Monday 26 September 2016

Water charges are not the issue

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Fine Gael TD Simon Coveney Photo: Damien Eagers
Fine Gael TD Simon Coveney Photo: Damien Eagers

The dust had hardly settled on the General Election when two of the most experienced politicians in the country conspired between them to stir the hornet's nest that is Irish Water and the contentious issue of water charges in general. If the intervention of Simon Coveney and Barry Cowen on national television last week is an example of how a putative new government comprising some arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will work, then the heart sinks.

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Opinion polls have informed us that the water charges issue, while still a running sore for a large section of society, was not central to the outcome of the election, and was certainly not as important to voters as an array of other, far more pressing matters which the new administration will have to face in short order.

Whatever their intentions, the intervention of Coveney and Cowen is likely to cause further harm to what is an already badly damaged utility company and the prospect now exists that the conflicting positions of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will lead to mass non-payment of water bills at least until a new government eventually contends with the issue. This is a matter of some regret and a source of understandable anger, not least for those who have dutifully paid the charge.

Last week's events have also highlighted the shortcomings in relation to Irish Water in that it was always a hastily cobbled together and ultimately unsatisfactory operation that was never fully accepted by a clear majority of the people. However, an opportunity now exists to finally put right these issues and allow the country to finally move on from the entire debacle.

The case for water charges, if not for Irish Water itself, has been well made. The public water and waste water system is hopelessly past its sell-by date and urgently needs to be upgraded. That will cost a significant sum, running into billions, which the Exchequer can ill afford when set against the health, housing and homeless crisis. Something has to give. A case can be made for a low flat charge to apply to all households until the new government consults widely and comes up with a solution agreeable to the vast majority.

In the past, economist Colm McCarthy has argued that an ingredient in public discontent has been the sheer accumulation of once-off charges and taxes, which have been a significant nuisance to a large proportion of people. The truth is people pay far more in VAT, universal social charge and income tax than they will ever pay for water or in local property tax, but they do not endure an avalanche of correspondence from the Government about form-filling, PINs, PPS numbers, much of it unaccompanied by a clear indication of how much money is being sought and how it will be spent.

The new government should consider, when the dust settles, the creation of a single, easy-to-use platform for the collection through monthly instalments of property tax, annual car tax, the television licence fee and all of the other charges related to the smooth running of a household, and then move on to deal with the far more urgent issues the electorate clearly wants resolved.

Sunday Independent

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