Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 23 September 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions
Non-Compliant Installations of Water Meter Boxes: Irish Water and Department of Environment, Community and Local Government
I propose that we now resume in public session. The committee is now sitting in public session in its capacity as the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. We are dealing with petition No. 00002/2015 submitted by Mr. Con O'Leary. It is a discussion with officials from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government and officials from Irish Water about the fitting of meter boxes in a driveway with car access. I ask all present to be careful with their mobile phones as they interfere with the sound system.
We are pleased to welcome today from Irish Water, Mr. Jerry Grant, head of asset management; Mr. Kevin McSherry, capital delivery specific projects manager; Mr. Kevin Murray, metering technology and solutions specialist; from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Aidan O'Connor, principal adviser, architecture and building standards section; and Mr. Martin Vaughan, assistant principal. I welcome the witnesses here today and thank them for forwarding their presentations, which have been circulated to the members. Members will be aware that this issue arose out of petition No. 00002/2015, which relates to the fitting of inappropriate water meter boxes, according to the petitioner, in areas that are being accessed by vehicles. The petitioner, Mr. Con O'Leary, claims that the companies installing water meter boxes on behalf of Irish Water are installing grade C boxes whereas they should be using grade B boxes. He claims that this is not in compliance with the Department of Environment circular letter BC6/2009, which states: "The performance specification for covers and frames to services in footpaths, including footpaths in private housing estates, is determined on the basis that such areas are subject to occasional traffic and 'wheel loading'." The circular goes onto refer to the Department's publication, recommendations for site development works and housing areas which requires the use of a class B 125 product on footpaths and also advises that local authorities should ensure compliance when inspecting and procuring works. The petitioner is calling for a review to establish that this is the case and that plans be put in place to prevent this from recurring.
There has been much debate and public disquiet surrounding the establishment of the utility and the operations of both the Department and Irish Water over the past two years and I believe this committee can afford an opportunity to explore the issues raised in this petition. I hope, if nothing else, to give clarity to householders and members of the public.
I must inform you that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If the witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and the witness continues to do so, the witness is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his or her evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I now invite Mr. Grant to make his presentation. This will be followed by Mr. O'Connor and we will then move to questions and answers.
Mr. Jerry Grant:
I thank the Chairman. The committee will have a submission from us and I will not read it verbatim, I will take from it the salient points. I preface it by saying that we have, at this time, constructed 645,000 water meter boxes. We also note that previous to our involvement 225,000 non-domestic meters were provided in this country in similar boxes. The majority of our boxes are grade C with 500 currently at grade B. Based on risk assessment almost all of these boxes are in footpaths, including drop sections, and sometimes in road edges. We are very happy to address the queries in relation to the following: the use of grade B and grade C; the independent testing and information that we have used to inform our design decisions; and the issue of meter reading which was referenced in the submission.
Our intention is to confine ourselves to the terms of reference set out. We are currently defending one set of legal proceedings from an individual. Obviously we will not be discussing that, and matters relating to that will not be touched on. There is some background information to give the committee a sense of the scale of the water metering programme. We also discuss specifics around the design guidance for the boundary box and the performance of the boundary boxes in practice. There is commentary on our engagement with the petitioner. In summary we have set out the broad statement that we are satisfied that we have had a very rigorous approach in respect of selection of the covers for the boundary boxes which are used in the national domestic water metering programme.
We have addressed the petitioner’s concerns on a number of occasions and we have also addressed them through representations made by elected members. The grade C plastic surface box used in the programme is designed to be three times the strength of the basic grade C box which is specified in the code. This is a material fact because once we picked the suppliers of our covers we were then in a position to have regard to the actual strength of the covers based on the manufacturer’s warranty and our own tests, which demonstrated even higher strengths. We can demonstrate that it is common industry practice outside Ireland to install boundary boxes with grade C surface boxes in the drop-down areas of footpaths. The empirical evidence from the programme - and from the previous non-domestic metering programme which was a very extensive programme and to a greater degree in more heavily trafficked areas - suggests that the failure rate of grade C covers is very small. We have had reports of failure of 14 meter boxes out of 645 that have been installed. Only seven of those related to damage to the actual lid itself. Millions of similar grade C surface boxes have been installed in similar circumstances in Britain without any reportable issues. The installation of grade C surface boxes better facilitates customers who want to access the boundary box to read the meters and to operate the stop tap if they are anxious to cut off the supply. The installation of grade C surface boxes is therefore more helpful to customers.
