Selling UK water utilities seemed like a good idea for Conservative ministers of the 1980s, when they considered the bill for the modernization of a Victorian sewer maze and pipeline network leaking water.
Why not let the private sector inject much needed energy and money into a project that tired public sector leadership was ill-equipped to handle, they argued.
But since 1989, when 10 regional water boards were sold, there have been complaints and counterclaims regarding the benefits that can be credited to new private sector owners.
For industry critics, one of the obvious costs is the failure to upgrade a sewer system that regularly overflows into waterways, pollutes rivers and kills wildlife.
Southern Water pleaded guilty this week to knowingly allowing “toxic, noxious or polluting material and / or waste and / or sewage effluent,” or raw sewage, to enter coastal waters.
In his judgment, Judge Johnson said the company, which was fined £ 90million, dumped between 16 billion and 21 billion liters of raw sewage into some of “the world’s most important ecosystems and coastlines. precious and delicate “in disregard” of human health and of fisheries and other legitimate businesses that operate in coastal waters “.
Kent oyster farmers have been among the hardest hit after their products failed to meet safety standards. It is not known how many bathers have succumbed to high levels of fecal contamination that entered the sea around the north Kent coast.
And Southern was not alone. South West Water and Thames Water are among regional companies that have been regularly found dumping untreated sewage that they cannot manage into rivers and the sea. Environment Agency data for 2020 showed that water companies dumped raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England more than 400,000 times, up 37% from the previous year.
But the industry has defended its record – most recently when former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn threatened to nationalize it in 2017. Industry regulator Ofwat has claimed £ 130bn of investment has been made since privatization and the bills were £ 120, or 30% less. than they would have been otherwise.
Meanwhile, companies are privately saying climate change is responsible for the heavy downpours that cause sewage overflows, so it’s not something they can control or be blamed for.
Critics point out that Margaret Thatcher’s government cleared the industry’s debts before privatization and that since 1989 the industry has topped it up with £ 48bn at an annual interest cost of £ 1.3bn of pounds sterling.
Research by David Hall and Karol Yearwood of the University of Greenwich found that the debt was not used to fix pipe leaks or treatment work, but went straight into the pockets of shareholders. Adding up dividends paid to shareholders since 1989, they totaled £ 57 billion.
Meanwhile, customer water bills rose 40% above the rate of inflation. It is the water users who have paid for the improvements to the network, as they are, while the shareholders leave with cash paid by higher debt.
It is a strictly English problem. Welsh Water became a non-profit organization in 2001 and Scottish Water became publicly owned.
England’s water supply system is home to the last of the privatized monopolies. You can shop for gas and electricity, telephone and broadband. No water.
Environmental groups argue that climate change means water companies must be part of a coordinated effort to protect water supplies and that cannot be done as long as they remain private.
Right now, they have the resources to outsmart the ill-staffed regulators of Ofwat and the Environment Agency. Local communities, which also play a role in the protection of waterways, have also seen their budgets reduced and suffered staff losses, leaving them without weight in the face of private sector operators.
Paris and Barcelona are among the great cities in the world to directly control water and to integrate policies promoting its better use by households, businesses and landowners. It must only be a matter of time before England follows suit.