Water charges may be delayed until 2015 due to lack of meters
WATER charges could be delayed until the end of 2015 as concerns mount that making people pay before meters are installed could lead to a repeat of the household charge fiasco.
The troika has told the Government water charges must come in next year, but this will now be delayed.
The Irish Independent has learned that the length of the delay could be significant – possibly even to the end of 2015.
Senior government sources admitted that there was a view that "substantially more than 50pc" of water meters must be installed before people are billed.
Ministers want to avoid assessed charges – based on estimated water usage – which will be paid by houses without meters when the water tax is introduced. Assessed water charges are likely to be based on house size, and they would be hugely damaging politically.
They would be a precursor to full metering, similar to how the €100 household charge paved the way for the property tax. The installation of meters begins this summer.
"Metering has to be in place and the reality is that, by the end of 2014, only 50pc of meters will be in place," a senior government source said.
However, charging is likely to be brought in well before the next general election, scheduled for 2016, although it will be after the 2014 local elections.
The Coalition wants some breathing space between the introduction of the water charges and any polling date.
"We're not going to dump it in the middle of the local elections or the general elections," the source added.
While Fine Gael is more concerned about not hitting people with a double whammy of full property tax bills on top of water charges next year, Labour is anxious to have water meters installed before charges start.
"People have to see charges based on their water usage, not some speculative amount," the source added.
"We would have to see well above 50pc of meters installed. The reality is the Department of the Environment and Irish Water will not have that done by the end of 2014."
Another source said: "They want as many meters in the ground when billing starts. The flat charge scenario isn't ideal. They want to get moving on this."
The exact cost of the assessed charge and then water metering will be decided independently by the Commission for Energy Regulation, with a public consultation process likely to start at the end of this year.
A meeting of the Economic Management Council (EMC) – the cabinet subcommittee which comprises Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin – is understood to have pushed representatives of Irish Water and Bord Gais, of which Irish Water is a subsidiary, on meters two weeks ago.
"They want more than the 27,000 (meters) a month that's planned," a source said, but added that ministers hadn't spelled out exactly how many meters they need.
There is understood to have been some kickback from Irish Water, with the body saying that it didn't have the resources to massively speed up installations.
However, the Government is understood to be pressing the semi-states to face up to the "political realities".
There is also concern because there is only an acting chief executive in place at Bord Gais after John Mullins left the position earlier this year, and before new CEO Micheal McNicholas takes the post in June.
The Bord Gais chairperson, Rose Hynes, is said to be more "actively involved" than a chair normally would be but can only do this position "part time" since she is also chairperson of Shannon Airport.
There have also been tensions between the Government, Bord Gais and Irish Water lately over the need to increase public awareness of water charges and spending on external consultants.