In a spirit of cross-sector collaboration, those taking part in the Utility Week New Deal for Utilities Debate within the calmer surroundings of RICS were convening to thrash out a solution to one of the biggest challenges facing our industry: how to rebuild public trust.
And while our discussions were taking place on a much smaller stage, there were some unmissable similarities in the message.
Like much of the wider electorate’s poor view of politicians, the debate heard how utility customers increasingly lack trust in their energy and water companies.
In the new world of rising consumer expectation and scrutiny, industry risks becoming the architect of its own legitimacy downfall, by failing to engage and deliver the service and social benefits that now matter most to the public.
Similarly, a sense of public frustration grows rapidly, with image issues having haunted the sector for far too long. Whether it be dividends, executive pay, leakage or a greater sharing of rewards – a review of the privatisation boundaries for utilities now looks inevitable as the nationalisation narrative builds.
But, just like Parliament, utilities are best placed to offer the solutions to rebuilding trust and offering a new social contract to the public. They are also well-equipped to meet the other key challenge explored in the debate – empowering customers to adopt the technology to advance decarbonisation.
As in the Commons, some of the biggest personalities in the industry were always bound to clash on certain areas in our debate, such as tougher regulation, price controls and government intervention. And there was exasperation at a disastrous smart meter rollout setting back a key energy consumption message for customers.
But it was impossible for any panellist to argue with the chair of the Committee on Climate Change’s chilling call for utilities to do their duty in urgently addressing the “biggest problem facing humanity”.
His warning was swiftly echoed by Eon UK’s chief executive, a long-time proponent of energy efficiency becoming a national infrastructure priority, and who candidly revealed: “My biggest fear on this is that we will all run out of time.”
Utilities would do well to heed the time-wasting lessons of Brexit. No-one in our industry wants to look back and think we should have done far more, more quickly.