Water charges: seven landmines facing Government

Coalition focus is on level of charges but for many water is issue that broke camel’s back

Water charge protestors outside Leinster House in Dublin yesterday. Photovgraph: PA

Water charge protestors outside Leinster House in Dublin yesterday. Photovgraph: PA

 

Seven potential landmines lie in wait for the Government as it attempts to gain public acceptance for water charges with its vastly revised regime.

1. The impact on the landlord/tenant relationship:

Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly yesterday told the Dáil legislation would be introduced to allow landlords deduct unpaid water charged from tenants’ deposits if necessary.

Landlords instantly expressed strong reservations about the measure, saying they should not be forced to do Irish Water’s work. Tense negotiations are undoubtedly ahead.

2. Wobbly public confidence that Irish Water will remain in public ownership:

Mr Kelly said if any future government sought to privatise Irish Water, it would be required to put the matter before the people in a plebiscite.

Sinn Féin and other Opposition figures slammed the proposal, saying the public ownership measure could simply be taken out of the legislation by way of amendment. However, this may turn out to be a moot point given that Irish Water is effectively unsellable at the moment.

3. Ongoing lack of trust in Irish Water:

The chief executive of Irish Water’s parent company Ervia Michael McNicholas this morning conceded there was no doubt the company had not gained the trust and confidence of people.

Genuine concerns about privacy have resulted in Irish Water being instructed to destroy the PPS numbers already supplied to it by customers. Independent verification that this has happened will be required for data protection reasons.

4. Fears water meters could turn into e-voting machine-style white elephants:

The amount of money wasted on ill-fated e-voting machines created a huge sense of anger against the previous Fianna Fail-led government. With flat water charges in place for a number of years, some of those with meters installed can be forgiven for wondering if they will ever be used.

5. Irish water staff fighting to retain bonuses:

Even those who were happy topay for water were outraged to hear staff at Irish Water demand previously-agreed terms and conditions despite the utility’s shaky start. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan weighed into the debate yesterday, expressing a hope the the Irish Water board would follow through with its pledge not to pay bonuses for last year or this year.

6. Have we lost the incentive to conserve water?:

Most people do not waste water, but anyone who has been trying to conserve the resource in recent months has not saved themsevles any money given the extension of the flat rate. The temptation to effectively open the floodgates will probably be resisted by most, but there is no doubt that the revised payment regime does little to incentivise water conservation.

7. Is the Government fixing the right problem?

The Coalition has probably put more time and effort into water charges than any other contentious issue, even abortion. While some protesters are ideologically opposed to paying for water, for others the charge was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The Government’s authority has been brought into question in recent weeks and months, which has a knock-on effect on stability. When mistakes are made, trying to put them right is always the correct thing to do, even if the U-turn comes very late in the day.

The Government has appeared tone deaf to people’s concerns for a long time, although Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin yesterday insisted it was in “listening” mode.