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South East Water

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2023

Order. I will shortly call Greg Clark to move the motion, and then if there are no other speakers I will call the Minister to respond. If there is another speaker, they will be taken next. I remind Members that there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the performance of South East Water.

I am very grateful to have secured this debate, and I convey my thanks to Mr Speaker for allowing it. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George.

The purpose of a water supply company is simply to supply running water to its customers—water to drink, water to cook with, water to wash and bathe in, water to clean clothes and dishes, water to operate central heating boilers and water to flush the toilet. It is the most basic, essential service in Britain in the 21st century, and we rightly take it for granted, and yet for eight days, including the week before Christmas, many thousands of people in my constituency, in Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding villages, had no water. That followed an earlier period in November in which other parts of my constituency were cut off from running water.

South East Water, the company granted the privilege of operating a local monopoly, failed in its only purpose. By South East Water’s own admission, on 19 December, to take one particular day, 3,500 households—about 10,000 people—were without water. As the days went on, many people endured conditions of stress and, frankly, squalor. I will share with the Chamber some examples from the deluge of emails I received from desperate constituents in what became the nightmare before Christmas.

One constituent emailed me to say,

“Our home, in which four adults live, has absolutely no water whatsoever. We have no water to wash ourselves, wash our dishes, wash our clothes, flush the toilet—nothing. It feels as though we are living in the past and have gone backwards in time.”

Another constituent wrote to say,

“I’m at my wits end and this has been the worst week. We have lost water every day for the last 5 days and been forced to buy water. We been told we can collect water from Tesco but if you don’t drive it’s a 45 min walk in the ice! And it’s just tiny bottles as my neighbours have driven to get.”

Another constituent emailed me and said,

“My son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes a month ago and is having to come to terms with his new way of life which now includes four insulin injections a day and multiple blood prick tests throughout the day. The lack of water to keep everything clean for him is really affecting every part of our day now. We are having to travel to family members for even the most basic of tasks including showers, washing clothes, washing plates never mind the necessity for my son to take his insulin with clean hands and a clean environment.”

Yet another constituent said,

“It is becoming unbearable. I cannot understand how not having water is a recurring issue we face in 2022. I have a new born baby and am finding it harder and harder each day due to the lack of running water. As your probably aware babies are unable to drink bottled water so I am having to drive to friends’ houses to fill up with tap or buy expensive pre made formula for him to drink.”

Another constituent wrote and said,

“I left for work on Friday morning and got home half an hour ago. I’ve worked all weekend covering various clinical hospice duties when really I should be up in my bed with hot lemon and paracetamol. I chose to prioritise caring for my end of life patients over my own health needs. So getting home tonight to no water yet AGAIN has left me speechless and super upset. I am physically and emotionally broken. The one thing I wanted to do tonight before crawling into my sick bed was to have a hot bath but it wasn’t possible. ”

Another constituent said,

“Thank you for bringing up the water supply issue on the news last Friday. I really thought it would have been fixed by now, but we still have no water! We are struggling to cope. We have two young children. All our toilets are now blocked. I’ve just had to remove all the excess excrement and dispose of in the garden! The water shortage has been going on for weeks. Way before the cold spell. What is going on with South East water!”

Finally, in terms of this debate—but by no means finally in terms of the communications I had from constituents—one person wrote to say,

“the dialysis unit in Tunbridge Wells was forced to close until Boxing Day as they were unable to guarantee full dialysis for their patients—more than 80. I spoke to an engineer who waited all day at the unit for a tanker that did not arrive. The nurses worked until 1 am on the day they had water to dialyse as many people as possible. An extraordinary situation that put incredible pressure on staff and huge stress on patients.”

What on earth could be the reason for such a catastrophic set of events, resulting in those cuts to our water supply? The answer is a catalogue of failures over the preceding weeks that exposed a network lacking in the resilience needed to do the job of supplying water reliably to our residents.

Floods in November had put out of action water treatment works at Groombridge and Tonbridge, and a power cut at around the same time had hit suppliers from Bewl Water. Those incidents caused quite significant loss of water for many households throughout my constituency, but they also had a knock-on effect. Those failures meant that one of the main holding reservoirs that supplies the town of Tunbridge Wells, an underground facility on the Pembury road, fell to less than 20% of its normal capacity. When the cold snap hit in December, with the water leaks from burst pipes that that entailed, the reservoir was too low to supply the population that relied on it. It could not refill, because as much water was being taken out through burst pipes as was being put in.

