To become truly electable again Labour needs not only to have compelling and trustworthy policies governing the totems of policy: housing, tax, benefits and the economy, we also need to have policies for the future challenges we will face as a nation. One of these more technical challenges is on something we take for granted so much today but will become scarce and valuable tomorrow – water.
Why water? Simply, because it is currently present and will be a growing contributor to poverty in UK in the coming years. Not just because of water scarcity but primarily because of the price of water – the water affordability question. As a nation we have taken for granted the ability of being able to drink, bathe in, and use cheap water whilst at the same time taking for granted clean beaches and sparkling rivers free from pollution.
Since privatisation the water industry has invested millions in cleaning our nation’s coastline and purifying drinking water. Beaches have improved, hundreds of raw sewage outlets have been closed and the nation is able to hold its head up high when it comes to water purity. Rightly so. But this has all come at a price. Not a level price for each family in the nation but a price regionally loaded. The winners were the south east whose high population shared costs more evenly. The losers were those areas with long coastlines. The south west of England suffered most. Water bill payers accounting for a mere 3% of the nation’s population picked up the cost for cleaning up 33% of the coastline. For those in the south west water prices are not a theoretical component of poverty – it is the cause of it for many families and will only get worse.
As major water and sewerage investment schemes begin in London and elsewhere replacing the nation’s Victorian plumbing the costs of affording clean drinking water will increase. Water is a human right and affording it, hitherto not a worry for many in the country, will become a more pressing concern. The Citizens Advice Bureaux advise people in debt to prioritise other bills ahead of paying water debts as, unlike gas and electricity, you cannot be disconnected. That is little comfort for those who sit marginally above the poverty line and for whom annual double digit growth in water bills will severely bite. The price of defaulting on bills will also pass additional costs onto those who can afford their bills.
Within the next ten years affording to pay the water bill will become a struggle for more and more families across Britain. That is why Labour needs to have a workable solution to not only the approaching hikes in water costs but a plan also for addressing water bills, such as those in the south west, that are already expensive. If we are to have a forward looking manifesto we need to have a forward looking policy agenda and a policy for water affordability must be a part of that approach.
Labour in opposition needs a bold and comprehensive water policy that addresses the triple concerns of affordability, carbon and ownership. This post does not attempt to offer all the solutions but poses some questions as a movement we must face. Should water be affordable for all? Should we all pay the same price for water? Is there an amount of water where we should all pay the same and elevated levels where water should become more expensive? How can one of the most carbon-intensive industries be compelled and required to reduce its horrendous carbon footprint? How can we address current water affordability problems whilst maintaining fairness in the pricing system? Should the market provide our water or is there an alternative mutual solution that as a party we should be pointing the industry towards? Should the private sector be the owners of our water infrastructure? If so, who should set the prices: the market, a regulator or its customer base?
Beyond the policy considerations, water also has a political potency on the doorstep. Perhaps not nationwide, but regionally, where prices are above the national average and increasing dramatically a reforming water policy is a vote winner. In the run up to the general election the Conservatives looked to emulate the electoral success of having a water policy that works with voters, although they chose not to deploy it nationally in the end. The Lib Dems have long won votes in the Westcountry on just this single issue. Despite some good work by water ministers Phil Woolas and Huw Irranca Davies in the years running up to the last election, Labour ended up behind the curve on a political issue which, for a small price, could still contribute to gaining and retaining seats. In the spirit of frank self-reflection let’s be honest – Labour’s old water policy emboldened the vested interests of large water companies and their corporate investors, failed to incentivise the move to renewable power for this sector, and paid only lip service to water affordability.
Though important improvements were made to the system, not least in sorting out Ofwat, the woeful water regulator, those who tirelessly campaigned for them no longer sit in the Commons. The absence of Plymouth’s Linda Gilroy is a setback to Labour’s leading role in the campaign to develop a 21st century water policy which meets the fairness as well as the green test. This issue cannot be allowed slip into the ‘too difficult box’. The last Labour government commissioned Anna Walker to review water affordability. Her report was a good start, but offered largely managerial not political solutions. It seems quite likely that the coalition will take some parts of that policy review and implement them in a weak and watered down way. They will, I believe, recognise the political necessity of doing something. What we need is a Labour review of water policy where our vision for a fairer system combined with our values can propose truly radical and long overdue reform.
Labour needs a new generation of water champions for this unsexy, logistical but critical sector. Gas and electricity prices have long engendered passionate political debate amongst our party and from here on so must water prices. We ought to see gas, electricity and water as a triumervate of utility costs that impact the poorest the most and will do even more in the future. Whether it is for carbon, for scarcity, for security or for renewal the cost of all these three utilities will increase in the coming years, some dramatically. We cannot and should not allow water affordability to creep silently into the language and experience of poverty in Britain.
Luke Pollard was Labour’s candidate in South West Devon at the last General Election. Find out more on his website.