Our County Councillors, the length and breadth of the country, failed to anticipate the intensity of public reaction to the creation of Irish Water Ltd and their water meter installations and charges. They would have us believe that they really knew very little about the programme which began in earnest with the creation of Irish Water Ltd in 2013 through the Water Services Act 2013. It was not until late last year, after a huge public outcry that councils began to take notice and eventually vote against water charges. However, was this a case of too little, too late or closing the gate after the horse has bolted?
The water charges process had really started much earlier, in fact, way back in 2000 when the Planning and Development Act, 2000 was introduced . After 2000 all houses in any new residential development including private or council were obliged to have a 'Water Service Control Unit', i.e. a boundary box or a water meter box installed. Since 2000, did it ever occur to any politician or local authority official that all new residential houses were 'Meter Ready'? If so did the question, why were they, cross their minds?
In 2007 the Fianna Fáil/Greens coalition enacted the Water Services Act, 2007. This put in place draconian regulations for a water service authority.
In 2009, Brian Lenihan mentions the introduction of water charges in a budget statement "The Renewed Programme. It contains a commitment to introduce a system of water metering for homes. Preparations are underway. Water charges, when introduced, will be based on consumption above a free allocation. Further details will be announced by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. These charges, like the charge on second homes, will finance the provision of local services by local authorities."
Interestingly Fine Gael in their 2009 manifesto 'Local Strength, National Recovery' said
"A new national Irish Water company will have responsibility for new investment in water infrastructure. As described in Fine Gael’s March 2009 Job Creation Strategy, Rebuilding Ireland, we would set up a new semi State company called ‘Irish Water’ to take over responsibility for investment in new water infrastructure. This will ensure access to secure and safe water supplies which is core to sustainable national economic recovery and the development of key growth centres in Ireland over the next decade."
In November 2010, Fianna Fáil/Greens coalition government publishes a memorandum of understanding on the conditions of the €85 billion EU-IMF bailout which says water charges will be introduced in 2012 or 2013, by which time metering is to have been installed across the State.
In 2011 Fine Gael/Labour government confirms a procurement process for the installation of water meters was entered into with the intention of having the necessary infrastructure in place early in 2012.
April 2012, Phil Hogan confirms "The Government also announced the contract to run the company has been awarded to Bord Gáis Éireann, of which Irish Water will become a subsidiary. Irish Water will gradually become responsible for supplying all public water in the State, taking over the role currently performed by the 34 local authorities. Mr Hogan says charges would be introduced in 2014 and Irish Water would have 90-95 per cent of the meters installed by the end of that year.
2013, Irish Water was incorporated as a semi-state company under the Water Services Act. (see Irish Times Brief History of Water Charges).
Running With The Hare and Hunting with the Hounds
It would be difficult to imagine local elected representatives not being aware of the significance of the various Government Acts, policy documents from various parties and their future intentions. Some local reported facts suggest that local representatives knew more than they let on. For instance, in the Inishowen Independent newspaper, November 29, 2012 '187 Council Water Jobs At Risk', Cllr Doherty said "it should be a priority to repair and replace the problem pipes first, and metering should be second to all of that". This shows us that Clr. Doherty was totally aware of the proposed water metering programme coming down the track. In fact all Donegal Councillors were aware. There is very little reason to believe that this was not the overwhelming position of most of our County Councillors nationally.
Donegal Councillors were completely aware of the 2013 water stopcocks and infrastructure survey carried out by Donegal County Council and continued on sleepwalking down the road as the various County Council planning departments engaged with Irish Water as they sorted out the various 'Permits' that would soon be required for the imminent water metering programme.
Cllr Dessie Shiels, Ind, stated in Donegal Now " that Donegal elected representatives knew about the 2013 survey being carried out by Donegal County Council but did nothing to oppose it or inform the public of it at that time."
Cllr Paul Canning, FF, in the Inishowen Independent, Dec 2013, 'Get your estate taken over by the council now' urged residents to sign up for takeover before Irish Water comes on board. He said “Housing estates that have been taken over by the council will be included as part of any ongoing deal with the Irish Water company, which will assume responsibility for all sewerage treatment plants as well as water,”
On 1 January 2014, Irish Water assumed responsibility for water and wastewater services to homes and businesses connected to a public water supply. Local authorities would now provide certain services on behalf of Irish Water through a Service Level Agreement. Water services assets and liabilities would transferred from local authorities to Irish Water on a phased basis. The Commission for Energy Regulation would now be the economic regulator of the water sector.
