River Quality – what has gone wrong?

On 17th September, the Environment Agency published their assessment of river and groundwater quality for the last few years – see here for details. I have rarely been so angry. This blog explains why I am so angry and wonders how we can do better in the future.

The background

The EA’s key role is to protect our environment. In order to do this they have to monitor the quality of our rivers and underground waters. Once every 6 years they ringmaster the production of a “River Basin Management Plan” which outlines the current state of our rivers and the work necessary to improve them in line with the EU Water Framework Directive (which has been copied into UK law post-Brexit). In doing that they work with a host of external players, not least Catchment Hosts who were set up by Defra with the specific intent of bringing together stakeholders in river catchments to contribute to this work – this after the EA were strongly criticised the first time around (we are now developing the 3rd Plan) for a grossly indequate effort to involve external partners.

Developing that assessment and plan necessarily involves taking samples of our rivers to assess the current condition – known as WFD status. Any statistician will tell you that the quality of a data-based decision is fundamentally dependent on the quality and quantity of that data. I will come back to this point later. Developing the plan also depends on the current WFD status of the river – if it’s currently OK then only protection is needed, whereas a Poor status demands remedial action. This is where the EA’s failings first come to light.

Their classification of current status operates a ‘one out, all out’ policy for river chemistry. Essentially, if they analyse for 10 different chemicals and one fails then the whole river fails regardless of how good the other aspects of river chemistry are. Think about this. The more chemicals you analyse for, the more chance of the river failing regardless of whether there has actually been a deterioration.

So what has happened?

The published data shows that every single river in the country fails the chemical standards set for them. And it’s not that which makes me so angry. What makes me angry is that the failures are down to the EA changing their methodology. Let me quote the email I received with the local results:

“Improvements in laboratory analytical techniques mean that this is the first classification where we have used the improved, more sensitive analytical methods for many chemicals. This is also the first classification which includes substances identified as ubiquitous, persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (uPBT), which have an alternative method of assessment using a biota (fish)-based environmental quality standard, rather than a sample from the water column.

Due to the new chemical methods, all surface waterbodies in Yorkshire now fail Chemical Status standards (mainly for mercury and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), both uPBTs. As a consequence of the “one out all out” rule, this has a knock-on effect on Overall Waterbody Status. While the new chemical methods give a more accurate picture of environmental quality, they do not reflect actual environmental deterioration since 2016.”

Our rivers may not have actually deteriorated, they just appear to have done so because of this quirk of the system! But we don’t actually know because we are being asked to compare apples with oranges.
The EA could have, but haven’t, published a parallel data set showing the state of our rivers had the new methods not been implemented. I wonder what this might have shown? Any competent data handler would have done this. I wonder why they didn’t? Are they playing political games perhaps?

The media response

Perhaps predictably, this has caused righteous uproar in the media.

Shocking state of English rivers revealed as all of them fail pollution tests – The Guardian
Every river in England is polluted, government figures reveal – The Independent

Vocal commentators such as Feargal Sharkey – yes, the former Undertones singer, and long-term angler and critic of the EA – have waded in.

This inept piece of data handling and presentation just stokes the fires of anti-EA feeling. I have resisted this so far, knowing of the committment and dedication of the vast majority of EA staff with whom I work every day and who do thier very best with inadequate resources.

But that’s not all…

The value of any data set depends on both the quality and quantity of the data. The comments above relate to quality. What about quantity? How often are our rivers sampled and analysed? I wish I knew, that data is not so easily visible. What I do know, from watching this over the years, is that the frequency of sampling has decreased. I also know that the EA has a long-running “Strategic Monitoring Review”, ostensibly to establish the most effective monitoring regime but in many of our eyes to establish how little they can get away with. Enquiries about this review, which was supposed to be carried out in full consultation with their key partners, reveal little more than prevarication and assurances (which nobody believes) that it’s not a cost-reduction exercise.
However, one of my colleagues in a different area has done some analysis of the frequency of sampling in their patch. The results are telling. From a peak of 166,475 analyses in 2012, the latest number available, for 2019, has fallen to 68,829. At least that is up from a miserable 63,398 the previous year. The frequency of analysis has reduced by 60%. So on a significantly smaller data set, the state of our rivers is being condemned.

Shame on you EA.

Why am I so angry?

I have spent 45 years of my life working to improve river quality in the River Aire. I know for a fact that the quality of this river is vastly improved over that time. My former employers, Yorkshire Water, have spent hundreds of £millions improving the discharges from their sewage works such that we now have salmon coming up our river and looking for somewhere to spawn. For the last few years I have been a trustee in a rivers trust dedicated to improving the river and, in that role, involved in many projects that have actually improved the river. As I write, we are delivering a partnership project with the EA designed to allow those salmon right up to their historic spawning ground in the headwaters. Now, through a quirk of the system and indaequate sampling, I am being told that my beloved rivers have actually deteriorated despite all this good work.
I feel as if I have been kicked in the stomach and then had my head trampled on to boot. Surely all of those years’ work has not been in vain?