Not only have we set out very strict design criteria and construction criteria, we carried out specific installation training for every crew that operates with all of the contractors on the boundary box project. We also carry out post installation quality audits and these ensure that workmanship and standards of installation are particularly high. Any defects relating to installation are minimised. We have given due and proper regard in the entire process, from design through to procurement and construction management, to all of the relevant codes and standards. The departmental circular which is referenced extensively by Mr. O’Leary is not binding on Irish Water. It is acknowledged in that document that it is open to the authority to design alternatives or to develop alternatives and that it is good engineering design to follow standards such as those, in the absence of independent design or independent risk assessment. Such standards do not have to be automatically followed where good design and planning suggest an alternative equally robust solution.
Accordingly, Irish Water has taken all the normal design considerations and risk factors into account and remains fully satisfied that its approach to the installation of surfaces boxes in the drop-down areas of footpaths is the most appropriate design solution. While Irish Water acknowledges the terms of the departmental circular, we consider it objectively reasonable for us to pursue the approach we have adopted.
We were given the task by Government of installing more than 1 million water meters outside domestic properties between 2013 and 2016. Even in international terms, that was a significant undertaking and a very ambitious programme. Following robust EU procurement processes, the programme commenced on site in August 2013 and will continue until 2016. Where existing boundary boxes are already installed at a particular location, our contractors examine each boundary box and make an assessment as to whether it is suitable. For that reason, we have installed 645,000 boundary boxes. We have actually installed more than 755,000 meters. We were able to utilise approximately 110,000 meters in existing boundary boxes. Again, the vast bulk of those would be class C covers. Members will see a picture of the boundary box on the page. It is designed to accommodate the water meter and stopcock at the bottom of the box. It also has a vertical chamber, a cover and a frame, which is the subject matter of the main point at issue today. The box can be classified as grade A, B or C according to its load-bearing capacity.
I will reference the equipment supply agreements. Early on in the project, recognising that we had to deliver 1 million sites constructed, we needed to have in place very robust equipment supply arrangements in order that the equipment would be available to our contractors. We were asking the industry to do something that had not been done before. We conducted an open procurement process for boundary boxes and other materials and these were to form part of the equipment supply agreements. Our metering contractors are obliged to use materials from those agreements and this ensures a high level of quality and consistency of product and materials across all contractors on the programme. Approved boundary boxes are available to Irish Water's metering contractors, with covers that comply with either grade B or grade C loading requirements.
In terms of the establishment of those agreements, there was a two-stage procurement process, as is usually the case, with a pre-qualification stage followed by a tender stage. The tender stage included both quality and price assessment. There were no legal challenges to the manner in which the process took place and the supply agreements were established without any issues.
Arising from that procurement process, an equipment supply agreement was established for the supply of boundary boxes for the programme. During the course of it, candidates were advised that a total of approximately 1 million units would be required, that 320,000 units - the maximum estimated for any one year - would also be required and that a supplier should, therefore, be in a position to provide 100,000 boundary boxes for domestic water meters in a year. The clear intention behind this was to attract suppliers with both the factory and procurement logistics capacity to be able to make the appropriate level of equipment available to the contractors. Otherwise, it would become a constraint on the installation programme. That was consistent with the fact that we expected to peak at approximately 30,000 boundary box installations per month. We have, in fact, exceeded that number in the peak months.
Obviously, the procurement process had regard to the skills, efficiency, experience and reliability demonstrated by candidates offering their goods as part of the tender competition. Two Irish suppliers of boundary boxes, namely, Mains to Meters and Fusion Pipeline Products were selected, offering the EBCO box and the Talbot box, respectively. Both of these products are manufactured by Atlantic Plastics, part of the TALIS Group, in Wales. The grade B surface boxes available on the equipment supply agreement are formed of cast iron. The class C boxes are plastic but the class B boxes on the frameworks we are using are cast iron. The grade B boundary box is supplied by a company based in Offaly but is manufactured in France. Generally, but not exclusively, grade C boxes are typically plastic while grade B boxes are typically cast iron. However, there are plastic grade B covers.
In terms of training, it is important to say that Irish Water has the opportunity to review previous performance in respect of the installation of boundary boxes in Ireland. It was quite clear to us that when we examined situations where failures occurred, they very rarely related to the strength of the cover but instead related to workmanship, including in respect of the compaction around the chamber, the type of finish of the pavement and covers not being aligned correctly. We formed the view, therefore that it was critical to have control over the workmanship as much as the materials. We knew that the material would not be the intrinsic cause of failure in the vast majority of cases.
