THE trust people have in water companies nationwide ‘risks being irreversibly damaged’, according to an government body.

The Consumer Council for Water (CCW) warned this would happen unless customers see a ‘sustained improvement in the sector’s care of rivers and the wider environment’.

The CCW published its annual Water Matters survey which reveals an unprecedented decline in household customers’ satisfaction with water companies across several criteria.

It said among the most significant falls this year was customer satisfaction with sewerage services which slipped to an all-time low of 65 per cent (down 14 per cent) – 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 per cent.

Only fractionally more (55 per cent) felt what they were being charged for services was fair – falling nine per cent 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.

The research was done via interviews of a random sample of households from England and Wales, and took place between June 2023 and January 2024.

The publishing of the report comes after repeated examples of sewage polluting the water, and event the drinking water so much that it was deemed unsafe in the south of England.

For United Utilities, which supplies Cumbria’s water, 700 people were interviewed.

When asked if they believed United Utilities cared about the service they provided, 18 per cent fewer customers answered positively, and overall trust in the company fell 0.79 per cent from the previous year.

Satisfaction with sewerage service with United Utilities fell 17 per cent, and overall satisfaction fell nine per cent, from the previous year.

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.

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As the price review nears its conclusion, CCW said companies’ biggest challenge is convincing customers they can be trusted to protect the environment with just a third 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.”

A United Utilities spokesperson said: “We all live and work here in Cumbria or across the northwest region and we all take pride in doing the best job we possibly can to deliver high-quality water and wastewater services for our local communities. 

“Like any industry, occasionally things go wrong, and if that happens we work hard to put it right. 

“The water industry continues to find itself in the spotlight and we recognise that there is work to do in restoring public confidence and trust.”

They added that, in the last 12 months, they’ve ‘delivered strong performance across a number of our commitments for customers’, such as ranking best for customer service in the UK Customer Service Index, achieving high ratings in the Environment Agency’s ‘Environmental Performance Assessment’ continuously, and completing a ‘rigorous eight-year programme of inspecting and cleaning every storage reservoir’.

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They said the latter efforts were led to them winning the Drinking Water Initiative of the Year award in the 2023 Water Industry Awards.

“We also do more than any other company to help vulnerable customers or those struggling with their bills. 

“Since 2020 we’ve provided affordability support for more than 375,000 customers and have more than 400,000 customers on our priority services register. 

 “We want to build on these successes and that’s why we’re proposing an investment programme not seen on this scale for a century, totalling £13.7billion.

“The proposals, if accepted by Ofwat this year, would deliver cleaner rivers, more reliable water supplies and extra support for customers struggling with bills. It would also support 30,000 jobs across our region, including 7,000 new jobs.”