Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Why pay the water bill?

I was astonished to read on the BBC yesterday that 15% of the country refuse to pay their water bills, and that water companies are not allowed to cut off supply if they don't. Fifteen percent! That's mind-boggling. Do the water companies send in bailiffs to try to recover this, or can they not be bothered?

To be honest, though, the fact that they aren't allowed to cut off the supply also seems a bit stupid. I assume it's because of health arguments, probably dating back to privatisation: water is essential, after all. But so is food, and we still prosecute people for stealing that. It makes no sense for water to be treated differently. If we treat water as a public right, something everyone should have, then ultimately we should provide it through taxation as we do with other public goods. If we want to treat it as a commodity to be supplied privately, then it should only be supplied to those who wish to pay for it.

What's particularly stupid: it may be illegal to cut off people's water (and sewage) if they refuse to pay the bill, but it's perfectly legal to evict them from the house completely. If you're evicted, you can't access your water / sewage services any more than if they were cut off. How is that ok if merely cutting off the water is not?

So my suggestion: a return to standpipes in the street and public baths. That way anyone who can't or won't pay for water can be cut off and still have access to water; they'll just have to carry it like half of the third world. (As an aside, the village in Italy where my grandfather grew up didn't have running water until the 1960s or 70s; up until then the women had to go to the fountain every morning to fetch water). Imagine the stigma - that alone would probably be enough of an incentive for most of those 15% to pay their bills!

Can't believe Bishop Hill hasn't picked up on this one ;) He'd probably argue for coin-operation of the standpipes because "giving anything away for free encourages waste." One nice thing about the story, though - apparently 85% of us still pay for our water even though we don't have to, presumably out of a sense of morality. Nice to know we've still got one :)