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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Scottish Water Bill

Up early this morning for a BBC Radio debate on the Scottish Water Bill. The Scottish Government got itself into a muddle over the Bill. First it was going to go straight for legislation and now it is going for the more normal consultation route. Whatever the reasons for the muddle, it gave MSPs an opportunity to poke fun at the minister in parliament yesterday.

My main point in this morning's debate was that whilst yesterday's muddle might make good political theatre, we now expect our parliamentarians to raise their game and see the bigger picture.

The aim of the Bill remains to keep Scottish Water in public ownership, but to allow the utility to expand its operations and engage in wider activities such as renewable energy projects. It also provides an opportunity to promote a wider vision of water resources. We particularly welcomed the Minister’s commitment to retain the control of Scottish Water in public ownership. Scottish Labour articulated a similar vision in its policy programme agreed at Oban recently so we at least have a shared vision across a large parliamentary majority.

The long term vision is that Scotland’s water is much more than the provision of a utility. It is a vital economic asset that will become even more important in the years to come. If the 20th Century was dominated by oil, then the 21st Century will be dominated by water provision. Wet countries like Scotland are well placed to exploit the economic and environmental opportunities. Not an easy concept to sell on a typically wet and windy November day in Scotland!

Jeremy Purvis MSP for Liberals used the budget crisis and the concept of mutualisation as cover for their privatisation policy. I would expect the Tories to support privatisation but I am lost as to why the Liberals have joined them. The much quoted Welsh Water is not a real mutual. It is a cosmetic cover for the private water companies that actually deliver water services in Wales. Much emphasis is placed on the £140m of government financing for capital in the current financial difficulties. Less well known is the fact that £90m is returned through loan repayment. None of this would be necessary if Scottish Water had prudential borrowing powers. The implementation of the Calman recommendations or the relaxation of Treasury budget guidance could achieve this. I suggested to Jeremy that he might like to ask his pal Danny Alexander MP to facilitate this now.

We expect the usual vested interests to use the Bill consultation to yet again argue the case for privatisation/mutualisation. This would involve selling off assets paid for by the taxpayer over many years at a fraction of its true value. We would be selling off huge swathes of Scotland, almost certainly to foreign interests, together with the opportunity to exploit Scotland’s water potential for the benefit of big business rather than the people. Charge payers would face higher bills to pay for the purchase debt, fees and directors salaries.When communities across the world are reclaiming their water, it would be crazy for Scotland to abandon our greatest asset.

UNISON Scotland regards the Bill consultation as an important step towards a broader approach to water in Scotland. The current approach of the Scottish Water Board and the regulatory framework can act as barrier to this larger vision for Scotland’s water. Scotland needs a democratically accountable, strategic approach to water that is broader than simply providing a utility, important though that is.

We can be the Scottish Government's sternest critic on many issues. But apart from the process muddle, they have the direction and vision right on this one. For politicians there are only two positions in this debate. You share a long term vision for a public water service or you want to sell off our greatest asset. Your choice, but I am confident the people of Scotland will recognise those who have the big vision over the short term privatisers.

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