Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink

A number of local residents were put out earlier this week when Southern Water at different points turned off supplies to RH10 and RH11 (essentially the whole of Crawley), with a particularly long period where parts of Pound Hill were without water.

Given all the coverage you could be forgiven for thinking this was the first bout of cold weather the UK had ever experienced, yet while some of it did appear to be overblown it clearly highlighted a number of weaknesses in our regional infrastructure, particularly around the rail network and water services.

Perhaps more steps are now needed to look into the resilience of the UK’s essential transport and utilities infrastructure, then again maybe we just have to accept that these things are a fact of life, an uncomfortable moment where the realities of the natural world come into contact with the imaginary human habitat we construct for ourselves.

However, that isn’t to excuse some of the very real failings regarding Southern Water’s approach to handling this issue. As a local authority we were inundated with calls regarding the situation. At home residents were put out and there were real concerns about the health and safety of vulnerable residents left without water. There was also the concern regarding whether water was available on Manor Royal or at Gatwick. Without water businesses can’t function, potentially grinding a major part of the UK’s infrastructure to a halt. Could we get reasonable information out of Southern Water? No, in fact officers were who were promised call-backs are still waiting for them.

Without accurate information from the utilities company we couldn’t inform the public or put any emergency provision into place.

I’m not saying that if water was in public ownership that the infrastructure wouldn’t have failed, I don’t remotely have enough information whether they are investing enough in their network, but what I do know is that where accountability is absent people tend to become more slapdash with their responsibilities.

Water used to be a local authority responsibility, we built the network and ran it in the public interest. Then it was privatised by central government, only unlike other utilities they simply handed whole regional monopolies over to private companies. If you don’t like your water company you have two choices: buy bottled water or move to another region. That’s the limit of the competition. Even Adam Smith would think the situation was mad.

Public ownership has its limitations but there are two things you can be sure of: any money you pay into the system is going to be going towards public services and the system has real accountability, so if you don’t like the quality of provision you can make your feelings known at election time. Had Crawley BC still been responsible for water in the town, I would have made certain that there was at least better communication and if you felt it was insufficient could have done something about it, unfortunately you can’t do that with Southern Water.

Labour plans to bring water back into public ownership, using a model which should actually make money for the pubic purse. If this week is anything to go by, it can’t come fast enough.

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