Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Guildford, Zöe Franklin, and local Lib Dem councillors have held Thames Water to account over recent water outages, poor communication and inadequate compensation.
On Tuesday 30th January Guildford Borough Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee hosted Thames Water for an in depth session on the water outage that Guildford experienced in November 2023. The meeting gave councillors the opportunity to ask questions of Thames Water and Liberal Democrat councillors focused their questions particularly on compensation, communication with the public and the need to fix failing water infrastructure.
The first question of the evening was from Lib Dem Parliamentary Candidate Zöe Franklin who took the opportunity to use the public questions slot to ask about the inconsistency of the compensation residents have received:
“In November last year, thousands of residents across Castle, Onslow, St Nicolas and other wards found themselves without water, or with very low water pressure, for days. Since then we have been waiting for compensation, many have received nothing or much less than expected. I would like to ask the committee chair to seek answers from Thames Water on how they are making compensation decisions relating to the outage and ask them to justify how it is fair or appropriate that residents on the same road and/or who experience similar length outages have received different compensation amounts or none.”
The response from Thames Water, as with most of the evening's questions, was underwhelming with the water company reiterating that they recognised and apologised for the disruption, they had awarded a total of £1.7million relating to the incident and that many of the extended problems residents experienced was due to their internal plumbing.
Cllr Dominique Williams (Shalford ward) asked a follow up question pressing Thames Water on sharing the data they used to make the compensation decisions and questioning its validity given the wildly different compensation offers residents were receiving. Thames Water’s representatives advised that councillors would be surprised by “how little information” they had available to them in terms of monitoring - a statement that was made all the more surprising given later in the meeting they advised that they are “constantly monitoring the water network”.
Despite this response there was a positive step forward on this issue as Thames Water’s local Head of Operations has agreed, after the meeting, to sit down with Zöe Franklin and go through the specific data that she has been provided with by residents showing the inconsistency of compensation awards.
The next topic of discussion was Thames Water’s communication with the public over the course of the outage. Councillors of all parties highlighted how poor this was and how it left residents feeling frustrated and anxious. In particular, Cllr Catherine Houston (Shalford ward) emphasised that for much of the incident, councillors were left to lead communication with residents on the detail of what was happening and this presented a particular challenge when local MPs were stating conflicting information. Cllr Tom Hunt (St Nicolas) and Cllr Jo Shaw (Merrow) also highlighted that throughout the outage - and despite residents telling them - Thames Water were not including all areas impacted on outage maps which exacerbated frustration, anger and uncertainty.
Thames Water agreed that they had fallen short on clarity and transparency, and indicated that they were taking urgent steps to address the problem. They also acknowledge that some of the public statements of MPs were “unhelpful”.
The final focus of the meeting was that of Guildford’s water infrastructure, its capacity and resilience. Cllr Julia McShane (Westborough and Leader of the Council) observed that “it is clear that Guildford’s water network cannot meet local need or usage and action needs to be taken to address this” and specifically asked “what actions are you taking as demand increases to ensure that you can meet that demand?”
Thanks to Cllr McShane’s question, Thames Water has agreed to attend another scrutiny meeting to go through their investment plans for Guildford and answer questions on capacity, resilience and investment in local water infrastructure.
In summary, Thames Water may not have been as detailed or forthcoming in answer to councillors questions but there are clear outcomes from the meeting that should get much needed answers and action for local residents. The Lib Dem team will keep residents up-to-date with new information as they have it.