Final MOOC filming: Dale interviews Prof. Stephen Littlechild

Late Friday, well into the evening, we finally wrapped all our water and sanitation MOOC filming. This brought to a close a production effort that has spanned three years, since we began recording for our Part 1 MOOC back in 2013.

I completed my part of our filming a month ago when I interviewed former Ofwat Chief Executive, Regina Finn. Now it was time for Dale to record his final material. He did so in style, by interviewing renowned international regulatory innovator, Professor Stephen Littlechild:

Photo: Professor Stephen Littlechild interviewing for our water and sanitation MOOC by Professor Dale Whittington at the University of Manchester.

Photo: Professor Stephen Littlechild interviewing for our water and sanitation MOOC by Professor Dale Whittington at the University of Manchester.

This interview had taken quite some time to schedule. When Dale arrived from the States the night before, he’d partially lost his voice, but he was nevertheless determined to seize this rare and long sought after opportunity.

Stephen and Dale had an interesting link. They were both supervised by late mathematical genius and – among other distinctions – co-developer of data envelopment analysis (DEA) Abraham Charnes.  Stephen and Dale discussed their memories of Abe Charnes in the interview, and the influence his approach to tackling real-world problems had had on their later careers.

Some of the other subjects Dale and Stephen discussed in detail were:

  • Prof. Littlechild’s role in the invention of RPI-X price cap economic regulation of utilities;
  • Non-price related tools and instruments for regulation, beyond RPI-X;
  • Tariff rebalancing and tariff design issues;
  • The possibilities for ‘light touch’ economic regulation of utilities in the UK and elsewhere in the world;
  • The evolution of utility regulation models, approaches and institutions since the 1980s;
  • Issues around the ‘cult of the individual’ in UK regulators and private utility firms;
  • Consumer forums and customer engagement for better utility business planning;
  • Differences and similarities between regulation of public sector utilities in Scotland and of privatized utilities in England and Wales in the UK;
  • Possibilities and problems around applying RPI-X to developing country contexts;
  • Issues around re-nationalizations of certain privatized utilities around the world;
  • The feasibility of alternative models for water and sanitation service delivery in the face of sustainability and climate change pressures; and
  • Prof. Littlechild’s advice to MOOC learners interested in getting into the field of utility regulation.

Filming took over two hours and it was truly fascinating to watch two deep intellectual thinkers delve into challenging issues around regulation of essential utilities.

Prof. Littlechild also shared many personal recollections and behind-the-scenes details about his regulatory involvements over the years. Many of these I’d never heard or seen in print before – in spite of my having read much of the epic 1,300-page, two volume set of ‘official history’ books by David Parker on the UK privatizations.

I think the final edited interview will not only have value for our MOOC learners but also constitutes invaluable oral history. I can’t wait for people to be able to watch the interview, and I’ll look into whether I can make parts or all of it available here on Waterstink at some point in the near future.

Overall it’s been a tremendous effort to reach finally this stage. And I couldn’t think of a better way to cap off several years of work on these MOOCs! Now comes the intensive final work of getting everything ready to launch later this year. Watch for news here, as I’ll put up the exact launch date as soon as it’s confirmed…

Duncan Thomas

Interviewing Regina Finn for the water MOOC

Last week I interviewed former Chief Executive of Ofwat, Regina Finn. This was my last filming for our upcoming Part 2 ‘massive open online course’ (MOOC) on the Coursera platform, launching later this year. (Part 2 currently has the not-altogether-snappy full holding title of Water Supply and Sanitation Policies in Developing Countries: Developing Effective Interventions.)


Photo: Interviewing Regina Finn in London, May 2015. Source: Picture by the University of Manchester media team (and kudos for how quickly they turned a university meeting room into a fully-fledged film studio too!).

