Joe Dalton writing on Joe's Water Blog with his latest take on the issue of water charges.
While most of the World has been fixated with the new Republican administration in the United States, in Ireland for the past two months the elaborately titled Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services has been meeting to consider the report of the Expert Commission on this issue. It is possible that most Irish people have become fatigued with the long running Irish Water saga. I feel I must return to it as the Committee is nearing completion of its work. The Dáil (Parliament) is scheduled to vote on its recommendations later this month (March 2017), the consequences of which could be felt by the Irish people for a long time.
I had intended to post articles more regularly as the Committee went about its work but, alas I learned that work and life can get it the way of writing, not to mention the prospect of readers getting information fatigue. Making up for it now, and hoping the reader stays with me, this is the first of a number of articles analysing the progress of the Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Committee and considering what is likely for the future of water services in Ireland.
The full spectrum of opinion on water charges are represented among the 20 Committee members, which is reflective of the Dáil as a whole. After an initial meeting before Christmas, when the Expert Commission presented their report, the Committee has been meeting every week since early January. I have been following the public sessions which are available to watch on the Oireachtas website. I have found the proceedings very interesting (though I do have a slight obsession about the issue) and have been impressed with many of the contributions, though there have been many moments when I have wanted to shout questions at the witnesses. Committee members clearly took their work very seriously and made a commendable effort to research the issue, even if I didn’t always agree with their conclusions.
Considering only “Domestic” Water Services?
In this first article I want to nail the root flaw in the Terms of Reference of the Expert Commission, which was in turn unfortunately passed on to the Oireachtas Committee, to consider only funding of “Domestic” water services. Domestic and commercial users are connected to the same infrastructure, which is arguably the most capital intensive of any infrastructure type. It is therefore impossible to consider funding of domestic and commercial services separately.
The Expert Commission reported a scandalous level, up to 50% according to cited reports, of non-payment of commercial water bills. Initially, the Oireachtas Committee Chair Pádraig Ó Céidigh sought to block scrutiny of this crucial aspect of water infrastructure funding, citing their Terms of Reference when Fianna Fáil’s John Lahart Teachta Dála (TD) attempted to question Irish Water on the issue (See 7 minutes into the below clip).
The Expert Commission report includes commentary on commercial charging (see sections 2.4.29 – 2.4.24 and 4.2.2 – 4.2.3). Commercial charges represent a significant portion of how water infrastructure, for both domestic and commercial users, is funded. It would therefore constitute a dereliction of duty for it not to be properly considered by the Committee.
Persistent questioning from Workers and Unemployed Action Group TD Seamus Healy eventually extracted from Maria Graham, from the Department of Housing, Planning, Communities and Local Government (DOHPCLG), a claimed commercial payment level of 89%, though this was unverified and has yet to be clarified. It would certainly be a vast improvement on a few years ago. It is unfortunate that such a simple yet important question on commercial revenues cannot be clearly answered.
Further questions that could have been asked were why the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) could not progress a consolidated national commercial charging regime before 2018. Given the historic low commercial payment levels one would have thought this should have been a top priority. Currently 34-separate local authority commercial charging regimes are still in place.
Despite my differences of opinion on water charges with Seamus Healy, I nevertheless respected his approach to getting answers to important questions. I was then somewhat disappointed when he tried to make what I thought was a cheap shot at Jerry Grant, the Managing Director of Irish Water, (see from 7:50 minutes in the below clip) over an alleged customer shutoff of one of his constituents in South Tipperary. While Grant didn’t have the specific answer to this question to hand, he did state that there is no legal provision for shutting off domestic customers and that the possibility of shutting off commercial customers as a last resort is legislated for and only implemented very reluctantly.
A common challenge to water utilities in the developing world is the failure of other public institutions to promptly pay their water bills, which can typically consist of around 30% of tariff revenue. Long standing arrears from public institutions can amount to very significant amounts of money. This shortfall in revenue leaves the utility struggling to cover its operating costs.
Healy reported that South Tipperary County Council plan to send a letter of complaint to Irish Water regarding the shutoff. While he didn’t make clear who exactly was shut off, the logic of his words suggests it may have been a public authority premises. If the reason for the shut off turns out to be a non-domestic user not paying their water bill, and most especially if it turns out to be a public authority, then Seamus Healy was making excuses for the most irresponsible type of behaviour. I have heard personal testimony of intimidation of local authority staff attempting to collect revenue from non-domestic water customers. There should be no excuses made or political lobbying for commercial users who refuse to pay their water bills. I’m confident Seamus Healy would agree with that and would not seek to defend the previously reported scandalous level of commercial arrears.
With the apparent improvement in collection of non-domestic bills, though yet to be verified, perhaps this is not the concern I thought it was when reading the Expert Commission report. Nevertheless, I think a robust policy for dealing with non-payment of commercial users is one of the few areas where genuine cross party agreement should be possible. Such a policy should seek the support of the Public Water Forum as it is certainly in the interests of citizens that commercial users pay.