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Customers Count … when it comes to environmental investment

Customers have a key influence on water company business plans. But what does this mean for environmental investment and promises for prioritising biodiversity and nature?

January 2019

Dani Jordan’s blog in October shone a spotlight on the central role customers play in shaping water company Business Plans. And that matters to the future health of our wildlife and catchments because the water sector is the single biggest investor in the natural environment in England and Wales bar-none.

Transparency is important and, while I can’t speak for other companies, we at Severn Trent went to unprecedented lengths to get a rounded view of what our diverse range of customers expect of us. In numbers that meant engaging 32,000 customers and analysing over 2.4m contacts. But quality is more important than quantity and we wanted to take the time to explore issues in detail with our customers, so we focused on using deliberative techniques that included day-long workshops. We also expanded the Water Forum, (our version of the CCG) with new members including Dr Nick Baker, a member of the Market Research Society’s board. Collectively the forum played a vital role in shaping approach to customer engagement, and assuring our plan faithfully reflects the outcomes.

The findings are summarised as an annex to our Business Plan but for those can’t quite face reading all 160+pages – I thought I’d offer my reflections on what we learnt.

What do our customers want Severn Trent to do for the environment?

The good news is that our customer’s reaction to Severn Trent’s environment work was really positive. The key messages coming back being:

On Catchments: Customers support ST working in partnerships with farmers to tackle the pollution of water sources, and feel that this should be a priority.

On the Water Framework Directive: In principle, customers are happy with us going faster than we are legally obliged to in order to meet WFD requirements, though it was clear customers wanted us to take a balanced approach to avoid greatly increased bills. Customers are also clear that we should prioritise investment in the worst rivers first.

Biodiversity: This wasn’t a front-of-mind issue for customers but once we provided more information on the issues facing wildlife and what we could do to deliver improvements it was received very positively.

What does it mean for our plan?

Our customer research makes it clear that our customers support our statutory environmental investment and want us to go beyond compliance to work in ways that will enhance the environment.

Our customer research also gives us a mandate to expand our work on biodiversity - so we have a Performance commitment to create or enhancing over 1000ha of habitat on and off our land – and an Outcome Delivery Incentive to penalise under-delivery and reward out-performance.

And, the clear priority for catchment work means we will be growing our award winning catchment programmes, allowing us to deliver water quality benefits in partnership work with farmers across new catchments and in new ways.

But before we get too carried away – we also found that our customers didn’t automatically make the link between Severn Trent and the natural environment. This might seem curious to those of us who live and breathe this stuff – but it demonstrates we shouldn’t take customers understanding and support for granted.

So we will be celebrating our ambition and success and hope others will support us in getting the message out about the vital role water companies play protecting and enhancing the environment. Because, ultimately we all rely on the ongoing support of customers to drive investment in rivers, catchments and wildlife.

Robert Cunningham, Environment Lead, Severn Trent

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The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.