ONE of the most interesting aspects of the negotiations on the formation of a new government will be what is likely to be agreed between the participating parties about the future of Irish Water and the payment of water charges. While the populist action would be to scrap the hapless utility company and abolish water charges, we would still be left with the mammoth task of upgrading our porous water supply network and deficient wastewater treatment facilities to EU standards, things that are regarded as being so basic in all developed countries.
There is no doubt that the costly manner in which Irish Water was set up was scandalous, and Fine Gael in particular has paid a heavy electoral price for that, but it is there now and – rather than taking the retrograde step of giving responsibility back to a myriad of local authorities, which did not work in the past and is unlikely to in the future – the new government should streamline the operations of the company and hold a referendum as soon as possible to ensure its public ownership ad infinitum and remove any threat of our water supply services ever being privatised.
Irish Water has already identified the most serious problems that need attention and has various plans in place to address them, but are hamstrung by a lack of finance, so it will take years to get around to fixing everything at the current rate of progress. As a result, it is difficult to ask people to pay for public water supplies that are not up to standard and that is the crux of imposing water charges at this point in time.
Where there are no public supplies and people either need to have their own wells or become part of a group water supply scheme, they have no choice but to pay for their water and the upkeep of their systems. Ditto wastewater disposal. So, they wonder what other people’s problem is about paying for their public water supply – once it is up to standard, of course.
The majority of Irish Water customers who have paid their bills to date, many albeit reluctantly, may feel miffed at this stage that those who did not do so seem to have gotten away with it. If a compromise, for now, is to suspend water charges until a more equitable system can be introduced, those who have already paid must be credited for this in any future regime.
The so-called Water Conservation Grant is a costly joke that needs to be done away with and, if ever re-introduced, should only be paid on foot of evidence of conservation measures taken.
But, whatever about all the often disproportionate exposure that the water charges issue gets, there are far more important ones to be dealt with by the incoming government in the areas of health and housing, which are the cause of a lot more human suffering than Irish Water could ever inflict.