Southern Water has been named as the worst performing company in the industry for the fifth year running, and residents of Brighton will be all too aware of the relative powerlessness they have over this situation.
Southern Water provides services to over four and a half million people across Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight, many of whom have no alternative but to pay up, or else lose vital connections to water so crucial to their daily lives.
The company has been routinely criticised not only for its poor customer service, but also for the repeated damage they do to the environment when dumping sewage into the ocean all across the southern coastline. Last month it emerged that Southern Water had accidentally released as much as 17 million litres of sewage into the sea after a power outage at its East Worthing pumping station. In 2012 Southern was fined £10,000 after fish were killed in a sewage leak.
And this blow to local marine ecology is by no means an isolated case, back in 2012 a similar incident occurred at the same station when 40 million litres of sewage was released into the sea, an accident that lead to beaching all along a ten-mile stretch having to be closed for six days due to concerns regarding the health and safety of the public.
Southern was prosecuted in that 2012 instance and fined £160,000 with £27,000 costs, while in 2007 it was hit with a £20.3 million fine for lying about its service and overcharging customers. The regulatory body responsible for ensuring fair and proper practice with regards to national water services found that the company had “systematically manipulated information”, meaning it was able to raise its charges by more than it should have. This was in the same year that the company was fined £8,000 after it released sewage on to the beach and into the sea at neighbouring Bexhill.
A year after this incident, Southern Water was yet again flooded with a rise in complaints by 155%, while water rates continued to increase year on year above the rate of inflation. In 2008 rates increased by 5.8%, in 2011 by 6.4%, and then by 8.2% in 2012.
Southern Water reduced the number of written complaints the received by almost 45% in the last financial year, a step in the right direction in combating consumer criticism that was praised by The Consumer Council for Water (CCWater), although the body stresses that the firm has lots more work to do in curbing the number of complaints it routinely received if it is to do anything to combat the negative associations it has managed to accumulate over the last decade.
A decrease in written complaints Southern receives is by no means an achievement to be shouted from the rooftops, with the number of “unwanted contacts”, where its customers had to pick up the phone to resolve an issue, increasing by 54% over the same period. There is still a 9% increase in complaints received by the company if we are to disregard the medium through which disgruntled customers got into contact, with a significant fall in written complaints being ascribable to changing communication habits and patterns. After all, in an age of instant and interactive contact who is still sending written letters of complaint?!
Water customers had to make more than two million calls to resolve problems last year as progress by companies on service “stalled”, figures show.
The number of customers who had to phone their water company to resolve an issue increased by more than 40,000 to 2.14 million, the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) said.
London and South East chairman for CCWater Sir Tony Redmond said: We are encouraged by Southern’s improvement but its performance remains poor in comparison to the rest of the industry. There is a lot more work to be done by the company.”
Southern chief customer officer Simon Oates said the firm would continue to work with CCWater to improve its rankings.
He said: “Our teams have worked so hard over the last year and we are all committed to continuing to improve responsiveness and focus more on meeting the individual needs of our customers.
“We’ve carried out a thorough review to ensure we can make it easier to do business with us – whether it’s online, face to face or over the phone.
“This includes making significant improvements to our website and customer contact centre.
“We want to reassure our customers we’re building on the significant improvements we have already made and bringing our performance up to the standard they quite rightly expect from us.”
But with Southern being routinely responsible for a whole host of issues in the last decade, including inflation -busting price increases and several incidents of damaging the environment and putting the public at risk, how long is the population being served by this company able to wait for them to get their act together?
For now, residents of Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight, have no choice but to suck it up and hope that services improve and price increases are curbed to better reflect inflation and the cost of living in these areas.
Unfortunately, placing hope in large corporate entities to do what is best for those they serve and the environment in which they operate seems somewhat of a pipe-dream. Instilling the importance of moral and ethical decision making into boardrooms up and down the country should be high up on the agenda of those in the position to do so, but this too seems a somewhat whimsical wish in a situation where power and resources have been methodically devolved and dissolved from local authorities with the interests of the public they serve at heart.
Monopoly, the exclusive possession or control of the supply of or trade in a commodity or service, is taught in economics classes up and down the country to be an ill of our current system, yet persists as a collective thorn in the side of our everyday lives.
For the moment, all customers can do is raise their voices together and decry the service with which they are forced to comply. Vocal derision and denouncement from the population served must be the necessary first step in actioning the kinds of change that situations such as these call for, although the argument is sure to escalate in years to come.