In Ireland, a 2010 structural adjustment programme ordered the country to start charging domestic customers for water, where previously it was included in local taxation. This was met by resistance to the installation of water meters and charging (eg. rally pic, right) and mass demonstrations. The Irish government backed down in 2016. Sadly, the British government has succeeded in something very similar, by a process of stealth.
In the 1970s, water supply and sanitation was run by local councils or public boards. Less water was used for washing, because of the cost of heating a bath — showers were rare and everything smelled of tobacco anyway.
I don’t think there’s a causal link, but since then smoking has declined and water usage has increased, as people usually now shower daily and wash clothes more often. In parallel, water boards were privatised into giant conglomerates that sit around waiting for the cash to roll in. Water is a relatively low risk activity — the worst that these companies face is getting fined if they leak sewage into rivers; rarely does the fine reflect the crime.
In the first decade after privatisation, charges to customers increased by 46%; profits more than doubled and investment was cut.
In 2006, under a Labour government, the Environment Agency announced that water meters would be compulsorily fitted in homes in the south of England to aid in conservation. The Labour Party had previously described compulsory metering as a “tax on family life,” which is exactly what it is.
About two years ago, Thames Water put in a water meter. I’m more than happy to do my bit for the planet but this is just nonsense when up to a third of all water supplied by the utility companies is lost through leaks. Domestic users cutting down on water usage is a drop in the ocean in comparison.
They have been in regular contact with me, asking me to switch over to the meter before the date when I am forced to. We don’t use what I regard as an excessive amount of water — in this rainy island at least, it would be completely different in somewhere semi-desert like Andalusia or Southern California. Showering, cooking and washing up and laundry for a family of four, no hosepipes or watering the garden. At no point has the projected metered cost fallen below the current water rates.
This is effectively a tax increase: people who use more will pay more and this means the larger your family the more you will pay.
The gradual implementation of this tax along with its “green” credentials has meant there has not been a campaign against water metering in this country.
Meanwhile, the privatised water companies sit by, counting their massive profits and continuing to under-invest in their infrastructure as befits a natural monopoly. It’s just one of the many ways money and resources are being taken out of working-class communities. It’s too late to fight this battle. The continuous drip, drip, drip of things costing more and stagnant wages can only be overcome by a sustained, inflation-busting pay rise for all. Let’s get to it.
Pic: William Murphy