If Scottish Water stands firm, others are sure to lose their bottle.

As well as being easy on the eye, the women from Smack the Pony were a bunch of gifted comdians – and dozens of their sketches now appear on the web, including this bit of fun.

It made me laugh, because I’m a lifelong fan of tap water and have resolutely – and rather unfashionably – refused to buy into the culture of bottled water.

To me, it verges on moronic that anyone will spend their hard earned cash for something that each of us already pay for to come out of our taps. Esepecially since there isn’t a money-spinning bottled water business out there that will produce anything as pure or fresh as what we take for granted in Scotland.

Off and on over the past five years, I’ve spent time helping out at the Scottish Water press office. Oh aye, I’ve heard all the arguments. Bottled water just tastes better. Tap water is full of unpleasant additives, whereas the expensive paid for stuff is actually good for you. Whatever. There’s no point arguing with some people.

I remain baffled why so many seem utterly determined to run down Scotland’s publicly owned water service; to denigrate the high quality product that comes out of their taps for a laughably tiny cash outlay; yet think nothing of paying an obscenely inflated amounts for what is effectively a marketing con.

So I found it even more refreshing than a tall glass of iced water when the revered and respected old lady of BBC documentary making – Panorama – redressed the balance somewhat on Monday night. And I hope the bottled water brigade were choking on their overpriced tipples at the revelations.

 Firstly, a series of blind tests had bottled water drinkers oozing confidence that they’d be able to pick out smelly old Thames Water (after all, each drop has passed through seven other people before it reaches the tap!) from a series of refined bottled offerings. Nope. Thames Water was rated consistently high and not a soul managed to correctly pick out cheap and cheerful tap water from the pricey alternatives. Bear in mind Thames Water is nowhere near as tasty as Scotland’s water. All of which sort of explodes the myth (trotted out repeatedly) that tap water “tastes funny”. What’s really “funny” is the number of people who bypass their tongue and  actually taste with part of their brain that can only be described as the fad cortex.

If you bottled up street puddles, passed it through a basic filter to clear out the visible lumps and labelled it as pure,mountain spring source, some people would swear it was the very nectar of the Gods. Let’s face, it around 80% of what we “taste” is related to smell   and pure water has neither taste nor odour. Dogs are animals with a sense of smell up to 100 times more powerful than ours. Yet Fido still likes nothing better than drinking pure, clean Scottish Water. From the toilet bowl.

No you can’t tell the difference between bottled water and the tap variety. Just deal with it.

Then Panorama trotted out the  science: Just how many eminent chemists does it take to tell the average Joe that tap water is perfectly clean, fresh and pure before they stop shelling out for the overpriced bottled variety, in the mistaken belief it’s better for them? In Scotland the only sector I can think of that is more heavily regulated than the water industry is nuclear power. The battery of tests – for purity, clarity and value for money simply would and could not be replicated by bottled water producers.

Next up were the marketing gurus. The people behind the eau seau clever Perrier adverts of the 1980s, which turned bottled water from a minor business backwater, into a thriving £10 billion a year industry. The ad man in question still seemed charmingly baffled as to quite how they’d pulled off the unthinkable – by actually persuading people to pay for something they could already get from their taps.

But the final indignity for the bottled water lovers had to be the Environmental damage wrought by the money spinning aqua industry. Bottled water has a massive carbon footprint compared with the green credentials of tap water. And did I mention the damage plastic bottles (not to mention the pellets used in raw plastic production) are wreaking on our coastlines and aquatic life? Worse, though, is the exploitation of communities (like those in Fiji) suffering from the disease, hardship and indignity of life without clean water. While just a few miles down the road big commerical industries plunder the pure water sources to sell to rich Europeans and Americans (who, ironically, already have the world’s purest water quite literally on tap).

But despite all the debunking of myths by Panorma, I’m sure the broadcast will have made virtually no difference. Quite simply for politicians and the media it’s just too convenient to stick the boot into the water business . Indeed, a the weekend Scotland on Sunday let rip with an unbalanced and inaccurate tirade against business water charges in Scotland. A week or two before the same paper was putting the boot in over leakage figures – again without giving both sides of the argument.

