The impending transfer of water services to Irish Water has caused great concern among city councillors with many now calling on the Government to insure that each resident is provided with an adequate allowance and there is a flexible approach to determining that allowance.
Councillors voted unanimously on a motion to that effect at the monthly meeting on Monday night following a presentation which revealed that by January 1, 2014, local authorities, including Galway City Council, will become agents of Irish Water in the provision of water services. During the meeting it was discovered that there were far too many questions and not enough answers over issues such as how much of an allowance households would be entitled to, would constituents encounter difficulties when there is a problem with the service, and what the charges will be. Such was the lack of confidence in the plans that Cllr Catherine Connolly put forward a motion, which was later carried, calling on the Government to reverse its decision to give over control of water services to Irish Water and for it to be retained by the council.
An update revealed that water services will gradually be handed over, with Irish Water becoming responsible for the delivery of water from January 2014, with Galway City Council acting as an agent, to ensure a low risk transition. Service Level Agreements (SLA ) will be negotiated in July and August this year with the initial agreement lasting for 12 years. At the end of the SLA staff covered by the agreement will become employees of Irish Water. Councillors were also informed that capital programme projects such as the upgrade of Mutton Island treatment plant will be delivered under SLA and staff are currently out at locations throughout Galway accessing locations for the installation of meters.
Opposing the plans, Cllr Peter Keane (FF ), warned that they would “lead to the privatisation of the service”. Referring to the cryptosporidium outbreak more than six years ago, Cllr Keane said the Council has proven itself to be a competant provider with a proven track record investing “thousands of man hours and money” in dealing with such problems. He warned that the transition to Irish Water would be a “further erosion of water services” and that there could be a flat charge as not all the meters will be installed by 2016. Cllr Keane then queried what money has been set aside in the 2013/2014 Budgets for capital investments on water infrastructure and will the council be compensated.
Also concerned with the plans was Cllr Donal Lyons (Ind ) who warned that turning over the water services to a “faceless bureaucratic authority” will result in consequences that will “come back to haunt the council because we will be agents for Irish Water”. “People feel water is a basic right. There was major opposition to charges being introduced even 10 years ago. It’s an erosion of local democracy,” said Cllr Lyons who then questioned what the basic allowance for the consumption of water will be for families. “These are questions that will be asked. What will be the charges when all the meters are put in?” he asked.
Referring to her motion, Cllr Catherine Connolly (Ind ) said: “Water is a basic human right. I see no advantage to it, all I see is utter hypocrisy. Housing is gone, we’ve given away all our residential zoned lands, now water is taken from us too. I was a critic of the handling of the cryptosporidium outbreak but I would have the council officials any day running the service than an unofficial body. It’s adding another layer of bureaucracy. We’re shaping up our basic water services to be sold off for privatisation. Now is the time to say ‘no, we won’t do this’.”
However, both Cllr Terry O’Flaherty (Ind ) and Cllr Tom Costello (Lab ) told the chamber that the issue is already out of the council members’ hands with the latter saying: “The horse has already bolted. Legislation has been enacted. This is going ahead, the dates and times have been outlined”. Cllr Costello added that for years other European countries have paid for their water and advised councillors not to be causing people further upset. Cllr Billy Cameron (Lab ) also asked councillors to “stop whipping up fear”. He told the chamber: “We fought the battle in the chamber. We could see the devolution of local authority power. It’s now a done deal.”
In response city manager Brendan McGrath said that the job of the council is to facilitate the implementation of Government national policy and that the local authority is no longer responsible for the strategic planning of water services.
Director of Services Ciarán Hayes acknowledged that at present there were no definite answers available, only that “it costs to source, treat, produce water through the mains. I don’t know how it [the allowance] is going to work. Whatever way it is set. Someone still has to pay for the production of the water”.