Sunday 16 June 2019

Rubbish bid to bring in bin charges shows nothing was learned from water fiasco

Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The Government's botched attempt to introduce pay-by-weight bin charges will inevitably end in a huge public revolt. It only has itself to blame for this impending disaster.

Silly me. I assumed that one vaguely positive thing came from the water charges fiasco - political incompetence may have cost the State untold billions, but future governments would at least understand how not to introduce new charges. I forgot the one golden rule of Irish politics - never underestimate the insanity of a political class that persists in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

So, here we are. Again. A mere couple of months since a deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was done to finally drive a stake through the heart of the water charges monster, and pay-by-weight bin charges have risen zombie-like from their tomb to haunt the Government. A year ago, then-housing minister Simon Coveney - cognisant that the Government would be unable to handle a bin-charges controversy while trying to find a way to permanently dispose of water charges - kicked the issue to touch. A statement from his department said that charges were magnanimously being deferred for a year to give "households time to adapt to the new system and more effectively manage their waste".

The fact that this was really being done to save political hides, when potential price hikes of up to 200pc for some customers were being bandied about, didn't make it into the press release.

"During this transition period, my department, in partnership with the waste industry, will drive an intensive public awareness, information and promotion campaign to support customers in understanding the new system, how they can change their waste management behaviour and better manage their waste costs under the pay-by-weight system," it added.

Funny. Twelve months later and I don't remember any such campaign. In fact, I'm pretty sure there was none. The reality is that everyone, including Cabinet ministers, seems to have totally forgotten about bin charges until the horrifying spectre of the imminent introduction of a new charging regime returned last week. Given the Government had a year to work with the waste industry and meticulously plan the best, least painful, way to sell these charges to a dubious public, what did it accomplish during this protracted negotiation period?

Very little. Other than Mr Coveney successfully jettisoning responsibility for bin charges out of his department and dumping it at the feet of Environment Minister Denis Naughten, virtually nothing.

Asked repeatedly in the Dáil last week if he could give assurances to customers about potential increases in their bills, Mr Naughten could only repeat the same tired, one-line mantra. "The charges applied by waste management companies are a matter between those companies and their customers, subject to compliance with all applicable environmental and other relevant legislation, including contract and consumer legislation," he droned.

In essence, waste companies can charge what they like. The Government has no power to stop them. In early 2016, then-environment minister Alan Kelly had claimed nearly 90pc of households would save money when they switched to pay-by-weight.

Showing characteristic attention to detail, this figure was completely incorrect and was arrived at by examining charges in the south-west alone - ignoring the fact that most of the country lives in Dublin where greater competition means lower prices. Since that embarrassing error, neither the Department of Housing nor the Department of the Environment seems to have been able to get a handle on one simple question - how much will people be charged under the new system?

The Government has also been unable to offer any assurances to those on social welfare about potential waivers or grants, or to those whose family members suffer illnesses that result in excess waste being added to their domestic bins.

Even though waste companies last year proposed the introduction of a regulator to the market, the Government failed to take any steps to set one up in advance of a new charging system becoming operational.

Last week, it was left to Fianna Fáil to suggest the creation of a regulator - a few days before the new pay-by-weight regime was supposed to come into force on July 1. Apparently, no one in Government had bothered entertaining that idea. With Fianna Fáil rattling its sabre, Sinn Féin threatening outright opposition to the plan and left-wing parties promising a protest movement to rival the water charges campaign, the Government finally saw the light. Belatedly realising it was about to walk straight into a minefield, Mr Naughten announced last Friday that the new charges will not now come into force for another six months - kicking the can back down the road in the desperate hope that something palatable can be cobbled together in the interim.

Given its utterly ham-fisted attempts to introduce this policy thus far, one would have to be dubious about its chances.

Not only is it beyond the wit of this Government to enact any new legislation, undertaking basic planning and research which informs any new policy seems to be too much to ask also.

Last year, the Government was clear with people about what would be done: new charges would be explained, reassurances that there would not be price-gouging would be given, an information and advertising campaign would be conducted and people would ultimately see the benefits of this policy in lower levels of waste being dumped at landfills.

To date, the Government has failed to do any of the above and, worse, seemed last week to be oblivious to the fact it was blithely stumbling towards another "water charges-esque" disaster.

A pay-by-weight collection system for waste, in which the polluter pays, makes environmental sense. It shouldn't be so hard for the Government to come up with some safeguards for consumers and sell it.

Irish Independent

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