The Water Titans Series

Colin Skellett, Chief Executive, Wessex Water

“The challenge to get to carbon neutrality is bigger than we thought” 

Ruby Savill-Downs

With Future of Utilities: Water fast approaching, we speak to industry titan Colin Skellett about the big questions on everyone’s minds. From tackling affordability challenges to continuing the push towards net zero, the CEO of Wessex Water shares insight into the momentous challenges facing the industry today and his hopes for the year ahead.   

(Ruby Savill-Downs) With a rapidly changing climate and pressure to handle greater extremes, how will you ensure network resilience over the coming year?

(Colin Skellett) This isn’t a one-year issue. The biggest challenge for the industry is what’s happening to the climate. It’s not just the general change, it’s the change in rainfall patterns – we saw that last year with both drought and flooding. The overall rainfall doesn’t change, but the patterns certainly have.

As such, we’ve developed 25-year plans for water resources, distribution, and wastewater. They are essential to move from short-termism to long-term plans, with clear milestones along the way.

On the water supply side, we’ve already invested in reducing leakage and putting less water into supply, but we need to do more reduce the amount of water we’re taking from the environment and encourage consumers to use less. So, we need a plan that combines reducing leakage and consumption, as well as increasing flexibility.

In terms of water movement, we’ve spent a quarter of a billion pounds putting in a regional grid so that we can move water around the region, and enable exchanges with our neighbouring companies. We must continue to build on that and plan for the long-term needs of the south west. We’re probably going to need more storage; this takes a long time to implement; but this industry is all about long-term investment and long-term planning.


(RSD) How will you champion sustainability when it comes this year’s biggest network challenges?

(CS) Firstly, we need to invest more in our networks – both clean and dirty. As an industry, we haven’t invested enough – even though we’ve invested more than most European countries. It’s also essential that we use more sustainable techniques. The most valuable assets, aren’t the pipes but the holes the pipes are in, so relining and other no-dig techniques are a key to sustainable solutions.


(RSD) How are you planning to juggle affordability and customer support this year, through what is set to be another hard financial period?

(CS) Although water and wastewater services are only around 2.5% of average household expenditure, there is no doubt that it is harder for a growing number of customers to pay. We were the first company to introduce a social tariff, with some customers paying as little as £1 a month. We have a strong belief that all customers should be able to afford our services, so there’s been much more publicity to promote social tariffs and identify vulnerable groups.

We’ve worked with debt advice agencies to connect people to us and assess how best to help them. We’ve also undertaken a data exchange with DWP, so that we can access their data and again better identify those that really need help.


(RSD) Regarding the all-important net-zero target, what are Wessex Water’s main priorities to get closer to this goal?

(CS) Currently, the biggest challenge for the water industry is climate change and changing weather patterns. With net-zero, we (Wessex Water), like the rest of the industry are committed to both operational net-zero by 2030, and total net-zero by 2040. We have published a plan that details where we are now, and where we need to be, with a particular focus being the emissions produced from our wastewater treatment operations.

Some of the work we’re doing at the moment has showed just how much the industry has understated the emissions that are produced from wastewater treatment. As such, starting this year, we’re doing more real-time monitoring from wastewater treatment centres to give us a better idea of the data. It might mean that the challenge to get to carbon neutrality is bigger than we thought.

There’s a whole range of things going on that will take us from where we are to carbon neutrality in 2030. Nobody is pretending it’s easy, but we’re on our way, tracking year by year with the plan we’ve published. The bigger challenge is total carbon neutrality by 2040 – which requires looking at supply chains, embedded carbon, and our investment programme. Carbon has become the most important factor on everyone’s mind, especially when looking at new investments.


(RSD) What are your plans to better your carbon management work, to reach the 2030 goal?

(CS) We need more real-time monitoring of treatment processes and of our networks, so that we can take that data and use AI to interpret it.  This will give us a better picture of the carbon consequences of what we’re doing. We also have a strong focus on moving as much as we can to nature-based solutions and prioritising biodiversity.


(RSD) What would you say was Wessex Water’s biggest achievement last year?

(CS) The biggest achievement, and certainly the one that took the most time and energy, was dealing with the drought. Getting through it without the need for restrictions or impacting customers was a massive accomplishment.

We’ve reduced leakage a lot and I don’t believe the restrictions are helpful as they alienate customers. So, we must continue to reduce our leakage and help customers to reduce their consumption. We’ve accelerated our work with schools to identify their wasted water, it’s amazing how much water some places lose! We haven’t had any restrictions in Wessex since 1976, and we intend to keep it that way. But it does mean we need to step up our work on driving down leakage and helping customers drive down theirs.


(RSD) What is your vision for water in 2023?

(CS) Our hope is that we can move with the regulators to a much greater focus on catchments and nature-based solutions. We’re fortunate in the UK that when the current structures were set up, they were based on river catchments. And they’re the fundamental, so we’ve been promoting a focus on catchments, and wherever possible, the use of nature-based solutions.  I hope we can get a PR24 agreement that makes much more use of catchment and nature-based solutions. If we don’t get it embedded in PR24, it will be 2030 before we have another opportunity – and achieving carbon neutrality will be even harder.

Colin Skellett, Wessex Water Photo

Colin Skellett, Chief Executive, Wessex Water

Colin Skellett is a scientist and engineer by training. He has worked largely in the water industry and was appointed Chief Executive in 1988. He took the company through privatisation creating a business that consistently delivers the highest environmental and customer service performance within the industry. He has had non-executive roles in rail, travel and international infrastructure businesses, served on the Board of the South West Regional Development Agency. He was also Chair of the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership until 2016. Colin was awarded an OBE for services to business and WaterAid in the 2012 Queen’s Birthday Honours and has Honorary Doctorates in Engineering from the Universities of the West of England and Bristol.