Water works

Northumbrian Water, named one of the best corporate workers in the community, may have the chance to provide affordable rural homes, writes Brian Nicholls.

UTILITIES are its business of course, but Northumbrian Water is also one of the UK’s leading community-minded companies with aspirations now to help develop affordable homes for the region.

In so doing, it aims to maintain its newly won reputation as one of the UK’s most community-minded companies.

Indeed, the North East plc, industrious also in Essex and Suffolk, is this year one of only eight firms in the country to win a distinction for the social impact it creates.

This is the icing on the cake, in managing director John Cuthbert’s words, coming just four days after Northumbrian Water broke into the top Platinum Class in the National Corporate Responsibility Index (a Top 100 list considered the prime authority on levels of corporate social responsibility).

Judges who benchmark companies from many sectors on behalf of Business in the Community (BITC) agreed that Northumbrian Water is the nation’s best performing multiutility, and one of 10 British sector leaders in quality of involvement with people, communities, the environment and the market place.

Indeed, the Durham-based plc’s position in the Platinum Class marks it out as one of only 34 top-performers in terms of corporate responsibility, ranking it alongside names including BT, HBOS, Ernst and Young, Sainsbury, John Lewis Partnership, KPMG, Lloyds TSB, PWC and Unilever.

Further, of those 34, Northumbrian Water is one of only eight gaining the Impact on Society Award from BITC, placing it in the rarest atmosphere with the likes of EDF Energy, Barclays and Pearson.

All this rather cocks a snook at the metropolitomaniacs who, when Northern Rock fell from grace, suggested the North East was hardly a suitable place from which to run a major plc.

A rebuke now is all the more justified given that Scottish and Newcastle (still at work in this region, albeit recently taken over) is also in the Platinum class, and sector leader in beverages.

Note, too, that Go-Ahead (keeping a registered office in the North East after two decades, despite relocating head office to London) has Gold rating – just one down from Platinum - for running Britain’s most environmentally friendly bus fleet while carrying 40 million more passengers.

And Ho Sanderson’s 11-year-old Eshott Hall Estate, reviving a dying community near Morpeth, was one of seven UK firms awarded for their rural action.

But it’s Northumbrian Water - above the likes of BBC, M&S andRolls Royce in assessment - that also gets the impressive BITC title of North East Responsible Business of the Year.

Managing director John Cuthbert says: “Our achievement reflects a lot of work, time and effort that our people have piled into the endeavours, particularly over the past two years or so.

“We try to play our part in all areas of our region, and our employees respond to voluntary opportunities.

They deserve lots of credit because, covering an area from the Scottish border to North Yorkshire, they must connect with the communities they work among for our endeavours to work properly.” And as he points out: “Utilities are among highest performers of all the sectors considered, making our awards all the more creditable.

We have been acclaimed now for something we have been doing for our communities for a long time.” BITC, an independent charity, was set up 26 years ago by firms out to prove how business impacts on society.

It now has more than 800 member businesses, and the Corporate Responsibility Index in which Northumbrian Water has excelled is in its sixth year.

“Recognition is very pleasing,” John Cuthbert says.

“But our main reason for involvement is to share ideas with - and gain ideas from - other companies of like mind, to find what works and what doesn’t.” John, in defending the North East as a base for plcs, cites other big groups run effectively from the region, and hopes some of the small, highly innovative companies, also coming up will join them on a plc pedestal before long.