I asked Regina 20+ questions about her time from 2006 to 2013, leading the England and Wales economic regulator for the privatized water sector, including:

  • What got her interested in regulating utilities in the first place;
  • What her main challenges were when she became the first Chief Executive of Ofwat, the surprises, her most difficult decision, and what she enjoyed the most;
  • The background to the reforms she led at Ofwat to implement a new regulatory framework with more emphasis on water customers, and to strip out unnecessary bureaucracy in the regulatory process;
  • Ofwat’s possible role in helping water customers to understand betterthe regulatory process, including more technical details like RPI-X price cap economic regulation, and how it differs from rate-of-return regulation;
  • Ofwat’s CAPEX and OPEX modelling procedures and how they changed over time;
  • Water company challenges to price determinations over the years;
  • What it was like being a woman leader in a male-dominated water sector;
  • What other countries and sectors might learn from her and Ofwat’s experiences in regulatory capacity building; and
  • Regina’s tips for people who’d like to pursue a future career in water regulation.

You’ll have to wait and take the actual MOOC to find out the answers… but suffice to say I was very impressed with Regina’s frank, informative and thought-provoking responses.

Interviewing Regina followed on from my final studio filming which, aptly enough, was also about the UK water sector’s regulation experience.


Photo: My last in-studio shooting for the water MOOC, on the UK’s water regulation experience. Source: Picture by the University of Manchester media team.

This involved talking about three things:

  • Professor Stephen Littlechild’s original ideas around RPI-X price cap economic regulation and why they were perhaps impossible to implement in a ‘pure’ form in the England and Wales privatized water sector;
  • The reality of economic regulation following the England and Wales water privatization in 1989, and how Ofwat and its approach changed over time; and
  • The interplay between regulation and possibilities for technical and other innovation in the water sector to address future challenges, like a changing climate.

These were some of the most challenging water-related materials I’ve ever written. My colleague for the MOOC, Prof. Dale Whittington, helped a great deal. We must have bounced draft auto cues for some of these videos back and forth more than a dozen times! We also made sure to include a worked example of RPI-X price cap regulation, as we were unable to find one we could refer people to, online (we may have missed one, but didn’t even find a worked example at PURC’s excellent Regulation Body of Knowledge on Infrastructure Regulation resource site).

There is now one last shoot, not with me in front of the camera thankfully (!), and the MOOC recording is all done. I’ll say more about this shoot once it has actually happened, fingers crossed, as it’s rather exciting!

After that there’s a whole load of copyright clearance, formatting of visual aids, quality control of the video materials, and building of the actual course pages still to do… The finishing line of more than two years of work, on-and-off, for our two water MOOC parts now is at least in sight though… and it’s been quite an experience overall, there’s no doubt!

Duncan Thomas

‘Unprecedented’ flooding?

A few weeks back, on 29 February 2016, there was an interesting BBC TV programme on called, ‘Flooding: Are You as Safe as You Think?‘ It focused mainly on Wales and took objection to the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe the recent Boxing Day 2015 floods.

Presenter Tim Rogers has covered UK flood events for over 30 years. He reported on the 2015 Carlisle floods, and reported there a decade earlier after the flooding in 2005. Both times the floods were called ‘unprecedented’.

The 2005 floods were also called a ‘once in a lifetime event’ that would not be allowed to happen again. After these floods, £38 million of defences were built, but sadly did not prevent all the flooding that happened in 2015. Tim Rogers was shown in the programme, stood on top on some of the flood defences built in Carlisle, following the 2005 floods.

I highly recommend the full programme; do go and watch it while it’s still available (note: may not be accessible outside the UK). In a nutshell though it argues much recent UK flooding is – far from being ‘unprecedented’ – quite precedented if you look for flooding records in the right places.

On this, in the programme Tim Rogers met with Professor Mark Macklin from Aberystwyth University. Prof. Macklin said current (Welsh) flood maps underestimated flood risks. Authorities in Wales reportedly rely primarily on datasets from river level monitoring gauges that go back only 55 years. This omits evidence of past flooding, which Prof. Macklin has inferred through geological research that traces flood events back over a period of 3,000 years or more.

Tim Rogers also visited a local library and found a newspaper article from 1879 in the Aberystwyth Observer, describing ‘a storm of unprecedented severity‘ over Aberystwyth. He highlighted this historical use again of the word ‘unprecedented’ whilst also finding a consistent paper trail, from the available newspaper archives, of ‘major flooding between 1840 and 1957‘ in the area. The programme claimed this evidence was not used for flood risk mapping by the relevant Welsh authority, Natural Resources Wales.

