Friday 13 December 2019

Tax that breaks this humpy beast's back

Another €240 bill might not sound like much to Enda Kenny – but it could be the tipping point

Water bills are on the way. Photo: Cate Gillon/Getty Images
Water bills are on the way. Photo: Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Willie Kealy

I CAN see it now. The husband says to the wife: "I'm feeling a bit full. Have you used up our allowance or should I save it for work?"

The allowance the Government has in mind for each of us is apparently two flushes of the toilet a day, one shower and a brush of the teeth.

Nobody seems too upset about this miserly allowance. Mostly people care about the money, which is understandable, but it shows how easily we forget. How easily we are diverted.

Climate change has seen to it that we are not short of rainfall in this country. What we do lack is the infrastructure of a water delivery system. It is an inherited Victorian system – like our roads used to be until we decided we needed a proper transport infrastructure. But we never got round to making that decision about our water supply, so we carry on wasting as much water through leaks as we use, and subjecting thousands of our citizens to a water supply that is unfit for human consumption. Every drop has to be boiled.

For decades now, our local authorities have limped along, repairing leaks that are big enough to be noticed when they flood a roadway, but unable to even detect the majority of wastage underground. So when it was decided something would have to be done, there was general agreement. Water was a valuable resource and it would have to be protected and respected.

There would have to be a charge but we were promised that the job would be done right. Everyone would get water meters and you would pay according to use.

There would be no charge until all the meters were installed. There would be a reasonable allowance, and you could save money by being prudent with your water use. And there would be a new efficient water authority which would take over from the local councils and make repairing the leaks and replacing faulty pipes a priority.

Unfortunately, it turned out that none of this was true.

The new Water Authority – an offshoot of Bord Gais – turned out to be essentially a bill-collecting agency, with a mandate to borrow lots of money abroad after getting a heavy initial subvention – €180m – from the Government upfront (and much more to come on an on-going basis) for consultants to tell them how to collect money.

As for doing anything else, like repairing leaks, well, it will be 12 years before they take over responsibility from the local authorities. This is the kind of stuff we seem to have forgotten.

It won't be 12 years before they start charging, however – that begins next January, and according to the Taoiseach, the initial charge will be around €240 per house. Of course, that is just a wild stab in the dark. And even if it is true, there is little chance it will stay that low for long.

But Enda had promised Paddy would know the story before the local elections, so he had to say something. Unfortunately he didn't tell his Coalition partners, the Labour Party, until the night before the Cabinet meeting to agree the price.

And they didn't like it one little bit. Because they will have candidates in the local elections too. So they need something more than just telling us how much it will all cost if they don't want a big backlash at the polls.

They'd like to be able to say that the allowances will be a bit more generous, and that those without meters would not be excluded from them. They'd like to say that the old and the unwell and indigent will be looked after.

Jan O'Sullivan, the junior minister for housing, said she'd like to say the person in the small terraced house would not pay as much as the person in the big terraced house. Which seems to suggest that she has got her stealth taxes all mixed up.

That's property tax, you're thinking of, Jan. You should know that. You're the minister for housing.

I suppose the Labour Party would also like to be able to say that this is a very necessary tax because it is the price of conserving water. But that too is a lie. Because we now know that irrespective of how much water you use or conserve, if the new Authority does not get the revenue it is expecting, the tax will be bumped up so that it meets its bottom line.

Fianna Fail don't seem to be in too strong a position to object to all this, seeing as they agreed the measure in principle with the troika before they left office. Sinn Fein and the Independents like Richard Boyd Barrett seems to be best placed to benefit from all this last-minute Government panic.

Boyd Barrett wants to start a national campaign of civil resistance to the water tax. With the record of the Irish electorate for apathy and stoicism and general sheep-like behaviour in the face of more and more austerity, this could be wishful thinking. We're not Greeks, after all. And we are probably very much aware that whether we elect Fine Gael and Labour councillors in numbers on May 23, they will implement this water tax anyway.

They would prefer if we didn't hold this against them when we come to vote – local representatives are the essential lifeblood of any serious political party, they are its future. But they can weather a setback too. And as for the Euro elections, well, who really cares.

There is a good chance that the sleep-walking Irish electorate knows this too. We have taken everything else they have thrown at us without much more than a collective whimper. But this could be the straw to break the back of this humpy beast.

Another bill of €240 might not sound a lot to Enda Kenny, but so many are so near the breadline, and this could just make a crucial difference. We may be finally approaching the tipping point. That might not be on May 23, maybe not even at the end of the year when the first demand comes in.

But what are the chances it will happen just when it really matters. Like right before they have to face the people in the next general election.

Sunday Independent

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