Friday 30 September 2016

Opposition policies lack detail or fail to offer anything new

Published 07/08/2015 | 02:30

Would it not be worth keeping the meters to get an in-depth look at the level of leaks in the network?
Would it not be worth keeping the meters to get an in-depth look at the level of leaks in the network?

If this is the best the opposition have to offer, then our water network is in real trouble.

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Despite 18 months of never-ending controversies and ample opportunity to come up with well-costed and sensible alternatives, the parties are offering little beyond vague aspirations on how to solve the problems in our ageing and creaking system.

Given the depth of frustration felt by the populace at the water charging fiasco, not to mention a looming general election, clear proposals would have been expected.

The current system is far from perfect, but no alternative is being offered, despite months of sabre-rattling. Only Fianna Fáil has put a figure on the cost of dismantling the utility, at €172m. Many of the parties believe a publicly-owned utility should be created, with Fianna Fáil suggesting it should be replaced with a National Water Infrastructure Company with a "drastically slimmed-down staff" of 100.

There should be no bonuses, it should be modelled on the National Roads Authority (NRA) and the Oireachtas should control consultancy costs.

Apart from the fact the NRA employed around 180 before being subsumed into Transport Infrastructure Ireland, would it be a good thing for the Oireachtas to control consultancy spending? Would political meddling not arise, and an attempt made to micro-manage projects?

The proposal is fraught with danger. Why? Because the one lesson we have learned to our cost is that politicians turn off the investment tap when the economy runs into trouble, or when shinier, more attractive vote-winning projects raise their head.

Making Irish Water more efficient is a common theme, but there's no explanation as to how this might occur. Given the water regulator has already told Irish Water to reduce costs, it's hard to see how the political system could garner additional savings, beyond telling it to stop investing.

The issue of executive salaries, the administrative costs of billing, legal advice secured and payments to contractors are also identified as costs which could be stripped out. But if Irish Water is abolished, would many of these costs not arise anyway? Is there no requirement for management? Would there be no need for planning, legal and other consultants and contractors?

Paul Murphy and the Anti-Austerity Alliance make the point that hundreds of millions are being spent on the "unwanted" metering programme. Sinn Féin says it will scrap it.

Whatever about the lack of incentives to conserve water, the meters do allow leaks to be identified. Even if charges were abolished, would it not be worth keeping the meters to get an in-depth look at the state of the network? Besides, 730,000 have already been installed, or 70pc of the total. By the time the election rolls around, most will be in place.

Irish Water believes that at least €5.5bn is needed between now and 2021 to upgrade the network. By and large, the opposition agrees. Apart from Renua, all favour abolishing domestic charges, at least for the present. So how will that money be sourced?

By not paying the bondholders, Richard Boyd Barrett says. While politically the Government is claiming it's still a live option, in reality it's long since over, primarily due to European opposition.

All companies should pay the 12.5pc corporation tax rate, and not effective lower rates, which would boost the national coffers, he adds, correctly.

There's talk of a financial transaction tax, but do such charges not eventually get passed to customers? Sinn Féin proposes borrowing at cheaper sovereign rates. The Social Democrats suggests existing taxation coupled with a reduction in operating costs will meet the bills.

Fianna Fáil takes a catholic approach, and will tap everyone for cash, while Renua is particularly vague. "We will fund it from a proper system of water charges paid by use rather than a flat rate," it says. That suggests a big increase in bills.

The parties are offering nothing fundamentally different, and fail to address the legal obstacles involved in scrapping the utility. We need concrete proposals, not bluster.

Based on these responses, it's clear the opposition is flailing, and is no wiser than the current crowd. Must try harder.

Irish Independent

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