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Water industry working in the public interest

Water companies hold a unique place in our society. As businesses providing a vital public service, they have a duty to act for the good not just of their customers, but wider society as well.

In the UK we enjoy some of the highest quality water in the world, but water companies’ responsibilities stretch much further than what comes out of your tap and shower. The industry owns and maintains vital infrastructure from reservoirs to pipes right across the country and has a duty to preserve and enhance our natural environment.

The sector takes this responsibility very seriously which is why earlier this year the water companies in England came together to strengthen their commitment to working for the benefit of communities and wider society. The Public Interest Commitment (or PIC for short) sets out how companies will continue and strengthen the work they do for the good of the public and enshrine this as an integral part of their purpose.

How this commitment manifests itself could include formally enshrining public interest within the constitutional make-up of the business – Anglian Water, for example, recently amended its Articles of Association to strengthen their long-standing commitment to operate as a socially- and environmentally-responsible business.

Equally as important, the PIC also includes five challenging goals for the sector. These pledges build on the good work already taking place, ensuring the sector is playing a leading role in bringing about vital change.

On leakage, the goal is to triple the rate of reduction by 2030 (unprecedented in our history) as part of the wider effort to tackle the challenges posed to water supplies. Since privatisation in 1989, the water industry has invested nearly £160 billion to make our water world class.  We’ve cut leakages by a third since the mid-90s – and ensured customers are five times less likely to suffer supply interruption and 100 times less likely to encounter low pressure than they would have been 30 years ago.  

On the environment, companies intend to work together on two challenging goals under the PIC: achieving net zero carbon emissions for the sector by 2030 (water companies in England recently announced ambitious plans to plant 11 million trees in support of this goal) and, building on our work to create a national network of drinking water refill points, preventing the equivalent of 4 billion plastic bottles ending up as waste by the same date.

These environmental commitments build on three decades of progress from the water industry. In 30 years, we’ve more than doubled the number of our beaches classed as ‘excellent’ and  invested £25 billion in environmental improvements.  Our efforts to clean up 10,000 miles of rivers and waterways have resulted in wildlife returning to rivers that had been biologically dead since the Industrial Revolution – we’ve seen salmon, trout and even seals returning to urban rivers.

On social improvement, the PIC sets out the sector’s intention to strive on two fronts: first, to make bills affordable for financially-vulnerable households and develop a strategy to end water poverty; and second, to be the first sector to achieve 100% commitment to the Social Mobility Pledge.

The average domestic water bill is around £1 a day and, after inflation, bills have stayed pretty much the same since 1994.  Action by companies over the last five years to cut bills in real terms are now being complemented by plans for further reductions. The exact changes in bills will vary across England, depending on local investment programmes and customer priorities – but by the end of the 2020-2025 period we expect the average customer to have seen their bills rise by less than inflation for a whole decade.

The PIC is recognition from the water industry that, given the challenges we face as a sector and as a wider society, business as usual is no longer good enough. While the industry has achieved a lot over the last three decades, we are looking to the next 30 years with a view to doing even more. The PIC is an integral part of this vision and a clear statement of intent by the English water industry to meet these challenges.

This piece first appeared in New Statesman