Ben Earl - Water Efficiency Manager, Southern Water 

As stark warnings come from the Environment Agency over looming water shortages, educating customers about reducing consumption becomes ever more important. Jamie Hailstone interviews our fourth change maker, Southern Water’s water efficiency manager Ben Earl, who is ahead of the curve.

To some, water efficiency might be just another numbers game, but Southern Water’s Ben Earl is positively evangelical about its wider benefits.

Earl has been leading Southern Water’s water efficiency work for six years and has blazed a trail that has empowered customers, reduced consumption and built key partnerships with other stakeholders.

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Southern Water’s efficiency programme started with its universal metering programme, which has been rolled out across the region and covers 88 per cent of its customers. Earl says about 60 per cent of customers have been found to be better off after having a meter installed. Forty per cent were worse off.

That 40 per cent formed the basis of the current water efficiency programme. “It’s about trying to get to those customers, inspiring them to act and giving them practical support to help them in their own homes.” Earl is proud of Southern’s home visit programme and says the company is on target to visit 28,000 homes during AMP6, which runs until 2020.

“The visits last about an hour. We take them through why water is important. Then we prescribe the products and fit them for free. And we will check what is happening with the meters to see if we have cut consumption.”

Also, he points to the strategic partnerships that Southern Water has developed with Brighton and Hove City Council and Eastleigh Borough Council, which have helped push its water efficiency work into new areas. Earl says Brighton and Hove has contacted residents who live in council stock and offered visits from Southern Water’s efficiency team.

“At the same time, we can offer an affordability visit, where we check the household finances and see if they are suitable to go on to a social tariff. The work is also being independently monitored by the University of Sussex to see what impact this all has on the family’s life.”

And he says Southern Water is also working with Eastleigh Borough Council to develop a programme that will reward customers for using less water.

Another example of Southern Water’s incentive-based approach was the recent year-long River Itchen Challenge, which offered money for community projects if local residents reduced their water usage. Earl says the area in rural Hampshire was chosen because water usage there is 180 litres per person, per day – significantly higher than the regional average of 130 litres.

The scheme improved water efficiency by 6.7 per cent after nine months, and 8 per cent overall. Although the reduction in water usage was too low to trigger the first 10 per cent threshold for the firm to donate £15,000 to community projects, Earl says it still represents a great deal of “learning for both the local community and Southern Water”.

And Southern Water negotiated with the local council to provide swimming lessons for children in the local primary school for 12 months to reflect the effort put in by the community. “We have signed up to very ambitious leakage reduction targets – 15 per cent in the next AMP and 50 per cent in the long term. It’s now time to say ‘will you work with us?’.”

Earl adds the water efficiency work already undertaken meant there was a smaller than expected uplift in water usage during last year’s “Beast from the East” winter conditions and summer heatwave. “Customers have got used to the message that we live in a water-stressed region. But it’s important that we continue to get this message out on a regular basis, and not just do a big spike of activity, followed by nothing for a while.”

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Renewed pressure

In the current political climate, water companies are under renewed pressure from politicians to improve customer service and reduce waste. There is also talk about ministers setting a national household consumption target. Earl says Southern Water has pre-empted that with its Target 100 programme, but adds that it should not be wholly-owned by the water companies.

“We have a responsibility as a society to manage our water resources. We think government needs to get a number of levers pulled nationally to support us. One of those levers is labelling across all water-using products, so when you buy a product, you have an instant check of how efficient it is.

Metering has been the fundamental bedrock of our efficiency programmes. Multiple players are now supporting our call to roll out meters beyond the water-stressed South East. But metering is not the be-all and end-all. It’s the start of the journey, not the end. I think some water companies have not reached that mindset yet.”

Earl also sees big opportunities for water companies to work with local authorities and developers to encourage them to build more water efficient homes, by offering discounts or waiving infrastructure connection charges.

“It’s about how you get society to work with you on these projects. It’s very easy to just look through the prism of business customers, or how the business acts. You have to get alongside people, find out what’s making them tick and give them the resources to help themselves. We have to get customers to work with us to understand how important water is in their lives, without expecting them to become water efficiency geeks.”

After six years, Earl remains as enthusiastic about his work as ever. With efficiency likely to be high on the industry agenda for some time to come, his passion is good news for Southern Water, its customers and the sector as a whole.

“Every day is really exciting. Tere’s so much variation in what we are doing.”

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