Securing commitments to do better: David Black on Ofwat's progress in a ‘tough’ year

Ofwat chief exec praises "swift progress" in pursuing action against water companies and discusses the challenge of telling people what the regulator does
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By Civil Service World

28 Dec 2022

What has been your highlight of the last 12 months?   

This year has been a tough one in the water sector, with some companies falling short on their environmental performance. In that context, a highlight for me has been seeing everyone at Ofwat's determination to make a difference – we're very fortunate to have a diverse and dedicated group committed to improving the water sector, and we've seen some swift progress on significant issues that matter. We are now pursuing our largest ever enforcement action against six large water companies and have also secured commitments from the whole sector to reduce discharges by 25% by 2025 in advance of the next price review, where further improvements will be made. 

What was your most difficult decision in 2022?   

Not so much a difficult decision, but during August, concerns about water company performance on leakage and sewage discharges became very high profile. We had to consider how to best explain our role in a sector where there are multiple regulators (Ofwat is the economic regulator), alongside how we were working to secure better outcomes for customers and the environment. It was a real challenge to communicate clearly and promote better understanding of our role and the issues facing the sector. 

"We are a small organisation working on some fascinating and complex issues and I very much want us to be a great place for people to grow and develop” 

What is the biggest challenge facing your organisation in 2023, and how do you plan to meet that challenge as an organisation?   

In 2023, we will move to the delivery phase of the next price review. It's a big step up in activity as we receive business plans from 17 companies with tight timeframes to assess, with significant impacts for customers and the environment from the outcome of the process. Our decisions will be subject to careful scrutiny from stakeholders and potential appeal from the water companies, most of whom are large FTSE100 or equivalent companies.  

And personally, as a leader?   

As a regulator of a sector in the spotlight, we often face public criticism and challenge. We also need to make rapid progress on a busy agenda. So making sure we protect and develop our strong and positive work culture at Ofwat is very important. We want Ofwat to be a great place to be. We are a small organisation working on some fascinating and complex issues and I very much want us to be a great place for people to grow and develop. 

It's not only Santa who has to work at Christmas. What is your best, worst or weirdest experience of working in the festive season?    

Well, the best experience is not working over Christmas period! At the completion of the last price review in 2019, we published our final determinations on 16 December – I attended a staff event on the following day and that evening flew out to New Zealand. In contrast, the previous year we were poring over business plans to assess and publish our views in January, so it was a time of intense focus between Christmas and New Year.   

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