Coalition must build consensus on waste charges

Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Greens do not object to reform but are concerned how it will work

 

The Government’s acceptance of the need for a “watchdog” to monitor charges under the new waste collection system is welcome. It is a step in the right direction to building a broad political consensus in support of a fair and rational system of waste management.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar struck the right note in the Dáil yesterday when he said the Government would reserve the right to bring in price regulation if the industry hikes prices. Bowing to political reality in advance of a Fianna Fáil motion in the Dáil last night proposing an independent regulator, the Government said it would establish a monitoring system to ensure the industry plays fair.

Though differences remained over whether such a unit – with representation from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the Department of the Environment – would have the “teeth” to prevent price gouging, the gap between the Coalition and Fianna Fáil was narrowing.

Under the proposals announced last week by Minister for the Environment Denis Naughten, competition between the waste companies was being relied on as a means of keeping charges as low as possible. That was simply not good enough to generate the required level of public confidence among those who have been paying flat-rate charges.

It should be stated that phasing out flat-rate charges is the right thing to do. It is in the interests of society as a whole that the polluter pays principle should be at the core of the charging system. Already about half of all households pay bin charges based on the weight of their waste and the number of times bins have to be lifted. Extending the system to the remainder is the fair way to proceed and it is also the best means of ensuring that people minimise the amount of rubbish going into landfill and maximise the amount they recycle.

As long ago as 2004 the then government, in response to EU pressure, introduced a charging system, based on weight, designed to reduce the amount of household waste going to landfill. As the transition from local authority bin collections to private companies took place, flat-rate charges continued in some areas. Efforts were made in 2014 and again last year to tackle the anomaly but government shied away for fear of controversy.

Decision time has finally come but that has provided an opportunity for the political forces that initiated the campaign against water charges to mobilise once again in an effort to block reform. That is why the Government needs to listen very carefully to the objections being made by Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and the Green Party, all of whom do not object in principle to reforming the system but are concerned about how it will work. There is no solution that will please everybody but the widest possible agreement is essential.

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