Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 -19)




  1. Welcome. Thank you very much indeed for coming along to see us and also thank you for your written evidence in response to our report last year. We are delighted to see you. Perhaps you would like to introduce your colleagues and if there is anything you would like to say by way of introductory statement, as long as it is brief, we should be delighted to hear it.

  (Mr Fletcher) On my left is Mike Saunders, who is Director of Consumer Affairs. On my right, Dr Bill Emery, Director of Costs and Performance and Chief Engineer at Ofwat. Knowing how much committees do not like long introductory statements, if I may I should just like to say a few words, but please cut me off the moment I start boring the Committee. I am just over six months into the job. I thought I was coming just at the end of one Periodic Review and with five years to go until the next. I find I am subject to the Chinese curse: I live in interesting times. Two major takeover/mergers, a lot of restructuring thoughts, the most obvious of which is the Glas proposition in relation to Welsh Water, proposals for a Water Bill, excessive rainfall and a host of other things, all of which has meant I have had to get into the job very fast. I am also very conscious of my parliamentary accountability. This is my third appearance before a committee in the last four weeks or so. What I found on arriving, eleven years after my last full acquaintanceship with the water industry was an industry which has significant achievements to its name, in my view, achievements measured in terms of outputs: The quality of drinking water, squeezing up from 99 per cent to 99.8 per cent, real improvements in river and bathing water quality, sewage treatment works compliance, leakage down from over 30 per cent five years ago to 21 per cent now, low pressure significantly reduced, a very big quality programme, bills up admittedly 24 per cent in real terms but with a 12 per cent money reduction in the year just ending. I reckon that gives me quite a big job to get into as the regulator. I am conscious that it is not my job to manage the industry. I am conscious that the whole definition of the job is not one which can ever lead to a cosy relationship with the various stakeholders. In companies it is in shareholders' interests to maximise agreed programmes of improvement, which flow through into turnover, flow through into profit. Quality regulators are naturally seeking higher standards. Ofwat's job, not demonising the environment, is nonetheless in my view to seek on behalf of customers to ensure that companies can finance their functions and that the bills are no higher than they have to be. I welcome very much the conclusion in the Committee's report that the last review represented a clear forward programme with sufficient consultation. I aim to maintain that and, if I can, to improve it. I have been listening and learning over my six months, visiting the water companies, going to the other stakeholders. Our consultation on the Ofwat forward programme for the coming year, but starting to stretch towards the next Periodic Review, is one earnest of our intention to be a listening as well as a doing organisation. I want to be flexible and as one earnest of that I said in my response to the Committee's recommendation about a sustainable development duty for the regulator that I had my doubts. I wondered whether it would confuse the overall functions that I have. I have gone on reflecting about it. It would make sense, if and when there is a Water Bill, for there to be a sustainable development duty for the water regulator. I would envisage it in the sorts of terms which have been used for the regional development agencies and others, that is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development where it is relevant to do so. Our draft forward programme makes reference to sustainable development as part of what we are about. I accept not least points from the Committee but points which have come from other places as well that there is more for Ofwat to do in getting ready for the next review. You asked that I look at the release of the financial model. We are developing a new financial model at the moment to get us ready for the next review. We are looking to do so in a way that will facilitate sharing that model with the industry. All told, we are looking to work with the industry, the regulators, Environment Agency, Drinking Water Inspectorate, within the framework set by statute and by Government in terms of the quality programme. We are looking to make it an open and transparent and objective affair, a consistent process, and I hope that my answers this afternoon will bear that out.

