Gordon Brown has the right answer – nationalise energy. But his suggestion is only a temporary move and comes way too late.

The right time to tackle the privatised mess that’s led Britain into the highest energy price hikes in Europe and the prospect of drought was straight after Thatcher’s privatisations when New Labour was in government.

Back then, the fanciful notion that basic services could be delivered better by the market was relatively new. Now it’s in with the bricks – particularly south of the border and amongst the chattering class.

It’s taken soaring energy bills and a drought of 500-year proportions to get any media focus on the part played by profligate private operators in the meltdown facing British citizens. Still, there’s more focus on hosepipe bans than the fact England’s private water companies with highly paid CEOs did not build enough reservoirs or systems to collect storm water while the rain was falling. Thus, deluges are not stored as a valuable water resource but become waste water, often overwhelming sewage plants and contributing to river discharges.

Nor are water companies in the drought-stricken south operating grey (recycled) water systems for toilets or desalination plants. Astonishingly, one was built by Thames Water at a cost (to bill payers) of £250 million 12 years ago – but never switched on.

The plant in east London can’t function till next year “at the earliest” despite existing explicitly “for use in drought”, to provide fresh drinking water for 400,000 households.

What’s the problem? Evidently it works better for shareholders to pocket the profits than use the plant. Thames Water made £488million in profits last year while raising bills to around £415 a year and getting bill-payers to cut their water use with bans on washing cars, watering lawns and using hosepipes.

Now, these acts of public restraint may be good practice in an ever-warming world. But they’re a drop in the ocean of chronic mismanagement by water companies and the “watchdog” Ofwat. A quarter of the water resource in England is lost every year through leakages and yet Ofwat didn’t issue a single enforcement order in the first 14 years of its existence, nodding through price rises 40% above inflation since privatisation in 1989 according to the National Audit Office, while companies bleated about the extortionate cost of reducing leaks.

Now Ofwat is facing court action by campaign groups over claims it unlawfully failed to stop water companies discharging raw sewage into rivers. This comes on the back of an environmental audit committee investigation that demanded a step change in regulatory action and investment by water companies to restore rivers to good ecological health.

The MPs’ report said: “Ofwat, has [had] insufficient emphasis on facilitating the investment necessary to ensure that the sewerage system in England is fit for the 21st century.” Understatement of the century. Only 14% of rivers in England and Wales are in good biological health (compared to 65.7% of rivers in Scotland) and there’s been no improvement since 2016, despite a government promise three quarters would be rated good by 2027. With that dismal progress, consumers will also question the UK target to eliminate 40% of discharges by 2040 and marvel at the sheer lack of urgency.

Scottish Water is far from perfect. But in Scotland the resource is in public hands – like most developed countries which regard water as too precious a resource to be owned by anyone else. Even in the US – whose agents roamed the world advocating privatisation for developing countries – water supplies rest safely in public hands.

Not so in England and Wales. Almost three quarters of England’s water industry is currently owned by overseas companies including foreign banks, hedge funds, foreign governments and tax haven-based businesses. Why wouldn’t they ‘Back Britain’ when this deregulated free-for-all has let them shell out dividends worth £6.5 billion in the five years to 2018? That’s the money that should have been re-invested to guard against drought.

The energy situation is equally woeful. While the Tory leadership candidates fiddle with tiny amounts of relief on bills that are already bankrupting families – oil companies are making billions from North Sea gas production. This much we know. But actually – how come? 50% of the gas used to heat British homes came from our own north-sea resources last year but international price-setting by the commodity market meant no benefit to British consumers. It’s as if those resources aren’t ours. And indeed – since those assets were licensed out to the highest bidders by the Petroleum Act 1998 – they’re not.

So, drilling more to lower gas prices won’t help. It’ll just boost BP and Shell profits, which are already obscene. Meanwhile, echoing the water sector, a shortage of gas storage means the UK can't hold what’s extracted for use in winter.

Instead, private companies sell ‘British’ North Sea gas through pipelines to Europe, where sensible countries with gas storage and (in large part) publicly owned energy systems store it and even sell our own supplies back to us every winter.

That’s partly why energy price rises on the continent range from 4% in France and 23% in Germany against the 215% price rise already in place here.

Why does this ludicrous situation continue? Because private companies won’t shell out to build proper gas storage. You can’t control what you don’t own.

It may be costly to take private companies back into public ownership, though as the renationalised East Coast Rail proved, efficiency gains are almost immediate.

But what’s the alternative? How long will our public debate indulge the massive strategic, dogmatic mistake made by the Blessed Margaret and focus on windfalls, tiny fines and toothless regulators when the real problem is galloping, wanton, irresponsible private ownership of our most vital natural resources?

Obviously, Sunak and Truss will keep avoiding that question. But so will Starmer, Sturgeon and Davey – despite massive public support for nationalisation.

What next? Will it take a General Strike to finally get political debate about the destructive legacy of privatisation?

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