I know it has not, but ‘the system’ is telling me otherwise. This data, that has caused all the furore, was due for release in Spring but was delayed by the EA – I was originally told “because we are having some difficulties with it”; then more recently Covid-19 was invoked as a reason for the delay. Now we see the truth. It is an inadequate data set that tells a false story. A data set that belies the great work by the EA’s own staff, by the water companies and other dischargers, by rivers trusts and wildlife trusts and by the hundreds of volunteers (like myself) who turn out for free to help further improve our rivers.
Shame on you Environment Agency.

Tragedy or farce?

I started this blog asking whether what has happened is a farce or a tragedy – in my opinion it is both. It could have been handled so much better. For example, a bit of honesty/openness/transparency back in spring when the data was unexpectedly held back might have allowed us to prepare and understand the issues.

I know from personal experience how hard the dedicated staff of the EA work. They do their very best with inadequate resources. We in Rivers Trusts work with them on a daily basis actually improving water quality and other aspects of their ecology and we value their advice and the funds that come our way to help them in their quest for improvements.

The change could have been ‘trailed’ well in advance, giving us all time to prepare and understand the issues involved and be prepared for the inevitable media storm in which the nuances of this being an artefact of a change in methodology get lost. The results could have been published in parallel with what the results would have been had the changes not been made.

The challenge now is to get over the current situation and figure out how we can best continue to work together to achieve more in the future.

Rivers fit to swim in?

The annual New Year’s Day swim in the River Wharfe, Otley

‘Free swimming’, aka swimming in rivers, lakes and the sea, is gaining is popularity. With the recent publication of a consultation on designating the Wharfe as a bathing water, now seems to be a good time to offer an opinion piece on this thorny issue. This will be a data-free zone, yet one based on many years’ experience dealing with bathing water issues since the original Bathing Waters Directive came into force in 1975. This piece is the personal opinion of the author and is not intended to suggest that it is the policy or opinion of the Trust.

When the original Directive came into force, the predecessors of Defra went to great lengths to minimise the number of designations. Inland waters were excluded and the criteria applied to coastal waters were so strict that only a very few were granted bathing water status. Moreover, they decided that only the minimum stadrds in the Directive needed to be applied.
The EU’s Bathing Waters page offers a wealth of information on the current state of bathing waters around Europe (incuding the UK as the data were collected before Brexit). The UK currently has 644 designations, compare to the extremes of 3348 in France and 17 in Luxembourg. Unlike in the UK, many countries in the EU have designated many inland waters. Doing so in the UK would represent a major change in policy with long-lasting and complex implications, both practical and economic.
This piece explores some of those implications, albeit briefly.

Early experience of complications or it’s not just about sewage

The prevailing mindset when standards were first introduced was that they could be met by effective sewage treatment and/or piping effluents well out to sea beyond the possibility that they could influence bathing waters (which were generally just the few metres between high tides and into the sea at low tide). Before long, we were examining tidal flow patterns around bays and along the length opf the coast, then exploring the impact of combined sewer overflows, then misconnections into allegedly clean watercourses dischargeing onto the beach, then urban runoff, then dogs and birds defecating on the beach….
I mention these complications only to help the reader understand that meeting the standards was not as simple as it might have first appeared and that a whole lot of unexpected factors significantly delayed compliance. How might similar factors play out in the case of the Wharfe at Ilkley, or indeed any other inland water? Upstream of any sampling point on rivers are likely to be several other sewage works, a host of (generally poorly maintained) private treatment plants or septic tanks, runoff from both urban and rural roadways, field runoff containg cow/pig/sheep/chicken etc faeces, any of which could carry a substantial load of coliforms and/or enterococci.

Practicalities and economics

What might meeting the standards involve? For the sake of this blog, let’s just consider sewage discharges from water company assets – Combined Sewer Overflows (intermittent discharges, theoretically only after heavy rain) and Sewage Treatment works (continuous discharges). At the moment there are no bacteriological standards on these discharges and the introduction of them would inevitably lead to the need to disinfect such discharges. In order to be able to reliably disinfect, they would almost certainly need treating to a higher standard than at present (no bad thing, but in this case technically necessary to enable disinfection). I am, of course, assuming that disinfection would be by way of UV treatment, as any chemical option would be likley to lead to disinfection byproducts unlikely to be acceptable in the receiving watercourse.
For CSOs “treating to a higher standard” is likely to first mean drastically reducing the permissible discharge to river – which of course is one of the campaigners’ wishes (not that it would not be welcomed by most people interested in improving water quality). But what then? CSOs do not typically have any treatment other than screening out physical debris (this could certainly be improved but it wouldn’t render the deischarges disinfected). But we still have a discharge containing substantial bacteriological load, and not only from sewage but also from runoff, so what next? I don’t know – do you? Perhpas we could delay the discharge until such time as the river genuinely has risen (that was the original concept behid CSOs after all) to a level where people could not realistically swim in it anyway? All of this would require significantly more sewage to be passed forward to the treatment works – and hence upgrading sewers and then additional treatment capacity at the works.
So here we are at the, now significantly bigger, sewage works. A works whose operating range has increased from a volume ranging from 1 unit to 6 units and now has to treat a range from 1 to ??? units. Now there’s an interesting challenge. Any process engineer will tell you that designing a system gets harder, and more expensive, as the range of operation increases. And that bigger works will need to treat sewage to a much higher standard, typically referred to as tertiary treatment, in order that disinfection can work.

