Irish Water has failed. That is, it has failed to get the confidence of Irish people. Here is what the government should do to solve the problem.
1. There should be a New Water Company to replace the old one. We need a new one, built on modern, sound, civically minded strategic intent and values (not like Irish Water, which was founded on rubbish like this).
2. The new water company not only needs to leave behind the failures of the Irish Water company, it also needs to leave behind the disastrous legacy of local authority controlled water, and this needs to be clearly explained. The costs, highlighted in an ESRI report, need to be cut, and the quality of service needs to be sorted out.
3. The government should stop the meter installation program immediately. The contractors who are committed to it should immediately be diverted to replacing water pipes and fixing whatever leaks they come across, whether these are inside, outside or on boundaries. This will not be straightforward, but it will make things a lot easier politically.
4. The collection of PPS numbers should be stopped and an alternative found. Instead, the government should give people a tax rebate or social welfare supplement when they have paid their water charges. This can be done with a voucher, by direct deposit to Irish Water from DSP or Revenue, or by any number of other means. This will solve a lot of problems.
5. The government should take the management of Irish Water off Bord Gais (now rebranded as ervia). One option is to make it free-standing. Another would be to find another corporate ‘home’ for it.
6. The New Company needs new management. The management should be focused on providing good customer service. It also needs to be able to get the confidence of financiers. The current management has failed to do this, as it has failed to build cashflows. Engineering should be only the enabler. The engineering has to serve the customers, not the other way around.
7. The New Water Company should incentivise people to save water. This should be done through the voluntary installation of meters for people who think they will use less than the amount required by the flat rate. This can be made available to all users. Meters can be installed in places where the residents can see them easily and so can manage their use. Prepaid water meters should be made available where appropriate.
8. The New Company should focus its efforts on fixing pipes and getting great customer service.
9. The government needs to shut down the discussion of privatisation. In reality, there is no chance of privatising Irish Water. It is completely unsuitable for privatisation, in the same way that the gas network and the electricity network have been passed over again and again for privatisation. (And I guarantee you, the electricity network is a much more attractive candidate for privatising than the water system will ever be.) The government can do this by addressing it in the memorandum and articles of the New Water Company and in legislation.
10. The government should do all this between now and Christmas. There is really no time to waste. We need a water company we can have confidence in by the beginning of next year when the bills need to be issued.
And don’t keep on trying to do something that has been rejected. Going ‘heavy’ on people to try to get them to pay the charge is not going to work. It is just going to make everything worse politically. The government needs to accept the problems, get up, dust itself off and try again.