Coveney determined water charge freeze to last just nine months

Minister hopes commission will take ‘political heat’ out of contentious issue

Minister for the Environment: the objective is to “take the political heat out of this issue so we can get down to what makes sense on providing safe water in Ireland in a cost-effective manner”. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Minister for the Environment: the objective is to “take the political heat out of this issue so we can get down to what makes sense on providing safe water in Ireland in a cost-effective manner”. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Minister for the Environment Simon Coveney has said he is determined the suspension of water charges will last for no longer than nine months.

The suspension was agreed as part of the deal that saw Fianna Fáil commit to supporting the minority Government on certain matters. It comes into force at the start of next month and runs until the end of March 2017.

The €100 water conservation grant, paid by the Department of Social Protection, will also be scrapped from this year, he said.

Mr Coveney last night published the terms of reference for an expert commission which will be tasked with examining the future of domestic water charges in the State.

The commission, which is to include international experts, is being asked to recommend a funding model for water services and also methods to improve water quality.

“Given the complexity of the issues involved, it is intended that the commission will require professional expertise in funding and financing of large-scale infrastructure investment; economic regulation; water resources management; and water environmental law,” he said.

The terms of reference note that the commission will be asked to explore how Irish Water, if it remains in State ownership, could borrow money to invest in infrastructure. They also advise the commission to recommend best approaches to encourage water conservation.

Mr Coveney told The Irish Times the objective of the commission was to “take the political heat out of this issue so we can get down to what makes sense on providing safe water in Ireland in a cost-effective manner”. Attempts have been made since the Dáil resumed to push through motions to abolish water charges and Irish Water.

Politically charged

The Minister said he had two long telephone conversations with EU environment commissioner Karmemu Vella in the past week, outlining the politically charged nature of the debate in Ireland and explaining the circumstances of the nine-month suspension.

The commissioner has since written to Mr Coveney outlining the need to fulfil the water directives principles around polluter pays and paying for level of use.

The commission’s view is understood to be that recovery of the costs should partly come from consumers, based on usage and ability to pay. It believes Ireland does not have a derogation, or the power to invoke a derogation, of domestic water charges.

Mr Coveney said the Fine Gael position was clear. “We believe there should be a contribution linked to the quantity of water people use. We also believe there should be caps to make it affordable for people.

“I hope this takes out the street politics and the anger and the protests that have been rathcheting up around water,” he said.