Western horizons

South West Water's Martin Ross talks to Tom Idle about his vision of the future and how to wrestle with a limit budget

Serving more than 80,000 customers across the South West, Martin Ross certainly has his work cut out maintaining the balancing act of ensuring prices are kept to the minimum and environmental standards to the optimum.

As Environmental Planning Manager for South West Water, he has used his wealth of experience as a chartered civil engineer to guide the organisation through choppy waters during the past 30 years. A process of sticking to regulation guidelines, staying on the right side of the legislative tracks and encouraging an environmentally responsible culture among fellow employees has been coupled with a struggle to combat the effects of climate change, strive for renewable energy alternatives and the implementation of CSR ethics.

I took the journey to South West Water's headquarters in Exeter to meet a confident and forward-looking Martin Ross.

As an environmental practitioner working for a business with the environment at the heart of its operation, is there an added pressure to get your house in order?
Very much so, yes. People are really looking hard to see that we're not just doing the minimum, that we're doing something extra. And the trick is to wrestle something extra out of a very constrained budget.

Are the regulators too heavy handed then?
We are heavily regulated but I wouldn't say it's too heavily regulated. Each regulator knows what they want, and they know what they've got to do because they're driven by the legislative framework in the UK and EU.
I don't dispute that the regulatory regime is too much. Local monopolies need to be watched very closely to make sure that they are not abusing situations.

And have you got a big enough budget in the environmental team?
The issue for us is to manage things like price shocks and uncertainties. We had a 40% rise in the price of power in 2004/05 and since April we've had another 40% rise in electricity.

And what are you doing when it comes to sourcing renewable alternatives?
The Pennon Group [consisting of South West Water, Viridor Waste and Pennon Group plc] as a whole is a net energy producer, even though South West Water is using up a lot.
Viridor Waste have been capping landfill, collecting methane and putting it into engines to generate power.
Within South West Water, we've got hydro conventional river systems that we bought some years ago, high head pipelines that come down from upland reservoirs to drive turbines, and we've got turbines which we recently put in on the outlets from the dams. The more renewable energy we can produce, the better - there is good money to be made in it because of the non-fossil fuel obligation.

What is the hardest part of your job?
In terms of the CSR work, it's about getting people to have this wider vision and trying to maximise sustainability.
We've got a sustainability forum, which engages with people within the business and with those outside.
There are lots of pressure groups, interest groups and local communities who don't like to see water bills go up. And if there are ways in which we can try to mitigate that with more renewables, then we will.

And how do you educate your staff?
We get messages out through the sustainability forum and our debriefings, so there's a kind of hierarchy of messages that go back and forth.
A lot of it is about personal commitment, and it starts with a few people who are widely regarded as lunatics. But if the arguments they produce make business sense, they get somewhere.

I guess it's also about educating your customers?
Yes. A lot of work that we do is in the water conservation area, which may seem a bit counter-intuitive - you'd think that our job is to sell as much water as we could.

Yes, it must be a very fine balancing act...
Despite there being a short-term drop in income, the more we can get people to save water, it postpones the need for major new capital assets in the long-term. That's the thing that really affects the water bill. The more we can make the existing systems run without needing huge enhancements, the better it will control the bill.

If you could pass one piece of environmental legislation, what would it be?
Farmers could potentially produce crops that generate renewable fuel. At the moment, the crops they do produce all go to France because there's no refining capacity in this country, which seems a bit of an own goal - we need the fuel as much as anybody else. But there hasn't been a tax or investment regime that's allowed that to happen.
I know the Government's got various views on energy - the need for nuclear has been talked about too. What I'm interested in is somebody taking a global look at how we could encourage as much renewable energy production as possible.
Time is not on the human race's side any longer. It's beginning to have some serious effects on the reliability of water supply, impacts of storms and loss of ice caps.

Why has it taken so long for climate change to really come to the fore of debate?
It's been talked about since the 1970s but that was just a few people who were considered freaks and oddballs. And they shouldn't have been dismissed like that, because ultimately what climate change means is that we've got to either do less or earn less, and that means giving things up.
The problem is that every country's political agenda is a promise that next year you'll have more than you did this year. You're actually asking economies to go negative and thrive on it.

Do you think major companies should be forced to report on their environmental impacts?
Big business tends to resist being directed to do things. It's much happier with a voluntary regime. If the voluntary regime works well and people are reporting properly and the information coming out is good, I'm quite happy with the voluntary arrangement.

Are there any developments in South West Water's business plan that will affect your work in the coming months?
The main thing for us is the way in which the Water Framework Directive lands. It's going to involve doing what the water industry used to do between 1974 and 1989, which is taking a whole catchment view of everything that's happening. Since 1989, regulation and delivery have been separated. You've got the Environment Agency setting the standards and us meeting them.
But we're getting much closer with the Environment Agency, and looking at how we can involve smaller groups, farming changes and diffuse pollution action. We've got to protect the quality of our water, to keep our reservoirs secure and keep our rivers as clean as possible.

What's the solution then?
There are things to do with the way the land is being managed and used. The way the single payment scheme has come up in the replacement common agricultural policy (CAP), that's encouraging farmers to move up a ladder of environmental management of their land.
They're not just being paid to produce food or crops, they've got a second income stream for environmental management. As they manage the land progressively better, and lower their environmental impact, they get more and more reward. That incentivisation of farming is a bit like our price incentivisation in the water industry where if we're really bad, we get a penalty, and if we're good we get a bit of extra money.
The single payment scheme, or the agri-environment scheme as its otherwise known, has been running for about six months now.
It's something the whole water industry is really interested in because of all the downstream effects of run-off that happen with climate change. If you've got really intense rainfall in a field that has been harvested for maize and has been left in September or October, and you get a massive rainfall, the whole field can start to shift. We've actually had an entire field disappear into one of our sewage systems.

Have you got any advice for our readers?
Never limit the horizons of your interest. Look out at all the things that are happening and find out what you can.
You'll be amazed but once you're sensitised to a few new areas, you'll often see articles, things on the net; and they'll act as little prompts and triggers. You owe it to yourself and to your employer to go and do some exploration, even if it's just for half an hour, to see if it can be brought back in to change the way the business is going to be run in the future.

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