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Dublin: 3 °C Monday 14 October, 2019
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If you're using 'too much' water, you'll be getting a letter in the door in June

This week, the Cabinet approved the introduction of excessive charges for households.

Image: Shutterstock/ben bryant

WATER CHARGES COULD still be a thorn in Fine Gael’s side when the notice of “excessive usage” for water are posted out to households this summer. 

It’s been a long road for the party, who despite having thousands on the street, appeared to be determined to press on with their water charges regime. After three long years of protests and climb-downs, last year the government began refunding water charges.

In total, the government handed back over €173 million in refunds, and it cost around €5 million in admin costs to do so.

Despite getting a hammering over the scheme, the party could be in for a bit more if the next phase of charges does not go off without a hitch. 

This week, the Cabinet approved the introduction of excessive charges for households. 

The threshold for excessive use is set at 1.7 times the average household use, with the average consumption per person determined to be 133 litres per day.

While the original water charges regime was scrapped, the government moved to ensure there was some sort of penalty for those that use “too much” water. At the time, parties such as Sinn Féin and People Before Profit celebrated the government’s defeat on the issue – but they noted that it wasn’t over.

This week the government said those that use an excessive amount of water will get their first warning notices from June this year.

However, no charges will be levied until next year – those bills won’t arrive until 2020.

So, what are the rules? 

The government outlines that excess usage is defined as 1.7 times the average household water usage.

Those that received a notice this June that they are using above the designated amount of water will have six months to correct their water usage pattern. A plan called the ‘First Fix Free’ scheme will also be available, which will allow people get any leaks fixed, so as to prevent any excessive usage charges.

Households that continue to use water excessively for the six month period after receiving a notice would be billed on an annual basis, with the first bills planned to issue in late 2020.

Additional water usage allowances are available for households with four occupants and over, and for those with medical grounds.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has admitted himself that the handling of the water charges debacle was a mess – but if this government is not careful, it could be walking right into another. 

There are a number of problems that might arise. 

Households

First, the charge is based per household, not per person. This means that in one house, there might be two people living there, while next door, there could be four people. Both houses have the same allowance. (Note above – households with more than four people will get additional allowances).

Paul Murphy TD, a long-time critic of water charges, said this week:

Because of how the usage of an average household is calculated, four-person households will be hit particularly hard. A four-person household will have exactly the same allowance as a one-person household.

Water meters

Secondly, there’s the issue of water meters.

Water metering was a key component to the last regime, with the first water charges protests taking place in 2014 during installations of the metres in housing estates around the country.

However, as the water charges movement gained ground, the mass installation slowed down. Rather than having a water metre in every home, which was the aim, only 884,000 have been installed. 

Under the new scheme, some households will have metres to measure their water usage, while others will not. 

The report by the Oireachtas Committee on the Future of Domestic Water Services recommended that a “high priority” be placed on the investment in district water metering.

However, Irish Water told TheJournal.ie

District meters are completely different to domestic meters. District Meters are used to measure the amount of water supplied to a region or area of a water supply network, known as District Metered Areas (DMA).  
Rural areas might have 50 premises in a DMA whereas towns and cities tends to have an average of  1,000 to 1,500 premises in a DMA. District meters were put in place by the local authorities before Irish Water was established. There are approximately 4,400 DMAs countrywide.

What is the average consumption of water?

Thirdly, there is the definition of the average consumption levels.

Fine Gael TDs have been out in force this week repeating that the allowance is “generous” and that only those the use a lot of water will be facing charges. Those that use the ‘normal’ amount should get no bills, they state. 

The Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) estimated that the average household contained 2.6 people, which means the average (mean) consumption per person was around 133 litres per day.

Delving deep into the figures, TheJournal.ie’s Factfind at the time of the excessive water use scheme found that there are many different ways the figures might pan out, not least because some households will have leaks and others may not. 

It found, the percentage of households that could be liable for charged range from either 7% to a high of over 20%.

If the government is correct and they have been generous with the allowance, and the majority of people will not face a fine, then Fine Gael will have nothing to worry about. 

If households use more than is predicted, or leaks across the network result in high bills landing through the doors of hard-pressed families in 2020, they’ll have another headache on their hands. 

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