Thousands of water meters still fitted at homes despite Stormont pledge

Water meters installed outside homes in west Belfast in 2014. Picture by Mal McCann
Brendan Hughes

WATER meters continue to be installed at homes across Northern Ireland despite a Stormont pledge two years ago to end the practice.

More than 7,000 meters have been fitted at domestic properties since 2014 bringing the number of water meters installed since 2007 to 42,200 at a cost in excess of £13 million.

Stormont faced accusations of "deception" over water charges when The Irish News first revealed in 2014 the scale of meter installations.

In response to the revelations the then regional development minister Danny Kennedy vowed to change the law on water meters for households.

However, the legislation brought forward earlier this year has not stopped meters being fitted, even though domestic water charges are deferred.

The new law gives the department the power to make regulations to remove the requirement for NI Water to install meters.

Any such regulations however would still require approval through the assembly and consultations with bodies such as the Consumer Council and Utility Regulator.

Opposition parties last night called for the executive to end meter installations at homes to prevent "charging infrastructure taking root".

SDLP West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan, the party's infrastructure spokesperson, said: "The executive's promise to defer water charges will be cold comfort to those living in the 42,200 family homes that now have water meters installed.

"They'll rightly ask what other purpose those meters serve than to pave the way for a domestic charge.

"Every day that he delays sees more and more meters installed with the charging infrastructure taking root. The answer is simple – table the regulations."

Water charges continue to be a divisive issue on both sides of the border, with bills recently suspended in the south.

In the north water charges currently only apply to non-domestic properties.

But under legislation introduced in 2007, NI Water must install meters on supplies to domestic properties newly connected to the public water supply.

NI Water had sought to stop fitting meters at new homes but is still legally required to continue.

There have been four ministers in charge of the issue since 2007, including Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy and Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy.

In November 2014 Mr Kennedy told The Irish News he intended to change the law following calls for meters at new homes to be banned.

"It is my intention to amend the existing legislation on this issue through the forthcoming Water Bill," he said.

The DUP's Michelle McIlveen succeeded him last year as minister of the Department for Regional Development (DRD).

And earlier this year its responsibilities were moved to the new Department for Infrastructure, currently headed by Sinn Féin minister Chris Hazzard.

Mr McCrossan urged the minister to push forward with the regulations saying he had the power "end this practice and that's exactly what he needs to do".

TUV leader Jim Allister also called for a "clear explanation as to why the promised action has not been followed through".

Mr Kennedy was unavailable yesterday, but party colleague Jenny Palmer urged the executive to continue the work he started.

The assembly member, the party's infrastructure spokesperson, said: "The work that was done by Danny Kennedy to bring forward this legislation must be given effect as soon as possible in this mandate.

"If the executive does not intend to implement water charging, then public confidence should not be undermined by the continued installation of water meters."

A spokesman for NI Water said the total number of meters serving domestic properties has reached 42,200.

He said the new laws on water meters "cannot be implemented until guidance is given by the Department for Infrastructure".

The Department for Infrastructure last night did not respond to requests for a comment.

However when asked in April during the last Stormont mandate a DRD spokesman said: "The Water and Sewerage Services Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 gives the Department power to make regulations to remove the current requirement on NI Water to install water meters at domestic properties connecting for the first time to the public water supply.

"The department is working to form the necessary regulations which must be approved by the new assembly."

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