That may be an explanation, but it is in no way an acceptable excuse. If heavy rain followed by snow and ice—pretty normal winter weather—can knock out water supplies, the network is not resilient enough. During that time, the company’s response was not nearly good enough, either. I attach no blame to the South East Water maintenance engineers who worked day and night to find and repair burst pipes during that period, but communication with customers was totally inadequate. During my daily conversations with the chief executive, I was able to glean an understanding of the engineering problems that I have just described and report it to constituents, but that should have come from the company from the outset.

Without running water available, it was essential that bottled water should reach people who were desperate for supplies. Yet for many days, the only distribution point for bottled water was in the car park of Tesco at Pembury. At times, it became totally overwhelmed, causing gridlock on the surrounding roads. South East Water and my constituents have reason to be grateful to Tesco and, in particular, its managers Jon Briley and Justin Alexander for allowing the car park to be used, despite the fact that this happened the week before Christmas—their busiest trading time of the year—and caused huge disruption to the store’s operation.

As anyone with knowledge of Tunbridge Wells knows, Tesco at Pembury is a long way from many of the properties affected in the town and to the south and west, in places such as Hawkenbury and Langton Green. Even at the best of times, the Pembury Road that leads to the store is probably the most notorious in Tunbridge Wells for congestion. Yet it took several days of pressure from me and the chief executive of the local borough council before another, more central site was opened at the Salvation Army headquarters, by kind permission of Captains Graeme and Zoe Smith.

To my immense relief and that of my constituents, supplies finally resumed on 23 December, though many properties suffered a loss of water from airlocks and local burst pipes even after that point. It was too late to save Christmas for the pubs, cafés, hotels and restaurants that had had to cancel bookings for customers they had expected during the previous week, at a cost to their reputation, as well as to their income.

There must be a reckoning for what happened last month, and it must never be repeated. I thank the Minister for being extremely helpful to me throughout the crisis, having multiple phone calls and convening a meeting with South East Water at the height of the crisis in December. Will she now support me in two further respects to secure two things from South East Water?

The first is compensation for constituents who were affected. I realise that a financial sum cannot expunge the memory of the misery that people endured, nor bring back the pleasure forgone of what should have been a relaxed and festive week before Christmas—the first that people have been able to have since the pandemic. However, financial compensation is owed to them by a company that, after all, made more than £83 million in profit last year from those same customers. That compensation should go beyond the statutory minimum and reflect the cumulative and aggravated impact of rolling cuts to supply over many days, and the extreme uncertainty and anxiety that the prospect of having no water caused. I have also asked—I think it is appropriate—that South East Water make a wider contribution to our whole community, over and above individual compensation, to reflect the disruption caused to our area at an important time.

Secondly, can the Minister support me in obtaining an urgent plan from South East Water to increase—indeed, to guarantee—the security of our water supplies against things that have the potential to disrupt them, whether they be power cuts, floods or freezing weather? Every action that can make a difference should be assessed urgently, and measures should be fast-tracked now.

South East Water exists for one reason, and one reason only: to supply water reliably to homes and businesses, but it has failed to do so. If it cannot make us confident that the same thing will not happen again, the company should be removed from that role.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on securing this important debate today, and I thank him and our Minister for allowing me to make a few short remarks this morning.

My constituency of Maidstone and The Weald borders my right hon. Friend’s constituency of Tunbridge Wells. Many of my constituents were also completely or substantially without water between 19 December and Christmas day. The main areas affected were Staplehurst, Marden, Cranbrook and Benenden. The problem occurred because of a very large number of leaks and burst pipes following a 20° swing in temperatures from -7° to 13°. The combined effect of a 300% increase in burst pipes led to the loss of 100 million litres of water from the system in 24 hours. In addition to people’s homes and Christmas plans being affected, businesses such as Iden Manor Farm in Staplehurst were unable to supply drinking water to their livestock. Staplehurst’s only pub, the Kings Head, had to close for several days from 20 December to Boxing day. It lost considerable business at a critical time of year.

Sadly, the initial communication response from South East Water was well below standard. There were few updates on websites and people could not get through on emergency telephone lines. Those that did get through were given false timescales for when the water would go back on. In Benenden, people were told that drinking water was available in Pembury, but, as my right hon. Friend knows, Pembury is 13 miles from Benenden, so that was a completely unrealistic suggestion.

However, like my right hon. Friend, I am very grateful to the South East Water engineers and teams on the ground who worked continuously, including on Christmas day and Boxing day—I believe new year’s day, too—to make sure that most people’s water was back on by Christmas day. Thankfully, water levels in my constituency now are back to normal levels for this time of year.