Mr Chaytor

  2. Thank you for that insight into your approach to the role of regulator. May I ask you specifically what you think your highest priorities are over the next few years?
  (Mr Fletcher) In the Ofwat forward programme we set out for the first time our aims and objectives. There is a danger of doing it in management-speak, but there is some merit in using the vision mission and then how-we-set-about-it discipline. We set for our vision a water industry which delivers a world class service representing best value to customers now and in the future. That is one of my points that it is not Ofwat, it is not the regulators which deliver a world class service, it is the industry. Therefore Ofwat's role within that, our mission, is to regulate in a way which provides incentives and encourages the water companies to achieve those services, provides quality, which of course includes environmental quality and value for customers in England and Wales. Then we go into a series of specific points. In terms of specific work priorities, working towards the next Periodic Review is obviously an important one. We must not try to jump into that Periodic Review ahead of time. Our own review after the last one suggested that we might have blown the trumpet just a bit early and had people chasing round the circuit just a few too many times. So somehow we have to blow the trumpet at the right point, but there are specific things we ought to be getting on with now. The Committee made much, for example, of capital maintenance work: that it is for the companies initially to ensure that their assets are in the right condition, but we accept that it is Ofwat's job also to provide a right framework, a right context, a transparent approach to capital maintenance issues. I could pick out various other things we are specifically looking to do in the next few months and years as work in hand, work on leakage, work on bad debts, which is an issue particularly following the decision that disconnections should no longer be allowed in the water industry, and a number of other specifics.

  3. May I ask a very direct question and that is about the role of the regulatory office itself? There was some criticism through our previous enquiry about the very system of having individual regulators and whether the personality of the individual got in the way of the regulatory process. I am not suggesting that six months into the job you are going to argue that the office should be abolished, but do you have any observations on this and this question of the role of the personality or the way in which the personality impinges on the process, the question of whether the five-yearly review becomes a bit of a game whereby the companies try to beat the regulator? What are your thoughts on those criticisms?
  (Mr Fletcher) To start with the individual regulator, clearly there are dangers. For example, the press rather enjoys the "Fletcher does this" or "Fletcher gets slammed by that committee" or whatever. It is terribly important, if we persist with an individual regulator, that that individual regulator should not exactly take his personality out of it, that is impossible, but should ensure that there is a clear approach, an understood approach, transparent, reasonably predictable. As you will know, one of the concerns that those who invest in the water industry or lend to it have is about regulatory uncertainty, a concept which tends to embrace not just me but my fellow quality regulators and, from time to time, the Government. It is certainly something I have to seek to minimise. That does not mean I will not seek to ensure that the companies are compelled to go on delivering those efficiency gains, that customers are given a good deal, that the environment is properly served through the actions of the water companies. It does mean I have to be clear about how we are doing it and why. Why not move to a board as, through the Utilities Act, has happened for gas and electricity? There are advantages in a single regulator, bearing in mind that I have to relate to two regulator colleagues, Drinking Water and the Environment Agency, in a way that in the other sectors is not directly relevant. The Government have proposed in their Water Bill that there should be a little bit of a hybrid, a hybrid about which I have some doubts, and this is the Water Advisory Panel. If you wanted me to get into that it would make my answer a bit longer, but I could explain why I have some doubts around that.

  Mr Chaytor: One of my colleagues will be asking about the Water Advisory Panel a little later.


  4. You mentioned in your answer a study you had undertaken of the last review.
  (Mr Fletcher) Yes.

  5. Is that a public document?
  (Mr Fletcher) It is indeed. It was a managing director letter which came out on virtually the last day of Ian Byatt's tenure of his office.

  6. So that is available publicly.
  (Mr Fletcher) Indeed it is. We shall make sure the Committee has it. [1]

Joan Walley

  7. I am glad that you are before this Committee as well as the other Select Committees you have been before in the last few weeks. I was very interested in the comments you made just now about perhaps having had second thoughts about the prospects of a duty on sustainable development in respect of the forthcoming Water Bill. We do know that the Environment Minister, Mr Meacher, who incidentally is a member of this Committee, has already set out that he is sympathetic towards having a sustainable development duty. Given what you said just now in your introductory comments, we should like to think that as a committee perhaps our report to which you have responded might have been contributing to this.
  (Mr Fletcher) It was.

  8. So we are very glad that we are part of policy formulation. I should just like you to comment a bit more. You said you would welcome it where appropriate. I should be very interested if you could just flesh out your comments a little bit more as to what you mean by "where appropriate" and where it might not be appropriate.
  (Mr Fletcher) I was actually quoting from the statute which set up the regional development agencies. That is actually in the Act. It is normally going to be appropriate. May I just quote the context in which I have put it in our draft—it is still draft—forward programme? It is to work with the quality regulators to ensure that the quality of drinking water and waste water is improved at an affordable rate to the benefit of customers and the wider environment and that the abstraction and use of water takes account of the need for sustainable development. The more I went looking back into sustainable development, the more it was borne in on me that of course this is not just an environmental term, it is a term which embraces social progress, which recognises the needs of everyone, effective protection of the environment of course, prudent use of natural resources, maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment. What economic regulator could possibly object to having those elements firmly set out within his or her statutory remit?

