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Eau de Paris Paris’s de-privatisation success

While the Tories sell off as much of Britain as possible, others are successfully bringing public services back under public control. Stephen Struthers from We Own It explains how Paris ended its love aff air with private water companies


fter many years, the French love aff air with Veolia and Suez is fi nally ending. Parisians are now enjoying the benefi ts of publicly-owned water.

It wasn’t always so. In the mid-nineteenth century, private

companies helped develop and connect household water supplies, though in the early twentieth century, the scale of investment needed and periodic enthusiasm for nationalisation saw the public sector take over many of these companies. But by the end of the twentieth century, privatisation was back in vogue: in 2000, the water supply of about three-quarters of the population of France was provided by major private companies, particularly Suez and Veolia – a higher proportion of privatised water services than in any other European country except the UK. Paris’s water supply was privatised in 1984 by then-mayor,

Jacques Chirac. Long-term contracts with three operators were agreed in what can only be described as murky circumstances. Various audits and public reports quickly highlighted problems: fragmentation and complexity, lack of transparency, loss of any technical oversight by public authorities, weak regulation and escalating prices. There was huge potential for fi nancial savings if the system could be brought together under public ownership. The election of Bertrand Delanoë as mayor at the head of a

coalition of socialists, communists and greens in 2001 signalled a more robust approach by the authorities. Some contracts were renegotiated, but it proved diffi cult to exert real control over the companies. During the 2008 election campaign, however, Delanoë pledged to re-municipalise the water supply. Once he was re-elected, the city council voted to bring the entire water system under the operation of a single publicly-owned entity, Eau de Paris, to deal with everything from protecting water resources to the daily experience of Parisians using tap water. The transition was not easy. The water companies resisted, and

there were major practical problems around such things as IT and property ownership. But the re-municipalisation in January 2010 undoubtedly led to better oversight with monitoring and benchmarking against services elsewhere, re-investment of revenues, restraint on prices, and commitment to environmental and social objectives such as a right to water for all. It also involved an innovative approach to governance, with the city authority, employees, consumers and external experts all being represented in decision making. The French experience shows us how much we are losing out

by sticking to failed privatisation. In Paris, fi nancial savings have meant lower prices and new investment in facilities, conservation and effi ciency, better long-term planning for protecting resources and tackling pollution, and more transparency.

16 | Green World 82 Autumn Issue 2013 In other major cities and regions of France, similar

concerns about privatisation’s failures have been raised. In Bordeaux, re-municipalisation of the water supply is planned. Here and elsewhere, the process is being carried out gradually, particularly where public and private contracts run side by side, as in Rouen or Nantes, and when private-sector contracts are due for renewal. Households in England and Wales would pay around

£80 less per year if water was publicly owned, yet the idea still seems like a distant pipe dream. Happily, France shows us that privatisation need not be a one-way street, that privatised public services can be brought back into public ownership. However, it is hard work to get there. Determined political

leadership is needed, there are major practical problems, and the companies and their outriders will fi ght back. In 2008 in Paris, the political leadership took the initiative. In Berlin, referendums have made it possible for a determined grassroots campaign to fi ght the local political hierarchy, force transparency and seek to take water into public ownership. It’s time for us Brits to end

our love aff air with the likes of Severn Trent and Thames Water. They are draining away our money and much of our water supply while dodging tax and prioritising profi ts. Please join We Own It’s campaign for a Public Service Users Bill to give us powers to hold water companies accountable – the fi rst step towards public ownership. And next time you boil the kettle for a nice British cup of tea, don’t forget that just across the Channel in Paris they own their own water. What a jolly good idea.

We Own It is a new campaign to show that public services are better in public hands. For more,

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