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New-Pin : Governance and the Public Interest in a post-Brexit World

As summer turns to autumn, the size of the task following the Brexit vote has come into sharp relief.  It will be some time before there is another ‘natural break’ to step back and take stock.

The new government has multiple and pressing issues to deal with.  Negotiating Brexit is clearly top of the agenda.  Continuing to align UK climate policy with the 2015 Paris agreement provides an opportunity to strengthen our position as a world leader in sustainable energy policy and environmental protection.  However, from a sustainability point of view, addressing the issue of why people voted as they did is also crucial.

Understanding why people felt left out and left behind, and then working out what to do about it, will be important if the Brexit negotiations and the new Government are going to meet raised public expectations.   Bridging the divide between communities, regions and nations – as well as between the young and the old – will be a long-term and difficult process.

Early indications suggest a certain pragmatism by the new Government. Concrete steps that start addressing social divisions will be needed.  Similarly, practical changes that can start to genuinely empower citizens and communities will be required.

June’s referendum delivered a strong signal on the need we all often feel for more ‘control’ in our lives.   This extends beyond the desire for a political voice in our communities but also to having a say in how corporations are run and behave.

Ensuring that the public voice can be properly heard in the day-to-day services that we all use and rely on would be a good place to start.

Energy and water services fall squarely into this camp.  Demonstrating that companies in these sectors are responsive to people’s needs and provide services that are affordable and sustainable – both for current and for future generations – is vital to build confidence that the companies and their regulators work in the public interest.  Similarly, ensuring that the long-term strategic investments that shape these services take the views of citizens and communities into account is key if trust in decision-makers is to be maintained.

Over a year ago Sustainability First set up the New Energy and Water Public Interest Network (New-Pin) precisely to tackle some of these questions. The Network brings together consumer, citizen, environmental and public interest groups with regulators, government representatives and companies. It seeks to ensure that a long-term public interest ‘voice’ is better heard in these services.  In our post-Brexit world, the New-Pin project is now more relevant than ever.

In October, for the fifth New-Pin project paper and workshop, we will be exploring how best to actively engage consumers, citizens and other stakeholders in the energy and water sectors, particularly on the hard questions and answers that need to inform difficult decisions and trade-offs for the long-term.   The papers will be posted on the Sustainability First website in the late autumn.

But stakeholder engagement is meaningless if it doesn't help shape decision-making in practice.  Shortly before she became prime minister, Theresa May said ‘I want to see changes in the way that big business is governed’ noting that many boards are drawn from the same ‘narrow social and professional circles’ as the executive team.  She went on to add ‘So if I'm prime minister, we're going to change that system - and we're going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well’.

In the year ahead, the New-Pin project will look at the public interest and board-level governance of the energy and water companies.  We will explore with company chairs and independent non-executive directors how they bring the views of consumers and citizens to the board table and how they reflect the long-term public interest in reaching their Board decisions.

This autumn, Sustainability First will begin by asking public interest groups what questions they think we should be putting to energy and water company board members.   If you’d also like to suggest some issues that you think we should explore in our planned board-level conversations, we’d be delighted to hear.

Sustainability First is pleased that our New-Pin project will offer some practical tools to public interest advocates, as well as to the water and energy companies and to their economic regulators, to help them tackle some of the big questions raised by the prime minister about how to ensure a country for everyone. Through New-Pin, Sustainability First will continue to identify new and practical ways to better engage all sections of society in our long-term economic future.

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