When We Own It: public ownership of water in the 21st century

After 30 years of disastrous privatisation, it’s time to take back our water.

Cat Hobbs
10 July 2019, 8.44am
Image: We Own It

As the temperature goes up this summer, a refreshing dip in the river looks tempting. But I can’t ignore the statistics. Thanks to Gill Plimmer’s excellent investigative research, I know that only 14% of our rivers are safe, and that jumping into them is risky.

In Oxford, many people enjoy cooling down in the river on a hot summer’s day. With predictions of the UK getting as hot as Turkey by 2050, our rivers, lakes and open air swimming spots are ever more vital.

But the privatised companies taking care of them on our behalf aren’t taking care at all. Water quality in the UK is so bad that we’re facing fines from the EU.

Just the other week, Southern Water was charged with a record fine of £126 million after releasing sewage into our rivers and lying about it. This is standard practice from the privatised water companies in England. Thames Water – the company for my area, which I’ve got no choice over – was fined £20 million for huge sewage leaks.

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The dire state of our rivers is just one of the many, many failures of water and sewerage privatisation. It is just one example of what happens when we hand over not just time-limited contracts for delivering water and sewerage services, but the actual assets themselves – the pipes, the infrastructure – to private companies to milk for profit.

This style of water privatisation only operates in England – it has been copied nowhere else in the world. Ed Miliband recently described the English approach as ‘crackers maracas’. In Scotland water is very successfully run in public ownership by Scottish Water (privatisation was resisted in the 1980s), and Northern Ireland Water is also publicly owned. In Wales the water company is run as a not for profit.

Last Saturday marked 30 years of this extreme, ideological experiment. We Own It organised members of the public to pay a visit to water company headquarters across the country – Thames Water, Southern Water, South West Water, Wessex Water, Severn Trent, Anglian Water, Yorkshire Water – handing each a public notice telling them their time is up.

final notice.jpg
Image: We Own It

Today, we’re asking MPs from all parties to get behind public ownership, and launching our ‘People’s Plan for Water’, a collection of ideas from the public for their new publicly owned and democratically run regional water companies. We asked our supporters ‘what would you do if you owned your water company?’

Public ownership of water would mean we could reinvest profits in a better service, and we could take back democratic control and make sure water works for everyone.

People not profit

When water was privatised in 1989, the companies started out with zero debt. Since then they’ve built up a debt mountain of £51 billion since privatisation, while handing out dividends to shareholders of £56 billion. This is a legalised scam.

The income from our bills more than covers the operating costs and investment of the water companies, and has done for decades. Water is a profitable industry – it’s not rocket science to reinvest that profit into the service.

Democratic accountability

Our report ‘When We Own It: democratic public ownership for the 21st century’ sets out what that might look like in practice.

We’re calling for citizens, civil society and workers to be at the heart of the governance structures in the new regional, publicly owned water companies.

For example, the new supervisory board of Thames Water, holding the professional management team of the company to account, might include four councillors from across London and the South East, one water scientist appointed by government, one non exec director with water industry experience, two trained up elected representatives to stand up for water users, two union reps from GMB, UNISON or Unitem and two people from relevant civil society organisations – for example, the heads of the Rivers Trust and 10:10 climate action.

And we’re calling for a new, independent, democratically accountable organisation to represent public service users, which we’re calling ‘Participate’. It would work to make sure the water companies deliver, on behalf of and alongside the public.

This would include a range of ways for all of us to participate in decision making – from voting, to participatory planning, to shopfronts on high streets and online portals and funding to encourage new ideas from users and workers. All paid for with the budgets of the now redundant regulators.

What would public ownership of water deliver?

Thatcher privatised our water with a story about lower bills and a shareholding democracy. This story was wrong about efficiency. Privatisation has given us waste, not efficiency. It was wrong about power – we have no ‘share-owning democracy’. And it gave no sense of the collective commons that is ever more important as we reach a point of climate crisis.

The monopoly of the private water companies makes a nonsense of the idea of ‘consumer choice’. We are citizens, not consumers, when it comes to public services like water.

Our new publicly owned, democratically accountable water companies would have new duties to decarbonise, provide access to water for everyone, work closely with communities and steward our public land and assets for the future.

The climate crisis in particular means we need to shift our priorities – away from shareholders towards the emergency we face together.

Water conservation

The climate crisis means we need water companies that try hard to conserve our precious water. England faces water shortages in 25 years’ time.

Privatised water companies waste 20-25% of our water. It leaks away out of broken pipes before it ever reaches our taps. These companies will spend money only as long as it’s economical for them to do so. They don’t fix leaks because they’d rather avoid shelling out on necessary investment. They simply factor in the cost of being fined for environmental damage.

Publicly owned water companies would make conserving water a priority. Eau de Paris, the publicly owned water company in Paris, was set up in 2010. It has already cut leakage levels in half, from 20% to 10%.

Public ownership means we’ll save £2.3 billion a year from not paying out shareholder dividends and from the lower cost of borrowing. We can reinvest that money in fixing leaks, protecting the water table and reducing the need for hosepipe bans.

Access to water

The climate crisis means access to water is only going to get more important.

Public ownership means we can make sure everyone has access to water. That means affordable bills – research suggests every household would save £100 a year if we brought water into public ownership, and in Scotland, the average annual bill is consistently lower than in England.

It also means a range of other measures. In Paris, the publicly owned company Eau de Paris has committed to ‘affirm the principle of the basic human right to water’. They’ve cut bills by 8% and introduced a solidarity fund for poor households. They make sure squatters and rough sleepers have access to water and operate 30 public baths, showers and laundries across the city. We desperately need plenty of clean, free public toilets so we don’t have to sneak into shopping centres or buy more stuff just to go to the loo.

Plus we can copy Paris by introducing water fountains – still and sparkling – across the city. We call that socialism with a sparkle! This would minimise single use plastic and cut carbon emissions, but just as importantly, make our cities nicer places to live in and visit.

A clean, green environment

The climate crisis makes it ever more important to protect our environment for people and planet.

The private companies have got away with literal murder (of thousands of fish) for decades, and their treatment of our rivers has made people sick, while the fines issued by the regulator Ofwat have done little to curb their practices of releasing raw sewage into our rivers. Yorkshire Water and United Utilities even went to the European Court of Justice to try to claim that water companies were not ‘public authorities’ and therefore shouldn’t have to publish data on sewage.

We need clean water. We need to protect our rivers, coastlines and lakes. And we need to open up new public swimming pools and reservoirs, where possible, for water sports. Public and community stewardship of our waterways and catchment areas can help us make sure we protect local wildlife while meeting people’s needs.

Publicly owned water companies could tackle environmental issues like plastic pollution and manage their land for the public good. As Guy Shrubsole has highlighted in his work on land ownership in England, grouse moors are incredibly damaging for the environment. Yorkshire Water is being petitioned to stop allowing its land to be used for grouse shooting. Democratic public ownership ought to put a stop to this – and put a spanner in the works for fracking plans.

Time to take back our water

83% of us want public ownership of water. The Transnational Institute has shown that hundreds of cities around the world are already taking their water back.

With Labour, the SNP and Greens all supporting public ownership of water, this is finally on the table for the first time in 30 years.

But we know the industry body Water UK and the privatised water companies are lobbying MPs hard against this common sense move. We hope MPs will listen to the public today and support our campaign, instead of listening to vested interests who profit from their stranglehold on this most basic of resources.

Want to help? Sign the petition for public ownership of water (please sign in solidarity if you’re in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). Tell your MP to sign EDM 1761 and represent your view in parliament. And check out the People’s Plan.

It’s time to take back our water.

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