Then there’s always some politician trying to build support or credibility by calling for Scottish Water to be privatised. Oh aye. Magic idea. Take our biggest national resource out of public hands and give it to a profit driven company to run – as a monopoly – and see how quickly that drives up standards. How is it everybody understands that competition is the only persuasive driver for businesses to give customers value for money, yet everyone seems to forget that when talking about putting Scotland’s water sector into private hands – with no alternative supplier of tap water?

None of these commentators ever seem to mention that there isn’t a successful business that would actually buy and operate Scotland’s water infrastructure at the moment. It’s all to easy to forget that Scottish Water also deals with all our sewage and has to maintain bathing water standards round a vast coastline, but it has to deliver highest quality drinking water to remote Highland and Island communities. Neither of these are problems encountered by any of the privatised English water companies.

Another convenienty forgotten fact is that until Scotland has been saddled with water infrastructure that was ancient and neglected. Since 2002 Scottish Water has been replacing it – and while the billions involved sound like a lot of money the amounts are modes compared to those spent south of the border. What’s more, those English companies also had a 15 year head start.

Yet in little over five years Scottish Water has been transformed from disant also ran into a water business which performs as well (if not better) than many of those privatised English firms. What’s more it has all been achieved while merging three separate water authorities in the east, west and north of Scotland, meeting ever tougher EU standards, achieve huge operational efficiencies by dramatically reducing staff numbers AND delivering the biggest ever programme of civil engineering works seen in Scotland.

All that and the quality of drinking water has STILL improved every year and independent experts appointed to monitor it the most exacting European standard say 99.7 per cent of the thousands of random samples taken all across Scotland pass the test. And did I mention that the cost of providing that water and removing and treating all waste so that it has no negative impact on the environment costs each about £1 a day?

Phew. With all that going on, surely Scottish Water gets the media or public recognition it deserves. Bloody hell! It’s a model of public sector efficiency that would put many a ruthlessly run private enterprise to shame. But naw, rather than celebrate a Scottish success story it’s to easy for papers like Scotland on Sunday to take a pop. It was ever thus  for public bodies – and I’d be a liar if I tried to say that I didn’t  have a go at a few during my own time as a journalist.

But now that I’m on the other side … well, it’s enought to drive you to drink. So come on in – the water’s lovely.

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5 thoughts on “If Scottish Water stands firm, others are sure to lose their bottle.

  1. I remember when it was West of Scotland Water and a PR disaster… http://milnemedia.typepad.com/milne_media/2004/10/the_waters_love.html.

    Glad it is sooooo much better now.. http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/scottishwater/Billion-litres-of-water-lost.3762528.jp

    http://www.sepa.org.uk/news/releases/view.asp?id=495

    http://www.sepa.org.uk/news/releases/view.asp?id=418&y=2006

    Now, I’m off for some handy sized Highland Spring given that we were warned not to use the drinking water here in our Glasgow city centre bolthole because of the old pipes….

  2. Aye,

    I remember only too well the Mirror’s coverage of the Glasgow e-coli outbreak.

    Great fun for all concerned at the Mirror end I’m sure, but not exactly a model of responsible or balanced journalism – I’m now wagging my finger and frowning in a schoolmasterly fashion, young Mr Milne, since you were in the hot seat at the Scottish Mirror at that point.

    There most definitely was a problem with Glasgow’s water supply (neglected Victorian infrastructure inherited from Strathclyde Council and West of Scotland Water).

    Indeed, that all helped speed up the delivery of the Katrine Water Project (KWP) to give Glasgow a 21st century supply – and not before time. But Scottish Water was just months old at the time of the e-coli scare and KWP would have happened anyway.

    My stint at Scottish Water then was my first ever exposure as a PR man on the wrong side of a tabloid mauling. I had no problem with the organisation getting a kicking – you can’t be at the heart of a public health scare and not expect it.

    However, I was taken aback by the total lack of any balance. Not a single tabloid bothered to report that:
    * Nobody fell ill as a result of the scare. Not a single recorded person.
    * The whole thing became public BECAUSE Scottish Water took the precuation of issuing a health warning, advising people to boil their water (hardly irresponsible)
    * It was NOT a failing in Scottish Water’s treatment processes – but down to run off from agricultural land.
    * Scottish Water was only months old and was actually set up to tackle exactly these types of problem.

