Tuesday 21 November 2017

Varadkar vow to act soon on water refunds

Taoiseach also looking to tweak property tax

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Photo: Maxwells
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Photo: Maxwells
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Water charge refunds will be paid to almost one million households within weeks, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has promised in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Independent.

Families can expect up to €325 back from Irish Water as the Government attempts to finally end the saga over the utility.

Mr Varadkar suggests the €170m needed will not come from money allocated for Budget 2018, saying payments will start before the Budget is announced.

He also said that he intended to re-evaluate property tax to alleviate dramatic increases from 2019, indicating that he is inclined to give local authorities more flexibility to vary the tax.

Read more: Hissy fit blamed for putting water refunds 'in doubt'

In his first in-depth interview since taking office, the Taoiseach also defended himself against accusations that his leadership so far had been more style than substance.

In a week in which he featured on the cover of Time magazine, he said he was conscious that some commentators were critical, but added that in the second half of the year he would be making significant decisions on the Budget, Brexit and Northern Ireland.

"And then perhaps people will be talking about the good substance as well as style," he said.

With that in mind, he said there was no logic in calling a general election to seek his own mandate - even though he has convened the top brass in Fine Gael to start planning in case Fianna Fail pulls the plug on his Government. "I won't be doing a Theresa May, you can be sure of that," he added.

On water charge refunds, he said: "They'll get their money back. They'll be refunded this autumn. We're gearing up to do that."

It will cost around €170m but the Taoiseach is satisfied that the European Commission will allow repayment without it impacting on Budget 2018.

"There's a cost. There are logistical issues as to how it's going to be done by Irish Water. And it may also require legislation. But we intend to do it in the autumn. It's not going to be a Budget announcement.

"We'll do it and have it under way. I anticipate that everybody will have their money back before the end of the year."

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Varadkar also revealed that while Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe had announced a figure of €300m for tax cuts and spending increases next year, there would be more money available by October.

"It is going to be tight. Any spending increases and tax cuts are going to be modest. But it'll be more than €300m," he said.

"There are ways of expanding that. For example, if unemployment continues to fall, and we anticipate it will, there will be savings in Jobseeker's Allowance. There's also the possibility of revenue-raising measures. It's pretty normal in budgets now to put 10 or 20 or even 50 cent on cigarettes and that brings in revenue, too."

Read more: Households to get €325 in water bill refunds

Mr Varadkar admitted his administration was facing an uphill battle to convince the public that progress was being made in health and housing.

"I am concerned about the rise in property prices, particularly for people who want to buy a home for the first time. Even people in my age group, in their late 30s, haven't bought properties yet. People used to often buy in their 20s. Because of the recession we now have a lot of people in their late 20s and 30s who are renting and would like to buy.

"We're nowhere near the kind of property prices we had at the peak even with the rises that have happened. We're still roughly 30pc behind the peak. But we don't want to go back there."

One big plan he has in mind is to change the operation of the Local Property Tax in a bid to save householders from massive increases in 2019.

"Some people, particularly in the cities, will see a very dramatic increase in their property tax. I don't think that should happen. I don't think people should be facing 40, 50, 60pc increases all of a sudden.

"The most obvious way to alleviate that and make sure it doesn't happen is to give local authorities more flexibility to vary property tax. At the moment, they can vary it up or down by 15pc. You could allow them much more power to vary property tax and not to take the windfall," he said.

On health, Mr Varadkar said any bad blood with Simon Harris had washed away.

"We were on different sides in the leadership contest. I think since then we've had a very good relationship. I want him to succeed. It's very important for the success of the Government that we make progress in health," he said, adding that he would be attending Mr Harris's wedding later this month.

Sunday Independent

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