West Yorkshire Water Cooperative (2030)

This piece was written for the Same Skies Collective, and appears in ‘What Kind Of Region Do We Want To Live In’ – an excellent publication which is free to download.

Hello and welcome to the Esholt Centre for Water and Ecology. I’m Andy and I’m going to be your guide today, and before we explore the visitor centre, lab and agricultural demonstrations, I’m going to tell you a bit about the background to our launch nine years ago.

As you know, a lot changed in the early 2020s! Our story begins with the bold and rapid phase of deprivatisation [1] which removed the English water companies from private hands – mostly international hedge funds and insurance companies. What was unique about that period, was that de-privatisation mostly became a process of regionalisation not nationalisation, and the water companies were handed over to regional multi-stakeholder cooperatives, not civil servants in Whitehall.

West Yorkshire Water Cooperative is one of five operational divisions of the Humber River Basin Water Authority, and our remit is to supply water at a fair price to all citizens and businesses in the region of West Yorkshire and to distribute financial surpluses towards ecological restoration of our watersheds, research and youth education. Our two main water catchments are the Aire & Calder – rising near Todmorden – and Wharfe & Ouse – which rises in Beckermonds in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Both rivers then drain into the Humber. Catchments are the areas of land where water all drains into the same river or rivers, and they make sense to manage as a whole landscape. It’s not an exact match to the county boundary, but much easier to say than the Aire Calder Wharfe Ouse Water Cooperative! 

As a multi-stakeholder cooperative we have six key groupings that contribute in different ways to its success.

  • Firstly you, all citizens of West Yorkshire are stakeholders and represented by the Citizen Council. Council members do a three year term and get training in how to hold us to account, and they do!
  • Secondly each Local Authority is a stakeholder and co-owners with the workers. They use their collective power to raise Government backed Municipal Bonds for long term investment in the infrastructure. 
  • Thirdly, Schools and Colleges have a special group that educates and involves young people, engaging them in citizen science and understanding the water and ecology of the area. We’ll’ see some of the data sensors and experiments that are being deployed by school kids later today.
  • Fourthly wildlife groups, universities, farmers and land managers work via the two Catchment Partnerships to enhance soil, hydrology and biodiversity through regenerative agriculture practices and landscape design using an approach called permaculture.
  • Businesses have a panel that works to identify problems and opportunities, minimise water needs, reduce pollution and ensure all new business and housing infrastructure uses water wisely.
  • Finally, workers are fully represented, within a fairly flat organisational structure. We do have managers, but as part of the national network of water cooperatives we are developing processes and technologies that enable small teams to get on with the job.

Each stakeholder group adds value in different ways, but no-one makes a profit. We get good wages, but we’ve also been able to direct over sixty million pounds in the first nine years towards ecological restoration and soil enhancement, and that’s in the midst of significant challenges re-orientating the old Yorkshire Water company into a multi-stakeholder cooperative. We’ll’ probably double that in the next three years. [2]

As you remember there were calls to make water free or much cheaper, but it was argued that if it was free, more would be wasted. The key thing is that we’ve brought in much more support for low-income families, and this is very closely monitored by the Citizen Council. By maintaining charges roughly where they were for most people, we have real power to design and implement long term projects that enhance our natural environment, and engage citizens, especially young people in meaningful ways.

As you will see shortly, the regenerative agriculture approaches, when combined with natural flood management methods, are giving excellent results, so we expect a significant improvement in water quality, reduced costs, enhanced biodiversity and better returns for farmers and tourism within the next decade. Plus we’re much better prepared for climate change than before.

The schools programme gets kids out into nature, helps with the science and is nurturing a generation of kids that really appreciate just how special and  important our environment is. We’ll speak to a few of them in the lab later.

Ok, I think I’ll stop there for questions, and then lets go and see the centre. Thanks.

[1  ]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelda_Group

Kelda Group, originally known as Yorkshire Water plc, was one of the regional water companies privatised in 1989.] It changed to its current name in 1999. In 2000 Kelda purchased the United States water supply business Aquarion and subsequently announced the conditional sale of this asset in February 2006. It was taken private in a £3.04 billion deal in February 2008 by Saltaire Water, a consortium of investment companies including Citigroup and HSBC. Until the 1980s, universal provision of drinking water and sewerage services in England and Wales was considered a public health service. The water industry was privatised in 1989, according to the Conservative government’s program.

[2] In the decade up to 2019, the nine main English water companies have made £18.8bn of post-tax profits in aggregate, according to a study by Greenwich University. Of this, £18.1bn has been paid out as dividends. Consequently, almost all capital expenditure has been financed by adding to the companies’ debt piles. Collectively these now stand at a towering £42bn.