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Getting Sustainable Solutions for Water and Nature to take flight

The Sustainable Solutions for Water and Nature (SSWAN) partnership has launched its water reform model. The focus now must be getting wider buy-in. Karma Loveday, editor of The Water Report, explains more

March 2024

On 29 February, the publication I edit had the pleasure of co-hosting a summit on the future of the water sector, at which a proposal for a new model of water regulation was launched.

This was the work of the Sustainable Solutions for Water and Nature (SSWAN) partnership – a collaboration including Green Alliance, The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, The Rivers Trust, CIWEM, Sustainability First and Wessex Water. The fundamental idea is to replace today’s fragmented regulatory model with a catchment-wide approach which works across sectors and prioritises efficient nature-based and low carbon solutions.

The thinking is that by aligning the regulatory functions that govern water, farming, planning and development control within a common overall framework, better environmental, social and economic outcomes would be achieved, yielding multiple benefits. Details of the SSWAN proposals can be found here:

Problems to solutions

The idea is to be welcomed with open arms. Environmental campaigners have done an incredible job of exposing problems with the way water is managed and the alarming environmental consequences of that. But now we need to move beyond purely criticising the past and present, towards finding a better future. We need ideas for solutions that are practical, deliverable and financeable, and we need them urgently – not least because general election manifestos will soon lock in water policy choices for the next parliamentary term.

In all of those senses as well as in the detail of its proposals, SSWAN has made a valuable contribution. It has suggested a seemingly workable alternative future model that is backed by both respected champions of the environment and the water industry.

The key now is to build out from that core consensus, to secure the backing of wider society. To start the ball rolling at our summit, we sought feedback on the SSWAN model from a panel of regulators and experts. So how did it land?

Support – with reservations

There was a high level of agreement on the problems SSWAN is seeking to address – including that we are facing a plethora of complex and interrelated water challenges, and that we are at a pivotal point in time and need to seize the moment for coherent change. Everyone backed the need for collaboration – the problems are too big, too messy and in some cases too dirty for any one party to tackle alone.

There was agreement too on some of the principal tenets of the SSWAN thinking. Silos are inefficient and need to be broken down, particularly given the prospect of soaring investment requirements. There was also considerable alignment around the direction of travel towards a more outcome-based, catchment-grounded future.

But it wasn’t a slam dunk. Two principal challenges surfaced:

  1. The effectiveness of nature-based solutions (NBS) – the Environment Agency’s chief executive Philip Duffy took a cautious line on this. While declaring the Agency “big fans” of NBS, he said: “They do need to work though, and sometimes we have proposals from the water industry that don’t deliver sufficient reductions in phosphorus and nitrogen.” Moreover, he said, in our densely populated country NBS are “often not appropriate in certain locations”. He argued that where the Agency insists on asset solutions, “That’s not because we don’t like nature, it’s because we don’t think that [NBS] protects nature adequately”. This came in contrast to Ofwat, whose chief executive David Black said he was “disheartened” by the low volume of catchment and nature-based solutions in water company business plans for 2025-30, and to general enthusiasm from other participants for natural approaches.
  2. Lack of trust and a clamour for enforcement – the SSWAN report lands at a time when public trust in the water industry is severely diminished and policymakers have had their fingers burnt where they have extended trust in the past – for instance, regarding operator self monitoring. Far from gifting regulated companies more flexibility to deliver outcomes, there is popular demand for regulators to clamp down, scrutinise rigorously and enforcement robustly. Moreover, Black said there are limitations to outcomes-based approaches even though he fundamentally supports them, while Duffy said a catchment approach “is never going to be a good substitute for an effective regulator of the water industry”.

Progressive but palatable

Neither challenge is insurmountable. Evidence gaps can be plugged, differences narrowed and reassurance communicated – for instance, that SSWAN champions robust monitoring and penalties for non-compliance, not deregulation.

But they are not insignificant and demonstrate a need now to cast the net wide and get everyone relevant involved in working up a progressive but palatable model for future water regulation.

A report of the SSWAN launch and future of the water sector summit can be accessed here:

Karma Loveday is editor of The Water Report. Follow @TheWater_Report

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.