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Journal Articles Flux Year : 2014

Public water supply in Great Britain and Germany: Common origin, different trajectories


Today, water and sanitation services are organised very differently in Britain and Germany, with privatization at regional level in Britain, and municipal companies in charge of several public services in Germany. But cities in both countries shared the same initial experience, due to the prominent role of British engineers in the initial conception of sealed piped water supply systems and water treatment.In Britain, water services were developed earlier than on the continent, by private companies which pumped the water close to cities with the newly invented steam engine. As soon as the end of the XVIIth century, Parliament made some companies statutory, which protected them from competition. But in the second half of the XIXth century, many of these companies were bought by local authorities or replaced by direct public management entities. Both the government and business communities supported this development for hygienic and welfare reasons. After the 1929 financial crisis, the British government initiated a reorganisation of public services at regional level, which resulted in a consolidation at river basin level of water resources and service management. Fifteen years later, full privatisation of water and wastewater services was accompanied by increased centralisation in the planning of resources and regulation of users.In Germany, Berlin was a notable exception, since the Emperor overrode the opposition of the local council and imposed a water service run by a private company listed on the London stock exchange. All other cities directly chose public management, together with a preference for groundwater or Uferfiltrazion. But pragmatism led to network services becoming autonomous from general budgets, and to the creation of mixed economy companies under private law but with 100% public capital, grouping together water, gas, electricity, district heating and public transport. These municipal companies have generally resisted movements towards centralisation and privatisation, and the model was imposed in the new eastern Länder after re-unification.In the end, we can contrast the histories of Britain where the public versus private debate ended up in centralisation, and Germany where the principle of subsidiarity prevailed, and we provide some explanations at the end of the article.

Dates and versions

hal-01194437 , version 1 (07-09-2015)



B. Barraqué, R. A. Kraemer. Public water supply in Great Britain and Germany: Common origin, different trajectories. Flux, 2014, 97-98 (4), pp.16-29. ⟨10.3917/flux.097.0016⟩. ⟨hal-01194437⟩
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