And so when the writing was on the wall and the Irish Water gravy train was coming to town the clamour began from local representatives advising people to hand over private housing schemes and private water schemes to the council Derry Journal, November 10, 2014. Note this was only days before Donegal County Council voted against water charges.
Donegal County Council Votes Against Water Charges
On November 14, 2014 Donegal County Council passed a motion calling on the Government to abolish water charges on residential homes and to “commit itself to holding a referendum not to privatise our natural resource of water that belongs to the Irish people”. The result of the vote was 33 for, none against and one abstention (Cllr Bernard McGuinness of Fine Gael.) Irish Times Nov 14, 2014.
Enda Craig, a local Inishowen anti water charge campaigner questioned councillors sincerity and motives stating "They are now caught like rabbits in the headlights as they scramble around in the shadows attempting to explain and justify their incompetence. Unbelievably, I have witnessed some prominent councillors step up to microphones at recent protest rallies and give voice to their 'crocodile sentiments ' as to how much they are now against the proposed water meters and charges. Some councils even, in recent times, had the audacity to vote against metering and charges without ever explaining their involvement in allowing this to evolve in the first instance. Their recent 'Road to Damascus ' conversion would be welcome but only when they man up to their responsibility for letting it come to pass in the first instance.
To atone for their incompetence the least now that they might do is to make themselves available at their nearest metre installation protest or defend the rights of their constituents.
County Council and Irish Water's Roles Blurred
Since that almost unanimous vote against water charges in Donegal, Irish Water Ltd has become more entrenched in the everyday running of Donegal Water infrastructure. They are working hand in hand with the Donegal Council Administration, the Donegal engineers and planners. Donegal County Council has become an agent for Irish Water. The same relationship exists throughout the country. While statutory responsibility for water services passed to Irish Water in January 2014, Local Authorities remained closely involved in the sector for a considerable period, acting as agents of Irish Water in relation to operation and maintenance of services. The independent assessment envisaged a phased transfer of such operations not commencing until 2015, and ending in 2017 at the earliest. (from Impact of Irish Water On Local Authorities)
This was extended to 2026 in a somewhat clouded deal, see RTE article, Feb 01, 2015 Local Authority Delayed Providing Data To Irish Water...
In 2015 the state of play is that Donegal County Council is an agent for Irish Water. All infrastructure has been passed to Irish Water, however, this does not include private water schemes and private estates.
Through the Service Level Agreement Council, which lasts for 12 years, staff will be contracted to Irish Water but are employed by the Council. Irish Water already have staff in place in Donegal town. They are all mangagement and engineers who were previously employed by various councils. Irish Water have no intention of putting staff on the ground. What they intend to do is to use private contractors which means all present 'on the ground' staff will be made redundant as soon as possible. In the small print of the SLA it states that if at some stage Donegal County Council can no longer pay the water workers i.e electricians, fitters, caretakers, labourers wages then Irish Water will take full control of the worker and the workers will then become Irish Water workers. Donegal County council workers don't trust the SLA. Some believe it isn't worth the paper its written on.
The modus operandi is something like:
Irish Water admin team, with offices in Donegal Town, identifies what work is needed done. This is passed on to Donegal County Council management who then pass it on to their water workers, who carry out the work. Buncrana Together learnt that if you contact Irish Water about anything, say a leak, a burst pipe, discoloured water, or smells etc, then all work goes through them and passed on the council staff to do the work. However, people can ring council caretakers directly if they want to report a fault. The query does not have to go through Irish Water.
Irish Water have provided Donegal County Council water staff with tablets and have tried to force council staff to do a course on their use. Some staff are defying Irish Water and have even refused to do these courses. Again a grey area, leading to confusion among the public. Council water staff are employed by the Council and not Irish Water, so why can Irish Water force them to do courses?
Because of the confusion in Irish Water operations on the ground, it is now very difficult for ordinary citizens to know who they are dealing with when it comes to water contractors. Contractors could be directly contracted by Irish Water to install meters or meter ready boxes or they could be County Council water staff contracted to do repairs.
