Taking the waters – err, no thanks

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.

Like any right-minded middle-class girl, I went to the sea-side on my holidays. Shame it was the weekend where the south coast was beset with 45 mile an hour gusts of wind. Great fun if you’re trying to sleep in a tent during that – not.

What was fun though was watching the kite-surfers attempting to harness the power of the wind and waves and scoot along the top of the waters. Waters that there was no way I was going anywhere near. Their murky brown hue could have been due to the sand below the waves being churned up by the winds. Or it might have been down to something else altogether.

Two weeks ago, Thames Water was fined for pumping raw sewage into a river and a stream near Gatwick Airport. It killed over a thousand fish, that we know of, and caused heaven knows what other damage to the eco-system. Not only that but it was criticized by the judge for a ‘reckless failure’ and the way it deliberately mis-led the Environment Agency. Or, lied, as some people might like to refer to it.

The privatized monopolies that supply our drinking water and remove our wastewater have barely been out of the news in the past months. Rightly so. What they are doing to our ecosystems is criminal, even though it may still be within the letter of the law. And monopolies they are. I can no more choose who supplies my water than I can fly. The opening up of the energy market may have allowed for ‘consumer-choice’ – that ideology so beloved of the Thatcherite government – but we all know how it ended. Not well.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the way that complicated funding models of debt, more debt and extended gearing have been used to finance a sector that is so intrinsic to the health of the populace and the environment. Thames Water – other water companies are also available and, equally bad – claimed a few weeks ago that its shareholders have not received a dividend in five years.

I have two issues with this. One: ‘the value of investments may go up and down, and you may not get back the amount you initially invested’. This has been the caveat on every piece of marketing literature about investments I have ever seen. Stocks and shares may be a good gamble if you do your homework and research well enough, but a gamble they still are.

Two: I don’t even think it’s true. I believe dividends are paid to holding companies, which they pay them forward to others. It might be a circuitous route, but the money goes somewhere. It certainly isn’t being used to invest in infrastructure and stopping raw sewage being pumped into water sources where it has no right to be.

I’m not sure I know what the answer is to this; I don’t have a strong enough grasp of corporate financial shenanigans to know where to begin. Whatever the answer is, it won’t be easy, and I suspect will end up being ‘householders pay more’. I also know that this is not going to be the last thing I write on this subject, alas.

It’s 2023. We should be better at this stuff.


About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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