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The water industry should be taken into public ownership

THE We Own It campaigners and their SplashMob supporters are to be congratulated on making waves today, on the 29th anniversary of water privatisation in England and Wales.

Their protest in London kept the spotlight on the scandal that is England’s all-for-profit water and sewage industry. 

Scottish and Welsh consumers can be forgiven for not travelling to join the mobilisation but, then, they are fortunate enough to live in the only two nations of Britain where water is in social ownership.

As a consequence, the Welsh and Scottish water authorities enjoy the highest levels of consumer satisfaction for the quality and value of the services they provide.

In England, domestic and industrial users pay for water which varies enormously in quality and price from one region to another, while chronic underinvestment in storage and transmission means excessive leakage, frequent bursts and periodic shortages.

England is now one of the few places on Earth where water is almost entirely in corporate ownership, run mostly by private equity or foreign investment firms which flush their profits out of Britain and into overseas tax havens.

Other countries have been busy renationalising their water services in the wake of neoliberal crookery and failure. In Paris and other French cities, remunicipalisation has meant more democratic control, improved quality and lower prices. Cities and towns in Germany, the US, Africa and Asia report the same results. 

In the Netherlands, private production and distribution of drinking water has been outlawed. Pioneering models of social and co-operative ownership have been launched in Argentina and Peru, where once US-led consortiums of multinational corporations sucked the industry dry.

Italy overwhelmingly rejected water privatisation in a referendum in 2011, much to the annoyance of EU commissioners. The Italians might have been forced to hold another referendum, had not the winning share of the poll been 96 per cent.

In England, meanwhile, the profiteers have turned water into a torrent of dosh for themselves and an intermittent flow of grey liquid for householders. Study after study has exposed the rampant greed and murkiness that characterise the industry.

An Open University report in 2014 found that in most years Thames Water shareholders were reaping dividends higher than the company’s profits, doubling corporate debt in order to fund the difference. Obviously, nobody in the boardroom was sacked, demoted or — as might once have happened in China — executed.

According to Greenwich University, the nine main English water companies have made almost £19 billion in profits in the past decade, after tax-dodging. 

Of this, £18bn has drained away in dividends. Capital investment is financed by a growing mountain of debt, all of which will be dumped on consumers with interest.

The National Audit Office found that the water pirates had swallowed a tax and interest windfall of £1.2bn that could have been used to cut bills, which have risen in real terms — over and above inflation — by 40 per cent since 1989. 

Naturally, regulator Ofwat has utterly failed to protect the interests of consumers and the environment, defending privatisation and astronomic levels of executive pay, dividends, debts and price rises instead. 

The Tory government’s response has been a Water Act ending regional monopolies in supply to business across England, while still selling the same water.

All the more reason why the Labour leadership must stand firm in its determination to take the whole industry back into public ownership.

Without the sharks, our water services will be better managed, less expensive and more secure as low-interest investment plugs the holes and finally constructs a comprehensive water grid.

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