Time for politicians to take a decision on water charges

Posted: September 18, 2016 in Politics, Water

On Saturday tens of thousands of people marched through Dublin under the Right2Water banner, demanding the abolition of water charges.

The Right2Water TDs, supported by the hundreds of thousands of people who have marched and boycotted the unjust charge, will table two private members motions on water in October.

A majority of deputies in the 32nd Dáil were elected on manifestos that included the scrapping of the charge.

Now that Fianna Fáil has fully abandoned its long standing support for the tax there is simply no reason to delay a final decision on the matter.

There is no need for the so called independent commission on water charges. No need for a special Oireachtas committee to consider its recommendations.

We know where all the political players stand. We know what the outcome of the inevitable Dáil vote will be. Or do we?

The deal struck by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to return Enda Kenny to the office of Taoiseach deferred a decision on water charges for nine months.

Minister Coveney said that he wanted to take the heat out of the water debate. His hope is for a ‘rational’ and ‘mature’ conversation on the future of our water service leading to a cross party compromise.

Despite his calm words the process created by the Government parties –Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that is- has been neither rational nor mature.

The terms of reference of the so called independent commission are restrictive and leading. They exclude any examination of the structure and ownership of water services.

Nor are they tasked to consider issues of water poverty and sustainability.
Constructive proposals from my own office to broaden the terms of reference were rejected by the Minister. I was told that as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had already agreed to them they could not be changed.

Then came the Joe O’Toole debacle, were the former chairperson of the commission let the cat out of the bag. In return for telling people that the outcome of the commission was pre-determined he was shown the door, not by Minister Coveney but by his effective co-minister Barry Cowen.

To add insult to injury the commission quietly launched its call for submissions at the height of the holiday season –clearly hoping that the response would be underwhelming- while abandoning an earlier promise to hold public hearings.

The commission will now deliberate and forward its recommendations to the Government. A special Oireachtas committee will be formed to consider those recommendations and then, early next year a final vote will be taken on the matter.

There are two likely outcomes of this carefully choreographed charade.

The first is that Fianna Fáil follows the logic of their position on water charges and vote for their abolition. Given their latest policy shift on this matter this would seem to be the obvious outcome.

The consequence of such an action, however, would be for the Government to fall. My guess is that Micheál Martin’s decision on this matter will be determined not by adherence to principle but by opinion polls. This could be the trigger for the election to the 33rd Dáil.

Otherwise Fianna Fáil will have to do a deal with Fine Gael that will see some form of water charge remain. There would probably be a more ‘generous’ household allowance and waivers for certain groups.

While Fianna Fáil would claim that such a deal represented the effective end of water charges it would be nothing of the sort. Just like bin charge, fees would increase over time, wavers would be reduced and we would be back to 2010 when Fianna Fáil first proposed a charge amounting to almost €500 per year.

While such a deal may be politically palatable to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail it would be the worst possible outcome for citizens and for the future of water services.

It would represent a massive slap in the face to the majority of the electorate who have spoken on this issue. Mass protest and boycotts would continue.
It would also drive a coach and four horses through Irish Waters capital investment programme.

In order to bring our crumbling water and sewage system up to standard –and avoid massive EU fines- Irish Water have committed to invest €3.9bn over the next six years.

While a portion of this investment will come from general taxation the vast majority of it will, because of Government policy, have to be borrowed.

This year Irish Water has committed to invest €522 million in upgrading the system. But only €184m will come from Government. The remainder will be borrowed and will be on balance sheet.

A ‘compromise’ deal on water charges would mean less revenue for Irish Water and little possibility of the utility meeting the EUs off -balance sheet rules come 2019, the date when Irish Water is next expected to apply to Eurostat .

With capital investment set to rise to €777m in that year, the bulk of which has to be borrowed, you can see the problem.

At the heart of the crisis in our water system is not the absence of domestic charges, but the unwillingness of Government to commit significant long term investment in upgrading the system.

The most likely outcome of Minister Coveney’s ‘rational’ and ‘mature’ conversation on water services is a continuation of this same failed policy.

So here’s the alternative. Let’s scrap the charge, bring water services fully into public ownership, and commit to a ten year capital investment programme funded through general taxation.

That’s what a majority of the electorate want. That’s what a majority of TDs say they want. So let’s just get on and do it.

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