Overall I don’t think the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ is that scientific by policymakers and commentators on UK flooding. It’s more a sensitive, emotional term to be alert to likely flooding impacts on people and property, in my view. But any sloppy use of the term could be replaced by a more scientific, evidence-based view of how ‘precedented’ UK flooding events actually are, I believe this programme argued. This would be by developing more accurate flood maps that combine at least:

  • River level monitoring gauge data;
  • Data from geological research; and
  • Newspaper reports of historical flooding.

I recall from my previous research that the Local Climate Impacts Profile (LCLIP) approach for organisations, such as local authorities, to assess their climate-related risks, can include newspaper data. But I’m not sure whether the Environment Agency currently uses such data – or geological evidence – in its flood risk mapping.

Happy to update this post if anyone from the EA could let me know…?

Duncan Thomas

Action research… of sorts – no Yorkshire Water supply!

Picture the scene. I’m stood, this morning, tired (as always) and trying not to blink in front of some very bright studio lights, speaking into a 4k camera, about some possible ‘bad news’ outcomes of the England and Wales water privatization. (This is for our upcoming MOOC at work.)

I’m mentioning the bad publicity UK water companies received in the 1990s, with accusations of excessive ‘fat cat’ executive salary levels, and how public and media furore was tied to certain incidents for specific water companies.

One example I gave was Yorkshire Water, and the 1995 drought. Yorkshire got a right bashing at the time over this, of course. But in my video recording this morning, I was trying to make the contrasting ‘good news’ point that at least Yorkshire did manage to improve its water resources situation afterwards, in part by integrating its water supply infrastructures, among other positive developments.

During other MOOC video recordings this week, I was also putting the 1989 England and Wales water privatization into context. I recalled my childhood experiences, pre-privatization, that water supply interruptions, discolourations, and ‘boil water’ were a very regular occurrence – and that it’s easy to overlook the fact that these don’t happen so much any more in the UK.

I guess I was asking for this… but the irony then was, as I got back to my office in the afternoon today I found a message from my significant other that we had no water supply at home… My S.O. is currently breastfeeding, and needs to drink water regularly, so this is definitely ‘bad news’, sorry Yorkshire!

Fast forward a few hours, and I’m on a live chat with Yorkshire (updated 21/04/16: screenshot removed). It’s great they have this feature, as the amount of talking I have to do in my job is making me less and less keen on talking in other contexts these days. It’s also a way of getting very clear, understandable and immediate feedback. Still, Yorkshire’s response was rather vague, sadly. It mentioned a tanker would be used to try to restore our water but that there was no specific timescale for this at the time.

Kindly, after I requested it, Yorkshire may supply bottled water for my S.O. though… I’ll take a picture of that and edit it in here; if it happens! (update 21/04/16; this did actually happen, but a pallet of bottle water was dropped off too far away for us to reach at the time; no matter)

So… is this a kind of action research (or payback?!?) for someone who does water-related research and teaching? Certainly feels like it. Thick and heavy irony today.

Lastly, I also can’t quite get over the coincidence… water filming in the morning; water incident in the afternoon. Come to think of it, coincidentally I was actually reading a BBC news article about coincidences, just the other day!

But it turns out that we are pattern-seeking beings and my seeing coincidences everywhere like this is probably perfectly normal

Update (20:17, 03/03/16): No bottled water turned up. Still no water supply. Family can’t cook, wash  hands or bodies or dishes, drink, do laundry – and we have the hot water and heating off, in case our boiler objects to the lack of water supply (as we had some problems with it very recently, so I don’t want to risk it). No predicted timescale for a fix either! Very poor show, Yorkshire Water… (updated 21/04/16: screenshot removed)

Update (20:27, 03/03/16): And I’m using this ‘action research’ opportunity to check out the compensation policies here. Seems to depend on whether it’s a ‘strategic main’ or not. If it is, it can be off for 48 HOURS without compensation! Otherwise it’s 12 hours… then we get a measly £20 plus £10 for every further 12 hours… And the ‘live chat’ representative doesn’t know if this one is a ‘strategic main’ or not… But at least it seems the compensation would be AUTOMATICALLY applied to my account… <Sigh>

Update (22:27, 03/03/16): Water came back on, with very low pressure around 22:00. Chalk it up to a reminder that water underpins so many daily activities… Also just as the water came back on, a ‘flood alert’ text arrived on my phone; go figure!

