Wales Chair reflects on a 10-year journey to put customers at the heart of the water industry

After a decade championing the interests of water customers in Wales, Diane McCrea will bid farewell to the Consumer Council for Water on September 30.

Over the past ten years as Wales Committee Chair and Vice Chair of the Board of CCWater, Diane has been instrumental in shifting the focus of water companies onto their customers and the issues that matter most to them.

With her tenure drawing to close, she reflects on some of the ‘big wins’ that CCWater has secured for customers in Wales, and in England too.

Securing a seat at the negotiating table for customers

Soon after CCWater was formed in 2005 customers made it very clear to us they wanted to have a greater say in setting the prices for their water and sewerage services. Steep price rises which showed little regard for people’s ability to pay had damaged customers’ perceptions of the industry and that needed to change.

We set about making sure that water companies listened to their customers and that their views directly influenced their proposals on price and service. Our efforts resulted in the industry setting up Customer Challenge Groups (CCGs) which played a leading role in representing customers’ interests during the 2014 Price Review. These groups helped to ensure water companies were much more focused on delivering the services customers wanted, at a price they found acceptable.

Over the next five years most households will see their water bills fall before inflation – but they’ll be getting more in return. Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water and Dee Valley Water are both committed to delivering huge investment packages in the services customers value most.

It means customers will be getting more, but crucially, for less.

More support and assistance for those struggling to pay

As well as trying to make sure bills represent value for money, CCWater has remained committed to securing more support for customers in financial difficulty. From the beginning in Wales we worked with Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water so that it could deliver innovative tariffs to help people on low incomes who struggled to pay their bills. Most recently we’ve helped to ensure over 34,000 customers who had been supported by Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water’s Welsh Assist scheme made the transition to the company’s new HelpU tariff. And we are continuing to work with Dee Valley Water as it moves towards delivering a new social tariff in 2016.

After helping to rebrand and simplify WaterSure, we’ve worked closely with water companies in Wales to boost take up of the scheme which helps to reduce the bills of low-income customers with high essential water needs. This resulted in a surge in customers registering for help, with more than 10,500 customers now signed up in Wales. But there is still more to be done.

Low awareness of social tariffs and assistance schemes remains one of the biggest obstacles to customers getting the support they need. That’s why we must continue to take every opportunity to help raise the profile of Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water’s recently launched ‘HelpU’ social tariff, which can reduce the water bills of families on low incomes.

Driving down complaints and securing £2.2 million in redress for customers

In 2005 we were greeted by an industry that was guilty of failing customers far too often, with high complaint levels eroding the trust households had in their water supplier. We threw down the gauntlet to water companies to get things ‘right first time’ for customers and invest more time, money and effort in turning around their poor performance.

Our consumer relations team and local consumer advocates have helped water companies in Wales to meet this challenge by improving their services, so customers have fewer reasons to complain. These efforts have resulted in significant improvements with written customer complaints against the two water companies in Wales falling by almost 70 per cent since 2010.

Over the past ten years we have also secured £2.2 million in redress for customers in Wales – making sure households and businesses are compensated when their water company has let them down.

A marked improvement in Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water’s environmental performance

Water companies have a vital role to play in protecting and preserving the precious natural environment we are fortunate to enjoy in Wales. Over the past five years we’ve successfully challenged Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water to reduce the impact its operations have on the natural environment and resources. The company has responded with a significant reduction in pollution events, and led the way in developing innovative sustainable drainage solutions like RainScape, which helps take rain water out of the sewerage system.

Building strong partnerships for the benefit of consumers

We could not have achieved most of our successes for customers over the past decade without developing strong partnerships with key stakeholders.

I’m proud of the productive relationships we’ve built with Welsh Government, water companies and regulators including the Drinking Water Inspectorate and Natural Resources Wales, as well as a wide range of groups, including the Wales Water (Industry) Forum, Consumer Protection Partnership Wales and the Water Health Partnership Wales.

Together we have been able to shape a water agenda for Wales which promises to deliver better and more affordable services for consumers, while safeguarding our natural environment and resources.

Of course there is still much more to be done but I am very proud of what we have been able to achieve over the past decade.

Customers now find themselves at the heart of the water industry – the challenge for CCWater and my successor is to keep them there, and to further improve performance and service delivery for customers.

Diane McCrea

Wales Committee Chair and Vice Chair of CCWater (until September 30, 2015)

Categories: News, Wales