Water metering will leak votes

Water metering will leak votes

25 April 2010 By Niamh Connolly, Political Correspondent, Sunday Business Post

For the Green Party, household water charges can’t come soon enough. For a government in desperate need of new revenue, water charges will plug a gap.

But while the coalition parties seem to agree that the nettle must be grasped, they also acknowledge that it will sting them badly at the next general election.

Long before last January’s water shortages, domestic water charges were high on the Greens’ agenda to encourage conservation and fund investment in water infrastructure.

When the severe winter exposed the extent of the decay in the country’s water network, the Greens saw their opportunity to start the debate on the unsustainability of supplying endless gallons of treated water free to every household, irrespective of cost.

In some parts of the country, more than half of the water flowing through pipes is leaking away. After years of government failure to invest in water infrastructure, massive ongoing investment is required to maintain safe supplies of drinking water.

Ireland is unique in exempting domestic users from water charges that apply to business and farming sectors. No other EU country allows households to avoid some form of tariff – whether through local rates or taxation.

Green Party leader and environment minister John Gormley, plans to invest an initial €320 million to upgrade the water-pipe network, repair leaks and ensure the provision of drinking water supplies.

The funding plan starts next year with the installation of water meters in every household, although billing for consumption is not expected until after the 2012 general election.

Although the timing indicates political pragmatism, there is likely to be some backlash for the coalition parties when voters see the groundwork laid for water meters next year. The Greens argue that households must start paying for a resource that has been taken for granted since Fianna Fáil abolished domestic rates in 1977.

‘‘It’s the right thing to do – water charges are a small way back to a just and equitable system,” said one Green source. ‘‘It would be wonderful to be in government if there were rewards for good governance, but under the present electoral system, there aren’t.

‘‘This is a system that punishes good governance, so in relation to water charges, yes, we’ll be punished for it,” the source said.

During the boom years, the government overlooked investment in water infrastructure, but the consensus has now shifted dramatically.

Many Fianna Fáil TDs are former councillors and are aware of the extraordinary costs of providing treated water, which is used for everything from drinking to washing cars and watering gardens.

Even Fianna Fáil TDs who vigorously opposed the Green Party legislation on animal welfare concede that they agree with Gormley’s plan for metering households and charging for water consumed beyond a certain allowance. ‘‘I’d have no problem with allowing every household so many gallons and, after that, there will have to be a charge,” said Bobby Aylward, Fianna Fáil TD for Carlow-Kilkenny.

‘‘I hope the average user won’t be charged, but anyone who over-uses or abuses their allowance should be charged. Water costs local authorities big money. It’s about conservation; water is a very scarce commodity. There’s nothing for nothing in this world and every other country has charges. It’s also an incentive for people to have leaks fixed,” he added.

Mattie McGrath, Fianna Fáil TD for Tipperary South, who has consistently criticised government policies, is on board for this one.

‘‘It costs a fortune to provide treated water to the country. We can’t afford to use treated water for washing cars and yards. We have to start educating ourselves about this,” he said.

McGrath said charging for excessive domestic water use was the way forward, particularly as businesses and farmers had been paying local authorities for water for years. He cited the case of a farmer who received an annual water services bill for €16,000 because he had a leak in his system.

‘‘You’ll mend your leaks and you won’t be wasting water with the charges,” he said.

As an immediate measure, he said Gormley’s department should introduce a scheme for water conservation in schools and public buildings.

‘‘We need a plan on water ‘harvesting’ in schools for flushing toilets and washing yards, watering plants and so on – we shouldn’t use treated water for these purposes. I put a proposal to the minister for water conservation in every school two years ago, after a small businessman approached me with proposals to supply the equipment and retrofit the schools. I didn’t hear back,” McGrath said.

While Fianna Fáil deputies claim an interest in water conservation, they know that, no matter how equitable a charges system is, the policy will cost the government votes. But the issue is also a thorny one for the opposition.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny faltered last January when questioned about his party’s policy on water charges.

He admitted Fine Gael had not yet formulated a policy, although it has since advanced a similar scheme to the Greens. Fine Gael is also proposing a single water authority to take control of water supplies and investment from local authorities.

However, the Labour Party, Fine Gael’s expected partner in a future government, is opposing water metering and wants funding for infrastructure to come from tax reliefs.

In many respects, the government is paving the way for a policy a new government will have to implement. ‘‘It’s political suicide, but it has to be done,” said Chris Andrews, the Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin South East.

‘‘A lot of it will be in the detail and what sort of a waiver scheme there will be (for social welfare recipients). Andrews says responsibility for introducing domestic water charges – and property charges – should rest with local authorities, not government.

‘‘If you’re going to have real local government reform, then water charges should be under the remit of local authorities, and not government.

Local government should have responsibility as well as rights,” he said.

He also differs from the Green Party on the plan for an elected mayor of Dublin, which Andrews believes will add another layer of unnecessary bureaucracy.

‘‘The average person on the street won’t notice the slightest bit of difference, but they’ll be paying more tax for it,” he said.

That will be unwelcome news for the so-called ‘coping classes’, who are already under pressure from pay cuts, mortgage repayments and price hikes in other services, including health insurance.

Doggedly trying to find a silver lining to the cloud of recession, Gormley insisted that people would rise to the challenge of ‘‘facing up to their responsibilities’’.

People are ‘‘realistic’’ about the need for water charges, even if they are ‘‘not particularly popular’’.

Speaking on the Late Late Show last weekend, Gormley said that there was never a more difficult time to be in government. However, he is well aware that unstable times have offered the Greens scope to use their Dáil influence and pursue their agenda.