Q&A: Flood of confusion over new water charges

Today, we start paying for a once-free precious resource. Caroline O’Doherty outlines the terms and conditions

Q&A: Flood of confusion over new water charges

ONCE, running the sub-four-minute mile was the holy grail of human endeavour. As of today, it’s the sub-four-minute shower.

Charging for water began at midnight and, from this date onwards, every drop that disappears down your plug hole, toilet bowl, or drain pipe costs you money.

The Troika can take some of the blame for the imposition, water charges being a condition of the EU-ECB-IMF bailout in 2010.

In reality, though, water charges have been haunting the political ‘to-do’ list since domestic rates were abolished in 1977. There were piecemeal, unsuccessful attempts by a number of individual local authorities to introduce charges in the 1980s and 1990s, but in 2009, the Green Party’s John Gormley, then environment minister, finally said the dreaded words out loud at national level. The rationale presented was water conservation, with supplies to Dublin so precarious, it was revealed the capital was planning to plunder the Shannon.

The Commission for Taxation was more direct in 2010, saying water charges were needed to help fund cash-starved local authorities.

Sceptics said it was just another austerity tax and conjured up images of reckless bankers with manicured lawns maintained by rapacious sprinkler systems.

Against this background, Irish Water was created, immediately immersing itself in controversy over hefty start-up costs, its apparent infinite pool of largesse for hired consultants, and its inability to answer questions about policy and practice that are only being approved today by the Commission for Energy Regulation.

Company head of communications Elizabeth Arnett acknowledges the information deficit — not just about the charging process, but also the context which, she emphasises, features a neglected national water supply network that leaks a scandalous 48% of all treated water.

“What has to be appreciated here is the state of this network,” says Ms Arnett. “We need €20bn to get our network up to a position whereby it’s consistently meeting the needs of customers everywhere. This network has been under-invested for decades. It is such a bad state of repair that certain parts of the country are at risk of failure every day. That includes parts of Dublin. Over a million people are served by water systems that are at risk of failure every.”

Maybe it’s the fact the system is largely underground, but much of that context goes over the head of the majority of the 18,000 people a day who’ve been calling the Irish Water help centre in Cork.

“The focus is very much on the application pack. I heard quite a few people say they’ll deal with it when they know what the charges are,” says Ms Arnett, who listened in on a recent visit. “So much of the frustration around Irish Water for people is that they don’t know precisely what they’ll be paying. People need certainty for their household budgets.”

They know more, now that the Commission for Energy Regulation has spoken, so here’s some of what can be confirmed.

Q. How will water charges work?

A. From today, everyone is considered a customer of Irish Water unless you are on a group water scheme or have a private well for your supply, have a septic tank for your waste water and have informed Irish Water of these facts.

Q. Even if I haven’t completed the application form Irish Water sent me?

A.Yes. You’re asked to return the completed form by October 31 — and do it online if you want to be really helpful to Irish Water — but you should still expect your first bill in January if you haven’t done so.

Q. So why bother completing the form?

A. You won’t get the free allowance for the household, the additional allowances for children, or special provisions for vulnerable customers if you don’t send it back.

Q. But I don’t have a meter yet, so how can they bill me?

A. Metered or not, everyone will be billed for an ‘assessed charge’ next January, April and July. The assessed charge is a misleading term, as you’re not actually assessed for it — it’s a set standard charge based on what Irish Water expect to be the average bill nationally over the next two years.

However, if you do have a meter and it shows that the water you used at the metered rate came to a lower amount than the assessed charge, you pay the lower amount.

If the metered rate comes to a higher amount, you still only pay the assessed charge. It’s a kind of introductory offer designed to give people time to get used to monitoring their water consumption.

Those who still don’t have a meter by next July will continue to be billed for the assessed charge every quarter until they do get a meter and for nine months after they get their meter, unless the metered rate works out lower.

If it is lower, it will be presumed it would have been lower all along and they will get a rebate of the difference between assessed charge and the metered rate accumulated from today.

