On top of the property tax, bin charges and other levies, householders will face the added burden of water charges within 18 months.

There are still no official figures on how much it is likely to cost, though informed sources suggest the average household will pay between €100 and €300 a year.

Getting people to pay for something they are used to getting for free is never easy. Part of the Government’s strategy is to try to convince people of the urgent need to invest heavily to secure the water supply, create jobs and improve the quality of services. Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan has warned that our leaky infrastructure isn’t sufficient to cater for expected increases in demand over the coming years.

He says some 2,000 jobs will be created through the three- year metering programme, while hundreds of millions of euro spent on infrastructural investment will sustain thousands of jobs in construction.

Then there’s the argument that a secure supply of water will become increasingly valuable in attracting industry here. “For our citizens, security of supply will be welcome in the face of those new pressures to supply from population, economic recovery and climate change mentioned earlier,” he said recently.

But many of these arguments are likely to wash over a weary public. This is because, in addition to the cost, there are hidden depths to water charges which won’t make it easy to sell the idea of paying for water.

Many homes will not have water meters when the charges come into force in 2015. This will mean paying an “assessed charge” based on what comparable homes with water meters are paying. This, inevitably, will give rise to anomalies and is hardly ideal for a charging system based on “pay per use”.

And there are many homes, such as apartments, which will never, realistically, be metered. They, too, will pay this charge.

In addition, no matter how little water you use, householders face paying for the installation of water meters over time in the face of a standing fee, similar to that in place for electricity.

The Government’s legislation to pave the way for charging will ease the burden for the most vulnerable.

Disconnections will be prohibited, though Irish Water, the organisation in charge of water supply, will have the authority to reduce the pressure of water supply to homes that persistently fail to pay their charges. There will be free allowances for groups who are likely to face real difficulties in paying the charges and for those whose medical needs mean they have to consume large quantities of water.

And there will be a rebate system for householders who find they have paid significantly less under metered access compared to the assessed charge.

As for the broader issue of water charges, few will argue against the pay-for-use principle. It is far more progressive than the flat fee we had until water charges were abolished in 1997. The old system did not encourage efficient use of water and it rewarded the irresponsible. By changing to metering, and paying based on use, we will get many benefits such as more responsible usage and – in theory at least – less disruption to water supply.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that householders will end up paying for the privilege. Water services are expensive. In 2010 current and capital expenditure totalled €1.2 billion. Only €200 million was recouped through commercial water charges.

Experts estimate it will take at least 10 years of sustained investment to replace or rehabilitate the decaying or substandard water mains . But there’s no easy way of selling that to a public who, in many cases, find themselves in the deep end when it comes their finances.


This story appeared in the Irish Times on Tuesday 9th July 2013