Public perceptions of domestic metering and water charges
14 November 2013
Authors: Esther White and Dr Anne Morrissey BE, MEngSc, PhD – Oscail, Dublin City University
The water sector within Ireland is currently being reformed, creating a new public utility – Irish Water/Uisce Éireann, within the Bord Gáis Éireann Group (BGE). Taking over responsibility from the 34 local authorities, this new utility will be responsible for the 950 public water supply zones that treat over 1.6 billion litres of drinking water every day, as well as 22,000 kilometres of water mains in Ireland.
In addition to these responsibilities and the set up of the organisation, BGE has also been tasked with undertaking an initial programme of metering domestic water supplies across Ireland. According to the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG), there are over one million households connected to public water mains in Ireland, which must be metered during this initial programme.
The support of the public in the successful implementation of public policy is crucial. While metering of domestic supplies is new to Ireland, the concept of domestic water charges is not. People may remember the abolition of domestic water charges, prior to the general election in Ireland of 1996, due in large part to pressure from the public and the threat to a government seat by an anti-water-charges candidate.
A more recent example of public pressure resulting in changes in government policy occurred in 2008, when strong objections from the public resulted in the government of the day abandoning attempts to means-test the medical card for those over 70. Well-attended protests and strong vocal opposition and the government’s lack of awareness of the importance of this benefit to the public were the main reasons for the climb-down.
Clearly, in order to successfully re-introduce water charges, it is very important to understand householders’ attitudes to water charges and the metering programme, and to ask the question: under what conditions would metering, for the purpose of determining water charges, be accepted and adopted by householders in Ireland?
To elicit this information, we conducted a study in May 2013 in a town in the midlands. This study involved the distribution of a questionnaire to households connected to public water mains in the town, which asked a variety of questions about drinking water quality, water conservation, metering and water charges. Responses were obtained from 191 households and several interesting results emerged.
In summary, we found that overall, householders were very aware of the proposed metering programme among the respondents. In addition, the householders had well-formulated opinions of water-supply quality and were aware of good practices relating to water conservation. Almost two thirds of respondents (65%) stated that they believe water users should be charged for the volume of water they use.
Over 80% of respondents stated they would co-operate with meter installation and a similar percentage stated they would pay their water bill. Less than 20% of respondents stated that they would be likely or very likely to participate in a public protest against water charges. This would appear to indicate a majority in favour of domestic water charges via metering.
Historically, in the USA and in most countries in Europe, metering of water usage has been considered an effective way to set water tariffs. Common objectives of water tariffs, as proposed by the OECD, include equity – where users pay proportionately to their use, and consumer acceptability and understanding. These objectives were not met under the previous policy in Ireland where charges were fixed regardless of use and different county councils charged different rates.
As a result, perceptions of inequity may well have existed. In 2013, the proposed metering of supplies and the setting of rates by the independent body, the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) may have helped change those perceptions.
Other results from our study found correlations between householders stating they trusted their current water supplier (54%) and stating that they would be likely to pay their water bill (92% of these). We also found correlations between householders’ overall quality rating of their water supply services and stating that they would be likely to pay their water bill. Approximately 64% of respondents chose ‘fairly good’ or ‘very good’ in response to the question, ‘Overall, what do you think of the quality of water services that you use?’
Of those, some 90% stated that they would be likely or very likely to pay their water bill. These findings indicate that trust in a quality brand and receiving high-quality water services are very important to householders and may be important for suppliers in securing stable, continuous revenues.
Other findings from our study identified several additional conditions under which metering, for the purpose of water charges, would be accepted. Almost 75% of respondents stated that they expect improved water quality if they are paying water charges, while 12.5% expect to be able to use water without restrictions (Figure 1). The latter may cause problems for suppliers in times of water scarcity and in areas of high water stress.
Over half of respondents expect their meter to be located within their property boundary (Figure 2), which is not what is being proposed in the metering programme, from information available from BGE/Irish Water. A question that should now be asked is whether this will have an impact on co-operation rates which, from this study, were shown to be very high at over 80%.
In relation to payment options, it is worth noting a relatively high percentage of respondents (22%) wish to pay their water bill at the Post Office (Figure 3), an option that was not available for the payment of the recently introduced Household Charge.
Furthermore, our study did not find any significant relationships between the variables in the householder survey and the demographic characteristics of the respondents. In other words, there was no typical response to any question based on the age, gender, household income or education level of a respondent.
METERING EFFECT ON DEMAND
Another important question relating to metering is whether metering and the charging of domestic supplies will lead to reduced demand. The introduction of water meters has been shown to reduce domestic water consumption by between 10-20% in several countries e.g. UK, Poland, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Australia and Canada.
In this study, some 58.1% of respondents stated they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: ‘I believe that metering of my supply would have no impact on the amount of water I use’. This seems to suggest that many respondents would pay more attention to the amount of water they used if their supply was metered.
This would suggest that metering of domestic supplies might indeed lead to reduced consumption in Ireland also. However, it must be noted that a sizeable minority (34%) do not appear to associate metering with a means of reducing their water use.
On the other hand, other findings from our survey indicate that In response to the question, ‘In the past 12 months, how often have you turned off tap while brushing your teeth, or filled the dishwasher/washer before use?’, approximately 75% of respondents chose ‘sometimes’ or more.
This led to the conclusion that these respondents are practising water conservation regularly. The majority of respondents (85.8%) stated that they would like to know more about conserving water, while 86.9% stated that they would like to know how much water their household uses in a day.
However, respondents were divided over the statement, ‘I don’t think I’m doing enough to conserve water’, with 50.2% agreeing or strongly agreeing while 45% disagreed or strongly disagreed. This seems to suggest that at least for some respondents, wanting to know more about conservation or about how much water their household is using may perhaps be for confirmatory purposes – e.g. to confirm their belief that they are using all necessary procedures and devices to save water or that they could not use any less water.
The findings of our study reveal householder perceptions of water charges and the proposed metering programme at a point in time and describe a complex and somewhat conflicting picture of attitudes and opinions.
It must be noted, however, that our study reports on the attitudes and opinions of a sample of householders in just one town in the midlands. Therefore these findings cannot be generalised without additional studies in other towns being undertaken.
When this first phase of metering is completed, there will still be 300,000 to 400,000 homes without meters. Households of the same size may pay different water charges, depending on whether they pay by volume used via a meter or by assessed charge. For example, a large household paying an assessed charge may very well pay less than the same size household that is metered. Future research could investigate householder attitudes and opinions at that time, under those conditions. The findings could assist in decision-making regarding the next steps of the metering programme.
The authors would like to thank those householders who participated in the survey. This study was conducted as part fulfilment of the requirements for the MSc in Management for Sustainable Development at Dublin City University. (www.dcu.ie/oscail)
Esther White is a civil engineer, who has recently completed the MSc Management for Sustainable Development at Dublin City University with first-class honours. She has 20 years of large-scale capital project experience in both the USA and Ireland, with over eight years managing water and wastewater infrastructure projects in Ireland. She is currently resident engineer on a €7 million wastewater project for Laois County Council.
Anne Morrissey graduated from University College Dublin with a BE and a MEngSc in chemical engineering and with a PhD from NUI Galway. She has more than 20 years’ experience in the area of environmental protection with an emphasis on water and wastewater treatment. She is the programme chair of a number of postgraduate programmes in the area of clean technologies, operations management, information technology and sustainable development with Oscail at Dublin City University.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2013/11/14/public-perceptions-of-domestic-metering-and-water-charges/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Water-meter-1024x683.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Water-meter-300x300.jpgCivilIrish Water,local authorities