Not every bucketful is equal

For the sake of fairness we need a new charging system

For the sake of fairness we need a new charging system

Important changes are afoot in how we pay for our water. For more than 80 per cent of us, the amount of water we use has no bearing at all on the size of our water bills, as we are not connected up to water meters. In England and Wales our water bills vary according to the rateable value of the property we live in - the same basis on which local authority taxes were calculated before the introduction of council tax and its predecessor, the poll tax. Since rateable value rises as the overall standard of the property rises, people who live in bigger, better-equipped homes pay more for their water than those living in more modest accommodation. Roughly speaking, most of us pay for water according to our means.

The growing minority who have had water meters installed pay on a very different basis. Their bills have two elements: a small and uniform fixed charge, plus a variable amount proportional to their water usage (the "volumetric" charge). Water metering can be justified on both economic and environmental grounds, as it introduces financial incentives for efficiency among customers and companies, and so promotes a less profligate use of a resource whose unchecked consumption threatens the environment (see box opposite).

In practice what is driving the mainly voluntary spread of metering is that well-off households and those who use little water (for example, single-person households) can significantly reduce their bills if they pay on a metered basis, rather than by rateable value (see "Current payment methods" diagram on the opposite page).

Although this debate remains in the hands of the industry and mainly at a technical or economic level, the different charging systems are based on very different principles and have starkly contrasting implications for social welfare and justice.

There are several legitimate objections to the currently favoured system of water charges based on rateable values. First, rateable values were last set in 1973, so are more than a quarter of a century out of date. As they are no longer used for local taxation, it would be prohibitively expensive to carry out a new valuation just for water. Second, a charging system that is completely independent of the amount of water used makes it impossible to encourage efficiency or economy via financial incentives. And third, bills based on rateable values are at odds with the way the water industry regulator has chosen to interpret "fairness" in water charging. His view is that fairness means that "charges should broadly reflect the cost of providing water and sewerage services to different classes of customer". From this point of view, two households using the same amount of water should pay the same for it. Under rateable values, the two households pay different amounts if they live in different-sized houses.

"Cost reflectiveness" has much to be said for it. It is the basis on which almost all prices are set, regardless of whether a shopper is rich or poor. Yet it is not the basis on which we pay for our public services via taxation, and an attempt to introduce such a principle into local government ten years ago - the poll tax - was decisively defeated. Most of us still automatically think of water as a public service - as it was until privatisation.

The fact that we all pay for water (and indeed other services piped into our homes) by means of periodic bills, rather than, as it were, by the bottleful, makes it possible to conceive of a very different kind of charging structure from, say, how we buy items off supermarket shelves.

In thinking about alternatives to the current systems of charging, two questions should be considered. Is it possible to continue with a system based on some proxy for payment according to our means? And is it possible to reconcile the objective of social justice with those of economy and environment? I think the answer to both questions is yes.

One way of preserving the principle that water should be paid for according to our means would be to replace rateable values with the council tax bands that underlie the current system of local taxation. Since larger properties pay a higher council tax than smaller properties, they could pay a higher water bill, too. But such a switch would be politically difficult, chiefly because it would create many losers at all income levels, whose opposition might be more weighty politically than the support of the many winners. This is how water is paid for in Scotland, although its introduction there was made much easier by the fact that households are still billed for their water by the local authority, as an additional item on the ordinary council tax bill.

Is it possible to go further and accommodate the principled concerns of those who would wish, through the price mechanism, to introduce financial incentives for customers to economise on their water use?

Hitherto the debate about how to price water has tended to polarise on the question of water metering, with the strongest opposition coming from those predominantly concerned about social welfare and justice. Their concerns are compelling: for reasons both of public health and private well-being people should not face financial incentives to economise on water for essential needs such as drinking, preparing and cooking foods, washing and bathing, and flushing the toilet.

This opposition, regrettably, has focused on metering itself, in the sense of measuring how much each household uses. But what really matters is the tariff, which is then built around the information that metering yields, to determine how much each household has to pay. The heart of the objection to metering is that it creates a financial disincentive for people to use any water, including the water they ought to be using for health and hygiene.

Yet a metered tariff need not do this (see diagram, left). Here, the amount a household pays rises above the fixed charge once consumption exceeds a predetermined level (often, though inaccurately, called the "tranche of free water"). Only then would any financial disincentive to use water kick in.

The volume of water covered by a fixed charge could vary between households, so those with more people would have a proportionally larger tranche of free water. And the amount payable in fixed charge could vary between households according to their liability for council tax, thereby preserving an important element of payment according to means. This is certainly a more complicated system, but it satisfies economic, social justice and environmental objectives.

In the coming months the water regulator will approve the water companies' charging schemes for the next five years. The public should scrutinise his decisions for their commitment to fairness. If, as he desires, water charges are broadly to reflect costs, both a simple council-tax system and the hybrid suggested here will be ruled out. But, applied without modification, the regulator's principle actually produces a substantial, stealthy redistribution in the way that society as whole pays for its water. The winners are richer households and low-user households; the losers poorer households and high users; and the net outcome greater unfairness - the precise opposite of the regulator's stated aim. Without an informed and more sophisticated approach to the issue of water charging, poll tax history could yet be repeated as water metering farce.

Peter Kenway is director of the New Policy Institute, which will be producing in the autumn a collection of essays on fairness in water charging

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis