Pensioners, big families to get cap on water bill
LARGE families and pensioners will have their water bills capped when charges are introduced in October, the Irish Independent has learned.
The Government plans to help the elderly and families with three or more children reduce their bills by either limiting the size of the annual charge, or by giving them a higher 'free' allowance of water.
Homeowners can expect to learn what their annual charge will be before the local and European elections in May.
Sources said it was important to "bring clarity" on the average level of domestic water charge "as soon as possible", to help households manage and plan their budgets.
The move comes amid increasing concern about the lack of information being made available on how water bills will be structured, and how much families and individuals will be expected to pay.
The Government has already committed to introducing a range of measures to help low-income households and people with medical conditions that force them to use large volumes of water.
But not until June will the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) announce a proposed tariff, which will be finalised in August.
The supports are likely to be aimed at pensioners with "limited means", meaning those in receipt of large pensions will not qualify. It is not yet clear if income limits will apply to larger families.
However, sources said the Government would make a number of important decisions in the coming weeks that will "shape" the business plan of Irish Water.
They include how much money it will provide to fund capital projects and the cost of giving a free allowance, and setting out how low-income families reliant on social welfare will be helped.
Plans for a 'first-fix free' policy, where a leak on the homeowner's side will be repaired by Irish Water, are likely to be funded under the job-creation stimulus package.
Once the CER has this information it can begin assessing charges, but it is understood that "additional supports" will be in place for high users of water.
"Pensioners, including those living on their own, will have to be looked after," a source said.
"Everybody will get the free allowance but there may be an extra allowance for groups including pensioners, families with children and those with medical conditions.
"A cap on bills could also be applied."
It comes after Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dail that householders will get some information on the amount of water charges they will pay before the local elections.
But he said they won't know the water bill until the charges come into effect, because they will be based on the free allowance followed by a charge based on usage.
Irish Water will provide the CER with a detailed business plan later this month, which will set out its operational and capital expenditure.
In March, the Government is expected to make a submission to the CER setting out its plans for the free allowance and affordability measures, and will also include information on the subvention it will pay to Irish Water for the next two years.
Once these decisions are taken, the Government will be in a position to bring a "high degree of visibility" around what households can expect to be charged.
This information will be used by the CER to calculate the charge, and it will benchmark proposed costs from Irish Water against utilities in other countries to ensure they are in line with best practice.