Power to the people
WWT talks to Ian Smith, convenor of Scotland's new water watchdog, Water Watch Scotland
Officially known as the Water Customer Consultation Panels, Water Watch Scotland (WWS) provides a voice for those served by Scottish Water.
The five panels, which cover south-west,
south-east, north-east, north-west Scotland, and Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, were the first public utility consumer body to be established by the Scottish Parliament.
WWS works to represent the views and interests of Scottish Water’s 2.2m household users and 160,000 business and commercial customers, who generate £900m revenue annually. Its remit is to actively represent customers’ views – be they on water, drainage, sewerage or any related services – to the Water Industry Commission and to Scottish Water.
From September this year Water Watch Scotland will have more clout. With these changes in mind, we talked to the body’s convenor, Ian Smith. A civic lawyer by trade, he has previously acted as local government ombudsman and was at one time chief executive of Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council.
WWT: In what ways do water customers benefit from the new watchdog, compared to the service they received previously from the Water Industry Commissioner?
IS: Water Watch Scotland has been given extended powers to represent customers’ interests and to pursue customer complaints. This clearly focused remit offers customers a strengthened service and, for the first time, a single point of contact to air any concerns.
WWT: What does WWS’s work entail, on a day-to-day basis?
IS: Quite simply, the panels are establishing contact, across Scotland, with customers, local authorities and community groups, liaising with businesses, commissioning research and undertaking surveys in order to represent their views and interests.
We’ve also asked Scotland’s 160,000 business users for feedback on the service and performance they receive, and any other comments they might have on water-related issues such as pricing, drainage and sewerage.
WWT: So how is the role of WWS about to change?
IS: Our remit has been significantly strengthened, in several key respects. We now have statutory powers to make recommendations to Scottish Water, the Water Industry Commission and the Scottish Executive, as well as the Drinking Water Quality Regulator and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Under statutory rules, these recommendations will be taken seriously. Through WWS, consumer interests have been given greater priority than ever before.
Also, from later this year, WWS will be responsible for a new complaints-handling procedure, intended to make the whole process more direct and transparent.
Finally, WWS will have specific input into the charge-setting processes and we’ll input customers’ views directly into those processes. We’re also expected to play a greater consultative role, both with government ministers and with the Water Industry Commission, on behalf of customers.
WWT: How will you, as convenor of the panels, investigate complaints against Scottish Water?
IS: The Convenor will act as an independent investigator of complaints not resolved by Scottish Water. Channels of communication have been opened with all relevant parties to that end.
WWT: What is the organisation’s annual budget, and how many people does it employ?
IS: The total annual budget is in the order of £640k. We’ll employ seven full-time staff initially, rising to nine once full responsibility for complaints-handling is assumed.
WWT: Will WWS be completely independent?
IS: Absolutely. The convenor of WWS is a ministerial appointment and I’m independent of Scottish Water, the Water Industry Commissioner and any other regulator.