Threat of water charges and privatisation remains
Many people will have been relieved by the announcement from Government that the issuing of water bills has been delayed. At the time of writing they had been delayed for six weeks until the establishment of the power sharing, with the Treasury holding out the possibility of a further delay of twelve months. We were also told by Secretary of State Peter Hain that the decisions over water charges and the future of the Water Service would be taken by the Assembly.
Given that all the parties now represented in the Assembly claimed during the election campaign that they were opposed to water charges and privatisation, it might be assumed that the issue is now settled. However, this would be a mistake. The threat of water charges and privatisation is still hanging over us. There are a number of reasons for this:
Firstly, the most important element of the water reform programme, the creation of Northern Ireland Water Ltd, went ahead as planned on 1 April. The Water Service has been abolished and replaced with a government owned company. It was the removal of the Water Serve from the public sector that necessitated introduction of a separate water charge. This move towards privatisation required the creation of a revenue stream independent from Government; once the water company was self financing it could be sold off. As long as the water company is outside the public sector and operating in the market, the pressure for a separate water charge will remain.
Secondly, though the issuing of bills has been delayed, technically they are now in place. The Government is providing the company with the finance it would have received from its customers. So indirectly we are paying the water charges through our taxes.
Also, despite claims that decisions on water will rest with the Assembly, the management of NI Water are pressing ahead with their plans for water charges and privatisation. Only three days before the agreement on the restoration of power sharing the chief executive of the Water Service, Katharine Bryan, wrote to senior members of staff urging them not to be confused by press reports.
‘‘Northern Ireland Water will still be established, as planned, on 1 April. NIW will be a government company outside of the Northern Ireland Civil Service . . . Planned changes in how we are regulated both economically and environmentally will continue.”
The previous week, houses in rural areas received letters from Water Service Director of Customer Services, William Duddy, telling them that the service was to be removed from the public sector on April 1, and that there'd then be a charge for services, such as the emptying of sceptic tanks, which previously came free. Householders were told that any current agreements would be terminated and that ”charges for the new service will be phased in over the next two years”. This escalation in prices reflects that planned for domestic water charges. Clearly the management of NI Water have no expectation that their plans might be affected or even reversed by an incoming executive.
They will have been encouraged by the almost immediate backtracking of politicians after the election. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have indicated that they would accept water charges if the British Government paid for the upgrade of the network. Ian Paisley Jnr said that the intention of his party would be to “get sufficient resources to invest in capital works programmes so as the general public do not have to pay for a lack of investment over the last 30 years.” Mitchel McLaughlin has said that people would be prepared pay “the legitimate cost of running a clean and healthy water supply”. They accept the argument for water charges, and do not even raise the question of privatisation.
Even if there was the political will to
oppose water charges and privatisation the executive is limited in what
it can do. The water charge has been into its budget and may of the
decisions on the future the water service have already been taken.
It would therefore be a mistake to place our hopes on the executive.
The only way to beat water charges and privatisation is to build a mass
campaign of opposition that mobilises people within communities and workplaces.
While this does not exist at present, the delay in water charges at least
gives us more time to create it.