Water UK conference: Sustainability Scotland - A vision for water in Scotland, Edinburgh, 15 June 2006.
Three principles of the UK sustainability strategy are the framework for this speech: living within environmental limits; ensuring a strong healthy and just society; and achieving a sustainable economy. I’ll also speak about the reason we exist as a distinct service: our customers.
Water UK brings together all the UK’s statutory water and wastewater service providers in the UK working with stakeholders at a national level and in Brussels. One of our strengths – and this is especially important at EU level – is that our members have different ownership structures. South of the border they’re mainly private sector companies, though Welsh Water is a not for profit organisation. Scottish Water is a government-owned company and Northern Ireland Water will soon have the same status.
But however different they are, they share a single, passionate commitment to public service and sustainable development. And I believe that we must do everything to make these two ideals the foundation of the vision for Scotland’s water.
Water UK wants this conference to be an opportunity for Scotland to debate the part water plays and could play in the lives of its communities. We’re going to look hard at the future and I’m confident we’ll come up with some new ways of making sure that the country’s most basic resource contributes as fully as possible to our economic, environmental and social well-being.
And you are exactly the right people for the job. You are senior people from a very wide range of policy and professional interests including economists, health stakeholders, environmentalists, business and consumer representatives and of course government.
I’m going to take three of the principles of the UK sustainability strategy as the framework for my brief talk this morning. They are: living within environmental limits; ensuring a strong healthy and just society; and achieving a sustainable economy. I’ll also say something about the reason we exist as a distinct service the reason is – our customers.
So, first, living within environmental limits
Living within environmental limits
All modern societies need to look hard at how they manage the water nature makes available to them. Policy has to take account of many different needs – people and households, industry, construction, agriculture, and the health of the natural environment which supports everything.
This simple truth has several implications – including for water abstraction and access, for demand management, and for the quality of water in the environment.
But the most important implication is that good policy depends on shared aims and working together. I believe it is profoundly unhelpful for decisions about water use to be taken on the basis of competing claims.
We mustn’t accept lobbying for different interests. When it comes to development, for example, everyone involved – and that certainly includes developers, planning authorities, industrial organisations and farmers – needs to work with the water operator and environmental regulators at every stage of a proposal. I mean at the earliest point of a proposal; when they’re working on the plans; and when they’re fitting out new or reclaimed buildings or other facilities that depend on water services.
And it’s crucial that government ensures this happens whether through guidance or direct regulation.
The reason why this is so important is that sustainability means integrated decisions. We have to avoid differing views hardening into entrenched lobbies. The main thing is that we’re not trying to balance competing claims but working from a shared vision of success and commitment to achieve it.
Water UK takes no sides for example about where houses should or shouldn’t be built. But we’re absolutely clear that water supply should not and will not stand in the way of economic development as long as land use planning and water infrastructure planning go hand-in- hand.
Another implication is that everyone can help the cause of good policy and good economy by thinking about their own use of water. That’s at home and in their working lives. Revised building regulations or water fittings will help. But we also need more cooperation in promoting modern technology and awareness of water waste, just as we’re becoming more aware of waste in other areas like packaging.
Water operators have a duty to promote conservation of water and have a good record over many years. They have also set up and provide core funding a new conservation NGO. Waterwise that is making the economic case for large-scale efficiency projects and beginning to have a real effect. They held a round table in Edinburgh earlier this week.
In recent years the water environment has been affected by European consumer lifestyles. Chemicals in consumer products and intensive agriculture have polluted water courses. And demand for clean water continues to rise in our rich societies – unsustainably in some places.
Part of the solution is the Water Framework Directive which is concerned about the quality of raw water. And which helps by bringing decision makers closer to people and business and the environment, because it requires public engagement.
But a directive can still be unsustainable in its implementation. The shared agenda is never more important than when millions of pounds of investment are involved as they are potentially with the WFD. And integrated decision-making is essential if we’re going to find the most cost-effective methods and agree how responsibilities should be divided.
I’ll now move from the environment to social or at least health policy.
A strong, healthy and just society
Health policy is important to everyone here today. For some of us it’s central because water and sanitation are obviously critical to public health.
Citizens expect high quality services of all kinds to match their improving lifestyles. Water and sewerage are no exception. We wouldn’t accept today the quality, aesthetics and reliability we were happy with even a generation ago. And there is a growing appreciation of the importance of good hydration in good health.
The World Health Organization defines water as a basic nutrient, the only one we can’t do without. Research shows that good hydration is a positive protection against some serious illnesses including cancer.
Four years ago Water UK set up the Water for Health Alliance of public groups. The Alliance has worked well to lift water further up the health policy agenda by supporting the good hydration message. We have also published evidence about the part that drinking enough water plays in healthy childhood, in the workplace and in old age.
All this gives us every encouragement to make the most of our world class drinking water here in the UK. Water companies are promoting the good hydration among their customers and the sector has done a lot to make well-presented tap water available in schools, care homes, hospitals, prisons and the workplace.
Scotland is a leader in this work and in providing healthy options in schools and hospitals. You’ve spent millions on drinking water and more is planned, so it makes good sense to help customers understand how to get maximum benefit from their investment.
Now I’ll look at water in a sustainable economy.
Achieving a sustainable economy
Business users of water have legitimate requirements. Lower available volume or lower quality could have serious consequences.
We must ensure that we can meet the needs of new development. There has been a massive increase in house building in Scotland in recent years so the government was absolutely right in its initiative to ensure that infrastructure and capacity are sufficient – and financed fairly.
In two years Scottish Water’s retail service to non-domestic customers will be open to competition and it will be interesting to see how that goes. New licence holders will have sustainable development duties from the start.
Water services are also a major direct source of employment and water capital programmes represent a significant share of the country’s civil engineering work.
And of course many other sectors rely directly on high quality water supply and a healthy water environment. I’m thinking of the health sector, tourism, leisure, manufacturing, farming and many more.
People come to Scotland because of its natural surroundings and water is a key attraction. Many businesses are located in Scotland because of access to a plentiful supply of good quality water – in particular those that transform it into the ‘water of life’.
(I wasn’t surprised last month to hear an opportunistic business organisation from Northumberland on a London radio station encouraging business to relocate to where there were no water problems.)
Now a word about customers and sustainability
The water service is a natural home for integrated thinking and planning. We need to work alongside government, regulators and a wide range of
economic, environmental and social stakeholders. But to succeed with any of them we need satisfied customers.
This means providing the right quality, right information and good value for money. All of these are essential to a sustainable service – just as essential as staying within environmental limits.
Prices must be as transparent as possible. We must be able to explain how the bill covers each element of service, and show consumers that we are delivering value for their hard earned money. To deliver the best service, companies need the kind of relationship where people value water and can see the benefits in using it wisely.
This is one of the best examples I know of an integrated win-win strategy and well worth the “sustainable” label.
And so to conclude
A Vision for Scotland’s Water
I’m confident that today we will make progress in describing a vision for Scotland’s water in which we take advantage of Scottish Water, wise guidance from government and the essential contribution of strong independent regulators.
And this will be a vision where citizens, business, regulators and government have a shared understanding of the place of water in the sustainable development of Scotland and the quality of life of Scottish people.
More information from:
Nick Ellins, Policy Development Adviser
020 7344 1810
Barrie Clarke, Director of Communication
020 7344 1804 (out of hours pager 07623 960573)