Water charges botched because the Government’s drowning in incompetence

YOU ALL remember that famous election poster, don’t you? It appeared in the 24 hours before polling began in both the 2002 and 2007 general elections. It was believed to be a clincher.

The poster read: “Vote Fianna Fáil. Pay More Tax To Repair And Maintain Water Infrastructure”. The voters, concerned about water quality, proper waste-water treatment, and solid public services for all, were won over.

And the rest is history. Right you are. Of course, the above is slightly inaccurate. Fianna Fáil did have a gee-whiz poster in the last days of those elections, but it read: “Vote Fianna Fáil. Less Tax.” Short, to the point, and highly effective. This is an illustration of the weakness paucity of arguments being made against charging for water.

The ‘double taxation’ line is redundant. “We’re already paying for water,” they say. No, we’re not. The treatment and distribution of the water infrastructure are accounted for within general taxation, but we haven’t been paying for them for a long time. To do so would require a major hike in taxation, and most likely income tax.

Even setting aside the argument that overly high rates of income tax cost jobs, it’s a brave party that would attempt to get such a hike past the electorate on the basis that it is required for a 21st century water infrastructure.

Without a ringfenced, dedicated income, directly for the provision of water, the resources will not be made available for what is required.

That dedicated income is the way they do it in every other developed country. If we were living in a utopia, supported by some great source of wealth, or even a country where there was a superlative regard for the public good over the private individual, it might be possible to account for water out of general taxation.

But we’re not, and anybody who believes otherwise is living in Never-Never Land.

The abolition of domestic rates in 1977 was an electoral ploy that instigated the dilapidation of the water infrastructure. Part of the rates income had been dedicated to water.

The system was unfair, particularly on council tenants, but rather than repair it Fianna Fáil used it to buy votes. (Similar to Labour in the 1990s, who, rather than address the unfair covenant system for college fees, abolished them, precipitating the crisis in third-level funding).

Over the last 40 years, standards befitting a developed country have been imposed by the EU. Public health and basic regard for the environment demanded no less.

We played catch-up. Right now, the water infrastructure is creaking badly. Boil notices in places like Roscommon and Ennis are just a glimpse into the future. Plants right around the country are not meeting proper standards, and won’t until considerable investment is made.

Transmission is another issue. Up to 40% of water is lost through leaks. That can’t continue.

Then, there is conservation. Human nature dictates that as long as the illusion persists that water is free and plentiful, it won’t be regarded with respect. What bothers you more: leaving a tap drip or forgetting to turn off the cooker?

One doesn’t cost you directly, the other does.

Or, ask yourself whether, in recent months, with the prospect of charges looming, you have been more conscious of the use of water? I know I have.

Down through the decades, there were attempts to address the funding crisis. A few times, proposals were made for a charge.

Each time, the body politic shied away. The most notable of these was in the 1990s, when a by-election campaign in West Dublin saw Socialist TD Joe Higgins elected on an anti-charge ticket.

On that occasion, most of the country was on board, but the government ran scared and abandoned charges. Higgins has been a serious addition to the body politic, but the fallout from his first election did long-term damage to the water infrastructure.

Then, finally, in the depth of an existential economic crisis, and under instructions from the Troika, a government had the opportunity to do the right thing.

And, by God, did they make an unreal hames of it.

Irish Water should have been set up solely as a collecting agent. If collection of a charge was left to local authorities, councillors would have gotten their mitts on it and interfered all over the shop for votes.

If that had been Irish Water’s primary function, it could have managed on a staff of 50, rather than 700. Instead, the Government saw fit to put Irish Water in charge of managing the infrastructure, while it continues to be operated by local authorities until 2025.

Apart from anything else, this merely duplicates an overseeing function already performed by the Environmental Protection Agency. (And hands out bonuses for doing so).

Irish Water should have been compelled to engage with local communities, and particularly local politicians. This would have enhanced the view of public ownership; reassured doubters; and educated about the need for a new model of funding.

Instead, it was set up as a commercial entity and provided with a captive market.

Is it any wonder that there is deep suspicion that privatisation was a glint in the eye of those behind its establishment?

If it was really felt necessary to set it up as more than a collecting agency, an appropriate model would have been a mutual entity, owned directly by the people, probably on a regional basis.

There should have been proper provision for ability to pay, similar to the proposal on water credits, as designed by the think-tank, TASC.

There should have been a lead-in time of at least two years, in which a flat charge would be made, making provision for ability to pay, to complete the water-metering project, and determine what to do in a fair way about those homes that can’t be metered.

This would also have prepared the public for paying according to use. Instead, the Government set up a company to shovel all the problems out of the political realm. And, it has to be assumed, saw the long-term solution as privatisation, not necessarily for strict ideological reasons, but just to get it as far away from governing as possible, and with it any ongoing hassles.

Were sold a pup. More than anything, the design of Irish Water illustrated the incompetence of the Government in the real business of governing.

They righted a listing economy, under a plan from the previous government and with the oversight of the Troika. But when it came to a vital element of the State’s long-term health, like the provision of water, they have shown themselves to be cynical, gutless and plain useless.

Now, we’re left with a mess. Some will make political capital out of it. Others will sit back and myopically declare that we shouldn’t have to pay ‘twice’.

But, as usual, the common good is shown the door.

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