Vast majority of public do not trust water companies, new research shows

‘There is a growing perception that the water industry cares more about profit than the service it provides.’

Thames Water

Public trust in water companies has hit a new low. Less than one in four people believe water companies will help protect the environment.

Just 23 percent of water consumers in England and Wales say they trust their water companies to “do what’s right for the environment,” marking a 9 percent drop from 31 percent two years ago.

These were the findings of a consumer survey commissioned by Ofwat and the consumer watchdog Consumer Council for Water (CCW). The Savanta study was conducted between December 4 and 18, 2023. It surveyed 2,399 UK adults in England and Wales.

The research found that satisfaction with the quality of water services has fallen to 58 percent from 65 percent in 2021. Similarly, consumer satisfaction with wastewater and drainage services has dropped to 49 percent from 56 percent.

The water regulator Ofwat says the findings underscore the importance of the need for a transformative change in the water sector, so that it “delivers better outcomes for customers and the environment.”

Commenting on the survey, Jenny Suggate, Director of Policy, Research and Campaigns at CCW said: “Customers’ diminishing trust in water companies is not going to be reversed until people begin to see and feel a marked improvement in both the service they receive and the state of the environment.

“There is a growing perception that the water industry cares more about profit than the service it provides. One way more companies could help change that view is by using some of their own money to bolster support for those struggling with their water bills.”

The study follows news that Thames Water, which provides water and wastewater services for 16 million people in the UK, is buried under £18 billion of debt and is seeking either a taxpayer-funded bailout or a huge hike to customer bills, as well as reduced fines for environmental breaches in order to satisfy investors.

This is despite the fact that since 2020, the water company has pumped at least 72 billion litres of sewage into the River Thames. Figures released in March by the Environment Agency showed the company recorded a 163 percent increase in the number of hours it pumped raw sewage into rivers and seas in 2023—over 196,000 hours.

With the possibility of consumers carrying the can for Thames Water’s failings, calls are growing to nationalise the ailing water company.

“The crisis at Thames Water demonstrates everything that is wrong with water privatisation,” said We Own It director Cat Hobbs.

“Of course, the shareholders want us to pay to clean up their mess – they want to hike our bills by an eye-watering 40 percent while they pour sewage into our rivers. The government must stand up to this company which is in debt because it has extracted £7bn in dividends since privatisation,” Hobbs added.

Labour peer and LFF columnist Lord Prem Sikka, described any potential hike as a “con.”

“Customers, not shareholders, will provide capital and own absolutely nothing in return. Current shareholders will get dividends, [while] customers [get] big bills,” he said.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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