After one of the warmest and driest summers on record, hosepipe bans announced in parts of the country and questions over wastewater discharges, the water industry is firmly in the public eye.

This report sets out what the public think about water infrastructure and makes recommendations to industry about how we can best communicate the solutions that will keep the taps flowing.

Read the report here.

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. 

Challenge

Cadent is carrying out essential gas mains replacement work across London, replacing ageing metal gas pipes with new plastic ones. Our role is to work closely with Cadent and their contractors to deliver a strong communications strategy, ensuring all affected communities and stakeholders know the benefits and critical nature of the works.

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Insight

The work poses potential disruption to those living in the community and local businesses. With the risk of negative community reaction and opposition, we’re tasked with clearly articulating how Cadent is committed to delivering gas mains replacement works across London, particularly in high profile areas, in the safest and fastest way possible to local communities. While Cadent is making sure the customer experience of gas works is as non-disruptive as possible, it remains vital that the economic and community benefits of the gas mains replacement programme are promoted.

In granting Cadent permission to undertake the work, Transport for London and local authorities in multiple London boroughs asked for a significant commitment to stakeholder engagement.

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Strategy

Our targeted strategic approach concentrates on articulating the essential nature of these gas mains replacement works and developing mutual understanding and tolerance for the work amongst communities across London. We continue to explain the consideration given to residents and businesses in the planning of works and efforts to keep disruption to a minimum, while emphasising the long-term benefits for the capital. We have also implemented processes to protect Cadent’s reputation and minimise adverse reactions.

Amplify

We created and maintain a robust communications narrative around the project’s community and safety considerations and are working with Cadent and contractor teams to ensure they live these values. Our team is continually producing promotional materials to explain the needs for the works and translate complex engineering information into concise explanations to generate understanding and acceptance from the public.

Public exhibitions, community liaison working group meetings and briefings relating to key developments for local MPs, councils, schools, businesses and the wider public are integral to our engagement strategy. This is underpinned by providing regular stakeholder updates through email and letters to mitigate risk of project delays and sustained stakeholder opposition.

To mitigate the risk of project delays, negative media coverage or sustained stakeholder opposition, we respond to stakeholder feedback, using the expertise and specialist information provided by Cadent project teams working across London.

Outcome

This project is ongoing. So far, we have successfully helped Cadent articulate the importance of investing in London’s gas mains replacement programme to millions of stakeholders. Clear, concise, relevant and timely information and materials are being delivered every day. We have improved political, business and community stakeholder relationships with Cadent, as well as communication channels between Cadent and the city’s other key service providers.