Thames Water’s bills are set to rise. That’s bad news in Swindon, especially as the reason given for needing the money is to upgrade infrastructure in London.
The locals aren’t happy and the suggestion has been made that perhaps Thames should be split into Upper and Lower zones for billing purposes. An excellent idea. London can well afford to pay for its own infrastructure. Which of the London parties will include it in their manifesto? That’s right.
It makes sense to us as an interim solution but what is really needed is for Wessex to take back control of its own natural resources. Forty years ago, most of Wessex was supplied by local water boards, made up of councillors from the area served. Swindon, along with Bath, Plymouth, Southampton and Winchester, was one of five Wessex councils that still ran its own water department. These were financed by municipal bonds, and ultimately by ratepayers, but under democratic control, as befits a natural monopoly.
Because of Treasury interference, however, the publicly owned water service was never able to spend what was needed to keep itself up to date. When we hear about ‘crumbling Victorian sewers’ needing replacement we really ought to ask why the Victorians were willing to put public money into public works and our generation is not. Might it have something to do with the ruling ideology that sees public utilities as pipes for channelling customers’ payments into deep private pockets?
Today Thames is a subsidiary of Kemble Water, a consortium based in Australia. Surely decisions about water bills in Wessex shouldn’t depend on what London demands, let alone what suits investors in Sydney? In recent years, large slices of the company’s shares have been bought by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and the China Investment Corporation. Are they elected by the voters of Swindon? If not, ought we to describe this situation as progress?