WATER REPORT BACKS LABOUR PROPOSAL FOR PUBLIC OWNERSHIP
Commenting on news reports on the proposed recommendations from the Expert Water Commission, Labour Party Spokesperson Jan O’Sullivan said:
“This evenings leak of recommendations from the Expert Water Commission shows that they have taken on board many of the proposals in our Labour Party submission, including a referendum to ensure our water infrastructure remains in public ownership.
“We await the publication of the Expert Report to fully examine the recommendations but we welcome the news that a referendum on public ownership of water should be considered.”
“As I said in our submission, we believe it is vital that citizens around the country have absolute confidence that the water infrastructure will remain in public ownership.”
Notes to Editors: Labour Party submission to the water commission is below:
Mr Kevin Duffy
Expert Commission on Water Charges,
9th September 2016
Re: Submission to the Expert Commission on Water Charges
I wish to make a submission to your expert commission on behalf of the Labour Party, as Labour’s spokesperson on Housing, Planning and Local Government.
First, we believe it is vital that citizens around the country have absolute confidence that the water infrastructure will remain in public ownership. For that reason, the Labour Party recently introduced a Private Members Bill, the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Public Ownership of Certain Assets) Bill 2016, into Dáil Éireann.
The Government has stated that there is no intention of the water utility or infrastructure not being in public ownership. That may be the case, but significant doubt remains among the general public, and it is important that we have a referendum on this issue. The privatisation of Eircom in the late 1990s proved disastrous for the development of the telecoms sector. We cannot allow a similar debacle to be visited on our water infrastructure.
The purpose of Labour’s Bill is to amend the Constitution so as to provide for the retention of certain public utilities in public ownership. If the amendment is approved at a referendum, it will not be possible for the Oireachtas to pass legislation to approve the privatisation of the companies that own our gas or electricity transmission and distribution networks or the public water supply and waste water treatment infrastructure.
Second, the existence of a clean, safe and secure water supply is vital for families and businesses across the country. It is also a critical piece of infrastructure for driving economic development and jobs growth.
But the fragmented system of 34 local authorities collecting, treating, storing and delivering water and sewage to and from homes and business across Ireland was not fit for purpose. The problems associated with this disjointed water system are well known but worth re-iterating. Under the old system over 900,000 people were at risk of drinking contaminated water and more than 23,000 people were on ‘boil water’ notices.
Our water infrastructure structure is twice as old as the European average. This contributed to 49% rate of water leakage. In addition, the water supply in Dublin has been on a knife-edge with spare capacity in the system at just 2%.
Areas of Dublin have already suffered water shortages over the past number of years. If water supply capacity was allowed to continue at this level, there would be catastrophic consequences for those who live, work or wish to set up a business in the capital city.
More disturbingly, raw sewage was being pumped into rivers, lakes or the sea at 44 locations around the country. This was simply an unacceptable risk to public health and to the local and natural environment.
The establishment of Irish Water has clearly been a difficult and complex process, and mistakes were made in its set-up. But few people would wish to return to the previous fragmented system of water delivery through 34 different local authorities. And the utility’s progress on upgrading the water system must be acknowledged.
The new single utility has invested in 34 new treatment plants, 26 for waste water and eight for drinking water. There have been 73 upgrades carried out, 51 for waste water and 22 for drinking water. A further 47 water conservation projects have been completed, with 452 km of pipe remedied. It has made investment to improve water quality, including in Roscommon, and general improvements in lead pipes and leaking pipes in our cities.
In Limerick, for example, Irish Water announced a €6.5 million investment in the Limerick city water mains rehabilitation project. This will save an estimated 11 million litres of water per week in Limerick city when it is completed. The works will see the replacement of 11.1 km of problematic water mains, the decommissioning of 13.4 km of problematic shared lead service pipes and the replacement of 1,914 customer service connections in various locations around the city.
The enhancement and upgrading of water infrastructure that is currently taking place around the country must continue and be prioritised whatever final funding model is decided upon.
Water is an essential, precious resource. It is vital that there is adequate investment in the system and that water conservation among householders and business users is encouraged.
The Labour Party accepts the “polluter pays” standard as an established environmental principle – enshrined in European law – to encourage sustainable and environmentally responsible development. The provision of a clean, safe and secure water supply must be done in a sustainable manner in order to contribute to the protection of the environment and sustainable social and economic development.
However, in terms of water services the “polluter pays” principle must be tempered with very significant allowances and waivers for vulnerable households. The Labour Party has always stated that affordability must be at the very heart of any system of water services provision.
In particular, households with young children or where a person has a disability, for example, must be prioritised and their water needs fully met in a fair and humane manner.
The Labour Party recently submitted a series of amendments to the Water Services Bill that is currently being debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas. This laid out that the provision of safe and efficient water services and water services infrastructure must take place based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle of payment by usage. But we proposed that significant free per capita allowances and schemes of exemption from charges for vulnerable persons and households are enshrined into law. This is an essential requirement for protecting vulnerable households and should assume the highest priority in the work of your commission.
In addition, the Labour Party has always strongly argued that all of Irish Water’s costs are scrutinised by the Regulator, the Commission for Energy Regulation on an ongoing basis. There may also be an ongoing role for the Public Water Forum in this process of invigilation so that the highest levels of transparency and public confidence are maintained.
Finally, Labour has also noted that the provision of water services must take place in accordance with all relevant requirements of European law.
Jan O’Sullivan TD
Labour Party Spokesperson on Housing, Planning and Local Government