The utilities sector has a reputation for being disorganised and fragmented, which makes negotiating services deals frustrating. Specifier has some tips

This is one of the most frustrating tasks for the specifier. If there is one area where the consultants’ effort is disproportionate to the importance of the work, it is negotiating with the suppliers of water, electricity, telecoms and gas – otherwise known as the statutory undertakings.

The statutory undertakings industry is disorganised, fragmented and has a reputation for poor communications. Part of the problem is the huge number of suppliers, distributors and customer-facing companies. This was caused by the privatisation of the supply industries and the establishment of ombudsmen watchdogs, trade groupings and advisory groups to review, monitor and promote them.

In recent years there has been some consolidation of both providers and watchdogs but the level of service and accuracy still falls short of what the client should expect.

1. Know your suppliers

  • The electricity supply industry now has 14 companies supplying the country. The network is maintained and administered by the National Grid. Connections are undertaken by the 14 companies, which are known as distribution network operators. There are also three – soon to be four – independent network distribution operators who do not have their own network. The whole industry is monitored by Ofgem and Energywatch.
  • The gas supply industry has nine companies supplying the country. The distribution grid is owned and maintained by Transco and the connections are undertaken by Fulcrum Connections. The whole industry is monitored by Ofgem and Energywatch. Recently Transco sold off some of its low-pressure distribution networks to four other companies. Additionally, Xoserve has been created to act as the interface between Transco and Fulcrum.
  • The water industry now has 26 supply companies, 10 of which undertake sewage services as well, and each is responsible for their own supply network. The industry is monitored by Ofwat and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, and has a trade body called Water UK.
  • The telecoms industry is monitored by Ofcom. This includes telephones, the internet and television delivered by cable or satellite. The delivery network for terrestrial telecoms is controlled in the main by BT. There are also several major providers and numerous smaller ones, or companies which have a limited service providing the customer-facing services.

2. Be clear about what you want

Establish with the client and the other consultants the project’s requirements early in the programme. Make an early application to the appropriate body to establish the nature of any existing supply. This can be frustrating. Many organisations cannot tell you what is under the ground without looking or even undertaking an exploratory dig. Often companies seem unable to determine where areas of responsibility lie within the organisation, with the result that customers get shunted around a bewildering collection of departments. The industry has also embraced fully the doctrine of the call centre. In the case of statutory undertakings, where the issues are blurred to start with, these call centres can be a hindrance. Often nobody is able to take responsibility and nobody has the authority to resolve urgent issues, which can turn the co-ordination of visits and work on site into a Herculean task.

3. Monitor the process

Ensure you keep a clear record of all communications and ensure that they are verified and backed up: try to establish exactly who is working on your enquiry. If you cannot find this information, contact senior management directly and service may well follow. Warn the client ahead of time of any delays and if possible bring in contingencies. For large commercial connections the power of completion may be used to ensure the connection stays on programme. It may be necessary to hold several meetings to pull the parties together to ensure that the work is undertaken correctly and in accordance with the client’s programme.

4. Obtain guidance

This is not always easy. For example, the water regulation bylaws guidance that specifiers should be aware of are published by the industry but they cannot supply a copy of the regulations. These are available from TSO but unlike the Building Regulations you cannot download them – you have to buy a hard copy.


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