Fianna Fáil has fixed the leak, but not the drain

Party’s U-turn on water charges will not wash with EU, or with low-income taxpayers

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: The party reverting to water being paid for out of general taxation could be seen as politically opportunistic and seriously out of step with its own voters. Photograph: Eric Luke

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: The party reverting to water being paid for out of general taxation could be seen as politically opportunistic and seriously out of step with its own voters. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

It’s good to see Fianna Fáil has comprehensively addressed the leakage problem. Seven years after agreeing in principle to the introduction of water charges and meters, and after leaking hundreds of thousands of votes during the recession, it has comprehensively fixed the problem with a nakedly populist U-bend.

No water charges now or forever is the new line. And argued with such fervour that it would even make Paul Murphy blush.

If you go back to 2009, Fianna Fáil agreed a move towards water metering and charging in its revised programme for government with the Green Party. A year later, in the autumn of 2010, it agreed more or less the same with the Troika.

The party might argue it was over the barrel of a gun at the time. But if you look at its message when in opposition after 2011, its line was that charges should be suspended for a few years until the leakage problems were sorted.

Mixed messages

There were mixed messages during its election campaign last year, but party leader Micheál Martin stated categorically that the party was looking for a stay of at least five years, with charges being introduced after that.

Now the party is agin it. Full stop. In so doing, it has rejected a key finding of the expert commission – set up at its insistence – that “excessive” users should be penalised.

The rationale for water charges is underpinned by Article 9 of the EU Water Framework directive and its “polluter pays” principle. This follows that those who use water abundantly should pay more.

At first glance, Fianna Fáil reverting to water being paid for out of general taxation is politically opportunistic and is seriously out of step with its own voters. The likelihood is the vast majority of Fianna Fáil supporters paid water charges and very few would have seen it as a major issue in the general election. A cynical read would be the party is taking its base for granted and is competing for working class votes in urban centres.

Great store

The party has put great store in two arguments to justify its stance. The first is the claim there is already a law in place to deal with users of excessive water. That is the Water Services Act 2007, specifically Section 53. A person who “materially misuses water” is issued with notices, and could eventually face a fine of €3,000, or even imprisonment.

The problem is identifying the wasteful household. The provisions have been used a handful of times, mostly when a neighbour complains of low water pressure. But as a remedy, it has no effect unless there is an instrument for measuring water use – such as a meter.

This brings us to the second pillar of Fianna Fáil’s approach: use of a district meter rather than a household meter.

The party paid particular attention to the evidence given by the water companies in Wales (where half of homes have been metered) and Scotland, where there are district meters.

The district meters can identify leaks in an area but not in an individual house. It can achieve more accuracy by testing sounds (ie flowing water) but that only happens at night. It’s useless, then, for detecting excessive use in a particular property – unless Joe Bloggs is washing his car and sprinkling his half-acre of lawn at three in the morning.

Efficiency

The position of Fianna Fáil seems to have moved away from polluter pays to efficiency. The party now believes that few households use excessive water and district meters will find and eliminate leaks.

Which is fine to an extent. However, that is not going to cut the mustard with the EU Commission and such an approach will be a clear breach of Article 9. In addition the flat, general tax will make Ireland exceptional among all EU countries and will be a very inequitable tax, hitting hardest those on relatively low incomes but within the income tax net.

Even in Scotland, where there are not meters, those with the biggest houses pay three times more than those with the smallest houses. The average yearly household charge there, incidentally, is around €400.

And there is evidence that individual domestic meters do contribute to overall efficiency, although Sinn Féin argues it is a temporary effect.

Representatives of group water schemes, representing 300,000 households, gave evidence to the committee which is chaired by Independent Senator Pádraig O Céidigh. They said they were concerned about meters initially but it became evident quickly that most of the leakage was on the consumer side.

With meters, usage came down. It did not just penalise excessive usage by a few. The vast majority of those on the schemes became more efficient with their water usage, the committee heard.

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