Communications ‘dreadful’ during East Sussex water outages caused by ‘beast from the east’

Thousands of East Sussex properties were left without water last March
Thousands of East Sussex properties were left without water last March

Water companies have faced questions from East Sussex councillors after severe weather left thousands of homes without access to the network last year.

On Tuesday (March 19), East Sussex councillors heard about what emergency plans have put in place after the so-called ‘beast from the east’ led to major problems with the water network in large parts of the county last March.

According to water companies, pipes burst across the region following a sudden swing in temperature from freeze to thaw, leading to a loss of water to large parts of the north of the county and in some rural areas surrounding Hastings and Battle.

Speaking to representatives of water companies South East Water and Southern Water, members of the council’s place scrutiny committee raised criticisms about the immediate response to the incident and asked what lessons had been learned for the future.

Committee chairman Richard Stogdon (Con. – Crowborough North and Jarvis Brook) said: “As one of the victims of what happened in the South East Water area it seemed to me that the communications were actually dreadful.

“One was looking regularly at the website to see what was being said about the possible resolution or actually what had happened. There was no indication of what had really happened and no one seemed to properly know.

“We were constantly getting these changes in when there was likely to be a restoration and there was practically no information as to when emergency supplies were going to appear and where they were going to appear.”

Cllr Stogdon also criticised the speed at which emergency bottled water was distributed to the affected areas, saying there appeared to be poor coordination between South East Water and partners.

Douglas Whitfield, head of production at South East Water, said: “I think we have acknowledged communication wasn’t good during the incident, certainly those first 48 hours [were] very difficult.

“It was a very fast moving incident, initially we weren’t quite sure which areas were affected. We could see people were going without water but we weren’t seeing anything on our side, which was immediately the cause of that.”

Mr Whitfield said the company hoped to learn from the incident and would look to improve its communication with local groups should future incidents take place.

Councillors also heard how the company now keeps large stocks of emergency water bottles within the area and was in the process of identifying potential distribution points, in an effort to speed up supply in emergency situations.

Representatives of Southern Water – which supplies water to a smaller area of East Sussex than South East Water – said they had undertaken similar precautions in light of the incident.

The precautions have been taken as part of improvement plans required by the industry regulator Ofwat after the incident.

Cllr Godfrey Daniel (Lab – Hastings Braybrooke and Castle) meanwhile asked what improvements could be made to how vulnerable customers are identified by the water companies in emergency situations.

According to council papers, 77 residents were added to the Priority Needs Register, which identifies those who would be at extra risk without utilities, during the incident. This was partly due to data sharing between the water companies and partners after a major incident was declared, officers said.

Cllr Daniel said: “It would seem to me to be a bit late to do it then. If you got the list earlier at least they would have known more people had priority needs.”

Officers said this approach may raise data protection issues but work was underway with the county’s resilience forum to ensure the data is held in a simple format should an emergency be declared.

South East Water also confirmed it was working on how they may be able to get permission from customers to share data ahead of emergencies and was campaigning to get vulnerable residents signed up to its register.