Most of us are familiar with some of the lines from Coleridge’s poem The Ancient Mariner. The mariner accosts the wedding guests, by “stopping one in three” before telling his tale. Some think that is a reference to Sunderland’s goalie, but far more well-known are the lines “Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink”. The next line is not “and everything did stink” although perhaps it should be, but “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs upon the shiny sea”.
Hardly an invitation to go for a dip. But how have we got into this mess? When mass provision of piped water started in the nineteenth century, most of it was in the hands of private water companies up until the beginning of the twentieth century. Then it was passed to local authorities, by a Conservative government. A leading Conservative at the time, Joseph Chamberlain argued:
“It is difficult, if not impossible to combine the citizens’ rights and interests and the private enterprise’s interests because the private enterprise aims at its natural and justified objective, the biggest possible profit.”
Achievements of the water companies
The Municipal Water Companies had some great achievements. Notably the construction of Scar House Reservoir in Nidderdale in 1936 which entailed building a new village and railway track for the workforce, and Peter Lee’s famous project The Burnhope Reservoir in Weardale which brought fresh water to East Durham. This also opened in 1936.
What the municipalities were not so good at was the disposal of sewage. In 1974 another Conservative government set up ten regional water authorities to deal with both water and sewage disposal. The RWAs were able to borrow money and did so. One of the achievements of the North East one was Kielder Reservoir which has ensured we don’t have a water shortage at the moment.
Thatcher and privatisation
The Thatcher government curtailed the amount the RWAs could borrow in the interests of the economy. A commentator at the time said:
“Thatcher prevented them from borrowing and then blamed them for not building”.
Privatisation was supposed to enable them to borrow on the private market. It happened in 1989. It was unpopular at the time and still is, but it brought in a shedload of cash for the government.
Far from borrowing and renewing equipment, the water companies became the playthings of private equity funds seeking quick returns for shareholders. Northumbria Water has been owned by French and Chinese interests. They built a fancy new head office at Pity Me but did not invest much in the system, particularly sewage disposal.
How the sewerage system works
I was once a councillor responsible for environment and that included sewage disposal. The waste from houses and public drains all goes into the sewerage system. It is then purified before discharge into the sea. The system was designed to cope with a bygone age, and a combination of new building and heavy rains means it frequently cannot. If the processing plant cannot cope there is an overflow system that allows untreated sewage to go into the sea. It was only supposed to be used as an emergency, but nowadays it has to be used more often. If the outfall was long enough then the waste went far out to sea, and did not create a problem near the shore, but frequently it wasn’t and we have seen the results. I remember Northumbria Water did extend the outfall at Seaham after public protests.
The water companies have not invested in the sewage system and it doesn’t look as if they will, content to continue with equipment from a bygone age. So much for them being able to secure the investment to improve the system. Public Ownership seems to be the only option, as previous Tory governments thought. Publicly owned bodies should be able to borrow on the open market, and there needs to be a mechanism for replacing the provider if it does not deliver.
We all know Liz Truss is very busy and does not have time to be interviewed, but perhaps she can find time to read Joseph Chamberlain’s words, so we can all have a dip in the sea without being afraid of what we might encounter.