Sector must challenge public misconceptions through engagement

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

The event was hosted by British Water’s chair Mark Fletcher on 12 Jan 2023, to mark the start of the trade association’s 30th anniversary. Shaw was a keynote speaker and her address 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.

Yorkshire Water’s chief executive, Nicola Shaw

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 have not planned ahead.”

Shaw added that better communication and engagement is the way to change these criticisms of public perception.  

“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, while demonstrating our commitment to our customers,” said Shaw.

She spoke about the value of cross organisational collaboration, giving the example of the ‘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 played a role in managing water in Hull and East Riding. The organisations worked together to build flood resilience and developed 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.

The importance of the water sector building a “common voice” was the overarching message from 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.

He said: “We have a real opportunity to dig deeper to find solutions that will help us address the impact of climate change and increasing urbanisation.

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

With an upcoming periodic review process and asset management period 2025-30, British Water is engaging to represent the interests of the water sector and supply chain, Fletcher added. 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, Alan Lovell, the new chair of the Environment Agency, and CEOs and senior leaders across the UK water companies, and worked with other key organisations such as Future Water to establish a “common purpose in the way in which the sector works the challenges”.

Around 100 guests attended the event at the Deep aquarium in Hull. It comprised member companies, sponsor partners and industry figures. The event aimed to encourage networking across the sector and collaboration across the UK water industry and the industry supply chain — which British Water represented.