Keeping water at the top of the agenda

As part of our recent Northern Powerhouse conference, the New Statesman and United Utilities gathered politicians, industry leaders and experts for a discussion on infrastructure and utilities in the North of England

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Parts of the UK are facing a flooding crisis, and with the growing challenge of climate change coupled with the economic challenges facing the North of England, the profile of water is at its highest in decades. But within the Powerhouse agenda there is still an overwhelming focus on major rail projects like HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, which ignores other forms of equally essential infrastructure, including water and wastewater provision.

The participants

To discuss how to keep non-transport infrastructure firmly in the minds of policymakers and thought leaders, we gathered local government representatives, peers, researchers and private sector leaders for a round table discussion at the New Statesman’s pre-lockdown conference on the Northern Powerhouse. Conducted under the Chatham House Rule, guests included: Lord Inglewood, the chair of Cumbria’s Local Enterprise Partnership; Damien Waters, Regional Director of the Confederation of British Industry North West; Anna Round, Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North; and Emma Degg, Chief Executive of the North West Business Leadership Team, as well as representatives from United Utilities, water and wastewater service provider in the North West.

The challenge – does the Northern Powerhouse consider water?

Introducing the event, one participant pointed out that “the success of the Northern Powerhouse depends upon underlying infrastructure”, adding that “some of that is man-made, some of that is natural”. This means that the success of the Northern Powerhouse depends, at least in part, on the effective management of water. The key questions, according to the speaker, were threefold:  How do we ensure the Northern Powerhouse is resilient to flooding?  How do we put water management at the heart of local plans? And how do we ensure the North’s water resources are not taken for granted?

But these conversations also need to take infrastructure beyond its current focus on transport, to include energy, digital and skills training, as well as water.

Why water matters and what challenges do we face?

“The most critical thing I have to think about is climate change and what that means for people and communities,” said another attendee. Climate change is going to bring a “diversity of extreme weather” with more flooding, and many more communities affected, along with serious dry periods in which water may be scarce. “The growth plans for the region are enormous and we are only going to be able to achieve that and think about water structure if we think differently.”

One issue is how regulation is siloed, and the approach to water quality and water resources are not drawn together. There are some pilots happening in the region to look at water more holistically and the Environment Agency is thinking about water at a catchment scale. The speaker was proud of how the North has embraced these new ways of working. Beyond this, they said, there needs to be radical thinking and changes from all those involved in water management, including planning, to promote sustainable drainage, adding, “We have got to prove there is a different way of working.” One participant encouraged a proactive approach: “Our experience is unless we try it, unless we pilot it, we aren’t going to get anywhere. We’ve got to prove that there’s a different way of working.”

Another attendee talked about the different perspectives within the business community. They explained that most businesses are immediately concerned with how they alleviate the problems from flooding and maintain economic resilience and strength. Businesses involved with Local Economic Partnerships are looking at other impacts too, such as planning, the social inclusion issues that arise from flooding, and the impact on the economy and people’s lives. They felt there was much to do in terms of better environmental management. They said we could see our climate presents challenges of too much water for half the year and too little for the other, so homes and businesses need to be built in anticipation of these shifts. But funding is an issue – some flood management costs were met by European structural funds but these finish in 2023. A replacement grant funding scheme is needed to enable businesses and house-builders to continue the necessary work. 

There was also recognition that there are different needs in different areas, and that cities and towns often do not control their infrastructure. Several attendees agreed that the Northern Powerhouse has the potential to bring about strategic coordination, but that actions need to be broken down into smaller units to account for local differences and drive action. Manchester was highlighted as a place where a single planning consent for services across local authority boundaries had been developed. Initially, everyone was very nervous about sharing their plans, but eventually saw the benefits. “A few quick winnable pilots showed it could work,” one attendee commented.

Money was a key issue under discussion, with one participant observing that “there’s no getting away from it [new water infrastructure] being expensive”. One challenge is the existence of different funding streams for water (water companies, local authorities, the Environment Agency, developers), so working in partnership means a greater understanding of where the costs fall on local economies as well as the opportunity to making savings through coordinated action. Some councils will have more capacity than others to act. One way offered by an attendee was creating “novel markets” where an authority brings together buyers and sellers of water services, working with farmers, industry, insurers and the Environment Agency. These “collaborations of the willing” can facilitate a pooling of resources to deliver efficiencies.

Solutions – what can be done through the Northern Powerhouse?

It was agreed that legislation is needed that stipulates that water issues should be considered from the very beginning of any development process. “We need government to legislate” said one person with another calling for the establishment of “Infrastructure for the North”. Planner training, local leadership and a less fragmented funding system were also raised as part of the solution. “We need to have the right plans in place at a local level, but guidance or national guidelines would stick in some instances.”

There was optimism from one attendee on how at the Northern Powerhouse level the sector can provide leadership, influence the debate around government legislation and funding while changing the narrative. They said water only became part of the national conversation following a major flood or drought, whereas transport affects people’s lives every day. Another attendee agreed, saying that transport has a powerful organised voice and that galvanises transport users: “We need to learn from that. I’m not sure if we were asked today what our solution was that we’d have a cohesive answer that thousands of people could get behind.”

One attendee was clear on how to get water infrastructure coordinated and built, “I don’t want someone else to tell us the answer”, calling on the room to come together around a solution, acknowledging that actions can be taken at different levels. “National frameworks, local implementation. That’s the whole point of devolution,” they added.

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