Friday 20 April 2018

Households will not pay for water - except for 'wasteful usage'

. (Stock photo)
. (Stock photo)

Niall O'Connor and Paul Melia

Households will no longer face the burden of water charges and will only have to pay bills if they engage in "wasteful usage", according to the Independent Water Commission.

The commission's draft report recommends that the State becomes a "customer" of Irish Water and that families' supply is paid for through general taxation. However, the commission says that the Government should consider the introduction of a "water tax" in order to keep the public utility afloat.

"The question of whether there should be a dedicated tax…would be a matter of budgetary policy and outside the scope of this report, but is worthy of further consideration," the report states.

On the issue of ownership, the commission says there is "overwhelming support" for retaining Irish Water as a public utility. And it says there is "considerable merit" in the staging of a referendum to ensure it cannot be privatised in the future.

The decision by the commission to recommend against the re-introduction of a charging regime for all households will be seized upon by the anti-water charges movement. It also means that Fine Gael will be forced to significantly row back on its previous policy that charges should remain in place.

But the authors of the report insist its central proposal - whereby households only pay if they use water above a certain limit - does not amount to "a free allowance".

The report states: "Rather, the water utility will provide water to all citizens and the cost of that water will be recovered from the State."

Two options are outlined in the draft report for determining what equates to "normal usage", beyond which households will be billed.

The first option would see the water required for everyday activities such as washing and cooking being calculated following a detailed analysis.

The second option would essentially involve dividing the amount of water used every day by the population in order to determine the normal usage rate.

The report states that the final level of allowance should be set following a consultation involving the Commission for Energy Regulation and the Public Water forum.

But charges for commercial customers should remain in place, the report states.

Special provision should be made for those with special needs, the reports says.

It adds that there should be an exceptional waiver scheme administered by the Department of Social Protection.

It is recommended that the funding model for investment may have to be "fundamentally" reassessed given the ongoing need to pay for infrastructure.

In relation to the hundreds of thousands of households who have paid, the commission recommends that "necessary measures" should be introduced to ensure those who have paid to date "will be treated no less favourably than those who have not."

However, the commission - led by Kevin Duffy - does not state whether this should involve refunds or the introduction of tax credits.

Those on group water schemes and households using private wells are also specifically mentioned. It is stated that these schemes have proven effective in reducing consumption and addressing leakage and that such groups should be assisted through "greater subsidy or other means".

In relation to metering, the commission states that meters have been "highly effective" in detecting leakages.

But the commission says that metering will not be "technically feasible" in the likes of apartments and that it is "reasonable and fair" to assume that such households do not consume water in an excessive fashion.

It is also recommended that Irish Water "renew its efforts to develop a positive engagement with consumers" on the back of a series of PR disasters in recent years.

The final report is due to be sent tomorrow to the 20-person Oireachtas committee, which will sit for up to three months. The Dáil will then vote in the spring in relation to the options put forward.

Irish Independent

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