Innovation is key to delivering secure and affordable water network

As household budgets are squeezed, innovation will be the keystone to delivering a secure and affordable water network, says Clancy chief executive Matt Cannon.

Innovation is key to delivering secure and affordable water network, says Clancy chief executive Matt Cannon.

As the water industry prepares for Ofwat’s 2024 Price Review (PR24) period beginning this summer, a perfect storm of environmental concerns, customer expectations and pressure on household bills will mean that the sector will need to do more for less to meet growing demands on the UK’s water supply.

Climate change will continue to mount pressure on our sector, with increasing incidences of heavier rainfall, wetter winters and drier summers. Significant capital projects will be needed to tackle these challenges and to support a resilient, modern water network.

At the same time, growing concern for the environment will mean that water companies must do more than ever to safeguard habitats and natural resources when making interventions in infrastructure.  

Compounding these environmental issues are the lasting effects of the pandemic and households’ escalating bills, resulting in increasing concerns around affordability.

Within this context, the supply chain will need to get in line – as water companies look to advisers and contractors to find solutions to these problems. Success will depend on reimagining how we deliver the projects needed – both in terms of innovative technology and the skills and behaviours of those on the ground.

Investing in technology

Digital tools can be a game changer in detecting and managing leakage, a problem that will be crucial to meeting the priorities we’re likely to see in Ofwat’s new regulatory period – minimising environmental impact while improving efficiency and customer service. As the end users of these technologies, contractors’ investment in and contribution to their development are critical.

To take one example, at Clancy we’ve worked with one of our suppliers to trial and roll out innovative BlueLight technology which allows us to undertake what is effectively keyhole surgery to repair wastewater pipes. We’re able to use the technology – together with remote robotics – to reline cracked or failing pipework without disruptive digging.

Not only does this technique significantly reduce the time it takes for repair, but it also limits disruption to the community and the environment, the amount of waste we produce, and the cost of repair work. We’re now implementing further testing with the aim of certifying the technology for the stricter regulatory requirements for clean water networks too. 

Outside of repair works, approaches such as directional drilling and vacuum excavation offer us the opportunity to minimise waste and environmental and societal disturbance by removing the need for significant excavations. 

While decisions over no-dig approaches will often sit with clients, it’s the job of our part of the sector to make the case for doing so, playing back the benefits and showing what can be done – something that we’ve been able to do across many of our framework and capital projects over the last twelve months, where we have increased our use of vacuum excavation by 140%. 

Developing the right behaviours

While we need to invest in digital tools, building the right skills and behaviours will be vital to identifying those tools and making the investment worthwhile. This of course means building operational expertise but also softer skills such as considering impacts on communities and the environment throughout planning and works, and how to mitigate and communicate disruption.  

Whereas once these were issues that were delegated upwards, there is rightfully the expectation and ability for us as contractors to take charge. In a recent flood alleviation project, a nearby ecologically sensitive river meant that we needed to adapt our usual ways of working, making every decision throughout planning and delivery with habitat protection front of mind. 

This included pressure-washing each item that went on and off site to remove potential contaminants, identifying and ring-fencing invasive plant species to prevent any spreading, and using bio oil in all of our plant to guard against risk of contaminating the river.

Success in cases like this comes down to those on the ground having an appreciation for and focus on the wider value of the project, consistent communication and collaboration with the client and environmental experts, and the ability to think creatively and adapt.

Developing these softer skills and shifting mindsets to prioritise outcomes, rather than outputs, will be critical to ensuring a water network that serves our communities and our environment.

Faced with competing concerns around cost, environmental protection and the magnitude of the climate crisis, the stakes have never been higher in delivering on Ofwat’s expectations. As the frontline of delivery, we need to invest in innovative tools and skills now to be ready to rise to the challenge of AMP8 in 2026.

Matt Cannon is chief executive of Clancy.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.