Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” laments Coleridge’s famous Ancient Mariner. And you could be forgiven for thinking you’d heard the same cry issue forth from Ofwat’s legal department in recent times.
The tail end of last year was a taxing time for the water regulator amid the severe flooding in Cumbria and its controversial imposition of tough new charging limits for water companies in its 2009 pricing review.
But the variety of challenges facing the watchdog only serves to enthuse its director of legal services Huw Brooker, who has seen the role change significantly during his 10 years at the agency.
“When I first came here the main thing was the regulatory part of the business,” he explains. “Now there’s more competition work and more public law work, so it’s not just about one particular area of law.”
Brooker joined Ofwat as deputy head of legal in 1999. He became head of legal in 2002 before taking on the top job in 2006, just as the body took on full regulatory powers over the industry.
He trained at Wragge & Co after qualifying in 1994 and spent six months on secondment at PowerGen before jumping ship to the public sector.
“I was looking for a different perspective,” he says. “I’d advised on one side of the fence and I was interested in the other side.”
Having switched sides Brooker is not afraid to set himself – and his organisation – stiff challenges. The biggest of these is to keep both the water companies and their customers happy – a tricky balancing act.
“The key thing looking forward is to have sustainable water supplies for all our consumers,” insists Brooker. “There are many things beyond our control, so Ofwat needs to be more flexible as an organisation.
“Flooding is a serious issue, climate change is another, and in our price review we’ve had to factor that in. The [water] companies can appeal and there’s always the possibility that they will.”
With the stringent pricing policy sparking some debate in the national press, that possibility has to be taken seriously by Ofwat’s legal department.
A sign of the increasing legal workload that Brooker and his 11-strong team (which includes two secondees) now face is the recent announcement that Ofwat will be procuring an advisory panel for the first time. Brooker hopes the panel will allow his team to react more quickly and efficiently to the challenges it could face in the wake of the recent pricing review.
“On the regulatory side, a lot of the work we have will build on the review,” he explains. “It’s quite varied, so we’re looking for more flexibility in bringing in legal support work.
“We used to go through a mini-procurement exercise, but with things like judicial reviews we don’t have a lot of time. What the panel means is that when the spikes of intensive work come along we’ll be able to handle it better.”
The beauty parade kicked off earlier in December, with the panel due to be in place by mid-February. But for Brooker the decision to have a more formal advisory framework was motivated by more than just the need for efficiency.
“Another driver is the sort of relationships we’re looking for now,” he says. “We want the external firms to be part of the team here.”
There is every chance that these firms will be involved in the new panel. But with the ever-increasing breadth of work at Ofwat, what Brooker is looking for above all else, from both in-house and external lawyers, is flexibility.
“There’s a greater variety now,” he emphasises. “It requires openmindedness and the ability to adapt. Things work better when everyone engages and we genuinely feel we’re working as a team on all our projects.”
And with everyone – both internal and external – pulling together, Brooker and his team are relishing the challenges that lie ahead.
Name: Huw Brooker
Organisation: Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat)
Job title: Director of legal services and board secretary
Industry: Regulator of the water and sewerage companies in England and Wales
Reporting to: Chief executive Regina Finn
Number of employees: Approximately 240
Legal capability: 11 (inclusive of two secondees)
Main external law firms: Addleshaw Goddard, DLA Piper, Norton Rose and Pinsent Masons
Total legal spend: £1.8m (internal and external)
Hew Brooker’s CV
1988-92: BA French & German, Durham University
1992-94: CPE and LPC, University of Central England
1994-96: Trainee, Wragge & Co
1996-99: EC competition associate, Wragge & Co
1999-2003: Deputy legal adviser, Ofwat
2003-06: Head of legal services, Ofwat
2006-present: Director of legal services and board secretary, Ofwat