Water Torture

The first time I heard that there was a problem with Northern Ireland’s water supply was, I think, on the six o’ clock “news” on New Year’s Eve. I was half asleep and half watching the BBC’s 24 hour “news” channel where I’m sure they said the water shortage was a result of Belfast’s main reservoir running dry. Although it had apparently been a problem for about a week, this was the first time it had made the “news”.

How very odd, I thought: how could one of the wettest places in Europe run out of water. Just as the story ended my wife came into the room, and I told her about it. She too thought it was odd, so I changed channels so she could watch it for herself on BBC One, the Beeb’s main channel, where their “news” was just starting up. This time there’s no mention of dry reservoirs; we’re told instead that the water shortage was due to water pipes bursting as the long spell of recent freezing weather thawed them. Exactly the same story, told by exactly the same “news” provider, but with an entirely different cause.

The following morning that leading organ of British printed propaganda, The Times, ran an article about it on page 14. At the time I didn’t know that Northern Ireland was just about the last part of Britain whose water supply has not been privatised… but I started to wonder. I didn’t have long to wait. The story has been in the “news” ever since and the recurring theme, in The Times and on TV, is that Northern Ireland Water is a public company, whilst most of the mainland’s water supply is provided by private corporations.

Curiously missing from all these national “news” reports, however, is any information about how the rest of the mainland’s water supply has been coping after enduring very similar weather conditions. So it’s obviously quite difficult to know how the rest of Britain is managing for water, and one could be forgiven for assuming there simply isn’t a problem with the nation’s wonderful privatised water supply as the national “news” hasn’t anything to say about it. But my local “news” provider, which covers the East Midlands, has been reporting plenty of burst water pipes and an “unprecedented” number of calls from the public on the subject.

So contrary to the way the national “news” providers are spinning the story, it would seem that Northern Ireland’s burst water pipes have nothing to do with the fact that the supplier is a public company rather than a private one; and their water problems, like the rest of the country, are pretty much down to the fact that Britain has just experienced the coldest December in a hundred years.

Headlines are a very important part of the propagandist’s craft, and the story provided by last Saturday’s Times appeared beneath a fine example of the art: “UK taxpayers’ money goes down the drain in subsidy for failing Ulster water company”.

The article proceeds to suggest that households in Northern Ireland pay an average of just £80 a year for their water services, whilst households on the mainland pay around £350. This is because, we’re told, British taxpayers must subsidize Northern Ireland’s water to the tune of £10 per household. In case The Times readers struggle with simple arithmetic, the paper reinforces the point by telling us that Northern Ireland customers pay: “a quarter of the typical water bill that the rest of the UK pays.” Clearly we’re supposed to be outraged and offended by our hard-earned taxes “going down the drain” and wonder why the Irish should get away with such cheap water bills. Well, this reader is indeed outraged and offended – but wonders instead why customers on the mainland must pay FOUR TIMES as much for their water as Northern Ireland consumers when, if my home county is anything to go by, the service appears to be about the same.

The Times and the BBC “news” are, of course, produced by elites for elites, and it’s very obvious that Northern Ireland is being softened up to accept the privatisation of its water supply, so that the good people of that country can savour the benefits of paying FOUR TIMES as much for basically the same service as the one they’re getting now. A letter in that same edition of The Times by someone rejoicing in the name Lord Baker of Dorking, who proudly tells us he was intimately involved in the mainland’s water privatisation under Thatcher, advises Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, “to privatise the operation in Northern Ireland so they can go to the markets for their capital requirements [because] Governments can only go to the taxpayer.”

No, Mr Baker, capital does not magically appear at “the markets” it comes from exactly the same place as governments find it: the taxpayer. It might have a different name, like Water Bill, but it’s still the taxpayer who pays it.

The suggestion that privatised utilities are better than public utilities is, of course, total bunkum – but absolutely central to the Chicago-school economic model that rules the world. The private organisation that provides water services to my English home is owned mostly by Australian and Canadian corporations, with a mere 15% of its shares held by a British company. This means the business end of the profits made on me spending FOUR TIMES as much for my water as some of my fellow Brits flies away to different parts of the globe instead of being reinvested in our own water services.

