Water is the ultimate local product. For the vast majority of customers in our region, the water in their taps comes from a river, reservoir or aquifer less than 50 miles from their home. Our staff live and work in our region, as do the staff of many of our partners and contractors.
We aren’t just serving the community – we are a part of the community.
So our responsibility to give something back to that community has always been an obvious one. But how does a large company with huge day to day engineering challenges get down to the human level to make an emotional connection and make differences to real people’s lives?
Although we create a positive impact in many communities in our region, we wanted to explore how big an impact we could make if we chose to concentrate additional effort in a single location. The Fenland town of Wisbech became this location and a key focus for our community programme. With the booming biotech Cambridge hub to the south and the thriving tourist destinations of Norfolk to the east, Wisbech has been left behind in recent years when it comes to transport links and investment. On a national index of health, education, crime, income, employment and barriers to housing and services, Wisbech has four of the top eight most deprived areas in the top 10% nationally.
Critically we brought the expertise and enthusiasm of our Alliance partners into the project from the start – the construction and engineering companies Balfour Beatty, Barhale, Mott MacDonald Bentley, Skanska, Stantec and SWECO who help us build and maintain our sites and networks. This partnership co-funded the secondment of a member of our staff to be a Business Connector. As part of a Business in the Community programme we had the aim of creating a culture of collaboration in the town to help those not in employment, education or training.
Five years on this partnership’s involvement has grown and evolved to fit the needs of the local area. Our alliance partners have grown too and now many more are actively involved in the project; Aiimi, Atos, Capgemini, Clancy Docwra, Claret, Cognizant, CSC, Danaher & Walsh, Kier, Morrison Utility Services & Public Sewer Services. They are developing many new projects and we will share these with you in the future.
When we started in 2013 we knew that we couldn’t solve these problems single handed. So it was vital to be part of a multi sector approach, working alongside private, public and voluntary groups who know and understand the area.
There were early successes like working with The Ferry Project, a local charity, to upgrade and revitalise the Queen Mary Centre, a former school. We did this knowing that we could create a spark of change for the town and turn something that was struggling into a positive legacy for the community and for us. We knew that if we got it right it would become the thriving community centre that it is today. We envisaged it providing space for a regular Jobs Café and the annual Fenland Jobs Fair, helping to connect employers with real vacancies with thousands of local people. This is exactly what it is doing today, as we and many other companies promote our vacancies through these services.
This then led us and our partners to develop a successful relationship with the College of West Anglia. Working together to create and deliver two new sponsored courses in construction and engineering, all with guaranteed interviews at the end of them, although no guarantee of a placement. These courses have actually led to approximately 75% of the students going on to take on apprenticeships with us and our partners (e.g. Barhale and Clancy Group). These opportunities are transforming their lives, giving them real career opportunities and purpose. We have continued to develop our work with the education sector, as we now make positive interventions at earlier ages in local schools, particularly around STEM subjects. Our aim is to provide inspiration and support throughout school life so that students can reach their potential, whether through apprenticeships or at university.
Throughout our engagement with the town it became clear that one of the real barriers to for the local community was the poor transport links. Wisbech is the largest town in England not on the rail network. With the knowledge, expertise and passion of our partnership we knew that this was an area that we could make a positive difference. Getting behind the campaign to reconnect the rail we were not only able to provide innovative ideas to reduce the cost of the scheme but also to zoom out and see the wider benefits that could be provided if the rail link was direct to Cambridge.
This inspired everyone to think even bigger and together we went on to help create a new and shared vision for Wisbech including proposals for a garden town with over 10,000 new homes and with blue and green infrastructure at its heart. All of which could lead to improved health, education, skills training and employment opportunities for local people. There would be hurdles on the way, not least ensuring that any development provided climate resilience rather than a flood risk. Here again we challenged the existing concepts and brought Royal Haskoning DHV on board to examine what could be possible if water modelling and management was put at the heart of the design. With a £50,000 grant from the Dutch Government we are testing a new state of the art Dutch flood modelling tool and at this point in time all parties are working hard to see how this concept can become reality.
So we wanted to see how much of a positive impact responsible businesses could make when working in a community with longevity in mind. We’ve learnt a huge amount from the people there, about the passion and commitment a community can muster to make a difference in their local area. Through our courses we’ve learnt that genuine talent can be found in all walks of life. And from our partners we’ve learnt what collaboration with a common purpose can achieve.
But for me, the most important lesson has been that we don’t have to say yes to the accepted. We can create new models of working, we can create a new paradigm and by working together we can drive up aspirations to levels that know no bounds. This is a new model for us and BITC and I hope it will inspire many others businesses in communities across the UK.
I have even taken this new collaborative approach to our relationship with WaterAid and the Nepal Water Corporation – you can see more of that here.
When we became Responsible Business of the Year in 2017, we committed to sharing our perspective on models for collaborative working. So during Responsible Business Week we are releasing three guides to shine a light on how we have worked with others to develop these models and how they are working.
Today we are happy to share our perspective to Community Regeneration in Wisbech. We don’t expect anyone to take these models and directly “plug & play” in their local area but we do hope to inspire you with what we see as the art of the possible. We hope that in each guide there is something that can help you create new and successful collaborations in a place that is important to you and your business. As a responsible business network we can demonstrate our leadership by taking up this challenge to make the UK happier, healthier and wealthier place by place.