There's nowt like water
Yorkshire Water's managing director, Richard Flint, has seen some changes in his 20 years with the company. Natasha Wiseman hears how he envisions an evolutionary approach to managing the sector's uncertainties in the coming years
Yorkshire Water's managing director, Richard Flint, is immensely proud of the company's new office that looks out over Leeds' new waterfront development at Clarence Dock. He declares that the development that has re-orientated Yorkshire's first city is "entirely" down to the clean-up of the River Aire.
As a politics graduate working in a field dominated by engineers, Flint can be seen as something of a Renaissance man. While acknowledging that science and engineering are absolutely core to the company, he says it is also necessary "to be plugged into the world around you and be in touch with the social, economic and environmental trends in that society."
He explains that water companies have a choice, they can either conceive of themselves as being about pipes, pumps and civil engineering, or ask whether water is at the centre of what they do. "And I think you need to start with water and then work back from it, he says, "Water is a precious resource."
He says that in the early 1990s, Yorkshire made decisions "counter-culturally to the water sector as a whole" in saying the company itself is not about engineering, it's about customer service. That was when YW outsourced its engineering arm.
He says that the company recognised that what it needed was general management, and general people leadership. "And in many ways," says Flint, "I suppose I was one of the first examples of that."
The engineering may be outsourced, but the expertise is situated right at the heart of the Clarence Dock site, with YW's consulting and contracting partners sharing the same offices. "Innovation isn't just about technical innovation," he says, "it's about how you think about what you're doing."
He believes that the co-location of the construction partners enables the transfer of ideas, giving the utility the culture necessary to deliver its creative and successful projects. Having started out on the other side of the Pennines, with an upbringing in Wales and Warrington, Flint himself has been with YW for some 20 years, first temping as a data input clerk in York, before joining the company's graduate programme.
He has worked across the business, including a stint as a customer behaviour researcher and as a treatment works manager. He worked his way onto the board in 2003, taking up his current post, managing director of Yorkshire Water and chief executive of parent company, Kelda Group, 18 months ago.
And while he admits that the company has not always got it right, perhaps recalling the drought of the mid-1990s when tankers were drafted in to augment supplies, Flint says that "creating an integrated water network with customers at the heart allows us to be very, very confident about maintaining water supplies to customers."
Once that is in place, he says, then you can move on to finding innovative ways of helping our customers to use significantly less water. He sees the barrier to water conservation as a very straightforward one for water companies - "you cut consumption and, depending on whether you're metered, there's the impact on revenues for businesses."
He says that an amplification of the price correction mechanism that already exists might be one alternative, but mainly it is about examining the whole question of sustainability for the sector. Returning to Clarence Dock, he asks whether the engineers embarking on the wastewater treatment programme back in 1989 could really see what it might achieve 20-years on.
Flint has a positive attitude to his customers and warns against water companies thinking that they need to "educate" them. More and more people are showing an interest in water conservation, he says, explaining the need to ask, "How do we work with our customers to help them know and understand the value of water? That has to be a partnership."
He expands, "It's not that you want to urn lots of energy, it's that you want a warm home and hot water. It's not that you want to consume lots of water, it's just the way that appliances are set up."
He says that the key is to work with customers, saying, "Look, there's an advantage for you here, in fact there's a double advantage for you here - using less water - you cut your power bill and you cut your water bill."
I asked Flint whether customer revenue had been hit by the economic uncertainty, the region has 9% unemployment and a high dependence on public sector employment (about 38%) where jobs are being slashed. However he says he is surprised that the company has not seen a significant rise in consumer debt in recent months.
He says Yorkshire Water's strategy is twofold: "It's more and more important that we do collect income from those who are able to pay and more important to support those can't."
He is not a fan of customer disconnection, but supports social tariffs, and believes flexibility and support for those on low incomes are the best ways to keep consumer debt low.
Despite being a very economically challenged region, Yorkshire Water has the lowest customer debt of any water authority, he says. After cost, carbon is the next word on the lips of water company leaders and Flint is no exception. He points to environmental legislation as being the great driver of energy intensity of the water industry and is asking for a rethink by the utilities and the regulators.
One illogicality in his view is that regardless of the water quality in the river, the effluent leaving the works has to be at a "static point" in terms of biological and chemical oxygen demand. In response, Yorkshire is piloting its rtRIVERi project with the Environment Agency to develop an optimally controlled system for surface water discharge (see case study).
Another string to its energy strategy comes through the non-regulated business, KWS, which is bidding for the domestic refuse of the city of Leeds to help power its Knostrop Wastewater Treatment Plant, with a serious look at returning power to the grid too. He sees the bid as an opportunity to grow the non-regulated business and is passionate about achieving self-sufficiency in energy.
"Waste is a really unhelpful word and a really unhelpful way of thinking about the world," he says. "Sewage is actually an energy source and increasingly we are powering our sewage works from CHP engines." He adds: "In 10 or 15 years' time I would be amazed if water companies weren't producing all their own energy."
Flint's ambitions for YW don't stop at waste-to-energy, he sees a further role for YW in maintaining flood defences and the company backs mandatory adoption of new SUDS. Referring to local authority cutbacks, he says there's a big question: "The perceived level of risk is increasing and the ability of some organisations to respond to that risk is decreasing. What's the way forward?"
"The ability to leverage private finance the way private water companies have is why the British water industry is in the condition it's in," he says. "There is a model out there that can be applied to other parts of the water network."