Minister calls 'immediate' halt to water meter installations
THE infrastructure minister has called an immediate halt to the installation of water meters at homes across Northern Ireland.
It comes a day after The Irish News revealed that thousands of household meters were still being installed despite a Stormont pledge in 2014 to end the practice.
The number of water meters fitted at domestic properties since 2007 has reached 42,200 - at a cost in excess of £13 million.
Earlier this week the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) had said it hoped to introduce the necessary regulations for a ban "later this year".
But last night the minister, Sinn Féin's Chris Hazzard, moved to announce that he had instructed NI Water to "immediately" stop installing meters at homes.
"In the current financial climate, the continued waste of public money to instal meters which will not be used cannot continue," he said.
"Regulations are currently being drafted and consultation on these is legally required. Meanwhile, I have instructed NI Water to cease this work immediately."
Stormont faced accusations of "deception" over water charges after the scale of meter installations first emerged in 2014, when the figure stood at around 35,000.
In response the then regional development minister, the UUP's Danny Kennedy, had vowed to change the law.
However, the legislation brought forward earlier this year did not stop meters being fitted, even though domestic water charges have been deferred.
The new law gives the department the power to make regulations to remove the requirement for NI Water to instal meters at domestic properties newly connected to the public water supply.
Any regulations require approval through the assembly and consultations with bodies such as the Consumer Council.
The regulations to formalise the new arrangements will be brought to the assembly after the summer break.
There have been four ministers in charge of the issue since 2007. Earlier this year the responsibility was moved to DfI, currently headed by Mr Hazzard.
Water charges continue to be a divisive issue on both sides of the border, with bills recently suspended in the south.
More than 100,000 people took part in protests across the Republic after charges were introduced in 2014.
In Northern Ireland water charges currently only apply to non-domestic properties.
Installers for NI Water, a government-owned company, have faced intimidation in the past from communities opposed to water charging.
A spokeswoman for NI Water last night welcomed the move to stop installing household meters.
"NI Water welcomes the minister's instruction to pause installation of water meters at new-build domestic properties as we have previously requested that this requirement should be lifted," she said.
"NI Water will work alongside the department in the period ahead as the consultation exercise progresses."