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Network operators must still earn the right to operate within their communities

To coincide with the publication of our first ever Social Contract, Alison Sleightholm, WPD’s Resources and External Affairs Director, explains the vital role of network operators in driving social value.

‘Customers have relied upon Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) to keep the lights on for years, but companies like ours have a wider responsibility to become a force for good – acting as a responsible corporate citizen in all that we do.

This summer we became the first DNO to publish a Social Contract, reinforcing our commitment to deliver positive environmental and social change that offers fairness for all. The principles of the Social Contract are not new to us – many of the actions that we already carry out are focused on driving social value. However, at a time where there is increased scrutiny on utilities’ profits, corporate governance and sustainable licence to operate, we must build enduring relationships with communities, developing trust in the service we provide and the way we provide it. The Social Contract will now underpin all that we do in future, from increasing diversity in our workforce to the transparency of our financing and profits. This is reflected in our Social Contract framework which contains 36 new and continuing commitments in three main areas: ‘Employer of Choice’, ‘Empowered Communities’ and ‘Environmental Steward’.

Environmental stewardship

Recent climate change reports have intensified the drive to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible. To truly make a change and secure a future for our children, we must all play our part. But as a major influencer in the success of net zero, DNOs have a chance to lead the way and become role models. In response, WPD has signed up to United Nations’ Race to Zero Campaign and pledged to become a net zero business by 2028. This commitment not only ensures that we play our part in building a sustainable future for future generations but that we are focused on taking everyone with us along the way. This includes making the network more environmentally sustainable and resilient as electricity demand increases, with more low carbon technologies such as electric vehicle chargers and heat pumps being added to the network. We are working hard to co-operate with local authorities and community energy groups to make their net zero ambitions a reality. We are also looking at how we can support all customers, particularly the most vulnerable, to give them support and access to advice to make their own smarter, greener energy choices without barriers.

Empowering communities

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of tackling inequalities in communities, with many of the most vulnerable in society facing isolation and financial pressure. Community organisations and charities also faced challenges due to a drop in income and donations. However, the pandemic also profiled the strength of communities as we witnessed grassroots organisations rallying to offer assistance to those in need. As a DNO, we are part of the infrastructure of society. As a result of our close relationship with our customers and communities, we set up our ‘In This Together - Community Matters’ fund, providing £1 million to 871 local charities, community groups and councils, enabling them to support over 565,000 vulnerable people. Building on the momentum of this fund, and our belief that supporting local communities is the most effective way to support those

in need, we have set out new plans to provide £1 million of charitable funding every year. This annual fund will be paid for by shareholders and will go towards supporting local community initiatives and good causes.

Employer of choice

This is the most exciting and revolutionary time in our industry. The next ten years will look very different to anything we have seen before, and we will tackle the challenges ahead with our most prized asset – our staff. As an employer, we must ensure that we are encouraging and developing people in our industry to deliver a sustainable electricity network for future generations. Staff need to be given the opportunities to expand their skills and be flexible with their career options - improving the resilience and wellbeing of our workforce. We also need to attract the best people to the industry by promoting STEM skills and levelling the playing field of opportunities, ensuring that poor social mobility is not a barrier to entry, while developing a more diverse workforce, accessing a wider pool of talent and an array of different perspectives that add value to our business. Our new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy sets out how we will foster diversity in both the workplace and in job recruitment.

With the disruption caused by climate change and the pandemic, there has truly never been a more important time for organisations to take on wider responsibility and engagement in the areas in which they operate. Our approach demonstrates our whole-hearted commitment to being a trusted, good corporate citizen and championing positive change for our employees, customers and communities. By applying a set of targets and metrics to each key action, we at WPD will be able to continually deliver, evaluate and improve on our Social Contract. We are proud to make these commitments to the communities we serve and hope that other DNOs will follow suit.’

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