South East Water questioned on Christmas outages


Councillors have questioned South East Water about how it handled the water outages which hit thousands of households in the week running up to Christmas.

On Monday (20th March), Wealden District Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee spoke with representatives of the company about the circumstances of the outages, how it handled the response and what has been done to improve resilience since.

Prime among the Committee’s concerns were the steps being taken to compensate customers, with Councillors noting an unequal response across different parts of the district.

Responding to this point, Rob Crumbie, the company’s Head of Communications, said:

Because it is an extreme weather event, we are not required to pay compensation, but, as a responsible local water supplier, we felt it was the right thing to do thing to do where there was a severe impact.

I had conversations with the grant officer here at Wealden District Council to talk about the setting up of a community fund which will be distributed to support those communities where they have been impacted, but not as greatly.

I appreciate that when there is no water, the impact feels great even if it is an hour. But we have to draw the line somewhere and having distributed almost £2m of compensation already, we felt the community fund, working with the local MP and local stakeholders was the right approach to recognise the impact on the community.

Head of Communications at South East Water

The Committee heard how South East Water had put £50,000 into this community fund and that it was working with the Council on how best to distribute it.

Direct compensation, meanwhile, had been paid to 15,263 individual customers as well as a further 1,200 businesses affected by the outages.

The Committee also had concerns about the company’s failure to provide bottled water in some areas affected by the outages, particularly some smaller villages.

Responding to this point, Mr Crumbie said:

We have an emergency plan at South East Water, which we are required to by our regulator.

Our emergency plan ensures that we are able to respond to a situation where 15,000 households are without water. That is the maximum we are expected to respond to, which is a significant impact on our network.

At Christmas we had 42,000 properties without water. Quite frankly we were stretched beyond a point which we were in a position to support.”

I apologise. The scale of what happened at the end of last year was two-and-a-half times greater than that we are regulated to plan for.

We did our absolute best, we supported the main conurbations, but we didn’t get bottled water right and I’m not going to sit here and tell anyone that we did.

We did our absolute best under the circumstances, but we just did not have the kit, material [or] capital to get out to all of those locations.

Head of Communications at South East Water

Mr Crumbie said the company was taking steps to improve its capacity to provide bottled water in light of the outages. This included a dedicated member of staff for overseeing such occasions plus investment in new equipment.

Councillors also heard more detail about the circumstances leading up to outages from Matt Dean, South East Water’s Head of Operations for Sussex.

Mr Dean said the severity of the outages were the result of several weather-related issues occurring in close succession, rather than just a single event.

The first of these issues was a snowstorm on 11th December, which resulted in a power outage at one of the company’s treatment works. One of the company’s reservoirs ran dry during this failure, meaning supply had to be drawn from other parts of the system.

This was followed by a further failure at the company’s water treatment works in Barcombe on 16th December. This failure, which was described as ‘unprecedented’ by Mr Dean, involved part of the works freezing in low temperatures. The facility was taken offline for 10 hours during this time.

All this, Mr Dean said, meant the system was already at a lower than usual capacity when the region was hit with a sudden thaw on 17th December. This resulted in pipes bursting across the company’s entire network, drawing extra water from an already diminished supply.

At their height, these leaks saw water demand increase by around 100 million litres, a figure councillors were told was roughly equivalent to three towns the size of Eastbourne being added to the network.

To address this problem, South East Water repaired 473 leaks in the week running up to Christmas, which councillors heard was around three times the company’s average.

Councillors heard the majority of these leaks (around 75 per cent) were on customer properties, which the company would not normally take responsibility for repairing. It did so, Mr Dean said, in an effort to bring the water loss under control.

These leaks included one found at a disused meat processing plant in Tunbridge Wells, which was losing around 500,000 litres of water per day. According to South Eastern Water this figure was roughly equivalent to 1,000 four-member households.

Click to watch a video of the meeting: Overview and Scrutiny Committee – Monday 20th March 2023.

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