Joe Dalton on Why the tolerance of Irish businesses refusing to pay for water needs to end.
There is a uniquely strong culture in Ireland that believes water should be free at the point of use. This led to the successful campaign to abolish domestic water charges following their attempted introduction in 2014. This culture also appears to extend to many in the business community, despite commercial charges being present in Ireland for many years.
Poor Payment Culture
At the height of the economic boom of the so called “Celtic Tiger”, commercial billing collection efficiency never exceeded 66%. Therefore, at least 34% of commercial users of water seemed to think that they should be exempted from paying for water as well.
Following the creation of Irish Water, these commercial charges were frozen at their January 2014 level. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) reported that many local authorities had not revised commercial water charges since 2009. Therefore, the Irish taxpayer has effectively protected these businesses from the effects of inflation for an extended period.
Businesses who refuse to pay are stealing from the taxpayer
When the recession hit in 2008, collection efficiency dropped from its peak of 66% to only 52%. Author Michael Brennan reported that Councils were “sympathetic and sensitive” of the challenges businesses faced in what were turbulent economic times.
I would completely share this sensitivity for those commercial users who consistently paid their water bills during the boom times. It is however a bit rich to be sensitive to commercial users who appeared to never have any attention of paying their bills in the first place.
The reality is that commercial enterprises who actively refuse to pay their water bills are stealing water and money from the Irish taxpayer. Yet there seems to be little outrage about this.
Businesses have no right to free water
The CRU finally published its long awaited decision on a consolidated national commercial water charging policy in July of this year (2019) following an extensive consultation process. Such a policy was undoubtedly overdue and arguably should have been prioritised before domestic charges were ever considered.
The governing legislation further allows for Irish Water to disconnect commercial users as a “measure of last resort” if they continually refuse to pay. This is right and proper. The human right to water does not extend to the right to free water to run a business.
Too many excuses
Yet the prospect of Irish Water having a consolidated commercial charging policy, with appropriate regulatory oversight, seems to be concerning the business community and some in local Government. The Industrial Development Authority (IDA) fears that high commercial water bills would hit the profitability of Irish enterprises. Chair of Arklow Municipal District, Councillor Pat Fitzgerald expressed concern at the prospect of Irish Water disconnecting business for refusing to pay.
Treated in isolation, the concerns of the IDA and of Councillor Fitzgerald sound reasonable. When factoring in the consultative process that they were free to engage in with the CRU, and the context of the poor payment culture of Ireland’s businesses, they are not. It is unfortunately reflective of the culture in Ireland that businesses should be able to get away without paying for water.
In genuine cases, flexibility should be shown to businesses with cash flow problems. Otherwise, Irish businesses should pay their water bills or face the consequences. No excuses. Anything else is theft.
 Reported by Michael Brennan in his book In Deep Water, ISBN: 9781781176580, published by Mercier Press.
 Report of the Expert Commission on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, available at https://www.housing.gov.ie/sites/default/files/publications/files/report-of-expert-commission-on-domestic-public-water-services.pdf
 Irish Water’s Non-Domestic Tariff Framework, CRU Decision Paper, Commission for Regulation of Utilities, available at https://mk0cruiefjep6wj7niq.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/CRU19074-CRU-Decision-Paper-Irish-Waters-Non-Domestic-Tariff-Framework-1.pdf
 IDA warns Irish Water is adding to Businesses’ costs, article by Michael Brennan in the Business Post, 8th December 2019, available at https://www.businesspost.ie/climate-environment/ida-warns-irish-water-is-adding-to-businesses-costs-0dedcad0
 Water supply to be cut if bills not paid, article in Wicklow People, 7th December 2019, available at https://www.independent.ie/regionals/wicklowpeople/news/water-supply-to-be-cut-if-bills-not-paid-38750849.html
Joe Dalton blogs @ Joe's Water Blog
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