So what’s the challenge?

Now all of this is technically possible, so what’s the challenge? Easy – money. All this has to be paid for, and who do you think will pay for it? Yes, us customers. OK, the arguments will now come out about the ‘rip-off profits’ of the water companies and how the owners should pay – but anyone with even a simple understanding of financing understands that owners invest in the companies and deserve a return on their investment (if they don’t get one why should they invest?) and that whilst they could be financed by borrowing, that needs to have interest paid on it and be paid off as well. And please, no arguments about re-nationalisation – this is not the place for that.

Is it worth it?

So we (whoever ‘we’ is) spend all this money on sewers and sewage works, will it result in ‘Rivers fit to Swim in’? My prediction is ‘NO’. No for the reasons I have mentioned – private sewage treatment systems, urban and rural runoff etc.

Please do contribute to the discussion. Knowing how sensitive this issue is I reserve the right to moderate comments.

The ‘shadow’ side of meeting our needs

When I was working as an organisational development specialist, we often talked about the ‘shadow organisation’ the parts of an organisation that just found ways to get things done, almost regardless and in many cases in spite of the ‘formal’ channels. Formal channels are often slow, stuffed with bureaucracy and depend on the hierarchy and organisational flow chart; the shadow organisation can be quick(er), often ignore ‘the rules’ and depend on human networks. When you need a fix for your computer and you know that means raising a work request that needs your manager’s counter-signature before it is passed to IT where it gets prioritised by someone who doesn’t understand how important it is to you….is when you ring your friend Jenny in IT who you know can and will just fix it for you. That’s the shadow organisation in action.

Reading this article from The Conversation, I was reminded of how society has its shadow organisations as well.
During Covid19 lockdown, how many of us have found alternative ways to get our weekly food fix – including the growth of food banks – or moved to online shopping, or asked the neighbours to help, or even met the neighbours properly for the first time?
Surely volunteers making scrubs for NHS staff when ‘the system’ was failing them is a shadow organisation workaround?
or individuals and restaurateurs spontaneously making meals for and delivering them to NHS staff?
Or self-fabrication of face masks when the government’s advice is ambivalent?
Or the thousands of volunteers who participated in ‘adopt-a-granny’ movements?
Or…find your own example.

Shadow organisations emerge in order to solve a problem created by or inherent in organisations. They cannot be created and they do not react well to those who try to institutionalise them (“Oh, the shadow organisation works well, let’s give it formal recognition in our HR structure, pay scales etc’). As soon as the formal structures get involved they tend to bring with them targets and constraints and reporting, all of which are anathema to a smoothly, efficiently functioning shadow organisation.
What they need is to be left alone and for the key players (and there are often a few key links or focal points in these shadow organisations) to be protected from organisational interference.

Should we be held accountable? For what?

Cynefin framework

As I think you all know, I have a very significant sideline in organisational change and  not least hold organisations to account for the outcomes they purport to be driving

I was re-reading some stuff on the Cynefin Framework recently (see here for a Noddy Guide https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/cynefin-framework.htm  and here to go to the HBR article that started it all off https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making ), which deals with how to approach ‘managing’ and leading situations of varying degrees of complexity.

Less academically, this blog article (https://sluggerotoole.com/2016/07/05/soapbox-the-sorry-tale-of-outcome-based-performance-management/ rang some loud bells in the current context where the best laid plans are having to be revised. For me, it’s not a manifesto for abandoning outcome based performance management, more a strong warning that  A does not necessarily lead to B then C – not least in the currently disruptive environment (VUCA is hardly enough for what is happening now).

We need to be agile, with fast-running Plan-Do-Review-Replan loops.

Accountable for building a fish pass but not for exactly when or to exactly what budget – what if we get a flood during construction, or the fish don’t come?
Accountable for marketing our river into the BAME community but not for ensuring that 3% of the BAME community living within 5 miles of the river visit it at least once each year.
Accountable for continuous learning about how to run projects and move towards our key outcomes and not for following some pre-existing recipe.

Re-nationalise the water industry? No thanks.

On 1st July 1974 I moved to West Yorkshire to take up a new job with the recently created Yorkshire Water Authority as Pollution Prevention Officer on the River Aire. The Water Authorities had been created just three months earlier. That was the beginning of an interesting and challenging career, which continues to this day. The recent discussion, by the Labour Party, of taking the industry back into public hands bothers me, hence this (rather long, but it’s a complex tale) blog.

