England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Water companies dumping sewage in our rivers: Nationalise them now!

By Keiran Devlin, Socialist Alternative Merseyside

Private water companies are dumping raw sewage into our rivers at unprecedented levels. According to the Environment Agency, 2023 saw 3.6m hours of spillage of raw sewage into English seas and rivers, marking an annual rise of 105%. This made 2023 the worst year on record for storm water pollution.

One of the worst offenders is Thames Water, whose 16,990 instances of illegal overflow dumping coincide with the opening of desperate restructuring talks around the financial crisis in their parent company, the Kemble Water Group.

The crisis in Kemble Water is centred around the company’s £18bn of debt and, more immediately, around fears that the company may become insolvent if it can’t make the £109m loan repayment its creditors expect by the end of this month, which may end up with the company being placed into special administration. Situations like these aren’t isolated incidents, but are instead inherent to the failed model of privatisation. They reveal how capitalism is absolutely incapable of running our key services.

Failure of privatisation 

The root of this crisis was in the Thatcher government’s neoliberal push for privatisation. In 1989, the Tories privatised water services in England and Wales, cancelling the private water companies’ debts as a gift to the new private owners.

These new owners responded in the natural capitalist manner – billions of pounds were extracted in dividends to line the new owners’ pockets, a cost that was covered by sinking the companies back into debt. Since 1989, private ownership of water services has created £72bn for its owners, £60bn of debt for the companies, and seen the steady degradation of services as money that would otherwise be used to maintain and upgrade infrastructure is siphoned off to enrich those at the top.

The spectacular collapse of Thames Water has gained special press attention in recent weeks. Their relentless profit-seeking and neglect for their own infrastructure has put them in a position of potential special administration. This would effectively mean Thames Water being temporarily nationalised.

The Tories, and even an incoming Labour government will do everything they can to avoid this outcome, as it would force them to admit what already seems obvious to many when looking at the water industry, the railways, or increasing sectors of the NHS – that privatisation never works!

No to bailouts 

Although a temporary nationalisation would be a humiliating step for the government to take, we need to be extremely clear that this would not be done to serve the interests of the working class. Any renationalisation that is performed with the intent of returning ownership into private hands in future is effectively just passing the bill onto the public, as public money is used to bail out the private owners.

Instead of compensating these parasitic profiteers, we need to seize their wealth! Socialist Alternative calls for massive taxes on the rich, along with permanent, democratically controlled public ownership and nationalisation, not only of the water companies, but all other utilities, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need – none for the millionaires and billionaires.

With measures like these, as part of a socialist plan of production, we could easily provide funds to maintain our infrastructure and avoid seeing similar failures of private industry in future.

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