Yesterday on the Twitter machine, Dearbhail McDonald, Legal Editor with the Irish Independent posed the following question. “If @irishwater were to somehow start all over again, what advice would you give to the government?” 140 characters were not enough.
There is little doubt that Irish Water a complete mess and a PR disaster. This is the result of rushing at it like a horny bull at a gate into a field of attractive cows, whose eyes are only on the prize, in your Government’s case – the tax revenue. Remember what your mammy taught you – “fail to prepare, then prepare to fail.”
But the Government has a bigger problem. The imposition of yet another tax on the beleaguered people of this country has finally pushed us to boiling anger. And this anger is not just, as some commentators would have us believe, because we live in a soggy country where it rains all the time resulting in our having some kind of psychological reluctance to pay for the very stuff that often makes us feel damp and miserable.
We are angry because we have had enough. We are angry because this is a tax too far. We are angry because we now know that in two years time most of us; especially those of us who live in urban centres are going to be fleeced with the unfair property tax that is calculated on value of our homes as opposed to square footage.
We are angry because this is how we are repaid for our compliance with all the austerity that has been forced upon us for debts that we didn’t incur. It is the people who have allowed your Government and the previous one, to enforce the cuts and taxes that have given you great kudos abroad. Ireland’s so called recovery is not your triumph – it belongs to the people of this country.
But we are now saying enough is enough. We have no more to give.
But let’s park the anger for a moment. There is obviously a case to be made for the payment of water and the treatment of waste. In principle I would imagine most of us would accept this. So here is what I suggest you do. If, that is, you really are planning for an infrastructure project that will serve this country and our people for the next number of decades and not (as most of us suspect) you are just seeing Irish Water as another way to raise more tax Euros in the short term.
Streamlined, small efficient company
Irish Water should be in the first instance a small and very efficient company. It should not be a retirement home for workers who previously have been employed by the local councils. There should be no talk of bonuses or whatever other terms have been used to describe same. Ditto with car allowances and other nonsense.
Fix the leaks
In the first instance Irish Water should be charged with fixing the leaky system. And don’t give us the line about how will they pay for it? If Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council can spend €33 million on a monster library, if the GAA can secure €30 million for the redevelopment of Pairc Ui Chaoimh, money will be found. How much have you spent on the other ill fated project currently on the table, the Children’s Hospital? This year we will pay in the region of €4 billion in that other awful austerity tax the Universal Social Charge. As usual in politics – there is always the money - it’s a question of priorities.
Grants for rainwater harvesting and other water conservation measures
If water is as precious a resource as Irish Water have tried to tell us it is and if we are serious about changing our attitudes to water then it is vital that the Government introduce incentives to allow people to invest a little now in measures that would conserve water in the future. To me this is a glaring omission to the current plan for introducing water charges. Bringing in such incentives would also have a positive PR bounce as it would give the impression that instead of being ripped off we are all in this together. See how we took to recycling? We can easily do similar with water conservation.
Once the company is seen to be fit for purpose and the leaky system has been brought into the 21st century, then Irish Water can begin the process of fitting meters. But could I suggest that most people would like a meter that they could read easily – similar to the ESB or Gas Meter and not something that exists solely under the ground at the end of the driveway. We have never paid for water before and most of us have little or no idea about how much we actually use. It is vital to build trust so a meter that is visible to householders I think is essential.
When all of the above has been completed then it is appropriate to announce a date for billing to start. I would suggest no earlier than 2020.
Finally – once we are paying for water – there should be no talk of call out charges. If there is a gas leak – do we have to pay the Gas Company to attend?
I know that as Taoiseach you are surrounded by advisors that cost me and the rest of us plenty money. You might like to review their input Enda. Because Irish Water is rapidly going to go down in history as the biggest government mess ever – eclipsing the E Voting machines and Children’s Hospital and Incinerator messes that have preceded it.
Once you start bullying your electorate Enda you lose them. This project needs to be completely reimagined. Irish Water needs to be completely overhauled before you can do anything. Then slowly, bringing your people with you, there might be some chance of success. And your legacy may just survive... and I know that’s very important. Not to us... but to you and your fellow Ministers.