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17 questions (and answers) about those new water charges

TheJournal.ie’s Q&A on one of the most controversial issues of the day…

Image: theilr via Flickr/Creative Commons

THE GOVERNMENT HAS announced that a new State body, known as Irish Water, will be set up to oversee the delivery of water services in Ireland.

Here, TheJournal.ie, answers some of the key questions arising from the whole issue of charging for water in Ireland.

Who will households receive a bill from – and when?

Irish Water will be an independent, State-owned subsidiary of Bord Gáis Eireann. It will bill all households for their use of public water supplies but we are still unsure of how much those charge will be.

It will actually be up to Irish Water and the regulator – the Commission for Energy Regulation  - to determine the cost of the service, the free allowance and the framework for levying the charges.

Installation of meters will begin this year and 90 per cent of homes will be liable for charges by 2014.

How much water do we actually use?

A lot. Domestic water consumption in an average-sized household is 145 litres per person per day. About 32 per cent of that goes on showers and baths, another 28 per cent on toilet use and 22 per cent on washing the dishes.

Just three per cent is consumed as drinking water.

So will homeowners have to pay for their meters or not?

There will be absolutely no up-front charges when the meters are installed but the meter will be paid for through a funding model which is yet to be decided on.

It will probably be an arrangement similar to other utilities such as gas and electricity with standard service charges every month or bi-monthly.

There will also be a variety of payment options.

How much does the meter cost?

We’re still not sure. Either is the Government. Weekend reports suggested a price of €300 but that was dismissed by the Department of the Environment as “pure speculation”.

The cost will vary depending on the location of the property. We had a look at meters in South Australia, where they range from between €230 and €290 (including installation).

The Department of Education has described suggestions that the metering programme could cost up to €1 billion as “seriously exaggerated”.

Where will the meter be located on properties?

Meters and boundary boxes will be located outside the curtilage of the property in the public footpath or in the grass verge at the roadside.

Will the Government need to ask permission before installing the meter?

No. Access to private property will generally not be required because of their location outside the boundaries of the property.

Householders will also not have to give permission or do anything to facilitate boundary box installation. A short interruption to water supply (2 to 3 hours) will arise during installation of the boundary box and meters will be installed later.

Will apartments be metered?

About 300,000 properties – mostly flats and apartment complexes – will not be metered initially due to high costs and technical difficulties. They are not exempt though. Charges for such homes have not yet been decided.

Didn’t someone offer to pay for all those meters a while ago?

Kind of. In October 2010, talks got underway between Siemens and the Government as the energy company had reportedly offered the State a loan so it could begin the task of installing water meters across 1.1 million homes.

On contacting the company this week, TheJournal.ie learned that there is “nothing much happening” in Siemens in relation to this year’s proposals. However, a spokesperson for the firm said it was “monitoring what is going on”.

He added that the discussions held in 2010 centred on a proposed model of spreading out the cost of the meter, rather than an outright offer. At the time, it was reported that the cost of the move would be paid back through savings in the Government’s multi-billion euro water services programme.

What if I have my own meter already?

It won’t matter – you will still be liable for the cost of the meter and service delivery. The Government has said that no other utility service allows customers to install their own meter so this will be no different.

“There is a need to ensure a uniform standard of meter…to ensure accuracy or readings and to facilitate a common approach,” the department said.

What if I have my own well?

Well, lucky you. The programme of metering and charges only applies to households connected to a public water supply. This also applies to those in a private group scheme.

Will tap water taste better?

One of the aims of Irish Water will be to improve the current water system and ensure public health and environmental standards. No word yet on the quality or taste of tap water. Ballygowan is safe for now.

Who will work for Irish Water?

For “a considerable period of time” the 34 local authorities who currently oversee water services will remain as agents of Irish water. These arrangements will not end until 2017 (at the earliest) and most local authority staff will remain with their current employer until at least 2015.

Will anyone lose their jobs because of this change?

The Government has said that 2,000 long-term construction jobs will be set up because of promised capital infrastructure improvements.

However, it hasn’t ruled out staff reductions as “it will ultimately be a matter for Irish Water to determine the staffing and skills required for the new organisation”.

The government and trade unions will begin talks shortly on all the issues surrounding the changeover.

Why is the Government doing all of this?

Promises to introduce water levying were made in the bailout programme with the European Union and International Monetary Fund. That is not the only reason though.

Ireland has been criticised by the EU and the OECD for being one of few developed nations which fail to charge for water on the basis of usage. The OECD said there is zero incentive here to save water and minimise waste.

The Government says that international experience suggests the introduction of water meters can achieve a reduction in consumption of at least 10 per cent.

Will Irish Water make money for the State? If yes, could it be used to pay off Irish debts?

Yes, Irish Water could conceivably be profitable but any money it makes will be re-invested in infrastructure, according to the Government. So no, it will not be used to pay off banking or any other debt.

So, could Irish Water ever be sold as part of the State assets sell-off?

The Government insists that this will not and cannot happen.

It has “absolutely no intention” of privatising water services, going as far as providing legislation to restate the existing ban on the privatisation of water assets.

And, finally, is this anything to do with septic tanks?

No. The responsibility for the registration and inspection of septic tanks will remain a function of the local authorities, who will still have a role in wider water management matters.

New State body Irish Water will be part of Bord Gáis>

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