Update (21/04/16): Live chat screenshots removed. Comment added that a pallet of bottled water was supplied nearby, albeit we were unable to reach it at the time. Nice that Yorkshire did that for local residents!

Duncan Thomas

A ‘can’t be unseen’ video ad for toilet squatting

I’m busy writing auto cues for my MOOC session on the UK water privatization experience, and teaching at work is in full swing… so it’s a short post this month. I’ve some interesting updates on our recent Cowspiracy and Boxing Day floods posts, but I’ll have to wait and get those up next month…

For now, here’s a bit of ‘can’t be seen’ video advert on a product touting the benefits of toilet squatting. I saw it when someone posted it up on social media. Like me, you mightn’t be able to get it out of your mind afterwards; warning, viewer discretion advised:

Some usual disclaimers too… other techniques and products for squatting are available. Squatting may not be right for you. Consult a doctor before squatting etc. etc.

Interestingly I recall Roger and I discussing this topic years back.  (Yes this is the usual direction of the conversation when we meet up; lunches with us are not for the squeamish!) It’s a fascinating, but not necessarily unsurprising, comment on path dependency/lock-in for sanitation technology that many of us, in industrialised countries, use a dominant toilet design that isn’t optimal when it comes to this issue… and then there’s its additional sustainability problems around potable water use for flushing of water-sealed toilets and so on.

OK, that’s all for now… until next month!

Duncan Thomas

F for flooding?

Did the UK’s authorities fail its citizens over the December 2015 floods? Yes, sadly I think they did, and that’s what we’ll explore in our first Waterstink post of 2016.

Before tackling this though, two quick things. First, many people I know locally were affected by the Boxing Day 2015 flooding in particular. And as I write the danger of further flooding is again looming. I’m going to try to write as sensitively as possible, and I also don’t claim to have the final word here; there’s still a lot happening, and there are months of recovery ahead for many…

Second, I apologise for being so tardy! I’m very late wishing you a happy new year and I’m bringing you a different topic than originally planned. Based on our recent MOOC filming I was going to look at the surprisingly different information ‘treatment’ potential of some US water bills versus the UK ones I get from Yorkshire Water. Water regulation in the UK seems to be behind this, and there are interesting implications for sustainability; but that will have to wait.

To say events rather overtook my plans is an understatement. The UK’s ‘biblical proportions’ Boxing Day 2015 floods thankfully touched us only very lightly, but they did affect a great very many people, homes and businesses all around us. The extreme weather also affected communities to the East of us, such as Leeds and York, and hit Scotland (several times) and Northern Ireland (again, multiple times). I can’t recall so much of the country (an estimated 16,000 homes) being so simultaneously and significantly affected by flooding; it’s been truly shocking.

Photo: Fateful flood warning texts for our area that I received on Boxing Day 2015.

Photo: Some fateful flood warning texts for our area that I received on Boxing Day 2015.

River levels near us reached an extremely high level around Boxing Day 2015, as shown by the screenshot of data for our local monitoring station below:

Photo: Water levels in a nearby river were well above typical. Source:

Photo: Water levels in a nearby river reached well above their typical range. Source:

Official national data recently released have also confirmed my subjective, local impressions about how bad the weather conditions have been. The Met Office has described December 2015 as ‘an exceptional and record-breaking month‘, with:

  • A ‘provisional UK mean temperature‘ of 7.9C;
  • This being ‘4.1 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average‘;
  • Consequently making for ‘the warmest December in a series from 1910‘;
  • And even ‘1.0 °C warmer than the previous warmest December‘; and
  • Furthermore ‘also easily the warmest December in the Central England temperature (CET) series from 1659‘ (source: Met Office).

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) has recently released a briefing note stating that December 2015 was:

‘[A]n extraordinary month in both meteorological and hydrological terms, with some of the most widespread and severe flooding witnessed in the UK. … persistent unsettled weather (including the named storms ‘Desmond’, ‘Eva’ and ‘Frank’) …. [caused] widespread and repeated flooding, bringing significant disruption to transport, utilities and agriculture and flooding over 16,000 homes in England alone. … The spatial scale of sustained very high flows was remarkable; many large catchments in northern Britain recorded their highest ever peak flows and/or monthly mean flows.’

