Topping up or watering down? : can regulation support sustainability? : the case of the water industry of England and Wales
Water is the most invisible of the visible means of existence in our post-modern society. It is a defining characteristic that unites our natural, social and economic world and is fundamental for life and health. However, given its multiple characteristics the management of water is a complex and often contradictory task that has led to an on-going quest for acceptable solutions. As if this were not problem enough, the last few decades have seen concepts of sustainability become overtly important principles, impacting on the governance of the water sector. A consequence of this rise in importance of sustainability to society, business and the state has been the enclosure and accommodation of sustainability within modes of governance, regulation and accountability. Instead of treating sustainability, regulation and accountability as separate centres of enquiry, this work treats them as a complex set of interrelated systems that both respond to and produce change. The work therefore draws on a variety of theoretical perspectives that together broadly outline the contours of the political economy of water management. The theoretical framework has been used to provide an interpretation of the data gathered from fieldwork interviews from across the water sector and documentary sources. In doing so, the inquiry has focused on a particular period of time, 1997-2001, in order to illuminate the processes and forces at work in the evolution of modes of regulation with respect to sustainability. The inquiry indicates the multi-level nature of the development of governance and regulatory processes, firmly rooted within a weak sustainability paradigm. It is argued that how sustainability issues are resolved depends upon institutional structures. For progress towards a more sustainable future civil society must be re-embedded in economic activities in order to bring about change in cognitive knowledge, values and norms.