My office has convened a multi-agency meeting with the chief executive of South East Water, Mr David Hinton, on 7 February. Clearly, there are serious questions to be answered and lessons to be learned. We also need to know what its plan of action is, going forward, to avoid a repetition. I want to hear from our Minister today about the availability of compensation for those who suffered financial loss, and I also want to know how we can build a much more resilient water system to deal with the effects of climate change now and in future.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir George. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) for bringing the serious matter of what has gone on with South East Water to the Chamber—one of his constituents said, “What on earth is going on?” I must also thank him for his plain speaking. There is no need to beat about the bush here. Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). Let us say it as it is. I was very disappointed in the repeated supply issues experienced by South East Water’s customers and the impacts that it has had on them. Some pretty heart-rending examples were given, particularly where they related to health issues such as the diabetes example and the closing of the dialysis unit. Those are really serious knock-on effects; as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said, and as I say regularly, access to water is a right, and that should not be in question.

I will first explain a bit about the position of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when emergencies such as this arise, particularly in response to the December issue. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells knows, water companies have a statutory duty to provide

“a supply of wholesome water”

under the Water Industry Act 1991, and must ensure the continuation of their water distribution functions during an emergency. Where the scale or complexity of an incident demands central Government co-ordination or support, DEFRA is designated as the lead Government Department for the water sector in England. As the lead Government Department, DEFRA is responsible for the planning, response and recovery phases for major disruption to water supplies, and also sets policy and produces guidance to ensure that water companies have appropriate emergency plans in place.

In December 2022, multiple critical incidents occurred across the country, which—as we have heard—were largely due to the fact that we had had that period of sustained cold weather for nearly two weeks, and a rapid freeze-thaw straight afterwards. The Environment Agency and many water companies gave warnings to consumers that that could happen. It led to an increase in mains bursts across the country throughout December, which increased the rate that water leaving storage areas, such as reservoirs, went through the system—that was part of the problem.

During the incident, DEFRA engaged with water companies in England to obtain accurate and timely updates on the scale, impact and response to those bursts, seeking assurances that the incidents were being resolved as swiftly as possible and impacted customers—particularly vulnerable customers—had access to alternative sources of water, such as bottled water. The prolonged water outages were experienced in Hampshire, East Sussex and Kent. Water supply was fully restored across all companies by 24 December.

Assurance and enforcement of the emergency response is overseen by the regulator, the Drinking Water Inspectorate—also known as the DWI—which has requested that affected water companies submit a follow-up report on their freeze-thaw incidents; those are known as 20-day reports. The DWI will then assess those responses and consider whether action can be taken where it is in its regulatory scope and in line with its enforcement policy. The Government fully support regulators in taking any appropriate action where necessary.

I will get back to South East Water. The data that we have heard about is absolutely stark. In 2021-22, 39,000 South East Water customers were without water for between one hour and 126 hours, and their average interruption in minutes per property is over an hour, at one hour, 12 minutes and 23 seconds. It is all accurately monitored. South East Water’s performance commitment at the start of the price review period was to achieve just six minutes and eight seconds of interruption time, so we can already see that things have gone wildly astray. It is the worst performer in the sector on this metric of supply interruptions.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells went on to refer to a “catalogue of failures”—not just the supply interruptions—and, looking back at the data, I cannot disagree with him. Let me make it really clear: South East Water must act urgently to significantly improve its performance for customers and address the issues that lead to loss of supply. While there may be particular geographical features, such as the lack of rainfall—everybody understands that we had a drought and reservoirs were low over the summer—which present challenges for the company, there is no evidence that South East Water faced worse conditions compared with other companies in the area that performed considerably better. I will not accept excuses for poor performance; trust me, I received some.

In relation to the specific incidents in Tunbridge Wells and East Sussex on 19 December 2022, a major incident was declared with approximately 18,500 properties potentially subject to loss of water supply, including 3,000 in Tunbridge Wells and 15,000 in East Sussex, in East Grinstead, Haywards Heath and Crowborough. We also heard about all of those affected in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald.

I had a great deal of communication with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells and I thank him for getting in touch with the Minister so swiftly. The DEFRA team was already looking into the incident, but when I was informed I was able to raise other issues, particularly that of communication. On 21 December, I called an urgent meeting with David Hinton, the chief executive officer of South East Water, to discuss the response and to seek his assurances that the company would swiftly resolve the matter. I made it very clear that much better contingency plans had to be in place to prevent such widespread losses happening again.

