Fianna Fáil are guilty of environmental treason-Kelly

Alan Kelly TD
27 April 2016

I thought I had seen it all but if the media reporting is accurate then we are going back to the past. If so, I believe politics is failing. The issue been a consistent blight on the political system for many years and we do have to recognise that it has recently divided society as it followed a period of horrendous austerity where Irish taxpayers were lumbered unfairly with major bank debt – which my party voted against. I believe we are about to witness the triumph of mediocrity over modernism, of short-termism over common sense and immaturity over innovation. If the scrapping of Irish Water goes ahead, let’s call this what it is, political, economic and environmental sabotage.

Let nobody think we are in anyway experiencing new politics here and this is the birth of a new political maturity, if the current speculation is accurate. This is 1977 all over again. Groundhog day. When unpopular local rates were abolished by Fianna Fail and people paid income tax rates of up to 60% in the eighties. We risk repeating that mistake again. Every other EU country has some type of domestic charge on water.

Fianna Fail had the chance to make a stand on mental health services, on renewal of rural Ireland, to end child poverty or to institute a living wage, yet they have made a stand on an issue that costs people €3 a week. Priorities?

Let’s be clear on the decision that may be made shortly. A suspension or scrapping of charges will lose billions of potential investment in water and I believe we will have water shortages in Dublin in future years.

It is not only the amount of investment that matters, but investing in the right places at the right time – getting the balance between new capital projects, upgrades and planned maintenance. The aforementioned independent assessment and countless Environmental Protection Agency reports pointed to the need, not only to address an infrastructural deficit but also to improving the standards of operation.

Given what I’m hearing if there is any fairness, the law-abiding people who could afford to pay and did pay will have to get their money back. That will mean Irish Water will have to reprocess well in excess of 2million financial transactions. Is that common sense? But whether the charge is being suspended or abolished, I believe Fianna Fail and Fine Gael need to tell people how and when they will give them back their money.

The loser in this is not any political party, it is the environment and those who depend on a clean water supply. The 20,000 tonnes of sewage that pour into the Cork Lower harbour each day will continue in the constituency of Fianna Fail’s party leader, the boil water notices will continue and Dublin will not have a secure water supply into the future.

So what has Irish Water actually done to date?

Irish Water’s investment has delivered 34 new treatment plants (26 for wastewater, 8 for drinking water) and 73 upgrades (51 for wastewater, 22 for drinking water). A further 47 water conservation projects have been completed, with 452 km of pipe remediated.

Irish Water is also targeting investment to improve water quality. Look at the improvements it has made to the lives of 17,300 people in Roscommon who were on boil water notices, with the residents of Castlerea, for example, subject to a boil water notice from November 2009 to June 2013. Those people can now turn on the tap without having to turn on the kettle. Its implementation of disinfection technologies has meant 300,000 less people are now dependent on supplies in need of remedial action, as defined by the EPA’s Remedial Action List.

The urban areas with no wastewater treatment are the focus of Irish Water with the investment being made aimed at protecting the public health and environment of people in those communities.
Two of the required plants are complete and in operation, with another six in construction.
It is addressing the unacceptably high level of leakage. Through metering’s identification of customer-side leakage, Irish Water has been able to offer householders a ‘first fix repair’ on leaks between the boundary of a property and that of a house. Through the repairs conducted by Irish Water under the scheme, and those by customers of internal leaks, identified through meters, 34 million litres of water were being saved per day. That is enough water saved every day to supply all of County Wicklow.
Staff in both Irish Water and their contractors must be reeling today – 500 of which are based on the Southside of Cork City –in the backyard of the Fianna Fail leader. I wonder what the 5,000 who work in the water and waste industry think of the latest development? The Labour party stands in solidarity with those workers today.

The funding model to modernise our water system is based on three components, subvention, commercial charges and domestic charges. To replace one of these, we will have to eat into the now famous fiscal space, so funding that may be available for housing, education or welfare will not be there. Over €1.4 billion will have to be found for Irish Water’s running costs and modernisation programme out to 2021 if domestic charges are ceased.

Sewage treatment plants don’t easily compete with hospitals or houses when it comes to political choices. That’s why it must be taken out of politics and into a utility.

The people who paid of which there are approximately 950,000 households may be about to be made “fools” of and the 340,000 people who already paid for water are being given nothing but disregard by Fianna Fail. What’s more, Irish Water reported to me that during the election the payment rate actually increased and while not all the data was collected, it was likely that a payment rate of 70% was likely. Then Prime Time on the 1st of March happened!

It is my view that if the suspension/abolition goes ahead, this will cost us more in the long-run. There is one vital question and it is the following, Are Fianna Fail and Fine Gael acting within the law? Does the decision to suspend water charges run contrary to EU law and in particular article 9 of the Water Framework directive?

Let the records show that Ireland did have a derogation from water charges, but it was signed away by none other than Fianna Fail in 2010 who committed to domestic water charges then. We should note that that directive institutes the principal that the user pays and costs must be recovered from the user or polluter of water. The failure to do this will likely result in substantial EU fines in the years ahead. Do we have the now famous fiscal space for that?

Both Greece and Italy were both hit with millions of euros in fines that were increasing by the day until environmental issues were tackled by the European Court of Justice. And why would other countries that routinely pay for water grant us a new derogation? Furthermore, the European Commission has described the metering programme as a ‘basic pre-requisite’ of implementing the directive.

Many people in this house have no idea what Irish Water actually do and there are quite a few who chose not to learn what they do. I agree with former Minister Noel Dempsey that it has been almost impossible to have a rational debate on water for the last few years, so I’m going to take this opportunity to nail a few myths that have built up.

Firstly, nobody pays for their water twice. Does our water system with boil water notices, leaking pipes and insecure supply look like something that we have paid for? Even in Northern Ireland, every home pays their local rates of which £200 goes to the water company along with general taxation.

The prospect of privatisation is another myth. I cannot imagine any private entity ever wanting to own thousands of kilometres of Victorian pipes while having to adhere to strict regulations set down by the EPA and the HSE on water quality. However, a referendum on future public water ownership may help to address people’s concerns and the Labour party will support it, if that finally puts it to bed.

I am concerned that the deal between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael has not been made with any kind of engineering expertise or with the knowledge of the people who have to implement water investment. Did the negotiators even engage with Irish Water management?

And I would say to those on Right2water that if they really believe water is a human right. I could not agree more, but maybe they might pay attention to the United Nations which. Their definition of access to water is not free water for everyone, but affordable water where the costs of providing it does not go above 3% of people’s incomes.

Protecting water as a resource is also essential in tackling climate change – as energy use in water treatment is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Another fact that has been lost by the so-called left in this debate.

Decisions on Irish Water were rushed too quickly after the last Government came in. I believe we are rushing this decision too. I fear we are about to throw that away and keep our water system in the 19th century. The Labour party stands by the people who chose to pay. We further stand behind acting responsibly and based on our values regardless of the political consequences. 

If you don’t govern by your values and govern based on public opinion alone, then you will never achieve anything.
A former politician once stood in this house and accused Fianna Fail of economic treason – today I believe Fianna Fail are guilty of environmental treason and Labour party stands behind the important public service of water provision. Politics is failing the people of the country again. Utopian populism is winning again. It’s Groundhog day. We will regret it, just as we did in 77.

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