DILUTING THE WATER ROW

21 November 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The Government were expected to unveil clarifying measures yesterday afternoon designed to dilute the widespread public bile over the imposition of water charges.

Advance “leaks” of the placatory package indicated that charges for single adult households would be capped at €160 per year, with all other households paying an annual maximum of €260. Some legislative reassurance was also to be provided to assuage fears over any future privatisation of the new Irish Water utility.

Bringing clarity to exactly what water will cost people in the future is welcome – it is just a pity that it wasn’t done in the first place. Knowing that charges will not be anywhere near as penal as the direst forecasts of the anti-water tax campaigners will ease some of the anxiety their pending imposition has generated.

But affordability is relative, and many austerity-haunted homes will be hard-pressed to bear this latest burden. And for those opposed to paying for water in principle, the Government’s intended olive branch will prick as painfully as a garland of thorns, and act as an accelerant rather than as a palliative.

The protest movement against water charges may lose a little of its momentum in the wake of the Government’s belated clarification, but it is unlikely to be significantly abated in its oppositional course. The campaigners will see what the Government has announced as a concession won by public demonstration, and may well feel that more “feet on the street” will keep the establishment on the run on this issue and achieve further climb-down.

While the next manifestation of major organised protest on December 10 will be closely “metered” by the Government to detect how well their new sales pitch has played with the people, they are likely to find that a high level of discontent persists on this issue.

It is to be hoped, however, that this abiding discontent does not manifest itself in a repeat of the ugly scenes generated by some recent water charges protests in various parts of the country. Some disgraceful behaviour was perpetrated that dishonours the principle of peaceful public protest that forms an important safety valve in any properly functioning democracy.

The shameful treatment meted out in the direction of Tánaiste Joan Burton in particular serves to subvert the sanctity of this principle into the realms of sinister anarchy.

The protest movement seeks to give a voice to the many people in this country who will find it very difficult to come up with the money for water charges no matter what tariff is established by the Government. We are sure that the majority of these people would object strongly to their case being stated through the extremes of mob behaviour. And a great many people sympathetic to the objectives of those opposed to water charges will be now more strongly inclined to sign up for them as a means of signifying their repugnance at such tactics, which are profoundly self-defeating.

Indications that Irish Water will be made exempt from the payment of commercial rates, with this tab being picked up by the Dept of the Environment as part of the complicated strategies apparently needed to meet market corporation requirements, will be a cause of some interest, and perhaps also concern, to local authorities across the country as they prepare their Budgets for 2015.

Co Councils were forced to give up valuable assets when the responsibility for water and sewerage services provision was removed from them and vested in the new Irish Water entity, although it should also be remembered that the liabilities attached to this sphere also went with them. Nonetheless local authorities will be anxious to ensure that they are not at any effective loss in rates income as a result of this exemption.

Inevitably, some degree of uncertainty about rates revenue from this source will impinge on the Councils’ budgetary considerations, which are already complicated enough this year by the abolition of Town Councils and the need to begin a process where the rates charged in urban and rural locations are brought eventually into alignment.

In local authority chambers across the country, an oft-asked question will be reiterated: was it really necessary to remove the function of water service provision from bodies with long and proven expertise in its delivery?

There is a strong argument to be made that the much-needed improvement in this country’s water infrastructure – one of the main raisions d’etre cited for Irish Water’s creation – could have been delivered much more quickly and effectively at local level if local government had been given the funding they have long cried out for in order to replace antiquated pipe systems. And local authorities surely stood much better equipped to respond to public complaints about water quality, and address interruptions in supply and other emergencies, than a cumbersome new national utility that is at present attempting to address local problems remotely, and making a pretty poor job of it.

Like the leak on the street waiting to be fixed, the Irish Water saga looks destined to run and run…

 THE INSIDE MAN?

Monaghan Co Council’s decision on Tuesday to adjourn the business of their Statutory Budget Meeting in order to try to prise more funding from Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly TD was a surprising one.

There was a time when such a tactic was almost mandatory in the Budget-adopting tradition of the county authority, with the elected members wishing to be seen to be fighting their electorate’s corner with the Minister of the day before settling down reluctantly to discharge their statutory duty.

Ministers routinely refuse such pre-Budget meeting requests from local authorities for very sound reasons, and it is unlikely that the Co Council will find Mr Kelly any more accommodating than his predecessors.

Worries over an apparent significant cut in roads funding for 2015 prompted Tuesday’s majority decision, although it is now standard practice for allocations for roads not to be announced until the New Year and for Budgets to be drafted on the basis of the revenue received in the outgoing year – if less than the projected sum is received when the allocations are announced, adjustments will have to be made, and if more is forthcoming, happy days.

Senior Fine Gael councillor Hugh McElvaney, who moved the motion that led to the meeting’s adjournment, was described during the discussion as possibly having an inside track to the relevant Ministers that might be able to earn the Council some leverage.

But Colr McElvaney also took some flak for his tactic, particularly from Sinn Féin’s Brian McKenna, the gist of whose argument was that the FG man had been around the Council Chamber long enough (since 1974, in fact) to know the folly of his gambit.

Hughie modestly disavowed the attribution of “inside man”, but perhaps the wily old campaigner does know more than he’s letting on.

Could he have caught some straws in the wind that have indicated that the roads budget to be allocated to the Co Council in the New Year might be more generous than the figure provided for in the Budget has allowed?

If so, there might be more to Tuesday’s apparently futile move than meets the eye, with the proposal to adjourn being less the political red herring it was condemned by some speakers as being, and more of a sprat set to catch a mackerel!

We will wait and see…

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