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Price signals needed to encourage behaviour change

A more co-ordinated message to the public coupled with the proper price signals would be the most effective way of engaging consumers to achieve a sustainable water strategy according to Martin Hurst, Defra's water director, at a recent high-level debate on the subject.

WWT Round Table Podcast 2009
Hurst was one of 12 high-level water industry panellists attending this year's WWT Round Table, at the Institute of Directors, the fifth annual round table sponsored by international consultancy Black & Veatch.

The debate on the topic "How can water companies engage consumers to achieve a sustainable water strategy?" - provided a valuable insight into current thinking on the subject and a distillation of the major barriers and opportunities facing the industry as a whole.

The need to change consumers' behaviour was the starting point for discussions. As the chair, Bob Baty, former chief executive of South West Water, made clear from the outset, "Water has been seen by many as an infinite, self-renewing resource, compromised by the industry's ability to manage it effectively" so changing this perception would take concerted and co-ordinated action by all the industry stakeholders.

Before progress could be made, the panel agreed that the water industry would have to overcome the fundamental misconception that we live in a wet country, not to mention the belief in some quarters that water companies are just jumping on the environmental band-wagon to justify pushing the prices up. A one-size-fits-all approach to communication would fail and differentiated messaging would be needed to take into account different social backgrounds and geographical locations.

Metering - both smart and standard - occupied a large part of the debate. The Government's view that we will need universal metering in water stressed areas by at least 2013 was challenged by operations director, Dr Stephen Bird of South West Water, who argued for full meter penetration across the country coupled with varying price signals to address social as well as environmental needs. "The advantage of a meter is that it becomes personal... and until it becomes personal, tinkering with abstraction licenses or encouraging the industry to be innovative about retrofits is looking through the wrong end of the telescope."

Thames Water's external affairs and environmental director,Richard Aylard agreed that compulsory metering was needed but with a social tariff to project the customers who were the least well off. He made a strong case for how to replace the inevitable loss of cross-subsidy as we move from the rateable value system to metering.

All the panellists agreed that the message to consumers had to be moved beyond one simply about price. A better appreciation of the value of water was going to be key to winning consumers over.
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  • Bob Baty Chairman, Former CEO
    South West Water
  • Rob Ashley External affairs interim director
  • Richard Ayland External affairs environmental director
    Thames Water
  • Ian Barker Head of water Environment Agency
  • Dr Stephen Bird Operations director
    South West Water
  • Tony Conway Director of water asset management
    United Utilities
  • John Cuthbert Chief executive
    Northumbrian Water
  • Martin Hurst Director of water
  • Dan McCarthy President and CEO
    Black & Veatch Water
  • Tony Smith Chief executive
    CC Water


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