Why we won't turn off the taps

When water belonged to everyone, cutting back made sense. But privatisation changed attitudes
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All through the summer, the argument about water. All through the argument about water, the argument about whether one could bear to listen, yet again, to John Gummer's hectoring, yapping, self-righteous, accusatory contributions to the argument about water. And then the quandary: so many of the things one does to drown out what is intolerable on the radio involve the use of large quantities of water. If I run the bath in order not to hear Mr Gummer, what will I do during "Thought for the Day"? Flush the loo three times? What if everybody in the country went and flushed the loo every time Mr Gummer came on the radio? What would the Water Services Association have to say about that, eh?

And so one gave in and listened more than once to the bizarre line thought up by Mr Gummer and his associates, the line which has played Horatius on the bridge all summer. According to this plucky argument, the reason why the water ran out was that Denis Healey, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, slashed investment at the time of the IMF-ordered cuts. This would be, let's see, some time in the late Seventies. It is a bit like blaming Bonar Law for the housing slump, but this is what Mr Gummer has been insisting.

In yesterday's Independent on Sunday, a novel piece of evidence emerged from the Society of British Water Industries, the organisation representing the firms who actually lay the pipes. These firms, it turns out, have suffered such a fall in demand for their services that in the past three years 10 per cent of them have either gone to the wall or have had to stop doing water mains work. There was a brief boom in pipe repairs in the period 1991-92. But in the two years after that, expenditure on water distribution fell by 27 per cent and the length of water mains lines relined or renewed fell by 16 per cent.

According to the same article, leakage in Yorkshire has risen 50 per cent since privatisation, while in Wessex it has almost doubled. So, on the whole, I think we can let Lord Healey off the hook on this one.

Water has always been controversial, but not in the way it is today. Wells were always controversial, since they belonged to individuals or small villages, and were the subject of disputes over ownership and access. Reservoirs were always controversial, as indeed they should be, since they constitute such an unparalleled intervention in the landscape. Dams are a source of controversy, both within individual countries and internationally, and they are always likely to remain controversial because they are attractive to the mentality that believes it can solve all problems with one grand gesture. Dictators adore dams - great solid achievements to which they can point, from whose vast construction costs so handy a percentage can be creamed off. Dams are a part of the rhetoric of industrial progress.

Whether that rhetoric was deployed in a democracy, such as post-war Britain, or in a dictatorship, the meaning of it was always that resources of energy, resources of water were being marshalled for the good of society as a whole. A village might have to be destroyed, a valley flooded, but the justification would always come from the general good.

So the only arguments about water were to do with that question of the general good. Was it true, for instance, that the general good of Britain was identical with the general good of Wales? (This is the type of argument that will crop up much more frequently in the future.) Or, was a kind of water treatment done in the name of the general good (fluoridation) in fact a general infringement of liberty? What I never remember hearing was any hint of an idea that certain people could not afford their water, or could not afford to use as much of it as they might wish. Hot water, yes of course, but not water itself. One might be exhorted not to leave a dripping tap - but only in the spirit that exhorted one never to waste anything, a kind of general moral attitude to resources.

This general moral attitude made some sense at the time. But there came an infestation upon the land, an infestation of preachers who insisted the general good was nothing more nor less than the good of the market, and that anything not done according to the dictates of the market was a civil disgrace. Then came privatisation of water, and after that the present drought.

At first Mr Gummer, one of the preachers, stood up and said he was encouraging his family not to wash their hands under running water but to fill the bowl first. Whereas what he was saying would once have made some sense (in a context where everyone economised, everyone shared the sacrifice), now he was making no sense at all, because people had paid rather heavily for a service which they were now being told was about to be curtailed. Having paid for the service, they felt entitled to use it as they wished. If this was the market, they would take the market at its word.

The Government responded by saying that what had not yet been achieved was the desirable aim of a general introduction of water meters, in order to make the consumer more conscious of what he was using. But once again this argument failed to convince, in the light of evidence of the enormous amount of water being wasted by the privatised companies.

But even if it had convinced, the argument about water meters inducing thrift only has any meaning if the price of water is to be set at such a level that it will really hurt. And, of course, the people hurt will be the poor. So what is being said by the water-meter lobbyists is: the way to cope with droughts in the future is for the poor to use less water, to sacrifice their health and hygiene on behalf of the rich.

In other words, what looked once like a fundamental human right has turned into a privilege; what was once seen in terms of sacrifice for the general good has become sacrifice for the sake of the rich. A very few years ago, during a drought, it was possible to make a public appeal saying: put a brick in your lavatory cistern - if we all do it, we can reduce water consumption by so much. But today the water companies cannot say this, because they are asking us to submit to being swindled by them. The Government cannot say this, because it set up this swindle. Having sold off the common good in the name of market virtues, it cannot appeal to the common good in order to help the market out of its difficulties.

The argument is an anachronism. That is Mr Gummer's difficulty. His family may believe him and do as he says. But no one else is under any such obligation.