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An evaluation of the Plug In water saving project (2012)

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This report investigates the Plug In Water Saving Project, which aimed at installing water saving measures in social housing in the East and West Midlands, and to promote behavioural change among residents. Set up by the Environment Agency and several partners, the project engaged seven social housing providers and their residents in water-saving activities on a larger scale than previous projects. More than three and a half thousand measures have been installed in approximately three and a half thousand homes up between 2011 and 2012.


This is an evaluation of the Plug In project that has been running since April 2011. The project aimed to install water saving measures in social housing in the Midlands, and to promote behavioural change among residents. The project was launched by the Environment Agency and the partners included Severn Trent Water; South Staffordshire Water; Global Action Plan; Northfield Ecocentre; and five social housing providers – Accord Group; Black Country Housing Group; Optima Community Association; Orbit; and Wolverhampton Homes.1 Some training was provided to housing providers who joined the project later (Dales Housing, LHA‐ASRA and Rykneld Homes).

Executive Summary

The Plug In water saving project has engaged seven social housing providers and their residents from across the East and West Midlands in water saving activity on a larger scale than previously. The project has been a success for the Environment Agency, enabling to fulfil their objectives in theWater Resource Strategy for England and Wales and Working for a Better Midlands. It has also been a success for the water companies, Severn Trent Water and South Staffordshire Water, who have formed partnerships to enable them to deliver large numbers of reliable water saving measures with certainty. Housing providers have succeeded in mainstreaming water saving as a core activity within their organisations for the first time, enabling their residents to take environmental actions and save money. Plug In has successfully established a working partnership between different agencies, with a key strategic role for the Environment Agency in achieving senior level buy‐in from housing providers.

More than three and a half thousand measures have been installed in approximately three and a half thousand homes up between April 2011 and June 2012. Productive entry points at which water saving measures have been installed include void works and planned maintenance. The measures can be installed by maintenance contractors, non‐maintenance housing association staff, or sometimes by residents themselves. The project has succeeded in getting measures installed in homes where a need for them has been demonstrated. The measures installed have been well‐received among the residents who have understood how they work.

The project faced start‐up difficulties due to lack of baseline data about water efficiency of housing stock and due to concerns over the suitability and utility of certain measures. Partners reacted swiftly to these issues and were able to successfully identify the most appropriate measures for each housing provider’s stock.

Substantial staff resources were put into the project by the Environment Agency, the water companies, and the housing providers. The water companies also contributed significant resources by paying for the water saving measures. The resources expended represent good value for money for the Environment Agency and water companies to fulfil their strategic objectives around water saving. For the housing providers, this new activity aligns with existing commitments to energy saving, community engagement and financial literacy and so the commitment of resources to the Plug In project is appropriate to their mainstream business.

Eco Teams has been an effective way of engaging residents on water and energy saving issues in the Plug In project. It has been a fun and inclusive way of learning about water and energy saving, that has been flexible to the needs of different housing providers. Eco Teams has succeeded not only at achieving specific pro environmental behaviours such as turning appliances off standby, but has enabled residents to make the transition from automatic to reflective behaviour in the way they manage water, energy and other natural resources.

Although the feedback we have obtained from residents has been limited, it is clear that the value which people place on water as a precious resource is uneven, and that awareness and understanding of the environmental impacts of water use is low, and particularly low compared to people’s awareness and understanding of the environmental impacts of using gas and electricity. Eco Teams has had a substantial impact on people’s behaviour with regard to water and energy use, but has had less impact on people’s awareness and attitudes with regard to water use, and participants’ understanding of issues such as water scarcity and the impact of water use on ecosystems remains weak. Participants are happy to adopt water saving behaviours when introduced to such behaviours, despite their poor understanding of the value of water. Perhaps this is because they understand that some water saving behaviours have a direct impact on their consumption of gas or electricity and therefore their expenditure, and their carbon dioxide emissions, since participants are generally quite aware of the impact of gas and electricity use on the greenhouse effect. Participants with a water meter have a general awareness of the monetary value of water but are unable to translate everyday water using activities into any kind of meaningful currency in terms of volume or financial value. Meter use does not seem to have affected their understanding of the environmental impact of water use.

The way in which water saving measures and advice enables householders to adopt and sustain pro environmental behaviour varies according the degree to which the householder is able to experience reflective or sensory perception of the benefits and outcomes of the measure. We have outlined the concept of a Water Saving ‘Ladder of Empowerment’ to visualise the different ways in which measures enable these sensory or reflective outcomes to be achieved. Using multiple measures would seem to be a possible route to achieving the maximum combination of sensory and reflective outcomes.

The Plug In approach has the potential to be adopted by more social housing providers around the East and West Midlands and to achieve additional water and carbon savings through reliable installation of measures and behaviour change.