Irish Water postponed new charges over ‘optics’ fear

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Irish Water was concerned about the “optics” of being seen to introduce new water charges for businesses during the Covid-19 crisis.

A new charging system for business customers had been due to be introduced on May 1 but has been delayed indefinitely by the utility.

Internal records obtained under Freedom of Information show how Irish Water was worried about “overall public perception” of a state body not supporting the business community.

A memo described how the project – which would have involved new tariffs for more than 180,000 non-domestic customers – was “on track” to start billing from May 1.

However, the utility said the impact of the message Irish Water would be sending out needed to be given consideration.

It highlighted the fact that many of the companies they would be contacting, including restaurants, hotels, and small to medium-sized businesses had been particularly hard-hit during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Irish Water were also worried about the availability of staff within the company and their third party call centre to deal with an upsurge in “call volumes” about charging, work which was deemed “non-critical”.

The memo said this could put a demand on resources that would divert from the company’s priority work of “maintaining water and wastewater services”.

It added: “Finally, in light of the Taoiseach’s recent announcement, we would have concerns about overall public perception of a ‘government body’ not supporting the business community, and contradicting other government departments’ advice.” 

In one email, a senior manager wrote: “Although disappointing from a project perspective, I feel that given the current climate it was exactly the right decision.” Minutes of a meeting from March 9 on deferral of the charges describe how plans for the new tariffs needed to be “parked” pending further discussion.

An official raised the “major concern … as to whether or not it was prudent to be issuing letters to businesses on potential tariff increases when many are being hugely impacted by the current virus outbreak”.

Irish Water had approached the Department of Housing for their views on what to do. “The message was that the Minister had been briefed and that they [the department] had no preference either way at the time,” the minutes said.

The minutes also describe how if charges were deferred, Irish Water would need to produce “revised budgets” saying “revenue implications will also have to understood over and above the €5m estimated budget”.

By March 20, the Department of Housing was fully behind the plan to defer the charges and said it was too early for a decision on “a date to recommence”.

“It was agreed that customers would be given a minimum of three months advance notification before commencing billing,” an email said.



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