Water industry says public ownership is no longer popular – 3 reasons not to trust them

Shocker! New poll reported in the Daily Mail and Politics Home reports that public support for bringing water into public ownership has halved. People – apparently – have seen the error of their ways. They don’t, after all, want a government to bring water into public hands.

Great headline, but let’s dig a bit deeper. When we do, we’ll see that these figures aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Here’s why we can’t trust this polling.

1) This polling is funded by the water industry

The polling, carried out by ComRes, was funded by Anglian Water, Severn Trent, South West Water and United Utilities.

The FT recently reported that Anglian Water and United Utilities have been slashing pensions while returning lucrative benefits to shareholders and executives. Severn Trent has today been fined £350,000 after its pollution killed 30,000 fish. Meanwhile, a recent Corporate Watch study on South West Water found that it pays out more to its owners and financiers than it spends on investment in water and sewerage.

You can see more of the ways these companies have failed the public on our website, while raking in the profits. It’s clear that they benefit directly from privatisation, and don’t want to lose out through public ownership.

2) The polling confuses ongoing spending commitments with smart public investment

The polling describes nationalisation as public spending, and then asks people to choose between spending money on the NHS, the police, schools and so on – vs bringing water into public ownership. But this completely misses the point.

Bringing water into public ownership is not an ongoing spending commitment. It’s a wise investment that will bring in £2.3 billion in savings every year for the public purse. It would pay for itself within about 10 years. So it’s a great deal for the public purse and for everyone who uses water (that’s everyone).

3) The polling is based on false information about the cost of buying back the water companies

The polling refers to the Social Market Foundation report which claims that renationalisation would cost £90 billion. This report was itself funded by Anglian Water, Severn Trent, South West Water and United Utilities!

And its claim is simply not true. Parliament can decide how much to compensate shareholders. We can compensate shareholders for the money they’ve actually invested in the industry, not for full market value. So that would cost us around £18 billion, not £90 billion. Then we would SAVE money, year after year, because we wouldn’t be paying out dividends to shareholders, and investment in infrastructure would be better value because of the lower cost of capital.

As Professor Dieter Helm points out ‘The actual nationalisation process is relatively straightforward…The SMF seems to count investment as a public expenditure, whilst neglecting to count revenue as public income’. He says its analysis is ‘nonsense’ and that the number of £90 billion should not be taken seriously.

Yet it’s this £90 billion figure that the polling mentions, contrasting it with a lower number of £18 billion dividends given to shareholders in the last decade, before asking people for their views on public ownership.

It’s our water, and we’ll be taking it back

The SMF report isn’t valid, so the polling isn’t valid. So we’ll stick with the polling from the Legatum Institute which says that 83% of us want public ownership of water.

Water privatisation is an ‘organised rip-off’ according to the FT. And we’ll be taking back OUR water as soon as we can.

Originally published: We Own It

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