Why the water sector now needs to raise its profile; explaining the paradox of drought and flooding coexisting in the UK; how can the regulator, supply chain and water companies prepare the public for new projects. 

Copper chaired an interview with Graham Dalton (Non-Executive Director, Scottish Water), Scott Aitken (Managing Director, Binnies) and Affie Panayiotou (WRc) to discuss how we can help prepare the water sector for the wave of new infrastructure the UK needs.  

For the last few decades, the industry has been leading on many successful maintenance, efficiency and upgrade programmes, as well as delivering London’s new super sewer. Industry has been making sure the system works. When we all turn on the taps in our homes, factories and farms the water we all take for granted is there, to a high standard with no questions asked. When you flush the toilet or take a shower, you don’t need to think about what happens next. 

But, to deal with population changes, deal with climate adaptation and help reach net zero, new projects are needed. 

If industry is to deliver the right projects, and to deliver those to time and budget, we need to earn the trust of our stakeholders, politicians, media and communities for each and every project. We need to take the public with us and make no assumptions that because our projects are needed, we already have a societal licence to operate. 

Water is safe, when you turn the tap on drinking water flows and when you flush the loo the drains work – so why do people need to know more than that? 

The panellists discussed the idea that, historically, there has been no major benefit to raising the water sector’s profile. Television adverts across Scotland are good examples of where consumer behaviours are nudged to stop flushing wet wipes and plastics, but this is focused on operational issues. 

So why does that need to change?  

In order to build new, successful projects – reservoirs, waste water plants, water reuse projects, pipelines, renewable energy projects – promoters will need to involve stakeholders, community groups, residents and the public in shaping them. It is the right thing to do. But also, without this, we run the risk that the political reaction is that projects are happening ‘to people’, not ‘for them’, making consent and construction more costly and challenging. 

What do people hear now? 

Today, the industry mainly deals with an apathetic customer, apart from when there are issues. Focus groups show that people still refer to ‘The Water Board’. There has been little compulsion for change. 

Copper’s own research, soon to be published, shows that there is limited knowledge about the water sector amongst the public. There is also a conflicting narrative in the UK – drought and floods coexisted in the UK over the summer. Confusion reigns and to be able to build relationships with communities, we need to earn trust. 

We need to get communities involved in our solutions 

To deliver benefits created by water infrastructure investment, we need smart engagement strategies which involve audiences – not just tell them what’s happening. To create social value, one needs to be able to hold constructive conversations. 

But to secure the licence to hold this conversation, we need to be very clear about what problems we are solving. Describing the infrastructure and its impacts will only serve to educate those motivated to listen. 

In building support for projects, identify the common benefits with key stakeholders, the red lines you won’t cross and an acceptance of key issues. This ‘stakeholder handshake’ gives one the opportunity to go back to basics on tough times and celebrate successes when there is the opportunity. 

Capital investment will find it challenging to be a success if we don’t build a case, brand and reputation to show how projects are part of the answer to ensuring water can be relied on without a second thought. 

What now? 

Collaboration is key. It not just one organisation’s job to tell the story to communities. The regulator has a role in incentivising the right behaviours. Water companies’ programmes show a confidence in the UK marker. The supply chain has an opportunity to bring innovation and show how infrastructure can be so much more than pipes and concrete. Together we can create new public spaces, modern facilities, jobs as well as a system with a smaller environmental footprint.