Drought in Britain: the lessons we can learn from Europe

Q: Water companies in England and Wales are privatised. Is this common?

A: Not really – even Scotland has state-run water facilities. It is unusual for water provision to be run entirely privately. Many European countries, such as France, have their utilities run by private-public partnerships. In others, such as Spain, the issue is somewhat devolved, with some cities served by private companies and the rest of the country by a public water supply.

Proponents of public ownership say that water is such an important resource that there should be accountability. The government must be able to take control in a crisis. Some point to the rather strange situation we have in England, where the government is urging water companies to put in hosepipe bans, but is powerless to force them to do so – and they refuse.

Q: So the UK government can’t force water companies to do anything. What does this mean for supply?

A: The grand idea behind privatisation is that it makes a profit, which can be ploughed back into infrastructure, giving us shiny new pipes, loads of reservoirs and absolutely no leaks. Obviously, this hasn’t been the case – shareholders have become incredibly wealthy off the back of water companies in England and Wales because much of the profit is used to pay them, rather than to update our infrastructure.

The Angling Trust has been campaigning for new reservoirs so that we don’t have to keep sucking our precious chalk streams dry – but the last time a major reservoir was built was before privatisation.

Reservoirs are expensive to build, and it would cost billions to update our pipes so that they stop leaking. This has resulted in us having an infrastructure that was built to sustain the population of a few decades ago, rather than the larger one we have now.

Q: So in France, where only 9,000 people are served solely by private water companies rather than public-private partnerships or publicly owned companies, they must be absolutely swimming in water?

A: Not exactly. This year, France has been hit badly by the European drought and has put water restrictions in place across the whole country. It is partly because of the public control of water that the government is able to do this, but they are also faring a lot worse in terms of supply.

This week, 100 villages were without running water, meaning they had to get their supply from state-provided tanks parked in the town centres.

France is a large country, and it is hard at the best of times to move water around from wetter areas to drier ones, especially when the issue is devolved and you have different muncipalities treating water differently.

Q: What about leaks? How bad are we compared to other countries?

A: Leakage is a problem across Europe. Much as private companies don’t fancy ripping up roads to replace pipes, governments also want to save money and not cause disruption. Italian government ministers recently claimed that up to 42 per cent of water supply is lost through pipes. In England it is about a quarter, according to recent analysis. In Ireland, where water is nationalised, Dublin recently topped the leaderboard of worst leakage of any European city.

Q: Is it cheaper for countries with less privatisation?

A: When the government has some control over the water supply, it can keep prices from spiralling out of control. Italy, for example, has a hybrid system of publicly-owned and privately-owned water companies. The average monthly water bill there is €20, which is about £17. In England, it is £34.

However, water is massively underpriced in Italy according to the OECD, and it does seem Italians have a laissez-faire attitude to their supply – they have the highest use in Europe at over 200 litres a day per capita. This compares to about 150 litres a day in England.


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