Q. But I’m renting/am a local authority tenant — surely this is for the landlord/local authority to pay?

A. Afraid not. Regardless of whether you’re an occupier or owner-occupier, you’re liable for water charges. The only grey area is in the private rented market, where a landlord may get sent the application form and will have to get the tenants to complete it and take responsibility for it. If the tenants don’t do that, the landlord will get billed. In that case, the landlord may chose to absorb the extra cost but more likely would pass it on in a rent increase.

Q. I have a holiday home/investment property that’s rarely occupied — do I have to pay water charges for these too?

A. You do have to pay something. Whether or not the property is metered, you should declare it to be unoccupied and pay only the set unoccupied dwelling charge. You can also do this if your home is empty because of a long hospital stay or period working away.

You must pay this charge even if no water is used at the property because Irish Water says there are costs in just maintaining a supply regardless of whether it is used.

Q. I’m on social welfare/the old age pension/low income — are there any exemptions or reductions for me?

A. No. The only assistance available is for those who receive the Household Benefits Package — mainly the over-70s, people on Disability Allowance and some carers — which contributes towards electricity/gas bills and the TV licence. From next January, a water support payment will be included in the package. It’s worth €100 a year — just less than the amount taken out of the package when the telephone allowance was discontinued last January.

Q. But the application form has a box to tick if you’re a ‘vulnerable customer’ — can I claim some exemption under that?

A. It doesn’t mean financially vulnerable. It means if you need extra assistance from customer service like getting bills and other communications from Irish Water in braille or by phone, or if you need to be given priority for restoration of supply in the event of a disruption because, for example, you’re on home dialysis.

Though it doesn’t state as much on the form, Irish Water says this is also the box to tick if you have other medical conditions that require the use of above-average quantities of water so they can assess if your bills should be capped.

Q. But my water is undrinkable — do I still have to pay for it?

A. You do, but only for the waste water service. The water needs to be officially undrinkable, not just have a taste that’s not to your liking. Once a boil water notice or drinking water restriction notice has been in place for 24 hours, you pay no water supply charge until the problem is fixed.

Q. Why does the form look for PPS numbers for me and my children — those numbers give access to a lot of personal information I thought only Government departments should have?

A. This requirement has caused controversy, but Irish Water says they need one adult PPS number per household to allocate the free household allowance, as it’s essentially a Government subsidy, and that they need the children’s PPS numbers, because the additional children’s allowance only goes to those in receipt of Child Benefit.

Q. Why won’t copies of the children’s birth certificates suffice?

A. Child Benefit isn’t just paid on the basis of age. It’s only paid up to the age of 16 unless the child is in full-time education [of which proof is needed] in which case it continues up to 18 years. So there will be 16- and 17-year-olds who are out of school and whether they’re working or not, they won’t receive the children’s water allowance.

Also, where children have two homes in the case of separated parents, only one parent will be able to claim a water allowance for them and that will be the parent receiving the Child Benefit.

Q. I’m a foster parent — can I get the children’s allowance?

A. If the Child Benefit has been transferred to you because you’re fostering the child long-term or because the child has been placed with you on foot of a court order, then you do get the allowance.

However, if you’re not receiving the Child Benefit because you’re providing a succession of short-term foster-care placements for many different children, there is currently no arrangement in place to provide you with a children’s allowance, even if you almost always have a foster child in your care.

Q. I suspect I have a leak in my water supply — will I get charged for the lost water?

A. That’s the risk if you don’t get it fixed. Ordinarily, any leak on your property — inside the dwelling or in the garden/yard — is your responsibility, but Irish Water has a ‘first fix free’ policy where they will fix a garden/yard leak just once for you for free.

However, they won’t fix a leak inside your home and they won’t fix any leak after the ‘first fix free’ offer expires. If you’re renting privately or in social housing, you’ll need to get your landlord or local authority on the case.

Q. What if I can’t pay my bill?

A. You’ll get 14 days to pay each bill and the usual series of reminders that energy and utility companies employ will arrive after that. Irish Water has to engage with you to see if there’s a way to clear arrears and inability to pay has to be taken into consideration, but unwillingness to pay, or a perceived unwillingness, could end in legal action and loss of supply, apart from a trickle of water, which will be sufficient for drinking but not enough for showers, washing machines, etc.

