Tuesday 25 October 2016

It really is time to put Irish Water out of our misery

Published 20/08/2015 | 02:30

Environment Minister Alan Kelly with Irish Water chief John Tierney
Environment Minister Alan Kelly with Irish Water chief John Tierney

Take a deep breath because I'm going to use two words which might turn you all hot and bothered. Here goes. Irish Water. Still remembering to breathe? Good. Most of us have an Irish Water story - here's mine.

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Water meter installers were working outside our front gate as we went on holiday recently. When we returned, the first sight that greeted us was a new meter - and beside it, water running down the pavement on to the road. Just to be clear, there was no leak before the meter was put in.

A dent made in our holiday buzz, we retreated indoors to drop our bags and get in touch with Irish Water. We did this by going online to fill out the form on the utility's website.

Almost immediately, six workers in hi-vis jackets arrived and quickly stopped the leak.

Later that afternoon, we received three phone calls from Irish Water, informing us that the issue had been resolved and asking us to make contact if there was a recurrence.

This week, a four-page customer complaints survey arrived in the post. Red C is conducting research on behalf of the utility to assess the satisfaction levels of people such as us who experienced a problem.

I have the leaflet in front of me as I write this. It asks a series of questions about our feelings regarding the way our complaint was handled and our satisfaction levels with the outcome.

Other questions deal with our attitude generally towards the utility. We are invited to rate Irish Water on its efficiency; share our views on the statement that "Irish Water is safeguarding water for the next generation"; and say how strongly we agree or disagree with the assertion that Irish Water is "honest and open". I have some thoughts on the last one, which I'll address in a moment.

A pre-paid envelope was enclosed with the questionnaire, along with a promise from Red C to make a €1 donation to charity - a choice of three was on offer - if the survey was completed.

So now we know how our water charges are being spent. On market research teams, questionnaires and pre-paid envelopes.

So much for the infrastructure investment we were promised. All that talk about upgrading clapped-out, Victorian-era pipes sounds like hot air.

Irish Water appears to be determined to use our tax revenue to tell us how terrific the state-owned quango is.

Recently, I heard ads on the radio in which it banged the drum about improving Roscommon's water quality. Radio ads cost money, as do consultants. Remember that €50m consultancy spend? Which quickly rose to €86m when they factored in legal fees, contractors and so on? Not to mention the bonus culture which was embedded in the utility's composition.

Blunder after blunder has been made by Irish Water since its inception. The latest bungle, currently exercising Fine Gael backbenchers, is the suspicion that people will be entitled to the €100 conservation grant simply for registering. No requirement to actually pay the water bill. This reads like a comedy show sketch.

Apparently, householders can expect letters soon, inviting us to apply for the conservation grant, which, in any case, isn't linked to conservation. (As Humpty Dumpty observes in 'Through The Looking Glass', when he uses a word "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less".)

But they want our PPS numbers first. Humpty Dumpty might call that a 'courageous' position to adopt, considering the ructions caused when the same data was demanded when people were told to sign up for water charges. The Government was obliged to retreat in the face of public hostility, fuelled by fears that the state company could be sold one day to a private entity able to access this private information.

Reviving the PPS bone of contention is yet another blooper. Just for a change. If people balked at supplying PPS numbers last year, why would this year be any different?

Meanwhile, Environment Minister Alan Kelly has given Irish Water permission to borrow a further €550m from commercial banks - he won't say at what interest rate because it is "commercially sensitive" so no marks for openness here, minister. Those additional loans will bring Irish Water's borrowings to €850m to establish the utility.

Only 46pc of water bills for the first three months of the year have been paid, and Irish Water is slow to supply an update. On Morning Ireland this week, Cathal MacCoille repeatedly asked the Irish Water spokesperson for figures for the second half of the year, to no avail. Nul points for openness here too.

Here's what we do know, though. Irish Water began billing in January and collected €30.5m instead of €66.8m for that three-month period. So something has gone radically wrong.

Not that you'd know it from Mr Easily Pleased Alan Kelly, who told The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk that he was "hugely satisfied" and "very happy" at the rate of water charge payment after those figures were released.

In a further blow, the Government's strategy of not including Irish Water on the State's balance sheet backfired when Europe's statistical agency Eurostat said the borrowings had to be counted as part of Ireland's national debt.

Everything touched by Irish Water turns to sludge - no wonder it continues to be loathed. The quango needs radical reform because in its current shape it has no credibility.

Irish Independent

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