POLITICAL CALCULATION – some would say political cowardice – appears to be gaining ground within a Government that presented itself to the electorate as an agent of urgent and radical reform. A commitment made to our EU-IMF creditors to install universal water metering by 2014 is likely to be broken.
The latest assessment is that domestic water charges will not become fully operational until 2016, at the earliest. Coincidentally, a general election will be held in advance of that date. There is nothing new in such a cautious approach. The Green Party prevailed on Fianna Fáil to include water charges in a revised programme for government in 2009. But no money was spent and the project was deferred until after the general election.
Rather than take up where the previous government had left off, Fine Gael decided to establish a national water authority. It would take time. Legislation had to be prepared and passed; local authority water services centralised; contracts awarded and water meters installed. Within months of taking office, Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd suggested the agreed time scale would not be met, but was slapped down by his boss. Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan declared that everything was proceeding smoothly and on time.
Mr Hogan, the man who presided over the household charge fiasco, who attempted to appease the farming lobby by reducing septic tank inspection charges, is now grappling with the intricacies of domestic water metering. Bord Gáis has been awarded the contract for running the system. But uncertainty exists concerning the feasibility of installing meters for individual households. An absence of information about the location of household supply points will be tackled by a pilot survey, beginning in October. After that, the network of the remaining 30 local authorities will have to be assessed. You couldn’t make it up!
No attempt has been made to explain to consumers just how expensive it has become to produce and to supply safe drinking water. Pure rain does not magically flow from a tap. Like electricity, drinking water has to be produced and transmitted within a strict safety regime. Metering would provide employment. Charges would encourage careful use of an expensive resource; would broaden the tax base and reflect the practice in other EU states. Having abolished domestic water charges in advance of the 1997 general election, however, Fine Gael and the Labour Party are hastening slowly.