Long-time readers will know that for various reasons I’m rarely quick to catch items that are ‘hot off the press’. I’ll make an exception today because I just noticed on this BBC news story that the recently released Labour Manifesto 2017 states that if elected Labour would:

‘Replace our dysfunctional water system with a network of regional publicly-owned water companies.’ (p.19)

The same page of the Manifesto document mentions that ‘[a]cross the world, countries are taking public utilities back into public ownership‘ and that ‘Labour will learn from these experiences and bring key utilities back into public ownership to deliver lower prices, more accountability and a more sustainable economy.’

On the same page, apparent justifications for this pledged re-nationalisation of (presumably?) all the privatised England and Wales water companies include that:

  • [T]he distribution of ownership of the country’s economy means that decisions about our economy are often made by a narrow elite‘;
  • Many basic goods and services have been taken out of democratic control through privatisation. This has often led to higher prices and poorer quality, as prices are raised to pay out dividends‘;
  • [W]ater bills have increased 40 per cent since privatisation‘; and
  • Public ownership will benefit consumers, ensuring that their interests are put first and that there is democratic accountability for the service.’

Immediately sounding in my ears on hearing this news was a specific part of my interview last year with former Ofwat chief executive, Regina Finn. Unaware that the issue would actually come up so soon, I in fact asked her directly if it would be a good thing if the privatised England and Wales water industry were to go back into public ownership… You can watch Regina’s reply below:

[NB. it starts at the 36:00 minute mark if the embedded link doesn’t work properly]

It’ll be interesting to see what the national press, the specialist water press, water companies, water regulators and so on make of Labour’s Manifesto pledge. As might well be expected, trade body Water UK has already issued a response on its website:

‘The Labour Party manifesto does not do justice to the water industry’s record following privatisation.

Since 1990, the water industry has invested over £130 billion in better services. The quality of bathing and drinking water is up, and customer satisfaction with water and sewerage services is over 90%. Access to private capital and other sources of funding, repaid through dividends and interest payments, has been key to that record of success.

Working closely with their customers and overseen by independent regulators, water companies are currently delivering a five-year programme which by 2020 will see a further £44 billion invested in improvements and a 5% real-terms average drop in prices. All water companies have schemes in place to help those struggling with their bills.’

I’ll be sure to report back here if there are other interesting responses over the next few days and weeks…

Duncan Thomas

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