We established with the Department and the water services national training group a training programme for contractors' crews and all the crews have been through that training. In addition, we are satisfied that we have in place very robust processes and procedures to ensure the quality of workmanship. The level of training helps to ensure there are minimal defects and that, in fact, is the experience.
I refer to boundary box design guidelines and the history of boundary boxes. The boundary boxes gradually replaced the old stopcock chambers that had been in use from about the 1990s. The Water Framework Directive became the driver for metering of non-domestic flows. That became a matter of Government policy in the early 2000s. Between 2002 and 2009, local authorities installed approximately 225,000 non-domestic meters and boundary boxes. During that time various guidance notes were carried out and specimen contract documents and specimen specifications applied to that work.
Irish Water sought evidence of the performance of these non-domestic boundary boxes since 2002. We have established that grade C surface boxes exhibited very low levels of damage and as such replacement levels have been very low. Only a small number of grade B surface boxes were ever used. Where defects were discovered, it was evident that they were typically as a result of poor workmanship and the nature of lateral support, which is essentially compaction or, in some cases, vandalism. Grade C surface boxes were installed in commercial areas and I have made the point already that the non-domestic customer would typically be in non-residential areas where traffic conditions might be expected to be heavier.
We have some statistics from Cork County Council on repairs carried out. Again over a seven year period, 31 surface box replacements from all causes of failure were identified. They have to be viewed in the context of their being 159 boundary box replacements for other reasons. The reasons that boxes were replaced are due to things such as settlement or changes in street level, excavation work in the vicinity and so on.
I refer to the UK experience. We have regular discussions with a number of UK water utilities which have confirmed to us that the majority of UK water and sewage companies are installing grade C surface boxes as part of their respective metering programmes. Thames Water and Southern Water are the only two England and Wales companies at present that are specifically mandated by Ofwat, the regulator, for compulsory metering of domestic customers in Britain. They are carrying out significant programmes of installation and the vast bulk of them are grade C surface boxes. Thames Water, Southern Water and United Utilities have not indicated to us during our discussions with them that there are any performance issues coming up with the grade C surface boxes. We understand that none of the companies measures it specifically because it is such an insignificant issue as far as they are concerned. They have had no feedback from their operations and maintenance staff of any failure incidence of the grade C surface boxes.
In terms of codes and standards, it is absolutely true to say that a designer will always look at applicable standards, where they are available, in terms of coming up with the specifications for works. The codes and standards generally set the base limit. Irish Water considers the following factors in arriving at its conclusions. These take into account the difference in load bearing capacity for a nominal grade C cover and the nominal grade B cover. There is a range of 10:1. The basic code grade C cover is 0.5 tonnes, the grade B cover is 5 tonnes. That leaves open the fact there is a huge range of load conditions in between which would have to be addressed. Obviously, if one went for a grade B cover in all the situations where traffic might mount the footpath, one would effectively be providing a cover with much more strength than would be necessarily required. The codes make no allowance for the workmanship and supervision in respect of installation. In fact, many codes allow for factors to be included that take account of those things. They make no reference to the balance that needs to be struck between the strength of the cover, the ease of access for the customer, the accommodation of radio devices and, indeed, the reading of meters. The codes do not account for the severity of different failure modes. Where we have tested plastic covers for failure, they essentially split and stayin situ. Indeed a metal cover tends to break more catastrophically because it is more brittle. That can result in more significant health and safety issues. The codes refer to locations accessible to vehicles but give no particular guidance as to the level of vehicle traffic.
The designer is obliged to consider all circumstances relevant to the design. Irish Water recognises that there were factors that had to be considered that were beyond the scope of situations considered in the available guidance.
The petitioner has referenced Circular BC 6/2009, that details the specification for surfaces boxes. The suggestion is that Irish Water is inappropriately acting in violation of the circular. The circular is not binding on Irish Water. It is primarily addressed to planning authorities and building authorities. It has been developed from a developer and housing perspective rather than a water services metering and customer viewpoint. In any event it is a general circular which requires to set out guidance for all circumstances in which these might be used, which would not have the considerations of design and the control of workmanship and so on, that is practised by us. The circular contains the default specification as far as we are concerned for the installation of surface boxes in the absence of specific design and location specific risk assessment. It is a well established practice that objectively justifiable and reasoned designs can diverge from such non-binding guidance if such design is technically sound and grounded on a rational understanding of the products being used, the risks relating to that product and the situation in which it is being installed. Given the scale of the programme, the public money being expended, it was incumbent on Irish Water to design the most technically suitable and efficient solution, having regard to all relevant material factors.
