Helen Wakeham speech at World Water Tech Innovation Summit

Helen Wakeham, the Environment Agency's Director of Water, delivers a speech at the Summit on learning from the past to deliver for the future

For society, a burst pipe flooding a street, a hosepipe ban, sewage on a beach, bring water in all its complexity into the public and political spheres. And it’s a build of lots of moments like these that hold the key to unlocking a brighter future for water infrastructure in England.

Public outcry fuelled by growing environmental awareness and a thirst for clean, reliable water has become a powerful catalyst for change. The issues of water quality and quantity are no longer a niche concern. It’s a mainstream demand heard loud and clear. The public share our desire to see clean and plentiful water. 

Shout out here to the eNGOs and campaigners who have wrestled water issues to the forefront of people’s minds and kept it there. It’s a transformational moment for water in England. 

But it’s not the first. In the 1800s as water closets and pipes replaced cess pits, our drinking water quality hit a low. Cholera epidemics in London killed thousands. There were lots of committees. But it wasn’t that that drove investment in our water management. It was the Great Stink of 1858 – closing the Houses of Parliament and demanding attention from our politicians. And the difference that made is visible out of the window of this hotel today. Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system and the Embankment that covers it is a rarely noticed but fundamental asset to London today.

But that’s not the end of the story, is it? Bazalgette’s interceptor sewers lost us most of the rivers of London, and dumped sewage into the tidal river downstream, only for it to reappear as the tide came in.  

And so began a cycle of innovation and investment, tackling an immediate problem and causing another that has characterised the last 150 years of water management – not just in the UK but everywhere. Bazalgette’s 318 million bricks - I mention them because they are in the primary school curriculum. In the 1950s the Thames was declared biologically dead. No fish, no insects, nothing. 

Fast forward to 1989. I was entering the world of water management, and water industry privatisation offered another landmark moment. A new way of raising investment for water infrastructure. New regulations and new regulators have, over the past 30 years, delivered an astonishing improvement in aspects of our water quality.  

For example, comparing Blackpool in 1990 with Blackpool today shows how innovation, investment and partnership have played a crucial part in cleaning up our rivers, seas, and estuaries. When I was a child the beach had sewage on it every day. We have planned, regulated, and invested to reduce organic pollution, ammonia, and nutrients with evidenced success. Here in London the Thames, biologically dead in living memory, now supports 125 species of fish, 400 types of invertebrates, seahorses and seals.

But the story, the pressures, the expectations have moved on. New challenges are arising, such as pollution from emergent chemicals and microplastics.  Pollution incidents still affect our waters – including at Blackpool only last summer. Our population is bigger than Bazalgette could have imagined, and climate change is making our water less resilient to stress. 

So one generation’s innovation is the next generation’s problem. And what we learn from investment we can also learn for regulation as well. I don’t expect you to look at the detail of this slide but this is a dashboard of water industry performance. While the water industry has been criticised, so has the regulator.

It’s interesting to note that that criticism is driven by monitoring. The monitoring of storm overflows in England, the Environment Agency mandated those. That’s an unprecedented level of transparency, so it lifts the lid on how our networks are performing.

No other country has that level of monitoring and that’s driven interest from the public, as has the publication of the performance of the water industry. We monitor this all the time, we talk to the industry about it, we have a collaborative conversation about what’s going wrong. But when we publish this the public want to see it, politicians want to see it, investors want to see it.

Regulation is not just about boots on the ground, it’s how we tell a story about performance. And also relevant to this conference, we are transforming the way we regulate the industry.

We announced yesterday that we will be stepping up our inspection rate fourfold next year of the water industry so we’ll have more boots on the ground. We’ll also be using the data we get from the industry, rainfall data, environmental data, to produce all kinds of visuals which actually show where there’s a mismatch between what we expect and what we see. That will drive not just our regulatory efforts but will also help the industry to understand where it needs to put effort into to investment and into maintenance.

It’s got to be collaborative work. Everybody wants to see a robust regulator. The Environment Agency is a robust regulator. But actually it’s the collaborative work that we do together to make sure that the investment and maintenance are in the right place that will make the difference.

We need to be realistic. The water industry is not wholly responsible for the state of water in England or anywhere else. The storm overflows in the headlines contribute about 7% of the problem of clean and plentiful water in England. That’s a small part of the water industry more broadly. Actually agriculture is a bigger component, roads and transport are a bigger component and we don’t hear people talking about them.

So, a lot to do. For the next five years in England there will be unprecedented investment again in the water industry. That will need to look ahead to deliver sustainable solutions. There’s a polarised debate between pouring concrete and nature based solutions. We need to do everything everywhere, it’s not a choice.

We need solutions that are tailored to places, we need innovation and investment. And we need to make sure that the assets that we build are properly maintained. And that needs the funding and attention it deserves. But most of all I think we need that eye to the long term so that the solutions that we put in place are fit for the future.

We have absolutely transformed our water management in England before. A window would be great for this moment. Walking along the Embankment here you see something revolutionary and transformational in terms of how we have created assets to protect our water environment. And that means we have seen that we can do it.

If we could do it 150 years ago, we can do it again. Thank you.

Environment Agency
Helen Wakeham, Director of Water, Environment Agency