Q&A on Irish Water: do the new plans for the utility hold water?

Has the latest Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil accord simply muddied the waters?

Pay, don’t pay. Either way, the taxpayer always pays in the end.

Pay, don’t pay. Either way, the taxpayer always pays in the end.

 

The contentious issue of Irish Water has been completely resolved and everything is grand now, right? If by “completely resolved”, you mean completely up in the air as always then yes. If you mean: “Do we know for sure what is going to happen to our bills, our water supplies and everything else connected with the most controversial of utilities in the weeks, months and years ahead?” then the answer is still absolutely not.

But I thought Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had reached a water accord? They have, sort of. But the new deal does not give us a whole lot of clarity as to what happens next.

But water charges have been suspended for at least nine months, right? So we’re told. A nine-month suspension is on the cards, but it will not take affect for the next six weeks or so and that will allow Irish Water send out bills to hundreds of thousands of householders looking for payment for water as part of its fifth billing cycle which covers the first three months of the year.

But getting a new bill ahead of a suspension is not going to make people happy, now is it? It certainly is not. But the utility says it has a legal obligation to continue billing people for water until new legislation which suspends the charges is enacted. And that has not happened yet.

What’s this you say about billing cycles? An Irish Water billing cycle lasts 41 days from start to finish. As part of Cycle 5 – the one we are in now – about 750,000 bills have been sent already and over the next three weeks another three quarters of a million bills will be issued. Once the cycle is done, 1.52 million new bills will have been sent.

How much does it cost to issue the bills? Irish Water – and by Irish Water we mean the Irish tax payer – won’t have much change out of a €1 million euro once all the bills in Cycle 5 are printed out and posted.

So, we’re spending nearly €1 million to issue bills which no one will pay? That’s mad Ted. Well, people will still have to pay the bills, even though the utility is to be suspended ahead of a review. So, in theory at least, all the money it is spending on billing us now will be recouped

But will people pay their new bill? Certainly the national mood seems to be against paying. Many of the close to one million people who have paid water charges to date have expressed grave concern about continuing to pay in the current climate. While the 600,000 who have yet to pay are unlikely to suddenly start now.

But will non-payers be pursued? One of the things which has emerged from the agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is that non-payers and payers are to be treated equally. So either everyone who has paid is going to get their money back, or everyone who has not paid is going to be pursued for payment.

And which is most likely? What do you think? Non-payers will be pursued.

But what can Irish Water do to make people pay? As it stands, very little, other than continue to send forlorn text messages and letters and make the odd phone call to reluctant water users. It could set debt collectors on people but that would do little to ease tension between it and more than half a million would-be bill payers. It is a legal debt and, ultimately, people could be pursed using legal means, although that is probably not something either the Government or Irish Water would look forward to either.

And what’s this about a commission? Ah yes, a commission is to be set up to look at funding models for water services. It has not yet been established and don’t expect a report for at least a year.

Funding models? Did they not look at funding models before they set up Irish Water? They did. But that hasn’t proved entirely successful so they are going to have another go.

Anything else? Yes. A new “external advisory board” is to be set up too. This will be a statutory body overseeing Irish Water. It will make quarterly reports to a Dáil committee which will have a special interest in the topic. This advisory board will have absolutely no legal authority to tell Irish Water what to do. Irish Water will also continue to be overseen by the Commission for Energy Regulation. It will also have at least one full board (Ervia) and a management board of Irish Water staff.

Hang on, so how many overlords and the like will Irish Water have now? Well, there will be the new Minister for the Environment – and if that job’s not a poisoned chalice what is! – and the two boards connected with Irish Water. Then there will be the external advisory board, the “expert commission”, a Dáil committee. and the Commission for Energy Regulation. It sets the prices Irish Water can charge and has overall responsibility for the economic regulation of public water services. Oh yes, and there is the Public Water Forum.

Public Water Forum? What’s that? Don’t you know? It was set up last July by Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly and is supposed to be a “vital component” in the development of the sector.

Right, and at the risk of asking a stupid question, who will pay for all of this? We will. Again.