Problems with bills and disruption to services have led to four water companies being warned to curb a sharp rise in complaints from their customers. More than 2 million calls were made by households to water companies across England and Wales in 2018/19 to resolve problems with the essential services they provide, according to the Consumer Council for Water’s (CCWater) annual complaints report.

That was almost 60,000 fewer calls – known as ‘unwanted contacts’ – than last year and outweighed a 5,400 increase in the number of customers that had to put a complaint in writing. However, more households had to turn to CCWater for help resolving a dispute after reaching a dead end with their company.

CCWater is now demanding an urgent improvement from Thames Water, Northumbrian Water, Essex and Suffolk Water and Hafren Dyfrdwy, whose performance have caused the greatest concern. All four companies have been asked to provide the watchdog with quarterly reports highlighting what action they have already taken and what else they plan to do to reduce complaints.

Almost half of customers’ grievances related to problems with their bill or charges but there was also a 28 per cent rise in complaints about water supply and pressure, as some companies struggled to manage the challenges posed by a bitterly cold spring and sweltering summer.

Tony Smith, Chief Executive of the Consumer Council for Water, said “Far too many customers are having to waste their time and suffer the frustration of disputing unclear or inaccurate bills. In the autumn we’ll be bringing the whole industry together to try and improve the standards of billing, as well as demanding a significant fall in the complaints made to the four poor performers named in our report.”

No other company received more complaints about its water supply than Thames Water, which must now provide CCWater with quarterly reports on its progress after being named among the industry’s worst performers. It was one of the main reasons England’s largest supplier experienced a 24 per cent rise in written complaints, with 10 per cent more customers having to pick up the phone to resolve an issue with their service.

Problems sparked by the rollout of a new billing system were the main cause of a spike in calls and written complaints to Northumbrian Water and Essex Suffolk Water, which are part of the same company. The changes meant customers encountered longer waiting times or saw their calls abandoned, leading to a 64 per cent rise in written complaints to Northumbrian Water while Essex and Suffolk’s more than doubled.

Difficulties caused by a new bill layout and changes to charges were largely to blame for Hafren Dyfrdwy seeing a 154 per rise in written complaints during its transition from Dee Valley Water, following a takeover by Severn Trent Water. It was the worst performer for complaints made in writing based on CCWater’s comparative measure and also saw a 42 per cent surge in calls from customers to resolve problems.

CCWater hopes challenging these companies will lead to the same sort of improvement seen at Bournemouth Water, which faced similar criticism for a sharp rise in written complaints in 2015/16. The company has since transformed itself into one of the industry’s best performers and reported further reductions in 2018/19, despite upgrading its billing system.

Southern Water, SES Water and Bristol Water also took significant strides towards improving their standing in the industry after attracting strong criticism from the watchdog 12 months ago. For the first time in seven years, Southern is no longer the worst performer for written complaints after reporting a 27 per cent reduction.

Anglian Water remains the best performing water and sewerage company for calls to resolve problems, with the supplier also seeing its written complaints fall marginally. South East Water, South Staffs Water, Hartlepool Water and Wessex Water also earned praise for their performance.

The full report can be viewed here.