Sunday 15 December 2019

Charges will not be known until day before start of system

There are still many unanswered questions in relation to water charges
There are still many unanswered questions in relation to water charges

Fionnan Sheahan and Paul Melia

The water charges regime won’t be fully revealed until the day before water meters start ticking over.

Water charges will be begin on October 1, with the first bill to land in January.

But homeowners are unlikely to learn for sure how much they will be and what measures are in place to protect them from bad service.

The watchdog in charge of monitoring the water charges, the Commission of Energy Regulation, won’t be announcing the final outline of charges and associated rules until next week.

The Government has defended Irish Water’s record of communicating with the public about the introduction of water charges. The semi-state agency has come under fire over its record on explaining the regime to householders.

But a Government spokesman said the Coalition was not dissatisfied with Irish Water’s efforts so far.

“There is a recognition in Government it is a challenging set of communications,” the spokesman said.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s officials have been in contact with Irish Water’s communications department to “clarify misnomers or assertions made” about the introduction of water charges.

Environment Minister Alan Kelly is also in continual contact with Irish Water.

This week, the former chief executive of Bord Gais, John Mullins, criticised the performance of Irish Water, saying it suffered from poor leadership and communications.

Irish Water operates under the ambit of Bord Gais. Mr Mullins hit out at what he called the failure of Irish Water to effectively communicate with customers and politicians alike about its operations.

Mr Mullins, who stood down as Bord Gais CEO in late 2012, said: “The start of Irish Water has not been the best of starts. Communication has been a critical issue. I would say leadership has been a critical issue in conveying messages.”

Mr Mullins was speaking amid growing concern at Irish Water’s demand that people provide their PPS numbers in order to claim their free allowances worth €150 a year per adult and €100 per child.

He added: “I headed up a utility here and you had to engage. There were good days when you reduce prices and there were bad days but you just had to front up.”

The Coalition accepts it needs to do more to explain to the public what assistance is in place to help those on low incomes to pay their water bills.

The Social Protection Department said 410,000 low-income households will get €100 per year towards their water bill under the so-called “household package”. A spokeswoman for the department said that just 23,000 of these payments must come through a bank account as they involve people who do not already have another social welfare payment paid through a post office.

“None of these customers currently receives a welfare payment through the post office.  The department has written to this small group of customers only, requesting their account details to facilitate the payment,” the spokeswoman said.

The introduction of a tax credit to help those on low incomes to pay for their water is also on the table. A spokesman said any such measures would form a part of deliberation on the Budget.

Water Charges Q & A

1 What's happening with water charges?

From next Wednesday, October 1, some 1.35 million households will begin paying for water. The first bills will land from next January.

2 How much will people pay?

We don't know. The Government says the 'average' charge will be €240, but the regulator has yet to finalise the tariffs. At the moment, it's proposing a charge of €4.88 per 1,000 litres of drinking water (water in) and €4.88 per 1,000 litres of waste water (water out).

Households without meters will be billed on an assessed, or average, basis, which will be calculated on household size.

3 What else don't we know?

Lots of things. The Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) has yet to finalise what people living in areas with water restrictions will pay. We're awaiting details of what happens if Irish Water doesn't provide a good standard of service, and other customer care issues.

4 When will we know?

The CER is not expected to make a final decision until next week, probably the day before charges go live.

5 So all will be revealed then?

Not quite. The Government has to specify the medical conditions, where sufferers use large volumes of water, which will qualify for a capped bill. It is expected that an honesty system will be employed, where people will say they use a lot of water, with random audits conducted to ensure householders are telling the truth.

A study is also under way to see if 300,000 people living in apartments or terraced houses can have a meter fitted to their properties. This would help them reduce consumption.

6 Anything else?

Irish Water has to publish its 'first-fix free' policy.

It has promised to fix leaks between the meter and stopcock in houses, but details are awaited.

7 What about the 'free' allowance?

This has been decided. Each child will receive an annual allowance of 21,000 litres of water. Each household will receive 30,000.

8 Given the lack of clarity, why do I have to register with Irish Water?

To allow the company prepare for billing. Application forms must be submitted by October 31 next. PPS numbers must be submitted, so free allowances can be matched to individuals.

9 What happens with this information?

Irish Water says it will be subject to data protection laws. It may use details for marketing purposes, but households can opt out on application forms, or by contacting the company.

10 What if I don't have a meter installed?

Most households won't. They will pay an assessed, or average, charge, based on typical consumption of households of a similar size.

11 What if I don't register?

You don't get the free allowances, but you still get billed.

12 I have a septic tank and private well. Will I pay?

No. The water-in charge only applies to those on a public main, and not for those with wells, on a group water scheme (who already pay) or with rainwater harvesting systems. The water-out charge does not apply if you have a septic tank or other form of treatment system.

13 But I still have to register?

Yes. The company says this is to ensure they do not contact you again.

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