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Speech: ‘Go With the Flow: Working with Nature and Managing Catchments’

The below speech was delivered by Ruth Kelly, Water UK Chair, at the City Water debate on March 21 2024.


Thank you, Chair, for inviting me to speak. And thank you too for the work that you are doing, not least on raising the profile of the need for catchment-based approaches in water and environmental management.

The interest in water catchments – and how to deliver an integrated approach to water management – is not new. In fact, almost exactly fifty years ago today, the Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment, Geoffrey Rippon, introduced what he termed a “radical restructure” of the sector to replace around 320 organisations across England and Wales with 10 Regional Water Authorities.

The rationale was clear. As was set out in the debate, the “rain does not fall, the rivers do not flow, and the water-bearing beds were not laid down, on the basis of any local authority or other man-made boundary. Hydrological and geological realities, much more than political or administrative frontiers, need to form the basis of our water planning”.

Just as interesting as the reorganisation, which for the first time allowed an integrated approach to flood management, water supply and sewage treatment - were the proposals for devolution. Rippon insisted that the new larger river authorities would allow “maximum devolution from the centre”.

That match between organisation boundaries and river basins, coupled with real decision-making power, was hugely promising. Unfortunately, it was never fully delivered in practice.

Instead, there has been a half-century of debate about how we can deliver greater empowerment for those involved in managing river catchments, with questions left on the table such as

What are the right local goals?

Who decides how to deliver them?

And to whom are they accountable?  

Now, this is a debate that has sometimes seemed theoretical, when placed alongside the other pressing problems the industry has faced - particularly persistent levels of underinvestment over the past couple of decades. But underinvestment aside, arguably another big reason for our creaking system – and the main one I want to talk about today - is the failure to deliver on that original 1974 promise of “maximum devolution”.

By preventing local communities having more of a say in how improvements should be made, we end up missing significant opportunities to tackle the issues people care about.

Let me give you three examples.

The first is storm overflows. These started to become a big public issue around 2018, with the arrival of meaningful monitoring data. Due to the time-consuming practice of national bodies in London deciding every project, efforts to improve overflows largely missed PR19.  

If we had a system that gave up some of that slow, cumbersome, top-down national control and allowed more agility and responsiveness to communities’ concerns, arguably that would have helped get on top of this sooner.

The second example is the way poorly-designed legislation and targets prevent natural alternatives to concrete projects that we consistently see prioritised when communities are given the power to influence plans.

For instance, the government inexplicably requires phosphorus to be removed during the physical wastewater treatment process rather than letting water companies work with landowners to find faster, more nature-friendly schemes that could remove much more phosphorus from the river itself.

The final example is blocked innovation. Regulators often support innovative approaches in principle, but in practice the existence of national-level targets can sometimes – perhaps understandably – mean that they shy away from allowing new techniques and better schemes to be tried. Allowing more local decisions and goal-setting – which could also encompass wider benefits like habitat creation, soil protection and flood alleviation – would make a massive difference to what is delivered.  

The result is that while we are making progress, it is too often in spite of the current system, which sometimes is forced to take decisions that are worse for the environment, higher cost, lower trust and higher carbon.

That is why I think we are now fifty years overdue for reform.

The Solution

The good news is that there is a real groundswell of support for change across politicians, the public and companies, which is why I’m so pleased we are having this debate today.

In fact, the water industry has been working with green groups and others to find practical answers to those questions I posed at the start about the shape of local goals, decision-makers and accountability.

We want to see a massive shift towards regulating outcomes in individual catchments, rather than dictating the precise means by which everything should be done, standardised across every location in the country.

We think this could be done through combining national targets with locally-set priorities that reflect local needs, preferences and geographies, with every sector - including farming, local business and industry - accountable for their part in meeting their share. Agreement on the design of projects to meet targets would be made through securing broad-based acceptance and trust from local organisations, supported by a network of Catchment Advisory Boards.

By integrating catchment partnerships into industry’s planning and delivery, we would ensure the regulator can advise and has oversight, while allowing flexibility for each area to be innovative and locally responsive.

We recently published some ideas on how this could work in practice as the ‘SSWAN’ coalition (‘Sustainable Solutions for Water and Nature’), and we would love to hear views on that from everyone.

As Geoffrey Rippon said 50 years ago,

“Reorganisation of this kind seldom evokes enthusiasm, because it looks far ahead and perhaps lacks the whiff of glamour that surrounds the pressing crises of the day. It is never universally popular, because it changes the accepted way of things and because no one person can be expected to find every last item of a reorganisation of this kind to his liking.”

That doesn’t in any way mean that it is not essential to the future of the water sector and a healthy environment.