Households have a right to expect clear and accurate water bills and be treated with empathy by water companies if they slip into debt.

That’s the message from the Consumer Council for Water (CCW) which is calling on water companies to address household customers’ concerns over bills. These concerns dominated two-thirds of the 93,758 written complaints made to companies in England and Wales during 2020-21.

CCW’s annual report has revealed that written complaints from households to the water industry rose for the third successive year – although this was driven by a small number of poor performers. Customers’ frustrations largely stemmed from disputes over how much water they had used, as well the accuracy of estimated bills and the way some suppliers went about recovering debt.

Covid-19 made life more challenging for the industry as it adapted to new ways of working and customers using more water at home during lockdown periods. But nine water companies were still able to reduce their written complaints despite these challenges.

Wessex Water and Hartlepool Water were the only two companies to receive top marks across the board for their complaint handling performance.

Some companies struggled to maintain a high standard of service with Thames Water accounting for 42 per cent of the overall number of written complaints to the industry – despite only supplying 19 per cent of connections to domestic properties.

Emma Clancy, Chief Executive of CCW, said:

We’re heading into a difficult winter for many struggling households as they deal with rising energy costs and other financial pressures so companies must not allow water bills to add to customers’ worries. Households have a right to expect clear and accurate bills but water companies also need to improve their communication and do more to understand their customers’ needs. That way they can ensure customers facing hardship gain quicker access to the support that exists but often goes untapped.

CCW compared the performance of water companies on the number of written complaints they received per 10,000 connections, as well as assessing how well complaints were handled.

Overall written complaints made to water companies rose by 11 per cent compared to the previous year to reach their highest level for five years. The total was skewed by Thames Water which was responsible for more than two in every five complaints the industry received. The company has now made a series of commitments to CCW to improve its performance, including reducing complaints by a quarter this year.

CCW will also be keeping a close watch on Southern Water and Essex and Suffolk Water which were marked ‘poor’ for both written complaints and complaint handling. Both companies have also made commitments to CCW to improve.

Across the industry problems with bills accounted for 67 per cent of complaints with the majority of companies reporting an increase in this category. CCW has already provided best practice guidance to water companies on how to reduce these types of dispute. This includes steps such as contacting customers before they receive much higher than usual bills to help them understand why their water use might have increased.

CCW’s recent independent review of water affordability also emphasised the need for companies to make their communication with customers more accessible and develop a better understanding of individuals’ needs.

CCW and regulator Ofwat have also begun work with the industry to improve the way water companies handle complaints. This includes speeding up response times, sharing good practice, making better use of data and improving companies’ understanding of the experiences and needs of more vulnerable customers.

Download Household customer complaints about water companies 1 April 2020 – 31 March 2021 (pdf – 6 MB)