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Making waves

To tackle the disaster of water privatisation and learn the lessons of the old models of public ownership, we need new forms of ownership and oversight, argues Cat Hobbs.



In June, Southern Water was forced to pay £126m in fines and customer rebates. Why? For polluting our environment with wastewater and deliberately misreporting their performance.

But they’re not the only ones at it. Recent reporting from Gill Plimmer in the Financial Times has exposed the scale of private water companies’ dodgy records on pollution. Just 14 per cent of England’s rivers now meet minimum standards. Plimmer alleges this is largely a result of the more than 17,000 sewage overflow points where water companies pump untreated sewage directly into our rivers.

Meanwhile, private water companies have been riding a gravy train of profit. £56bn has been sucked out of our water system by shareholders since privatisation. Every penny of investment made by the water companies could have been covered by our bills. And water company bosses have pocketed a cool £70m in the last six years.

Against this grim backdrop, it’s clear that thirty years of water privatisation has been thirty years of failure. That’s why We Own It released the ‘People’s Plan for Water’: a crowdsourced manifesto setting out what publicly owned water could look like, and what it can achieve.

The People’s Plan argues – as does the policy of the Labour Party – that to heal the damaging wounds of water privatisation, we need to bring our water into democratic public ownership. Taking private profit and staggering CEO salaries out of the equation, plus the lower cost of government borrowing to invest, could save as much as £100 per year per household – or around £2.3bn. The opportunities for spending this money more wisely are vast.

For a start, we could use it to substantially reduce everybody’s bills. We could also use it to invest properly in tackling some of the major issues private companies have resolutely failed on. Ending the scandal of the 3bn litres of water that gush out of our water system every day as a result of a failure to fix leaks. Taking seriously the need to protect the environment and cleaning up our polluted rivers. Concrete action to prevent water shortages currently predicted to hit the UK within 25 years.

And we can go further than this too. Why is access to water – one of the most fundamental components of human life – not seen in practice as a basic right? With a publicly owned water system it could be. We could provide proper support for households that struggle with their bills, introduce public water fountains in every town and city, and prohibit cutting off water used by squatters.

Private water companies have shown they can’t and won’t deliver this. But if we brought them into public ownership tomorrow, our water system wouldn’t necessarily be transformed overnight. We need to make sure we create the right model for publicly owned water, that guarantees it can be repurposed for along these lines, but also so it is resilient and successful enough that no future government can sell it off again.

That’s why We Own It has proposed a new model of public ownership, fit for the 21st century, and designed to ensure it lasts the test of time. In a report released in May – When We Own It – we set out a model that goes beyond mere state bureaucracy. Rather, we’ve suggested that publicly owned services – including water – should feature meaningful participation, democratic input and oversight from the public and relevant stakeholders.

That means ensuring everybody who needs to have a say in our water system does. Workers with direct experience of how the system could be improved bring this to the table. Relevant civil society organisations – such as environmental groups – hold the new publicly owned company to specific responsibilities. The public, represented through elected representatives of a public service users’ co-operative, hold it to account on its delivery of public priorities. And elected politicians and appointed experts bring their national and sectoral expertise to complete the picture. All of these would then provide light-touch oversight and guidance to a publicly owned water company managed and operated by industry professionals.

In practice, this would mean a new publicly owned Thames Water might have a supervisory board made up of four elected councillors, a government appointed water scientist, a non-executive director with industry experience, two public representatives, two union representatives and two relevant civil society representatives – such as the CEOs of the Rivers Trust and 10:10, a climate organisation.

We believe that in bringing such a group of people together to provide oversight of a publicly owned water company, we’ll not only be able to tackle the disaster privatisation has wrought on our water system, but also to learn the lessons of the old models of public ownership.

We’ve submitted this as a recommendation to the Labour Party’s consultation on democratic public ownership, and hope that their rapidly improving policies continue taking steps forward by supporting this model.

Cat Hobbs

Cat Hobbs is director of We Own It.


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