More than 20 years before the introduction of any separate water charges in Northern Ireland, senior civil servants believed that some form of separate water charging was necessary, declassified government files reveal.
A file available at the Public Record Office in Belfast appears to deal primarily with non-domestic water and sewerage services, although it seems that officials were also considering domestic water charges.
In 2008, non-domestic water users began paying separate water charges. But a vigorous campaign against domestic water charges means that much of Northern Ireland Water’s money still comes through general taxation.
In a six-page 1986 memo from Harold Carson in DoE to Mr D W Alexander in the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), he proposed a “major study” into how the water and sewerage systems were funded.
He said the review was somewhat unusual “in that it seems clear at the outset what the theoretically ideal end-position is. Unless I have misunderstood the DFP view, what our two departments would like to see, if it is attainable, is an arrangement with the following principle features:
“A separate rate poundage would be struck for water and sewerage services, though the amount due would be collected along with the regional rate and the district rate...”
Mr Carson went on to propose that either water users or DoE could insist on having a water meter installed, thereby ensuring that the bill was based on exactly the amount of water which was used, rather than on the basis of their property’s rateable valuation.
But, pre-empting the central objection of the non-payment protests when water charges were suggested prior to the restoration of devolution in 2007, Mr Carson said: “Only those receiving water and sewerage services from the department would have to pay for them, no one would be asked to pay twice and either party would have the right to opt for the amount payable to be related to volume, not valuation”.
He acknowledged that it was possible that “the effect on certain categories of ratepayer would be unacceptable politically”, and asked what could be done to “mitigate or cushion the impact”.
Another DFP memo, from M W Rigby in the rating policy branch, attempted to clarify how much of the existing regional rates went to fund water and sewerage services.
He concluded that “it would be correct to say that water and sewerage forms the largest single component of the regional rate and, other than the average district council rate, the largest single component of the overall non-domestic rate poundage”.
More from the declassified files