IT puzzles me how Fianna Fail has acquired its reputation for sound management and efficient administration. Every week that passes all I see is a combination of old-fashioned stroke pulling and bumbling idiocy.
The fiasco over schools paying water charges is a perfect example of how the government’s bad planning, devotion to empty rhetoric and instinctive cute hoorism is prone to blow up in their faces. It’s such a mess that even the self-righteous assurance of technocrat education minister Mary Hanafin has been pierced.
The story begins in 1978 when Fianna Fail honoured an election promise and abolished domestic rates. Honourable mention is due to Brendan Howlin, who as environment minister in the rainbow coalition of the mid-1990s, prevented local authorities from introducing water charges.
The current debacle, however, began in 2000 when the government pulled off what it imagined to be a triumph – negotiating a get-out clause in the EU’s water framework directive. This wasn’t just another boring directive from the bureaucratic EU. It actually had the potential to solve Ireland’s water supply problems.
Remember cryptospiridium? All those people last summer and in previous years being warned by local authorities to boil their water? This poisoning of the supply happens because Ireland’s water-management system is such a mess. Our inland waterways are polluted – killing fish and making people sick. We’re running out of water in Dublin – either clean or dirty. Local authorities are spending a fortune trying (and failing) to provide clean water for everyone.
Other EU states face similar problems, so their governments came up with a joint water policy. Its aim was to protect supplies, eliminate dirty water, and convince citizens to become players in the day-to-day battle to provide everyone with sufficient amounts of safe water. If you weren’t in one of those areas on boil notices last year, just try and imagine how you’d have managed washing and cooking with contaminated water. The Water Framework Directive tried to save us from that.
Key to this was the introduction of water charges. As we’ve learned from plastic bags and rubbish-collection charges, no-one gets serious about environmental issues until money is involved. Clean water is scarce and expensive, but until people are charged for what they use, householders will continue to wash the car with hosepipes, ignore leaky pipes, leave taps running, flush the loo every five minutes, and generally waste thousands of gallons of valuable water each year.
Recognising this, the directive proposed that water users pay a charge which reflected the cost of getting the water from the lake and into their home or business. Send them the bills, watch their water usage plummet, and use the money you raise to clean up water supplies. Pricing worked for plastic bags and rubbish collection, and it would work for water.
The Irish public would go nuts, naturally. “This is a wet country,” they would moan. “Why should we have to pay for water?” Think of the phone calls to LiveLine, the mileage Joe Higgins would get out of it. Well, let him. Charging for water is the right thing to do, morally and practically. We gave a lead to Europe on the plastic-bag charge and the abolition of smoking in public places. People moaned, but with a modicum of leadership and political resolve the changes were made and now everyone is delighted. Even the smokers who get to flirt with each other outside pubs seem happy.
That’s what we needed on water charges, but we didn’t get it. Instead the government negotiated a derogation for domestic supplies on the basis that existing practice was to exempt ordinary users from water charges.
Had there been a poll in Galway last summer, I’m sure people would have voted for clean water over free water. But now the deed is done. We may have to hold our breaths so we don’t get sick while enjoying a power shower but hey, it’s free, so let’s keep some perspective.
Schools, like businesses, had never stopped paying local authority charges including water bills, and therefore couldn’t avail of the exemption allowed in the directive. But since these bills were a flat fee, they were manageable.
The introduction of metering changed that. Once the bills arrived, school managers realised how much water they were wasting through ignorance and leaky pipes. Some decided to cut down on their usage. But of course they needed money to pay the bills in the meantime, and to repair the plumbing. And so another Fianna Fail policy chicken came home to roost. The funding of Irish schools, in particular primary schools, is one of the greatest outrages of this country. Primaries receive only two-thirds of their funding from the state and have to raise the rest themselves. If you’re a middle-class parent in a leafy suburb, this isn’t a problem. The school has jumble sales and sponsored walks, and there’s enough to pay the ESB bill and buy a few computers.
If you live in a poor area where a request to parents for a “voluntary contribution” is a significant and unpayable burden, then your school can forget about the extras and will struggle to pay the basics. This suits the well-off to a T: their money pays for their school and they don’t even have to pay any nasty taxes to keep the poorer places going. Is it any wonder that Hanafin topped the poll in cushy Dun Laoghaire? The current funding system suits them just fine in Blackrock and Dalkey.
Some schools are well managed and paid their water bills. Others couldn’t, and as their arrears mounted the proverbial hit the fan. As the negotiations got under way last week, politics and ideology clashed. Hanafin would probably have preferred to exempt schools altogether but can’t under the terms of the directive. Her other preferred option was to give schools a “water allowance” and effectively pay the bills for them. The Department of the Environment wouldn’t agree to that, since it would undermine the whole purpose of the EU directive by removing the schools’ incentive to reduce bills.
If Fianna Fail ministers had thought about this in 2000 when they signed up to the directive, they might have installed water meters in schools straight away. This would have given principals a chance to see how much water they were using, and to make the repairs needed in good time. Instead, no-one did anything and now there are piles of unpaid bills and no money to meet them.
An unsatisfactory compromise has now been reached. Since the directive doesn’t have to be enforced until 2010, the schools will pay the old flat rate until then, a fine reward for those who paid their metered bills on time. In the meantime, Irish people will remain oblivious to both the cost of the water they merrily flush away, and the price that children in poor schools pay for low taxes.
Update: hey just read PO’Neill over at Irish Election. We are in perfect agreement