As officials from the Department are present, I will now move on to the manufacturer's guidance. The equipment supply agreement in respect of the provision of grade C and grade B surface boxes for the programme was established prior to Irish Water concluding its full technical opinion as to the appropriate location for the installation of grade C surface boxes or indeed grade B boxes. Our current approach is founded to a large extent on the proven load bearing capacity of our grade C surface boxes used in the programme rather than the minimum load capacity of a theoretical product. We understand that the manufacture of the grade C surface boxes used on the programme has supplied something in the order of 16 million of these products to the UK and Ireland and that it is common practice to install them in the drop-down or cross-over areas of residential footpaths.
Irish Water has been informed by the supplier of the grade C surface boxes that they have had practically no reports of issues with covers sited in the drop-down areas. Our experience in the programme to date is that we have installed more than 644,500 grade C boxes compared with 500 grade B boxes, of which we have reports of 14 broken covers. We have also obtained confirmation from Atlantic Plastics, the supplier of the boundary boxes that the installation of a boundary box in a drop-down area of a footpath will not in this instance be deemed to be a breach of warranty conditions. They are satisfied that the warranty holds for boxes in that circumstance. We are aware that UK water companies from time to time give direction and specification as to products used by developers on their behalf. They do sometimes specify the higher strength material. Again that takes account of the fact that they are anxious to mitigate against the risk of poor workmanship in that uncontrolled situation. These variables do not arise in the context of boundary boxes being installed pursuant to our programme and therefore these documents are not particularly relevant to us.
In terms of load testing, the grade C surface box used in the programme is designed as three times stronger than the minimum requirement. Representatives of Irish Water have observed the surface boxes tested in controlled conditions to more than four times the load stipulated in the British standard. The grade C surface boxes used by Irish water withstood loads in excess of two tonnes before cracking and loads in excess of three tons before fracturing. To put it in context, a large family car would be very unlikely to exert a wheel load greater than 0.5 tonnes to 0.75 tonnes. It is very unlikely that all of that load would transfer on to the small area of the surface box.
We also have had independent load testing carried out on the grade C surface box, which has been proven to withstand loads of more than two tons. As part of the test, a stone was placed on a surface box and a standard car tyre used to impose the load on the stone. The result of that test was that the care tyre deformed around the stone and came into contact with the surface box. The test was abandoned when we were afraid the tyre would actually explode.
In terms of the customer, there are clear benefits for customers where the grade C surface box is used because it is significantly more convenient for them to access the meter and the outside stop-valve, which is in the surface box for their property. The surface box is not only lighter than the grade B metal cover, it also can be levered using a screwdriver, like the way one uses a screwdriver when opening the lid of a paint pot. The metal surface box needs a set of lifting keys that have to be provided to the customer and can easily be mislaid. The metal surface box also needs an element of manhandling with the resulting risk of injury and with fingers being trapped. Safety is a key priority for Irish Water in everything it does. Safety in construction has been a particular focus of these contracts as it is on every contract.
It is important to note that the grade B surface boxes are not indestructible in themselves. We have referred to the consequences of catastrophic failure of a grade B box.
In terms of performance on the ground, we have installed approximately 645,000 boundary boxes to date. From that figure of 645,000 boundary boxes, there have been 14 reports of broken surface boxes. That is a tiny percentage. The reasons for the individual failures are varied and Mr. Kevin McSherry can discuss it, if members wish. In terms of the consequence of selecting a grade C box, it is insignificant. We have been specifically monitoring a sample of grade C surface boxes installed in the drop down areas of residential driveways. We have 50 grade C surface boxes that we have been keeping under observation since November 2013, which is almost two years ago, and no visual defects in any of these surface boxes have been recorded. Such an audit clearly supports the approach we have taken in respect of the installation of these covers.
In terms of the role of contractors, I reference the photographs on the page that show the concrete slab within which the cover sits. The concrete slabs are constructed to a very high standard and provide huge rigidity to the cover and frame and the overall installation is very strong. In accordance with the installation contracts, the final design responsibility rests with the contractor. The contractors decide between a grade B or a grade C box, based on a risk assessment that they carry out. The decision is generally based on engineering assessment of the loading conditions of each location. That allows for the fact that prior to contract, it is not possible to predict all of the situations and circumstances that might arise, so a degree of discretion is left with the contractor who might typically install a grade C surface box where there is pedestrian traffic and occasional light vehicle traffic, parking manoeuvres and so on. On the other hand, a grade B surface box might be considered where there are risks of occasionally higher wheel loads - in other words, where there is clear evidence of heavy vehicle access that might access the footpath or the drop down.
