Government helped water charges fail by framing them as economic issue - report

Timing of policy’s introduction influenced its defeat, UCD study finds

Water charges were ‘the last straw’ for some people after several austerity budgets, UCD report notes.

Water charges were ‘the last straw’ for some people after several austerity budgets, UCD report notes.

 

The Government’s framing of water charges as an economic issue contributed to the failure of the charging regime, according to a new report by UCD academics.

By presenting the charges as necessary to bring the public finances back into line, it neglected social concerns and did not clearly “poverty-proof” the measure, which in turn fed public resistance to the charges, the report said.

Water charges were eventually withdrawn, although opposition to the regime did not represent the majority of Irish households.

The UCD report said protesters represented about 30 per cent of all Irish households at most, with the other 70 per cent paying for water services either as Irish Water customers, through group water schemes or by privately funding their own wells and wastewater treatment.

It also cited a 2016 general election exit poll finding, in which just 8 per cent said water charges had been the most important issue influencing their choice of first-preference candidate.

The report identified “multiple and complex” factors that led to protests and the ultimate abandonment of the policy.

One of these is the success with which the anti-water charges campaign spread the message that water is a human right and interpreted this to mean unlimited treated water should be delivered to homes for free.

Public mistrust

The rising level of public mistrust in the political system also fomented opposition to water charges, the report noted, as did the suspicion that Irish Water might not retain its public ownership.

The timing of the introduction of the charges also fuelled a negative response because the public was already dealing with the cumulative impact of the austerity budgets from 2008 onwards, including cuts to services and higher taxes.

“In this context, the water charges, coming as they did at the end of these measures, may have been the last straw for certain people.”

The anti-charges campaign was notably also strongest in Dublin, where it had been decades since households had had to pay directly for water, the report notes.

“The campaign appears to have won the PR battle to present water services as a social good rather than an economic one and took advantage of falling trust in government around the time of the economic crisis,” said Peter Clinch, UCD professor of public policy and one of the authors of the report.

Lost momentum

“Successive governments framed water charges policy as an economic necessity driven by the very real demands of bringing the public finances back into line and to comply with the EU’s Water Framework Directive,” he added. However, “momentum was lost” on this front due to a delay in their introduction.

That the protest campaign appeared to have only minority support “raises interesting questions” about why the Government was reluctant to persist with the charging regime, said UCD researcher and co-author Anne Pender.

The UCD report reflects the conclusion of a separate report on public policy by economist Jim O’Leary, a senior research fellow at NUI Galway’s Whitaker Institute, which states that the property tax succeeded where water charges failed because a “too much, too soon” approach was taken to the latter.

Both were introduced as austerity measures but water charges came much later, and “good ideas can often be perceived as punishments if introduced at the wrong time”.