  9. Would you for example see that as including the use of the precautionary principle? I know one of my colleagues wants to ask questions later on about standards of serviceability but I am thinking particularly about perhaps the leakage from sewers, how we could perhaps be preventing that through the whole programme, through the reviews and so on, how that duty could be at the very foundation of what then gets proposed in future reviews. How would you see that?
  (Mr Fletcher) The precautionary principle is obviously important and I am familiar with it from my past time at the Department of the Environment. Bearing in mind the Committee's criticisms of the Ofwat approach to capital maintenance, where I do not altogether accept the Committee's criticisms and would hope to demonstrate in the course of this hearing that we do not neglect it intellectually, there is a very interesting dilemma there. If I may take as an example the Committee's worry which says that Ofwat takes its approach to capital maintenance as steadily walking backwards with the danger of walking backwards off a cliff somewhere behind us, that there could be a point at which there is a big step change in the serviceability of our infrastructure. If that were the case your criticism would be absolutely valid. We entirely accept that there needs to be a forward looking approach but a forward looking approach that builds on the past. The precautionary principle does not in this case mean creating a great defensive margin which would be appropriate if we were talking about the petro-chemical industry for example, because of the catastrophic consequences of something going wrong there. There is less catastrophe, if we took your example of leakage, and I in no way minimise the extreme discomfort that is caused to anybody who has their home invaded by waste water, but it is a different order of magnitude from an environmental catastrophe as may occur in some other sectors.

  10. Just taking forward the whole principle of a precautionary principle, presumably if you have constantly leaking sewers which are perhaps not easily measured, with water getting into the groundwater, that presumably would be a pollution incident, not of the severity of a major oil disaster but nonetheless something which should be perhaps taken into account when assessing future programmes in respect of the precautionary principles. Would you agree with that?
  (Mr Fletcher) Most of the concern tends to be around drinking water where we have water under pressure. Where we are talking about sewage getting into the wrong places, it is often about the capacity and then we get into issues about storm water drains serving dual purposes.

  11. Could you do a note on that and the detail of that? [2] It is not just about the capacity and the sewage overflows, it is also about the constant drip, drip, drip leakage into the groundwater.
  (Mr Fletcher) I do not think there is evidence that sewage in itself is causing serious environmental damage.
  (Dr Emery) I am not aware of any evidence from the Environment Agency that they have identified this as a potential problem, although quite a few of the sewerage renovation contractors and interest groups point it out and there is a paucity of data on the degree of leakage from sewers or infiltration or exfiltration from sewers. Generally speaking the groundwater tends to go into sewers.

  12. Which brings me back to the point about the precautionary principle, that if there is no data, perhaps that is one of the things which needs to be addressed. I would welcome some ongoing clarification on that. In terms of what Ofwat has already done I should be interested to know to what extent you have already taken up the Government's greening government initiative, to have some idea of how you already plan for environmental impacts of your operations in dealing with the precautionary principle.
  (Mr Fletcher) In terms of the greening government initiative we do look to do all the right things as a very small government department. If anyone wants to ask me I shall happily pick up our recycling of waste paper, our endeavours to save energy and so on, our encouragement of cycling. On where we have the impact, there it is a question of working with my quality colleagues. It is very much an issue of working with and sometimes arguing with our colleagues in the Environment Agency and in the Drinking Water Inspectorate about the appropriate levels of investment, quality standards to go for. In the end of course it is for the Drinking Water Inspector to say what the quality standard is and it is not for me to argue with him. It is for me to ensure that he is aware fully, as the Government need to be aware, of the costs which follow from it.

