Civil society and business: a two-way street

Heidi Mottram CBE

CEO, Northumbrian Water Group

Too often, the discussion around businesses’ relationship with civil society suggests it is a one-way street. But in reality, the relationships goes two ways. From accessing local insight to exchanging expertise, civil society plays a critical role in the success of our business.

Being part of the community is fundamental to Northumbrian Water Group’s history and DNA. The roots of the company go back to the industrial pioneer of the North East, Lord Armstrong. He identified the need for the local population to be healthy if he was to have an effective workforce, and so investment in clean water supplies and sanitation began.

Two centuries on, we ensure that our 4.4 million customers in the North East of England, and in Essex and Suffolk, have access to the best quality water, while in the North East we also provide reliable and resilient sewerage. We have a critical relationship with our local environment – relying on natural resources and protecting against pollution. Our services are therefore still intrinsic to the health of our community, quality of life and the ability of people to live fulfilling lives.


Supporting our people to support our community – because we are all part of the same ecosystem

Businesses like ours play a critical role in local economies, providing public services and the infrastructure that enables them to operate. As the country began to respond to the Covid pandemic in early 2020, our teams put in place the water networks that enabled the creation of the North East’s Nightingale Hospital, indicative of this important function.

We are fundamentally a local business, and as such we are a vital part of people’s lives and livelihoods. Our core services are delivered within a defined geographical area. That means that our employees, their families and their friends are our customers too. Our assets run along every street in our regions. It’s therefore simply not logical or possible to put a ringfence around our business that separates it off from the rest of the community in the areas where we operate.

We are committed to playing a full part in the life of our regions and using our resources to make a positive impact wherever we have opportunity. That’s why our business has to be open to collaboration and partnerships if we are to achieve our purpose and live out the values that our employees and customers would expect us to hold.

Our experience is that the relationship we have with our community is one of mutual benefit. There are many ways we add value in our regions beyond our core services. But equally, our business is stronger because of what the many organisations we work with contribute to our work.


Accessing local insight and delivering services better by engaging with civil society

Because of this relationship with our wider regions, it’s entirely natural that we would encourage our people to contribute to our communities as part of their role within our business. That doesn’t just give them a chance to do some good ‘on the side’. It develops their knowledge and experience and enables them to do their day job more effectively.

Through our ‘Just an hour’ scheme we enable our employees to volunteer in our local community. That work relies on having charities and community groups to partner with who can identify needs and opportunities for us to support. These include Age UK County Durham – who we work with to invite a group of older people in the local area to our head office for a hot meal and fun activities once every month. In Essex, we support homeless charity Sanctus with warm clothing collections, as well as fundraising each year. Meanwhile, colleagues in our northern and southern operating areas have completed 100 volunteer shifts for Blood Bikes, a charity of which I’m a patron, providing urgent blood and medical supplies for the NHS.

Through engaging with civil society, we also gain invaluable local insight. The people we work with through schemes such as these are of course our customers too. Taking the opportunity to get alongside and listen to them gives us a better understanding of their needs and aspirations, and means businesses like ours can do a better job of delivering for them.

For example, when we are carrying out major work on our infrastructure, we are conscious that we spend significant time and cause some level of disruption in communities. While we are working in those areas, we strive to not just deliver those schemes well, but to be a good neighbour as we do so. That means working with communities to ensure we have a positive impact during the time we are there. Local voluntary groups play a vital role in helping us to understand how we can do this, and we simply could not make an effective contribution without their knowledge and guidance.

When we carried out essential works on our sewers in Birtley, County Durham, we worked with the local community to identify how we could keep traffic disruption in the area to a minimum, and the relationships forged while in the area led to our employees and contractors helping with the redecoration of a community building and providing gifts for local families at Christmas. While implementing a recent flood alleviation scheme in Meadow Well, North Tyneside, we and our delivery partner ESH-Stantec held all our progress meetings at the local Meadow Well Connected charity’s offices. The relationship led to us helping, alongside our own work, to remove large mounds of earth from a public open space and re-seed it with wildflowers. That kind of partnership work makes it much easier for us to understand and meet local needs.


Exchanging expertise for mutual benefit

This is all part of being a good corporate citizen within our local area. But our engagement with communities has to go beyond what might be seen as traditional corporate social responsibility activities, or we would miss out on a huge amount that civil society has to offer.

Too often, the discussion around businesses’ relationship with civil society suggests it is a one-way street, with businesses contributing philanthropically and sharing their expertise, predominantly for public relations benefit. I am absolutely convinced it is much more of a two-way relationship and our experience backs that up.

