Back in May, I observed on this site that “water has seeped back into Scottish politics”. In February, it had been reported that Anglian Water was in line to take over the selling of water and waste water services to the public sector in Scotland, after a competitive tendering process overseen by the Scottish Government.
Faced with an outcry, not least from former allies in the radical independence movement, the Scottish Government put the process into “standstill”, delaying any decision until after the election. The reason for that was clear enough. Although the White Paper in 2013 had celebrated Scotland’s “world first” in “introduc[ing] retail competition for non-domestic customers”, the government had struck a different tone when this latest contract was advertised in summer 2014. Then, Nicola Sturgeon went out of her way to talk up the prospects for Scottish Water. That a privately-owned company based south of the border would come top in assessing the bids does not appear to have been part of the plan.
What’s happened since May is revealing. Or, rather, what hasn’t. The expiry date for the existing contract, which is with Scottish Water’s commercial arm Business Stream, was originally extended from the end of March to the end of June. In late June a couple of sources in the specialist press picked up that there had been a further extension, until 30 September. There doesn’t seem to have been any announcement since, with parliamentary questions seeking further information receiving what might be politely termed insubstantial responses. Thus, next Wednesday appears to be the last day on which the nation’s schools and hospitals, and many others, know who their water contract is with.
Of course, the existing contract may have been quietly extended yet again. A delay of nine months in letting what was advertised as a 3 year contract would surely signal a government struggling with unexpectedly difficult questions. Or a decision may have been made either to pass some or all of the work to Anglian, risking more of the criticisms heard last February, or to keep the work entirely with Business Stream, which would seem likely to require some deft legal footwork, not least to avoid the risk of requiring substantial compensation to the rejected lead bidder. Striking here is how the public noise earlier this year has melted away: any pressure on the Scottish government is wholly behind the scenes. Yet the decision here will have large implications, both symbolic and on the actual level of charges levied on an increasingly pressed public sector. If there’s scope for more than a purely technical decision, if some judgement can be exercised, then in the spirit of a more open and engaged politics at least some of that debate should be opened up to wider participation and scrutiny before passing a point of no return. At the very least if there has been a decision, whether to delay or to award, then it should be clearly announced – preferably some time before next Wednesday.”
Here is the original piece published here in May