Two-year delay on water tax does little to check anger

 

FOR WATER torture to be effective, it needs to be random. If the victim is to be made truly suffer, water must be dropped onto their face at irregular intervals. If they can predict when next the water will fall, it doesn’t work.

The Government seems to have turned randomness into a fine art and it is almost impossible to predict when the next row over a new charge or tax will happen.

A week ago, with the Government still mired in the unresolved row over the €100 household charge and with the wounds caused by the septic tank charge still fresh, a new wave of controversy washed over when news broke about water charges in the pipeline.

Despite the fact these charges are still two years away, the leaking of many of the details in recent days have put Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan on the back foot. Again.

The advent of water charges here is inevitable. The Republic is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development where water still runs free, and charges are necessary from a conservation perspective. However, when it emerged last week how much water was likely to cost homeowners, there was outrage.

The touchstone for much of the anger was the news consumers would have to pay about €800 for a water meter and its installation, a charge which is be spread over 20 years in the form of a standing charge attached to bills. It was, suggested Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, the straw that could break the camel’s back.

In the days after details of the installation charge emerged, critics lined up to describe it as wantonly excessive and pointed out that the sum was at odds with the true cost of installation of the meters. Some of the State’s leading suppliers of such equipment pointed out all the hardware required can be bought for less than €100.

Water meters capable of monitoring all the water coming into a domestic residence sell for as little as €35, while the cost of the material needed to sink the meter underground is no more than €50. The only remaining costs involved relate to labour. One supplier who declined to be named because he is hoping to secure a Government contract told The Irish Times the installation work can typically be done for about €200. On this measure, the total cost, if done privately, would be less than €300.

It is not just suppliers who questioned the installation charges. Mairéad Sheridan heads up the Erne Valley Group Water Scheme in Co Cavan, one of the largest private schemes in the State. It has been using a metered system since 2007 and she said its members can get top-of-the-range meters installed for less than €400.

The reason consumers will have to pay so much more is because €450 million is being borrowed from the National Pension Reserve Fund over 20 years to cover the cost of more than one million installations. Consumers are going to have to pay the interest attached to this borrowing – estimated to be the same amount again.

Whatever about the meters, what should be of more concern to consumers is how much they will eventually be asked to pay for the water they use.

The alarming reality is that if citizens were asked to pick up the more than €1 billion per annum tab for the cost of providing clean water across the State, households would have little change from €1,000 a year.

There is no suggestion from any quarter that people will have to pay that much. Last year, a conference was told by a Dublin City Council official that average water bills would be about €400 per household per year.

What is the outlay, however, for people who already pay, for instance, through group water schemes? Sheridan believes her scheme offers excellent value for money and says it is the thought of paying the charges that bothers most people. She says when a system is up and running most people are surprised at how effective it is.

The Lough Erne scheme give households 90,000 litres free each year, or about 250 litres a day. According to Sheridan, people in her scheme use anywhere between 500 and 750 litres of water a day and pay about €100 a year for their extra usage.

“In the beginning people were saying it was very dear, but most have come round,” she says. “A third of a litre of water costs €1.30 in a shop, while 1,000 litres costs 70 cent in our scheme. By any measure, that is good value for money.”

In Britain, average annual bills for water are about £500 (€567) and it is estimated that British households using meters can save up to £125 (€141) by controlling their use. In Australia, people get an annual water allowance, but most use well in excess of that. The average cost to households equates to about €175 each year.

Germany’s water charges are among the highest in Europe, with average bills running to €750, although prices across the country vary by as much as 300 per cent.

There will of course be a free allowance here, but this has yet to be decided. The last minister for the environment, the Green Party’s John Gormley, proposed the allowance be set at about 40 litres a day per person.

Hogan has suggested it may be higher than this and has claimed a person who is very careful with their allowance may not have to pay anything at all.

This seems unlikely, unless, perhaps, the people Hogan referred to don’t wash that much. Few people would be able to get by without exceeding the allowance, even if Hogan were to raise it to 60 litres or even 80 litres a day. A typical power shower alone uses about 80 litres, while flushing a toilet uses between six and nine litres. All told, a typical adult currently uses more than 150 litres of water on average each day.

Objections to paying for water are growing, with many predicting the resistance to it will put the row over the Household Charge in the ha’penny place. Senior Government figures – including Taoiseach Enda Kenny – have hinted water charges will be easier to collect because Irish Water will have a substantial stick in the form of disconnection.

When Hogan was asked this week whether the State would disconnect people from such an essential service over non-payment of the charge, he said: “That would naturally be my philosophy.”

The idea the State could countenance such disconnection would be laughable were the threat not so serious.

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