Resisting the Slippery Slope to Water Privatisation in the North – Again!

As part of the British Tory Government’s punishment budget last Autumn, aimed at putting the squeeze on the DUP to get them back into the Executive, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland took the opportunity to direct all Departments to launch public “consultations” on measures to support “budget sustainability” by raising additional revenue. In December the Department of Infrastructure launched its Consultation on Water and Sewerage Charges.

It is clear from the document that the opportunity is being taken to drag people back to the water privatisation-by-stealth strategy of 2007. At that time it was under the auspices of the Independent Water Review Panel set up by the then Minister for Regional Development, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy. Just as that was exposed and resisted then, so it must be again.  

The consultation document claims in an “oh so reasonable” fashion, to be providing “an opportunity to engage with water stakeholders and the wider public”. It brazenly claims that a self-financing arrangement is needed “to maintain and develop our infrastructure” and is apparently “in line with wider Executive and public aspirations”. 

Is that the Executive that was forced by public campaigning in 2007 to abandon the plans for water charges? Is the Executive not still made up of parties that claimed after the success of the trade union-led public campaign that they had played a leading role in opposing water charges? 

The document claims to be just setting out and seeking views on “the main pathways through which domestic water and sewerage charging could be introduced, how a relief scheme to protect vulnerable people might be developed, and how charging might be billed and collected.” It also outlines other revenue raising options: the removal of the domestic allowance for non-domestic customers; charging customers for domestic septic tank de-sludging; and recovering the cost of roads drainage from all customers.

What all that boils down to, just as the 2007 proposals did, is handing over a public service paid for on the rates plus regional top-up, to a paying customer model ideal for handing over as a commodity to the the private sector to extract profits from. Based on the Tories’ past form, and the inability of the Executive, even when working, to push back on Tory policies, how long before NI Water will be sold off to a French utility company or an American hedge fund?

As the Consultation document is at pains to patronisingly point out, there is an issue “requiring further clarification, [which] is the question of whether households were already making an implicit contribution to the cost of delivering water and sewerage services through the Regional Rate. The Panel found that after 1998 the linkage between the regional rate and payments to the Water Service was broken, but as the rate was not reduced, ratepayers understandably believed that they were continuing to contribute directly to the cost of water and sewerage services.”

Well, if ratepayers are confused, it may be because the Northern Ireland Office won’t divulge just how much of our rates are diverted to NI Water. When the last itemised rates bill was issued, it was formally 30%+ and staff in the Rates Collection Agency, said it was nearer to 50%. So who knows what we’re paying now? Replying to recent Freedom of Information requests from a Belfast Communist Party member, the Rates Collection Agency, the Department for Finance and Belfast City Council all say they don’t know what percentage of domestic rates pay for water and the Public Records Office say they hold no document that might throw light on the matter. 

So how can realistic rate reductions be made? And what of the public subsidies that recent experience in England shows the private water companies have been getting to improve infrastructure whilst they are pumping raw sewage into the waterways at the same time as their profits climb?

When you consider that the people of the North already pay for water and sewerage provision, the audacity to expect already hard-pressed working people to pay twice for water is outrageous. It would be like buying your groceries and being asked to pay for them again on your way out of the shop!

Water charges in general are immoral in that they commodify water, a natural resource which is vital to life itself. If the Tories get their way, with or without an Executive, depending on which option is chosen, people in the North could be paying another £200, £300, £400 or even £500 per year for water. 

The Consultation clock is ticking. There is an urgent need for a united campaign of mass opposition to all the proposals in the Consultation document drawing on trade unions, ecology activists, the women’s movement, community groups, social welfare NGOs, students, small farmers, small business people and all political parties who claim to represent the interests of their constituents. 

People came together to beat the introduction of water charges back in 2006/7.

We can defeat water charges again in 2024!