Squabbling over water


The introduction, or rather the reintroduction, of water charges was always going to be contentious. But the manner in which Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan dealt with the issue has generated unnecessary friction between Fine Gael and Labour Party Ministers. If the release of indicative charges was designed to regain the political initiative for the Government, it failed abysmally. Instead, it handed a ready-made issue to Opposition politicians and ensured the subject will take centre stage in the local and European elections. Voters are already being asked to treat the occasion as an effective referendum.

Labour Ministers complained about what they saw as Mr Hogan’s attempt to bounce them into early decisions on an unpopular tax. Under pressure from party candidates and supporters, they are protesting too much. They knew that Taoiseach Enda Kenny had given a public commitment to reveal basic water charges before the elections. By refusing to endorse the details contained in Mr Hogan’s memorandum, they bought time but the proposed structure is unlikely to change dramatically.

By raising questions about ability to pay, a basic standing charge, metering and the size of “free” water allowances for children and those with special medical needs, Labour Ministers appealed to their support base. The need to make difficult, unpopular decisions was not mentioned. That, however, is what will eventually transpire. Fine Gael and the Labour Party abolished earlier water charges and are understandably nervous about their reintroduction. But time has moved on. Under the EU water directive, the Government is now obliged to recover the true cost of water services in an equitable manner. A similar commitment was givenwhen the terms of the EU-IMF bailout programme were agreed.

Rather than squabble in public over details, the Government parties should concentrate on improving internal and external communications. A belief that the worst of the recession is over has encouraged voters to think in terms of additional spending power and lower taxes. That is an appealing prospect but, as the ESRI made clear last week, if money is not raised from water charges next year, it will have to be found through additional service cuts or taxes.

The production and distribution of safe drinking water is expensive andover decades the service was starved of resources. The outcome is a ramshackle, wasteful, local authority-based system that poses an incipient threat to public health. In the election, Fine Gael proposed the establishment of Irish Water, with relevant charges. The Labour Party later agreed. Now that details are being worked out in the glare of populist opposition, nerves are fraying. Labour Ministers should take what concessions they can get, breathe deeply and bite the bullet.

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