Page last updated at 06:14 GMT, Monday, 28 September 2009 07:14 UK

Water charges - a short history?

water tap

Water charges, and when we would have to pay them, have been floating around the political sea in Northern Ireland for eight years.

In his draft budget of September 2001, the then finance minister, Mark Durkan pointed out: "Proportionately, we raise much less revenue than in England, and we fund water and sewerage services from our departmental expenditure limit.

"The assembly should note that if we were to raise rate revenue and water charges roughly to their equivalent pattern in England, we would have approximately £300m of additional spending power for public services."

The following May, Mr Durkan's ministerial successor Sean Farren launched a public consultation reviewing both rates and water charges.

Significantly, this Executive document did not ask the Northern Ireland public whether they wanted water charges or not.

Instead it noted that "in almost all countries around the world, domestic consumers pay a direct charge for water".

Direct rule

So were water charges on their way?

In October 2002 the assembly was suspended and the issue returned to the desks of direct rule ministers.

In March the following year, Northern Ireland Office (NIO) Minster Angela Smith came out in favour of water charges in principle - again arguing they would enable the government to invest more in public services.

But by that stage the issue had raised the hackles of the Northern Ireland electorate, and all political parties sought to distance themselves from the charges.

A new government-owned company to take over the duties of the Water Service was announced in August 2004 by the NIO.

No-one wants to put their hand up and say 'yes I'm in favour of water charges'
Martina Purdy
BBC News political correspondent

It was planned to be financed entirely by water charges by 2008, which would cost each household around £415 per year.

Just over a year later, the NIO announced that the introduction of any water charges would be postponed for a year.

By then, Shaun Woodward was the latest direct-rule minister trying to navigate through the water charges maze.

He explained that more time was was needed to create a system that was fair to consumers but that the case for water charges remained "strong".

By 2007 it seemed the bills would finally arrive - they had in fact been printed and were ready to be posted out. But they became a political bargaining chip.

As progress was made towards the restoration of devolved government the DUP said one precondition should be a financial package which would address the cost of water.

'On hold'

Sinn Fein also called on all parties to unite against charges being imposed by British ministers.

On 26 March 2007 a deal over devolution was reached at Stormont.

The DUP and Sinn Fein agreed to sit together in the power-sharing executive.

And the bills for water charges that were ready to be posted out the following week were put "on hold".

It would now be up to NI ministers, in a devolved Executive, to resolve the issue.

One of the first actions of the Executive was to defer charges for 2007-2008.

Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams
In March 2007 a deal over devolution in Northern Ireland was reached

First Minister Ian Paisley said the £75m cost of deferring the charges would be paid for from extra funds negotiated from the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

The Executive decided to conduct its own review to address financing water services which would be completed by the autumn of 2007.

In the autumn it was announced that households should not pay water charges until April 2009.

So another year without water charges passed with no long-term resolution in sight.

Then came the credit crunch and financial downturn.

As banks wobbled, property prices plummeted and unemployment rose, would the Executive put further pressure on hard-hit household budgets?

The answer was no.

In September 2008, Peter Robinson, now first minister, said it was not "credible to place any greater burden on citizens", even if it placed a considerable burden on the Executive's budget.

Pass the parcel

By November it was confirmed the households would not have to face water charges in 2009, thanks to £500m from the treasury.

£400m of it would be used to cover the cost of the deferral.

So would 2010 be the year we would begin to pay for water?

Not so, decided Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy.

In a paper circulated to his Executive colleagues in April 2009 he proposed they continue to fund investment in the water service from the general budget for a further three years.

That would take the deferral past the next assembly elections, due in 2011.

However, by September 2009 Mr Murphy said in was "not in his gift to rules water charges in or out".

His comments came after Finance Minister Sammy Wilson conceded the Executive would have to re-examine the issue of charges.

Mr Wilson said a three-year deferral could cost up to £420m, and had just announced that the Executive would need to find savings of £370m in the coming year.

Although he did say he thought there was sufficient "fat in the system", which if cut would mean water charges could be avoided.

It seems water charges have become the political equivalent of pass the parcel.

As BBC NI political correspondent Martina Purdy put it: "No-one wants to put their hand up and say 'yes I'm in favour of water charges'.

"Nobody wants to get the blame, especially coming into an election."



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