Irish Water “came up short” due to a series of failures, the head of the utility’s parent company has admitted.
Michael McNicholas, chairman of Ervia, which oversees Irish Water, acknowledged the utility would not be able to survive without public support as he conceded the company may not be around after the looming general election.
However, Mr McNicholas denied Irish Water was riddled with a bonus culture and had spent exorbitantly on consultants.
Addressing the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, the utility chief said that things could have been explained better to the public.
“We in Ervia and Irish Water came up short,” said Mr McNicholas. “We could have been clearer about just how unfit for purpose the current water infrastructure is, and just how much work was required to give us an infrastructure that is needed for a modern economy.
“With hindsight, more could have been done to make the case for the payment model to explain that people are not paying twice, but that the money paid in water charges would be used to fix the creaking infrastructure.”
He said the charge had ended up as a symbol of the austerity regime, and timing as an issue in that regard.
“Coming at a time of austerity it was easy to depict water charges as a by-product of austerity, just another tax imposed on a weary population,” Mr McNicholas told the MacGill Summer School.
“Our failure to explain these things properly has contributed to a broader failure to build a consensus around the need for a transformation of our water and wastewater services, and the need to have this project led by a national utility.”
The utility boss agreed with anti-charge protestors that access water was a human right, but added that it was up to society to decide how that right was to be paid for.
“And if something is deemed to be a human right — and to my mind access to clean water certainly is — then do we fund it through central taxation, or through user charges, or through a combination of both?” Mr McNicholas said.
He also stressed that he was not representing the Government. With opposition parties demanding its abolition, Mr McNicholas said it needed support to survive.
“For Irish Water to work, it must have political and public support,” he said. “And it is clear that some sections of the public remain sceptical about it, and some of the political voices in Ireland are totally dismissive of it. In many cases they don’t believe there is a problem in our water services at all, they don’t think we need a national solution,
“The reality is that we have not been investing efficiently or sufficiently in our water services. So when people say introducing water charges means we are paying twice, the reality is we have not even been paying once for our water services. We need more investment as a matter of urgency and this additional investment has to be paid for in some shape or form by society and by business.
“We could have explained better how we harnessed some of the best young Irish talent and international expertise [to] build up a new public utility from scratch, instead it has been characterised as lavish spending on consultants.
“In a similar vein, Irish Water’s competitive performance pay model has been described as a bonus culture. I strongly reject both assertions.”
However, Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Barry Cowen was scathing in his criticism of Irish Water and the way it had been set-up.
Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty called for water charges to be abolished.
Green leader and former energy minister Eamon Ryan called for a conservation-based system of water supply.
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