I live in the UK, on the South coast. If I lived just a few hundred yards further South, I would need fins and gills to survive. An equal distance West is the River Arun. A bit further to the East can be found the River Adur. Oh, and it's raining. I am surrounded by water.
In the 1980's, some bright spark with lots of money and no idea about the world that real, normal people inhabit (i.e. a Conservative MP) decided that rich people could make even more money through the privatisation of the utility companies. The idea was that, for example, the Water companies - which at that time belonged to the British people - should be opened up and shares put up for sale. I remember a lot of nonsense at the time about the UK becoming a shareholding democracy. Utter bollocks of course; as you will remember, the average person could only afford to invest from say, nothing to a few hundred quid at most. Sure, they made a few pounds if they sold them on at the right time. The rich, smug elite, however, were able to invest thousands, tens of thousands, or more, and make an absolute fortune.
Why we let this happen is beyond me.
Anyway, I've been doing some research into our local water supplier, Southern Water. It is truly a depressing and dispiriting experience. I've got nothing against the company, or the people who work there - all my vitriol, venom and bile is reserved for those that had a hand in privatising it in the first place. But it makes me sick to realise that, not just locally but across the country, water bills are rising, as are restrictions on the use of water. This is aggravated by the fact that last year the Water companies made profits of £1.7 billion, and this year it's likely to be even more.
This is so, so wrong. It is wrong from every human point of view. Water is a whole world resource. It should be paid for from taxation; that way everybody pays according to their means. No-one, I repeat, no-one, should make a profit from water. The shareholders should have their shares revoked - compensate them or let the buggers suffer, I don't care. (If they were scummy enough to try and profit from the privatisation in the first place, I'd be inclined to let them suffer). If we can't re-nationalise the companies - and I don't see why not, there surely has to be at least one competent politician out there - then let's make them invest every single penny they've made back into the resource they've profited from.
It looks like three companies are about to impose drought orders. No! Take their money and build de-salination plants. Build pipelines and pump water down from the North. Fix the bloody leaks! If they haven't got enough money to do this, which I doubt, then take it from the shareholders - raid their bank accounts and sell their assets*. Get the money. When, nationally, the various Water companies have finally got their house in order - and it shouldn't take a competent, suitably motivated CEO too long to accomplish - take any remaining surpluses and plough them into countries where access to clean water is a real problem.
I'm not anti-capitalism. It just seems to me that we should not submit life's essentials to the mercy of market forces. Water, power, education, health, perhaps even public transport: these are not suitable sectors for privatisation. To trade in these is immoral and obscene.
*Why so hard on the shareholders? One of the many other industries to have been stolen from the British public and sold back to us in the form of privatisation (heavily subsidised with taxpayers money, of course) was the railway network. You will doubtless still be cringing with embarrassment from the furore a little while back when the Railtrack shareholders started demanding compensation (i.e. yet more public money), effectively because they weren't making the profits their greedy little minds had first envisaged. They lost the subsequent court case, thank God. If they hadn't, I'm sure that everyone who'd ever bought, for example, a losing lottery ticket from Camelot would have been banging on their lawyer's door. As it is, wise up. Investment should always be a gamble. And if you're greedy enough to invest in a sector that should never have been privatised in the first place, you deserve to lose your shirt.
(This was written in May 2006. I was probably a bit grumpy at the time).