Wednesday 28 September 2016

A harsh truth: idea of free water won't fly

Published 23/04/2016 | 02:30

Joe Healy the new IFA president. Photo: Damien Eagers
Joe Healy the new IFA president. Photo: Damien Eagers

Harsh lessons are finally being learned. In truth, only the Revenue Commissioners can collect tax in this country. When local property tax (LPT) compliance was in the hands of the Department of the Environment, it failed. TV licence payments through An Post have also run into problems, with widespread evasion.

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Court fines can also have appalling rates of non-payment. But when Revenue is on the case, it has the aura - like the Mounties - of always getting its man. There is respect and the fear factor, given its swingeing powers and overwhelming resources; thus, obedience is likely to be the norm.

But Irish Water has struggled to overcome high levels of outright civil disobedience.

But when you see the various options on the table as to the what might be agreed "going forward", as Brian Cowen used to say, you shudder.

For instance, a return of the oversight of sanitary services to the local authorities would be crazy.

Don't forget, there is a pressing need to invest €25bn to protect and upgrade our Victorian water supplies and sewerage treatment.

Our population is soaring - we are already behind the curve and the next two decades will see unprecedented demand.

Bills for the use of commercial or agricultural water have remained with the local authorities.

Are we envisaging the hundreds of staff recruited by Irish Water to collect household bills being made redundant? Meanwhile, engineering and local service personnel will be retained.

The late Brian Lenihan referred to "least worst" solutions. The utility still makes sound sense in terms of delivering efficient provision of water.

Or are we about to see meters becoming about as relevant as e-voting machines?

As things stand, a proportion of the local property tax is payable to the local authorities. A further proportion might be used to finance Irish Water annually in lieu of domestic water bills.

This means home owners will pay, not tenants. Landlords will no doubt adjust rents accordingly. But notions of free water are just nonsense. Using the LPT as a method of financing nationwide water provision neatly sidesteps the EU obligations to impose charges. Allowances, waivers and and reliefs in the LPT could also address the problems of affordability.

This solution removes all conspiracy theories about any possible future privatisation, as Irish Water would no longer be a commercial utility; it would also remove the need for a referendum. This endless blame games serves no purpose.

Reforming IFA

Congratulations to Joe Healy, pictured, the new IFA president, who won over 50pc of votes on the first count.

His tally doesn't quite reveal the full story. IFA membership fell by 13,000 over the past three years. Some 63pc of members didn't bother to vote. Mr Healy's 14,000 number one votes contrasts with the 47,000 who abstained. Shock and dismay at the revelations over remuneration for the IFA's top brass engendered widespread disillusionment.

Mr Healy won primarily because he's perceived as the most notable 'outsider'. His profile in Tuesday's Farming Independent column and his former Macra presidency, as well as his affable manner, also contributed to his success. Built in to his mandate is a glaring need for radical reform at the IFA's Bluebell headquarters.

Half-hearted genuflections and renewed pledges of "transparency" won't be enough. Any return to business as usual will not restore the lost credibility of the organisation.

In replacing general secretary Pat Smith, Joe should clearly separate commercial IFA tasks from organisational or lobbying roles. The job of maximising shareholder value in the IFA businesses of FBD insurance and telecoms should be offloaded to a separate chief operating officer.

And the task of lobbying Leinster House or the mandarins in Brussels on farm incomes should be managed in a revamped arrangement. A unique opportunity exists for a modern farmer representation body by unifying the IFA with the ICMSA and ICSA.

Merging into a single national organisation would make sense. There would be obvious synergies, and savings. It would also increase the political clout of farmers.

Look at what's happening within the public service - the three trade unions (Impact, Public Service Executive Union and CPSU) are currently amalgamating.

Winning the battles to deal with the domination of food processors and the purchasing power of grocery chains will be best served by farmers forming a united front.

A great week of sport

Forget the talks about forming a government. What an incredible week of sport lies ahead. Today, Willie Mullins (11/10) bids to clinch the British trainers' championship at Sandown on the final day of UK jump season, with superstars like Vatour, Vroom Vroom Mag and Un De Sceaux diverted from Punchestown.

Tomorrow it's Croker - I predict that Jim Gavin's Blues (4/6) will confirm their superiority over Kerry. On Tuesday evening, I'll be hiding behind the sofa anxiously hoping Man City can best the mighty Real Madrid at home to attain Champions League final history.

Then there will be four evenings of a grade 1 festival at Punchestown, Kildare, replete with marquees full of craic. Don Cossack, Thistlecrack, Douvan and Annie Power cannot be opposed. Hold off on all politicking while these real-life issues are resolved.

Irish Independent

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