Thursday, 22 February 2007

Anger voiced over water bills

Here in Devon and Cornwall South West Water are the company providing us with water and taking away the sewerage. Last week they announced the increase in charges for the upcoming year 2007-2008: these average out at 12.5% for those on meters whilst unmetered households can look forward to forking out an additional 16.1%. The increases have been sanctioned by the water regulator OFWAT. Unsurprisingly there is a lot of anger out there about all this.

I remember when Michael Howard (yes it was he) oversaw the privatisation of water thinking that this was a unique situation compared with all other privatisations. This was because
  • Water is the very one thing we need for the continuance of our existence - we can't do without it.
  • Water companies enjoy a total monopoly in their business

Like everyone else I want the best possible service at the lowest price for my water and sewerage. So is the company doing better than its public sector predecessor? I have no means of knowing to be honest. But I can see that a private sector operator producing a service we can't do without but with zero competition is less likely to produce the levels of efficiency private firms are famed for.

A story on the front page of today's Western Morning News is about an Early Day Motion sponsored by local Labour MP Linda Gilroy urging the government to intervene over these huge price hikes. Two issues here: Is the increase justified in relation to the work that has to be done (we are totally reliant on ofwat determining this) and should the government intervene to reduce the vast disparity in prices between different parts of the country. Just before the last general election in 2005 the then Conservative leader Michael Howard (yes him again) allowed himself to be questioned on a local phone in programme. I asked him to give a straight answer, yes or no, whether the Conservatives would introduce some sort of subsidy so that our bills could be closer to those elsewhere. His straight answer was "no". He also said that privatisation had been good and helped to keep costs down. That was a surprise! The present Chancellor noticing that there are few Labour votes down here and who has never displayed an interest in the south west is unlikely to be very bothered either. Even less so now with the likelihood of a new job before long.

I see this as a moral problem. Surely we shouldn't be expected to pay so much relative to other parts of the country.

One thing my paper sought to highlight was the current leakage rate as applied to South West Water. They state that the company loses 84 million litres of water a day. Considering the vast mileage of pipework this figure is absolutely meaningless yet the media love quoting figures with plenty of zeroes. Now if we were told how many months it would take to totally empty Roadford reservoir at that rate then one could start getting ones head around such figures. It is very similar to a politician saying they have spent so many millions on the health service say in one year. How can the man in the street possibly relate to that?

My other concern is the way these leakages are calculated. How do they do it? With reservoirs one can say how much water there is in the thing at any one time but how can you be sure how much is leaking from the pipe network particularly when much of the 'useful' water is still unmetered. I do have a very healthy scepticism when it comes to statistics!

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