A fresh water future? Mark Lloyd - The Rivers Trust

To kick off a series of thought leadership interviews with senior water sector leaders, Alastair Chisholm spoke to Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust (TRT) on the state of rivers, water companies, politics and regulation, and the future.

The state of our rivers

River health is hot news with a raft of mainstream media channels running campaigns on the issue, borne mainly of the scandal over sewage pollution and the decline of some nationally-beloved rivers due to intensive farming impacts. Yet until recently the narrative from government and bodies like the Environment Agency was one of recovering rivers and returning keystone species. Is that really the case?

“The narrative of rivers being cleaner than at any time since the industrial revolution just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and river health is very complex to measure”, says Lloyd.

“There are hundreds if not thousands of new chemicals we just don’t know the impact of. In some ways things are better (there are far fewer direct industrial effluent discharges) so urban rivers and estuaries like the Tyne, Mersey and the Thames (when the Tideway ‘super-sewer’ becomes operational) have improved following the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive. But, other rivers have declined and broadly it’s a very concerning picture.

“Some important chemicals like neonicotinoids we don’t monitor for, but we know they’re there. In rural areas the picture’s got progressively worse due to agricultural intensification.” And in urban areas some aspects have got worse, particularly diffuse pollution from hard surface runoff.

Fundamentally Lloyd says, it’s about data. “We need more data in greater resolution so we can understand exactly what’s going on.”

The state of the water sector

The water sector is enduring arguably its most acute bout of public unpopularity, at least in recent memory. From sewage to drought there’s been no shortage of ammunition launched in companies’ direction. Yet the water industry has to be front and centre of delivering solutions to the climate and nature crises and will need the public on-side to enable it to do this effectively.

Lloyd feels the advent of operator self-monitoring 10-12 years ago was when the rot set in. “It was the beginning of the decline of effective regulation, which was caused by budget cuts and a loss of political will to stand firm on environmental protection at a tough time for the economy.”

This, he says, resulted in two things: Firstly companies no longer felt the regulatory pressure to invest in infrastructure upgrades and maintenance in certain areas. They could sweat their assets.

Secondly, some companies recognised the scope to push the envelope on compliance to maximise financial performance, in some instances knowingly polluting to this end. “Once these behaviours by one or two companies have been found out, it’s very hard for the whole sector to recover its reputation” Lloyd warns.

We discuss how the industry, policymakers and regulators had become complacent: “Good water management is a nettle we haven’t grasped when we needed to. Decision-makers and water companies have kicked the can down the road and kept building housing and maintaining assets in a way we’ve known isn’t sustainable. Now we’re at that point of reckoning, we have to accept and face up to that.”

I ask how the sector begins to recover from such a nadir. “Transparency” Lloyd asserts. “And leadership rooted in honesty. If you want to be trusted, be honest and open.”

He describes a situation when working at a previous organisation they fought a legal case to make water companies subject to the Environmental Information Regulations. “It was a real struggle and it just shouldn’t have been. These are companies delivering an essential public good; they should be open-book.”

Honesty from politicians is the other area for improvement Lloyd says is essential. He says there’s been too much political posturing; bashing water companies when the responsibility for systems failure should be more widely shared.

He argues the business-as-usual model of barely-regulated intensive agriculture and development ignores the scale of change needed: Shouting at water companies grossly over-simplifies a complex and chaotic water governance landscape and deflects attention away from government’s policy failures to get to grips with pressing nature and climate challenges.

Regulating for outcomes and the long-term

An emerging picture is one of water companies responding to the Environment Act and the plans feeding into PR24 in a risk-averse, compliance-first way, which feels very concrete – and carbon – heavy.

I ask whether the e-NGO community which drove such an energetic campaign on sewage and overflows in the Act might regret how things have developed since, and whether there are lessons to be learned from such an overt emphasis on overnight improvement.

“Because the level of trust doesn’t exist for an outcome-based approach, it makes it harder to take a systemic approach and you get drawn into putting everything into one basket in terms of solutions, he laments.

“One of the reasons some cost-estimates for cleaning-up storm overflows were so high was because ministers were missing the range of interventions, and sources of funding, that should be brought to bear on the problem. Concrete-pouring and chemical-dosing may achieve results relatively reliably, but it misses the opportunity to deliver a wider range of outcomes.”

A vision of the future

So where are things pointing and what could be achieved with some recovered trust in the sector to unlock the art of the possible? Lloyd believes that with some of the change he’s pointed to so far there’s potential to unleash a huge financial war chest on environmental recovery if it can be harnessed, directed and amplified in the right way.

But coordination is critical to this ever happening and it’s a fundamental thing Lloyd feels is missing in how land and water are currently managed. TRT have advocated for an added layer of governance which would enable the strategic coordination of investment according to regional and local need.

He points again to the issue of trust and the need for the sector to focus back on people and communities-first. He says companies need to do some amazing things that are very visible to their communities if they are to be valued by their customers. Things that provide space for nature, for wellbeing, and which reduce flood risk. Alongside delivering those core water utility services.

“These are the things that people notice and will give companies a clearer licence to operate. That’s fairly existential at the moment and unless companies embrace it wholesale they’ll lose that licence. But if they do take that approach – and policy and regulation enables it – they can rebuild faith and trust”.

To read the full discussion between Alastair and Mark click here.

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