Say goodbye to Irish water and say hello to Irish Water. The change is subtle but significant. Many will be aware of the impending arrival of the Water Charge in 2014. However, the people of Cork, and the people of Ireland, are being drip-fed the true extent of the changes underway. A new entity, called Irish Water, is being established. Already it has appointed a former Dublin City Council Manager as Managing Director. In time this entity will have nationwide and centralised responsibility for the provision of most of the water supplied in Ireland.
This new entity is presently busy enticing employees from the local authorities around the country. Revenues, once allocated to the local authorities to manage water, are steadily being diverted to Irish Water. In time, local authorities will have little say in how water is managed in Ireland. However adverse the effects for local authorities may be, the effects will be even more profound for Irish citizens and for Irish consumers.
Consumers will be interested to know that the Water Charge is not a single charge, as I discovered at a recent meeting of the Regional Authority in Tralee where I met representatives of Irish Water.
The Water Charge is in fact three charges, or two and a half charges, depending upon where the consumer lives. This point typifies the lack of transparency surrounding the changes now underway. The first charge will be a one-off connection charge. Technically this is a contradiction as households already paid developments charges for infrastructure as part of the construction of their houses. The second charge will be for the rental of the water meter. This will be paid quarterly over a 15 year period. That’s 60 payments! I did enquire of Irish Water as to the cost of these meters but I was told that this information was “commercially sensitive”. The third charge gives new meaning to the term money in, money out as there will be a charge for water-in and another for water-out. Consumers will be charged for consumption and for purifying what they have consumed. However, the water-out charge is assessed in urban areas. Those with septic tanks appear to be exempt from the water-out charge. This imposes an urban / rural inequity. The former will pay three charges, and the latter will likely pay two and a half charges.
Citizens may be concerned, as I am concerned, that the General Scheme of the Water Services Bill (No. 2) 2013 allocates the role of “preparation of water services strategic plans and capital investment plans” to Irish Water. Local needs are likely to be decided, not locally, but nationally. Gone is the principle of subsidiarity. Communities will no longer decide their own priorities. This will be dictated from a central authority. The establishment of Irish Water not only changes the role of local authorities, but the very say that citizens have in the matters that affect them in their own localities. There are deep concerns too that this entity, this Irish Water, will not be accountable to public representatives or to citizens via the Freedom of Information Act due to its configuration.
The transformation of water, as a resource which is presently supplied as a service to the people of Ireland, to a resource to be supplied on a commercial basis, is reflected in another provision of the General Scheme of the Water Services Bill (No. 2) 2013. The provision specifically states that Irish Water “will have the power to restrict a domestic supply in the case of non-payment”, though it will be prohibited from disconnecting domestic customers completely. In such instances consumers will find their water supplies have been severely restricted. This is a profound change in ethos. The citizen is no longer a member of a community who shares in common resources, but rather he or she is a paying consumer of a privately held resource.
The emergence of a behemoth in the guise of an unassuming Water Charge is plausible. What has been presented as a single charge is evidently not so. The significance of the Water Charge is not the charge, but the entity which accompanies it. Even its name is suggestive. Just how Irish will Irish Water be? I have the deepest of concerns that after the service level agreement expires in 2025 Irish Water may be sold, meaning that the water may be Irish, but not its ownership. In coming years this seemingly harmless entity will redefine the role of the citizen, his or her place in the community and the capacity for local democracy. At the end of the day it is likely to be Irish in name only. As citizens we ought, I submit, to tell this government to keep their Irish Water as we’d prefer to keep our water Irish.