benefits we plan for gives an opportunity to rebuild trust by controlling bills, continuing to data so assistance could be targeted the future share outperformance with customeffectively and efficiently. Currently we rely on a great deal of help from Citizens ers and provide customers service which is Advice and other debt agencies in making leading edge for any service business. Much of this lies in the hands of water our assessments. The government should also introduce companies but there is also a need for regulegislation requiring landlords to give lators to help by acknowledging and rewarddetails of their tenants to companies. This ing firms that deliver excellence. And we would help enormously in collecting data need regulators and government to point to from transient customers who can afford to positive actions by the industry and to suppay but don't, rather than these costs being port companies publicly where appropriate. Twenty five years ago, the perception passed on to other consumers. When it comes to tackling flooding, we of drinking water quality in the UK was at need a collaborative approach and greater an all-time low but actions of companies in clarity on who is leading. Customers are not raising standards and the Drinking Water interested in whether it is main river flood- Inspectorate in highlighting the improveing, local watercourse or sewer overflows ments restored customer confidence. – they just want someone to sort out their Together, we need to do the same across problem. The current arrangements do not the board. If customers trust us to deliver provide that clarity and are also a major hin- high quality, reliable services that are good drance in achieving sustainable drainage. value for money, they are much more likely We need clarity on leadership and fewer par- to respond to calls to play their part in water efficiency and environmental protection. ties involved. 6 | 27TH SEPTEMBER - 3rd OCTOBER 2013 | UTILITY WEEK

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