father and son, exploring together beautiful nature by the river

People’s trust in water companies risks being irreversibly damaged unless consumers witness a sustained improvement in the sector’s care of rivers and the wider environment.

The warning comes from the Consumer Council for Water (CCW) as it publishes its annual Water Matters survey. It reveals an unprecedented decline in household customers’ satisfaction with water companies across a broad range of measures.

The survey has kept its finger on the pulse of water bill payers’ views for 13 years, making it one of the most comprehensive trackers of customers’ opinions across any utility.

Among the most significant falls this year has been customer satisfaction with sewerage services which slipped to an all-time low of 65% (down 14%) – driven by dissatisfaction with how companies clean and dispose of wastewater. Just half of households agreed their company cared about the service it provided – also down 14%. Only fractionally more (55%) felt what they were being charged for services was fair – falling 9% from last year to its lowest ever level.

Trust in water companies also reached its lowest level (6.37 out of 10) since the survey began. Every water company saw its trust score fall, with energy suppliers overtaking water for the first time as a more trusted utility across England and Wales.

Companies in the south east of England generally fared worse but the picture elsewhere – particularly on environmental matters – remained broadly negative.

The findings come just weeks before the regulator Ofwat publishes its draft determinations on what water companies in England and Wales can charge customers over the next five years and the investment and services they will be expected to deliver in return.

As the price review nears its conclusion, CCW says companies’ biggest challenge is convincing customers they can be trusted to protect the environment with just a third (33%) saying they were satisfied with the industry’s current efforts.

Dr Mike Keil, Chief Executive of CCW, said:

These are the worst results we’ve ever seen in our survey and it largely stems from customers’ concerns over companies’ environmental performance. It’s little surprise people are questioning whether they are getting a fair deal.

Trust won’t be rebuilt and customers will not tolerate future bill rises unless they see and feel a step change in the service they receive from their water company – whether that’s having the confidence to swim at their local beach or experiencing a more reliable water supply. If customers are going to be asked to pay considerably more, they have a right to expect far more in return.

For the first time customer satisfaction with water companies declined across every measured area, with the largest falls relating to issues that impact the environment. The starkest decline has been customers’ satisfaction with how companies clean and manage wastewater before its release back into the environment. Just 35% were satisfied with this aspect in the latest survey, compared to 88% a decade ago. Satisfaction with companies’ efforts to minimise sewer flooding has also plummeted over the same period – standing now at 43% compared to 85% in 2014.

Many companies do appear to be responding well to the challenge of reaching out to customers in need of financial help. Awareness of different types of company support rose to its highest level, including schemes designed to help those on a low income – known as social tariffs – which climbed to 45% (up 8%). This support will take on even greater significance with bills expected to rise significantly over the next five years.

Water companies in England need to deliver on the public commitment they made in 2019 to end water poverty by 2030, as part of their efforts to rebuild trust.

CCW is already working with the industry on a number of areas of concern for customers, including improving the compensation payments made to bill payers when companies fail to meet statutory service standards.

Notes to Editors

  • The Water Matters survey involved telephone interviews with 4,952 household water bill payers across England and Wales. Interviews took place between June 2023 and January 2024.
  • While there have been drops in performance for both England and Wales, scores in Wales remain typically higher. In many cases these scores are significantly higher in Wales.
  • Read the full data report (pdf)
  • Ofwat will announce its draft determinations on price limits, investment and service levels for 2025-2030 on 12 June 2024. Final decisions are expected in December 2024.