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Future proofing the UK water sector

Mike Woolgar of Atkins argues that the economic and business case for water infrastructure is poory expressed, and looks at the need to future proof the UK water sector.

In 2012, London came close to water restrictions. Fortunately record breaking rains rescued the situation. Obviously we just can’t rely on the weather to manage supply, but building more resilience raises the cost of supply and there is a sharp focus on keeping utility prices down. Fresh thinking is needed to address the complex challenges facing engineers and the industry.

Atkins recently published Future Proofing The UK Water Sector, a new report on four possible scenarios examining how global drivers such as climate change and population growth could affect the UK water sector up to 2050.

We decided to use the scenarios in the report to examine the water issues facing London. In partnership with World Cities Network we hosted a high-level roundtable in the City, under Chatham House rules, with senior representatives from government, insurers, the private sector, developers, regulators and the water industry. The focus was on what action those around the table could take to ensure London remains a competitive global city.

It was clear that everyone understood the links between new development, population growth, economic activity, security of water services and flood protection. However there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to policy making and the media does not seem to engage deeply. There is lots of debate about energy security, High Speed 2 and airport expansion – and yet the economic and business case for water infrastructure, vital for all life and business, is poorly expressed.

But we must consider London’s place as a vibrant and successful city and the investment needed to maintain its broad appeal; and the fact that its population is expected to swell to 10.3M by 2035. Timely, future sensitive decisions are critical, especially when you consider it can take 20 to 25 years before a new reservoir is operational.

With no significant water resource development for London since 1976, we now have a range of issues to resolve. Water shortages, overloaded sewage systems, urban drainage, renovatingageing water infrastructure, leakage reduction, finding innovative ways to source drinking water, all this and, most importantly where the investment will come from, needs addressing.

These issues require the co-operation and combined intelligence of planners, developers, business, political leaders and consumers to solve. Let’s hope London doesn’t have its own Hurricane Sandy before the true scale of the problem is faced.  

This report and roundtable are only the first steps. We want to share our thinking with our clients and supply chain so we can develop sustainable responses to the diverse, conflicting and interrelated pressures facing us all and help position the industry for long term success.

Mike Woolgar is director of water and environment at Atkins

Readers' comments (1)

  • stephen gibson

    Dealing with water, be in greater water security or too much water (flooding) is and will continue to be an important issue around the world. The public understand the importance of water control and security. What they don't agree with is that the only way this can be achieved, is by rapidly increasing water bills. Instead the public and Government suggests that the UK Water Industry deals with the main issue - which is the enormous capital investment inefficiencies.
    Independent studies across the EU and when compared to other civil market sectors, such as housing, shows the UK Water sector to be one of the least efficient. The core problem is inappropriate use of mega frameworks, where free and fair competition is restricted to only a handful of expensive, largely non UK owned, multinationals. The solution - break the cartels and frameworks. Split up projects in to separate design and construction packages and tender the work in an open, free and fair way. This will introduce competition and innovation, largely from higher quality smaller consultants and contractors with inherent lower overheads.

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