Thursday 23 May 2019

If we'd started in 2000, there'd be no water mess

Europe wants us to save water, yet there's no incentive to do so by capping the charge until 2019

Taking to the streets: Protesters show their anger during a water charges demonstration in Dublin. Photo: Collins Photos
Taking to the streets: Protesters show their anger during a water charges demonstration in Dublin. Photo: Collins Photos

Sarah Carey

Like Alphonso X of Castile, one is always tempted to declare: "Had I been present at the Creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe".

So for the past year, I've been saying to Fine Gael politicians of my acquaintance - of which there are considerably fewer than you'd think - "Why don't you just keep saying, 'WaterFrameworkDirective, WaterFrameworkDirective, WaterFrameworkDirective'?"

This EU Directive from 2000 contains the core principles behind water charges. I will now quote from this directive. Do not panic. It took me a while to get my head around it, but once you see what it's trying to achieve, you'll understand why we have landed ourselves in such a mess. And when I say "we", I don't mean you and me, but primarily the civil service, and then, politicians from successive governments.

First they tried to dodge the bullet on water charges completely (2000-2010). Then they accepted elements of a good plan but were forced to compromise on key issues due to the shortage of money (2010) and finally, through a public battering (2014), delivered a solution that fails to meet the requirements of the directive. And so the boys in Brussels have lost their patience and we're going to be in trouble. Still, we're used to being in trouble, so perhaps it's not so bad. In fact, it's probably not that bad at all, but honestly, doing it right the first time would have been easier.

Anyway, back to the directive. The key part is Article 9, which directs how governments should recover the cost of providing water services. It says, "Member States shall ensure by 2010 that water-pricing policies provide adequate incentives for users to use water resources efficiently, and thereby contribute to the environmental objectives of this directive" and that charges should take "account of the polluter-pays principle". Now that is pretty straightforward. By 2010 there must be a water-pricing policy which a), is based on the idea of "polluter-pays". In other words, whoever is using the water has to pay for it. And b), the charges must be structured in such a way that encourages us to use less water. Oh, and we were supposed to do all this by 2010. Five years ago. What happened?

Well the first thing that happened was a weasel sentence slipped into Paragraph 4 of this famous Article 9. Reading it, I wondered who was responsible for it. Maybe other countries liked the wriggle room it provided. I'm guessing not everyone was thrilled about water charges.

Paragraph 4 begins: "Member States shall not be in breach of this directive if they decide, in accordance with established practices, not to apply the provisions of paragraph 1, second sentence. . ." So the charges aren't mandatory! Hurrah! This is the sentence that allowed the Government for the following 10 years to claim we had a derogation from water charges. An argument made so consistently and confidently even I believed it - as many people still do today. Alas, those eurocrats with their low-tax salaries and high-life in Brussels aren't completely thick and finished the paragraph thus: ". . . where this does not compromise the purposes and the achievement of the objectives of this directive".

So the entire paragraph actually says countries don't have to implement water charges (to be paid by users according to how much they use) provided they can come up with a system that incentivises users to ration water. Like, asking nicely, or something. Of course, there is no such system. It's like plastic bags. Unless you have to pay, you can just keeping flushing those inconsequential wees away. I know we're not used to it. I know the timing is awful. But there's just no getting away from the meaning of the directive and anyone who tells you anything else is being dishonest.

And that is why in 2010 the Government, under the baleful eye of the Troika, accepted the jig was up and agreed to implement water charges in the bailout deal.

But last year, when the Government bowed to public pressure and agreed the compromise, it raised a series of red flags. First, by capping the charge until 2019 there's no incentive to save water. Second, we reduced the charge so significantly that Irish Water can't afford to upgrade the system as it's supposed to. And most immediately, the structure of the Water Conservation Grant (the cash-back system labelled thus to pretend we're complying with Article 9) looks to Eurostat like a simple transfer of money from the State to Irish Water. That's a problem because Irish Water is supposed to be a stand-alone, off-books entity. (Deconstructing the thinking behind Irish Water is a whole other column).

The whole thing is now such a mess that it reminds me of the cryptic answer my father gives anyone foolish enough to ask him for directions. "Well, I wouldn't start from here at all".

I can understand how the Government ended up here. Irish Water started out as a good idea, but the nefarious motives of the public service (privatisation and guaranteed jobs for all), the financial crisis which reduced our funding options for investment in infrastructure, together with the final cracking of the Irish people, resulted in fatal compromises.

The more it goes on, the more problems we have to solve. It'll get sorted out, but it's ridiculous that we're having to start from here at all.

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