Saturday 19 October 2019

Charging water wasters could lead to return of bills for all, Taoiseach admits

80,000 homes with meters use more than free allowance
80,000 homes with meters use more than free allowance
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

New charges for excess water usage could lead to the return of a broader water charge, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

In the coming weeks, Irish Water will begin monitoring households with a view to identifying 'water wasters'.

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They will be liable for bills of up to €500 a year if they don't take action to reduce their usage.

The definition of 'excessive usage' means the vast majority of people will not be hit.

However, Mr Varadkar has now raised the possibility that the threshold could be lowered over time in order to bring more and more people into the net.

"Let's see how that goes. You could see over time that threshold being reduced and maybe that's the way we should have done water charges in the first place," he says in an interview for a new book, 'In Deep Water', by journalist Michael Brennan.

While the Taoiseach said he doesn't expect this to happen in the short-term, his comments will raise eyebrows as even the mention of water charges is now considered toxic in political circles.

Anti-water charge campaigners have already warned they will react if there is an attempt to turn the excess usage charge into a broader tax.

In July, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) approved proposals from Irish Water to introduce a charge of €3.70 per 1,000 litres used over the annual free allowance for households.

An analysis by the regulator and Irish Water indicates that between 7pc and 10pc of households - around 80,000 homes - which have water meters use more than the planned free allowance of 213,000 litres per year.

That allowance is 1.7 times the average amount of water used by a household of 125,000 litres per year.

An Irish Water spokesperson told this newspaper: "Irish Water will write to customers before the end of this year to inform those affected that they are using an excessive amount of water and to advise on how they can conserve and address leaks. Irish Water view this policy as a water conservation measure, not as a means of raising revenue."

Following this initial communication Irish Water will be sending a notice of excess usage.

However, the timing of this is dependent on formal instructions from the Government relating to medical exemptions and additional allowances for larger households.

"The exact date that a household's usage can begin to be liable for an excess use charge is therefore yet to be determined. Given the timeframes involved, the first bill will not be issued before 2021," the spokesperson said.

The Taoiseach said he does not expect any party to bring water charges into the next general election debate.

"I think it is off the political agenda for the foreseeable future. You're probably talking decades, rather than years," he said.

But Mr Varadkar also acknowledges that charges could be forced back into the spotlight by the European Commission.

Ireland is subject to the EU water framework directive which requires countries to apply charges for water services.

In theory the Government could be hit with heavy fines if a widespread charging regime is not introduced.

The European Commission has warned that the fines for being found in breach of the water framework directive could amount to tens of millions.

Mr Varadkar said: "We may well find ourselves in breach of European law, and we'll have to perhaps deal with that."

Sources quoted in Mr Brennan's book say the EU Commission is known to be nervous about taking Ireland to court when the threat of Brexit looms large.

Yet an official adds: "But water charges will come back."

Irish Independent

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