  13. Is the Water Bill itself going to make your job easier or more difficult? What are the good things about it and what will you be busily drafting amendments to off the record to try to get changed?
  (Mr Fletcher) I am already on record in responding to the Environment Sub-committee on the Bill. The difficulty at the moment is that the Bill is only partial, as the Government would accept. In particular it has a big hole labelled "competition" and another big hole labelled "economic charges". Both those holes need to be filled, I have suggested to the Government, before we can really see an integrated Bill, for example which enables us to take a rounded view of the abstraction regime proposed in the Bill. I am not trying to demonise the abstraction regime but it is basically at the moment a command and control type of operation. If one is introducing the concepts of economic charges and of the potential for competition, then that could affect the long drafted, long considered, long consulted on abstraction regime. Depending on when the Water Bill arrives, there are some very interesting issues there to be worked through. Of other issues which concern me, I am welcoming the establishment of a Consumer Council for Water, even though I believe that the present arrangement which is under the Ofwat umbrella does deliver a good service to customers through my colleagues on the customer service committees. I mentioned the Water Advisory Panel and will probably go on mentioning it until someone actually asks me a question about it.

  14. I am just about to. Do you see it as building on the existing Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC)? Do you see it as being a critical friend of yourself? How would you like it to be set up?
  (Mr Fletcher) I should like the critical friend. One of the issues in the job is that it can be a lonely sort of job and that is not to ask anyone to start crying for me. I have my colleagues in Ofwat, I am able with them to kick ideas around, entirely informally, to go completely off the wall and come up with crazy things and then work them through and come up hopefully, publicly, with something more sensible. It is very difficult for a regulator to have that sort of conversation with almost anybody else unless they are working within the tent. The Regulatory Policy Committee, a formalisation of Ian Byatt's former business advisers, is really that. It is bringing in people who are not conditioned by the Ofwat culture, who have wide experience in other sectors, to bear on the water sector, to tell us where we can learn insights from elsewhere. If a Water Advisory Panel were that, fine, I would really welcome that. However, the corollary of that would be if you still have a single regulator who has the fundamental statutory responsibility and accountability to Parliament and—I hope I am not being egotistical—I think I ought to chair it. It ought to be within the umbrella of Ofwat and then of course you can ensure that you have someone who has good customer skills, someone who has good environmental skills, someone who has all the business and City knowledge. That would not cut across the need for me to take very close account of the formal links I have: English Nature, the Environment Agency, the water companies themselves, the customer services committees. If it is somebody up there, the Water Advisory Panel, being a sort of second guesser regulator, that would not help me very much and it could confuse, which would be more worrying, including the point back to regulatory risk, it could confuse those who invest: just who are these people, how big is their influence, is it going to lead to a distortion of the regulatory environment which needs to be clear and transparent and reasonably predictable?

  15. Your worst scenario would be to have something which was almost set up in opposition to the way you see yourself.
  (Mr Fletcher) There could be a danger. I would hope very much it would not work out like that but at the moment the Government have not said at all clearly how their Water Advisory Panel is going to work. So I have exposed for you the sort of twin tracks: the one I should very much like to see and would absolutely welcome and one which would leave me with concerns.


  16. We have the RPC at the moment, which you quite like.
  (Mr Fletcher) Yes, I find it helpful. It brings me insights enabling me to toss around ideas on, for example, competition in water, which has only developed to a fairly limited extent so far and where there are big issues about how fast and how far it can develop. I can kick those ideas around entirely informally and it does not create any waves.

  17. Why are you worried about waves?
  (Mr Fletcher) It is the unpredictability of regulation and the need to set as clear and transparent an approach as possible, which is why everything I say has to be said in a context where it is likely to be reported. It is not easy to have off-the-record conversations as an economic regulator.

  18. This is the problem. Everything you say is gone over with a microscope by the Financial Times or whoever and therefore you simply have to wait and this is your problem.
  (Mr Fletcher) That is right.

  19. There is a danger in that, is there not, that it all becomes rather incestuous and people go native and you do not get real critical advice.
  (Mr Fletcher) Always. This is not a criticism of the stakeholders but all of them have their stake, their interest, and they are putting forward a particular point of view. I am not saying it is dishonest or that it is unbalanced. I am saying everybody is coming with a particular line to take and that is why the few you can talk to off the record, genuinely because you are under common conditions of confidentiality, within Ofwat, which is valuable, or, almost more valuable, outside so not conditioned by Ofwat culture which inevitably develops over time, and enables you to waive the Ofwat culture in an informal way.

1   See page 27. Back

2   See page 30. Back

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