Our audits generally concur with the design decisions being made - in other words these are rational, sensible decisions and it is clear on what basis they have been made. The contractors as designers have demonstrated that where the locations permit, the lighter cover is the most appropriate surface box to install. It is also fair to say that when they look at a particular location, they will from time to time move the location of the meter box closer to the wall of the building to reduce the risk. That has been part of the approach that has been taken to ensuring there is no difficulty with the grade C box as the standard box solution. It is also important to say the contractors bear the risk of the damage to the boxes for a number of years and, as such, it would not be in their interests to select a grade C cover if the situation warranted a grade B cover.
In terms of supervision and quality control, both Irish Water and its contractors have committed significant resources to supervision and quality auditing to ensure that the finished work is of a very high standard. We also have developed extensive quality assurance and control resources to conduct follow up checks on finished installations. Any where a defect is encountered, it is repaired at the contractor's cost. That is part of the contract. Our field inspectors carry out frequent audits of contractors work for that purpose.
I refer to meter reading. Our meters feature automatic meter reading, that is, AMR technology, where a transmitter sends a meter reading from the meter to a receiver unit in one of Irish Water's meter reading vehicles. This means that meter readers generally do not need to access the cover of the meter box. They can read the meters from a passing vehicle. As a result of that efficiency, 11 meter readers can now read the entire suite and get a full meter reading of all the domestic meters we have installed to date. To maximise the benefit of remote meter reads, it is important to enable the automated reading of the meters to be conducted effectively. Our considerations fed by logic and previous studies indicated that while there was no question that the grade B box precluded the reading of the meter, the less dense the material, the better from the point of view of the efficiency and certainty of being able to read it. That said, we have now completed three quarterly cycles of readings and our systems have not reported any difficulty regarding the 500 meters with grade B surface boxes. However, we are a little careful in respect of regarding that as conclusive because these are 500 individual boxes, which are not in close proximity like the grade C boxes. Therefore, we are not making an assumption that there would be no issues and difficulties, although it has to be said that our current experience is that there is no difficulty.
Irish Water does not consider that there is sufficient empirical evidence from the programme to determine definitively whether more wide spread use of grade B surface boxes would have a negative impact on our ability or efficiency in conducting the reading.
In the past we have engaged with a petitioner who produces a form of boundary box with a grade B surface box. Both Irish Water and the Department have engaged on the matter, directly and through third parties. We have also carried out a pilot scheme and provided a provisional report. A final report will issue to him shortly. We are continually in the business of looking for new and innovative products. Clearly, we will conduct a future procurement process for the delivery of covers and meter boxes. However, currently we have our suppliers on contract and the contract will continue for the next 12 months. We have also had extensive engagement, detailed in our presentation, with Oireachtas Members on this question.
The petitioner has referred to a High Court case in respect of installation of a grade C surface box at a particular location and acknowledges that he was party to assisting the particular plaintiff in his action. We acknowledge that a settlement was made in that case. It was made for pragmatic reasons as we manage all legal cases pragmatically in the best interests of our customers. However, we absolutely refute the statement that the question was conceded as to the appropriateness of a grade C box in general or at that location. In fact, we made our own technical assessment of the location and concluded that a grade C box would have been used. Again, acting reasonably in that situation, as part of the agreement we agreed to provide a grade B box and have done so. That was in the interests of resolving the matter expediently and cost effectively. It was a pragmatic decision to install a grade B box.
In general, we are satisfied that all relevant design considerations have been taken into account in this huge programme of work and the selection of grade C surface boxes. We conclude that not only our experience but also the previous experience in Ireland and general experience in the United Kingdom demonstrate that the grade C surface box of this standard is perfectly suitable for use in the drop-down areas of footpaths and footpaths generally. We have taken full account of all design considerations in arriving at our conclusions. In that regard, we have followed through on all of the detail, from design through specification, the training of our offices and quality assurance, to ensure there is no deviation in the standard. Customers can access their meter box readily by the use of a screwdriver. It is important they can access not just the meter for reading but also the stop tap. We have 645,000 installations of our own, with no more than 14 failures. We reference the 225,000 pre-existing meters with class C covers.
