A lot of water will flow under this bridge

The social responsibility of United Utilities is important for everyone.

For the UK's privatised water and electricity companies, security of supply, the quality of water and of waste treatment, nature conservation, the politics of pricing, profits and regulation - all these are critical to success.

So a privatised multi-utility calls for corporate social responsibility. United Utilities, formed by the regional electricity company Norweb's take-over by North West Water (NWW) is a FT-SE 100 company with a turnover of pounds 1.5bn. It is responsible for supplying water and electricity to millions of business and domestic customers in the North-west.

Public expectations are critical. Many people are unhappy with the idea of water being privately owned and supplied for profit, and public ill-will can be triggered not only by unwelcome news about a company's operations, but also by public relations disasters elsewhere. United Utilities is therefore planning to involve the community in an integrated approach to its social responsibilities.

North West Water (NWW)'s strategic studies have confirmed a widespread view that the Government's sale of the water industry was "a privatisation too far". Customers' areas of concern include: reliability of supply; management of drought; investment in infrastructure; clean beaches; water prices; and how the benefits of privatisation are shared between consumers and shareholders.

But many of those surveyed also saw a valuable opportunity. As the largest company in the region, NNW could champion local firms and vocational training. It could also benefit the environment by investing in research and education.

NWW's planning uses the model developed by the European Foundation for Quality Management. This includes "impact on society" (with an index weighting of 6 per cent) as one of nine areas of assessment.

In United Utilities' first annual report, the chief executive, Brian Staples, cited Tomorrow's Company, a report by a group of 25 major UK companies. How could sustainable success be achieved "in a world which is not only increasingly competitive, but also increasingly critical and vigilant of business standards"? The report concluded: "Only through deepened relationships with - and between - employees, customers, suppliers, investors and the community..."

Developments at United Utilities are likely to be followed with interest. Tomorrow's Company sets clear operational guidelines, and the latest privatised utility offers an ideal test-bed for its ideasn

The writer is professor of corporate responsibility at Manchester Business School.

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