United Utilities - Behind the scenes in developing a fast-track business plan



As part of PR19, Ofwat asked the three fast track companies to share their behind the scenes insight into the development of their business plans for 2020-25. 

James Bullock, Director of Strategy and Regulation at United Utilities gives his insight below.


I always smile when people say to me “you must be pleased your business planning process is now over”. Because one thing PR19 has reinforced with me is that creating a successful business plan is a continuous process, one built on ongoing engagement with customers and a continual stream of insights to consider.

Throughout AMP6, United Utilities took the decision to build a much deeper understanding of the customer base we serve, and our level of customer participation increased five-fold compared to PR14. We took the time to understand more about customer motives and behaviour, to utilise this to deliver services more effectively and efficiently. Over the last five years, we have communicated and listened to customers in new ways and through new channels giving us unprecedented breadth and depth of insight. In many ways this has changed how we communicate and deliver services and is now embedded in how we run the business. We now routinely investigate ideas with customers – this sometimes leads to co-created solutions and occasionally means we have had to return to the drawing board and start again.

The advantage of having an embedded engagement programme is that when we looked to produce the PR19 business plan, we already had many of the mechanisms in place to help us, such as our 7,700 member online customer research panel, “WaterTalk”. Beyond ongoing research, our broader public engagement campaign reached over 1.7 million people, with the number of engagements on social media surpassing 46,000. All of this allowed us to canvass views on the initial priorities for the plan and the value placed on delivering the outcomes we proposed.

We understood early on what customers valued most – improved services, more resilience, a commitment to protect the environment and a desire to deliver “more for less” with lower bills. It enabled us to work on where we could best identify efficiencies, and where our culture of constant innovation could help drive greater value. We were also very aware of our responsibility, in a region with some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country, to provide support for those struggling to make ends meet. This resulted in a plan that offered a 10.5% price cut, pledging £71m of company support towards vulnerable customers and a target of helping lift 250,000 customers out of water poverty whilst still guaranteeing a level of responsible financing and a fair balance of returns between customers and shareholders.

So what would I say if I was asked what makes a successful business plan? A lot of long days and hard work. A great team of committed people. A clear view of our objectives and responsibilities. But most importantly, I’d say that a business plan can only be credible if it is grounded in customer priorities and the company is willing to go that extra mile to find ways to deliver better service to customers at a lower cost. It is one of the reasons I am proud to work for United Utilities and proud of the plan we have proposed.