Saturday 1 October 2016

Simon missing the farmers as he fights water and bin charge wars

Published 21/06/2016 | 02:30

Simon Coveney: 'he’s not in Kansas any more'. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Simon Coveney: 'he’s not in Kansas any more'. Photo: Doug O'Connor

With apologies to the scriptwriters of the iconic 'Wizard of Oz', Simon Coveney is realising he's not in Kansas any more.

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The Cork Fine Gael TD and putative Taoiseach is way beyond his comfort zone of the Agriculture Department. This was a beacon of happiness and prosperity for the early years of his first government term, in marked contrast to other recession-hit sectors.

On top of that he managed to skedaddle out of Agriculture just as prices began to hit the floor in all farm sectors. But Simon Coveney's arrival at the newly configured Housing and Planning Department was not so lucky.

First off, there was the rather ill-starred handling of water charges. He was associated with the principle of charges as a Fine Gael core value since 2009 as opposition environment spokesman. Circumstances and some mispeaks meant he has more recently been associated with a rather bungling climbdown to a very cynical Fianna Fáil on the issue, a climbdown which is riddled with ambiguity and problems.

Now enter the bin charges which have too many potential parallels with the water charge controversy.

Some at Leinster House are already warning that the bins - with some households threatened with increases of 100pc or more - may put the water charges in the halfpenny place. There were many noises off Kildare Street yesterday, suggesting that some street rebels may have found a new cause.

In fairness this was the one few politicians saw coming.

Not so long ago, all our bins were collected by the council. This service was paid for by domestic rates up to 1977, and later by central government. Then the local councils all across the country began withdrawing from bin collection.

Gradually, private companies, charging a tariff, became the order of the day. The latest crux turns on the pay by weight system which is due to come into play on Friday week, July 1.

It is a well-intentioned move, driven by EU rules, and aims to reduce rubbish volumes going to landfill dumps, while also encouraging more recycling. Nowadays few would argue with it as a principle.

But, as always, the devil is in the detail and for commercial companies such changes are revenue opportunities.

The trend in most houses has been the reduction of amounts in the "black bin" which contains old-style household rubbish and increases in volumes going into the "brown bin," containing organic waste, and "green bin" containing paper and such.

Up to now the green and brown bins were nominally free with the charge attaching to the black bin.

First signs of problems surfaced a fortnight ago when some major bin operators announced charges for the green bin along with the black and brown one. Minister Simon Coveney was in like Flynn to tell the companies that the green bin must be free from charge.

The bin companies sucked that one up and then moved to other ways of bringing in the revenue. Operators have introduced a mandatory annual 'service charge,' which is payable whether or not you ever put out a bin; some apply a 'per lift' fee, and then there is the weight-related charge.

From many parts of Dublin, the commuter belt, and further out, there are reports of a spike in 'fly-tipping'.

Hell is not hot enough, nor eternity long enough, for such wretched yobs. But this charge spiral scare is a ready-made apologia for such creatures.

Facing challenges in the Dáil and Seanad this week, the embattled minister needs to take action before this one also gets away.

His options include delaying the pay-by-weight system and trying to cap the charges which waste companies charge.

Playing for time is often helpful in politics. The prospect of capping charges in an unregulated market is often legally fraught.

But all eyes are on Mr Coveney, who must by now miss the farmers.

Irish Independent

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