Our Account Executive Laura Cunliffe-Hall explores the current status of the water industry and how improved communication might be able to help address competing challenges facing the companies delivering our most fundamental resource.

The water industry has traditionally taken a back seat in political discussions when compared to more high-profile industries, such as roads, rail and energy utilities. However, in recent weeks, water has become front page news.

Firstly, the Head of the Environment Agency James Bevan warned that England could run out of water in 25 years. Bevan claimed that attitudes to water wastage need to change, making water wastage “as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby or throwing your plastic bags into the sea.”

The water industry faced a further wakeup call when Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn outlined his plans for nationalisation of water, electricity, gas and railway operators if Labour wins power in the next General Election. Corbyn’s approach added to the pressure on regulator Ofwat from both sides of the House of Commons – highlighting how the regulator has allowed suppliers to raise prices without investing adequately in the prevention of leaks or improvement in water infrastructure.

In response to criticism of Ofwat’s regulatory regime, the regulator has formed an agreement with three listed water companies (United Utilities, Severn Trent and South West Water), which has led to the largest cuts in customer bills for over 9 million people since privatisation by Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago.

Although lowering water bills undoubtedly represents a popular proposition to voters, there is a danger that this encourages people to take the challenges of water less seriously. Currently, public perception views it as the responsibility of water companies to prevent waste and provide us with an unlimited supply of water indefinitely. Often we view water as ‘a given’ – as it doesn’t have to be mined or extracted; it is seen as less of a utility than gas and electricity.

This was substantiated in a ‘State of the Nation’ report published by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in October 2018, where a YouGov survey of members of the public commissioned by Copper Consultancy on behalf of the ICE, found that water was the lowest priority sector for infrastructure spending, with only 16% of respondents viewing it as a priority.

Consequently, it is important for the industry to improve how water as a scarce resource is communicated to households across the country. We all need a better understanding of the potential issues facing the water industry in the years to come. After all, water is essential to our survival as a species, and improved water infrastructure is vital in helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

But how can the goal of delivering a water system fit for the 21st century be achieved while there is ongoing pressure on companies to both invest and to cut bills?

More needs to be done to show people how they can play a personal role in preventing leaks and water waste, in light of the warnings from the Environment Agency. Equally, from an economic perspective, more investment is needed in water, particularly across the southeast, to ensure that the right infrastructure is put in place.

This recent ascent of the water industry into the headlines has forced more people to sit up and take notice of water. Nevertheless, more needs to be done to tell the story of why water matters – before the tap stops running.