Tuesday 25 June 2019

Explainer: Rejoice! The water war is over... but what happens next?

Barry Cowen and Simon Coveney
Barry Cowen and Simon Coveney

Niall O'Connor

So, the politicians have struck a deal?

Yes. After 22 meetings of the Oireachtas water committee, 13 members of the committee voted to scrap the billing system introduced by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition.

In its place will be a new regime that centres upon penalising those who engage in "excess use" or the "wilful waste" of water.

It is estimated that 8pc of households will fall into this category, meaning the vast majority of households won't pay bills whatsoever.

The committee agreed that the regulator would determine what constitutes normal usage. But crucially, the threshold for wastage will be set at 1.7 times this level, based on the calculation that the average person uses 133 litres per day.

Allowances will also be introduced for "extraordinary circumstances", such as medical conditions and larger households that use water beyond the threshold level.

But if I do find myself straying into 'excessive usage', will I be prosecuted?

No. You'll be formally warned by Irish Water and will be given a number of months (yet to be defined) to clean up your act.

So, if charges are gone, is that the end of meters, too?

Not quite. Any meter that has been installed by Irish Water will remain in place.

And after plenty of to-ing and fro-ing, Fianna Fáil consented to Fine Gael's demands to introduce meters for all new-builds. Such a provision was removed from last week's draft report.

This came after the legal advisor to the Oireachtas, David Nolan SC, said that compulsory metering for new-builds would leave Ireland better-placed to meet its EU obligations.

Ah, the EU - what will they have to say about this deal?

That remains to be seen. The Government will now introduce legislation that must not only reflect the recommendations of the committee, but ensure that the new regime passes what is known as the Water Framework Directive.

Any failure to do so will cause another political crisis and open up the taxpayer to hefty fines.

You mention fines, but what about refunds?

The committee has recommended refunds for households that have paid some or all of their bills. But it will be up to the Government to decide how, and when, these refunds are paid.

There has been so much politics at play. Who is claiming victory?

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil say the package agreed represents a fair compromise. The deal has come as a particular relief for Fine Gael, whose TDs feared a general election was on the horizon.

But left-wing TDs who are aligned to the 'Right2Water' campaign say the report agreed represents a dramatic U-turn and paves the way for water charges to be re-introduced in the future.

Are we now braced for a Dáil vote on a new water bill?

Not quite. One of the key compromises relates to how this new regime will be introduced.

Despite initial dismissals from Housing Minister Simon Coveney, Fine Gael has agreed to strengthen the 2007 Water Services to introduce this new system of levies and allowances, rather than draft a new piece of legislation.

TDs will vote to formally amend the act in the coming weeks.

What does this mean for Irish Water?

The public utility will remain - however, the report recommends a referendum to bring it into public ownership.

Irish Independent

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