Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Water Blues

I was never wholly convinced that water privatisation was a Good Thing but that doesn’t imply that I think it was a Bad Thing. There is certainly a good case for keeping the nation’s key infrastructure in government ownership. Even Adam Smith, the man most misquoted by the privatisation fundamentalists, thought that HMG should own the roads. There wasn’t much other infrastructure in his day, I wonder what he’d have thought about water pipes?

Mind you the nationalisation zealots have some questions to answer. For example, why, when it was publicly owned, did the industry do so little to renew its infrastructure? A lot of the current leaks in the system would have been prevented had there been a proper rolling programme of renewal. And where would the government now find funds to renew the pipes? It’s no good moaning that the public sector borrowing obsession is silly, it may well be but it’s still a harsh fact of economic life in the real world. If the government borrows too much the whole economy becomes unstable. This may just be because the world’s investors are collectively daft but that doesn’t prevent it happening. Hence PFI and all the difficulties that can bring.

It’s odd to find the Daily Telegraph, usually in the vanguard of the denationalisers, railing against the water companies in its leader column thus: “This "drought" is a myth, put about by greedy monopolies to serve their own ends.”, coo! The Independent, more predictably, also seems convinced that it’s mainly the water companies’ fault “Figures from Ofwat, the water regulator, reveal that the privatised water companies are losing 3.6 billion litres a day - up to 500 pints per home per day”.

The Guardian opts for nostalgia getting the amiable Martin Wainwright to reminisce about the long hot summer of 1976 and its water shortages: “For children of the 60s, in particular, the bonus was that the weather only seemed to discomfort the right sort of victims. It was a nightmare for Saturday car-washers, for example”.

Meanwhile even the Daily Mail took a pop at the private water companies yesterday “They are very profitable, but show no urgency in repairing our Victorian pipelines. Instead they preside over the worst wastage in Europe - Bulgaria apart - while issuing ever-higher bills.”. But, of course it couldn’t resist also having a clichéd go at the government: which, they claim “is hell-bent on carpeting the South with a million new houses, while pulling down perfectly good houses in the North”. Hmmm

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