We believe we are fully in step with the general practice involving millions of meter boxes across the United Kingdom. Therefore, I am satisfied that we have offered the best value solution to our customers and the correct technical solution.
I thank Mr. Grant for his comprehensive response to the issues raised in the petition. There will be no need for him to go into the same depth of detail in responding to questions as he has already provided the details in his presentation.
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
On behalf of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and my colleague, Mr. Martin Vaughan, I thank the Chairman for the invitation to attend this meeting. We are from the architecture and building standards section of the Department, which section sets minimum standards for building regulations, with which members are familiar. The standards set are mandatory and must be complied with. The references in the documentation circulated and in the "blue book" - site development works - are recommendations and, therefore, not part of the building regulations. They are external to buildings and guidance documents.
On 1 January 2014 Irish Water assumed statutory responsibility for public water services. It is the designated national authority and, therefore, responsible for water services, including infrastructure and water meter boxes. The statutory role played formerly by the local authorities, acting as water service authorities, no longer pertains.
Our recommendations in this guidance document were to local authorities in general, and there are quite a number of them. Now we are dealing with one single national authority. My responsibility is to deal with the matters specifically relating to the guidance that is given in the document, such as the recommendations for site development work and to deal with the circulars, namely, BC 9/2008 and BC 6/2009, which are relevant to this discussion and to the practices of the guidance.
The origins of this guidance document are quite noble, when one looks at it. It goes back to An Foras Forbartha, where it was first published in 1974. It was amended in 1984. The Department then published a guidance document based on that in 1998. It is, as I said, recommended standards guidance for local authorities that, effectively, did not have their own guidance, although some local authorities did. They would have had by-laws, etc. The document does not contain all the possible solutions. It allows the authorities to come forward with alternatives and it recognises that some authorities provide their own documented recommendations. There is a broad recognition in the foreword of this document to explain where it sits in the sense of guidance.
When we refer to non-compliance with the building regulations, we mean there is an obligation to comply and, therefore, there is non-compliance. Strictly speaking, there has been a failure to adhere to the law. The blue book does not carry the force of law. It is a recommendation and a guidance document only. Confusion should be avoided, because we are the authority, if one likes, for both.
As Mr. Aidan O'Connor has referred to it in his statements, I wish to make clear that this committee has a very clear function in terms of looking at issues of concern around the public services and bringing before us the relevant parties to address the concerns raised. In this case, the relevant parties are obviously Irish Water and the Department. We do not second-guess the decisions of courts or an Ombudsman. I wish to make it clear that any deliberations taking place today and any decisions that our committee makes are not in any way to be compared with those of a legal case. We are not deliberating on tendering processes or anything concerning them. We are deliberating on whether Irish Water complied with the required standards. We have listened to the evidence presented today. I do not want any of this hearing today to be seen in any way to be in conflict with a court of law, which is independent and has an independent jurisdiction. We certainly would not act in a way that would fall foul of the sub judice rule in any way, shape or form. I wish to clarify that point. For any party that is interested in these matters, any court cases are entirely separate from our deliberations today and we would not be seeking to influence or to undermine in any way, shape or form a court of law or separate process. We will be looking at the specific petition. It is a stand-alone petition which we have accepted as a legitimate issue. We have listened to the evidence given and now I will open up the floor to the members to ask questions.
I have a number of questions and I want to thank the witnesses for their presentations. I will read the questions out. I will be as quick as I can but I will need a few minutes. All stopcocks were replaced by meter boxes. The stopcocks were predominantly fitted and paid for by the householder. All these stopcocks were the correct grade B standard. Irish Water has now replaced them with a substandard product that does not comply with prescribed standards. How can this be right?
Why did Irish Water make-----
I ask the Deputy to please respect the Chair. The Deputy did not indicate beforehand that he wanted to raise 20 questions. This committee has never allowed for 20 questions. I will permit the following. If he wishes to submit written questions, we will ask Irish Water to respond. I will not permit 20 questions to be put orally today. I will permit a maximum of three questions.
I have ruled that I will not permit 20 questions. I invite the Deputy to put his 20 questions in writing and submit them to Irish Water and the Department. I assume they will be agreeable to respond to them within a week. Is that reasonable? Yes. The Deputy will receive a response within a week. I will permit him to ask two or three questions but certainly not 20 questions.
