The head of the Public Water Forum has said water must be kept in public ownership, and warned that the lack of safeguards against privatisation was not helping secure public support for the reform of water services.
Tom Collins also said that while uncertainty over the future of water charges and Irish Water made long-term planning difficult, it was essential that public health issues such as lead pipes, contamination, and the discharge of raw sewage, get urgent attention.
The 32-member forum which Dr Collins chairs raised the issues in its first formal report, a response to Irish Water’s investment plan for 2017-2021.
The members express concern at the way the company views the public, noting a “low level of appreciation of the importance of an informed and engaged public”.
They criticise the utility’s perception of the public as customers rather than citizens, and say its reliance on market research on public opinion falls far short of the kind of dialogue needed.
“The culture of Irish Water needs scrutiny in terms of its attitude to public engagement and citizen participation in its decision making,” the members say.
“The forum is concerned that given the prevailing culture, Irish Water may resort to a campaign of winning the public driven by the precepts of marketing and public relations rather than by meaningful engagement driven by a commitment to active citizenship, an informed participation and parity of esteem.”
Irish Water’s investment plan is questioned for paying too little attention to conservation and focusing on a “highly centralised model of production and supply”.
A national strategy for water that meets the economic, environmental, and social interests of the country is called for, with the warning that such an integrated approach requires that “water supply is retained as a strategic public asset and the State retains the capacity to meet all the water requirements of the society.”
Dr Collins said the forum had set up a working group on ownership.
“There is a broadly-held view that when Irish Water was being set up, it was being set up for privatisation,” he said. “I don’t want to pre-empt the working group, but already the forum have taken the view that water is an absolutely fundamental strategic public asset.”
The forum has pro- and anti-water charge members, and Dr Collins said their differences reflected the divisions in the public at large.
“There is a gradual emergence of clarity in Irish society of the nature of the challenge around water, both drinking water and waste water, but we’re a long way from agreement as to how that challenge can actually be addressed,” he said.
However, he said there was common ground and it should have been used to build consensus ahead of Irish Water being set up.
“This whole business has been very badly managed as a national project, and I think that if the forum had been in existence two or three years ago and was actually asked by the Government then to come up with a strategy to deal with the kinds of issues that the country was faced with, I think it would have helped in creating a public conversation on this absolutely key resource,” said Dr Collins.
“I don’t know what it would have come up with on the contested issues like metering and charges but it certainly would have come up with a different process than the process that did unfold.”
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