Michael Fry: Case for privatising Scottish water is crystal clear

ONE contrast between old folk and young folk nowadays lies in how we accept the delivery of our drinking water.

Oldies like me can remember imbibing from public fountains, pressing our lips against brass spouts where many other, possibly scabby, lips had pressed.

So indifferent was I to aquatic hygiene that to keep me going on Highland treks I would scoop the water out of burns and so, I now know, run a high risk of scooping up a liver fluke with it; not that my liver is much the better for never having harboured such a parasite.

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Modern youngsters would not in their wildest dreams ape these antique, unclean ways. Every boy and every girl carries his or her own personal supply of water in a plastic bottle, to be consumed in gulps in between their serial conversations on a mobile phone. It is a habit I am unable to pick up. I will not say I have never consumed bottled water. But I have only done it sitting at a table with the bottle (and a glass) in front of me, not holding it in my hand and upending it now and again. That just strikes me as a nuisance. I would rather go dry till I can drink in a reasonably civilised fashion.

A little patience, a little self-denial are good for the soul. The sentiment really shows how old I am.

Of all the contrasts between age and youth, this might seem among the least worth a column. Yet there is more to it. The supply of water, as oldies recall it, was a public supply provided by the town council, or possibly by the bequest of some local worthy for the common good, as an inscription on the fountain might say in a vain attempt to keep his memory alive.

The supply of water that youngsters favour is a private supply, which they pay for themselves without a second thought despite the fact that, fluid ounce for fluid ounce, it is exorbitantly expensive. They would think you mad if you suggested that, since water is a gift of God, or of Mother Nature, it ought to be free. As for the shopkeepers selling the water, or the companies bottling the water, please keep your suggestions to yourself.

This may seem just a shade of social or generational difference, yet it mirrors one of the fiercest political disputes of 20 years ago, when the Tory government funked the privatisation of water in Scotland about the same time as it went through in England. Malcolm Rifkind, then the secretary of state, had his tumbler more than full with the tempest of the poll tax. I remember seeing him at a conference in London, where he was pressed by fanatical free-marketeers on his reasons for shrinking from this fresh draught. He explained that Scottish water was owned by local councils, which could hardly be privatised. But, wet that he was, I bet he did not fancy going along with the idea anyway.

For quite a long time after the English privatisation in 1989, Scots congratulated themselves on avoiding it. Its most obvious result was a hefty increase in the cost of water to the consumer. In the first four years of the ten new regional water companies, the worst put up their charges by 50 per cent. Was this not just another example of capitalist greed and Thatcherite callousness?

In the course of time, it became clear the reasons were rather more complicated. For years, for decades, water had not got the investment it needed. England possessed a magnificent Victorian infrastructure for the delivery of water, but successive governments had never maintained it. People might believe the state can be relied on for that kind of essential job. In fact, an invisible investment which brings on no immediate disaster if postponed is the last thing for which the state can be relied on; politicians will always find some more pressing priority.

So the English water companies had to spend enormous sums to catch up with the years and decades of political neglect. The obvious place for them to get the money was from their own consumers. The result was the same as for any repair left too long. You may rue the fact that it would have been cheaper to tackle it earlier on, yet in the end there is no choice but to do it right now and to pay through the nose.

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Or rather in this case, there was one other choice which might have been made, and which in Scotland actually was made. It meant keeping the old system of public ownership intact, and it had two consequences. Water remained cheap, but then it still did not get the investment it needed. So people found squiggly maggots flowing from their taps along with the wet stuff.

It is true that in recent years the pollution has improved a little. Scottish Water is a more commercial organisation and it has a more effective regulator. Still the complaints come: pongs from Dalmuir in Glasgow and Seafield in Edinburgh, pollution even where the water should be at its purest, Stranraer or Tobermory.

We might pause to reflect that no other country follows the precise Scottish model of regulated public ownership, whereas all over the world countries have adopted the English policy of straightforward privatisation. One of the reasons is that the English have succeeded in improving the quality of their water, and far faster than we have for all our babbling burns and limpid lochs. Nobody has ever claimed privatisation is guaranteed to be painless, but often the pain can be worth it.

It is piquant to recall that among the shrillest opponents of privatisation 20 years ago were the Nats, though it cannot be said there was much to choose in terms of decibels between them and the Labour Party, or even the Lib Dems.

Now, under the burdens of government and the squeeze of the credit crunch, we hear a different story. Alex Salmond's government is looking for a politically correct way to privatise Scottish Water – only for the money, of course, and not because private water is better. Yet, as they will find out, private water is in fact better.

People often ask me how I, a cold-hearted capitalist, can bring myself to support the bunch of woolly lefties who now rule us from Holyrood, as I will again on 6 May.

Here is the answer: reality makes capitalists of us all. It is like nothing so much as a douche of cold water.