27 April 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Much media mileage is currently being mined from the expenditure by Government Ministers and their Departments on the services of consultants and advisers to assist them in the discharge of their onerous duties.
The figures that have emerged from journalistic enquiry and parliamentary question in recent weeks are disconcertingly lavish at a time when the country is being force-fed the meagre collation of austerity – hard to swallow at the best of times, but particularly unpalatable when its governing gospel appears not to be practised by the Ministers who preach it.
The value for money ethos powering the rationalisation of the public service also appears to be lacking when it comes to this form of Government expenditure – for example, a report costing over €130,500 that recommended the establishment of a separate new body to administer water services hardly represents money well spent when its commissioners opt to ignore this core recommendation and invest this responsibility in Bord Gais.
It is eloquent of some of the Government’s current problems with communication that the negative perceptions arising from this outcome are among the least of the difficulties they face with regard to the water issue.
The often-quoted passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost that refers to “Confusion worse confounded” is powerfully suggested by the muddled messages that have so agitated the public in advance of the new water charging regime set for introduction in 2014, and the system of water metering of households that will be implemented to facilitate it.
While the Government has acknowledged the confusion wrought by the mixed messages initially issued on this matter, and have taken some steps to calm public disquiet, they still have a way to go to disable the ammunition they have supplied to the rising anti-charges lobby gaining considerable momentum as a focus for public disaffection with the prevailing economic situation.
This is particularly unfortunate, as with a more circumspect approach the Government might well have been able to engage productively with the much more developed sense of water as a finite and precious natural resource that prevails nationally.
While we could all use water more sparingly, it is surely now widely accepted that it is a costly resource to supply and treat, and that its wastage is something we all have a vested interest in addressing.
Some of that wastage is within our gift as citizens to counteract, through sensible domestic conservation practices – and there seems to be a consensus of agreement that an equitable and transparent system of charges that would reward prudent usage habits and impose a levy on consumption beyond a reasonable household allowance should be introduced.
However, considerable wastage occurs beyond the control of the individual citizen, arising from deficiencies in infrastructure – some of the piping systems that service communities availing of a public water supply are frighteningly antiquated.
Although water conservation programmes have improved performance in this regard appreciably in recent years, the infrastructural problem can only ultimately be resolved by public expenditure on a massive scale.
So far no compelling connect has been made between the new charging system and the funding of a programme that will upgrade the national means of supply – if indeed there is one.
The €800 charge being advocated, over a 20-year period, for a household water meter and its installation seems related, not to the ultimate need to modernise our water infrastructure, but to cover the cost of borrowing from the National Pension Reserve that the Government must commit itself to in order to resource the meter installation programme.
Rather than dismantling the local authority structure for water services management, would it not achieve the objective of modernising the system without undue penalisation of the public to use it as the modernisation mechanism?
The structures to achieve this goal are surely already in place at County and City Council level throughout the country – and even if all the available expertise and local knowledge could be transferred intact into the new authority being established through Bord Gais, which it surely will not be, what would be the point?
The wheel appears already to have been invented – properly resourced, local authorities could do this job very well, and if the public felt what they paid for their meter and their water usage was having some visible manifestation in their own communities, they would surely accept any reasonable expense arising with tolerable good grace.
Instead, a mounting tide of charge resistance and possible civil disobedience could be in store for the Government on this issue.
There is still time for them to get the proper message across, but they have made an unfortunate start.
With all the millions being spent on supposedly sage counsel for our Ministers and their Departments, it seems strange that there has been apparently little or no return in the coinage of common sense.
A few wise words on the art of persuasion could save the country millions now – and a lot of unnecessary strife a little way down the line.

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