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Water charges will pay for the neglect of contractors

Homeowners will have to pay €1bn in water charges annually from 2011. This latest financial blow comes on top of job losses, pay cuts, rising taxation, increased health costs, higher bin charges and other extras above the official rate of inflation.

So why is the Government introducing this new burden, running to hundreds of euro per household each year?

For one thing, the tax will boost a struggling construction sector, whose influence within Fianna Fail is strong and which is partly responsible for the current crisis in Ireland's water supply. They will be paid to install a meter in every home and to upgrade piping.

For another, the Green Party is committed to water charges in line with EU policy. It wants homeowners to pay now after years of neglect by local authorities and ministers. The Green Party promises that some water per person will be free but has not said how much. With the State hoping to raise €1bn a year, any free allowance is likely to be small.

In December 2007, the Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, told RTE, "If we had domestic water rates in Ireland, families would be paying €700 or €800 per annum, but we won that argument, we don't have that."

We do now. Hanafin is still in government, as Minister for Social and Family Affairs. It is not clear if her social welfare recipients will continue to have unlimited access to water, subsidised by taxpayers who must also pay their own new water charges.

As pipes burst during the recent cold spell, and water was rationed, people became acutely aware that our national water system cannot cope any more. Homeowners who thought that they had been paying for a modern water system through their taxes discovered that it has been run into the ground. We flogged to death a system that the Victorians and the British left us. How Third World.

The dereliction of our water supply came to a head during boom years when we could have afforded to invest more. Instead, builders were granted permission to add massively to our urban sprawl, paying too little for the true cost of supplying poorly laid-out estates with water and for overstretching the entire system to breaking point.

Minister for the Environment John Gormley said last week that Barcelona has a population three times the size of Dublin but survives on a water system just half the length of that of Ireland's capital. Building sprees around Irish towns and in the countryside were not only allowed but encouraged by recklessly funded tax breaks and by the reliance of local authorities on planning charges.

During the Celtic Tiger boom, there was too little regard by government and councils for the permanent long-term burden that bad planning places on the State's shoulders when it comes not just to water but also to lighting, public transport, roads and other publicly funded services.

It is not only by means of Nama that taxpayers are now paying for the favouritism shown to profiteering speculators, who should have been charged much more towards the cost of supplying services. The centres of cities and towns, not distant greenfield sites, ought to have been favoured for development.

Now, contractors stuck for work are about to prise €1bn each year out of homeowners in order to install water meters outside every home, and to help replace shared water pipes nationally at an annual rate of one in every 100km. Homeowners may also have to pay for further pipes on their own properties.

New water meters will not necessarily improve the quality of our water supply. But they will ensure that the cost of maintaining it is gradually passed from central government and local authorities to individual households.

What guarantee have we that the annual charge on households will not be squandered on overpriced or bad-quality work?

Business group Chambers Ireland has argued that the new water meter programme will "provide a much-needed stimulus to the construction sector". But money that householders must pay for that stimulus will not be spent elsewhere in the economy.

In 1997, the Labour Party scuppered domestic water charges then being rolled out nationally. Last week, Minister Gormley described that decision as "spineless". He added that his moving ahead with charges at this point was what a senior civil servant on television's Yes, Minister would describe as "a politically courageous decision".

Gormley says that the planned scheme is "about doing the right thing". But the Green Party in government has to avoid playing mouse to Fianna Fail's cat.

Minister Gormley must bear in mind Thomas a Becket's warning in TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral: "The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

It is reasonable to argue that people should pay for the cost of treating and delivering the water that they use, and this principle is accepted in many other countries. Even in Ireland, already, commercial users pay in accordance with the principle.

But to introduce hundreds of euro of new charges for water delivered to each household in Ireland during a recession, without clearly acknowledging why we have arrived at a water crisis, is politically naive.

The Green Party, which this month failed to dissuade Fianna Fail from holding a banking enquiry in private, is unlikely to embarrass its partner in government over the reckless disregard of the water issue for more than a decade.

During the first weeks of this Government, in June 2007, I wrote in this paper that the danger in coalition for the Green Party was that Fianna Fail would use it, "quietly blaming the Greens when it comes to mollifying any Fianna Fail supporters who care little in practice for the environment and who are angered by restrictions on their polluting activities".

I added: "Labour's history in government is a salutary warning to any party that believes its time has come. Labour has never fully recovered from supporting Fianna Fail's tax amnesty for rich criminals."

Fianna Fail backbenchers may now blame the Green Party for water charges.

Many voters recognise the need for environmentally friendly policies. But -- as they are forced to pay more for road tax, recycling waste, fuel and water -- they need to be convinced that service charges, as well as scrappage schemes for old cars and other ostensibly green policies, will bring real improvements and not become opportunistic ways of taking care of pressure groups that have an inside track to Government.

Sunday Independent