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Associate feature: Our future together

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Associate feature: Our future together

During the Covid pandemic Scotland relied on more than 1.4 billion litres of fresh water each day to wash our hands, feed our families and care for the sick.  It’s a silent service that few of us think about, but without which our recent lives would have been far more difficult.

But we need to face up to the fact that there are growing challenges to supplying our much-loved drinking water and to dealing with our waste water that could see both vital services deteriorate and impact our ability to withstand future emergencies not to say reduce the quality of our everyday life.

Over the last ten years we have made huge gains in efficiency which has allowed us to reduce what people pay for water and waste water services by 10% in real terms. As a publicly-owned organisation, aware of the financial pressures on our customers, that was the right thing to do as the nation recovered from the impact of the 2008 financial crisis.  Real terms price reductions saw us achieve charges £25 lower than the average charge in England and Wales, while achieving consistent improvements in customer experience, drinking water quality and environmental performance. At the same time the world is changing enormously, most especially our climate. The impact of climate change in Scotland is already being felt.  More summer droughts that make it difficult to keep water flowing to everyone everywhere, changes to the quality of water in our lochs and reservoirs that make it harder to produce the clean, fresh Scottish water we need, and flooding caused by extreme rainfall that continues to break records.

Our water and waste water systems, some of it a legacy of the Victorian engineers, can no longer always cope. Some of our more recent infrastructure simply wasn’t designed to cope with the changing climate either.

Climate change has also brought with it the responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint and slow global heating.  We have committed to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2040 and have set out a route map for getting there. This will contribute to Scotland’s stretching commitment to reach Net Zero emissions by 2045.  But nobody should be under any illusions that, as one of Scotland’s biggest energy users, with an enormous asset base, our transition to Net Zero will be easy and it will require significant investment.

The ageing pipes and treatment plants that make up much of our water and waste water infrastructure need to be replaced.  We need to increase investment in their replacement and upgrading, a common challenge with other areas of national infrastructure. 

We’ve been able to reduce real prices over the last decade by becoming skilled at managing the risks to our services, to get more years out of our ageing assets, and hold off the need for greater investment.  But we’re reaching the limits of what’s possible with good operational management, and we cannot escape the fact that investment will need to double over the next 20 years to make sure our vital infrastructure can meet the continuing challenges.

Earlier this year we published a long-term plan, co-created with our environmental regulator SEPA, the Drinking Water Quality Regulator and other sector stakeholders, to address these challenges.  At the heart of this plan is the ambitious vision for the Scottish water sector that was unveiled by Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham in June last year.  We are unique among large infrastructure sectors, in having such a transparent, joined-up and far-sighted approach to dealing with our long-term challenges.

We know that this necessary investment inevitably means we need to increase the funds available to us.  We are confident that the Scottish Government will step up and continue to provide the lending support we need, but we also need to enter a new partnership with our customers to ensure that they share our aspirations and understand why we cannot avoid seeking more from them through charges.  We have already engaged with more than 20,000 customers directly on our future plans and will reach out to every part of Scotland as we continue to strengthen our partnership with customers and communities.

Of course, we understand that the current crisis is impacting our customers financially and for that our charges need to be take this into account and the charging structure designed to protect those least able to pay.  But research with our customers shows that they value our services and support our objectives.  They want us to get on and do what is necessary to protect their services.  We are fortunate in Scotland to have the water and waste water services we do, now we must work together to ensure they are world class for current and future generations.

Douglas Millican is the chief executive of Scottish Water

This piece was sponsored by Scottish Water

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