Stuck in Neutral?

Digital has long been the future for so many challenges, so why not for water neutrality?

STUCK IN NEUTRAL? How bold policies, digital platforms and accelerated delivery could address water neutrality challenges.

18 May 2023

We are delighted to be featured in this month’s edition of The Water Report –

Our Director of Water Demand and Skewber Steve Arthur talks about the need for decisive and urgent new Government policies to support the building of water efficient new communities – and also flags the role of water companies in delivering on the innovation agenda, urging less talk-more action.

The final piece of the puzzle on water neutrality is the role of digital platforms, and we talk about our Skewb Infiniti offering which is helping non-household customers deliver on water efficiency, and making these savings available to developers as offset capacity through our digital marketplace platform.

Wind the clock back to 2009, the world is reeling from the ever expanding financial crisis, Gordon Brown is precariously perched in Number 10, and mention of pandemics is no more than a low-key entry in company business continuity plans. This was also the year the Environment Agency published a science-based report titled “Water neutrality: an improved and expanded water resources management definition”. The report flagged the concept of water neutrality as being relatively new, but important, in light of “the Government policy to deliver on a target of 3m new homes by 2020,” and taking into account the “constraints on the current and future availability of water resources to meet future demand for water in certain areas of England and Wales (e.g. South East England).”

It might be unfair to characterise this 2009 report as not having the impact it should have had, but it is interesting to note the absence of the term “water neutrality” in the water resources management plans (WRMPs) or business plans developed by water companies, including those in the South-East of England, in the following years. It is also interesting to note that ten years later, Sir James Bevan gave his ‘jaws of death’ speech at the 2019 Waterwise conference, and water neutrality is back in the limelight. So how does the sector deliver on the growth agenda, whilst protecting the precious water environment and secure long-term, sustainable outcomes for all?

Stepping up a gear

Right now, the next wave of WRMPs are being finalised, PR24 plans are starting to step up through the gears, and the challenging targets in the Government’s Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) are being assessed and modelled.

At Skewb, we’ve been working with water companies on their plans, in addition to analysing and commenting on those being published across the sector, so it’s a good time to assess what needs to be in place to ensure the delivery of sustainable solutions.

North Sussex is currently the hotspot for all things water neutral, following Natural England’s position statement to the County Council, raising significant concerns around the effects of abstraction on sites within the Arun Valley and the impact of new development in the North Sussex water supply zone. This has placed a virtual embargo on developments, including those within the local Plan, unless they can demonstrate they are water neutral.

Whilst it is not expected that this exact approach is to be rolled out to other regions in the South East, the aims and approaches behind water neutrality merit further analysis and unpacking to see how they can help deliver on the
urgent demand side improvements needed.

Urgent Delivery

Three key enablers could accelerate the delivery of new communities with a sustainable water footprint on their local environment. First and foremost, has to be the urgent landing of bold and ambitious policies in this space. Many house builders, and indeed WaterUK, believe that new homes supporting 85 litres, per person, per day (lpd) are eminently achievable.

The key to securing and accelerating this will be mandatory, Government-led standards for new builds and water labelling. If it is simply left to market forces, then the sector risks failing to see new water efficient technology being installed as a priority, rather than an innovative after-thought. So whilst it is encouraging to see recent Government moves on mandatory water labelling, we really need to start seeing detailed plans, timelines and commitments on new-build standards. High level roadmaps will only get us so far on this crucial enabler.

Secondly, an ambitious policy framework will speed things up for developers, but it needs to be complemented by the sector moving into a phase of accelerated delivery on innovation, rather than discussing it, trialling it and cautiously drip feeding it into long term delivery plans. This point doesn’t seek to diminish the significant funds, energy and attention being applied to innovation across the water industry, but if companies’ PR24 plans and WRMPs don’t start to embrace the possibilities on offer across the water efficiency arena, then we will be seeing another missed opportunity to secure anything close to water neutral outcomes.

The final enabler, flagged during the development of Skewb Infiniti, our water neutrality offering for non-household customers and developers, is the critical role of digital platforms in addressing one of the key challenges. Often, where new homes are being designed and built to deliver the reduced consumption levels required, the key parties are still unable to secure sufficient ‘offset capacity’ to address the remaining pull on water resources. Smart, connected and engaging digital platforms can play a key part in ‘joining-the-dots’ here.

We’ve identified that if the 9% reduction in non-household consumption by 2038, as set in the EIP, were to be seamlessly matched to the needs of local house builders and new communities, using smart digital marketplaces and platforms, then we could address the frustration of many developers in water-stressed regions. The technology and the opportunity are already there to be capitalised on, it simply needs the same boldness and focus as required in policy making and delivery on innovation. Digital has long been the future for so many challenges, so why not for water neutrality?

Future fit

This leaves us with the question of whether water neutrality will fade into the background again, as it seemed to in 2009? It remains to be seen, however, if the public engagement on sewer overflows and the condition of our waterways is any indicator, now is the time to deliver on the promise of water neutral new communities, harnessing the potential of the water industry, working closely with developers, supported by policies and platforms fit for the future.

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