In line with its responsibility as the economic regulator, Ofwat has written this week to all water companies, including South East Water, to ask them to provide a report by the end of February on their performance during the freeze-thaw period. The letter asks specifically what companies will do to improve the management of such incidents. Ofwat will assess the responses and take further action. That goes some way towards answering the question my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells asked about future plans, but I have also asked for a wash-up meeting with David Hinton to go over what happened, how the incident was managed, future contingency plans and wider performance. That will touch on my right hon. Friend’s question about the future plan.

I assure the House that Government and regulators take water company under-performance extremely seriously. As a result of missing its performance commitment targets between April 2021 and April 2022, Ofwat has directed South East Water to return over £2.8 million to customers in the 2023-24 reporting year, although the latest incident will go into the next year. The Drinking Water Inspectorate is also assessing the five events from November and December and considering whether enforcement action will be necessary.

The issue of compensation was rightly raised. In accordance with the guaranteed standard of service scheme, which is a set framework to assess what compensation should be offered, relevant customers in both constituencies will be paid compensation by South East Water by the end of January. Customers do not have to apply for that compensation, as it will be automatically triggered.

I am grateful to the Minister for her response. I am pleased to hear that this important action by the regulators is taking place and that she has a meeting with the chief executive. In terms of the payments that are provided for under statute, does she agree that they provide a minimum, not a maximum amount? Providing it exceeds the minimum amount, the company is entirely open to make its own assessment. When there is a rolling series of outages over such a length of time, it is essential that not just the letter of the compensation provisions is abided by, but the spirit of them, in order to reflect eight days or more of disruption.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says. There is a format for these payments: water companies must make a payment of a minimum of £20 for a household and £50 for a business when supply is not restored within the initial period—typically, 12 hours—and then a minimum of £10 for households and £25 for businesses for each 24-hour period after that. I hear what he says, however, and I hope South East Water has listened to this debate by the time I have my meeting with Mr Hinton. I also took my right hon. Friend’s point about whether water companies should consider some sort of wider community recompense. Obviously, that is for them to consider, but the point was very clearly made.

I have made it clear, and will make it clear again, that South East Water must act urgently to secure a resilient water supply for its customers. It is critical that it adapts its water efficiency programme to target customer demand. Its draft water resources management plan is currently out for consultation. It sets out how the company will provide a reliable and resilient supply of drinking water for the next 50 years. That includes investment of £2.2 billion for new supply infrastructure, and a further £2.1 billion for reducing leaks and customer water use. That consultation closes on 20 February, and I urge all relevant people to take part in it. It includes proposals for a potential reservoir at Broad Oak in Kent, desalination projects and a potential reservoir at Arlington or Broyle Place at Eastbourne in Sussex, so there are lots of proposals in there.

Before I finish, I want to turn to the action the Government are taking more broadly to improve water supply resilience. We have been very clear that water companies have to act to reduce water demand, alongside investing in new infrastructure. To achieve that, RAPID—the Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development—was set up by Ofwat in April 2019. It brings together teams from Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate to ensure we have a smooth regulatory path for strategic water resources infrastructure so that we can improve England’s resilience on water supply for the future. The national framework for water resources, which was published in 2020, sets out the detail of how we will improve water resilience in the longer term.

Water companies are investing £469 million in investigating some of these strategic water resources options, including inter-regional water transfers, reservoirs, water recycling and desalination. It is quite unusual that Ofwat, the economic regulator, has allowed them to devote that money to such investigations.

Our landmark Environment Act 2021 proposed new statutory water demand targets for water companies so that the water used per person in England is reduced by 20%. We recently published our consultation on mandatory efficiency labelling on appliances—showers, washing machines and so forth. That will be a really important step in our aim to reduce our personal water consumption to 110 litres per person per day. At the moment, it is about 143 litres, so that is a big change. We will need 25% more water than we are using today by 2050, so we need more infrastructure and we need to reduce the amount we use.

The Government are also working to support broader resilience. We have much higher expectations on water companies to retain their supply, fix leaks and improve performance. Ofwat has set stretching targets for all companies to reduce bursts by 12% and supply interruptions by 41% between 2020 and 2025. It has to be said that South East Water is not doing too well on its supply interruptions. In fact, it is the worst performer.

I hope I have made it very clear that if water companies do not achieve what is expected, the Government and regulators will take action. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells and my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald raised some really important points and have put matters clearly on the agenda. We need to see an improvement.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.