First a bit of history

The water industry was highly fragmented in the period up to and after the Second World War. The industry had largely developed in response to a growing population and increasing demand for water driven by the industrial revolution and accompanying economic growth. Each area organised its own water and sewerage services, often by an individual Act of Parliament or Royal Charter. This left different areas of the country with varying levels of water and sewerage services.

In 1945 there were more than 1,000 bodies involved in the supply of water and around 1,400 bodies responsible for sewerage and sewage disposal. Most of these were local authorities, but there were also several statutory private water companies. Planning for water resources was a highly localised activity, with little co-ordination at either a regional or national level.

Post-war legislation aimed primarily to consolidate water authorities so that they could benefit from economies of scale, and to provide funds for investment in rural areas.

The Water Resources Act 1963 led to further changes, which were in response to a severe drought in 1959 and flooding events in 1960. The Act recognised the importance of a co-ordinated approach to water resource planning and introduced an administration system for the right to remove water (‘abstraction permits’). This was intended to make sure that existing and future water resources were adequately conserved.

Restructuring of the water industry (1965-1989)

Although there was a general consolidation of water and sewerage services after the Second World War, and greater investment in the form of grants from central government, water supply and sewerage services were still provided on a local basis.

Responsibility in any one area lay with one of a number of different types of organisation.

Water supply:

  • individual local authorities (for example Wrexham Rural District Council)
  • joint organisations covering the areas of two or more local authorities (for example Doncaster and District Joint Water Board)
  • statutory private water companies which were set up by Act of Parliament (for example Cholderton and District Water Company)

Sewerage services:

  • individual local authorities
  • joint organisations covering the areas of two or more local authorities
  • In the late 1960s and early 1970s ongoing problems with water resource planning and future demands forecasts prompted further restructuring of the industry.

By now there had been chronic under-investment in maintenance of existing and construction of new assets to meet the demands of a growing population. Many rivers were grossly polluted, the River Aire was effectively dead below Keighley down past Bradford through Leeds and Castleford and down to the Humber. Water quality was a secondary consideration by engineers whose operating philosophy was once expressed to me (by one of those engineers!) as “If it’s wet it will do”.

Establishing regional water authorities

The Water Act 1973 established 10 new regional water authorities. These authorities were responsible for managing water resources and supplying water and sewerage services on a fully integrated basis. These authorities took over control of the services that local authorities had previously (not!) been supplying.

The area that each water authority covered was broadly based on river catchment areas. Existing statutory private water companies were unaffected by the changes.

The Water Act 1973 required the regional water authorities to operate on a cost recovery basis. Capital to meet the necessary investment was raised by borrowing from central government and from revenue for the services provided.

Central government set financial constraints and performance aims for each authority.

Trying to meet investment needs

Although the restructuring had some improvements, it was difficult for water authorities to invest significantly in their assets. Additionally, the structure of the authorities meant that they were responsible for both discharging treated water into the environment and also monitoring discharges into the environment – both their own, and that of others. At the same time during this period increased environmental demands were made on the water industry, both with the public in favour of higher standards, and from more stringent European legislation.

In response, in the Water Act 1983 the government:

  • made some constitutional changes
  • reduced (frankly, almost eliminated) the role of local government in decision making
  • gave the authorities scope to access the private capital markets.

These changes did not result in a significant decrease in the number of pollution incidents but there was little desire to provide any additional public finance to meet the demand for capital investment. With the privatisation of other public services already underway, the decision was taken to privatise the water authorities. This was enacted by the Water Act of 1989, which:

  • separated the functions of providing water and sewerage services, and monitoring discharge into the water system
  • allowed the privatised water authorities to borrow money to invest in water and sewerage services

Privatisation (1989 onwards)

The ten publicly owned water and sewerage authorities were privatised in 1989 (after initial plans for privatisation were put on hold in 1986).

Privatisation was achieved by transferring the water supply and sewerage assets, and the relevant staff, of the ten existing regional water authorities into limited companies (the water and sewerage companies). This was accompanied by:

the raising of capital by floating parent companies on the London Stock Exchange

  • a one-off injection of public capital
  • the write off of significant government debt
  • the provision of capital tax allowances.

Over the years most of the companies have been bought out by private investment funds and taken off the stock exchange. At the time of writing only three (Pennon  aka South West Water, Severn Trent and United Utilities   aka North West Water) are quoted companies.

Regulating the privatised companies

To protect the interests of customers and the environment, at privatisation there was further restructuring of the industry. This entailed separating the roles of regulation and the provision of water and sewerage services.

Three separate, independent bodies were established to regulate the activities of the water and sewerage companies. These were:

  • the National Rivers Authority (from 1996 this became the Environment Agency) – which took over the remaining functions, assets and staff of the water authorities as the environmental regulator
  • the Drinking Water Inspectorate – as the regulator of drinking water quality
  • the Director General of Water Services supported by the Office of Water Services (Ofwat) – as the economic regulator

These bodies now also regulate the statutory private water companies (the water only companies).

There is no doubt in my mind that there were two primary reasons for privatising the industry. The first was the reluctance of governments of all persuasions to fund the ever growing demands of regulation.  The second was a philosophical/political one to reduce the size of the state. These came together in a perfect storm under a Tory government led by Margaret Thatcher.

