As an illustration of what the Thatcherite privatisations of the 1980s now mean, you could not have a better example than the London super sewer. It costs £4.2bn, and you might expect that Thames Water, the privatised company that controls the whole of its length, should obviously be expected to pay for it. Not a bit of it. They will fund just a third of it only, and the rest will be met by a team of investors which will own, manage and finance the projedt during construction and then supply sewerage services to Thames Water on a 125-year concession! But that’s just the start. Unusually for a construction project, the investors will receive an income from the first day, paid for by Thames Water’s 15 million customers. The surcharge on London water bills is likely to be £80 a year in perpetuity.
But here’s the main point. The risks of construction, including cost overruns, accidents or any other incidents at the project’s 42 sites, as well as any financial risks – such as another global collapse in credit – will be borne by taxpayers because the government is acting as guarantor. This is common for infrastructure projects where traditional insurers won’t cover the risk, so once again the privatisers take the gains and the public take the potential losses which could be billions of pounds, and Thames Water walks off all the way to the banks. There are two enormous scandals here. One is that if Thames Water were a publicly owned company or part of a national water company, the sewer could be built far more cheaply because governments can borrow money more cheaply than anyone else. Second, why shouldn’t Thames Water be made to pay for the project themselves when they have paid out dividends of £1.1bn over the past 5 years?
Then there are the tax implications. Thames Water is owned by a Luxembourg-domiciled consortium which includes the (Australian) Macquarie European Infrastructure Fund as well as Abu Dhabi and Chinese sovereign wealth funds. So Thames Water is racking up huge debts using EU-blacklisted tax havens to pay out massive dividends and executive fees, at the same time as expecting household consumers to pay a big chunk more themselves. Alongside a one-third increase in billing to its consumers, Thames Water have seen fit to grant a 60% pay increase to £2 millions a year to its chief executive – what for exactly? The mother and father of all financial skulduggery?