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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Barriers to effective decision making in the UK water industry: A qualitative study of a UK water utility company

Making a sustainable and resilient transition is at the forefront of today’s agenda; it is about making sure future generations do not inhabit a world worse off than our own. Therefore, understanding what constrains this transition is critical, especially regarding water resource management. Being aware of how society, the economy, the environment, and policy constrain decisions is critical to being able to further this transition. This thesis will analyse the UK, specifically Thames Water (TW). TW was chosen because of the controversy around the Thames Tideway Tunnel (TTT); this project has brought into question sustainability and resiliency principles, thus making it an ideal case study to investigate. Its dismissal of alternative green infrastructure over large infrastructure to meet London’s ‘modern day’ needs is at the centre of this debate. A comprehensive literature review has assessed the various merits of green and grey infrastructure, sustainability and resiliency paradigms, the UK water industry, and Sustainable Water Management (SWM). The sustainability and resiliency of the TTT was assessed with the intent of determining both the constraints placed on TW in becoming more sustainable and resilient, but also the constraints on the UK water industry from making the very same transition.

Results indicate that the TTT is resilient, but not completely sustainable – questions arise around its compliance with SWM. This thesis argues that the decision was a consequence of an infrastructure lock-in, varying agency limiting the capacity for change, a strong economic undertone driving decision-making, and the varying definitions in resilience all limiting the potential of TTT to be more sustainable and resilient. There are several limitations to this study: a complete assessment of wider societal influences and the internal financial decision-making was either not carried out or the author did not have access to enough information, hence reducing the overall applicability of the results to the wider UK water industry. Understanding these constraints can not only allow the UK water industry to become more sustainable and resilient, but also become an example of success to other industries in how to make this well-needed transition.


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.