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Local government service provision (before 1973)

Before 1973 water and sanitation services were provided by water undertakings and sewerage and sewage disposal authorities respectively. Until the 1950s there existed over a thousand water undertakings, with administrative boundaries similar to those of local government boundaries. By the early 1970s their number had been reduced to 198 by a gradual consolidation process aimed at achieving economies of scale. Out of the 198 water undertakings 64 were run by individual local government authorities, 101 by joint boards comprising several local government authorities, and 33 were statutory privately owned water companies, some of which date back to the Victorian era. At the same time there were over 1,300 sewerage and sewage disposal authorities, most of them run by individual local government authorities. The sector thus was highly fragmented.

ater resources management was entrusted to 29 river authorities created in 1965. Their responsibilities included water conservation, land drainage, fisheries, control of river pollution and, in some cases, navigation

Public regional companies (1973–1989)

Through the Water Act 1973 the government established 10 Regional Water Authorities in order to achieve even greater economies of scale, especially in sanitation, compared to the prior gradual consolidation of water undertakings. The reform was also aimed at putting in practice the principle of integrated river basin management, especially concerning the planning of investments in wastewater treatment. Given the small size of many river basins in England and Wales, in practice the area covered by each of the Regional Water Authorities typically contained more than one river basin.

The Regional Water Authorities were not only in charge of water supply and sanitation, but also of water resources management, thus opening the possibility of conflicts of interests since the same institution was in charge of abstracting water and discharging wastewater on the one hand, and controlling these same abstractions and discharges on the other hand. The Water Act left open the possibility to contract out water supply and sanitation services to local authorities. However, in practice this did not happen, and substantial assets were transferred from local governments to the new water authorities. Since the transfer was internal to the public sector, no compensation was paid to local authorities. Local authorities also initially held a majority of the Board seats of the new organisations. The private statutory water companies, which provided water to 25% of the population, escaped reorganisation and were left to operate as before.

With the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 the water and sanitation sector initially remained public, but the government attempted to make the enterprises operate more along commercial lines. As a result, the number of employees in the sector declined from 61,000 in 1976 to 52,000 in 1985, real operating costs declined, tariffs were increased above the inflation rate and the share of self-financing of investments increased. However, government regulators also cut back on investments. While the industry became profitable, the rate of return on assets based on replacement cost values remained low at less than 2%. As part of the attempt to commercialise the service providers, the Water Act 1983 reduced the number of Board members of the water authorities. However, it also eliminated the local government representation on the Boards and made all Board members appointed by Ministers, thus further centralising the sector.

Privatisation (1989)

In 1989 the government privatised the ten public regional water authorities through divestiture (sale of assets). The authorities' functions related to water resources management were separated and retained by the public sector. At the same time the regulatory agency OFWAT was created, following the model of infrastructure regulatory agency set up in other sectors such as telecommunications and energy.

 Ten companies were formed that supply both water and waste water. In addition there are 13 water only companies. The water and waste water companies are responsible for the abstraction, treatment and supply of water and the collection, treatment and return of the waste water to the aquatic environment.

Water Industry Act 1999

The Water Industry Act 1999 banned the disconnection of water and sewerage services for non-payment by domestic customers. It also allows the continuation of water charges based on rateable property value, as opposed to volumetric rates based on metering.

Retail market for businesses

From 1 April 2017, most businesses and organisations in England will be able to choose which company will supply their retail water services.

About the industry

The UK is a key geographical area in which to operate, not only because of its historical influence world-wide in water treatment but because it is currently in the middle of a prolonged growth phase.

The UK is at the forefront of the water industry worldwide. With privatised water companies in England, a mutual not for profit company in Wales, a nationalised industry in Scotland and a Government owned company (GoCo) in Northern Ireland - there is no better proving ground for different ideas about utility provision than Britain's water industry.

The water industry faces a number of challenges:

  • a changing climate
  • population growth
  • rising demand for water
  • an uncertain economic future

The industry is highly regulated. The Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) is the economic regulator of the water and sewerage industry in England and Wales. Ofwat's role is to seek value for consumers. Before 1 April 2006 their functions rested with the Director General of Water Services. The framework for the changeover was outlined in the Water Act 2003. It provides a similar structure to other economic regulators.

Ofwat is responsible for making sure that the water industry in England and Wales provides customers with a good quality and efficient service at a fair price. The Ofwat Board includes the Chairman (Philip Fletcher), a Chief Executive (Regina Finn), two executive and five non-executive directors. The Board is responsible for deciding how Ofwat carry's out their functions and effectively meet their statutory requirements. There is a majority of non-executive members.

Ofwat makes its decisions independently of the Government, but works closely with:

  • the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)and the Welsh Assembly Government;
  • the Consumer Council for Water (CC Water), which is an independent organisation that represents customers' interests and deals with your complaints;
  • the Drinking Water Inspectorate, which sets standards for the quality of drinking water;
  • the Environment Agency, which regulates and enforces water abstraction consents and quality standards in inland, estuarial and coastal waters; and
  • Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales, on environmental issues.

The approach in Scotland is different. There is only one water company - Scottish Water - still state owned. Performance is regulated via the Water Industry Commission for Scotland (WICS).

The water and waste water quality standards that the water companies must meet are regulated by the Environment Agency in England and Wales. This regulatory body was formed in April 1996 as a "one stop shop" for environmental regulation. The functions of the National Rivers Authority, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and the waste regulation responsibilities of the local authorities were all incorporated into this new body. As well as a duty to protect and improve the quality of rivers, estuaries and coastal waters, it is responsible for managing water resources and protecting people and property from flooding. In Scotland this duty is undertaken by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.               

Why choose a Water industry career

With the pressures of climate change and rising water demand, capital investment will continue at around £4 billion per year and the water sector is comparatively sheltered from the current economic turmoil.

A water industry career should provide levels of job security and stability when compared with other industries

What personnel are in demand who should contact us?

There are a wide variety of water related jobs across a range of disciplines. Typically the following personnel can transfer with ease with a little assistance:

Project Managers, Project Engineers, Process engineers and designers, Piping engineers and designers, Electrical engineers and designers, Mechanical engineers and designers, Structural engineers and designers, Instrumentation engineers and designers, Safety personnel, Technical Safety engineers, planning engineers, document controllers, admin and support personnel.

There is also a demand for environmental scientists, engineers and other environment related personnel.

In addition to this there is demand for HSE advisors and contract specialists. In most instances no training will be required prior to placement, but we are able to assist where required. We will put you in touch with employers happy to engage you with your current skills and qualifications.

We will help you re-engineer yourself into the water industry. 

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