SOUTHERN Water's managing director has quit just 24 hours after the Daily Echo revealed huge price hikes in the county's water bills.

Stuart Derwent, pictured above, has stepped down from the post at the firm where he has worked for the past 32 years.

Chairman Bob Thian will stand in for him until a permanent replacement is found.

Nobody at Southern Water was willing to talk about the sudden resignation or explain why Mr Derwent had left. The firm would not comment on whether it was linked to the huge rise in charges, due to come into force on April 1.

Mr Derwent himself was unavailable for comment.

The decision comes just days after the first 2005 water bills started dropping through customers' mail boxes.

This year Southern Water has increased the price of water bills by a huge £41 to help fund environmental and infrastructure improvements.

But the increase sparked anger among customers and politicians alike who feel it is too much and that many elderly and low-income families could suffer.

The average household can now expect a bill of £299 a year.

Dr Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East, was one of the politicians who criticised the water bill increases.

He said: "If it is true he has resigned I would like to pay tribute to an efficient, helpful and dedicated man. We contacted him over the years and were always impressed by the attention he gave.

"We don't know the reason for his resignation and wish him well for the future. He was one of the good guys who responded quickly to our enquiries."

A spokeswoman for Ofwat, the water service regulator, said they were informed of Mr Derwent's resignation but they had no further information on why he was going.