Tuesday, 12 March 2013
To ask the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government the current timeframe for the roll out of water metering across the State; the total number of houses to be metered; the number of homes exempted from metering; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12692/13]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 81 and 91 together.
The programme for Government and the memorandum of understanding with the European Union, the IMF and the European Central Bank provide for the introduction of domestic water charges. The Government considers that charging based on usage is the fairest way to charge for water and has decided that water meters should be installed in households connected to public water supplies. It has also decided that Irish Water, a new State-owned water company to be established as an independent subsidiary within the Bord Gáis Energy group, will be responsible for the metering programme.
There are, as reported in census 2011, approximately 1.35 million domestic properties connected to public water supplies in Ireland and the objective is to install meters in the maximum number of these properties. I have previously indicated that a proportion of these properties may not be metered in the initial metering programme owing to either the high cost or the technical difficulty of doing so. However, I expect that a large number of them will be metered in the longer term as shared service connections are replaced and further options relating to metering apartment blocks are evaluated.
The procurement processes for the metering programme are under way and it is expected that the installation of meter boxes and domestic water meters will begin in the middle of this year and will be rolled out as quickly as possible thereafter. The Water Services Bill 2013 , which completed its passage through the Dáil last week, will assign the necessary powers to allow Irish Water to undertake the metering programme.
The Government has also decided to assign responsibility for the economic regulation of the water sector, including the setting of charges, to the Commission for Energy Regulation. The primary role of the regulator will be to protect the interests of customers and ensure a consistent and appropriate level of service is provided for them. As the metering programme will still be under way in 2014, an appropriate approach to charging customers who are not metered at that stage will be put in place. This will be structured in such a way as to ensure that it will represent a reasonable proxy for usage and be fair. The approach to charges for both metered and unmetered properties will be included in a public consultation process taking place this year as part of the regulatory process.
I expect that by the end of 2014 approximately 50% of households will be metered. An estimated 300,000 households may not be metered initially owing to the high cost or technical difficulties.
It seems to be very high. If it is too high, will the Minister's officials confirm to me in writing the basis on which they arrived at the figure of 300,000 because it smells of a "make it up as you go along" approach to the entire process? I do not want to retrack through the interim Bill introduced to the House last week, but the fact is that it was brought before the House in the absence of a good deal of information on an audit of existing networks and the exact cost of metering. An audit has not yet been completed of those who may be affected by the charges associated with water connections, but, in essence, we were asked to vote for that Bill in the dark. We have no problem with the concept of charging for water services, but we want an efficient system, not an inefficient one. We want inhabitants to see there is competency in respect of the information put before us, as elected Members. The figures being bandied about for the numbers of units that can and cannot be metered must be clarified quickly. However, that has not been done. While the interim Bill gives authority to begin metering, which is bad enough, it will be much more than an accident if the figures are not brought forward shortly.
A total of 320,000 units were built prior to 1960.
Many would argue that they cannot be fitted with meters. The number of apartments has risen by 27% since 2006. Combining apartments, bedsits, pre-1960 homes and holiday homes, which remain vacant for much of the year, brings the total to 503,140 units.
I thank the Deputy. We estimate that 300,000 households may not be metered. We are currently carrying out a survey in Wexford - Deputy Mick Wallace may have been surveyed himself - involving 9,000 houses in the last six weeks. A higher than expected number have been found already to have boundary boxes. We had estimated that 100,000 properties nationally had boundary boxes installed as part of the planning process over the last six or seven years, particularly at the height of the boom. We were very pleased to see that a significant number of houses in Wexford town had the boxes. Of the 9,000 surveyed, 2,000 had the boxes. That is a higher number. I expect that as the programme is rolled out, a significant proportion of properties will be metered between the direct installation of boundary boxes by the appointed contractors and the boxes which are already in place. We are also looking at an opt-in arrangement in provincial areas for people on public supplies. I am told by the technical staff in Irish Water that the figure for households that will have initial difficulties is 300,000.
Many apartment blocks have management companies which will probably take on the role of deciding who will pay what. It will be complicated and create problems. Many of these apartment blocks are in trouble. Can the Minister outline how metering will work in that context?
I have encountered many local authority properties where two houses are fed from one line. As far as the footpath, the line is the local authority's responsibility but then it goes inside the property boundary. We will have a situation where two, three or four houses - a lot of in-built houses that were built over the last while - go onto extra lines. It will cause an awful lot of expense if they have to be metered separately. In some cases, they may be forced to do that. There are a lot of issues to consider. There may be a leak in one house or one house may use more water than the other. How are we going to manage this? It is a very complicated system. Can the Minister comment on some of those issues?
It would be worth pointing out that the 2,000 houses with boundary boxes in County Wexford were built in recent years and the owners will have the comfort of knowing that they paid the highest indirect taxation in Europe when they were purchasing their homes. Given that water is not cheap, would it not be a better business plan to fix the pipes from which 40% of the water supply leaks into the ground before installing meters? Am I correct to say that there will be an entitlement to a certain amount of water for free before charges kick in? If that policy is intended to be put in place, how will it be managed for people who do not have a meter?
I am opposed to the charges as I am fearful that Irish Water will be privatised down the line. Some of the estates I represent in Bayside, mid-Sutton and Marino have numerous houses which are on what is in effect the same boundary box. How will that be addressed? Dublin City Council seems of its own volition to have carried out a programme of installing meters outside many city homes. Does the Minister have any figures on that? Is most of the city metered at this stage?
To reply to Deputy Dessie Ellis, there will be assessed charges for people in apartment blocks which we will not get around to metering. In terms of some of the types of terraced properties Deputy Barry Cowen mentioned, there will certainly be technical difficulties initially. The assessed charge will take account of the free allowance based on a certain amount of permitted litres per individual in a house. That will be brought in as part of the metered charge. It will be the free allowance process that we advocated in the programme for Government.
Many people expect the meters to be located on their private properties, which will not necessarily be the case; they may be located on the footpath or in a public space. We are working with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on the potential of smart metering to reduce the level of inconvenience in locating a boundary box or meter by taking into account the current state of water metering technology in order that we can learn from the smart metering programme under way in that Department.
I accept that when we install meters, there may be leaks between where a metre is installed and the dwelling. We are looking to see how we can help customers financially in dealing with this matter. A considerable amount of water may be wasted in some cases and, in the context of the water leakage programme, the customer may be provided with some financial support. Through no fault of the customer, there may have been a leak for a long time and the customer should not have to meet the financial responsibility in the first instance. With Irish Water, we are looking for a way to pay on the first opportunity to fix it.
We continue to have a major water rehabilitation programme in the Dublin area and a significant amount of money will be spent on replacing the pipe network, which is an ongoing programme.