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One of the lasting legacies of municipal enterprise is the supply of water and the treatment of sewage. Health impr...
One of the lasting legacies of municipal enterprise is the supply of water and the treatment of sewage. Health improvement was driven by public concern and local democracy delivered.

In 1995, a referendum in Strathclyde showed 90% of voters wanted water to remain a local government function. But when the government established Scottish unitary authorities to simplify accountability in 1996, it also created three water authorities and diluted accountability. In April these will be crashed into a single water authority for Scotland to further cut costs.

Six years ago our colleagues from water and sewerage were among the most overworked at community meetings. They were challenged to improve sewage treatment, replace leaking pipes, increase capacity, and keep the taste of water as natural as possible. They were good at public meetings, well informed and robust in their answers. Their ethos of public service was self evident and it extended to the exemplary charity, Water Aid, which has provided drinking water for thousands in Africa.

At a Water Aid fundraising dinner last week, I met many former colleagues. They were a depressed bunch; more uncertainty, collapsing morale from another restructuring, and the imminent wipe out of much knowledge and experience. But they were in the minority - the event was dominated by the private companies contracted to provide new infrastructure.

The cost of water to domestic users in central Scotland has gone up from£50 in 1996 to£293 in 2002, and the projected growth of expenditure over the next three years is 27% - well above all other public services. We are told this is to meet UK and EC standards, but the majority of expenditure is in massive contracts. Is it over engineered? Would local government and community forums have provided better scrutiny? Scotland has the rainfall and unpolluted catchment areas that are the envy of the rest of Europe. But water charges have gone from the lowest in Europe to among the highest.

We were told by Water Aid that 50p provides a year's clean water supply for a person in a village in West Africa. Back in Britain are we sure the creation of large national bodies for silos of services is best value? Why do our flotilla of inspection agencies not redirect some of their attention? There are probably more coasters and failures here than in local government, but accountability lies with ministers, and this may not be good news.

Keith Yates is chief executive,

Stirling Council

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