Cesspools and sell-offs

A History of Water in Modern England and Wales
May 1, 1998

This book makes a welcome contribution to our understanding of the evolution of water resource management in England and Wales. Written by an economic historian, it is packed with detailed regional examples, all of which are carefully referenced.

The first substantive chapter surveys the development of the water industry from the beginning of the 19th century to the end of the first world war. The most interesting chapter in the book, it describes a period of considerable change and development for the water industry, with the increasing trend from private to municipal ownership of urban water companies and the growing need to obtain water supply from more distant sources. Of particular interest is the way in which the author brings out the fact that water supply was largely a non-political issue. The crucial role of the water closet in water pollution is stressed in the period following 1850: London was the first city to have an integrated sewer system, but was quickly followed by Bristol, Cardiff and Carlisle in the 1860s.

Between 1914 and 1950 the restructuring of the water industry was the subject of much discussion, and in 1934 the nationalisation of the industry became Labour Party policy. It was stated in parliament in 1944 that "the sewage business has been the cesspool of local government. The heavy costs alone have kept us from dealing with it". By the 1940s the need for rationalisation of the industry was widely accepted, and the Water Act was passed in 1945.

In the "period of optimism" from 1951 to 1973, growth of demand for water was unprecedented. "By the late 1960s a supply-oriented, technocratic bias to water policyI was rapidly giving way to a perception of quality, rather than quantity being the key water problem". The net result was the 1973 Water Act, which changed the face of the industry by bringing the management of the entire water cycle under the control of ten Regional Water Authorities. However, many of the estimates of growth in water demand proved widely excessive, and pressures on water supplies dropped off. At the same time, the economic downturn from 1974 starved the industry of capital, and many projects to improve water quality could not go ahead. Equally, the author notes, the RWAs were not the most efficient of organisations at this time.

The final chapter examines the privatisation of the industry after 1989; the result, the author suggests, of a political decision influenced by the rising costs to the public purse resulting from the environmental policies of the European Community. But he agrees that one of the great advantages of privatisation has been that the water industry, for the first time in decades, now has the ability to raise capital for many urgently needed projects.

This is a competent and readable survey of the changes in the water industry over 200 years. But the early part of the book does not have enough emphasis on the magnitude of the national changes in population and industrialisation. Nor do later chapters possess the breadth of approach that is such a positive aspect of the earlier ones. It is also difficult for the reader to pursue systematic themes, such as pollution control, as these are intertwined with other issues. Finally, there is not a single diagram or map in the book - a major fault. Nevertheless, this should be a useful book for anyone interested in the water industry, especially for undergraduates in history, economics, law and environmental studies.

Peter Beaumont is professor of geography, University of Wales, Lampeter.

A History of Water in Modern England and Wales

Author - John Hassan
ISBN - 0 7190 4308 5
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 214

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