BY Gerry Bates
Dick Turpin, the highwayman, rules — OK! Or is it The Joker from the Batman comics, the playful larceny-obsessed lunatic who delights in having his armed gang inflict his fantasy-addled, power-mad pranks on those he robs?
Has London turned into Gotham City? Or has London mysteriously turned into some town in an old B-movie Western, where the robbers have made themselves masters — backed by armed stooge sheriff and a robber-serving town council — to prey on the hard-pressed honest citizens?
In any case, “Stand And Deliver”, the legendary cry of the armed robber, pointing a loaded gun at his victim, is the guiding principle of Thames Water in its dealings with eight million people in London and the south east. Of all the privatised utility companies, but of Thames Water especially.
The facts are astonishing.
* Thames Water has announced it will raise its prices by 24% over 2005-10. It has done so with the permission of the official regulatory authority, Ofwat.
• Its profits for 2005 were 31% up, to £346.5 million. The Times says of this profit boost that it was “driven by water bill increases”.
• The owner of Thames Water, the German company RWE, plans to sell it off next year. It expects to take away £1.7 billion gain from its period of ownership of Thames Water.
• It has already taken £1 billion out of Thames Water in dividends, £216 million in 2005 alone (a rise of 52% over the previous year’s figure).
• The company has imposed a hosepipe ban and is asking the government to let it impose a “drought order” on two million of its eight million customers.
• Through leaking pipes, for the repair of which Thames Water is responsible, the company loses 894 million litres of water every day. Between 2000 and 2005 the leakages have increased from 688 million litres a day to 894.
• In 2005 the target set for Thames Water by Ofwat was to cut leakages down to 860 million litres a day. Its target for 2006 is an unambitiously reduction to 840 million litres a day.
• 2005 was Thames Water’s third year of missed targets. Ofwat has the power to fine the company for its failure — maybe £150 million. Ofwat has decided to impose no fine at all. A fine, it explains, would limit the company’s resources for reinvestment!
• £20 million was paid out to RWE’s top executives last year. The chief executive of Thames Water, Jeremy Pelczer, got almost half a million. Five directors of Thames Water are in line for special bonuses of £226,013 for good performance last year - that is, for producing the profits and dividends, not of course for improving water supplies.
• A London Assembly report recommended that Thames Water be fined, and the money go to customers as a rebate. The Consumer Council for Water has also called for a refund or rebate for Thames Water’s customers. Neither Thames Water nor Ofwat have any plans for any such rebate.
Thames Water could truly boast: “Water? We don’t provide water. We provide profits!”
It could be the plot of a Batman-Joker story, couldn’t it? You can get used to things like this, which, at first, strike you as outrageous, and accept them resignedly as the way things are. But they are outrageous!
The Thames Water and RWE executives and shareholders serve no useful public function. Their control of the water supply of one of the world’s great cities serves no function except to allow them to extract vast sums from those who have no choice but to use that water supply.
Controlling a once publicly-owned utility, they preside over a lunatic world in which enormous quantities of water are being wasted, producing serious shortages, and where consumers are charged and charged again on an escalating scale. The regulators allow Thames Water to raise prices for an inadequate and deteriorating utility — in order to pay out enormous dividends and bonuses to its owners and executives.
There are no penalties for the company. Vast amounts of money will be made on the Stock Exchange, as rich people pay mightily to buy into Thames Water’s right to fleece the consumers.
The Government — a Labour government, of sorts — encourages the robber barons of Thames Water and RWE to do what they do. The Government looks out for and serves the interests of Thames Water, and the other privatised utility companies, and not those of the public.
Those who will buy Thames Water when RWE sells it off do so in the knowledge that the company will be allowed to go on in the future as in the past. The consumers have no recourse.
Or do we? Yes, we do!
Money, cash, lucre, profit is being taken, with something not far from the highwayman’s point-of-a-gun method, from water workers and water consumers. But just as Thames Water controls the flow of water, the consumers, collectively, control the flow of money into the greedy paws of Thames Water and RWE executives and shareholders.
Why should we go letting them get away with that? We can “do something”.
We can refuse to pay water charges until the scandal of rising bills, worse supply, and ballooning profits and dividends is sorted out. If enough of us do that, prosecution will be impossible, and we can exert enormous power.
The executives and shareholders care nothing about the real-world functioning or malfunctioning of Thames Water in the provision of water — only about its lucrative imaginary-world functioning on the Stock Exchange. They are concerned not with the efficient flow of water, but with the flow of vast rivers of money. They mess up our water supply and self-evidently do not care.
If we deliberately mess up their cash-supply, they will care.
But we have to pay the bills, on pain of prosecution and having the full might of the law come down on us — the law, the government, and the “regulatory authorities” who are so gentle with Thames Water and who, like the crooked sheriff in the B-movie Western, side with the robbers and not their victims? If enough people refuse to pay, they won’t be able to handle us all.
The anti poll tax movement of the early 1990s forced serious modifications in the local tax system. The current trickle of refusals to pay the council tax, the less-unjust but still unjust replacement for poll tax, may yet force further modifications. In 2001, the city of Cochabamba, in Bolivia, erupted in, the “water war”, a public uprising over water prices — and forced the government to back down on water privatisation.
We can compel the authorities to act against Thames Water and serve not the water-bandits but the consumers.
Solidarity believes that the Thames Water scandal is only an extreme and blatant case of how capitalism operates. We are for public ownership and democratic control of all public utilities, and indeed of all major productive wealth. You do not need to agree with us on that to act in your own interest against Thames Water and the government that serves it.
What can you do? Talk it over with your neighbours, on your street or in your block of flats. Contact acquaintances, face-to-face or online. Put out a call for local meetings. Start a “stop the water bandits” website for your neighbourhood, and see what happens.
We have to say to Thames Water and the Government that defends and serves it — enough is enough!