Q. Are water charges going to keep changing like my gas and electricity bills?

A. They’re set now for two years, but there will be a public consultation before the end of 2016 to set them again for a further five-year period.

The Commission for Energy Regulation will carry out the next consultation, hear what Irish Water has to say on the matter, and make the final decision.

‘People must take stand and refuse to pay’

AT last count, around 60 different groups had formed to oppose water charges and/or water meters, ranging from neighbours on an individual street to county and countrywide collectives. Some have political origin or input while others are apolitical, and their opposition is based on a range of principles and/or practical concerns. A major national demonstration encompassing all is being organised for Dublin city centre on Saturday, October 11. By then, some will undoubtedly have given up the fight but others say they remain determined to resist becoming Irish Water customers.

Maria McCrory loves her mum but says she won’t be inviting her around to her house if there’s a water meter outside her door. Her mother suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which she believes was caused by living beside a mobile phone mast. It has left her vulnerable to the radio frequency (RF) energy, a low-level radiation emitted by devices like mobile phones and other wireless technology.

“If we’re stuck in traffic and near a mobile phone mast my mum will start to shake uncontrollably and her heart will start to beat uncontrollably and I’ll have to pull out into the bus lane to get away,” says Maria, who is concerned the smart meters Irish Water is installing use RF technology to continually transmit information to mobile meter-reading vehicles, avoiding the need for staff to physically visit, open, and read every individual meter every three months.

According to Irish Water, the meters “emit an extremely low-level radio signal”. It says: “An Irish Water meter exposes you to 4,500 times less RF energy than a baby monitor or cordless phone and 11,000 times less than a mobile phone at one metre away from you. To put this in perspective, if you placed 4,500 water meters on a table one metre away from you and one baby monitor on another table at the same distance, the exposure from the content of each table would be the same.”

Maria is not reassured and cites Professor Olle Johansson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden who warns of the dangers of RF technology. “He calls for baby monitors to be banned so I’m not interested in comparisons with baby monitors,” Maria says.

Her mother lives in a complex with shared services so, like apartment dwellers, she won’t be getting a meter for the foreseeable future but Maria lives in Clare Hall in Dublin, an estate of 850 homes that are all due to get meters. “If 850 houses have one of those meters emitting radiation outside their house morning, noon, and night with kids playing beside them, that’s ludicrous,” she says. “They won’t be putting a smart meter outside my house. I won’t allow it and a lot of my neighbours won’t either.”

Mick Barry is a Socialist Party councillor on Cork City Council and a member of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, which has been to the forefront of the anti-water charges campaign. “We already pay for water through general taxation so this is double taxation,” he says. “Every time we turn on the TV or the radio these days, we’re hearing talk of economic recovery and yet Fine Gael and Labour are hitting us with a new austerity tax — which is what water charges are.

“We think there’s a bigger issue at play here because we think there is a privatisation agenda, that when Irish Water start charging for turning the tap on, if they get significant income and it becomes profitable, that it’s only a matter of time before water multinationals are banging down the doors to get their hands on what will be a licence to print money.”

Irish Water says not so, that current legislation forbids the sale of the company and that, “given how much investment is needed in this network, we’re a long way off break-even or profit or anything like that”.

But Mick has other objections and claims the Government and Irish Water have understated how much water bills are likely to be for most households. “You haven’t seen the full extent of the opposition yet. I think it’s strong and I think it’s widespread... It’s not a standalone issue. It’s very much linked to the cost of living and the feeling that households can’t afford another bill.”

He says the alliance’s main task is convincing people they can turn back the tide. “Many people are operating under the illusion that this can be deducted from your wage, your pension, or your social welfare, and it can’t,” he says. “It’s a utility bill like a phone bill or an ESB bill. The Revenue are not involved so that’s not a sanction that Irish Water or the State have if people take a stand and refuse to pay.”

