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Southern Water Profile

Cleaning up the heritage of inefficient inland sewage treatment works dominated the first five years following privatisation at Southern Water. Then in AMP2 the company began a vast project to improve the condition of its 1,000km of coastline. This involves spectacular constructions such as a huge tunnelled storm sewer beneath the shore at Brighton and Hove, a treatment works at Eastbourne disguised as a Napoleonic fort and an 8km tunnel at Portsmouth.

But the surprise takeover of the company by Scottish Power in August 1996 could be a foretaste of the business climate for water companies after 2000.

Further rationalisation has followed Southern's earlier staff cuts. The detailed design team of its consultancy arm, McDowells, has been sold and a major reorganisation is under way, moving staff out of most of the company's original offices and concentrating them in customer facing jobs or looking after assets.

The new owner has brought 'a real commitment to deliver against objectives', sums up Southern planning and development manager Stephen Peacock. Levels of management have been cut to leave directors, senior managers, team managers and staff. Now there are barely 2, 000 people in the business - half the number at privatisation.

But the ownership change means there are opportunities to move around and develop a career within Scottish Power without changing employer. Southern is a £440M turnover water and wastewater company within a £3,242M mixed utility business.

On the engineering side, despite the relatively large population along the South Coast, Southern does not have a water supply problem. About 70% of its water comes from aquifers and around six years of concentrated effort to reduce leakage has brought the figure down to 11% on the company's infrastructure and 5% on the customer side.

However, extensive new housing development would be constrained by abstraction licences and a major public relations campaign is being run with the aim of getting people to use water sensibly.

Inland, there has been a big drive to deal with poorly performing combined sewer overflows. Across the region, 80 of them were targeted and grouped geographically so that real improvements could be measured within catchments. Many more CSOs remain to be worked on in AMP3. The Environment Agency list includes more than 500 believed to be below standard.

Dealing with sludge that would formerly have run directly into the sea, or been dumped there, is also a major project for Southern. Incineration was rejected as inappropriate and recycling of digested and dried sludge to land was picked as the best option. Kent, in particular, has an extensive amount of arable farming.

Southern bought itself a modest 77ha farm in 1997 to demonstrate the positive properties of the output from the 16 proposed sludge drying plants. Seven of these are already commissioned and a further four are under construction. Treated dried material is delivered and spread for farmers at a modest £1.50/m3. Bio products sales and marketing manager Peter Soulsby says his ambition is to sell the material through garden centres.

Peacock sums up the overall change at Southern over the past ten years: 'We are doing things better rather than differently - doing things once and getting them right.'

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