Not surprisingly, catching up with her proves a logistical challenge and we agree to speak over the phone. Yes, she’s busy, but there’s good busy and bad busy, she explains. “Bad busy is busy solving problems; I’m not bad busy at the moment. Good busy is lying awake at night thinking about how we’re going to make the best of this opportunity. And at the moment, thinking about our Fit for Future transformation programme.”
Fit for Future is the next big challenge in her in-tray, a devolution of decision-making to more frontline teams, which she and chief executive Richard Flint are driving. “The idea is that our people will feel engaged, respected, listened to, and have more control over how they deliver our services to customers. It’s an attitude really, that head office doesn’t have all the answers.”
The programme is a big strand of work to help deliver Yorkshire Water’s newly cast business plan, which centres on its role as a leading player in local communities – a self-styled anchor institution. Barber set out the five big service goals in October 2018: to offer a personal service to customers; keep bills down; increase transparency; reduce leaks by 40 per cent and boost conservation to ensure supply to an estimated one million more people in the region by 2045; and tackle key environment challenges, including avoiding pollution and sewer flooding. Even more ambitiously it wants to capture all sewage and convert it to energy.
Yorkshire Water is investing nearly £1 billion in tackling long-term sustainability issues and reducing its impact on the environment to allow current infrastructure to cope with the forecast rise in population. “For water, that would mean reducing leakage, reducing our own water use, encouraging industrial users to use less than potable-grade water – we’ve got pilots looking at that at the moment. That equates to the same costs, more people, reduced bills in the long term, while maintaining resilience.”
The five goals were framed after a huge public consultation exercise of 26,000 people, with each goal getting over 90 per cent approval, says Barber.
The strategy has been underpinned by the new social value committee, which, says Barber, “is making sure that we’re forever developing and delivering to our social contract, and holding us accountable”. It’s headed up by Julia Unwin, the former chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
One aspect of Barber’s social value work is the creation of a decision-making framework that will allow the organisation to value the wider impact of its work. “It allows us to quantify not only the cost of asset intervention but also the social impact of what we are planning to do, and the environmental impact, good and bad. That in turn, has allowed us to put forward a sustainable financing framework to support the raising of green bonds or social bonds.”
The framework is based on the Natural Capital Protocol, drafted by a group of businesses, NGOs and sustainability experts known as the Natural Capital Coalition – where Barber is now on the board. She is also a member (and was until recently the chair) of the global and cross-industry Accounting for Sustainability network, a Prince of Wales charity working to embed the management of environmental and social issues into strategy and business processes.