The trend detailed in this briefing is also clear in the Met Office’s graph for the UK in December 2015:

Photo: Met Office illustrated data for December 2015 rainfall. Source: Met Office.

Photo: Met Office illustrated data for December 2015 rainfall. Source: Met Office.

Bringing things back to our local level, it’s worth quickly mentioning what happened with us. Well, a few days before Christmas I was to head towards London to sing with a national choir I’m in; my other option was to host a visiting musician from California (whom I’d met during my March 2015 trip to talk about our water MOOC at the Coursera partners conference).

Fortunately I decided not to be away from home and on 24 December picked up our musician friend. We had a rather uneventful drive back through Rochdale, Littleborough, Walsden and Todmorden. A few days later I planned also to re-unite him with an old friend so we’d head on through Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd, towards Luddenden Foot. Before Boxing Day 2015 you’d be easily forgiven for never having heard of these places; as of now I imagine most people in the UK are aware of at least some of them, and have most likely seen this kind of terrible footage:

There were so many photographs of the devastation to homes and businesses that I don’t really want to my community’s misery by voyeuristically pasting them up here. Suffice to say I think just this one local shot below in essence captures how bad it was (this shot is by Craig Shaw Photography):

Photo: Flood water levels in Hebden Bridge, well above flood gate defences. Source: Craig

Photo: Flood water levels on the main road through Hebden Bridge reached well above the protection offered by flood gate defences. Source: Craig Shaw Photography.

You can hopefully see there just how high the flood water levels were, and how there was little hope of escaping them in parts of our community.

We were only briefly cut off on Boxing Day by the floods. A beck to the one side of our street breached its grit trap and culvert and started carving out pieces of nearby tarmac. Our street exit also blocked whilst helpful locals rushed out to clear blocked drains that threatened to leave our corner shop inundated. The Police arrived in a jeep and several more roads were closed off due to a damaged bridge, road subsidence, and road surface damage from landslides off nearby hills. The strangest experience though was the eerie blue sky the next day, and just how little visible evidence remained, on the surface at least, of the havoc wrought the day before:

Photo: The difference a day makes; left, Boxing Day and a beck breaching its culvert; right, the next day with eerie blue skies.

Photo: The difference a day makes; left, Boxing Day and a beck breaching its culvert, spilling out onto the main road; right, the next day, superficially all clear under an eerie blue sky.

The most frustrating thing, and again I’ve talked about this before, was the fragmentation of flooding responsibilities. I could see certain things unfolding and wanted to let the relevant authorities know; of course though I also didn’t want to divert resources from people who needed it far more than we did at the time! But it was Boxing Day so many services were unstaffed and unavailable, in spite of several emergency arrangements having been put in place.

The most heartening thing from these events, I must say, has been the local community response to the flooding. A Calder Valley Flood Support Facebook Group coordinated support for flooding victims and interaction with various authorities, and has been fundraising and many other positive and helpful things (even including organising people to guard against potential looters in the area… yes, I know, it’s vile to think of people preying on the vulnerable at times like this). Local volunteers were joined by others from far and wide, including from various faith groups, restoring ‘communities and faith in humanity‘. Others turned their energy to lift spirits with efforts such as this heartwarming video about the floods (with over 30,000 views at the time of writing):

Local volunteers and communities spared no efforts. But looking past this, local and national outcry did nevertheless surface about the UK’s flooding policies, planning and practices. Some made the link between local flooding incidence and apparent global inaction on climate change. Others looked back at an alleged history of inaction on land management on the moors above towns like Hebden Bridge that exacerbates flood risk (a point picked up again a few days ago on the BBC). Local councils reported pushing flood issues to the top of their agenda. Nationally there was questioning of whether’s the UK’s flood defences (and flood defence spending) were ‘fit for purpose’ and various flooding-related rows led to the resignation of the Chairman of the Environment Agency.

