Kerry Scott, global practice leader for social inclusion, Mott MacDonald Energy networks, Generation, Policy, Policy & regulation, Strategy & management, Water, Opinion

As part of our Regional Growth and Utilities series, Kerry Scott looks at the responsibilities and opportunities created by the UK’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda.

Regional development, inclusive growth, levelling up. These terms are increasingly getting airtime. In the UK, the Conservative government’s 2019 manifesto put them firmly on the policy agenda, with commitments to balancing prosperity levels across the country.

Against the backdrop of World Water Day on 22 March, which stresses the need for the poorest not to get left behind, how can water companies support the drive towards more equitable and inclusive growth? There is both a responsibility and an opportunity to contribute to the levelling-up agenda.

Fundamentally, water utilities exist to provide a service that is essential to people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. Need is universal, regardless of location or socio-­economic background. With their coverage and reach, water companies are ideally placed to contribute to ambitions around inclusive growth. This contribution can take several forms:

1. Collaboration.

While growth drivers will vary from region to region, building a shared vision to meet local priorities relies heavily on partnership. To be most effective, partnerships must involve policymakers, government agencies, communities and those that provide essential services.

Together, these stakeholders provide extraordinary insight on regional challenges and opportunities. Utility firms, with their reach into communities, will have considerable knowledge to bring to the table. Drawing on their experience in infrastructure delivery and management at a regional level will add value to development.

Forging these partnerships is no small task, but initiatives such as Water Resources East have already shown how utilities can help to pioneer new collaborative models of working that are locally led and place specific.

2. Engagement

Inherent in inclusive growth are participation and empowerment of communities. We are all residents and consumers. If a project was taking place in our community, we’d want to be part of it. We’d want to feel that we had a voice and a way to share our views.

Water utilities have a role here. Connecting with their customers and communities, to better involve them in design, development and delivery, can ensure smarter, more efficient infrastructure and better targeted services. All of this creates an enhanced sense of enfranchisement, place and inclusivity.

Apart from being simply the right thing to do, engagement with customers and partners makes commercial sense. There is increasing evidence that collaboration with consumers can prevent service or system failure.

3. Social responsibility

Social responsibility and delivering social value can take several forms. Is there more that water utility firms can do to support and advise customers in lower income brackets or more vulnerable circumstances? How do they connect with these users to meet their needs, and gather support in delivering on strategic objectives, such as reducing consumption?

How can recruitment be used to create local employment opportunities and draw on talent close to home? Are supply chains inclusive and accessible to local businesses to keep investment circulating locally? Are there opportunities to engage with local education providers to foster the skills needed for the future?

Finally, how might utilities measure their contribution, their impact and their legacy? Metrics adopted should go beyond overall net economic gain; they should specifically capture the impacts for those customers and communities who rarely reap the benefits of growth.

These are big questions. There is a considerable role for water utilities to play in the levelling-up agenda. Using their substantial geographical influence creatively and ambitiously could yield notable regional gains.

Leaving no one behind

Levelling up and supporting inclusive growth by providing more inclusive infrastructure and services requires changing the lens through which we view development. It involves taking a ‘people perspective’ and putting communities at the centre of service delivery.

Yes, partnerships and engagement take time to build, and benefits are sometimes difficult to quantify. But none of this should dissuade attempts to contribute to a better, fairer society, with prosperity shared more evenly, and outcomes that will include equal access to sustainable and affordable energy, water and sanitation services.

On World Water Day, utilities looking to leave no one behind can work to strengthen their regional identities and build trust and partnership with the communities they serve. There has rarely been a stronger argument or a better time for them to do it.

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