Water Water everywhere…

By | January 7, 2008

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 :-)

22 thoughts on “Water Water everywhere…

  1. Ray

    In Northern Ireland, over a third of treated water is lost to leaky pipes. Not leaks in the home or business, but leaks in the shared system. Do you think it’s any better in the south? Do you really think the problem is people flushing the toilet every five minutes? How many people actually ignore leaky pipes in their homes? How big a drain on the system are hoses?

    I’m pretty sure that the most expensive water, in terms of “the cost of getting the water from the lake and into their home or business”, comes from group water schemes. How about instead of charging for water, we just stop subsidising those schemes?

  2. Andrew Lawlor

    Sarah, why all the hand wringing about EU directives? The EU is being used here as a kind of blamehound for a failure in govenment policy and a lack of effective administration. The government is happy to thumb its nose at the EU when it comes to collecting crippling levels of VRT on new cars.

    BTW. A blamehound is a dog which one keeps under the table at dinner parties. When a guest breaks wind the host can blame the dog thereby saving the blushes of cherished freinds!!

  3. Pete

    How exactly do schools waste water?
    They’re not big users of hosepipes or baths or sprinkler systems.
    I don’t believe that they ignore leaking pipes, at least not ones that they’re aware of, simply because water pouring through ceilings is hard to ignore.
    They mainly use water for students to flush toilets and wash their hands afterwards. And for showering after sports. And for making tea in the staff room. Are you suggesting that these activities should be curtailed or discouraged?

  4. Sarah Post author

    Poor infrastructure is a major factor as many schools will testify. When they got huge bills many checked the pipes – or even simple things like dripping taps. Many had a lot of work to do to repair the plumbing and needed money for that.
    And old toilets don’t have dual flushing systems so they have to be put in and anyway, you don’t HAVE to flush after every little pee pee. So plenty of opportunity to save water. You can also install taps that switch off and can’t be left running.
    Oh and the water doesn’t pour through ceilings – it leaks out into the ground water.
    And Ray was right earlier – local authorities themselves lose millions of gallons through bad piping but can’t afford to replace them all – again a funding issue caused by the abolition of domestic rates!
    The whole thing is a mess and action needed from all angles – infrastructure investment, water charges for domestic and business and conservation.

  5. Pete

    Ok, your points about the many things that could be done to save water are vaild, and of course I know lots of water leaks into the ground.

    However, from the point of view of the schools, spending money on infrastructure changes may not make financial sense.
    I lived in Australia in severe drought conditions, and even then metered water was too cheap to justify infrastructure changes. The government changed the plumbing rules for new buildings, and had huge campaigns to try and get businesses to upgrade existing plumbing systems, but when those businesses did the maths the pay-back period on replacing a single-flush toilet with a dual-flush was too long to be financially justifiable. All but the simplest changes ran into the same problem.

    The Oz government did succeed in cutting water consumption dramatically, but it wasn’t done by applying financial pressure. It was done my changing the national mindset, ie applying social pressure. It was social pressure that got the infrastructure changed and fixed. People were proud to show off their systems for feeding rainwater off their roofs into their toilet cisterns, even through they made no financial sense. By the time I came back here I felt guilty I every time I flushed, and would have regarded running the tap while brushing my teeth as a mortal sin. And I never even paid a water bill.

    An interesting asside: I remember somone in the UK calculating that it would be much cheaper to pipe almost-untreated water to peoples houses for washing/flushing etc, and deliver bottled water for drinking to everyones house every day by truck.

  6. The Crewser

    Sarah’s long winded outrage on this issue reminds me a little of Michael Ring advocating that trains should be running all over unpopulated areas of the West of Ireland (with no one using them) In the end the taxpayer will be paying for the water used in schools. The parents of the children attending the schools have it would appear (in FG land) no reason to contribute a single cent extra for their kids education. Not surprising then that FG are finding it a little difficult these days to get their hands on the reins of Government. Maybe it just that John Bruton’s tax on children’s shoes is still too fresh in the minds of the electorate.

  7. Pete

    Oh, and I wasn’t aware that there was any party in Ireland with a reputation for sound management and efficient administration. FF does have a long history of old-fashioned stroke-pulling though.

  8. The Crewser

    And Pete you must have been asleep for the last ten years if you were not aware that our economy was the envy of Europe and indeed the World.

  9. EJP

    Apropos of very little, I wish columnists would stop using the old adage about smokers flirting as they huddle around the gas heater in the smoking area. It. does. not. happen.

    There was a brief surge, borne out of a cross-to-bear solidarity and the ice-breaking opportunity that that provided, in the immediate aftermath of the ban’s introduction, but outdoor flirting has long ago retreated to indoor levels; i.e. very low.

    I hope others will confirm this.

