Summary: A new level of accountability has been reached in the water and sewerage industry. There are new legal obligations to provide environmental information. These obligations are being used by organisations and met by the industry. Corporate transparency has transformed, some believe operations may change, but an assessment would be premature.

Since the Environmental Information Regulations were found by the Upper Tribunal to apply to water and sewerage Undertakers (in 2015) there have been huge operational changes within the industry. Corporate transparency has evolved dramatically as information previously withheld must on request, be provided. Environmental information requests have been used by many organisations which are impacted by water pollution, in order to gain information about the incidents. In addition many organisations hope that publicising the information gained from these requests could shame Undertakers into improving their operations and reduce pollution. Operations have not substantially changed due to requests, but both representatives from Undertakers and interested organisations agree that external pressure may be a driver of corporate change.

Beyond Compliance

How far has implementing the Environmental Information Regulations made water companies more transparent and to what extent could these changes lead to a potential reduction in water pollution by water and sewerage providers? This was the question I determined to resolve for my recently completed dissertation at Cambridge University. Specialising in the water sector and considering that these Regulations have recently been held to be applicable it was of great interest to ascertain what changes have occurred in the practices of water and sewerage Undertakers.

Until recently water and sewerage Undertakers have refused to answer requests for information which public authorities have been bound to divulge since the introduction of the Environmental Information Regulations. The Upper Tribunal’s determination of the Fish Legal case in 2015 (Fish Legal v Information Commissioner [2015] UKUT 0052 AAC) found that Undertakers were under the same obligations as other ‘public authorities’ to answer environmental information requests.

The objective of the work was to understand what changes have occurred in a response to these new responsibilities. Has the introduction of the Regulations increased public transparency of the Undertakers? In addition, could these changes lead to a change in practices which attempt to reduce water pollution and increase the sustainable delivery of the services provided?

30 industry elites comprising representatives from both Undertakers and organisations interested in reducing water pollution were interviewed.

The work found that almost all Undertakers have had to substantially change their operations in order to comply with their new obligations. New staff have been employed, procedures altered and extended, and training initiated. In addition, the type and quality of information provided has dramatically improved. Many organisations have filed environmental information requests. Since the Fish Legal case many Undertakers have had to process over 100 requests, with the amount growing as time passes. Interested organisations interviewed were satisfied with these new powers and that Undertakers were acting in compliance with their obligations.

Positions as to how the Regulations will impact executive decisions in the future were polarized. Some Undertakers thought that it would have no impact, but others were adamant that this would hugely impact the managerial decisions of the future.

The Regulations have brought transparency by design. They may in the future bring increased sustainable provision through a reduction in pollution but this result, although a possibility, has yet to be determined.

Conclusions

The increase of information provision by water and sewerage Undertakers is very significant. It has dramatically increased their corporate transparency.

The industry has completely transformed its operational process in relation to the provision of information. Other operational changes such as a reduction in pollution may occur in response to environmental information requests. It is however too early for such an assessment to be made.

These new implications do not need to be viewed negatively. There is also an opportunity to proactively embrace the new requirements as an avenue for continuous improvement and stronger bonds with the wider stakeholder community.