VICTORIA WHITE: Water charges imperative if we are going to deplete our natural capital

Enda Kenny with Micheál Martin

I’m the eejit who bought the water harvester, a gigantic yoke sitting in the back garden looking like it’s an oil tank, writes Victoria White

YOU are reading the words of the biggest eejit in Ireland. Yes, I’m the eejit who bought the water harvester. That’s the gigantic yoke that’s sitting in the back garden and looks like an oil tank. It’s the yoke that I strategically placed in the sunniest corner of the garden where I wish I had a greenhouse.

It’s not great. But I can’t blame anyone but myself. I wanted to Do The Right Thing. Planet first, the kids can wait. Yes, it’s true that the water harvester, sourced in Ireland from Killarney Plastics, now Tricel, cost about €5,000, the kind of money which could buy anything from the dream holiday to less time writing in my back shed when the kids need help with their homework.

But, sure it’s grand. I have a lovely thing that looks like an oil tank instead of a greenhouse. It powers the washing machine and the toilets, which people reckon is about 30% of my water use. Best of all for me is that I have water on tap for all those homeless plants shivering outside in my raised beds.

I never expected the water harvester would prove a money-saver but I didn’t expect it to look about as good value as those handy nuclear shelters you see in the US. I wanted to Do The Right Thing, as I’ve already explained. The problem with this God-forsaken country is that Doing The Right Thing looks so stupid, so pious and so extravagant so much of the time. Collecting the abundant rain water from my abundant roofs to water the veggies I like growing might make perfect sense anywhere else in the OECD, but not in Ireland.

Fianna Fáil has axed water charges. Fine Gael has saved Irish Water. When it wasn’t the charges which were the problem, it was the design of the utility itself. We need water charges on excess water use — such as the biggest eejit in Ireland watering slug-infested cabbages when lovely cabbages are available from the discounters for small change.

We are required by the EU to charge for water. That’s because people won’t conserve water unless we pay a charge. It doesn’t matter how small that charge is. The principle of pay-per-use is what matters. But Holy God, Richard Bruton even raised the possibility yesterday that the 61% who have already paid their charges might have them refunded if the new independent commission on charges so dictates. While 342 people languished on trolleys at the time of writing and nearly 6,000 people were sleeping in emergency accommodation last month. And all those people who are on group water schemes or have sunk their own wells, as well as the businesses which power our economy are to just go on paying.

I may be an eejit but I still know a disgrace when I see one. It was a Fianna Fáil-led government which established the principle of water charges. The Fianna Fáil leader, one Micheál Martin, was a member of the cabinet which agreed to establish a new water agency and draft new legislation for domestic water meters on September 9, 2010, a full two months before the troika came to town. This isn’t so much a U-turn as a peformance of Shoe the Donkey, with FF leaping first east and then west in time to the music.

It’s true that the cabinet papers don’t record Martin actually saying anything about water charges at the time. He stayed schtum. But there is such a thing as collective cabinet responsibility, which means Martin was responsible for establishing the principle of water charges. Then-environment minister John Gormley was out on radio saying that domestic water charges were in the pipeline and there wasn’t a single peep out of Martin or anyone else in Fianna Fáil.

To say, as FF TD Thomas Byrne has, “We made no decisions in relation to any water utility. That never came near the cabinet. There were certainly no decisions about water charges and Mr Martin made that very clear”, is rubbish. And you know what you do with rubbish. You incinerate it in an attractive bay close to a city.

It is true that the idea of a stand-alone water utility originated in Fine Gael’s New Era document in 2009 and it is true that this spooked then-environment minister Gormley enough that he insisted on a referendum to safeguard the public ownership of our water. There were mixed views on this from the Fianna Fáil end, with then-finance minister Brian Lenihan regarding it as “imperative” that the utility be “commercialised” and advocating for household charges which include the cost of meter installation.

He was staring the ruin of the public finances in the face at the time. There wasn’t the option to borrow for a public utility and programme for investment. Indeed there isn’t much money now. Except for tax cuts for the middle class and give-aways on the inappropriate use of precious resources we collectively own.

That’s what’s so depressing about the so-called hard left’s position on water charges, with People Before Profit deputy Ruth Coppinger reaching a crescendo this week on TV3 when she compared the struggle against the tax with the struggle against slavery and for the emancipation of women.

It pretends that the “1%” owns the natural world: Water is not the responsibility of ordinary people. The environment is something which rich people give to poor people.

While in fact our water is our common resource and common responsibility. We need a slim, efficient public utility to co-ordinate the work of the local authorities in managing this common resource and we also need a charging regime which taxes use above a generous daily allowance. This recognises that our natural capital is limited and precious and all man-made capital derives from it. Taxing income alone is a refusal to recognise the existence of natural capital.

Our tax system should encourage the proper use of our natural resources, not their waste. I accept that my oil tanker lookalike was too expensive and its pump uses electricity, which costs too. An intelligent charges system would incentivise cheaper design and manufacture, such as a cheap, pumpless harvesters which Herr Ltd is currently putting into new-builds.

But instead of intelligence, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have treated us to a spectacle of stupidity and selfishness which will surely wreck our chances of conserving water for a political life-time. If it’s true I’m an eejit and I’m an eejit governed by cute hoors.

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