As the formation of a government edged closer this week, it was disconcerting to note that water charges seemed to have been regarded as a bigger issue than the homelessness and health crises that need to be dealt with a lot more urgently. No doubt, water charges played a big part in the general election campaign and more TDs who promised to abolish Irish Water were elected than those who wanted it kept.
Therefore, it was somewhat ironic that the issue was left to be resolved between Fine Gael – who are steadfastly in favour of keeping Irish Water – and Fianna Fáil who voted to set up the utility company and backed it all the way until the revelations about excessive consultancy fees and fat bonuses for employees started to sow some seeds of doubt. Promising in their election manifesto to abolish Irish Water and water charges ultimately had more to do with enhancing their populist appeal to voters and it worked as they increased the number of seats they won.
However, if it was a bluff, it has been well and truly called by Fine Gael who – whether one agrees with them or not – were willing to hold the line on the principle involved, albeit a potentially unpopular stance. They want to keep Irish Water and water charges, but with the incentive that people could avoid paying the charges altogether if they were willing to conserve water – the catch being that people would need to agree to have water meters installed in order to monitor any usage over the generous free allowances they would be given.
Whatever watering down of water charges is done, the provision of clean drinking water through a safe network is a costly exercise and has to be paid for no matter what way one goes about it. Whether it comes through taxation or water charges, a realistic amount needs to be provided – and ring-fenced – annually over many years to make up the €25billion that it is estimated by Irish Water is necessary to render the existing provision of water and disposal of waste water networks fit for purpose.
Added to that will be the costs incurred by the needs in these regards of an increasing population over the coming years. Even if it is not called Irish Water, there is still a need for an efficient public utility company with the necessary engineering and technical capabilities to plan and oversee the work that’s needed.
Some opponents of Irish Water have advocated that the entity should be abolished and the responsibility for water and waste water returned to local authorities, however they failed badly over many years to get to grips with the problems and, even though it was not entirely their fault because they were often starved of central government funding, they did not make any significant progress and spent all their time trying unsuccessfully to play catch-up.
Irish Water has done a realistic audit of the existing services and their many defects and has prioritised the schemes most urgently in need of remedial action and identified where investment is needed to meet future demands, so the information is there for whoever will be overseeing the works. The bottom line is that money has to be provided to finance what needs to be done, so the next government will have to figure out how this is going to be raised – most likely now through direct taxation rather than water charges, which cannot possibly raise enough to get these works done in a timely fashion.
It’s not rocket science. The work needs to be done. The government just needs to be decisive about who is going to do it and how it will be financed.
On the other hand, the myriad problems in the areas of homelessness and public health care are a lot more serious and complex and have not been getting the time or attention they deserve during the two months since the general election in which the politicians have been prevaricating about forming a new government. Both need long-term plans and will require a lot of investment over many years – well beyond the lifetime of the next government and probably several after that – and agreed cross-party approaches and commitments are the only way to tackle these problems.
While the parties play politics and engage in grandstanding about issues such as water charges, it is not appropriate to do so with health care or social housing where there is a very real human cost and also an urgent necessity to strive to have the dignity of people who are suffering because of successive governments’ failures in these areas restored as quickly as ever possible through a sincere, collaborative approach.