What’s the real role of the water company? Anglian Water Chief Executive, Peter Simpson, wants to kick-start the debate.
Our job as a water company is to provide water and sewerage services to the East of England. But is that the end of our responsibilities? We don’t think so.
All water companies have, today, signed up to something we’re calling our ‘Public Interest Commitment’. It’s a statement that commits the industry to continuing to deliver wider benefits to society, above and beyond the provision of clean, fresh drinking water.
To date, our ‘social contract’ – which is how we make this set of commitments real – has been largely unwritten. It has existed as an implicit agreement between our business and you, the customer. The assumption on both sides is that we will continue to operate as long as those operations benefit society. And it has worked well over the last 30 years. In fact, we probably haven’t shouted about it as much as we should have.
Water quality has improved dramatically to world-class levels, and leakage is down by a third. Wildlife has returned to rivers that had been biologically dead since the Industrial Revolution. Bills are broadly the same as 20 years ago when inflation is taken into account, and surveys suggest 86% of customers trust their water company.
That’s not a bad track record. But at a time when our industry is under such scrutiny, and the political debate about who should own and operate the sector continues, it’s clear we need to do much more – and we won’t shy away from that.
That’s why, here at Anglian Water, we see today’s Commitment as simply the start of a conversation. Arguably, it’s a conversation we’ve been having for a while, but one we want to take much further. The Commitment reflects a lot of what we’re already doing, and our intention is to build on it in a way that really means something for the millions of customers we look after, all day, every day. After all, we know our customers expect us to play a big role in tackling wider social and environmental challenges.
So we’re coming out to communities like yours to ask how we should do this. We have our ideas, but it takes at least two parties to create a truly meaningful contract. We want the commitments we make to reflect the full range of views that exist in the region we serve, and explore how we refocus our efforts on what our role in wider society really is.
Water is the ultimate local product. For the vast majority of our customers, the water they drink comes from a river, reservoir or aquifer less than 50 miles from their home. Our staff live and work in our region, as do many of our partners and contractors. We aren’t just serving the community - we are a part of the community.
So our responsibility to give something back to that community has always been an obvious one. But how does a large company with huge day-to-day engineering challenges get down to the human level, and make a genuine difference to people’s lives?
Although we create a positive impact in many communities, we wanted to explore how big an impact we could make if we concentrated effort in a single location. So we set to work in the Fenland town of Wisbech.
With the booming biotech Cambridge hub to the south and thriving tourist destinations in Norfolk to the east, Wisbech has felt left behind in recent years. On a national index of health, education, crime, income, employment and barriers to housing and services, Wisbech ranks as having significant shortcomings.
As part of a Business in the Community programme we, with our Alliance partners, created a culture of collaboration in the town to help those not in employment, education or training. We didn’t set out to tell Wisbech what it needed – we set out to listen, and see where we could help.
Six years on this partnership’s involvement has grown and evolved to fit local needs. With the community’s help we’re embarking on the larger Wisbech 2020 vision, with aspiration to reinstate the rail link to Cambridge, and proposals for a garden town with more than 10,000 new homes built around blue and green infrastructure. Improved health, education, skills training and employment opportunities for local people are in our sights.
We have a duty to protect the water our part of the world runs on, and the environment that surrounds it. This duty goes beyond the built environment, and our regulatory requirements, to truly ensuring the work we do doesn’t cost the earth.
Last year, we unveiled our first wetland treatment site, on the River Ingol in west Norfolk. The project has been such a success a further 59 sites have been proposed in our business plan for the five years from 2020.
The site works as a natural treatment plant. Millions of litres of used but treated water passes through the wetland every day, to be further filtered and cleaned by wetland plants, before it’s returned to the River Ingol. Not only does the site do the job we need it to by removing excess chemicals from water naturally, removing the need for carbon hungry infrastructure, it’s created a haven for wildlife.
We were the first water company to make an ambitious pledge to tackle all plastic waste which isn’t reusable, recyclable or compostable – ridding our region of problem plastics by 2030. We don’t have all the answers to this challenge, but we know it matters, and that we won’t locate the answer alone. So our proposal brings together like-minded organisations from across the region, pooling our expertise to solve the problem.
We already have a track record of tackling plastic wastefulness through Rivercare, Beachcare and Keep it Clear, so we’re in a great position to take this work forward.
We’ve started as we mean to go on. Over the long term, we want to make our part of the UK a happier, healthier and wealthier place by place. But if it’s to be a genuine contract, we’re going to need your support too.
Acting on today’s Commitment to create our own Social Contract won’t just be a tick box exercise. For us, it will be a stretching, everyday challenge. I’m tremendously excited about where this could take us, as we explore what the real role of the water company is in today’s society.