Labour signals regional public ownership for water as it unwraps green plan

The Labour Party repeated its pledge to bring water back into public ownership yesterday, when it published its environment policy, The Green Transformation, at the first day of its annual conference in Liverpool.

Citing freshwater under pressure from climate change and population growth, water demand outstripping supply by 2050 in most areas, 20% of water lost to leaks, and unsustainable abstraction, the Party said it would:

  • “Bring water back into democratic public ownership, lowering bills and providing levels of investment needed to drastically reduce leakage and tackle major sewage pollution incidents, which are still rising", and

  • “Establish new democratic public water companies which will be mandated by DEFRA to meet environmental and social objectives.”

These pledges were underpinned by the principle that green inventions should be “transformational, bringing about the structural change needed to address drivers of environmental degradation”. The document explained: “For too long, approaches to sustainability have focussed on the choices made by individuals, and levels of voluntary corporate social responsibility in the private sector. The role of government has largely been limited to adjusting price signals in the belief that the market will take care of the rest. It is now clear that a dogmatic faith in market mechanisms has failed to reverse or even slow the pace of environmental loss.

“We are past the point where piecemeal actions will do. Addressing environmental challenges will require great levels of planning, coordination and deployment of resources. The market left alone can simply not deliver this. Building a sustainable economy for the long run, requires nothing short of societal transformation. Tackling the underlying drivers of environmental degradation will require a fundamental rebalancing of economic power, so that economic decisions are made by the many who will suffer the consequences of climate change rather than the few who have benefited from it. That is why a Labour government – and only a Labour government – would deliver the transformational and structural changes needed.”

Achieving high water and air quality was one of three priority green actions Labour identified. The others were preventing climate change and adapting to existing change; and reversing the decline of biodiversity and protecting natural habitats. On water, the document pointed out: “Most rivers, lakes, coastal and ground waters in England are off track to meet EU water pollution targets. According to a 2018 assessment, England had among the highest percentage of water bodies in Europe that are not in good ecological status, with rivers, lakes and coastal waters with low biological quality and nutrient and organic pollution.”

Elsewhere in the paper, the Party set out its policies on energy, housing, transport, farming, fishing, habitats, wildlife management and international environment policy as well as the actions needed to be taken across government to facilitate the green transformation.

It said its other underpinning policy principles were to base ambition on science, and to use green interventions to advance the Labour values of justice, equality, solidarity, and democracy.

In their foreword to the paper, Sue Hayman, shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, and Rebecca Long-Bailey, shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy argued: “Strong environmental policy is a matter of justice, and ensuring that communities can breathe clean air, drink clean water, afford a good diet and enjoy our countryside, must be a priority for our Party and our movement.”

  • More details on the Party’s plans for public ownership of water are likely to follow at conference today. Public investment and ownership is on the timetable for 10.05 am followed by the shadow chancellor’s speech at 12.15 pm.