Not entirely unrelated to this story was a short discussion I heard on Al Jazeera the other night. I’ve long had my doubts about which side Al Jazeera is batting for, and their studio guest on this occasion did nothing to reassure me, being as he was from the Washington-based Cato Institute, a right wing “think-tank” that promotes itself as “dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace” (at least it has a sense of humour). The subject was Latin America and how remarkably well the economies of Latin American countries are looking at present. I had a sense of foreboding before the Cato-man even opened his mouth. Sitting back smugly in his chair he suggested to Al Jazeera‘s viewers that this was a direct result of the stringent-though-much-criticised economic policies imposed on the continent in the eighties and nineties. In the absence of any “balancing” studio guest at Al Jazeera I thought I’d add the words of John Perkins which flashed instantly through my mind:

Thanks to the biased “sciences” of forecasting, econometrics and statistics, if you bomb a city and then rebuild it, the data shows a huge spike in economic growth.

Much of the rest of the world is bracing itself for its dose of economic shock treatment this year. I’m predicting the “huge spike” in economic growth will start appearing when the next round of US/UK elections kick off in about two years time, when no doubt we shall all be treated to endless lectures on the far-sighted wisdom of our economic leaders for their savaging of public services in 2011.

John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. His latest booklet is entitled EnMo Economics. Other Non-Fiction books by John are: The People's Constitution (2018 Edition); and The School of Kindness (2018 Edition); and his historical novel The Road to Emily Bay Read other articles by John.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on January 5th, 2011 at 9:50am #

    The reason why Belfast’s reservoir was running dry was because of the burst pipes, and the burst pipes have been a general Irish problem. Thus, Mr Andrews is right to see no link to public ownership. Before climate change, a typical winter’s day in Ireland was about 8° and raining. Snow was almost unknown, except in a few mountainous areas. The pipes installed were not intended for the kind of winters that have occurred recently. As for the subsidies, almost everything has to be subsidised in Northern Ireland because it is so small and on a different island from the rest of the UK. Things would no doubt be cheaper if they were managed on an all-Ireland basis but …

  2. mary said on January 5th, 2011 at 10:24am #

    Well said Mr Andrews. I thought I could smell rotten fish behind the story too. Enough said that the CEO is being bundled off. Nice work if you can get it? £250,000 pa. Doubtless another member of the NI Proddy Mafia in the Robinson fold.


  3. mary said on January 5th, 2011 at 10:45am #

    There seems to have been a recent history of managerial routs at NI Water. Mellor and three other members of the board went in the summer following publicity about ‘contract irregularities’.


    Mellor is still deputy chair of Monitor, the regulator for Foundation Hospitals. Foundation hospital trusts were created by NuLabour as independent entities within the NHS, ie all ready for privatisation whether by NuLabour if they had been re-elected or now by the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition.

    Mellor is one of the required place persons obviously.

  4. bozh said on January 5th, 2011 at 11:34am #

    “Washington-based Cato Institute, a right wing “think-tank” that promotes itself as “dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace” (at least it has a sense of humour).”

    this sthink tank promotes individual liberties but not collective. and what this thinktank wants is to further render people dependent on the ruling class.

    obviously, individual independence; i.e. individual liberty does not and cannot ever exist w.o. collective liberty, rights, equality under laws.

    thus, since, to that thinktank, collective liberty-rights r nonextant for pal’ns or iraqis, they can be slaughtered like animals.

    i am not falling for this ancient ruse! tnx

  5. mary said on January 6th, 2011 at 1:46am #

    The CEO has now gone (with a payoff by the sounds of it).

    I didn’t say before that Mellor the ex Chair of NIW had previously worked for Anglian Water before. That is one of the privatised UK water companies all now in French or German conglomerate ownership. Water usage is now metered compulsorily f0r new houses. Those householders who elected to have water meters are now finding their bills rising well above inflation. Previously the water rate was based on the local tax for services known as the rates and there were no limits on consumption except in times of drought.

    This refers to Mellor’s departure from Anglian.

    The world of water supply is rather murky it seems.

  6. John Andrews said on January 6th, 2011 at 3:26am #

    Thanks for comments.


    The choice is between paying our governments to run utilities or paying some private corporation to do so (not that the taxpayer actually has that choice). Given that most of mainland UK gets its water from private corporations at FOUR TIMES the cost of NI’s subsidised service I don’t think privatisation wins the economic argument (not that you’re suggesting it does, I know). Although burst water pipes on the rest of the mainland have not made the national news, local news tells us that there have certainly been plenty. So I doubt if privatisation wins the ‘improved service’ argument either. Roll on the day when things can be managed on an all-Ireland basis.


    Thanks. Interesting point about Mellor – you clearly know more about the subject than I do (which I freely admit isn’t very much). But if it wasn’t him you just know it would be someone else. That’s what happens when your economic model is no different to any other common gangster’s economic model.


    Thanks, but it would help if you could stick to the subject – which, on this occasion is about privatised utilities.