Housing department raises concerns over water services plebiscite

Referendum could have unintended effects, department warns Oireachtas committee

The Commission for Energy Regulation said the installation of water meters should not proceed at present. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The Department of Housing has raised concerns over the possibility of a referendum on enshrining water services in the Constitution.

In a submission to an Oireachtas committee examining the future of water services yesterday, the department said it may have a number of unintended consequences.

The Dáil voted in favour of a referendum last year.

“Issues around the wording of any amendment also arise from the plurality of water infrastructure ownership categories,” the department said in its submission. “These include private bore holes; private group water schemes; private group schemes that are sourcing water from the public network; or water infrastructure located on privately-owned land.

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“There are also issues to be considered around the potential for unintended consequences that could impinge on individuals’ rights to private property.”

The department was due to give evidence yesterday but its appearance was postponed.

Meter installation

Meanwhile, the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) has said the installation of meters should not proceed at present.

Commissioner Paul McGowan told the Oireachtas committee he believed this should not be a priority for Irish Water. While his office did not want the installations to be abandoned, they should be "parked" as there were other priorities for capital investment which should proceed first.

However, he insisted the metering programme should be revisited at a future point after a detailed cost-benefit analysis is carried out. “We could go back and look at when we might return to metering,” he said.

Under questioning from Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell, the commissioner said he did not know how excessive usage could be determined if meters were not installed.

Mr McGowan said the regulator did not have the definitive answer but said the profile of householders could be used to determine the usage.

Ms O’Connell said this would be a “guess”, but Mr McGowan insisted it would be based on analysis.

At the same meeting, Irish Water insisted metering was the only manner in which excessive usage could be determined.

More than 58 per cent of households have had meters installed so far, the first phase of the national metering programme to be complete by the end of the month. The commission believes it should not continue after this point but says homeowners should be allowed to request installation if they wish.

Mr McGowan denied the commission had overstepped its remit by commenting on the installation of meters. He said the committee had asked it to respond to a question and insisted the roll-out of meters was a matter for them.

The CER and representatives of Irish Water appeared before the committee as part of a series of meetings.

Irish Water told the TDs and Senators the company would need an additional €232 million from the State if charges were to be abolished.

It confirmed it would need €13 billion to invest in the water infrastructure and long-term planning was essential to allow the utility to carry out its investment programme.