Head to head on water charges: Is it time for the public to pay up? Yes

Twelve per cent of supplies are deficient, putting 945,000 people at risk

One of the arguments against water charges is that we already pay for water through taxation. Setting aside the fact that about 20 per cent of the population have private supplies or are in group water schemes, the truth is that we have never adequately funded our national water system.

The results are evident. Dublin’s water supply, which should have a spare capacity of 15-20 per cent like other similar-sized cities, is on a knife edge. Remember the 2013 Web Summit, when international investors adjourned to our capital’s restaurants and hotels only to face restrictions on drinking water and showers?

Almost half of all water leaks away through our antiquated pipes. Over 22,000 people can’t drink their tap water without boiling it. Twelve per cent of supplies are deficient, putting 945,000 people at risk. Forty-two of our towns see their raw sewage flow straight into rivers and seas – 2015 will bring the real possibility of beach closures and swimming bans in some of these towns, impacting on people’s quality of life, their environment and our valuable tourism sector.

These problems arise from decades of underinvestment and a system in which our water and waste water networks were operated and developed on a county-by-county basis, with few economies of scale and inadequate national planning.

We all agree that extra investment is needed; it is only with the addition of a new sustainable funding model, relying on borrowing by a national utility and domestic water charges, that adequate investment will be made. Allowing our national utility to borrow independently of Government means the minimum investment requirement of €600 million per year (€300 million was invested last year) will not be in the queue at budget time when decisions on schools, hospitals or housing services are being taken.

New funding model

The Government is implementing a three-pronged programme in reforming our water services. We’ve established

Irish Water

so that services and investment are delivered by one national utility rather than 31 individual local authorities. We’ve implemented a new funding model for water services and we’ve introduced independent economic regulation of Irish Water’s budgets, infrastructure plans and customer engagement through the Commission for Energy Regulation.

The establishment of Irish Water is already delivering results. Greater economies of scale have seen the company save €12 million in procurement in its first year alone. A new approach towards asset management has seen greater emphasis on consistent investment planning across the country rather than large-scale, one-off investments. By applying this approach to the Ringsend waste water treatment plant, Irish Water will save €170 million on a single project.

The utility is also standardising operations across the country and placing greater emphasis on tackling problems such as leakage and poor water quality. Shortly, many of the households in Roscommon on boil water notices will finally get access to potable water. Reform is working but further positive change can only happen in tandem with increased investment, part-funded by domestic water charges.

People have expressed their concerns about the affordability of bills, the use of PPS numbers and future privatisation of our water services. The Government has listened and acted. We have simplified the charging structure and introduced a water conservation grant that will mean the net charge will be an affordable rate of €1.15 for a single adult household or €3 a week for all other households. There is no longer a requirement for PPS numbers, and legislation will be enacted by year-end compelling future governments to consult with the Irish people prior to any attempts at privatisation.

Metering programme

Water charges into the future will be underpinned by metering, internationally accepted as the fairest form of charging. The charging system has conservation at its core, as those who use less than the relevant capped charge will pay less. Also, the metering programme is helping householders and Irish Water to identify customer-side leakage, which accounts for about 10 per cent of all unaccounted-for water.

Over 513,000 meters have been installed already. With world water demand expected to be 40 per cent higher than supply by 2030, a modernised water system will help Ireland remain an attractive location for water-intensive industries such as ICT, pharma-chem and agri-food – industries that sustain over 200,000 jobs here at present. Some 930,000 households have responded to Irish Water’s customer application campaign. By registering with Irish Water and making your contribution to funding the investment in water services and infrastructure, you can make difference. As a Government we have made mistakes, but Irish Water was not one of them.

Alan Kelly is Minister for the Environment