There’s no such thing as free water

While investment in water and sewerage services is absolutely crucial, the whole issue of water reform as handled by the Government has been a tissue of lies followed by a consultative farce with a pre-determined outcome.

Alliance has already urged the Government to come clean and stop presenting the illusion that we currently receive our water free from the tap. We are strongly opposed to the introduction of unfair water charges, and until the Government stops the spin and brings forward honest and fair proposals, that will stay the case.

The Government knows that there’s no such thing as free water from the tap. It knows that the infrastructure, purification and so on are paid for through general taxation.

Although we already pay for our water through the rates, the Government seems totally prepared to steamroller its own plans through – plans that will likely leave the public wondering if their money is being poured down the drain. A new tax based on house value is far from fair, yet the Government seems determined to go down that path.

By basing charges on property value, the Government provides no incentive to conserve water, as the European Framework Directive requires, nor does it take account of ability to pay. What it could lead to instead is a revolt or campaign of non-payment, the like of which hasn’t been seen since the Poll Tax fiasco.

Absolutely no-one is happy with the ‘tap tax’ the Government is proposing, as it is totally unfair and will lead to some of the most vulnerable being unable to afford a basic human necessity.

Consumers should not be asked to pay twice for their water, through new charges as well as rates. Alliance has called for Ministers to tell home owners how much of a rebate should be expected from Regional Rate payments, if new charges are to go ahead. We haven’t received an answer, so we can only assume these charges are a new ‘stealth tax’.

The Government has closed its mind to alternatives. According to the General Consumer Council, metering based on what a household actually uses, rather than the value of the property, is a fairer system. Water charges based on house values would badly affect South Belfast. House prices here are amongst the highest in Northern Ireland, yet there are still pockets of deprivation and many vulnerable people who would be forced to pay bills they couldn’t afford easily.

There need to be built-in safeguards, to protect those people whose water consumption is high but necessary. In South Belfast, if meters were used rather than property prices, it would mean those who are ‘asset rich, but income poor’ would be charged for what they used, rather than what the Government think they ought to be able to afford.

Equally, those on low incomes or benefits could benefit from a free water allowance – the last thing we want to see is people disadvantaged families not being able to afford this basic necessity. Payment would only start after this allowance – which should be set at a fair and appropriate level – is exceeded. People who honestly cannot afford to pay should not be denied water, and we need to ensure that both the widow in a large house on a pension and the larger family with low income are both looked after.

No-one should be in debt for water.

The Government has tried to make a false comparison between what households in Northern Ireland pay, compared to Great Britain. This ignores the facts that:

  • Average NI household income is 19% below the UK average
  • More NI households (21%) rely on benefits, than in the UK overall (12%)
  • Local households also pay 26% more for fuel, light and power than in the rest of the UK.

Quite simply, people here spend more of their income on necessities rather than luxuries than they do in the rest of the UK. To suggest otherwise is dishonest.

Government told us over the decades that funds for public services were not diverted away from the Northern Ireland bloc grant in order to address security issues. Is the way that underinvestment is being presented to us – as “our fault” – revealing a lie?

Direct rule Ministers have also implied that a European Directive is why the Government is pursuing a self-financing water and sewerage service. The Directive only says that households need to make an adequate contribution. Instead, people are rightly suspicious that the Government plans are to ultimately privatise our water service.

At the end of the day, all the Government is doing is tinkering with the rating system, when what we need is a new, fairer system of local income tax. The sooner we get back to local ministers making local decisions the better.

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