Working together to be more resilient and help vulnerable customers

 

One of our most important responsibilities is addressing vulnerability. Be that supporting customers struggling to afford their bills or increasing the resilience of our services.

This responsibility is shared globally, as shown during the opening this week of COP 25, the international climate change conference. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned “the point of no return is…in sight and hurtling towards us”, meaning our localised efforts to build resilience, based in community partnerships, are all the more pressing.

We recently published a report about a collaborative programme with Brighton and Hove City Council, the Consumer Council for Water and the University of Sussex which linked water efficiency home visits with affordability support for some of our most vulnerable customers.

Facing up to the challenge of climate change

Last week we shared our findings at an event at the Institution of Civil Engineers, where I was joined by researchers from the University of Sussex, Dr Catherine Will and Dr Nicolette Fox, and Geoff Raw, CEO of Brighton and Hove City Council. Ben Earl, our Water Efficiency Manager, chaired an animated debate for an audience of nationally scattered water companies and community groups – all interested in adapting our model.

That our region faces a range of challenges – with climate change and population growth exacerbating high levels of water stress. In addition Brighton and Hove has pockets of high levels of deprivation, with nearly 30 neighbourhoods in the city amongst the 20% most disadvantaged in the country.

We, alongside the city council, have a responsibility to support customers who might be struggling with their bills and address the challenges we face from climate change and developed a programme to address both of these simultaneously. We matched customers with high water usage with residents on the council’s social housing register and proactively offered water efficiency visits combined with affordability support.

We then worked with the University of Sussex and the Consumer Council for Water to understand the impact this had on customers’ water consumption and overall household affordability. The University produced Take 12 – an easily-digestible series of case studies, highlighting 12 money saving tips from 12 people who were part of the research.

A shared responsibility

The programme was a success. The average reduction in consumption was around 6% and we were able to double the amount of customers receiving financial support. The report makes a number of recommendations – including expanding partnership programmes to include third parties like charities and energy providers.

For me, it also illustrates a fundamental part of our developing social contract, a shared responsibility between us and our customers to collaborate, proportionality.

We know some of our customers can’t reduce the amount of water they use for medical, family or cultural reasons – but at the same time they want to play their part. Some of these customers are also struggling with their bills, and we need to ensure they don’t feel any pressure to further cut their use.

Target 100

One of the challenges around our Target 100 programme – our ambition to achieve average consumption of 100 litres per person, per day in our region and example of a modern social contract – is ensuring it isn’t interpreted as a “badge of shame” by customers who can’t achieve it. Rather, it is about everyone playing the part they can by using water wisely – similar to energy.

This is where the proportional element is contribution. In our social contract effort is shared proportionately by ability to contribute, impact and influence. 

Ensuring effort is shared in this way means that everyone can participate – which is crucial for the success of a project like this, for any social contract and, as my colleague Geoff Raw, CEO of Brighton and Hove City Council pointed out, to meet the big challenges we all face. By enabling people to contribute at the right level, and making sure projects are accessible, we can give everyone a stake in the solution – and we can all wear our Target 100 badge.

That’s partially what this programme became about – how a group of partners can combine effort, resources, insight and perspective to improve peoples’ lives and enable them to make the right contribution – for them and their circumstances – to our shared challenges.

 

Ian McAulay, Chief Executive Officer of Southern Water