  10. lafsword

    I believe schools should be exempt from water charges, domestic and commercial users should pay, how much and how it would be collected / enforced would I believe be the major problem here.

    Even though I agree with the idea of paying for the water I use at home I am a little apprehensive about handing over anymore of my hard earned money to Fianna Fail. It is in my opinion doubtful that we will end up with cleaner water regardless of how much money we hand over.

  11. Gerry

    living in london i pay a fortune in water bills not to the local authority but to a private company called Thames Water. this is in addition to the rates, i.e. the council tax so it could easily be argued I pay 3 times for my water. My indirect tax bill is enormous. OK, I have water in my taps but I did on Dublin also. The water runs out here every summer.

    I would hesitate before advocating any domestic rate service or privitisation solution as a panacea for anything. It costs more and the service here feels about the same.

  12. shane

    I think it will be unavoidable for the schools and that they will have to pay for their metered water.
    I also think that in the next 5 years all consumers in Ireland will be faced with the prospect of metered water.
    I think all schoools and anyone building a new home should look into water harvesting especially considering the huge amounts of rainfall we recieve. It can save up to 50% in water consumption as the harvested water is used for non-drinking purposes. Toilets, Washing machines,out door taps.

  13. sam crea

    What better time to teach kiddies about water conservation, than at school. you can be sure that if schools are paying for water, then these kids will be taught from junior infants not to waste a drop. We will never learn to conserve anything that is free and abundant.

  14. John mcDermott

    “The Crewser said,

    01.08.08 at 10:49 pm

    And Pete you must have been asleep for the last ten years if you were not aware that our economy was the envy of Europe and indeed the World.”

    Any bunch of stroking politicos in any country in Europe could have pulled the same 12% corporation tax stroke (some of the smaller ones are already starting to wise up) and left the citizens to pick up the bill for the subsidy. Meanwhile the Fianna Fail property speculators grew filthy rich as thousands of immigrants arrived to man the factories and rent their overpriced apartments. Wonderful.!

  15. The Crewser

    More of the same old rubbish from John McDermott. But the facts speak for themselves. The old adage “there are none so blind” springs to mind.

  16. donkykemore

    I take offence at any oblique reference to the |Minister in charge during the Galway Crypto fiasco.
    I have it on the very best authority that all the water passed personally by Minister Roche.

  17. Gordon Davies

    Any (undeserved) reputation for FF’s capacity to manage was immediately destroyed the day Dick Roche became a Minister. Tha man under who’s watch the Garden County became the Dublin’s Dump County!

    In even the near future, when the spin wears off, we will come to realise that FF grossly mismanaged the Celtic Tiger (a phenomenum that they did not create), continuing a long tradition of economic ineptitude. Instead of investing the new wealth in infrastructure, education and a modern health service the money was diverted into the pockets of a small elite bunch of speculators, many of whom have now chosen to leave the country for some distant tax haven. The consolidation of this new Ascendancy, an exploitative rentier class, who continue (aided and abetted by a compliant Government) the long tradition of extracting a maximum of added value from Ireland and spending it abroad remains FF most lasting acheivement. Lasting symbols of this corrupt and inefficient regime – Ray Burke’s signature on the West Link contract and on the deal with Shell and the oil companies, the M50 in Carrickmines (a route chosen to maximalise developers profits), the motorway through Tara, and the continuing stream of private jets flitting in and out of Weston Airport totally uncontrolled by Customs ot the Revenue…please feel free to compete this list


  18. The Crewser

    Begrudgery is everywhere these days. One would not expect anything else from Gordon Davies. Peace in Ireland and an economy which brought full employment for all who wanted to work. Need I say more. Of course Gordon and his cronies would have have a soft spot for the other set of begrudgers who would never want to work, in the first instance. You should stick to Gavin and Anthony’s Public Inquiry site, Gordon. That way your views, like theirs will remain unchallenged.

  19. crocodile

    ‘We assume that politicians are without honor. We read their statements trying to crack the code. The scandals of their politics: not that men in high places lie, only that they do so with such indifference, so endlessly, still expecting to be believed. We are accustomed to the contempt inherent in the political lie.’
    Adrienne Rich, in ‘Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying’ (1975)

  20. The Crewser

    But few of them are subjected to what our Taoiseach has been subjected to by the totally discredited Mahon Tribunal who have availed of the testimony of a compulsive liar and a failed and bitter businessman to construct a false and faltering case against somebody who has given everything he has to bring peace and prosperity to this land of ours. Additionally it has failed to investigate properly the actions of one of its own team who has leaked sensitive information to a daily newspaper for political purposes.
    So much for Adrienne Rich.

  21. soubresauts

    Sarah wrote: “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.”

    But dishonourable mention is due to Howlin for his decision to dump toxic waste in the nation’s drinking water. See this extraordinary letter from eleven years ago:

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