The expert commission established by the government of the Irish Republic to advise on the funding of domestic public water services in Ireland has got off to the worst of starts.
The first chairman, veteran politician Joe O’Toole, was forced to resign after a week in the hot seat following comments during an interview which critics claimed showed he was "clearly in favour of water charges and biased".
The ex-senator has now been replaced by Kevin Duffy former head of the Labour Court. Duffy is a former assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
The other members of the commission are: Dr Xavier Leflaive of the Environmental Directorate of the OECD; Peter Peacock, chair of the Customer Forum for Water Scotland; Bill Emery, chair of the Northern Ireland Utility Regulator; Brendan O’Mahony, chair of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes; Sarah Hendry, academic lawyer specialising in water and environmental law, University of Dundee, Scotland; Dr Andrew Kelly, founder and executive director of EnvEcon; and Gritta Nottelman, strategy consultant for Waternet, the only water company in the Netherlands that is dedicated to the entire water cycle.
The commission is due to report on the long-term funding options for water services in five months and presents its recommendations to a special Oireachtas Committee by the end of November 2016.The committee will consider the findings and report to the Oireachtas by the end of February 2017. Oireachtas will vote on the committee’s recommendations by the end of March next year.
The Commission has begun its consideration of water charging in a febrile atmosphere. Legislation has been tabled allowing for the suspension of domestic charging for nine months.
The government has said it will use the nine-month period to try to “create acceptance” among citizens as to how best to pay for water, local government minister, Simon Coveney. said. Coveney has insisted the government’s plan to suspend charges is legal amid allegations to the contrary from the LabourParty.
Meanwhile in the background the European Commission has made it clear the state cannot abolish water charges without breaching the EU’s water framework directive.
Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella has stated the flexibility offered to the Republic ended in 2010 when the then Fianna Fáil-led government pledged to introduce water charges. Politicians have raise the spectre of the government facing daily heavy fines in the future if charges are, ultimately, ended.
Back in Ireland the courts are considering cases involving anti-water charges protestors arrested after obstructing Irish Water workers who were trying to install water meters.
The state-owned company now has a new managing director, Jerry Grant. He succeeds John Tierney who left in April. Grant has been Head of Asset Management with the utility since its formation in April 2013. In this role he led the project to assess the condition and performance of all national water infrastructure assets, to support the implementation of a national investment plan on the basis of greatest need.
He has also served as spokesperson for Irish Water on a range of technical issues and on major infrastructure projects. Before joining Irish Water he was managing director of consultancy, RPS.