A few days ago, I woke up in the early morning and went to get a glass of water. But when I turned on the tap, nothing came out. This was the fourth time this had happened during the pandemic. Luckily for me, the water shortages in my area of Greater Manchester have only lasted for hours at a time. In East London last week, it was a different story.
On Tuesday afternoon, people across nine postcodes in East London had either low water pressure or no water at all after a pipe burst in Hackney Marshes. Responding to questions on Twitter, the water supplier Thames Water, stated that supply would be interrupted for around 24 hours.
This would have been bad enough in a normal period as people were left without water to drink, cook their dinner, bathe after work or wash the dishes but during a pandemic where hygiene is of the utmost importance, it was particularly harrowing. Local shops sold out of bottled water as the panic buying started, and the situation remained difficult for many across the East of London until the next morning.
This wasn’t just an unavoidable incident of a burst pipe. This also was not a singular occurrence. United Utilities, the water supplier for the North West, asked its customers to be patient with low or no water supply in ten different areas from Bolton to Liverpool in this past week alone. A quick glance at the Northumbrian Water, Bristol Water and Essex & Suffolk Water accounts will illustrate that all of them had issues with emergency maintenance and water supply issues in recent days. But it is not the actions of a single company or even these companies together that has brought the normality of this about – it is the arrangement of water supply in the UK.
It is obvious now that privatisation of the water companies does not mean a better and more competent structure. One of the most significant policy initiatives of Thatcher’s era was the privatisation of water – over 30 years later, England and Wales remain one of the few territories in the world to have a fully privatised water and sewage disposal system. The ten regional water authorities at the time were sold to the private sector in 1989 under the argument that is often used for privatisation — that profiteers would be cheaper and more effective.
We can look at the reality of this claim partly by looking at a region where water is still publicly owned: Scottish Water. Scottish Water isn’t perfect, it’s still run on a commercial basis. But it has never been privatised and all of its profits go towards improving services. Scottish Ministers set its priorities, it has an Industry Commission charged with keeping prices down and a Price Review to ensure this is the case. The average household water bill in Scotland was £363 in 2018/19 – £42 lower than the average English bill in the same year. Per household, they have invested around £282 per year since 2002, a full 35% more than English water companies.
In Scotland, most people pay their water as part of their council tax bill. This has been proven to be far less expensive. Since 1989, water bills in England have risen by 40%. Although water companies are not legally allowed to cut off your water supply when you are not able to pay your bill, this leads to another problem for thousands of people in England: unpaid bills and bad debt. A whopping £2.2 billion was owed to water companies in 2014-15 and the methods that companies have used to acquire the money from consumers has been notably aggressive. This is aside from the fact debt collection agencies are often used to extract the payment. One of these companies is Orbit Debt Collection, which at the moment acts on the behalf of eight different water companies.
The answer to why water is more expensive in England than it is in Scotland is not infrastructure; it’s profit. English water companies have paid more than £2 billion a year on average to shareholders since 1989. As GMB union pointed out in 2018, almost three-quarters of the industry is owned by people or organisations overseas. These wealthy investors in our essential services won’t be impacted when infrastructure decays and water supply stops – but you and I will, and so will the many people who are forced to rely on private water companies. Access to clean and safe water should be a right in this society, and even beyond the inefficiency of these companies it should never be tied to someone else’s ability to make a profit.
Water disruptions have not been the only indication of a failing system. Recently, the Environment Agency condemned the English water companies for their levels of environmental pollution in 2019. “4 out of the 9 water companies are now rated as poor or requiring improvement,” it said, “the worst result since 2011.” This came shortly after the news that all of England’s rivers have failed to meet quality tests for pollution. This is not the first time that environmental concerns have been raised over the water companies’ conduct – in 2017, Thames Water was fined £20 million after the untreated sewage it pumped into the Thames was responsible for killing birds and fish.
Bad debt. High bills. Poor infrastructure. Even worse service. Most of the industry owned abroad. And environmental pollution thrown in for good measure.
The consequences of privatising our water supply have been many and disheartening but there is one more that we will face in the near future. England is on course to run short of water in just 25 years. We must think about what the outcome will be when this happens. Droughts like the one seen in East London last week are likely to become more regular events. What if not being able to wash or pour a glass of water became a monthly, or weekly, event? Right now it is illegal to cut off anyone’s supply and the worst a consumer who does not pay their bill will face is getting taken to court and a visit from the bailiffs. This is bad enough, but what if shutoffs are coming around the corner?
In the era of climate change, we need to be ready for the future water crisis and to spend more on water infrastructure in England and Wales. We lose 3 billion litres of water a day to leaks. Soon, that will be very costly indeed. And while you and I are paying for the next holiday or house of a shareholder, we may find that a service we rely on for life’s basics has become too precarious to be trusted.