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Don’t tell me water charges are back in the news again. I thought we were done with that?
Oh yes, water charges are back because a report by an expert commission, set up by the Government to examine how we’re going to pay for water services in the future, has been published.
Remind me again what this commission is?
You may recall that the issue of paying for water was a hot potato in the run-up to the general election. Fine Gael and Labour were in favour of charges. Fianna Fáil – which, confusingly, was all for water charges when last in government – was against them, as was Sinn Féin but mainly because the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit parties were stealing votes from it on the basis that Paul Murphy was among the strongest critics of the charges.
So, charges were scrapped?
No, they were suspended for a nine-month period to the end of March. Irish Water stopped issuing bills and this expert commission was asked to come up with a system which would take the wind out of lefties’ sails, allow Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil save face, help the State manage EU water charge directives and fund a clean water supply costing more than €1 billion a year – while also covering the cost of extensive upgrades to the water network over the coming years.
Right, well that’s a tall order. What has it come up with?
The report says that the funding of water services for normal domestic and personal use should be out of general taxation with the volume of water a person should be allowed to use independently assessed through “an open and transparent process”.
What does that mean?
It means water charges, as we have known them, look doomed.
Well, yes and no. While a run-of-the-mill water allowance would be paid for out of general taxation, excessive or wasteful usage would have to be paid for directly by the user at tariffs determined by the Commission for Energy Regulation.
And what does excessive or wasteful water usage mean?
We don’t know. The report says that a national water utility would “provide sufficient water to all citizens to cover their domestic and personal needs, and the cost of that water will be recovered from the State, which will be a customer of the utility, based on tariffs approved by CER. What is proposed does not therefore amount to the provision of a ‘free allowance’ of water”.
And how is the infrastructure to be funded?
By directly billing the Exchequer for the cost of the agreed allowance for domestic use, money for covering the costs of water production and for further investment in infrastructure will be provided.
So, we will still be paying for water?
Of course. We have always paid for our water. And we will always pay for our water.
What about all the meters put in place? Is there any use for them now?
It’s hard to say. The commission diplomatically points to the benefits from the metering programme when it comes to detecting leaks and monitoring patterns of water usage but it declines to say if a metering programme will have any merit in the future, saying it “is outside the Expert Commission’s terms of reference”. It does however say that if the Government continues with its metering programme “consideration should be given to an approach that is more aligned with the proposals in this report, with a focus on district meters, metering of buildings in the case of multi-occupancy, or metering of households on request”.
What else does the commission have to say?
It stresses that the consumer’s voice “must be put at the heart of discussion and decision-making on the delivery of water services in Ireland”. It also recommends that Irish Water renews “its efforts to develop a positive engagement with consumers and put in place further initiatives to engage consumers in a positive and proactive way at the national, regional, and local level”.
That’s all well and good but I paid my bills until they were suspended. Where do I stand?
The commission doesn’t really go into detail, other than to say that the “necessary measures should be put in place to give effect to the commitment that those who have paid their water bills to date will be treated no less favourably than those who have not”.
What does that mean?
What about me? I am part of a group water scheme and have been paying for water for years. What do I get?
You will get fairness, apparently. The report says a review of people, such as you, should happen when the allowances for consumers on public supplies are determined and that equity for group schemes and private wells be maintained through additional subsidy or other means.
And wasn’t there plans for a referendum on ownership?
That looks likely. The Expert Commission recommends that a suitable constitutional provision on public ownership of water services “be more fully addressed by the Special Oireachtas Committee, as part of its deliberations”.
So, that’s it, we’re done?
Oh, Lord no. This process is only just starting.