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Building relationships with all who care for our rivers

Southern Water CEO Lawrence Gosden reflects on engagement and debate at the 2024 UK River Summit.

It was a privilege to take part in the UK River Summit in London on Tuesday (21 May), listening to key influencers and debating the freshwater emergency that we face together.

Organised by the Zambuni agency and partnered by environmental campaign groups like River Action UK, the summit was held in Morden Hall on the banks of the River Wandle, a tributary of the River Thames.

The event brought together environmental organisations, activists, policy-makers, regulators and leaders in the water industry, who all want to see more done to protect and enhance our rivers.

Discussions centred on the health of the UK’s rivers, with a particular focus on water scarcity.

Actor and river campaigner Jim Murray gave a stirring speech in the opening session in which he called for unity, better collaboration and partnership working and a radical rethink to put the water system right for the long term. Jim also challenged us that massive culture change was going to be needed inside the industry.

Later I took part in a panel discussion on “The Freshwater Emergency – from scarcity to abundance”, chaired by River Action’s CEO, James Wallace.

My fellow panellists were the Environment Agency CEO Philip Duffy, environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey, CEO of British Water Lila Thompson and journalist Helena Horton from The Guardian.

It was interesting to hear Philip Duffy comment that, despite the UK facing a possible shortfall of five billion litres of water a day by 2050, he and his colleagues felt the public did not take water scarcity seriously. We have a job to do in conveying the scale of the challenge over water scarcity, and how each of us can help through the way we use water at home.

There seemed to be a notable consensus among the panel, including the Environment Agency, that the current five-year regulatory investment cycle for the water sector was hampering holistic, strategic solutions and that a longer planning timeframe would result in better outcomes for the environment and for customers.

I raised the urgent need for more comprehensive collaboration across all organisations and industries if we’re to address and improve water quality and supply in our rivers, as we all want. To deliver the change required, everyone involved needs to be making progress simultaneously, or else it will just take too long.

Lawrence Gosden speaks at this year's River Summit

I highlighted water recycling as an essential new source of water but also flagged the need to better connect up the country’s water companies and bring in planning reform to ensure, for example, that the new strategic reservoirs needed are treated as critical national infrastructure projects and get delivered far more quickly than has been possible over the last three decades.

Unsurprisingly, trust in the water industry was raised. I acknowledged the poor past performance of our company and highlighted that we are delivering a Turnaround Plan to get it back to where it should be – but we need to go a lot further. This involves a change of culture – moving from a mindset of ‘what is permitted’ to ‘what is right’ for our rivers and the wider environment.

We are working hard to rebuild public trust in our company. While that will unavoidably take time, and it depends on our behaviour and what our customers experience, there are signs we are starting to make progress. Dialogue, listening to stakeholders like the attendees at this week's summit – and following through with action – will be at the centre of our effort.

I hope that we can continue to engage meaningfully with passionate individuals and groups, whose objectives those of us working in the water industry very much share, and earn our place in a partnership with them acting as supportive, critical friends.

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