The second of these reasons is a matter of personal philosophy and whilst I personally feel that industries upon which the welfare of the nation depends, such as water and the NHS, should be in public hands others will disagree. It’s a matter of politics.

I do have to observe that the companies have become much more efficient than the public sector organisations with whom I work and much more agile on their feet and able to innovate and use new technologies. The public sector is generally much slower to make decisions and fearful of truly empowering staff because of fears of ‘upsetting the voters’ ‘setting precedents’ and ‘lack of control’. I genuinely believe that one massively beneficial side-effect (or was it an unspoken intent, who knows?) of the changes has been efficiency.

Before privatisation in 1989 – Britain was known as the “dirty man” of Europe, low environmental standards and poor drought resilience eg resulting in standpipes being used in 1976 drought As a regulator, in the early years Ofwat drove investment and greater efficiency through the five-year price reviews. And it worked. Customers and citizens  now enjoy better services and a cleaner environment. Compared to the early 1990s, customers today are:

  • about eight times less likely to suffer sewer flooding
  • and five times less likely to experience unplanned water supply interruptions.
  • A 99% reduction (338,000) in customers at risk of low water pressure, since 1990
  • Leakage is lower – it has fallen by 40% from a peak in 1995
  • Asset health is in a much better state – most companies reporting stable asset serviceability measures.
  • Water and environmental quality has improved – more than 100 Blue Flag beaches and fish in the Thames again
  • Capital expenditure has doubled since privatisation

It is simply not true that, as one commentator has claimed, the water industry has failed customers.

Financing Challenges

Ever more stringent standards required ever more financial and operational efficiencies and despite the investment of over £130billion and massive reductions in staffing (when I started Yorkshire Water had ca 10,000 employees, when I left in 2000 it has ca 4000) more needs to be done to meet society’s aspirations for clean rivers and safe reliable drinking water. The standards are not just bureaucratic wish-lists, they are almost all driven by sound science, the democratic decisions of the EU and incorporated into UK law. Us practical experts occasionally question the relevance of some but by and large they have driven the improvement of our rivers from open sewers in 1974 to a state where salmon are occasionally caught below Leeds on the River Aire (and are shortly to be returned to the spawning grounds, see DNAire) and our drinking water to a quality such that nobody need have any concerns about drinking it.

Further investment is necessary to meet the standards and the current negotiation with Ofwat about prices and investment for 2020-2025. Money does not come free. Whether it is provided from the capital markets or by government there is a cost – in the first case payment of interest to the lender and in the second by government borrowing on bonds. Both routes have to be paid for, and who would pay for them if not the population who use these services? Whether water and sewerage services are paid for publicy or privately is simply a matter of either rises in taxes or increased bills.

There are those who claim that “we did not have to pay for it when the local authorities ran it”. Well that is patently untrue. It was paid for out of your rate bill, which was highly subsidised by central government. The cost was hidden.

Let us just reflect on what else happened when the industry was last in public hands – investment was almost non-existent. The fact that the Victorians, who built nearly all of the infrastructure in place at privatisation, substantially overdesigned most of what they built could be said to have ‘saved’ us from an even worse fate that rivers that were open sewers and water contaminated with cryptosporidium, giardia and all sorts of other life threatening nasties.

Quality and regulatory issues

How often have I heard something along the lines of “Those water companies can do what they like, they get away with murder”. As someone who used to have strategic responsibility for ensuring that Yorkshire Water met its regulatory commitments for drinking water quality, sewage discharges to the environment and health and safety, let me tell you that there might have been times when we wished the regulator did not exist – but only in the same way as I occasionally wish the 70mph speed limit does not exist.

Every routine discharge to the environment must have formal consent from the Environment Agency, who have a duty to impose conditions appropriate to protecting and improving the environment. It is changes in these conditions which drive further investment, so every 5 years there is a delicate and challenging negotiation between the companies (who have to implement the results of the negotiation), EA (who want more improvement faster) and Ofwat (who regulate the finances). There is always more to be done than can be afforded and so Defra also have a role in agreeing what it is appropriate for the EA to ask for in the current economic and regulatory environment. Having spent the last 2 years of my time with YWS leading such negotiations, I know just how challenging it can be – we started out with ‘demands’ from the EA/DWI that would have cost £2.5billion over 5 years and ended up with a programme valued at £1.4billion and even that was only possible by increasing bills a little.

Water companies around the country are regularly prosecuted by both the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Thames Water has the ‘privilege’ of holding the record for the largest environmental fine, a staggering £20.3million for repeated pollution of the Thames. Whilst it is right that the full weight of the law is brought to bear when serious incidents occur, the tragedy is that fines such as the £20.3million go straight to the chancellor and do not get spent on improving the environment. Recent provisions for civil penalties called Enforcement Undertakings offer the possibility that instead of a prosecution and equivalent penalty be paid to an environmental charity who must then spend the money improving the environment.


