Governance and infrastructure in the water sector: towards successful and just outcomes

Shrimpton, Elisabeth Anne (2023). Governance and infrastructure in the water sector: towards successful and just outcomes. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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This thesis addresses the interface between transformational infrastructure interventions and the governance regime that surrounds them. It adopts the view that governance shapes these interventions and that their prospects of success are improved by understanding the governance sphere they will have to operate within. A transdisciplinary stance is adopted seeking to embed governance issues directly into engineering projects. The area of focus is transformational engineering projects in the UK water and wastewater sector, although it is anticipated the principles could apply to other utility services and other jurisdictions. The outcome of the study is a governance framework that supports project teams in navigating this interface to better understand the formal and informal rules that will shape the project and, vice versa, to identify areas where governance itself needs to adapt.

The academic grounding is taken from the synthesis of two, often disparate, bodies of work around Socio-Technical Systems (STS) and Socio-Ecological Systems (SES), looking at the wider systems affected by technical advances. It progresses these studies by suggesting an improved integration with the concept of justice, for ‘just’ as well as ‘successful’ interventions, and supports calls for ‘water justice’ as an advance on the current sustainability paradigm. Academic theory is tested and applied through direct engagement with a transformational engineering project (the Pipebots project), and interviews, a survey and a focus group with participants operating within the wider sector. The result is a framework that draws on, and integrates, both theory and practical experiences.

However, the conclusions go further. Through engagement with the sector in designing the framework, routes and barriers to innovation are exposed. The formal access routes into the water sector for innovators via R&D may be considerably less effective than informal routes through operational and engineering teams. An understanding of governance networks is also seen in inventive solutions seeking to re-work administrative, disciplinary and physical boundaries to achieve a breadth of multi-dimensional social and environmental objectives.

Overall, the full strength of the regulatory regime is exposed, often overwhelming market drivers or even wider environmental goals. Through the study, evidence is provided of a disjunct between aspirational policy and existing granular law on the ground. It finds the regulatory pull is more often towards narrow problem framing and away from projects with wider social and environmental benefits, the opposite of what is required to address the ‘wicked’ problems of the Anthropocene. This casts a new focus on the driving force and direction of utility regulation in the UK as it illuminates projects more likely to be selected, and business cases more likely to be accepted, than may otherwise be envisaged. It goes on to offer suggestions in terms of principles and regulatory re-framing to rectify the imbalance as well as routes to access the sector. It is submitted that this represents an original piece of work that will advance the study of transformational infrastructure interventions and their interface with governance. Work on this study has so far prompted two journal publications, and one publication pending, with more in progress. These documents reflect the author’s thinking and work on this project at various stages of the process. As fundamental parts of the research journey, these documents have been adapted and incorporated into this thesis.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: Creative Commons: Attribution 4.0
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Engineering & Physical Sciences
School or Department: School of Engineering, Department of Civil Engineering
Funders: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
Subjects: K Law > KD England and Wales
T Technology > TA Engineering (General). Civil engineering (General)


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