It’s rare to see national TV programmes about the UK water industry. Opportunities are normally few and far between for me to discuss my research in water companies with family, friends and colleagues. It was a delight then to see Severn Trent Water on BBC’s The Choir: Sing While You Work, presented by Gareth Malone.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was footage of ‘listening sticks’ being used for leak detection. Hearing one leakage technician say, ‘sometimes it can take days, it can take weeks’ to find and address leaks reminded me of my exchange with Regina Finn on Radio 4 earlier this year, about slow uptake of leakage-related innovations. Water company staff and independent people have of course told me listening sticks still have a place, but I wonder how many people watching raised an eyebrow at this archaic-looking practice? Couldn’t something more advanced have been shown for this high profile outing?

Photo: Listening sticks on national TV! Source: BBC’s The Choir

I was happy to see the show, albeit indirectly, indicate the laborious and anti-social working conditions of leakage technicians – working late at night for instance, when flow and quieter urban conditions make it easier to detect leaks.

Photo: STW leak detection work at night. Source: BBC’s The Choir

We were also shown Severn Trent’s new, rather plush and ‘so corporate’ HQ building in Coventry (Gareth Malone’s words). The last time I saw ‘fat cat’ related headlines was 2010, but I wonder if the viewing public – who may believe, if recent Ofwat customer research is anything to go by, these private companies are still public ‘water authorities’ – are ready to see cavernous, art gallery-esque atriums and executive levels that’d not look out of place in the City?

Photo: Severn Trent’s HQ. Source: BBC’s The Choir

Within HQ some issues were raised that I suspect are common to many large organisations (including my own). With over 5,000 employees, people talk and email each other but never meet face-to-face. People never visit senior colleagues’ work spaces. In particular though I noticed a striking contrast between the minimalist, relaxed executive level and the call centre level – crowded, stressed and with people ‘never on the same breaks’ and finding it hard to get to know other people in the company. (I wonder if Severn Trent will reflect on these issues having seen the programme aired?)

Photo: Visual contrast at HQ – Severn Trent’s call centre (top) and executive (bottom) levels. Source: BBC’s The Choir

It was great the presenter visited a sewage treatment works (Minworth, I think, somewhere I’ve been, on a guided tour of expansion construction work – it’s a 2 million population equivalent, if I recall correctly?). The footage suggested the site’s colossal scale, and there was mention of ‘the good stuff’, the ‘organics’ they want to save from the waste stream – but sadly no discussion of why they’d want to do this (i.e. renewable energy production). Having talked with various wastewater staff over the years I let out a knowing, if cringing chuckle at hearing one chap say, of horrible things he’d seen at work, ‘we had a man’s willy come through once, it was gross’.

Photo: A horror story. Source: BBC’s The Choir

I was again thinking of innovation cases when the same engineer casually stated rags/screenings go to ‘landfill’. I’m aware there are things going on in this area. It was disappointing they weren’t mentioned (e.g. washing/compacting for safer transport and lower landfill tax; use for energy recovery).

Photo: Unashamedly just off to ‘landfill’, it seems! Source: BBC’s The Choir

I must say I was very impressed with the staff choir itself. For a group people who largely did not know each other beforehand, and many of whom had not sung in public previously, they were outstanding! The musical arrangements of the songs they performed were great too.

Photo: Severn Trent’s very impressive staff choir; contenders for a win? Source: BBC’s The Choir

I do hope Severn Trent keep some form of staff choir going in the long run. They’ve publicised the existing one but it’s just such a wonderful thing to have in a workplace. Their HQ also seems an ideal venue for concerts – will they start a series of musical events open to the public there? Perhaps mixed with some interaction on water topics? That would be great…

Duncan Thomas

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