Just how did Scotland keep water in public hands? It found strength in unity

Scots have watched appalled as the dire state of England’s water supply hits the headlines from a hideous vomiting bug contracted from contaminated tap water to water companies hovering on the edge of bankruptcy, to rising water charges

Water in Scotland remains - largely - in public ownership and has avoided many of these problems.

Scotland’s publicly-owned water company Scottish Water does face challenges - because the way the Victorian system was built means that storm drains and household waste often feed into the same sewerage system. In some places, it will have to be rebuilt to increase resilience to climate change and flooding. 

But this work is already underway. Between 2002 and 2018, Scottish Water invested on average nearly 35 per cent more per household than English water companies, according to researchers at Greenwich University. Yet most Scots pay much lower charges than their counterparts in England - and money paid to Scottish Water does not go on dividends to shareholders.

And for example, on Greenock Esplanade, fish are visibly teeming in the River Clyde  -  confirmation that the water quality in Scotland’s rivers is much higher than in England. A primary school recently shared footage of pupils releasing trout they hatched in their classroom into the headwaters of one of Scotland’s most urban rivers. Contrast this with a recent investigation by journalist Will Dunn: “The Great Stink: How Privatisation and Profit Polluted England’s Waterways”.

So just how did Scotland manage to keep its water supply in public hands during the era of ideological privatisation when other utilities were privatised - gas, electricity, the National Grid, the railways etc?

The UK Gov did attempt to privatise water in Scotland - but there was united opposition

Water was privatised in England under Margaret Thatcher. In 1994, the Conservative Government under John Major geared up to do the same in Scotland. It was a period when demands for Scotland to have more control over its affairs were building. The plans to privatise Scottish water met a massive wall of opposition. 

Strathclyde Regional Authority decided to hold an advisory referendum to test the strength of feeling. They held a postal ballot. There was a huge turnout with  71.5 percent of electors in Strathclyde returning their papers. 

An extraordinary 97.2 per cent wanted Scottish water to remain in public hands. No to privatisation votes numbered 1,194,667 - yes votes just 33,956

This referendum had no legal force at the time. The UK government still had the legal power to do what it wished with Scottish Water. At that time, Scotland didn’t even have a Parliament or a National Assembly. It was run by the Westminster “Grand Committee” on Scottish affairs which was regularly stuffed with English MPs from the shires because there were too few Scottish Conservatives to vote through the Government’s plans. 

It was not a controversial issue - nobody supported privatisation

The Westminster record of the time, Hansard, records MP for East Lothian John Home Robertson saying in a debate about the referendum:

“Frankly, the result did not surprise me. What surprised me was the massive turnout of electors. I am amazed that even this Government think that they can shrug it off. I have no doubt that the result would have been exactly the same if the question had been put to my constituents and those of my hon. Friends in the Lothian region.”

Home Robertson said almost nobody supported privatisation:

“The Secretary of State for Scotland prefaced his remarks by saying that we had to return to the issues of state in Scotland today and consider this controversial issue. I have news for the Secretary of State for Scotland: this is not a remotely controversial issue. It is one of very few issues about which it would be impossible to start an argument in the streets, households, pubs, clubs or anywhere else in Scotland today. There is no support anywhere in Scotland for the proposal to take the water and sewerage industries out of the control of democratically accountable local authorities”

Eventually, the local water authorities were merged to form Scottish Water, which is a publicly-owned water company subject to scrutiny by the Scottish government, and overseen by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. 

High charges in England - much ends up in shareholders' pockets

The region of England with the largest water bills is London, where Thames Water wants to raise bills to an average of more than £625 a year. 

That is much more than in Scotland. Most people in Scotland don’t have water meters and they pay as part of their council tax. That varies according to the value of the property with the lowest band paying less than £200 a year - even band H householders, the highest-value homes in Scotland, pay £586 a year - less than Thames Water plans to charge average Londoners. Scots can also be confident that the water charges they pay are not being used to leverage debt. 

When Thames Water was privatised in 1989, it had no debt. But over the years it borrowed heavily against the guaranteed income from water rates and is currently £15.4bn in debt, a large proportion of which was added when Macquarie, an Australian infrastructure bank, was the largest shareholder. There is a chance that it might go bust and have to be taken into public hands - at a huge cost to UK taxpayers. 

Southwest Water, where the vomiting bug has been linked to in tapwater, is under serious investigation for massaging statistics about the scale of the ongoing pollution. It has been fined over £2 million for dumping raw sewage and has high levels of debt. A similar pattern can be found in many other water companies in England. 

Strength in unity

The lesson from the story of Scotland’s water is that when Scotland is united, it wins, The UK Government was forced to back down on this - although it forced through privatisations in many other areas.

Scotland can be confident that when it stands together and demands independence from the UK, it will succeed. That will allow it to take decisions over Scotland’s resources and utilities that benefit ordinary people.