Before doing so I wish to say, with all due respect, that members came here today to ask questions. I have been here since the start of the meeting awaiting my turn to speak. It is very unfair of the Chairman to let Irish Water give a detailed presentation, which took a long time to deliver, and not accord us the same time to respond. I do not know how long we listened to the informative presentation but I listened with great interest to every word that was said. Now, however, I would like to be given a chance to ask a number of questions.
I shall outline what I have agreed with the members. In fairness to them, they have put a lot of work into preparing for the meeting today. I propose that we will have five questions each from both of the members here and the remaining questions will be given to the witnesses. The questions can be passed around and then we will hear a response. We will give the witnesses a hard copy of the remaining questions that we have been unable to ask. We expect to receive a response within a week which I think is reasonable. Is that okay? Out of respect to the two members, who have prepared for the meeting today, five questions each is fair. I call on Deputy Healy-Rae to start again.
I thank the Chairman. I have given the secretariat my full list of questions. I would appreciate if each of them could be answered, at the convenience of the witnesses, within the next week.
Why did Irish Water make a mistake in the specification for the supply of water meter boxes that should have included a requirement for the enablement of a radio signal propagation? How did Irish Water expect the radio signal to get out of the box when they ordered a cast iron covered box? Why did Irish Water sign a contract for cast iron covered boxes when it was not possible for radio waves to get through the metal? Who took the decision to order the wrong water meter boxes? Was there an engineer in Irish Water with radio and electronic qualifications?
It would be ridiculous, gentlemen, for us to be here today without showing the delegation what we are talking about. Irish Water has already stated that it had a report of 14 broken covers. I can tell the delegation that there are 15 broken covers because I have one here in my hand. The cover was broken by vehicles driving over it. I also have pictures here of boxes that have been located in crazy positions where lorries, creamery lorries, tractors, trailers and heavy vehicles drive over them which has led to the boxes being broken.
The main thing is the difference between a grade B and a grade C cover. It is very important for people to realise what we are talking about. That is important but what they sit on is more important. One is strong and will not break while one is weak and will break, and is breaking. It is ridiculous to say there are only 14 reported complaints. People who walk and who cycle see them every day in this cracked condition. Do we telephone Irish Water to report them? Of course, we do not. If I walk around Dublin tonight and see a cracked cover, will I check what street I am on and telephone Irish Water in the morning and report it? Let us not be silly. One knows that will not happen and that is the reason Irish Water is not inundated with people reporting these broken covers. It is ridiculous to think that one cover will do the same job as the other. The extra cost that was involved was minimal when one considers the consequences of installing these inferior covers, that is, replacing those that break as well as the possibility of litigation arising if people get hurt. There is a myriad of problems and difficulties. That Irish Water went to England to purchase them from an English company, owned by a German parent company, did not make sense when a product was available here. I cannot see for the life of me why Irish Water is insisting to this day that it was right to install an inferior product given what was actually required. One would have allowed for the meter to be read remotely and Irish Water would have had no problem with it. This does not make sense.
I look forward to getting replies to the questions I have submitted. They are detailed and deserve answers. An inferior product, which is breaking, is being installed. This product will continue to break for years to come and will end up costing taxpayers thousands, even millions, of euro because of the decision taken at that time.
I will allow the Deputy in with a supplementary question when he has had the responses. I appreciate his co-operation. We will pass on the Deputy's 20 questions in detail. We are getting them copied. I call Deputy Harrington.
I thank the Chairman and the committee for allowing me to participate in this afternoon's proceedings. I have a few questions which are fair. The presentation by Mr. Grant is almost agreed. There is no question in terms of the background, the specs and so on. The difficulty we have here is the treatment of a supplier of a product to an Irish company under a tendering process.
Sorry, Deputy, we cannot deal with the tendering process as it is subject to legal proceedings. We can only deal with the actual issue which, in fairness, Deputy Healy-Rae has raised, is around the quality-----
The tendering process is not up for discussion today at this committee. It is subject to a court process. What we can refer to, as Deputy Healy-Rae has done, is the quality of the product.
Perhaps I can ask a few specific questions. I ask Irish Water what design life it expects to get from either grade C or grade B box covers. Both presentations stated that the guidelines, circulars and standards, whether UK or Irish, are not binding either by the Department, with respect to Irish Water, or by Irish Water in terms of the rules. How then could they allow companies to guess, essentially, the requirements of Irish Water if the appropriate standards are based on experience and not laid down standards?
