Water: we need to be talking seriously about public ownership
Thirty four years on from taking over the management and supply of our water, Yorkshire Water is still blaming the state of the infrastructure, which has led to the firm having the second highest number of raw sewage spills in England last year, on the systems they inherited from the publicly-owned Yorkshire Water Authority.
In a tweeted attempt to explain why they will now be investing £180 million of taxpayers’ money to improve the performance of storm overflows, the company said:
“We inherited these systems when we adopted them from the local councils in 1989 and although we do have, in parts, an aging infrastructure, that doesn’t mean we’re not investing in it.”
The Thatcher government starved England and Wales’s state owned water and sewerage utilities of much needed investment, before privatising them for £7.6 billion and writing off billions of pounds worth of debts.
As I wrote here back in January last year, when the supply of clean water to our homes and the protection of our river courses was handed to the private sector, they ceased to be governed by the single ethic of public service and public health.
While there may have been some investment in maintaining the infrastructure, the private water companies have consistently underinvested in the systems in their relentless drive for profits for shareholder dividends and top brass salaries.
Since privatisation, a combined £72 billion has been paid out in dividends by the water companies. Yearly dividends from England’s big water and sewage companies are usually around £2 billion. Yorkshire Water may claim that its shareholders haven’t had dividends for a few years, but its parent company Kelda Group, which is based in Jersey and owned by a series of investment and sovereign wealth funds, reported that dividends of over £45m were paid in 2021/22.
Forgive me then for not accepting the apology issued by the highly paid Yorkshire Water boss Nicola Shaw for the firm’s abysmal record on pumping raw sewage into our rivers and seas. She’s not wrong though, people are angry. I’m furious that her company has caused my Hemsworth constituents to suffer 672 spills last year and 4,105 hours of spill.
How selfless of her to refuse a bonus this year. With a base salary of over half a million pounds, it’s hardly going to hurt. It’s a gesture that just won’t wash with customers struggling in a cost of living crisis and now being asked to foot the bill for decades of failure.
Of course Shaw wasn’t alone in her apology. Water companies throughout England did the same. The timing is no coincidence - we’re moving towards the end of this discredited parliament and there’s huge public support for renationalisation of utilities, including water.
These apologies and infrastructure investment pledges are about self-preservation and a desperation not to lose their influence in Westminster. They certainly aren’t an apology for the obscene profits they and their shareholders have made off the backs of working people.
Labour has published a Bill which would place a legal obligation on government and water companies to bring an end to the systematic dumping of raw sewage, and has committed to use regulatory powers to keep consumer bills down and ensure that companies, not the public, pay for their failures.
The prospect of unlimited fines for polluting, or even jail for company bosses as the Environment Agency has called for, will no doubt have had some leverage on extracting the confessions of falling short from Water UK and the individual companies.
But to really transform society and the public services communities have a right to expect, we need to be talking seriously about public ownership.