Tom Kelly, wholesale services director, SES Water Company strategy, Strategy & management, Water, Opinion, SES Water

"For an industry that is largely dependent on the status quo of the British weather, there is more that must be done to try and maintain it"

At a time of industry turbulence that has seen the water sector answering the legitimacy challenges rightfully levelled at it, it’s vital that our own staff aren’t left out of the debate. So throughout the year we hold a series of roundtable discussions between directors, employees and supply chain partners to exchange information, views and ideas on a wide range of issues. The thirty-third session of last year was just before Christmas and our actions to address the legitimacy challenge, our performance in a year dominated by the lasting impact of extreme weather and the next stages in the PR19 business planning process all focused strongly throughout.

A recurring theme is the importance of long-term decision making within a process that is perceived by some to be constrained by its five-year term. In short, how can we ensure that we make the right decisions for the long-term? Our response: We have a strong track record in achieving just that and we believe it is already showing real, sustained benefits. This isn’t a new approach for SES Water and our teams recognise there is a lot more to do.

A great example is that over the last 30 years since privatisation of the sector, we have invested consistently at comparatively high levels in replacing our network. This – combined with our approach to its operation – served our customers well during the large swings in temperature last year. But this approach is providing longer-term customer benefits: reductions in leakage, burst rates, water quality failures, taste and discolouration contacts and supply interruptions – for all of which we are either the best performer or in the top three of the industry.

Naturally, we are very keen to continue this trend over the coming years and alongside the completion of our own water grid which will enable us to supply every single customer from more than one treatment works (we’re currently nine years into the 15-year programme), we believe we can prevent leaving future generations with a disproportionate share of the investment required to deliver the service expected.

Our aversion to “subsistence investment” is seen elsewhere too. Our 60-year Water Resources Management Plan, submitted to Defra last September, forecasts an adequate supply/demand balance without needing to develop new raw water sources over the life of the plan, despite projecting a 40 per cent increase in population. This is achieved through a combination of three things: the historic development of a broad range of raw water sources providing choice over which ones we use; new technologies to reduce demand by further reducing leakage and increasing water efficiency and being relatively less impacted than other companies by the effects of predicted climate change due to our mix of surface and groundwater abstraction across the North Downs.

However, our long-term commitment to customers doesn’t stop with those just currently living in our area. For an industry that is largely dependent on the status quo of the British weather, there is more that must be done to try and maintain it. We aren’t the first water company to start purchasing all our electricity from renewable sources, but we shouldn’t be the last either. The move has helped see our carbon emissions drop by 90 per cent compared to four years ago and they will drop further still as we start to introduce electric vehicles this year.

But engaging with our customers may well be our biggest future challenge. We heard recently that research suggests the average customer thinks about their water service for less than 10 minutes a year – that’s a problem for the world’s most-consumed resource.

So, we plan to counter this through a gradual, multi-stage approach, recognising we need to better understand our current and future customers before we can expect to start influencing their behaviour. Through our membership of Business in the Community, we hope to learn from others and build broader and deeper relationships across the areas we serve. Bringing water, energy and the environment together into our education centres will also help with this, as will greater interaction with and insight from our customers through our new billing and digital systems, going live this year.

Vitally, every employee and supply chain partner has played (and continues to play) a role in the progress we have made so far – either in making decisions or making it happen – and therefore helped shape our vision of the future from our performance of today.

We will continue with the roundtable discussions this year and the Holy Grail that is all our people fully understanding the scale of their contribution and aligning with our long-term plans is, we believe, closer than ever before.

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