As entries flow in for the Water Industry Awards, Utility Week caught up with some of the judging panel to reflect on the past year and why the industry has cause to share its achievements despite the difficult times it is facing.

Deliverability, diversity and collaborative working emerged as key themes from the judges, who stressed the need for companies to communicate with customers about the challenges being faced.

Despite an unrelentingly rough year for the industry, Phil Beach chief executive of Energy and Utility Skills, said it is important to accentuate the positive.

“From a skills perspective we need to attract and retain people in increasing numbers to keep water flowing as well as tackle the environmental and climate challenges we face,” he said. “There is an imperative to reflect the many positive, and often unheralded, aspects of the water industry as we seek to recruit in an increasingly competitive labour market.”

Over the past year, Beach said the level of community engagement from the sector stood out for him and this is something he wants to see grow.

“There are many examples of fantastic community engagement in the water industry; I’m really excited to see the increasing number of community outreach programmes that are already making a positive difference,” he said.

He praised initiatives aimed at improving equality, diversity and inclusion statistics and said he hopes these will shine in the award entries as well as celebrating apprenticeships and the contributions of the next generation of industry professions.

Nicci Russell, managing director of Waterwise, reflected that sewage pollution, drought and the cost of living have shaped the past year for the water industry and are likely to remain key issues.

“The big task,” she said, “is to convince the public, customers, society and politicians that the water sector’s response to them all is sufficient.”

Recognition of the role the sector must play in ensuring climate justice is one topic Russell said she hopes to see reflected in entries. She welcomed the prospect of entries that demonstrate the industry’s “proactive commitment and referenced measures to drive equity, diversity and inclusion in their own organisations as well as in the external work they do”.

As an advocate of water efficiency, Russell naturally hopes to see recognition of the role it and other environmental measures can play in tackling and adapting to the climate emergency.

Lee Horrocks, chair of Waterwise and strategic consultant, felt disruption to normal life over recent years accelerated the digital agenda in the water sector. Looking forward, he said capacity to deliver is an issue as the industry re-focuses to deliver the missed Covid-19 work in addition to the planned work for the remaining years of AMP7.

“Deliverability will be the key sector issue for the foreseeable future. All parties need to step up to meet the challenge,” he said. “The regulator needs to ensure the determination is appropriate. Utility companies need to resolve the perennial issues of cyclicality, workload visibility, appropriate risk to project scope and standardisation of solution’s across there geographic boundaries.”

Horrocks added that the supply chain must grow its capability and capacity in water, while balancing the demands for growth in other sectors.

Trevor Bishop, head of Water Resources South East (WRSE) said the sector needs to face into the work to be done with big ideas

Bishop, who will step down from WRSE this year, stressed that trust of customers has never been more important as the public is asked to use even less water whilst also embracing new sources of water such as reuse and desalinated water.

“Now is the time for big ideas,” Bishop said. “I hope that in addition to great technical advances we also see some big and bold ideas which will lift the sector.”

To address the scale of challenges the whole sector is facing, the coming year “needs to be transformational”, Bishop said. “We need to go beyond just getting the basics right, that won’t be enough anymore. The Utility Week Awards provides a great opportunity to show case the sector and to be inquisitive and explore shift which combine new technology with new thinking.”

Leo Carswell, principal consultant at the Water Research Centre (WRC), is another Water Industry Awards judge stressing the need for the sector to celebrate its own good news.

“The negative view of the sectors is much easier for the media to present and the public to latch onto,” he said. “We are now at time where innovation is being funded on par with other utility sectors and the implementation of new technologies and ways of working are demonstrating the industry can solve really challenging issues. This great news must be shared to balance the image of the industry, given us confidence and also to further accelerate problem solving.”

Part of this comes through working collaboratively between water companies and partners both in and outside of the sector.

“Culture is not something you change easily or quickly,” Carswell said. “However, in recent years there has been significant shift in the culture of working together. Collaboration is now front and centre in how water companies work in the technology and innovation space, be that though the Ofwat Innovation Fund or through the realisation that wider stakeholder engagement delivers significant benefits when done in an open and collaborative way.”

Looking towards the awards, Carswell said there is always something in the entries that surprises.

“The strength of the entries goes up every year,” he said. “This year I’m excited to see entries from companies new to the sector, with exciting, challenging and disruptive ideas which make us rethink how we solve the significant challenge the sector faces.”

Why not celebrate the successes of your team and your organisation by taking part in this year’s awards including three new categories: Energy in Water Award, Engineering Consultancy of the Year and Leakage Initiative award. The deadline for entries is next Friday (3 March).

You can find information on entering and more details about the ceremony, which takes place in Birmingham in June, here.