The communal water tap has become the new meeting point in Kileely in Limerick City but it’s one social outing they could do without. Residents were notified in August that their water supply was contaminated with lead from old pipes and that they shouldn’t drink it or use it for food preparation. Since then, they’ve been making the trek to one of two temporary taps set-up in and around their estate several times a day to access an alternative source. “We’re back and forth with containers for drinking and cooking every day but even then they’re saying that when you do fill up your container, that you’re going to have to boil it anyway,” says Kevin McNamara.

“That water’s coming from the mains on the front road so it should be spotless but still they’re warning people to boil it. It’s unbelievable. We could get a hard winter here and with these temporary taps the water will freeze because they’re exposed to all kinds of weather.”

The warning about the water in Kileely followed one in nearby Ballynanty, and the same issue has since arisen in St Mary’s Park. “We’ve been told we won’t be charged for water until the problem is fixed and they said that would take a few months, but I’ve been up to Ballynanty to see them taking out the old pipes and from what I can see it’s going to take a lot longer for them to finish there before they even get to start on us.”

Pipe replacement can be tricky, with contractors having to go through gardens, under driveways, and in some cases beneath extensions which have been built above external pipes. And while the replacement of the pipes connecting the public mains to the individual house will substantially address the problem, there may be a further issue for some houses that still have lead piping within the property. Irish Water will not replace that so it’s either up to the householder, or if they’re a local authority tenant, then it’s up to Limerick City Council to carry out that work.

“A lot of people that would be living here 30 or 40 years, their attitude kind of is: ‘Well it didn’t kill me for all this length of time so it’s hardly going to kill me now.’ It’s kind of an old-school attitude.

“But I can understand. The inconvenience is terrible. The reality is you’re not going to collect water, boil it, and wait for it to cool down to drink it. You’re going to buy it. That’s what people are doing — buying bottled water — and they think Irish Water should be paying for it...

“We shouldn’t be paying anything for a very long time for all the inconvenience we’re being put through. We should be exempt for a long time.”

Standard charge on all households for the first nine months

A water meter before installation. Water charges and free allowances have been outlined.

All households, metered and unmetered, will be charged an ‘assessed’ or standard charge for the next nine months (three three-monthly bills).

The assessed charge is €176 per year for a one-adult household, or €44 for three months.

The assessed charge for each additional adult is €102 per year, or €25.50 for three months.

There will be no charge for children under the assessed charges.

Metered households using water to a value less than the assessed charge will pay the smaller amount and get a rebate on any overpayment.

The metered charge is €4.88 per 1,000 litres for households with both a public water supply and public waste water service.

The metered charge is €2.44 per 1,000 litres for households with either a private well, group water scheme, or septic tank.

Metered charges kick in after a free allowance of 30,000 litres per household — 7,500 litres per billing period — is used up.

Households with children for whom they get Child Benefit get an additional free allowance of 21,000 litres per child — 5,250 litres per billing period.

The unoccupied dwelling charge is €125 per year for both water supply and waste water service or €62.50 for one service. Households with water unfit for drinking will not be charged for their water supply after the first 24 hours and up until the problem is fixed.

Households with leaks on their property will be charged the assessed charge until the leak is fixed. Customers with medical conditions requiring extra water usage will pay not more than the assessed charge.

Examples of assessed charges per household per year/per billing period:

- One adult €176 per year/€44 per quarter (€88/€22 for water supply or waste water service only);

- Two adults €278/€70 (€139/€35);

- Three adults €381/€95 (€190/€48);

- Four adults €483/€121(€242/€60);

- Five adults €586/€146 (€293/€73).

Example of how assessed charges are set:

Single parent family with two children (one adult household);

- Estimated consumption 108,000 litres costing €527;

- Less household allowance 30,000 litres worth €146;

- Less children’s allowance 42,000 litres worth €205;

- Net consumption 36,000 litres;

- Net cost @ €4.88 per 1,000 litres for water supply and waste water service €176;

- Net cost @ €2.44 per 1,000 litres for water supply or waste water service €88.

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