More than just a meter

Guest blog by Southern Water on Using Water Wisely & Pricing it Fairly

Between now and September 2018, water companies in England and Wales will be drawing up plans for their investments between 2020 to 2025. Companies are required to produce these plans for the Periodic Review 2019 (PR19), and Blueprint believes that nature should be at the heart of these plans.

In 2010, Southern Water began its journey to universal metering. First, we made the case on the grounds of resource – the need to cut demand to help secure supplies in our water–stressed region. Next came the economic case – it’s cheaper to meter everyone together as part of a well-planned, five-year programme, than to wait for individual customers to move house or put in ad hoc requests to have a meter installed. Then, we started on the customer case – it’s fairer to pay only for what you use, and meters can help you to save money.  Surely, that’s all there would be to it?

Well, it turned out that there was quite a lot more. From day one, we knew that our programme would be in the limelight. We were the first company to tackle this on such a large scale. Nearly half a million meters would need to be installed within five years, across the counties of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire where, incidentally, six other water companies also operate. It was a first for all of us – Southern Water, Ofwat, the Consumer Council for Water and our customers – and it was our customers who helped drive the programme.

As you would probably expect from a company made up largely of engineers, our first thoughts turned to how we were going to physically get the meters in the ground. But, by putting customers at the centre of our thinking, we began to look at the programme as a unique opportunity to engage with people about our service, rather than as a problem to be overcome.

We began by involving our customers in our decisions about the route we would take. We consulted with them on everything, from the way in which meters were fitted, to the timing and tone of the information we gave them, to the support we offered to those who might struggle to pay their bills. We gathered and analysed a range of data sources to help us target those most likely to find it difficult to make the change, and used this to develop a package of support for customers who needed it most.

The programme also empowered customers to take control of their water use. Our “Green Doctors” visited around 60,000 homes over the five-year period to carry out water and energy audits, and help customers make the jump from being a passive consumer to an active participant in the service they received. The results exceeded all our expectations. Our customers now use around 16% less water than at the start of the programme. This means that more precious water remains in the environment.

The reality is that it’s not just been about the meter, or using water wisely and pricing it fairly. It’s been about increasing resilience – our ability to strengthen our business so we can protect our services from future challenges, such as climate change and population growth. Metering has been the catalyst for starting a different conversation with our customers and has given us a platform for involving them in our long-term plans.

Our programme came before the big shift towards customer engagement that came with the PR14 price review. But for us, it was an important part of that journey and demonstrated just how much can be achieved when you involve customers in your plans and give them a chance to think about the future.

Penny Hodge
Head of Policy and Stakeholder Engagement, Southern Water