Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for November 23rd, 2021

British Water

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This morning I got an email from The Guardian, a British newspaper that I subscribe to. This is a lightly edited extract from their newsletter – about how they get “scoops”.

<blockquote>… reporter Sandra Laville came across something rather curious that made her think ‘that’s funny’. In her case, it was a statistic. 

“I came across this figure that only 14 percent of waters in English rivers were of good ecological standard,” she recalls. “I thought ‘that’s really low’.”

She started asking questions – of officials, scientists at the Environment Agency, and crucially of campaigners determined to improve the quality of their local environment. 

The big breakthrough came when she secured data from water companies on when and where sewage had been released into rivers. When she totted up the answers it came to a total of 1.5m hours of dumping in a single year

“I remember swimming in the sea 25 years ago when there was a big scandal about sewage being poured into the ocean,” Sandra tells me. “I couldn’t believe this was happening in rivers too.” 

The revelations have put pressure on the authorities to come clean on the locations and instances of sewage discharge; on the water companies to take action and invest; and on the regulator to ensure that everyone improves their game. “Nothing will change overnight – this is a massive underinvestment in infrastructure,” Sandra says. “But this has really exposed what they have been doing.” 

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One of the leading reasons why I came to Canada was that I no longer wanted to be an Economic Adviser to the British Government. We were shared between the Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment, and I was going to be moved from looking at London Underground investments to Water Privatisation. And I did not want any part of it. In 1988 water in the UK was controlled by a network of Regional Water Authorities. They were very effective and a distinct improvement over the earlier patchwork quilt of Water Boards. In fact the reorganisation of those was also a significant factor in my earlier career at British Waterways Board in the early 1970s but that isn’t relevant.

Mostly I wanted to work on public transport issues. There did not seem to me to any justification for the privatisation of water. Indeed, it seemed to me that the only way it could be justified was that it would reduce “public spending” (i.e. using taxation revenues) and rely of private funding. For the private sector to make money they would need to find a way to create a profit margin in what was, at the time, absent as it was not needed by the public sector. It simply did not occur to me then that new water companies would seek to cut costs by dumping untreated wastewater in rivers and the sea – but that is what they have been doing.

One of the remarkable shifts in recent years has been the steady rejection of Hayek’s philosophy pursued by Margaret Thatcher and other right wing ideologues. Nearly every policy change introduced in the name conservatism has been shown to be fallacious. The claimed outcomes of better services at lower cost are never achieved in reality – though there has always been quite a bit of “clever” bookkeeping to make it look good. But it also seems that no matter how strong the evidence, when ostensibly left leaning, “progressive” parties get into power they fall into the same mire. Both BC NDP and federal Liberals are pursuing policies that are obviously designed to benefit the few over the broader public interest. This is most clearly true in the case of energy policies. Instead of picking the cleaner, more economically affordable renewable options, our governments are still choosing to support fossils – coal, oil and fracked gas. In transportation we still opt for more freeways and road expansions even though it is clear that this has never ever cured traffic congestion and can’t due to simple geometry. That we still have a mid twentieth century commitment to extending urban sprawl indefinitely which experience shows simply increases costs in general and “externalities” that we mostly try to ignore.

Today we heard the Throne Speech from Ottawa. What we needed to hear was that as a country we are going to change direction in view of the clear and present danger now posed by the climate crisis. For a long time governments at all levels have refused to face up to this challenge and pretend that business as usual can continue. We saw exactly that at COP26 in Glasgow. We got more of the same today from Justin Trudeau. The CG did not announce the end of fossil fuel subsidies and the cancellation of TMX. There was no mention of the export of US thermal coal through Canadian ports – which only happens because no local port community in the US will allow it. Canadian ports are only lightly managed – and that is a federal jurisdiction where local concerns account for nothing. There is a lot about cleaning up the most recent messes – but not very much about what needs to be done to cope with future issues which will inevitably be even worse, as the greenhouse gases that cause these disasters have already been emitted. Too many tipping points have already passed. Too little has been achieved through carbon capture and storage – except increasing the production of oil and gas. There are no offshore wind farms around here, very little geothermal power generation (despite huge potential) and not much in the way of energy storage or improvements to the grid to accommodate renewables. And there won’t be any time soon.

How bad does it have to get to see changes in policy? It has taken Britain 50 years to acknowledge that shutting down railway branch lines was short sighted and ineffective. The mess of water privatisation has also taken a similar amount of time to be acknowledged. In Canada our governments seem even more determined to refuse to change. But then we are still digging up asbestos to export – even though its use here is banned. We know what we are doing is not working. There was no major announcement about reductions of oil and gas extraction so now we know that big business is still calling the shots and humanity is doomed.

As Seth Klein just tweeted: “This #ThroneSpeech was an opportunity post-election, post-COP, post-floods to announce additional climate emergency initiatives & measures. The government took a pass. An exceptionally boring speech.”