In a world where, according to the United Nations, internet access is now considered a human right, how can it be that we are once again talking about the possibility of drought and hose pipe bans across parts of Norfolk and perhaps Kent?
What price water?
A stupid question of course. The answer is clearly because, in contrast with telecommunications, we have failed, as a society, to properly invest in our water supply infrastructure or, indeed, properly value water.
The UN ruling serves to underline how society’s focus and value has switched, logically, towards the infrastructure of telecommunications. It has, after all, changed the way we run our lives and businesses and as we have seen across Asia, empowers individuals and whole populations.
It makes an interesting contrast to water. The reason that we have the water infrastructure we see today is because the Victorians made a similar judgement a century ago.
Yet given the role that water still plays in all of our lives and given the increasing pressure now being placed on household budgets, it is still fascinating how little the general public knows about either how much water they use each day or, indeed, how much they pay for it each month.
“There is a very direct link between how much we all pay for our water and how much investment goes back into the infrastructure”
Equally it is also fascinating that most people still say that they pay too much for it. Because compared to weekly shopping bills, monthly gas and electricity charges, of filling up your car or buying your rail ticket, the price for delivering water to your door and taking it away afterwards seems, to me, to be pretty good value.
Even satellite TV subscriptions have now apparently entered the “could never give up” basket yet these can cost more than water.
It’s a strange world but people are entitled to make choices with their money. And the role of the regulator is to ensure that this critical service remains affordable.
Yet unfortunately, as Thames Water boss Martin Baggs points out in NCE this week, there is a very direct link between how much we all pay for our water and how much investment goes back into the infrastructure.
His frustration is that he, like many other water company bosses, is prevented from investing more in updating the network by the regulator’s cap on water price rises.
Like it or not, the privatised water industry relies on the ability to make a return on its investment. And after 20 years, some £90bn of investment has been levered in.
It needs to be more if, alongside our new human rights, our basic ones are to be protected. The solution is certainly to keep pressing the industry for more efficiency.
But we must also be prepared for change when it comes to our attitude to water − it’s precious stuff so we need to use less or be prepared to pay more for it.
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor