15 October 2009

The third debate this year in the House of Commons on water and sewerage bills in the south west: in May a Tory MP initiated one, in June a Labour MP, and now a Libdem. You can read the latest debate at Hansard 12 October 2009 column 135.

Anna Walker’s interim report, the Independent reveiw for charging for household water and sewerage services, was published in June. The report discusses intelligently the question of the bills in the southwest and explains there are three options for payment: by the local water customer as at present, by the national water customer, or by the national taxpayer. The Walker review is considering these and will plump for one in the final report this autumn.

The report is firm that water charges should “continue to regionally based” (paragraph 3.6.1). However, in paragraphs 3.3.1-3.3.18 there is an interesting exploration of the arguments for and against nationalising the environmental part of the bills. This is the aspect that the latest Commons debate focused on; no one is suggesting that the whole of the water and sewerage bills should be equalised across England. We are all aware of the argument that southwest customers are paying for an environmental clean up which benefits the many visitors, that people in the southwest are relatively few and the southwest coastline long, and it would be fairer if those costs were shared out nationally. However, there are difficulties in moving to any national payment scheme such as what counts as an environmental aspect to be nationally charged, some environmental benefits are basically private benefits (tourism benefits from clean sea water and beaches), some environmental improvements benefit locals, and nationalising aspects of costs and bills might reduce the pressure on regional water companies to drive down their costs. MPs from other parts of England have also expressed their financially hard-pressed constituents’ concerns about taking on part of southwest bills (Hansard column 140).

If we did go to a national scheme for the environmental components it would include other environmental improvements outside the southwest such as the Thames Tideway. Water customers or taxpayers in the southwest would pay a share of those; but I do not expect our local MPs to dwell on that aspect.

In fact the report says that the nett benefit of a shift to a national payment scheme for environmental components would be “limited” (3.6.2), though I think in the southwest any reduction would be welcome. That wording makes it difficult to see the final report recommending such a shift.

There are of course other important aspects of water services that the Walker report looks at: affordability and availability, for example.

This is a complex issue with no easy solution, economically or politically, in 2009. Note that it is being discussed and settled outside the ambit of Cornish nationalism because it does not readily fit the nationalist agenda: the issue is about the southwest not just Cornwall, and indeed about water and sewerage in England as a whole; simultaneously claiming autonomy and a national subsidy for a service lacks credibility; and the arguments about what is a fair solution are as much technical as philosophical or political. It is an issue which reasonably exercises many people in Cornwall and tellingly there is no relevant specific nationalist argument to make.

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