I’ve been living in Bristol for about 18 months now since taking the role as Chief Executive at Bristol Water. And the place is striking; it’s different to any place I’ve ever lived in. I wrote recently about the local restaurant industry in the city and how it’s biting back against the falling trade of the large chain restaurants. That trend is all over the city. Whilst getting to know my new home I took a walk down Gloucester Road, a High Street about half a mile outside the city centre. It’s one of the few remaining traditional high streets and some say it is the longest row of independent shops in the country. It serves the community in a way the superstores can’t. The shops owners know their customers, their families, their wants and needs. And the local people keep coming back, they want the personal service.
Small, local shops are thriving, all at the same time as big high streets and national chains have seen a decline. According to the British Independent Retailers Association, in the first part of 2017 over 700 independent shops opened across the country. At the same time chains stores had a net loss of over 650 shops.
We, at Bristol Water, are proud to be a small, local water company with over 170 years of history serving the West Country. So whilst everyone else is thinking bigger, we’re thinking smaller, more locally, more community focused. And that’s what is at the heart of our plans for AMP7.
Local is the future, it’s everywhere; shops, restaurants, micro-breweries. And utilities should be pulling in the same direction. Bristol Water is.
There is a need for a new social contract between utilities and the communities they serve, one that puts them at the heart of the business. There is a lot in the media about ‘The Water Industry’ it is dominated by the big water and sewerage companies – what they’ve been up to. But that isn’t the whole industry. The small, local, ‘for the community companies’ like Bristol Water do things differently; simple finance structures, lower gearing, no offshoring, low dividends. We are based here in and around Bristol where our customers are. They are our families, friends and associates.
One of the great things the local, independent high streets do is whilst still being individual shops, run independently; they group together for the good of the community they serve. The last winners of the Great British High Street Awards, Blackburn High Street, put their success down to a collective mentality of shops and organisations working together to innovate, attract new investment and improve the town centre. We in the utility industry need to learn from this. For example when water companies look at water efficiency we ask ‘what can we do to bring down consumption?’ why is that ‘we’ restricted to the water company only. Why are we not working with the local council, local politicians, the local NHS, local Universities to do this as a collective? Working together with local partners for the good of our communities will bring about bigger changes, better results. That’s what we’re doing.
We believe we have a local responsibility that goes way beyond just delivering water. One example of this at Bristol Water is our recently launch business incubator, The Workshop. This is where we allow local, usually start-up businesses to work within our business with access to data, equipment, expertise and knowledge to help grow their business. It’s one way we help grow the local economy. It makes us better too.
Our recent research with Market Research Agency Accent, shows this is what our customers want. Only 4% of our customers would want us to be taken over by a bigger company and only 18% would want us to be nationalised. In fact, over the 170 years Bristol Water has been privately owned there have been several attempts to nationalise it, and the people have always said ‘no, leave it as it is’.
Our business plan shows that we are prepared to invest in the future, and support local communities, while keeping bills low and affordable to all.