As Prime Minister David Cameron was heckled in York alongside estimates of £5bn cost from the floods (later revised down to around £1.3bn), and arguments raged over whether military spending or overseas aid should be ‘raided’ to prop up flood resilience budgets, George Monbiot launched into probably the most direct and eloquent criticism of the apparent overall mess of flood-related planning and policy in the UK. He penned a piece titled ‘This flood was not only forecast – it was publicly subsidised’, highlighting that:

  • Upstream land management policies, planning and practices, and landowner-influenced public drainage boards, ‘often prioritise the protection of farmland above the safety of towns and cities downstream‘;
  • [S]traightening, embanking and dredging rivers … [tends to] accelerate the flow of water, making flooding downstream more likely‘;
  • Warnings about the danger of ‘drainage and burning of the grouse moors upstream‘, funded by farm subsidies, and reducing the water holding capacity of ‘bogs and deep vegetation of the moors‘ had been ‘actively disregarded‘;
  • The British government wants to deregulate dredging and channel clearance, to allow farmers to shift water off their land more quickly‘;
  • We need ‘more trees in the hills, and should let our rivers meander once more‘ to reduce the flow into populated areas; and
  • We’ve had a lamentable overall UK flood ‘strategy’ that has played out in an ‘orgy of self-destruction that decades of government and European policy have encouraged: [with] grazing, mowing, burning, draining, canalisation and dredging‘.

So far there has been a trickle of policy response to the emphatic points Monbiot raised (such as efforts to provide ‘funds for farmers who fight flooding‘). But given the probable pattern for our changing UK climate is exactly the kind of warmer, wetter winters, with sharper rainfall events that we have just experienced, it seems clear that:

  • Communities expect more to be done to prevent flooding; and
  • ‘Flood resilience’ likely needs re-thought from the ground up.

Things failed so seriously, and in so many places within such a short period at the tail end of 2015, that the UK’s flood-related planning, policy and strategy cannot be left as the under-funded, fragmented and piecemeal, party political football it has been for so long. There must now be far more strategic attention to land use management and permitting, to evidence-based flood defences (natural and constructed), to maintenance of storm drainage infrastructure, to evidence-based deployment of appropriate watercourse modification (dredging, meandering), and to support for new designs, re-designs and retrofitting of homes, businesses and landscapes in flood prone areas of the UK.

Having been peripherally involved in some water policy and regulation issues in the UK in the past, I’m aware that this process will be slow and long. Continued pressure and momentum will be essential along the way.I hope we’re up to the challenge, and that flood-related impacts like the ones we’ve just seen can be successfully averted in future.

Duncan Thomas

Update: Just as I was due to post this piece up, another positive local effort happened; I was privileged to take part in Todmorden Choral Society’s repeat performance of Handel’s Messiah. Participants waived their usual fees and all proceeds will go to our local Calderdale Flood Relief Fund. Great stuff!

Photo: Very happy to be able to take part in this local fundraising effort!

Photo: Very happy to be able to take part in this local fundraising effort!

More green screen for our water MOOC

We’ve been back in the green screen studio for more filming this month. This is again in preparation for the launch of Part 2 of the Water Supply and Sanitation Policy in Developing Countries MOOC with Prof. Dale Whittington.


The current plan when we launch in late-Spring 2016 seems to be that both our earlier Part 1 and the new Part 2 will be available ‘on demand’. So if you’re interested in taking the MOOC for free and did not get a chance to join us in Part 1 you will be able to do that before doing Part 2. And if you did Part 1 and have been waiting for Part 2, the full set of Part 2 content will all be available at launch.

Our platform for the MOOC, Coursera, has indicated that having courses ‘on demand’, without set scheduled start dates and sequencing helps learners to take courses when they want to, and for learners to complete MOOCs flexibly at their own pace, fitting in with other demands on their time. Overall I think it’ll be good to move to this format.

This latest session of Part 2 filming looked at:

  • Water tariff issues, such as what tariffs attempt to achieve, different forms of tariffs, and issues of tariff reform;
  • Privatisation, including forms of private sector participation (or public-private partnerships) and some comparative experiences from China and India; and
  • Information treatments to try to change household behaviours towards water and sanitation services in beneficial ways.

Early next year I’ll be taping some more material on the privatisation and regulation experience of the UK over the past 25 years. I’m looking forward to that.

Lastly, we did some new intro videos for both Part 1 and Part 2. Hopefully these clearly state what each MOOC is about and what learners can expect if they take them. We hope they’ll help us to attract large numbers of learners again for these free courses when they launch next year!

Duncan Thomas