Yes, a private company is lacking a democratic deficit and that is one reason that Ofwat, the statutory regulator, is keen on encouraging the companies to fill that gap. For the current price negotiation a series of ‘Customer Challenge Groups’ has been created with the express intent of challenging the companies’ plans.

An excellent paper https://www.ofwat.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Putting-customers-at-the-centre-of-a-regulated-monopoly-sector-DB-20-July-2017.pdf is available which traces the history of customer involvement in the industry.

The industry has long understood that only by satisfying customers will its reputation improve (and it did indeed have a poor reputation in the early years). Of course not all customers are satisfiable

Wasteful water companies!

The first wind turbine I ever saw was erected to power a remote pump delivering water to Bradford.

Water companies have long use anaerobic digestion to recycle sewage sludge and produce methane in the process.

Sewage sludge has been returned to the land as a fertiliser for hundreds of years. Following treatment, sewage sludge is either landfilled, incinerated, applied on agricultural land or, in some cases, retailed or given away for free to the general public.

One company has committed to planting 1million trees as part of its contribution to tackling global warming.

One company has committed to energy neutrality, generating all the power it uses and potentially exporting the excess to the grid.

It is claimed that Paris has leakage rates of ca. 10%, compared to 25-30% in the UK. A useful summary of the re-nationalisation of Paris water is available at http://research.ncl.ac.uk/media/sites/researchwebsites/gobacit/Anne%20Le%20Strat.pdf . This actually claims 5%, a figure which is hard to accept for us industry stalwarts. Leakage in the UK is too high for many and the public perception is one that needs changing. Part of the problem is the value of water. At ca £1 per tonne the economics of leakage control are a challenge!



Both history and experience has suggested that the environment is better protected and our taps better supplied when water is in the private sector. That challenges my own predilections for public ownership of such a vital asset, but experience in other fields shows how inadequate are public sector processes, how hard it is to get financing in the pubic sector and  how out of control pubic sector tendering and construction processes become.

At the time of privatisation, I held principled objections to the process. I still do, yet as a pragmatist I have to admit that we are much better off than we would have been had water remained in the public sector. Do I support renationalisation? No.

Silent Soldier

Silent SOldier at Tatton Park Flower SHow 2018I recently spent a day helping kids make dragonflies out of pipe cleaners. Well, actually I was engaging their attention while my colleagues chatted up their parents abut a big project we are developing in The Aire Rivers Trust.

One little girl approached the table quietly and announced “I am no good at making things”. “Let’s see, you can soon learn” I said and we set to slowly crafting a pink and purple beast with green eyes and white legs, the smile slowly forming on her face as she started to recognise where this bit of twisting and turning was leading to. We finished in a few minutes and the smile on her face could have it up Myrtle Park as she ran off shouting to her mum “Look what I have made!”. As I re-live the story, I feel the tears in the corner of my eyes as I recognise that this could have been a truly transitional moment for that little girl.

In recent months I have recognised that I tend to ‘tear up’ much more readily that I have done so in the past. The little girl, someone’s personal loss, recognition of some especially beautiful scene or experience…. I wondered what might be behind this – a suddenly discovered empathy, the older me no longer feeling a need to ‘hold it in’, or what? Was this a long-buried tendency or some newly-acquired trait?

Then a couple of days ago I was at Tatton Park Flower Show and came across a garden dedicated to the memory of the millions killed in World War 1. The garden was centred around a steel cutout representing a soldier, gun in hand, head in repose – they are available from There But Not There. The little garden stopped me in my steps – and those tears happened.

Flags list major conflicts since WW1 (The War to End all Wars) finished.

Flags list major conflicts since WW1 (The War to End all Wars) finished.

I was reminded of our trip to Northern France and Belgium a couple of years ago when we visited a series of key sites from WW1 and we did our best to vicariously experience the horrors of those millions who did so without choice. I said at the time that the only way I could deal with the emotion, as at Auschwitz, was to bury it.

It was that trip, that devastating experience that cracked the floodgates. The gates that ‘us men’ have been taught for years to keep closed – “Big boys don’t cry”.



Make the main thing the Main Thing

After a week on the ocean waves, the Ionian to be precise, I was ready for a couple of days resting my bones in a hotel on solid land. My friends Jon & Jenni offered me a lift and so I plugged the address of my hotel into the satnav and off we went. Not very far, only about 12 minutes according to the wonder machine without which our travel in Cephalonia, or indeed anywhere strange to us, would be much more difficult. But even so, as I was trasmitting the instructions I missed a turn and as the re-routing added 16 minutes to the original 12 minute journey we had to do a 180 and retrace our steps. But where to turn? The road was essentially single track and too windy to risk a turn in the road. So on we went for a minute or so until we found a property that had thoughtfully provided a turning area. Round we went and back on the right track…

No more than 150 yards back down the road Jenni suddenly asked “Was that your hotel?”. I hadn’t noticed but thought there was a possibility that the satnav had been taking me to the back door whilst we had just seen another entrance. So we back up and indeed we had just turned round the the entrance to the very hotel I was looking for and had not noticed! How could we do that, after all there was a huge great sign announcing “Hotel Galaxy” in lit up blue letters!

