Thursday 29 September 2016

First step out of water quagmire is to admit it has been a shambles

Eddie Molloy

Published 08/08/2015 | 02:30

A referendum will be held in the first 100 days in office of the next government to ensure Ireland's water utility will never, ever be privatised. This is a defining issue for a proportion of non-payers.
A referendum will be held in the first 100 days in office of the next government to ensure Ireland's water utility will never, ever be privatised. This is a defining issue for a proportion of non-payers.

I once read an article entitled: 'Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy: Escalating Commitment to a Chosen Course of Action', which described how, like a desperate gambler hoping against hope to get his money back on the last race and to save face, people often compound their initial risky miscalculation by trying one more big bet to redeem the situation. But the Irish Water debacle beats them all

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The latest opinion polls suggest that the Irish Water story will dog the final months of the current administration, seriously undermining Fine Gael and Labour prospects in the impending election. Much more importantly, the polls point to a period of unstable government and, given the opposition promises to "scrap Irish Water", interruption of the long overdue engineering programme to deliver clean water to every home in Ireland, to stop fouling our lakes, rivers and beaches and to ensure an adequate supply to Dublin.

There is a way out of this quagmire but it will involve something uncommon among Irish politicians, an admission, while still in office, that they got it badly wrong and that in the public interest they are going to exercise good government by doing the right thing, regardless of the political consequences. Ruarí Quinn's reversal of policy on DEIS schools is a rare example.

Paradoxically, should the government adopt this policy all the signs are that they would reap a political benefit, as in the DEIS case. It is becoming increasingly clear that one reason government parties are not riding high in the polls, in spite of the heavy lifting they have done to bring about a remarkable turnaround in the economy, is that even their most loyal supporters are dismayed at the catalogue of own goals reminiscent of the 'old politics'. It is no longer just about "the economy stupid"; it is also about respect for the intelligence of the electorate who, just for example, see the €100 "conservation grant" for what is.

To extricate themselves from the hole they are in, to ensure that the renewal of our water infrastructure continues uninterrupted and to prevent the impending general election being reduced to a futile war over Irish Water, the government, rather than risk yet another manoeuvre that could boomerang, might be better advised to come out with their hands up, admit they mishandled the establishment of the national water utility and declare that they are going to reconstitute the organisation along the following lines:

A referendum will be held in the first 100 days in office of the next government to ensure Ireland's water utility will never, ever be privatised. This is a defining issue for a proportion of non-payers.

Whatever its' name, there will be a single national water utility. Water does not respect county boundaries and this is key to achieving consistency of service nationwide and economies of scale.

There will be a charging structure that includes an element that incentivises conservation, as in every other developed country. People who genuinely cannot pay will be subsidised. Metering will be essential to fairness in charging.

To address Eurostat's concerns about board appointments, there will be a review of the board to ensure that it contains the requisite skills and independence.

The regulator will be reinstated with full delegated authority to establish pricing and otherwise oversee the performance of Irish Water.

The labour agreement reached at the foundation of Irish Water that included, for example, guaranteed jobs out to 2026, will be revisited.

An external review of the performance management system, the so-called bonus system, will take place.

Likewise the "millions spent on consultants" will be scrutinised to separate out investment in essential IT and other vital infrastructure from any alleged extravagance. The HSE suffers to this day from the lack of up-front investment in IT; patient files are still being driven around in taxis and only this week we learned that we will all have our own electronic health service identifier.

A users' council will be set up to ensure consumer input to Irish Water policies, open book transparency and consumer feedback .

The utility's debt will be on the State's books until such time as it can be set up in a way similar to the ESB.

Restate, unequivocally, that "can pay but won't pay" will not be acceptable. Either water charges will be collected by the Revenue Commissioners or some other way and that, ultimately, if people who can pay don't pay then there will be penalties, up to and including being cut off.

The €100 will be paid to anyone who in good faith has paid already and for anyone who had intended to pay within the next two weeks, but otherwise this discredited sweetener will be discontinued.

And, most crucial of all, however it is funded, the necessary funding will be made available to execute the ambitious plans that the engineers have to renew our water infrastructure. This was the original intention behind the establishment of Irish Water and it will remain so for the Government.

Starting with Phil Hogan's cack-handed setting up of Irish Water, the handling of unfolding events by ministers, civil servants and some managers has been a shambles, and the Government deserves all the kicking it has received for such a performance. However, the Opposition is no less guilty of the 'old politics', displaying the most blatant opportunism seen in Irish politics for a long time, misleading people with promises of a free lunch and free water to wash it down and uttering platitudes about "quangos… consultants…general taxation…bonus culture and fixing leaks first".

Those opposed to Irish Water will have 48 hours to cry "U-turn" and after that precious little else to offer. No opposition party, independent TD, trade union or group of activists has come up with a plausible alternative that will raise the massive funds needed, incentivise conservation of a precious and costly commodity, and stay within various EU constraints.

It is time to stop digging, metaphorically speaking of course.

Eddie Molloy is a Management Consultant

Irish Independent

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