Water companies pressed over increase in written complaints
Nearly half of water companies across England and Wales saw an increase in written customer complaints in 2015-16, with some recording "alarming" surges, a watchdog said.
The Consumer Council for Water (CCWater), which released the figures, has asked four companies to report back by the end of October to explain what they are doing to drive down complaints.
The four companies are Southern Water, Dwr Cymru Welsh Water, Bournemouth Water and Affinity Water.
Across the industry, billing and charges were the biggest areas of complaint, accounting for just over 60% of complaints to companies in 2015-16. This category includes liability for charges, prices and debt recovery.
For the fourth year in a row, Southern Water was the worst-performing company, having seen a 10.3% increase in complaints compared with 2014-15.
Southern received around 77 written complaints per 10,000 connections from customers - more than double the industry average of 33.7.
Dwr Cymru was the first company since 2008 to report more than twice the number of complaints compared with the previous year.
Written complaints to Dwr Cymru increased by 115.1%, while Bournemouth Water and Affinity Water also reported large increases, of 90.6% and 82.3% respectively.
CCWater said the gap between Southern and the rest of the industry is widening.
It said: "The company has a lot of work to do to close that gap. We expect the company to do so."
The last year saw more companies reporting an increase in complaints than in any year since 2008-09.
Overall, 10 out of the 21 water companies across England and Wales saw an increase in written complaints in 2015-16.
Complaints have been on a downward path, but it is feared the trend could start to be reversed. The overall number of written complaints to the industry fell for an eighth successive year, but only marginally, by 0.5% to 106,196.
The report said that for the first time since 2007-08, the downward trend in complaint numbers "almost ground to a halt last year".
Tony Smith, chief executive of the Consumer Council for Water, said: "What is particularly alarming is the very substantial increase in complaints some companies have reported.
"We can't allow the good progress that has been made by the industry in recent years to be reversed. That's why we have asked four of the poorest performing companies to report to us by the end of October on what action they have taken, or are planning to take, to reduce complaints."
The report shows that non-household customers, which include businesses, were almost twice as likely to complain than household customers.
It warned that companies that continue to deliver poor service could face a backlash next April when non-household customers in England will be able to switch to a different water retailer to provide services including billing, meter reading and customer service.
CCWater is a Government-sponsored public body independent of water companies and regulators.
It said that at the other end of the spectrum, South East Water reported the largest reduction in complaints (down by 38.2%), with other companies also reporting large falls including South Staffordshire Water, Severn Trent Water, Bristol Water and Thames Water.
Wessex Water was named as the best-performing water and sewerage company with a 19.2% reduction in written complaints. Portsmouth Water, which saw a 18.9% fall in complaints was named as the the leading water-only company.
Wessex had only 13 complaints per 10,000 connections while Portsmouth had just 8.7.
A spokesman for industry body Water UK said: "Today's report from the Consumer Council for Water shows that while written complaints are marginally down on last year, it is the eighth successive annual reduction and written complaints are now down 60% compared to eight years ago.
"Those companies which have seen their figures rise will be considering the particular circumstances behind this and taking action to deliver even better services to their customers."
Southern Water director Simon Oates accepted there is " still much more for us to do to come in line with the rest of the industry".
He said: "We want to reassure our customers we remain fully committed to continuing the improvements we have already made, and bringing our performance up to the standard they quite rightly expect from us.
"Our performance since November 2015 - most of which unfortunately falls outside the time period covered by today's report - has been much improved. We have seen the number of complaints we receive from customers fall steadily and, so far this year, we have received approximately half the number of complaints we did in the first five months of 2015.
"We are pleased to have the opportunity to report back to CCW next month, and are confident the figures we submit will show a marked reduction in the number of complaints we have received."