What to expect in your first bill from Irish Water
Irish Water is posting out its first bills – 37,000 of them each day. The envelope will contain a summary of the charges as they apply to you, water-saving tips and an incentive to register
Irish Water’s head of communications Elizabeth Arnett; Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly; and managing director of Irish Water John Tierney. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Late last month, Pricewatch had the dubious honour of getting one of the very first Irish Water bills to be printed. And it was hand-delivered by Elizabeth Arnett, the public face of Irish Water.
In the days since, we have looked in some bafflement at the unfamiliar – and thankfully dummy – bill. Tens of thousands of people will have done likewise, except their bills will be very real.
Last Wednesday Irish Water started sending out its very first bills. The utility will print and post 37,000 bills each and every night for the next eight weeks.
That sounds like a lot, but there are a lot of people who need to be billed: more than 1.7 million homes will get an envelope from Irish Water through their letterboxes between now and mid-June.
As the number of bills grows, so will furious calls to Liveline and to the Irish Water helpdesk, which will provide 750 people to answer queries. Some people will have been billed too much, and some people wrongly billed or billed twice. And some will be billed for undrinkable water.
The utility expects mistakes, and Arnett is engaging in pre-emptive damage control. “We will get a lot of contacts in the weeks ahead,” she says. “This is a brand new system, and of course there are going to be errors. Some will be simple and easy to resolve, but still unacceptable. There will be bills sent to people who are on boil-water notices, and there will be people who get a bill that they should not get. But when you set up a system from scratch, such errors are inevitable.”
A somewhat antiquated postal system will be at the root of many mistakes. We are about a century behind other countries because of our lack of postcodes. About 40 per cent of the addresses in the State are not unique. This is going to lead to a lot of duplicates being sent out.
“It is going to take a couple of bill cycles to get it right. The system is working, and it is producing the right bills, but if the information is wrong – and it could be – then there will be errors,” says Arnett.
She is not only anticipating future errors but admitting to past ones. “There is no doubt we got things wrong,” she says.
One of the first mistakes was how the utility handled revelations that it spent €86 million on consultants during its set-up phase. “People had issues with the word ‘consultant’,” Arnett says, but she is unapologetic. “They were third-party service providers who were brought in on a temporary basis to get things done. We built a utility from scratch and for less than it cost Thames Water to implement one single system for their operations.”
But she believes the company has not sold its core message properly. “We have not talked enough about the service we plan to provide and the necessary infrastructural improvements that we will be making. Every single day, people use our services and trust that the service we provide will work. And it does work.
“But we have not explained that the charges are for an essential service, and we will use it to invest in infrastructure and maintain that service. We still have 44 towns discharging raw sewage into the sea. This is the 21st century, and this is something we have to fix,” she says.
On that score she is probably right. A massive investment of €5.5 billion is needed between now and 2021 to ensure Ireland’s water supply is fit for purpose. That might be small beer compared to the sums the State blew on bailing out the banks, but it is has to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is us.
When asked if Irish Water blames its political masters for turning it into a touchstone for anti-austerity sentiment and then running away – or at least trying to – when things got tough, Arnett is nothing if not diplomatic. “You might say that but I couldn’t,” she says. “I couldn’t say we are completely innocent. Last October when people needed information, we were not responding to them. And that is not acceptable. The timing of the set-up wasn’t great, and it was seen as the last additional measure of the austerity era, that is true.
“We have so much work to do ourselves, and, most importantly, we have to make sure people understand these bills are for a vital service. It is not a tax. We have to front up as a utility, and we have to build a good relationship with our customers. We have two-thirds of homes signed up already, and when they get the bills I think they will start to see the benefits.”
That seems like wishful thinking. But what will the new bills look like? Well, like any other utility bill, really.
If you use the public system for waste water and drinking water and have told the utility that you live in a two-adult household – or if you have told them nothing at all – then you will be asked to pay €65 and given 14 days to do so. If you are a one-adult household, then you will pay half that. An annual water conservation grant of €100 will be available to everyone who registers with Irish Water by the end of June. It is the only carrot the utility has.
Well, there is also the chance to “beat the cap”. Officially, the cost of water per 1,000 litres will be €3.70. But when allowances and the caps are included for a family of four using an average supply of water, it costs €0.89 for every 1,000 litres.
Arnett says that 30 per cent of people are using less than €65 worth of water each quarter, while another 20 per cent are close to beating it. But how would you know? If you had your metre installed last year it will have been read in early January and a breakdown of your usage will be carried on the second page of the bill and displayed in cubic metres, with one cubic metre equalling 1,000 litres of water.
Water Conservation Grant
Water charges for a two-adult home will be capped at €260 until the end of 2018, while a one-adult household will pay a maximum of €160. From this, a Water Conservation Grant of €100 will be subtracted once you register with Irish Water before June 30th. If a household does not register, then it will be hit with the full bill of €260, however many adults live in the home. A single person who does not register will be liable for a charge of €260, as opposed to €60.
Irish Water will also send out a booklet with each of the first raft of bills. It includes tips such as “have a shower instead of a bath” and “remember to turn off the tap when brushing your teeth”. It also contains a painstaking breakdown of what the bill contains, and all the key phrases are in bold. Many of those phrases remind people that they won’t qualify for the water conservation grant unless they register with Irish Water and they will be hit with the full €260 charge unless they contact the company.
Because Irish Water really, really wants you to contact them.