This year a number of the challenges which have long been facing the water sector have reached boiling point. After a year of negative press attention focused on storm overflows, hosepipe bans, bosses’ bonuses and leaking pipes, both water companies and Ofwat are under increased public and political scrutiny.
This wave of coverage has been gaining momentum since the summer. Where previously the water industry had struggled to captivate public attention, customers and other stakeholders are increasingly seeing the industry in papers, alongside worrying about the effect it has on their pockets.
All this comes at a time when public trust in the ability to deliver new water infrastructure is needed more than ever.
It may be reassuring then that these concerns have resulted in calls for action. Recent research undertaken by Copper Consultancy found that 66% of the public thinks new infrastructure is needed and 40% think it’s needed urgently. This readiness, combined with an interest in direct effects to the water coming out of our taps, creates an opportunity to inform. It’s well established that a lack of understanding on a topic can act as a barrier to engagement. As we enter 2023, what’s needed is public education, alongside technical solutions and possible regulatory reforms, if we are to successfully address these challenges.
Pressure from the public and the media has inevitably been reinforced politically, with Labour and the Lib Dems having sought to put clear blue water between themselves and the current Conservative administration. The Lib Dems have called for banning bonuses until leaky pipes are repaired, while shadow environment secretary, Jim McMahon, has accused Coffey’s first term as Defra minister a ‘monumental sewage spillage.’
However, the public and political prioritisation of issues with the boldest optics risks short-term wins leading to little recognition of the long-term challenges facing the industry. Improvements to distribution networks, such as new reservoirs, decarbonising water treatment, and adaptation to the impacts of climate change and a growing population will take time to deliver and mean local communities will need to be ready for change.
The relationship between water companies – as developers of new infrastructure – and the public is complex. Local communities are their customers, as well as being planning stakeholders, voters and the ultimate end users of physical infrastructure projects in their area. There is no one single story to be told by the water sector. Communicating the need for new projects and technologies will require different channels and entry points. But beyond the news cycle and politicking, it appears that the public are ready for change and still willing to listen.