Resisting the privatisation of water…

Eamon McCann, singing from a similar hymn sheet as North Down Unionist MLA Bob McCartney, argued in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph that the possible privatisation of the DoE’s Water Service can be “scuppered by non payment”.

“The first point to be made is that non-payment of water charges does not amount to a criminal offence.”

That’s the opening sentence in a briefing paper commissioned from specialist lawyers by a leading trades union.

The assurance will ease the anxiety of many who see the charges, correctly, as a scam, but who fear the repercussions of refusing to pay up.

The union had asked for legal advice on the implications of the vote of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions at Newry last April to support non-payment.

The briefing paper also confirms that the authorities won’t be able to turn off your supply if you flush the water charges bill down the drain.

We have been paying all along for water, through the rates. But, far from reducing the rates to take account of separate charges, rates bills, too, are set to soar. To impose charges is to make us pay twice over.

The message, then, must be: don’t pay twice, it’s alright.

It is not a mantra which ministers and mandarins are likely to find soothing.

There have been suggestions in recent weeks that “something will be done” on water charges as a sweetener for a reconstituted Assembly and Executive. Sinn Fein and DUP spokespersons have seemed particularly keen to claim credit for the anticipated “concession.”

In fact, the main reason New Labour ideologues might back off a bit is that they are seriously worried about the viability of their privatisation/water charges project if they press ahead with their plans on present schedule. They are unsettled by any suggestion of a half-decent non-payment campaign.

New Labour’s proposal is to hand our water service over to a government-owned company in April next year. The “GoCo” will be operate as a private firm. The government will be the sole shareholder, but the business will be incorporated under company law and its management required to take decisions in the interests of notional investors.

After three years, it’s planned to move on to full-blown privatisation. The sole shareholder will put Northern Ireland Water on the market. The only likely bidders will come from the handful of multi-national companies which have making a mint from monopoly control of water supplies in countries across the globe.

That’s it in essence. “Water reform” is a private-sector sting on the Northern Ireland public, designed to relieve us of an asset which we have paid for over the years, while our attentions are diverted elsewhere. And then they want to charge us for using it—as we have no option but to do—-for the rest of our lives.

Tony Soprano’s control of New Jersey waste disposal was achieved on a more ethical basis.

But can the Government grifters be certain there’ll be buyers for NI Water when the time comes around? Here we come to the heart of what’s fluttering their resolve.

By 2010, it’s anticipated that the management now in situ (none of them from Northern Ireland, of course: they have contempt for this place) will have re-structured our water industry so it has assumed the ethos of a private capitalist rather than a public service enterprise. Hundreds of local jobs will have been destroyed, pay and working conditions of the remaining jobs downgraded, a tradition of worker-management consultation discarded in favour of edicts from on high. It’s happening already.

And—the key and crucial point, the condition which above all others must be met if the scam is to succeed—revenue must be flowing predictably and reliably into the coffers of the company. This is to say that the vast majority of the people must be compliantly paying up when if ever the company is floated on the market.

Or, to put it another and better way, the entire scheme can be scuppered by non-payment.

The uncertainty of the schemers, the equivalent of a pick-pocket suddenly afflicted by the fumbles as he sidles towards an assembly of supposed mugs, comes through clearly in the “strategic review” of the plan by a team of free-market zealots hired at vast expense(to us) by the NIO. Again, the strategic reviewers, natch, included not a single representative of any Northern Ireland constituency, institution or interest group. Fair enough, I suppose, in a twisted way. You don’t consult the victims about how it’s proposed they’ll be fleeced.

The UBS Investment Bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Halcrow, Deloitte and the like identified a number of “revenue uncertainties” standing in the way of successful privatisation. Top of the list was, “Uncertainties about revenue collection following the introduction of domestic charging.”

We will come back to the strategic review soon. By implication at least, it identified a number of reasons for believing that water charges here, if we allow their introduction, could rapidly escalate beyond the highest estimates so far suggested even by committed opponents of the plan.

In the meantime, let’s be done with debate about whether a non-payment campaign can win. It can, and will if it has broad enough backing.

Political parties who say they won’t back non-payment because it won’t work are intervening to ensure that it won’t work. Some of them are understandably embarrassed by their own roles as precursors to the plan. Some are nervous of the implications of a mass movement built on a basis which has nothing to do with the community from which anyone comes. Some are deep-down convinced that the class war is over, neo-liberalism has won, resistance is futile. Some of them are all the same people.

As for the rest of us, we should shout with one confident voice: we won’t pay!

