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Sink or swim: How to improve trust in the water sector

Energy, Transport & Infrastructure

After attending Utility Week Live in Birmingham, Matilda Hartwig has penned a piece on diminishing consumer trust in the water sector, and what could be done to improve it. 

Over the past year, the water sector has experienced a consistent stream of negative attention across media and government, resulting in a drop in consumer trust in the UK’s water companies.  

Findings from Ofwat’s research show that almost 50% of people agree that their water provider puts the interests of shareholders first, while trust in their ability to protect the environment and deliver basic services, such as good quality drinking water, consistently fell in 2022. 

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The report also found that trust and wider perceptions of the industry are inextricably linked. So, it is no surprise that the reaction to the sector’s apology today, for ‘not acting quick enough’ to tackle sewerage spills, has been mixed.  

Musician and environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey called it a "half apology" that was another attempt to extract more money from customers. While Alan Lovell, chair of the Environment Agency, welcomed the companies' apology and their efforts to rebuild public trust.   

It should be noted that the water sector’s current consumer trust issue is not unique. SEC Newgate’s ESG Monitor has found that 2 in 5 (43%) people in the UK don’t trust what companies claim about their ESG activities and performance. But what can be done to improve this? 

Transparent communications and regular reporting 

Our ESG Monitor found that 66% of consumers are prepared to give a company a second chance if it’s transparent about its mistakes and demonstrates how it will do better in the future. Ofwat’s research supports this, finding that almost half (47%) of respondents want to hear more from their water company on the steps they are taking to improve river water quality.  

Positively, the sector today announced that, in addition to boosting funding, it would make “near real-time” data on sewage spills publicly available and has set a target of reducing spills by up to 35% by 2030. 

Meaningful community consultation 

As we brace for the potential £10 billion tidal wave of infrastructure investment into the sector, there is an opportunity to build trust at a grassroots level through proactive and meaningful engagement. 

During the delivery phase of these projects, there will be a range of small and bigger wins for water companies to seize. However, to work out what these are, an understanding of the drivers of community expectations, wants and needs will be important. This will require consultation and social research to develop a robust picture of the whole community and what it considers important. 

Each water company operates across a range of diverse communities, so should not assume that what works for one will work for all. The data collected by engaging with each unique community will help deliver considered infrastructure and long-lasting legacies. 

If you talk the talk, you must walk the walk 

Consumers are increasingly prioritising companies' reputation, overall values, environmental practices, amongst other ESG related issues, when choosing a company to purchase form or do business with. Goodwill on these topics will take time to establish and can be easily lost, so it will be important that the sector’s actions line up with its claims and promises made.