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Opinion: Columnist Melissa Todd takes aim at water companies for overseeing supply issues, hosepipe bans and sea pollution

In her latest column for KentOnline, Broadstairs writer and dominatrix Melissa Todd lets rip at water companies overseeing interrupted supplies, sea pollution and hosepipe bans – all while hiking our bills.

Southern Water are so fond of their little jokes, aren’t they? Having deprived us all of water for days last year - how fondly I recall the hours spent queuing around Dane Court car park for my water rations, thanking God I had a car, dreaming of the day I might be able to flush my loo - we’re now told our water bills are going up by a potential 70%! Meanwhile, South East Water have imposed a hosepipe ban during the first heatwave of the summer. Hilarious. Comedy gold. Oh, my aching sides.

Much of Kent is now under a hosepipe ban
Much of Kent is now under a hosepipe ban

Oh, did I mention the sewage in the sea? There’s just too much farcical mismanagement to cram into one opening paragraph, no? Choosing to pollute a coastal resort that relies on its beautiful pristine coastline to attract tourists and sportsmen represents a particularly idiotic barbarism, not to mention the criminal environmental catastrophe of upsetting delicate marine ecosystems by pouring our untreated filth directly into their midst.

A recent ‘research leaflet’ (there’s a charming euphemism) sent to each home has suggested a series of bill rises, from £439 in 2023/24 up to £759 by 2030. This is meant to secure investment in infrastructure. Forgive my cynicism, but there have been many promises of investment in infrastructure since water was privatised in 1989. The whole purpose of privatisation, as far as I recall, was to encourage a rise in investment, stimulate competition, reduce consumer prices and make supply more responsive to demand.

It’s self-evident that none of these objectives have been fulfilled. In the 1990s there was a rise in investment, but it quickly plateaued, dropping from an average of 5.7 billion a year to 4.8 billion in 2021. Bills have increased in real terms by 31% but £72 billion has been paid to shareholders - around 20% of your bill goes in dividends. Shareholders have had their investment back many times over, and to expect customers to pay for improvements through higher bills is immoral. We won’t own the improvements once they are built: the shareholders will.

A protest against sewage releases into the sea in Thanet. Picture: Frank Leppard photography
A protest against sewage releases into the sea in Thanet. Picture: Frank Leppard photography

It’s immoral, too, I would argue, to try to make a profit on anything necessary to sustain life. Money, heat, healthcare. These are public essentials. They shouldn’t be treated as stakes in a gambling den. Expecting businesses to care about the social good is like expecting a snake to worry about the finer feelings of a mouse.

Milton Friedman, father of neoliberalism, wrote that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits”. Without competition - and how could there ever be competition in water supply? - expecting the market to regulate Southern Water and command it to offer a decent system is optimistic to the point of lunacy. Instead, all ambition and hope has left an industry which in Victorian Britain grew with astonishing rapidity and ease, bringing clean drinking water and sewage services to fast-growing industrial towns.

Instead, in 2023, the CEO of South East Water – which supplies fresh water in the part of Kent covered by the hosepipe ban – has claimed the “working from home” trend has “put strains on infrastructure”.

SOS Whitstable in Tankerton protesting against Southern Water wastewater and sewage releases into sea. Picture: Tom Banbury @tombanbury
SOS Whitstable in Tankerton protesting against Southern Water wastewater and sewage releases into sea. Picture: Tom Banbury @tombanbury

What, make tea and enjoy a flower bed? When do you think you’re living, 1865?

And Britain has become considerably wetter since 1865. Water companies lack motive to solve the problem, not money, or the raw ingredients.

Water policy works on the basis that consumption of water is a bad thing. No company can increase its profits by begging people not to make use of its product. Instead, it must increase profits either by raising prices or by slashing costs, or, ideally, both. Sound familiar?

Moreover, 70% of English water industry is in foreign ownership. Who are these people? To which laws do they adhere? How do we hold them accountable? And who remembers the promise we would ‘take back control’? We’ve never been more out of control. Our precious water supply, intrinsic to our health, economy and happiness, is being used by other countries as a piggy bank. We focus on the foreigners arriving on our shores, when perhaps we should also consider the foreign investors preying on and profiting by our resources from afar.

How do you feel about facing another summer you daren’t swim in the sea, while 20% of your water bill goes to faceless, dispassionate Chinese investors?

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