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It's time to flush away Coalition bunglers


Protests continue: Elizabeth Quinlan says she still won’t pay the water charges despite the Government announcements. Photo: Arthur Carron

Protests continue: Elizabeth Quinlan says she still won’t pay the water charges despite the Government announcements. Photo: Arthur Carron

Protests continue: Elizabeth Quinlan says she still won’t pay the water charges despite the Government announcements. Photo: Arthur Carron

The changes to Irish Water announced this week not only fail to meet the concerns of parliament and the public, they make it impossible to see any reasonable case for continuing with metering and domestic water charges.

You'd think, with all that's happened, the Government would have listened - to the public, and to their representatives in parliament. Alas, it was not to be. The Taoiseach set the tone after the public marches two weeks ago. When asked if parliament could, now, debate Irish Water, he said that we could - after his Government had decided exactly what changes were to be made.

And, in fairness, that's exactly what they did. The Minister for the Environment, the Tanaiste and the Taoiseach marched into the chamber at 3pm on Wednesday, told us how it was going to be, and marched straight back out again. Leaving the rest of us to 'debate' their latest edict. It was a signature move from a Government that no longer even pretends parliament has a role in the affairs of the Irish nation.

And what was lacking in style, was also lacking in substance.

The announcement failed to deal with the fear of privatisation. The law will be changed so that Irish Water can only be privatised following a plebiscite, or majority vote of the public. But as with the current legislation, which prohibits private ownership, that public vote can be bypassed simply by changing the law that requires it.

The announcement failed to deal with opposition to double taxation. The State spends about €1bn a year on water services, with more coming from commercial water charges. But in 2015, that will fall to about €660m. The gap will come in part from domestic charges - meaning the public will be charged twice for the same thing - first via taxes such as Vat and motor tax, and then again via water bills.

The announcement failed to provide sufficient safeguards for those who can't pay. The revised net charge will be €60 or €160, for a home with one or more than one person living in it, respectively. €160 mightn't seem like a lot of money when it's being discussed at the Cabinet table, where the average wage is north of €160,000, but the stark reality is that many people in Ireland today don't have it.

A pensioner in Wicklow asked me some months ago what a trickle of water would mean for her. She lives on €100 a week, and at the end of the year, doesn't have €100, or any euro, to give to Irish Water.

The Government is reducing the €100 to €60, and providing easy-pay options. This doesn't address her problem, which is that she hasn't got any money to give. And it gets worse. The cost of the meter outside her door, of billing her, and providing customer service - will be more than the €60 a year she has to pay. So she is being billed in order to cover some of the costs of billing her. This is ineptitude and sheer nastiness at an almost incomprehensible level. Almost.

The announcement failed to ensure fairness for the 42 towns in Ireland with no wastewater treatment service - towns such as Arklow, Cobh, Youghal, Bundoran and Killybegs. Clear precedence exists where only one service, or an inadequate level of a service, exists. Areas on boil-water notices won't pay for the water coming into their homes. Nor will people with wells. People with septic tanks won't pay for wastewater treatment. But, for some reason, the residents and businesses of these towns are being forced to pay for a wastewater treatment service that doesn't exist.

The announcement failed to stimulate conservation of water. The charge is now a flat rate. Yes, there is some mechanism whereby using less than a specific amount will reduce the bill, but it's not clear what effect this will have. In fact, it's entirely possible that water usage will increase. I've already heard several people suggest that, now they're being made pay for the stuff twice, they're going make sure they get their money's worth!

Finally, there's the issue of whether domestic water charges should now be applied at all. While some argue against charges for ideological reasons, there was merit to the initial position, which was as follows: We need to borrow €10bn or €15bn to invest in the system, we can't get it from anywhere else, so we'll impose a charge, just for this new investment, and use it as security to borrow the money off-balance sheet.

But that's not the position any longer. We're now told Irish Water is going to spend just €600m a year on capital investment. But in 2010 the local authorities between them spent €400m on capital investment, meaning the additional investment is just €200m per year.

That €200m could easily have been found by creating Irish Water and driving down the operating cost base. Scottish Water was set up to bring municipal water services together, and reduced their cost base by 40pc in the first five years. In 2010, the operating expenses for Ireland's water network was €800m. A 40pc reduction would yield €320m a year - much more than the €200m increase in capital investment.

Based on these numbers, domestic charges don't make political, economic or commercial sense. If this whole thing comes down to a few hundred million a year in new investment, then all that was required was this: Set up Irish Water; maintain existing spending through central taxation and commercial charges; drive down the cost base through scale, coordination and new technologies; reinvest this saved money in the system - both to renew existing and build new infrastructure for the future. No commercial semi-state, no domestic charges, no water meters, no humiliation of pensioners, no problem.

Instead, somewhere between €500m and €750m is being spent on water meters. Many millions more will be spent each year on billing and customer service. And for what? The net amount raised through domestic charges will be about €90m. So the first decade or so of bills… will cover the cost of the bills. We've ended up somewhere between Flann O'Brien and Kafka.

The Irish Water debacle is the latest example of the social and economic cost of a broken political system. It started with the Government allowing just three hours on the legislation last year. It continued with Wednesday's charade.

Parliament should be a place of free thinking and real debate, an ideas factory that crafts legislation in the interests of the nation. But real debate, and new ideas, are feared. Dissent is quelled. And so we get legislation like Irish Water - where the design is flawed, the quality of construction is shoddy, the launch is a disaster and, after doing a lot of damage, the product is recalled.

Only the same team go to work on it again with the same outdated tools… and round and round we go.

It's time for change. We need a new management team - one that not only listens to parliament, but works with it to modernise politics, and to get things like Irish Water right.

Stephen Donnelly is the Independent TD for Wicklow and East Carlow

Sunday Independent