8 November 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

It was clear from the presentation made by Senior Engineer Con McCrossan to Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council (see story, page one) that the delivery of a fundamental requirement of society, namely water and sewerage provision, is set to undergo a quite radical transformation in this country.
The coming into being of Irish Water on January 1 2014, and the assumption by it of responsibilities in these areas traditionally discharged by the country’s local authorities, will impact on some way or other on every household and business in the land.

The immediate brunt of the “water revolution” is being felt by Co Councils, which, although stripped of ultimate authority, will continue to be the conduit for the relevant services through Service Level Agreements with the new national entity.

Councils seem currently engaged in a frenetic race against time to prepare themselves for the January 1 changeover.

Given that the enabling legislation has yet to be enacted, and that important questions concerning resources and detail of responsibilities have yet to be determined to the satisfaction of the local authorities themselves, the timescale for the revolution seems unduly tight.

There is certainly legitimacy to the proposal made by Co Mayor Sean Conlon on Monday for the transition date to be put back.

This would not only create the space for clarity to be brought to bear on a number of concerns raised by the Monaghan councillors, but would enable the executive and staff of the authority to enter into the transition process better informed as to their responsibilities, and perhaps better equipped in terms of personnel and training to discharge them.

While it is unlikely that the Monaghan Co Council proposal will incite the road to Damascus change of mindset in Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan necessary for it to succeed, it seems equally improbable that local authorities will commit themselves to signing binding 12-year agreements with Irish Water until a number of important outstanding issues are resolved.

This might make the D-day date of January 1 of more symbolic than practical significance – but while the outworking of the advent of Irish Water might take some time to manifest itself in ways appreciable by the public, no one should be in any doubt that major changes are imminent in the way in which water and sewerage services in this country are administered and delivered.

The political judgement delivered on the water revolution at Monday’s meeting was predictable enough, and should perhaps be evaluated in the context of the current instability in the environment inhabited by local public representatives created by the pending abolition of Town Councils and the changed responsibilities that Co Councils will possess in the future.

Understandable sensitivity to change, particularly change that suggests diminishment of the stature of elected representatives’ functions, informed much of the language used by those who contributed negatively or cynically to Monday’s debate.

But that is not to say that points of criticism raised were not legitimate, or unpersuasive in terms of the argument that there may be a distinct element of ‘the more haste, the less speed’ in the Minister clinging dogmatically to his January 1 timeframe.

There is something ethically disquieting about vesting control of the vital human resource of water in an entity that will use the markets to cultivate investment capital – this behoves vigilance upon both elected people and officialdom at local level to ensure the provision of services to which people are fundamentally entitled are never tainted by commercial imperatives.

It was troubling too to hear Mr McCrossan state, in response to questions from the members, that “small capital schemes will be low in priority” under the new regime.

Irish Water, not the local Co Council, will ultimately determine the priority of capital investment in water and sewerage services in the future – and the determination by a national body of where expenditure is made would not seem to bode well for small-scale projects vital to local communities in Co Monaghan.

There are more than a few instances in our county where small housing concentrations have been waiting an unfeasible amount of time to become connected with the local authority sewerage system and dispense with the necessity for septic tanks – it might now be much more difficult to convince those holding the purse strings that expenditure on small projects of this nature is worthwhile.

The potential for Irish Water to deliver major improvement in water infrastructure in Co Monaghan was cited by Government-aligned councillors on Monday as to some degree legitimising its advent, as was the potential possessed by the new dispensation for enhancing water conservation.

These arguments narrow the focus on the Irish Water debate to the question that will be of most concern to the public – what return will we get for the water charges we will shortly have to pay?
The issue of domestic water charges glowered like Banquo’s ghost from the corner during Monday’s debate – while Monaghan Co Council will (relievedly, one suspects) have no direct function in their levying or collection, their significance as a preoccupation of the people was not lost on some of the speakers.

The imposition of an additional burden on an already overburdened, austerity weary population through water charges appears hard to justify – but the need to perceive of water as an expensive, finite and fragile resource is equally hard to deny.

This conflict will be resolved for the majority of those who have to pay for their water if they get the money they hand over back in improved services.

Water wastage through consumer thoughtlessness is hard to measure but undoubtedly high – if water charges impress a meaningful consciousness of conservation upon the minds of users of the resource, they will go some way to justifying their introduction.

But water wastage as a result of faulty and antiquated pipes and other infrastructure is also epidemic in Co Monaghan – and Irish Water must sanction the significant investment required to modernise the mechanics of delivery in schemes throughout this county for it to legitimise its existence in the eyes of our urban and rural communities.

Monaghan Co Council gave “a business as usual” pledge on Monday to a public who will undoubtedly have concerns about the response they can expect in the future from their local authority if an emergency situation arises.

Given the authority’s impressive track record in this regard, and the level of improvement in water and sewerage provision that many parts of our county have experienced over the last couple of decades, we are sure they will be as good as their word.

But, as the new overseeing and decision-making entity, Irish Water must go somewhat further than that – those paying water charges will expect “business better than usual” in terms of investment and services if the imminent “water revolution” is to prove to be a popular rather than a despotic regime change.

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