Southern Water is striving to create a centralised customer interface that is intelligent in human and information technology terms as well as being far more efficient than utilities' traditional response organisations.
Key to a radical new way of working will be a call centre at the company's Worthing headquarters. But it will be a call centre with a difference.
The formula for the typical call centre of the late-Nineties is: First, locate it anywhere in the country where there is a pool of low cost, unskilled, office workers with an acceptable regional accent; second, give these people minimal training then put them in a large shed with a desk, phone, computer terminal and perhaps a uniform to give them a corporate identity; and third, impose a strict operational regime on the staff.
Southern Water's approach in staffing its call centre is to re-employ technical people who are no longer needed in the field but know the company and have a good understanding of the water and wastewater business. Suitable training to help them with this career change is to be backed by technology wired into the call centre that, it is hoped, will enable them to assume responsibility and deal with 90% of all queries.
When a call comes in, the IT system will automatically recognise the location of the customer and present an on-screen summary of current maintenance or emergency operations that could be significant. A reason-based computer program will enable an almost instant response to be given to the customer. If an inspector needs to visit the premises or a work crew has to be sent in, the operator will be able to make the necessary appointment or issue a work instruction on line without reference to any other personnel.
'We want our customers to be able to pick up the phone and talk to Southern Water,' says planning and development manager Stephen Peacock. 'We are trying to reduce written correspondence.' Southern has always had a customer service centre but in the past the operator had to contact someone else before any response could be made. This meant much time was spent returning calls and dealing with paperwork.
Setting up the call centre is one facet of a reorganisation that is under way across the company. The old county-based structure with offices in towns such as Chatham, Brighton and Winchester is being replaced by staff grouped in two areas, those facing customers and the groups responsible for assets. Physical work on the infrastructure is being concentrated with term contractors rather than directly employed teams.
Major investments are going into a computer system to keep track of all the company's infrastructure. More accurate information is needed to guide the company as to how to make the best use of its money, investing in new equipment only where it is really needed.
'Asset sweating' is how Peacock describes it. 'At present, 25% of our maintenance is planned and 75% is reactive,' he laments. The idea is to cut down on emergency work and make planned maintenance far more effective.
Asset groups are focusing on areas such as M&E equipment which requires a high level of maintenance. The idea is to identify where and why work is needed with the aim of adopting types of equipment that require less frequent servicing. 'This will inform future procurement policy,' says Peacock.
The £100M project under way to upgrade Portsmouth's sewage treatment cannot be said to be typical of Southern Water's coastal clean-up schemes if only because each one has presented entirely different engineering challenges.
Portsmouth's problem is that sewage from a substantial part of the mainland, plus waste from the town and naval docks on Portsea Island, receives only minimal treatment before it flows out into the middle of the Solent from a 5.8km outfall at the southern tip of the island. Under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive the effluent will have to be more extensively cleaned up after December next year.
The present small treatment works was rebuilt after being destroyed by bombing in the war. Portsmouth is low lying, extensively built up, has narrow streets and the old sewerage system is complex. It also suffers from seawater infiltration which has consequences for the treatment processes used. Overloading of the sewerage system has been exacerbated by extensive recent upstream development on the mainland. Two deep-level tank sewers were constructed some time ago to alleviate flooding.
To the east is Langstone Harbour which is the site of the outfall from Havant's inland sewage works at Budds Farm. That too has to be upgraded to meet the demands of the UWWT Directive.
'The prime question was whether to treat in Portsmouth or somewhere else,' says Southern project team manager Damon Elliott.
The answer emerged after extensive studies, consultation and planning enquiries. It was to bore a 3m diameter tunnel 8km long from the southern tip of Portsea Island to the north, then north east beneath Langstone Harbour to Budds Farm; install a 1.1m diameter glass reinforced plastic pipe in the tunnel through which all of Portsmouth's raw sewage can be pumped to a rebuilt Budds Farm works for treatment with the Havant flows; and allow all the effluent from Budds Farm to run back down the tunnel to Portsea Island from where it will be pumped away through the original outfall.
Planning and public relations activities involved winning over the neighbours of Budds Farm to the concept that almost tripling the capacity to 410,000 population equivalent, upgrading treatment and building a regional sludge plant could not only be done without physically expanding the works but, thanks to covers and odour control, would result in a less offensive installation.
'We are delivering the goods,' says Elliott. He regularly takes residents around to see how the project is moving ahead. Amec and Halcrow are working at Budds Farm as design and build contractor to a reference design produced by Southern's former design arm McDowells. Extensive site investigation for the 25m deep tunnel involved boreholes every 100m along the route. A shaft sunk on the north east side of Portsea Island marks the junction between the flinty chalk strata of the drive under Langstone Harbour and the clays to the south.
Edmund Nuttall is driving the tunnel using two Lovat earth pressure balance machines. Long drives have to be completed by each machine under the edge of Portsmouth and beneath the harbour which cannot be disturbed.
Delivery of the project to quality and performance standards is very much the design and build contractors' responsibility. Southern Water does not have an army of resident engineers double-checking what is being built - it simply takes an audit role.
Simple arithmetic gives the measure of the huge effort that Southern Water has put in since privatisation on cleaning up the Channel coastline round the south east corner of England. Cost to date: roughly £1bn. Length of shoreline = 1, 000km. Cost = £1/mm.
A string of innovative projects including enclosed treatment works, deep level large diameter tunnels for storm storage and pumped transfer schemes has been implemented to deal with the Victorian legacy of short sea outfalls and uncontrolled storm overflows.
Now the job is almost complete. Only two of Southern's 77 beaches failed mandatory bathing water quality standards. Ten years ago, 38 failed out of the 65 beaches that were then designated.
When intensive urban development of the South Coast really got under way in the 19th Century, each new town relied on a sea outfall to dispose of its waste water. Unfortunately, they were rather short and the prevailing south-westerly currents tended to deposit all sorts of unmentionable objects on the beaches of the next resort to the east.
Moderately increased amounts of sewage treatment had since disguised what was going on but until the major investment of the last decade the unpleasant legacy had stayed essentially unchanged.
Planning hurdles which had to be overcome before this vital programme could get under way have been severe. Delays are cited by Southern planning and development manager Stephen Peacock as a real concern in the future implementation of other environmental improvement work. 'Sewerage schemes can take seven years in planning and then three years to build. It's far too long.'
There must be a better way of resolving planning issues, he argues. Great efforts are made in any case to make these schemes as compatible with the local environment as possible.
To get the Portsmouth sewerage scheme to its recent start of construction involved Southern in a tortuous planning process involving three separate authorities. 'The planning process was lengthy and unwieldy,' summarises project team manager for Southern's Portsmouth scheme Damon Elliott.