Contractors, Irish Water or County Council
Take for example recently in Moville where County Council water engineers were carrying out maintenance work in Key St and James St on May 21, 2015. Resident believed that the contractors were Irish Water sub contractors installing meters. It turned out that they were council workers carrying out repairs on the water mains. Funny thing though it was noted that when they finished work, there were shiny new meter ready boxes in place. For anyone not familiar with these, they are, as the name suggests modern boundary boxes where a meter can bet fitted. (see photo above)
Where Do Our Counillors Stand On All This?
As has been described in this article, Councillors have known about water metering and charges as far back as the introduction of the Planning and Development Act, 2000. There were hints of Irish Water in the the Water Services Act 2007, definitely for couple of years leading up to the Water Services Act 2013. So what are our Donegal Councillors doing to support their stance against Water Charges? After all they voted against residential water charges and a referendum on water privatisation, 33 for, none against and one abstention (Cllr Bernard McGuinness of Fine Gael) and Martin Farren, Labour absent.
The answer to this one is that they are running with the hare and chasing with the hound. There is not much written evidence either in the media or promotional literature to say that our representatives are actively encouraging people not to pay water charges or interact with Irish Water. Silence suggests that they are quietly acquiescing and allowing Irish Water to go about their daily business. In some cases they are actively encouraging people to interact with Irish Water, welcoming takeovers of Private Estates by the council and takeovers of Private Group Water Schemes by Irish Water. Irish Water are in town flashing their money and muscle. They see their opportunity to get their hands on Private Estates and Group Water Schemes. Councillors can see votes.
A Typical Example In Point
Although this example concerns one particular councillor, generally it could be asked of all councillors since none have adequately proven that they are actively boycotting Irish Water in all their guises. Buncran Together has to commend the Councillor in question for his honesty at least, something which all Councillors should take note of.
Cllr James Pat Mc Daid, Fianna Fáil, Letterkenny/Milford electoral area; "Having met with Irish water this week again about a number of different issues including water quality/metering/upgrades etc. I raised to them about what progress is being made with the Churchill/Glenswilly water situation. They are currently working on the takeover process which will take a considerable length of time. They say they are hopeful it will be resolved and get the legal issues regrading the takeover underway. They did assure me regardless that it won't affect the connection to Goaldrum and they expect works to be complete by the end of 2017. The design process is underway and the work will be out for tender later this year. This is disappointing that it will take this length of time to get this ongoing water quality problem resolved. But I suppose there is a light at the end of the tunnel! 11 kilometres of pipping is to be laid for the connection to be made in through Gartan into Termon.
Again I want to assure everyone I will continue to work hard on this project on behalf of all residents of this area."
When questioned about his stance Cllr Mc Daid replied "The people of this area need a solution to get an upgrade in their water service. The quality of water we are receiving out here is substandard and most people don't even drink it. Whatever ways or means that this problem can be resolved for the residents, I will be in support of it. For this small community to fund an upgrade to this service would cost millions and would not be viable. I am opposed to Irish water and I'm totally against them but in this instance if Irish Water are willing to resolve this problem for the people of the area at a very high cost, I just cannot be opposed to it in these circumstances. I am in support of this area getting clean drinking water that will be safe to drink."
If Councillors were genuine in their belief, which their almost unanimous vote against water charges in Donegal Council chambers on Nov 14th, 2014 might suggest, then one could conclude that all those councillors would be actively promoting anti water charges. This would include not interacting with Irish Water who are promoting and developing water charges and privatisation. Councillors should be standing up for their convictions and lead by example. They should be discouraging interacting with Irish Water, actively encouraging people to hold out for another couple of years at the most until Irish Water is defeated.
Interaction with Irish Water slowly but surely undermines campaign
The subtle interaction between County Councils throughout the country, county councillors and Irish Water has been undermining the national anti water charges campaign for years. This interaction has lent legitimacy to the establishment of Irish Water. It more or less encourages Irish Water to become the water authority at county level. See the opposite article
'Council to take over 23 Inishowen housing estates' and the paragraph ' Once developments are taken over, Donegal County will assume responsibility for footpaths and lighting with Irish Water to take charge of water and sewerage'.
One little corollary to this statement could be do Irish Water have the right to take control in private estates before these estates are taken over? You see a little grey area.
Further down the article it talks about a 'landmark ruling in 2013'. Not only are Irish Water being encouraged and facilitated but the legal system has been used in the process as well. This facilitation has been going on for some time.