Water asset must leave no hole unplugged

Irish Water is going to be the biggest and could be the most important State-owned asset created by an Irish government.

Yesterday, Phil Hogan, the environment minister, closed off the period for the receipt of submissions in the consultation process on a public water utility.

This is going to be a big beast. It will cost €1.2bn annually to run, employ 4,000 people, operate 15,500 miles of mains water pipes, supply 1.5m customers with 350m gallons of clean water a day, treat sewage and effluent from 1m establishments (equivalent to a population of almost 6m), and install 1.35m water meters.

Mr Hogan has a tough task ahead. The potential to make a complete mess of this is enormous — just look at the creation of the HSE and the multimillion PPARS fiasco. There is no room for mistakes.

We can get some idea of the way he is thinking by looking at the views he requested.

Mr Hogan sought views on: “The development of an implementation plan for the public water utility and, in particular issues arising from an organisational, human resources and environmental perspective in the transitional phase, as well as boundary issues between the proposed utility and other actors involved in the water sector, and the proposed approach in relation to water charges and water metering.”

Mr Hogan’s department and NewERA, the body set up to manage State assets, are simultaneously reviewing the capability of State agencies to determine if and how the skills within the sector can be harnessed in establishing Irish Water.

It appears Mr Hogan has an open mind, despite a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report urging him to set up Irish Water from scratch, ignoring the submissions of Bord Gáis, Bord na Móna, and the National Roads Authority, which are all pressing hard to get the job of setting it up.

One thing we know about Mr Hogan from his time on the Public Accounts Committee is that he abhors wasting State resources.

This process has been driven by Fine Gael and will be a political decision — Mr Hogan’s decision. If he gets it wrong he will be pilloried for generations; if he gets it right, he’ll get a pat on the back for a job well done and not a whole lot more. Them’s the breaks.

Every outbreak of crypto-sporidium, like the one that crippled Galway City in Mar 2007, every significant water shortage and system breakdown will be laid at Mr Hogan’s door if he gets this one wrong.

This is why he must give careful consideration to the PwC report, the aspirations of Bord Gáis, Bord na Móna, the National Roads Authority and any others who want to take on the mammoth task.

Then, Mr Hogan must make a bold decision. He needs to choose the best option for the people of Ireland — one that will stand the test of time and deliver for the many stakeholders who need him to get it right — first time.

The PwC notion of a totally new entity is a non-runner. Imagine giving the job to an entity that does not exist today, that does not have a heritage or track record to fall back on.

This week, Bord Gáis Éireann, one of the most successful semi-state companies, asked for the job of running Irish Water. This happened as the Government decided to sell off Bord Gáis Energy in a move that could put up to €1.5bn in the State coffers.

What many do not realise is that the bulk of the Bord Gáis Energy assets to be privatised did not exist five years ago; Bord Gáis Éireann created the majority of Bord Gáis Energy in that short period of time.

Bord Gáis Éireann will still have its unheralded Bord Gáis Networks, and this is the section Bord Gáis Éireann wants to oversee the creation of Irish Water.

Bord Gáis Networks has built a network of 1,500 miles of high-pressure steel gas transmission pipes and almost 7,000 miles of gas distribution pipelines.

It has done so efficiently, safely, without creating much fuss, and, crucially, funded this massive undertaking from its own resources while maintaining an uninterrupted supply to its customers. And by the way, Bord Gáis Éireann actually pays the State an annual dividend.

It is clear Bord Gáis Éireann has set the standard for the soon-to-be-created Irish Water. Who better to give the job to than those that set the highest standards?



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