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The Real Value of Water

The Common Cause for Nature report highlights the importance of the conservation sector engaging with other actors with a firm understanding of the values implications of that engagement. In this guest post, Rob Cunningham head of Water Policy at the RSPB discusses these issues in regard to the water industry.

When I mentioned the work of Common Cause at a recent water industry conference I felt a momentary pang of guilt – should I really be pointing these servants of mammon to such valuable insights into our motivations and psyche? What if they use it against us?

And there are reasons to be worried. Recent reports and headlines have shed light on dubious tax arrangements, huge payouts and opaque foreign ownership. Such behaviour draws uncomfortable comparison with Google, Amazon and Starbucks.

But there is one fundamental difference.

The water industry, with all its flaws is not selling frippery or momentary pleasure – its vital to our lives and our rivers, wetlands, estuaries and coasts. And so I worry about the collateral environmental damage that might be done if public antipathy to the way the companies are run undermines investment in the work they do in protecting and enhancing the natural world.

Of course there is no shortage of corporate glossies setting out how sustainable and green each of the water companies are, or are going to be in the future.  But all to often, when it comes to the crunch the environment (and legislation designed to protect it) are treated as “cost drivers” that place a burden on customers.  Thus we are told the pace of change must be measured with environmental improvement managed down to meet an apparently immutable Willingness to Pay figure derived from public surveys.

survey

That’s where Common Cause can help because it clearly demonstrates the way you talk about the natural environment has a critical impact on people’s responses. So if water companies are serious about being the greenest they need to apply as much creativity to the way they generate interest and support for their environmental investment as they do to book keeping.

But perhaps the most valuable insight Common Cause offers the water industry is the power that Values exert over our attitudes and behaviours. So if water companies are going to regain their legitimacy I suggest they need to demonstrate they operate to a set of acceptable, dare I say moral, values that include stewardship of the natural environment.

That’s a huge challenge for an industry that tends to focus on the value for money as the ends which justify the means. The extent to which such a change can be achieved without fundamental change in structure and ownership of water companies is an open question.

GuestThe Real Value of Water