The water campaign that made a big splash

It turned drainage charges into a political hot potato, harnessed the power of grass-roots campaigners and prompted the Government to act. Patrick McCurry finds out how the 'rain tax' campaign pulled off a surprising victory

Rain tax lobby
Rain tax lobby

At first glance, it looks an unlikely candidate for campaign of the year: an amorphous coalition of organisations including the Church of England, the Scout Association and amateur sports clubs decide to lobby MPs on the potentially dull issue of surface rainwater drainage charges.

But when environment secretary Hilary Benn told the Labour Party conference last month that the Government would take action on what became known as the 'rain tax', it marked a major victory for grass-roots campaigning.

The voluntary organisations involved in the campaign were galvanised into action when water companies reformed their charging system so that charities, churches and others were charged in the same way as businesses for the amount of surface rainwater they generated. Many voluntary organisations faced increases of more than 1,000 per cent in the amount they were paying. The water companies blamed the soaring bills on changes introduced by the water regulator, Ofwat.

It was the Church of England that got the campaign going at the start of this year, when it became clear that churches in north-east and north-west England were facing massive increases in their bills for surface rainwater.

"I heard about the problem faced by churches in Teesside initially, but then it became clear it was a much bigger issue," says Martin Dales, a member of the General Synod, the national assembly of the Church of England. He decided the best and quickest way to get publicity about the problem would be through a private member's bill in the synod. His campaign was backed by a website, DontDrainUs.org, which was created by the Church of England's Manchester diocese.

The debate in the synod gave the problem a higher profile. Synod members such as John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, and former Conservative local government minister Robert Key MP attacked the charges, which were by now being described as the rain tax. The debate also forced Ofwat's chairman, who was coincidentally also a member of the synod, to defend the regulator's stance publicly.

The decision to label the charges as a rain tax would prove crucial, helping the public understand quickly what the campaign was about, even though Ofwat was irritated by what it saw as an inaccurate description.

Soon the sports clubs and scout groups that had also started campaigning against the soaring water bills began working with the church. "A key element of the campaign was having a loose alliance of so many diverse groups, which lobbied on their own behalf but also coordinated their strategies," says Stella Creasy, head of public affairs and campaigns at the Scout Association.

The campaigners soon began taking their message to MPs. Labour MP Stephen Pound, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Scouting, says the issue caught MPs' attention quickly because of the types of organisation involved. "If a politician had to pick three organisations to avoid confrontation with, it would probably be the church, scouts and sports clubs," he says.

The campaigners used a number of high-profile activities to draw attention to the rain tax. A lorry was hired to tour the north-west of England with a poster featuring the slogan "The rain tax will drain every community". A demonstration was organised at the headquarters of United Utilities in Warrington, gaining significant attention in the regional press. And a church warden launched an online petition on the Downing Street website - it gathered 45,000 signatures, making it the largest electronic petition of the year to be submitted to the Prime Minister.

As the campaign gathered momentum, new supporters came on board, including former rugby union international and Daily Telegraph sports writer Brian Moore, who launched a campaign of his own in the newspaper. The wider campaign also made the most of its community links, drawing on the help of the young people who would be affected if the rain tax forced services to close. "We used new technologies such as Twitter," says Creasy. "We would get all the young people involved to tweet their MPs at the same time for extra impact."

In July the campaign moved up a gear when the Scout Association organised a mass lobby of Parliament - the first time the organisation had ever taken such action. It got a further publicity boost when the House of Commons authorities told the scouts they would not be allowed to use Westminster Hall because they were too young to vote. The Speaker overturned the ban. "We got more than 80 MPs to attend the event, which was amazing," says Creasy. "We've had other campaigns, including one about Criminal Records Bureau checks, but nothing on this scale and with this level of mobilisation."

To get the message across to MPs, the campaigners made the most of the young people involved in the event. "It was important that it wasn't me or a senior director who spoke at the event, but an 18-year-old girl from Enfield," says Creasy. "This grass-roots involvement helped our case."

Sophie Richings, the cub leader who spoke at the rally, says: "It was something I and many other young people in the movement felt passionate about. Even though I'd never been involved in campaigning before, I was happy to take part."

The campaign soon had the backing of both Pound and shadow charities minister Nick Hurd. "A strength of the campaign was that its aim was achievable and its arguments were difficult to oppose," says Pound. "For example, however many theoretical justifications Ofwat came up with, the argument that a local scout troop or church could face closure because of a water bill had enormous force."

Hurd says the drive of the campaigners was vital. "The campaign succeeded because of passion and determination, and because someone in government finally recognised that they and Ofwat had got it wrong," he says.

Despite Benn's Labour conference announcement that the Government would legislate to allow water companies to offer concessionary rates for voluntary groups, the campaign is not resting on its laurels yet. "The next challenge," says Dales, "is to make sure the legislation deals with the problem effectively and is introduced as soon as possible."

TIMELINE

How the campaign gained support

2008: Ofwat and the Consumer Council for Water persuade four water companies to charge a 'rain tax' on surface rainwater, calculated on the site's area rather than on rateable value.

January 2009: The Church of England's Manchester diocese launches the DontDrainUs.org campaign website.

Campaigners hire a lorry to tour north-west England with a poster declaring "The rain tax will drain every community".

Campaigners protest outside the Rolls Royce showroom in Knutsford, Cheshire, the constituency of shadow chancellor George Osborne. The showroom was revealed to be facing a lower rain tax than the local church.

February 2009: The Church of England's General Synod debates the tax. Speakers against it include former Conservative minister Robert Key MP and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu.

April 2009: Campaigners deliver a petition to Downing Street with more than 45,000 signatures.

July 2009: The issue prompts the Scout Association to lobby Parliament for the first time in its 100-year history.

September 2009: Environment secretary Hilary Benn announces that the Government will legislate to allow water companies to offer concessionary schemes for voluntary and community groups.

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