Water Crisis Does Not Legitimise Privatisation
The Workers’ Party General Secretary, John Lowry, has warned against drawing the wrong conclusions from the recent water crisis.

During the recent water crisis in Northern Ireland hundreds of water mains burst, along with thousands of industrial and domestic water pipes, which resulted in a collapse in water supply. Twenty thousand repair orders were issued in a few days and several reservoirs ran dry. 40,000 houses were left without any running water for days. However, the Workers’ Party has warned against drawing the wrong conclusions from the recent crisis.


Speaking to Party activists, General Secretary, John Lowry, argued that the crises pointed to a failure in management, particularly at Stormont level and could not be legitimately be used as an argument in favour of water metering or, more broadly, of privatisation. “After devolution, the water service inherited a Victorian water infrastructure, which under Direct Rule during the Troubles was allowed to fall into decay. However, there has been an inability within the ruling parties of Stormont Coalition to follow good advice and Conor Murphy bears direct responsibility for many aspects of the recent crisis."


“In December, Murphy dismissed the idea of a cross party task force to deal with the effects of the cold weather. Earlier in 2010 NI Water Chief Executive, Laurence MacKenzie, cut the communications budget by some 64% with no opposition from Conor Murphy or from what was left of the Water Board, emasculated after the sacking four non executives of the Board in March 2010. This was to come home to roost in December 2010 when communication between an anxious public and the Board was virtually non-existent. This was a crises waiting to happen.” 


“As I speak, Mr MacKenzie has resigned but Conor Murphy refuses to go and both Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson have rallied to his cause by pointing the finger of blame at MacKenzie, while conveniently ignoring the fact that Murphy’s Department for Regional Development is responsible for both road gritting and water supply. Ulster Unionist Fred Cobain, chair of the Regional Development Committee put it well when he said that, ‘It beggars belief I have to say, but it doesn’t surprise me with this Executive, because nobody seems to take responsibility for anything.’  It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Fred Cobain. We should note however that his party is a junior member of the Executive.”


“The lesson that should not be drawn from this fiasco are that water charges are necessary or that privatised services are more efficient. As noted above, the water service here has been underfunded for decades. More public investment is needed and this should not involve people paying twice (through rates and water charges) for what they already own. Privatisation is held up by its proponents, usually without any evidence, as the answer to all inefficiency and bad governance. The truth is somewhat different. For example*, in West Yorkshire within five years of the privatisation of the water and sewerage industry in 1989, the public water supply system failed. Supplies were only maintained by means of mass road tankering. There was widespread public concern not only in Yorkshire but elsewhere about the public water supply. This concern was heightened by the cold spell over the Christmas period when many consumers had no tap water as a result of damage to their pipework and Northumbrian Water's mains. This was a failure of management within a privatised service and, crucially, a failure of oversight by the regulatory body which was supposed to curb the worst excesses of the market and uphold standards. As in the banking business, regulation in the privatised water business didn’t work, even though *‘it was recognised before the privatisation of the water and sewerage industry that the pursuit of private profit would inevitably mean that corners would becut.’


“Moreover, at the same time as we were going through our water crises, ** tens of thousands of holidaymakers found themselves stranded at the privately-owned Heathrow, suffering a shortage of public seating, a lack of reasonably priced food and drink outlets. In supporting Mrs Thatcher’s 1986 Airports Act the Earl of Caithness stated that ‘The government's objective with this bill is to liberate airport management from political interference … to enable airport operators to respond to the needs of their customers, rather than to the shifting priorities of politicians and officials.’ Recent events both here and in the UK show instead that it is necessary to keep public utilities under public control and to liberate privatised utilities from the interference of  profit-seekers”, Mr Lowry concluded.


*’Regulating the Water Industry :Swimming Against the Tide or Going Through the Motions?’

By Richard Schofield and Jean Shaoul


** ‘Why we should nationalise our airports’ by Neil Clark

Issued: Tuesday 11th Jan 2011
Peace, Work, Democracy, and Class Politics