THE raison d’etre for so-called water conservation grants that Irish Water, with the connivance of the government, came up with in order to encourage people to register with the utility company and, hopefully, pay their water bills and bring in enough money to enable the company to become a stand-alone entity off the public balance sheet, no longer exists, having been decisively rejected by Eurostat. So why are they persisting with this sham grant scheme, which is a joke in both name and purpose at this stage?
There is no onus whatsoever on anyone claiming the grant to demonstrate that they are conserving water in order to avail of the €100 payment, so it is a misnomer that is especially insulting to those who consciously do their best not to waste this precious commodity in as far as they possibly can. However, the major problem that people who have paid their water bills have with the scheme is that those who register with Irish Water, but refuse to pay their bills, will also qualify for the grant and this is seen as grossly unfair.
Whatever misgivings compliant bill payers may have had previously about Irish Water and its chequered history will be greatly magnified by this blatantly inequitable scenario, which the government stubbornly claims cannot be reversed for this year. However, nobody has given a satisfactory explanation as to why it cannot be, especially now that Irish Water’s finances have to stay part of the public accounts.
There is growing unease among backbenchers, especially in main government party Fine Gael, who are finding it difficult to justify to angry law-abiding constituents the awarding of water conservation grants to non-paying customers of Irish Water. The government parties could well do without having to deal with this kind of dissatisfaction in the months leading up to the next general election, as everything to do with the imposition of water charges separate from what is paid through taxation seems to backfire and, like a dripping tap, the whole debacle just seems to go from bad to worse.
And, it isn’t as if the warning signs were not there already: Over the past 40 years, various governments have tried to impose domestic water charges and ultimately failed, as it has always seemed to spark and unite opposition like no other issue, leaving us one of the few countries in Europe not paying separately for water used.
Obviously, in warmer climates, it is seen as a more precious commodity than we regard it as here, given that water seems to fall so freely from our skies most of the time. However, there is still a significant cost in making it potable and in distributing it through public water mains – a considerable percentage of which are antiquated, made of lead and leaking a lot after years of neglect and a lack of adequate public investment in the infrastructure by cash-starved local authorities.
It was obvious that not enough taxpayers’ money was either available for or allocated to water supplies and, given the failure of local authorities countrywide to even scratch the surface of the problem over many years, a fresh solution was needed. The theory behind setting up a public utility company dedicated to addressing the myriad problems was intrinsically sound, however, in practice, the huge costs involved in setting up the separate entity have dogged Irish Water from the start and dented its credibility.
By extension, being this government’s proverbial baby, Irish Water, because of the hapless manner in which it has been dragged from one controversy to the next, has also severely dented the coalition parties’ credibility with the electorate. Whether deserved or not, it has become something of a toxic brand and there is no doubt that the government has earned most of the public derision it is getting for its stewardship of Irish Water.
It has tended to be stubborn all along the way and slow to make changes demanded by the public. On the water conservation grants, it needs to bite the bullet, admit that it is a screwball scheme, abolish it and use some of the money allocated to reward, in some other way, the compliant Irish Water customers who dutifully pay their bills.
Even though it would be another u-turn that would be seized on by their poilitical opponents, conversely doing so might win them back some bit of the credibility that they have lost over this vexed issue that has dogged their term of office.