Opinion: Water charges boil down to a matter of principle

The Government’s new measures on charging for water have dealt with all but one of the major concerns expressed by protesters, writes Michael Clifford

On Wednesday evening, some hours after Enda Kenny told his ministers to go forth and sell Irish Water Mark II, a great selling opportunity was presented on RTÉ’s Prime Time.

Here was a chance to look the opponents in the eye and tell them that their concerns had been listened to, their pain felt. The common good was now the main issue. Challenge them to embrace the cheapest water in Europe, and look forward to having a modern water infrastructure fit for purpose. And representing the Government was… well, nobody really.

The closest the debate came to a Government representative was Frank Flannery, a former strategist for the Fine Gael, who left under a cloud earlier this year over his role in Rehab, an organisation that was mired in controversy. There was no sign of a minister, or even an eager beaver backbencher. Perhaps the cabinet members were unavailable due to the holding of an all-night novena to pray that their latest package will pass muster.

As of right now, answered prayers are about all they can hope for. Without buy-in from a large slab of middle ground, the Government’s goose may well be cooked.

But what matter that compared to the implications for the basic provision of clean water in an allegedly developed country? The born-again water charges regime announced by Alan Kelly on Wednesday has, above all else, cleared the decks. The measures have effectively distilled arguments into a simple question: Are you for or against water charges on a matter of principle? The issue of cost has been dealt with. Families that might have been expected to fork out up to €800-€900 now will face a bill for €160. Single adult households will pay €60. Provision is to be made for those in hardship. The only country in the EU to compare on price is Bulgaria, where there is a much lower cost of living.

Fear over privatisation has been addressed. Irish Water cannot now be sold off without the people voting for it in a plebiscite. Some would have preferred a constitutional referendum, but the abortion issue has shown that referendums are best avoided unless necessary.

Nobody will have to hand over PPS numbers. The metering will stop, which in terms of progressive policy is a retrograde step, but in light of the flashpoints, probably advisable. For now.

The company has had its wings clipped. No bonuses for two years. No going back to the land of bloated quangos.

If Irish Water Mark II had been Irish Water Mark I, everything might have been so much different. Instead, it took a mobilisation of people power to point out to the Government that the limits had been reached. Limits of austerity, of patience, of begrudging compliance, of the capacity to take whatever the Government deemed necessary, were all stretched to breaking point in the original water charges plan. Much of that has been addressed now, but at serious cost.

The concept of water conservation has been the big loser. There is practically no incentive in the new regime to conserve water. A basic tenet in charging for a utility is absent. This robs the charging system of a chunk of moral authority. It is grossly unfair that those who conserve and treat with respect the use of water, now pay the same as those who don’t bother.

Still, the reality is that such considerations are not going to be the main determinate in whether the new regime succeeds. The big question is whether those who might have grudgingly accepted the new regime if it had been there from the start, are now in the mood to sign up. Many among them would have no principled objection to paying directly for water, but the pandora’s box of disaffection that this debacle has opened, won’t be shut that easily.

As for the principle? It’s difficult to argue that there is one at issue. A water charge is certainly less regressive than the levels of Vat or USC that are paid in this country. The double taxation argument simply doesn’t stand up. In reality, taxpayers have not been paying for water for a long time. That can be put down to gross political mismanagement of priorities at national or local level, but that’s where we are.

Linking water charges to human rights is risable. What’s at issue is a political matter over how to pay for water. The human rights argument infers that every other OECD country is guilty of human rights abuses in the provision of water.

There is also the matter of real human rights. On December 10 next, International Human Rights Day, the focus in this country should be on matters like direct provision for asylum seekers.

Instead, it will be on how we pay for water, because some organisers have cottoned onto a handy, if highly cynical, slogan. If water were to continue to be paid out of general taxation, where would the money come from? A number of taxes on wealth have been suggested. Some, like the financial transaction tax, would require buy-in from the UK and EU if it weren’t to cost jobs, and actually generate high revenue.

Others, like a mooted wealth tax of 1% might work, but would pose some risks of flight.

In any event, if such a tax were imposed, would it be morally defensible to put the proceeds towards the pretence that we don’t have to pay for water? Surely child poverty or devastated services for disability would be more worthy recipients?

One way or the other, logic or evidence won’t determine whether Irish Water Mark II gets to sail at full tilt. It’s all about emotion from here on in. Has the widespread anger got staying power, or has it been sated? Has fear of soaring charges been assuaged? Is there a sense of satisfaction that a cavalier and incompetent government has been forced to listen and learn? Give it three months and we’ll have a fair idea.


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