A few hours later that old phrase from Steven Covey  “Make the main thing the main thing” popped into my mind and I realised what had happened. I had been so focussed on the process – following the satnav instructions – that I lost sight of the outcome – arriving at the hotel.

Do you ever make that mistake – letting the process become more important than the outcome? Never forget what the journey is about. If you are on jollidays then the journey may well be as important, or even more so, than the destination. But in business, it’s the product, the outcome, the deliverable, that is the only reason you are following a process.

Nothing wrong with MY pituitary, thank you

Just over one year on and I have an appointment with the neurosurgeon to review my latest MRI scan. The last time we looked at what was left after surgery there was too much debris in the void to make meaningful conclusions, although the surgeon was confident that nearly all of the tumour had been removed. This time the MRI was quite clear and we were able to see that only a tiny fraction remained, as was suggested immediately after surgery. The propensity for regrowth is low and it seems very likely that I will never need any further interventions (no Gamma Knife Surgery, for example).

I have spent the last year quite confident that the issue had been dealt with, at least so far as the actual adenoma was concerned, and was slightly surprised to find that a small residue of tension was released at this review. I walked out of the consulting room as if on air suspension, not just knowing intellectually (because my surgeon had told me so, and why should I doubt him) that the lump had gone but having seen the absence with my own eyes.

A further review in 12 months was set up alongside a further check of my visual fields (Goldman Test) and it seems that all we have to do now is keep an eye on hormone levels. Less than a month ago I had an review with the endocrine registrar and subject to a further blood tests and review 2 months from now all seems well.

So, to all intents and purposes, it’s all over. On 28th May 2015 I found out that I had a large pituitary adenoma and started this diary the day after. Today I am declaring it closed. It has been an ‘interesting’ journey, from the despair of those first few days when I thought I was living my last, through the totally avoidable administrative shambles, two postponements while I was at the hospital waiting for surgery, relief at waking up with family around me, delight at the lack of pain following surgery  and then the subsequent recovery and settling down back to life as normal. I know that others have had a much more challenging time than I with this particular problem and am relieved that it was caught before doing any serious irreparable damage to my eyesight or hormone balance. To the people at Biobank who discovered the adenoma incidentally, those of you who have ridden along with me, to those (Suzanne especially) who have held my hand and hugged me when I needed it (not very often, toughie that I am!), who have written notes of support and who have had me in your thoughts and not least to the hugely skilled surgeons I say “Thank You”.

And finally to anyone out there who has found out that they too have such a pituitary adenoma, good luck and remember to ask all those niggling questions you have in your mind for the doctors and nurses will be able to answer them and reassure you.

Retire – to what?

I want to start this piece by thanking Yorkshire Water’s pension scheme and HM Government for creating the conditions that allow me to write the post. Read on…

For many years I have spoken with people looking forward to retiring and for many years I have wondered what the word meant and whether or not I should succumb to thealleged temptations thereof

The first question I have tended to ask those looking forward to retiring is “retiring to what?”. They tend to know what they are retiring from, but the “to what” question is often more challenging. After all, there do seem to be a lot of people in jobs they don’t actively enjoy and I can hardly blame them for wanting to escape – but to what? The question often stumps my clients.

And now it may be stumping me.

Well, for some time friends and colleagues have been asking me if I am retired yet or when I am going to do so – and I have always replied along the lines of “It depends on what you mean by retirement”. After all, I am 66 and drawing both company and state pensions!

One definition of ‘retirement’ that I have used, and the one that seems to make the most sense to me, is the cessation of paid work – the ‘paid’ being important, because digging the garden is work, cooking is work, blogging is work… – and that’s the challenge that I face now. For the first time since I left my employment with Yorkshire Water 17 years ago I have no paid work in my diary. Moreover, I am not very motivated to do much about that. I’m happy to consider anything that comes my way, especially if it is short-term (coaching, training interventions – end of advert), but as we can get by (OK, a bit more than just get by) on my pensions there is not a huge financial incentive.

But the word ‘retirement’ brings baggage with it, as indeed does any word.

There is a folk myth that ‘back in the day’, when ‘men were men’ and physically wore themselves out doing manual labour for 50 years, the average life expectancy after retirement at 65 was around 2 years. (Actually I can’t find much evidence for this, back in the days when the state pension was first introduced  – the first pensions were  paid on 1 January 1909 to around 500,000 people aged 70 or more at the time only one in four people reached the age of 70 and life expectancy at that age was about 9 years.) Current life expectancy at age 65 is ca. 19 years. Now whether this myth is true or not, I can understand that as a piece of baggage it might inhibit some people from making that  jump to retired status – irrational yes but we are not rational beings.

So what other baggage might the word bring with it?

