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REVEALED: How Labour considered water charges, meters and an ‘ESB for water’… five years ago

Labour was vehemently opposed to water charges in opposition, but we’ve seen a document which shows how senior party figures considered water charges in 2010.

Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Updated 4.33 pm

AN INTERNAL LABOUR memo outlining the rationale for water charges and how they could be imposed was circulated to Joan Burton, Eamon Gilmore and senior party advisers five years ago.

Labour was strongly opposed to water charges in opposition, including in its 2011 general election manifesto, but the memo, seen by TheJournal.ie, makes a clear case for the introduction of a single water utility, the installation of meters and the levying of charges on households.

The three-page memo was prepared by Labour’s research and policy analyst Jean O’Mahony. She later became special advisor to Gilmore when he was Tánaiste.

The document went to the two most senior Labour figures – Gilmore as leader and Burton as deputy leader and finance spokesperson – along with a number of senior party advisors in late January 2010 when party figures had publicly stated their opposition to water charges.

The memo, outlines the rationale for water charges and suggests that “one centralised semi-state ‘ESB for water’”, where the responsibility for water is taken from the 34 local authorities, “makes more sense”.

It goes on to say that it would be “easiest to argue for water charges if there is an element of ‘polluter pays’, and an incentive to use less”.

‘Makes sense politically’ 

Labour Party Want Inquiry Powers Joan Burton and Eamon Gilmore in 2010 Source: James Horan/Photocall Ireland

The memo states that in putting forward the case for water charges the emphasis “could be placed on the benefits of taxing ‘bad things’ (water wastage) and limiting taxing ‘good things’ (people’s paypackets)”.

It also notes that a free quota of water per person “makes sense politically”.

The memo says that while installing water meters would be “expensive” it could be combined with the installation of smart electricity meters so as that both water and energy usage could be monitored and conservation encouraged.

It says that the cost of installing water meters “could be imposed on the household” by adding it the cost of the household water bill “over a period of years”.

Contacted about the memo, a Labour spokesperson described the memo as a “policy research document outlining the state of play with regard to the future provision of water services” at that time and added:

The document was circulated in 2010 and the manifesto was published a year later in February 2011. That was a 12-month period during which there was momentous change in the economic, financial and political landscape in Ireland, and the manifesto reflected that.

2011 manifesto: Labour does not favour water charges

Labour firmly opposed the introduction of water charges when in opposition. In a June 2010 interview with The Irish Times, then-leader Gilmore ruled out introducing water charges if in government.

Labour’s 2011 general election manifesto restated this opposition, saying:

Labour does not favour water charges, which do not address the immediate needs of those who currently receive intermittent or poor water supplies.

The manifesto made no reference to the establishment of a central utility nor the installation of water meters.

The party also produced a now infamous ad campaign days before the general election, warning that Fine Gael would introduce a €238 annual water tax if allowed to govern alone.

fgeverylittlehelps Source: Irish Election Literature

The decision to charge for water was subsequently contained in the programme for government negotiated with Fine Gael, which favoured a central utility and water charges in its election manifesto.

Government commitment 

The coalition subsequently established Irish Water in 2013 to takeover the administration, provision and maintenance of water from 34 local authorities.

The programme for government stated:

The objective is to install water meters in every household in Ireland and move to a charging system that is based on use above the free allowance.

Irish Water has undertaken an extensive metering programme and introduced a hugely controversial water charges regime last summer.

There was a public outcry over proposals to charge people based on estimated usage (for those who did not have meters installed) and the number of people per household.

The charging regime was subsequently revised by the current Environment Minister and Labour deputy leader Alan Kelly.

Flat rates of €160 for a one-person household and €260 for all others were introduced last November along with a €100 conservation grant for every household that register with Irish Water.

What else the 2010 memo says

Labour Party Think Ins Labour adviser Mark Garrett (left) was one of the advisers who received the memo Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

O’Mahony sent the memo – with a subject line ‘Water Charges’ – on 25 January 2010, to both Gilmore and Burton.

It also went to the then-Labour leader’s senior advisors, Mark Garrett and Colm O’Reardon; Labour’s then-press and parliamentary director Tony Heffernan; and Finbarr O’Malley, a Labour policy advisor who later became special advisor to Pat Rabbitte when he was communications minister.

The memo outlined how much tax money is spent on water and the plan put forward at the time by then-environment minister John Gormley.

It also outlined a rationale for water charges, including that:

  • water treatment is not free and there no incentive among non-commercial users to use it efficiently
  • 30 per cent of water goes on flushing toilets
  • there is need to upgrade the water supply network with leakage of water
  • there is a need to expand the capacity of water treatment plants
  • the rise in population and rise in one-person households, and the trends towards higher water usage (extra bathrooms, dishwashers, power showers), which the memo, stated imposes “significant demand on water network”. 
  • Changes in the climate and demographics which meant “in short, most rain will be fall where people do not live”. 
  • It also cites an ESRI survey from 2000 which says that only 6 per cent of people thought water should be completely free to users, and the most popular option is a charge based on usage.

By contrast, the memo contains just two reasons for not introducing water charges including:

  • The difficulty with ensuring equity for low-income households which spends a bigger proportion of their income on utilities than more wealthy households.
  • The introduction of free quotas would require an expensive national metering installation programme and could be open to significant fraud.

First published 8am

Read: Gilmore on THAT water charges leaflet: ‘What I was against then is what I’m against now’

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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