  • Rory

    Oh this is so dear to my heart. I, living in London, was strongly opposed to the privatisation of the water supply and believed that, quite apart from any broad socialist principles, while it was necessary to pay for a clean, efficient supply, it was simply immoral for profit to be derived from the supply of man’s most basic necessity after air itself. It seemed self apparent to me that such exploitation was a most heinous crime against humanity itself.

    So I simply decided, on the introduction of privatisation, not to pay and I did not while living at the same address for ten years. I did of course receive payment demands, increasingly in red and often threatening legal sanction but never was threatened with disconnection. Since I lived in a first floor flat disconnection would also have punished the occupant on the ground floor. Over the years the demands from the water company simply asked for payment for the last, or last two accounting periods and I would eventually receive a demand from a debt collection agency for previous arrears which debt had been assigned to them. If the water company had little chance of payment they had even less. Eventually after having moved address for some years I was doorstepped by a collection agent who had ferreted me out and I simply shrugged and told him I was flat broke, in poor health and unemployed and I advised him that the best thing his client could do was “go whistle”. He was a nice fellow and took this all in very good grace saying, “Fair enough, mate, Take care of yourself. Cheers”. I have not been bothered since.

    One of my very few victories in life but I do cherish it.

  • droopy

    Did this not land you with a negative credit rating that would hurt your chances of getting loans, credit etc?

  • Crataegus

    What ever we do we must not create another private monopoly especially for something so fundamental.

    Unflinching free marketers will wax lyrically about the efficiencies of private enterprise, but there is a down side for the private sector can be as bloated and inefficient as the public and large profits with minimum effort are attractive for any business.

  • pugachev

    Rory : says more about luck & basic inefficiency of your water provider. I seem to remember quite a number of reports of out breaks of dysentery due to water cut offs, but maybe thats why they will never get really heavy ? Does any one have any UK stats ?

    When i lived in England i never paid that there Poll Tax ever….. despite being chased around ASDA in Longsight by a fundamentalist christian neighbour, who thought i should pay cause she did.

    “render unto caesar sinner”

  • T.Osseur

    Water that is private tastes different -more expensive.

  • aquifer

    Of course water should be metered and charged for. The infrastructure is very expensive and it costs energy and effort to clean it up for drinking. The debt would go on someones credit rating or be secured on the property.

    Is there a problem here other than political losers trying to buy a few votes with everybody elses money?

    Admittedly not a bad strategy in a PRSTV election when you could promise to rob the 80% to pay 20% to vote for you.

    If you think water companies make ridiculous profits, buy a few for your pension.

  • Crataegus

    Aquifer,

    Of course water should be metered and charged for.

    Basically I agree with you on grounds of waste and the environment, but with a few limits.

    1 Everyone should have a quantity FREE or rather paid for collectively in our rates. After all you die without water.
    2 Pensioners should not be charged.
    3 It should not be supplied by a private company monopoly.
    4 We should also introduce rain harvesting and usage into our Building Regulations along with other measures to save water and dispose of rain water locally etc etc.

    On 3 above as a developer believe me you really don’t want a private sector monopoly, I have had some considerable experience and none of it good. Last one was paying £14,500 and for all attendance for something which took 4 men 6 hours!!!!!!!!!

    There is no reason why the Water Service cannot remain in Public control as a company all you have to do is sort out management structures and accountability and set standards of expectation. After all the track record of Water companies in England is hardly inspiring so why follow suit unless the intention is simply to accrue some money.

    We really do need to be rid of the carpet beggars.

  • joeCanuck

    The point that a lot of people are missing is that the water is already been paid for by the public. Who pays for the infrastructure and the operating costs?
    I agree that it is too important a service to hand over to a private company whose only mantra will be “we have a duty to maximise shareholder value”
    The only exception should be industrial users. Do large corporations who use a lot of water presently have it metered and are being charged for it. If not, they should be.

  • Rory

    Droopy,

    Credit rating would be a problem for many but not for me as I am lucky never to have fetishised objects and food, clothing and other basics (including beer and tobacco) are affordable without credit. I value experience over possession and the joy of memory outlives any object. However if people are concerned about credit rating, and I presume they will be, I anticipate that a mass movement of non=payment could negate that after all the money lender sharks in the banks and credit companies will not lose out on a whole market over a political protest although I suspect the threat and the fear will be hard to overcome.

    Pugachev,

    Congratulations on avoiding the Poll Tax. I refused to pay for years and was eventually hauled before the beaks and given six months after a very brief hearing for “wilful refusal to pay”. I was bailed for two hours to raise the cash and with my salary, paid in that day, all my savings and a lot from a girl friend I stayed free for a little longer. Times were lean for a while but I bounced back and I’m glad that some outwitted the bastards.