  • Feet up in front of the fire, slippers on, pipe lit, glass of whisky in hand, telly blaring out Eastenders…
  • or perhaps endless days on the golf course, watching cricket (neither a lot of cop in the winter unless you can afford to migrate to sunnier climes for 10 months of the year)…
  • or merrily frittering the day away babysitting those grandchildren who are the offspring of the children you spent so long encouraging to leave home…
  • or (over?) involving yourself in the Parish Council and getting frustrated with its inability to actually make any changes…
  • or ????

My point is that you are going to be ‘doing’ this retirement thing for, typically, 20 years so it might be worth giving the subject of how you spend those 20 years a bit of forethought. No employer is going to drive your day for you with this project and that, it’s up to you and me to find our own way to enjoy ourselves – for what is the point if we are not enjoying ourselves. I have a sign on our fridge that seems relevant here

“I do not intend to creep quietly through life only to arrive safely at death”

So my question to you, and to myself, is “What are you going to do that fills your soul, that you enjoy, that you will get out of bed for, that you will happily spout on about to your friends, that is your passion?”


Inspirational ripples

 I was wandering around my old files today when I came across this little piece that I wrote yet didn’t publish back in Autumn 2009.

I was thinking about how the little fountain I rested against offered a metaphor for change…

Market day in Tonneins – busy busy, hot hot, dusty dusty; lots of French (and a few English) locals, the usual North Africans, tourists, migrant workers for the plum/corn/sunflower harvests. The ‘ethnics’ all at one end with their brightly patterned and coloured clothing, their spices; the locals sifting through market stalls filling with fleeces and other autumn and winter clothing, picking the sweetest and juiciest tomatoes, melons, the first of the season’s prunes and the last of the haricots verts, jaunes et noirs.

It was an unprepossessing little fountain near the riverside ; no more than a piece of local rock about 6ft wide with a hole drilled through it and six 12” jets of water spurting from the top, splashing on the rock and into the pool around the rock. Still it offered a coolish resting place and the gentle tinkle of water on water. I sat on the surround for a brief rest, the fountain to my back. Drifting into some heat induced trance, I noticed the occasional wet spot appearing and disappearing in front of me, several metres away from the fountain. It’s not raining, no local child with a water pistol, they can’t be travelling so far from the little fountain – what’s going on?

Sherlock Holmes kicked into action – yes they were coming from the fountain after all, very occasional little splashes hitting the rock at just the right angle to reflect them out across the pool so far away as to seem improbable. The pool, and the ripples of the water splashes, had my attention…

As I watched, entranced by the ripples, I noticed that sometimes the surface was relatively calm, at others turbulent with the interactions of several ripples; sometimes small splashes, at others large blobs of water would disturb a great part of the pool – ever changing and always something happening, my attention gripped by the circles of light and dark as the ripples shed their shadows on the pool bottom. Always light after dark, the shadows fading as the ripple spread out across the pool, intersecting ripples throwing up sun-bright spots and night-dark shades.

I am sat focussing on the ripples and their shadows before my eyes, only just now noticing the contents of the pool – what was in the pool, on the bottom, floating on the surface, coming into eyeshot. Bunches of grapes, last night’s coke can, single leaves and leaves formed into mats solid enough to resist the charms of the water splashes, tiny tiny fish, gnarled rocks and smooth pebbles.

Suddenly a tsunami! Now the local boys had started playing in my pool, all the time they had been creeping up and now they struck coming from outside my viewpoint to change the whole pattern of my little ripples.



Well, I could sit here and philosophise or I could actually go get my pen and paper and record these thoughts – so I do so.


Coming back to the fountain I can see nothing, the glare of the sun on the ripples totally bleaches out everything. But as I walk around the pool to my starting place, the glare reduces as the angle of the sun changes until I can finally see all the original detail. It was worth coming back. I sit, I think, I write, I remember that 30 metres away from this mesmeric little pool, perhaps 3 metres across, flows the mighty Garonne River as wide as a bus and as deep as a house; strong enough to sweep away this little piece of rock without even blinking an eye. I notice again the hundreds of people going about their daily business all around whilst I muse on ripples and their metaphorical relationship to organisational change. I move on – if I stay I get damp or sunburned and neither of those is in your writer’s plan…




Inspiration from the most everyday objects – just let your attention flow…




Pay attention to the tiniest detail of your environment…

…to the unexpected…

“…there is something interesting going on here…”

…stick with it, investigate.





Never the same yet patterns of similarity

Some actions have little effects, some are more traumatic



Calm after the storm…just wait…


Sometimes you get the occasional really  difficult challenge


Don’t get mesmerised by surface noise – look below/through to see the deeper structure and/or what is not changing. Keep your eyes open for what is just out of and coming into view – it may be more important than your current focus; or it may temporarily make your current efforts pointless. Is what you are observing part of the underlying issue or is it an artefact – perhaps of someone else’s fiddling?


Take action – thinking never changed a thing, only actions change the world

Observation — Insight

Action — Change


Review the challenge from different angles – what may seem impossible with one set of eyes may not be through another.


Be aware of the wider world – you might be deeply embedded in your problem, others might not care less!


…and when it’s time to go. It’s time to go.