Sector must challenge public misconceptions through engagement

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Sector must challenge public misconceptions through engagement

The water sector must tackle “unfair criticisms” by sharing more about the great work it delivers, Yorkshire Water’s chief executive, Nicola Shaw, told attendees at British Water’s Better Together reception in Hull. 

The event was hosted by British Water’s chair Mark Fletcher on 12 January, to mark the start of the trade association’s 30th anniversary.  Shaw was keynote speaker and, in her address, she also focused on the need for initiatives to attract talent and support existing young professionals in the water sector to increase diversity of thought and representation. 

“We need to work harder to change the perceptions that people may have of the water industry. she said. “There is a perception that we routinely discharge sewage, there is a perception we hold back water from people who want to use it – for example with the hosepipe bans over the summer - and, there is a perception that we haven’t planned ahead.  

“I think these are unfair criticisms and doesn’t recognise the good things we do. The way to change the tide of public perception is through better communication and engagement.  

“Together as an industry, we need to be championing the role we play in the environment; the programmes of work we are delivering that contribute to addressing the climate challenges; whilst demonstrating our commitment to the things that matter to our customers,” said Shaw.  

She spoke about the value of cross organisational collaboration, giving the example of the successful Living with Water partnership between Yorkshire Water, Hull City Council, East Riding of Yorkshire Council, the Environment Agency and the University of Hull – all of which play a role in managing water in Hull and East Riding. The organisations are working together to build flood resilience and develop innovative water management system. 

Shaw also focused on the importance of recruiting people of different backgrounds, ages, genders and ethnicities into the water industry. Connecting potential water sectors workers with the community aspect of water services is vital in attracting diverse talent, said Shaw. 

“We know that working together gets better results. There is going to be a huge amount of investment in the sector over the next five to 20 years.  

“Ensuring our resilience to the effects of climate change and becoming a net zero sector means we need to invest well and work in partnership. It won’t be the traditional solutions we’ve seen before – many of the projects will require greater work to engage with communities to build sustainable solutions.  

“Finding a way to work together will be critical to our success in the future.” 

The importance of the water sector building a “common voice” was the overarching message from Mark Fletcher, who joined the British Water non-executive board in 2020 and is former chair of the Water Industry Forum, which merged with the organisation in April 2022. 

“This is an important time for us to come together,” he said. “We have a real opportunity to dig deeper and work together to find solutions that will help us address the impact of climate change and increasing urbanisation.  

“We also have a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate leadership by building a common voice to balance the unprecedented negative narrative that the sector has attracted of late.” 

Fletcher went on to explain that with an impending periodic review process (PR24) and subsequent the asset management period 2025-30 (AMP8) - coming up, British Water is engaging at the highest levels to represent the interests of the water sector and supply chain. In the last few months the association has met with the leadership team at Ofwat, the economic regulator for the water sector in England and Wales; the new chair of the Environment Agency, Alan Lovell; chief executives and senior leaders across the UK water companies, and worked with other key organisations such as Future Water in order to establish a “common purpose in the way in which the sector works and faces the challenges affecting us.” 

Around 100 guests attended the event at The Deep aquarium in Hull, which was sponsored by consultancy Skewb. It comprised member companies, sponsor partners and key industry figures.  

The event aimed to encourage networking across the sector and encourage innovation and collaboration across the UK water industry and, in particular, the industry supply chain - which British Water represents. Proving irony is alive and well, the hotel many of the attendees were staying at during the event was flooded by a burst water main.  

“Everybody kept their spirits up, but it gave us all some insight on how it feels to be a victim of flooding,” said Fletcher. “It was a truly memorable - and ironic - experience.”