Letter: Clear arguments for clean and cheap water

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your leading article 'What is the price of pure water?' (14 July) appears to accept the argument of Ian Byatt, the director general of Ofwat, that the cost of cleaning up water will fall primarily on consumers. But this need not be so. There are a number of ways in which costs to the consumer could be reduced.

First, and most important, the Government should be regulating industries and agriculture more stringently in order to reduce the amount of pollution being discharged into water courses in the first place. Prevention is better - and cheaper - than cure. Instead of this, the Government is deregulating and relying increasingly on self-monitoring. When pollution cannot be prevented, the polluter and not the consumer should pay to remove it from drinking water. This is a principle to which the Government pays lip-service, but fails to implement. It should do so.

In the case of sewage pollution, of course, the water companies will have to fund clean-up costs out of general revenue. But even this does not necessarily mean that the consumer needs to be hit hard in the short term in the way that Ofwat (the water industry's watchdog) predicts. The current financial regime, created at the time of privatisation, discourages water companies from borrowing money for long-term investment. Yet water and sewerage companies ought to find it easy to borrow for investment at reasonable rates - their business could hardly be described as high risk. The decisions made on borrowing and repayment terms by the various water companies ought to be reconsidered.

On a more symbolic level, water company executives should perhaps consider whether it is wise to bleat about the cost of environmental improvements while continuing to award themselves more than 40 per cent pay increases every year.

It is a false dichotomy to posit a choice between clean water and affordable water. We can and must have both. What is needed is a sensible, non-dogmatic approach that combines a range of options and instruments, and a demonstration of firm political will. It is now up to the Government to provide this.

Yours sincerely,

CHRIS SMITH

MP for Islington South and Finsbury (Lab)

House of Commons

London SW1

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