Ireland may have been shirking its legal responsibility to implement effective water charging policies for over ten years. That is according to Alice Whittaker, a Partner of Philip Lee Solicitors, a Dublin and Brussels based law firm with specialist expertise in environmental law.
As part of the firm’s series of online updates on topical legal issues, Alice Whittaker has outlined the compelling legal case for water charges. According to Alice Whittaker, there is currently a misguided belief that domestic water charges are exclusively linked to the requirements of the Troika.
“Water charges are often linked politically to the household charge, the proposed property tax and other fiscal policies, but the driving force behind the re-introduction of water charges is Ireland’s legal obligation – under the EU Water Framework Directive – to recover the cost of all water services,” she says.
“Leaving aside political debate about austerity measures and the demands of the Troika, the reality is we have been under a legal obligation to implement cost recovery measures for a wide range of water services and uses – including domestic water services – since we adopted the Water Framework Directive in 2000. Amongst other things, this Directive requires EU member states to recover the costs of water services in accordance with the ‘polluter pays’ principle.”
She continues: “Ireland took advantage of a special exemption from domestic water charging which was dependent upon our ability to demonstrate that the non-charging of water services was not compromising the purposes of the Directive. It is now widely accepted, however, that our water supply, storage, treatment and related infrastructure are inadequate, leaking and no longer fit for purpose. In addition, water quality targets are not being met. In other words, the purposes of the EU Water Framework Directive are being compromised.”
In November 2011, the European Commission wrote to Ireland and nine other member states, warning that it considered they had incorrectly interpreted the concept of ‘water services’ under the Directive. She adds: “So there is a strong likelihood the EU will find Ireland has failed to adequately report on our reasons for not applying the principle of cost recovery for domestic water services. These are the real reasons why the Government is now intent on implementing an effective system of domestic water charges.”
Domestic water use per capita in Ireland is amongst the highest in Europe. According to Alice Whittaker, this is due – in part – to the abolition of water charges in the late 1990s.
“It seems certain that domestic water charges will be re-introduced in the near future. The real issue that should now be subject to debate is how these costs should be calculated in accordance with the ‘polluter pays’ principle,” she comments.
The Minister for the Environment has indicated it is likely that a waiver system will be introduced for those whose income is below a certain threshold, or with medical needs requiring high use of water. “The EU Directive requires cost recovery, and cost recovery measures should be designed to incentivise the efficient use of water, with adequate contribution from different classes of water-users. Setting the right price is not just a political imperative for Government: – it is already a legal requirement,” she concludes,