Saturday, 18 August 2007

Stockholm Water: An view from Scotland

As someone who had read, researched and cited Stockholm as a company that we in the UK could learn from and aspire towards I was saddened, though not surprised, to hear of the current changes and unbundling of the different services it provides. This tactic of unbundling is currently en-vogue amongst the private companies. In Scotland for instance the non-domestic sector has been unbundled from the domestic sector and in England there is much talk that they will also follow this path. At the same time the trans-national private sector are looking to re-configure themselves by gaining contracts and short-term leases and stakes in risk free, efficient companies with sound up to date infrastructure and guaranteed profits from an affluent customer base. Companies just like Stockholm Vatten in fact.

We should be clear these changes in Stockholm can only be based on fundamentalist free-market ideology. The changes will not improve the service that Stockhom Vatten currently provides. In fact there is a huge body of evidence from elsewhere in the world that the opposite is likely to happen. It will result in rising costs for the users, huge profits for the companies and exploitation of the workers. What’s more any notion of social solidarity will be lost. As we have seen with the abandonment of its international service and the cuts to its public education resource.

Hearing both the PM of Sweden and the Deputy Mayor of Stockholm on Monday it helped me understand the political context from where this emphasis on providing only core services is coming. The Deputy Mayor, Michael Sorderlund, offered an especially shockingly misguided and blinkered analysis. Amongst other things he said, “water is an everyday commodity to be sold to consumers” – yes ok but what about those who cant afford it; “property is not a threat – it is the key to environmental solutions!” – so consumption and the drive for economic growth is nothing to with the advent of climate change and water depletion!; and, that “it was economic growth that led to the improvements in water provision in Stockholm over the last century”. Obviously suffering from amnesia or perhaps a heavy night on Sunday he also failed to mention how progressive taxation and pricing, the toil of the workers and that notions of collectivism – not individualism - and social solidarity led to a sound and clean water services – both in Stockholm and indeed all over the world.

The paradox of Stockholm Water is that this ideology is based on an assumption that the market is always best and most effective way to provide a service. But Water Privatisation’s elsewhere tells us that this prevailing wisdom cannot be further from the truth. Globally, we have seen how privatisation cannot simultaneously ensure low costs, an equal allocation for all, environmental protection and adequate investment whilst still providing a dividend for its shareholders. Something has got to give: and you can be sure it’s not going to be the dividend.

Stockhom Vatten is clearly in peril. If privatised or even simply commercialised there will be serious consequences and implications for the people of Stockholm. There will also be implications for people elsewhere in Sweden for once they get Stockholm they will spread their tentacles further. As such I hope that our Swedish friends can mobilise and organise to fight these illogical and nonsensical changes. It’s important both for the users of water in Sweden and in the wider battle for community and collectivism against the forces of self-interest and individualism.

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