    Instead there was hysterical reporting calling for the resignation of the top people at SW. Even though any considered, expert opinion would have shown those were the very people best-equipped to steer safely through the problem.

    Nah. I’m sorry to tell you that was the point my faith in newspapers (and you know how much I love journalism) took its biggest ever hit. Facts and balanced information were wilfully (I’d say recklessly) ignored.

    And all because the boil notice affected Bearsden and Milngavie – and so impacted on the routine lives of senior staff at virtually every major Scottish media outlet.

    If you don’t buy that, then explain why a previous (and genuine) outbreak of e-coli in Aberdeen – which left hundreds of people ill including many who were hospitalised – got virtually no coverage in any of the same media outlets?

    I don’t say all this as some sort of PR push for Scottish Water. It’s a massive organisation and it will make mistakes and get a few well-deserved kickings. However, I’ve been on the inside as it has been transformed and seen the dedication, expertise, hard work of the ordinary staff in the face of massive change and cost cuts.

    What’s been achieved so quickly is genuinely impressive and the quality of Scotland’s drinking water is world beating – but you will rarely if ever hear the Scottish media give anything other than minor and grudging credit for that.

    Instead the recent negative coverage on leakage figures and business charges is typical lazy, easy-hit half-a*sed journalism using skewed statistics or questionable comparsions.

    Defending Scottish Water (or any publicly funded body) is about as unfashionable as preferring tap water over Evian.

    So I’m happy to drink deeply.

  3. As the body responsible they thoroughly deserved their kicking and were always offered the right to reply to ensure balance – even when one of the top bods refused our request for a pail of water from his own PRIVATE water supply early one morning, if memory serves.

    It took such a stunt to get them to agree to a telephone interview after days of being given the rubber ear. Remember, this affected thousands of ordinary families and businesses.

    In fact, at times it seemed like West of Scotland Water all over again.

    The scare was under their watch and I’d argue it was down to luck as opposed to good management, than nothing worse followed – hence why so many ‘experts’ were lining up in the Press to shoot the infant SW down.

    Consecutive reports had warned of such an impending problem, after all, but no action had been agreed.

    The failures may have been from a legacy, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been held accountable as the custodians at the time – given that many of the same people were involved.

    And its churlish to say that because it affected areas where there was some wealth that it didn’t really matter – given the fact it was the elderly and young mum’s who were calling newspapers for help having (according to them) been offered little from the SW that existed then.

    But count yourself lucky – I had a flock of sheep lined up for the SW car park until the Editor found out and stood them down! And yes, that perhaps would have been reckless.

    Who taught me such dastardly tricks of the trade I wonder?

    But I am pleased to report that the tap water at home is lovely and having consumed my Highland Spring today, I shall take the empty bottle home and refill it in solidarity for tomorrow.

    Safe in the knowledge it will be bug free (er, I hope).

  4. Plastic bottles are a growing problem in our landfills and oceans. We felt that something needed to be done……and now.

    We knew that there wasn’t going to be one “fix it all” answer and began to wonder if anything was ever going to be done. The problem was growing every day, more bottles were being manufactured and more bottles were accumulating in places where we didn’t need them.

    We were wondering if “Earth Friendly Bottles” would ever be available?

    That’s why we decided to do our part and started ENSO Bottles. We are partnering with other companies to offer a PET plastic bottle that will biodegrade, compost or recycle.

    Our bottles can be produced in a clear or colored version, however, clear version isn’t quite as clear as current PET plastic bottles but then again that’s one way to identify our earth friendly bottle.

    ENSO is trying to achieve sustainability with our plastic bottles. Our goal is to make bottles that won’t have the adverse impact on our environment and are made from non food bio-fuels.

    We haven’t started making them from bio-fuel but that’s high on our agenda and hopefully will be something we can offer in the future.

    But for now, we offer a plastic bottle that is earth friendly…it’s just one step but if we all take just one step toward improving our planet….we will make a difference.

    Now all we need is for a lot of beverage companies to start using earth friendly plastic bottles.

    Max

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