Monday 27 January 2020

The story of Irish Water is muddy and murky

Forget everything you've been told about how the water charges will operate. So far it's all bullshit, writes Willie Kealy

Protest: Anti-water tax protesters blocking Irish Water personnel from installing a meter at a house in Limerick last June. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22
Protest: Anti-water tax protesters blocking Irish Water personnel from installing a meter at a house in Limerick last June. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

Many years ago, an old New York madam famously said: "You got it, you sell it, you still got it. What a business!"

Since then, nobody has managed to emulate that perfect business model. But lately, one Irish company - Irish Water - is having a damn good try.

Irish Water began life with all the natural advantages that being a creature of the State confers. Because in dealing with the cash of private citizens the State can do pretty much as it pleases, most of the time while lying to your face.

We had Enda assuring us about the €248-a-year water charge. But the European and local elections were on then and now even Brendan Howlin says Enda was talking through his hat. Then there was the stuff about waiting for meters to be installed before billing us and how there would still be a reasonable amount of free water, and if you were not wasteful you could actually save money.

We were also told that establishing Irish Water would be the most efficient and cost-effective way of doing the job. Well, it was all bullshit. All of it, not just some of it or even most of it.

At the recent MacGill Summer School (where else), Joan Burton told us that she did not believe in a "gold-plated" Irish Water, and she warned that if you set up a full-cost, high-cost model, that may lead to "difficulties down the road".

Well, sorry Joan, but that one is already well down the road. Don't you know that in the establishment of Irish Water, the Government has accepted a staff structure that entails foregoing €2.2bn in potential wage bill savings, because every existing Bord Gais and local authority contract affected has been incorporated into Irish Water?

Have you not heard about the 29 staff on salaries of over €100,000 in line for bonuses of €15,000? Or the €7,000 bonus that will go to each of another 299 staff?

Irish Water will start charging us from October - that's in just a couple of months' time - and ten days ago we had a bundle of figures thrown at us by the Regulator which led everyone to believe that we had a new "average figure" - this time it was €278. You might have thought, that doesn't sound too bad, or, maybe Enda wasn't so far out after all. Well, forget it. It's all nonsense, just like it has been from the beginning. Like the argument over an allowance for children.

Enda Kenny told us there would be an allowance of 38,000 litres a year for each dependant child - about 104 litres a day. Keep in mind that one shower uses 49 litres and a power shower uses 175 litres - and two-thirds of people use a power shower. Hardly generous, given that the young people in your house might also need to flush the toilet occasionally, as well as washing their hands and teeth, maybe cooking some food and washing up afterwards, or just mopping the floor.

But Irish Water asked for it to be reduced to 21,000 litres a year or about 57 litres a day, based on research that wasn't definitively representative in terms of scale or duration, according to the ESRI.

Nevertheless, the Regulator agreed to limit the amount of "free" water for children. Not that anything is really free. Just like the normal standard upfront change you won't have to pay, it will be added on to the bill somewhere else.

That "average figure" you have heard about takes account of holiday homes which use hardly any water, empty houses which use none, single occupancy homes which use only a little, and those with septic tanks who will only pay half. Then there are those who will be legitimately favoured because of illness or poverty.

Add up all those exceptions and then try to figure out your place in the panoply. The "average figure" will be nothing more than a mathematical notion and a lot of you will pay a lot more. How much more, you just do not know, but if you doubled Enda's original "average figure" of €248, you probably wouldn't be far out.

The only thing we do know is that Irish Water has a bottom line. It wants to make €500m a year out of charges (the figure doubles when you add in the government subvention, which also originally comes from you). But Professor John FitzGerald of the ESRI tells us Irish Water is only on target to raise €350 million from the water tax, so everything we have been told goes out the window. Everything will change because the bottom line cannot.

Now you are to be asked your opinion, in a public consultation process, on the direction Irish Water should take over the next 25 years. Good luck with that. But if you were thinking of some kind of civil disobedience in the here and now, think again.

You will be getting a letter from Irish Water shortly making various demands, the first draft indicates, like wanting to know your PPS number and the PPS numbers of everyone in the house, including the children. And you will also be asked to fill in a direct debit form so that the money can be deducted at source. Fill it up and get it back to Irish Water before the end of October, you will be told. Or else. Or else what?

Yes, under Social Welfare legislation Irish Water is authorised to use PPS numbers, but why would they do that? I can understand if you are claiming for a child, there should be some proof that the child exists, but if you're not, you'd be inclined to tell them to go to hell. And as for the direct debit, it may suit some, but others may prefer to get a bill and pay it, like they do for electricity, or the landline phone. Besides, not everyone has a bank account.

Irish Water has added one more weapon to its arsenal to beat you into total surrender. Responsibility for the bill-collecting aspect of the business - practically all of it right now - has been transferred to the Department of Finance. So, if all else fails, the draconian powers of the Revenue Commissioners can be used to bring you to heel.

In the real world, when you start up a business, you have targets and projections, but you have to work to reach them. In Irish Water they start at the bottom line and work backwards ­- all the way into your pocket.

What a business!

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