There are vital areas of work for us where we simply do not have the expertise or resources required to deliver effectively and we need to build partnerships with others. In these situations, we commission partners who can complement what we can offer in support of our work and for mutual benefit. Often it is within civil society, rather than other businesses or public sector bodies, where that expertise lies.

We engage StepChange Debt Charity to help our customers who may be struggling with their payments. This is the first partnership between a debt charity and a utility company. We know many people feel much more confident speaking to their experts and we can feel assured they will get the advice and support they need to help them address any difficulties.

Similarly, we work in partnership with land trusts and wildlife trusts to carry out conservation-related management on some of our reservoir sites. These environmental partnerships allow us to complement our capabilities with their experience and expertise – for example, working with Essex Wildlife Trust to reintroduce British black bees at our Abberton reservoir.


Fostering collaborative innovation to develop new partnership approaches

Working with civil society groups is a great way to develop new approaches to current problems. Rather than accepting things as they are, we team up with partners to generate different ways of thinking, and often it’s within civil society that those great ideas are to be found.

Where the right organisations don’t already exist, we’ve actually helped to create them, because our experience shows that is often the best way to deliver what we need. Our Water Rangers scheme – the first of its kind within the UK water industry – uses volunteers to patrol 74 kilometres of watercourses to identify potential pollution issues. These volunteers care passionately about the local environment and working in partnership benefits both Northumbrian Water Group and the local community.

And in order to protect and preserve some of our own historic assets, we have supported volunteer groups at three sites that have now been turned into museums – Ryhope Engines Museum in Sunderland, Tees Cottage Pumping Station in Darlington, and the Museum of Power in Langford. These groups are committed to keeping these pieces of industrial history alive and sharing their knowledge, and with their support we welcomed more than 30,000 visitors to the museums in the past year.

We are seeing that civil society doesn’t just provide the expertise to help deliver on some of our plans. It provides the knowledge and creativity to develop them in the first place.

Each year Northumbrian Water Group runs its Innovation Festival, bringing together thousands of individuals to tackle some of the toughest issues facing our industry, community and environment.

This event is founded on the ethos of open innovation. As such we invite a diverse group of people to engage with our teams, bringing their own ideas and experiences and taking back anything they develop that can be of use within their organisations.

As many people might expect, we engage partners from big tech corporations like IBM and Oracle, from suppliers within our own industry, and from a whole host of universities. But equally valuable is the input from charities and community groups. Without the involvement of local rivers trusts, we wouldn’t have come up with Dragonfly in 2019, a sensor we can use to detect a range of aspects of river water quality in rural locations. A prototype for this device is now in development. And without input from Northumberland Community Bank at the 2020 Festival, we wouldn’t have thought up new ideas for supporting customers to manage their bill payments.

On an even bigger scale, when we set the ambition to eradicate water poverty (where customers spend more than 3% of their income after housing costs on water) in our operating areas, we needed partners to help us. This was a pioneering commitment in our industry, but because of that there was no blueprint for how to achieve the goal, and so finding the right experts was absolutely mission critical.

The obvious organisation to turn to for assistance was National Energy Action (NEA), the charity that had been tackling fuel poverty for 35 years. With NEA we established the national Zero Water Poverty Unit, with a three-year commitment to fund research into the issue, exploring and modelling different ways of eliminating water poverty for our customers. Together we’re making great strides and sharing what we learn across our industry, with a full training programme developed for the water sector.


Encouraging others to tap into the same benefits

Charities and community groups are therefore playing a series of vital roles alongside our business today, working in equal partnership to ensure that we can fulfil our purpose while supporting them to deliver their own objectives.

And as a leading player within our regions’ business communities we believe we have a responsibility to help and encourage others in the private sector to do the same.

When we started supporting the Refill campaign to cut down on plastic waste in 2018, we used our connections to make sure other major businesses in our regions were signed up. And of course we have encouraged many other companies to join us in supporting WaterAid, the charity we helped create to provide clean water and sanitation in some of the most deprived communities around the world.

Throughout Northumbrian Water Group, our people play a leading role in external bodies including my own roles with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), North East Local Enterprise Partnership, Castle View Enterprise Academy and Newcastle University. That’s not a coincidence, it’s because we believe that we have a responsibility to engage with what’s going on in our regions and use whatever resources we have to influence them for good.

A strong civil society is critical to the success of our business. In our case it means we have engaged employees, well delivered investment schemes, expert services, and well developed and effectively implemented strategies. It’s essential to us and many others that the sector is strong, which is why I welcome the work of this Commission to ensure these types of partnerships can continue long into the future.