WHILE Brexit was being triggered last week, attention was being conveniently deflected away from the future funding fudge on domestic water charges that amounted to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil trying to wash their hands of a divisive issue that has been the bugbear of Irish politicians for nigh on 40 years. For the main players, it was a necessary, but unabashed piece of political expediency that they hope will close the latest chapter of this long-running saga and allow Irish Water to get on with sorting out the country’s myriad water supply problems.
There was a small but pyrrhic victory for Fine Gael in that it was agreed to keep the much-maligned Irish Water utility company, even though its calamitous setting up cost the party dearly, electorally, in both the 2014 local elections and the 2016 general election. However, the company won’t be funded by separate water charges in future; provision of domestic water services will have to come from general taxation.
The Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services came up with a definition of water wastage as being 1.7 times the average usage of 133.8 litres per person per day, which would set it at 227 litres a day. Anyone found to be wasting water would get an initial warning and a chance to rectify the matter over the course of at least six months, and failure to comply would result in a levy being imposed, but this has since been shot down by the majority populist political opponents of any form of separate charges for water.
Given the estimate that 8% of householders (approximately 70,000) use one-third of the public water supply, there is obvious wastage that still needs to be urgently addressed, be it profligacy of use or some massive leaks. Detection of water leaks will have to be narrowed down by Irish Water through district metering.
The metering programme for existing households will be discontinued and the Oireachtas water committee’s initial recommendation that meters would be mandatory in all new builds, with bulk metering in apartment blocks, was also rejected by the majority of members.
Subject to Dáil approval, after debating the delayed report of the Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, chaired by independent Senator Padraig Ó Céidigh, it is likely that those law-abiding householders who paid their water charges will receive refunds, which will cost the Exchequer in the region of €160m. Despite all the last-minute amendments, it is still felt by most members that the Committee’s recommendations can be enshrined in existing legislation through a number of amendments and legal advice is that what is proposed will adhere to EU laws.
Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government Simon Coveney is sceptical about this and our European masters will ultimately have the final say. If the new arrangements are found to be in breach of European legislation, the country could be facing massive fines.
While the smaller left-leaning parties made most of the running in rallying people power against separate water charges, ironically the one that looks set to garner most of the political kudos for what the Committee came up with is Fianna Fáil, which has cleverly manipulated the outcome, outflanking its main opposition nemesis, Sinn Féin, who can hardly argue against it because water charges are effectively gone. However, there may be recriminations within Fine Gael, who stuck to their guns on the principle of having some form of water charges right up to the proverbial eleventh hour.
Minister Simon Coveney shipped some criticism within the Fine Gael parliamentary party for giving in to the populist politicians who wanted the charges scrapped, but that was one battle he clearly was never going to win, given that the majority of TDs, individually and collectively, were in favour of their abolition. He may also have been conscious of Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s sage advice to make the issue go away well ahead of the next election, given the damage it caused them on the last two outings.
How this will affect his party leadership ambitions remains to be seen, given that Mr Coveney must now draft legislation – that he will find unpalatable – to reflect the Committee’s recommendation to abolish all separate water charges. Such pragmatic consumption of humble pie in the short term may be worth it for the long haul, but the water charges debacle may not yet have claimed the last of its political victims.