ThisIsMoney (UK), 26 February 2007
By Helia Ebrahimi, Financial Mail
Nothing could have prepared Colin Skellett for that day. Awakened at dawn by seven policemen, he was questioned in a station for almost 18 hours.
Today, four-and-a-half years later, Skellett, 62, still finds it difficult to believe what happened. 'I knew there was nothing in it, so I kept expecting it to blow over. It was a deeply unpleasant-experience. But I am an eternal optimist.'
Skellett, who is married and has three children and four grandchildren, laughs as he admits that he still keeps a 'get out of jail' kit on his desk as well as furry handcuffs from his goddaughter.
Skellett is breaking his silence about the arrest at his Bath home to speak to Financial Mail as part of his drive to raise the importance of green issues in the water industry. 'Wessex may be a private company, but water is a public business,' says Skellett, who is scathing about the conduct of rivals he says are putting the whole industry in disrepute.
'There have been a lot of mistakes and a lot of own goals. The leakage issues at Thames have affected all of us and the last thing we want is to be dragged down by them. Ten years ago, we realised that sustainability had to be a cornerstone to our business.
'Climate change is happening and there is a two per cent annual growth in demand for water in the UK. But we have to absorb that by being smarter, not by passing on the financial buck to customers.
'We cannot go on as an industry if we are not sustainable. Water is fundamental to the health of people and to the health of the environment.'
Skellett, whose scarce leisure time is often spent at the theatre, is passionate about his industry - an energetic man with a reputation for getting things done. The son of an electricity board meter reader, he started work at a sewage plant before going to university and getting a job as a chemist with Bath City Council.
After 12-hour days at Wessex, Skellett devotes much of his spare time backing WaterAid, an international charity that provides clean water supplies in the Third World. 'We are not getting the balance right if children around the world are dying because of lack of water,' he says.
Skellett, who boasts that Wessex's open-plan offices in Bath are the greenest in Britain because of their solar panels and grass roof, was one of the first businessmen to highlight environmental issues.
He is praised by Jonathon Porritt, former head of Friends of the Earth and environmental adviser to Prince Charles. In 1994, Wessex formulated a 30-year plan for sustainability and brought in Porritt to hold masterclasses for employees.
Porritt, a non-executive director at Wessex, says the water company has been among the most progressive in the country in its approach to the environment.
'As a water company, there is a clear rationale for getting this right,' he says. 'Colin has spearheaded this commitment, which looks so obvious now.'
Capital investment by Wessex last year was ?180m, with all projects tested against green benchmarks. This year it will spend an extra ?15m as part of a drive to produce half of its own energy needs by 2020.
The additional cash will be used at its Bristol sewage treatment works to double the amount of renewable energy it produces using methane from sludge. 'The Bristol plant produces enough methane each year to power a town of 7,000 people for a year,' says Skellett. 'We can use that for our own energy demands and even sell it back to the grid.'
Ongoing investment projects range from sewage schemes costing ?10,000 in the smallest villages with fewer than 50 people to giant water treatment works that cost more than ?30m.
In a bid to stem pollution, Wessex is persuading a group of farmers to stop using pesticides and nitrate fertilisers by subsidising any losses they incur.
Skellett's staff back him all the way. They are so impressed with his ability to get things done that they once presented him with a magician's wand.