Why can Irish Water not use the specifications and insist on what it has learned from experience? In the context of the design life, a figure of 50 years has been mentioned to me. This means there is a long way to go in terms of the lifetime of these caps. However, the level of experience in terms of the installation of the covers is not high. How can we draw conclusions as to the appropriateness of the experience with regard to the specifications which are being issued to companies? Let us be fair, what else would they use in coming up with appropriate designs to supply tenders? Did Irish Water envisage, before the metering project began, that in certain areas or circumstances a grade B box of a particular standard would be required? If so, was an evaluation carried out of how many grade B-type covers would be required?
Part 7 of the executive summary, which is the briefing note supplied by Irish Water, states that the Department's circular is not binding on the company. It is good engineering design practice to follow standards such as those specified in the Department's circular in the absence of any independent design or risk evaluation. However, such standards need not be automatically followed where good design and planning suggests an alternative, equally robust solution. In the absence of anything else, it appears that we are almost guessing what will happen in terms of where some of these covers will be installed. Between 80% and 90% are installed appropriately in areas where there are pedestrians and cars but they are also being installed in areas that are accessed by fuel trucks, tractors and other agricultural machines. Do the witnesses agree that, in the context of areas where there is agricultural commercial activity and where domestic meters are being installed, it would be appropriate to state that in the next 50 years - or whatever is the design life of these covers - there is a slight chance that a tractor, a heavy goods vehicle or a fuel truck will drive over the covers and that it would, therefore, be prudent to opt for heavier covers? Was an evaluation carried out as to the number of such covers that would be required when assessing the tenders?
I hope I will have the opportunity to pose a number of supplementary questions.
Mr. Jerry Grant:
I will cover some general points. Mr. Kevin Murray will deal specifically with some of the technical points around the specifications and also the radio signal question.
On the general point of stopcock replacement, stopcocks have been the subject of gradual replacement since the early 1990s. The Department specifically advised local authorities in this regard and many of the latter had, long before the non-domestic programme was introduced, insisted that meter boxes be used. This was because they anticipated the introduction of metering. Indeed, meters were installed in some local authority areas. We found many boxes with meters that were installed under planning conditions in certain counties. In those situations we replaced the meter with our meter so that we could read it efficiently with our system. Those boxes were perfectly good for the job. The basic point, in respect of both questioners, is that the standards are a default position and one can always default to a standard. However, a standard does not, of itself, absolve one of responsibility for adequacy of design. A company such as Irish Water, which has a strong engineering capability, absolutely has the right - the codes allow for this and the non-binding guidance document acknowledges it - to consider the specific circumstances and conditions that obtain.
As I said in the presentation, the backfill standards generally and, in particular, the way the concrete surround is cast around the cover make it very robust. In terms of normal traffic, for example, a car, it can handle at least three to four times the load. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The reality is that approximately 225,000 of these have been installed in this country since 2009. They began to be installed in 2002. The UK experience corroborates that. So there was no reason to be concerned beyond the fact that they were more cost effective and guaranteed to be easy to read. As specified in the documents, we provided for the option of a grade B cover precisely because there would be situations where a milk truck or something of that nature might necessitate the higher strength cover. It is absolutely correct to acknowledge to Deputy Healy Rae that there is a big difference in strength and the stronger cover can be used precisely in those situations.
We cannot guarantee that we have every example right but, clearly, if a failure arises in the period of guarantee of this contract, the contractor is obliged to replace it at his own cost because that is what the contract requires him to do. If it happens beyond that, then clearly we will have to replace it. However, the number in that regard will be very small. Mr. Kevin McSherry will talk about the generality of examples. The member mentioned some additional ones that would not have been reported. It might be useful for Mr. Kevin Murray to talk about the issue of the readability of the meters.
Mr. Kevin Murray:
I will try and pick up on some of these points. On the design life question that was asked, the tender documents sought a design life of 50 years. That was specifically requested. We also considered if grade B or grade C surface boxes would be required. As a result, our tender document asked for both grade B and grade C tender boxes to be provided. The nature of this particular contract was a little different from what one might expect in that we arranged a framework of products. We went to the market and asked suppliers to provide us with a framework of boundary boxes. Then we separately went to the market and engaged contractors through a tendering process. We told them that they had to select the products from our framework. In response to the question about how contractors could know what complied and what did not, that did not apply in this case because we were providing them with a product that we had preselected according to our procurement process. I hope that deals with the issue. I would be happy to take supplementary questions on it.
We were also asked about the automatic meter reading. Clearly, we considered automatic meter reading. We also carried out a tender for suppliers to provide us with the water meters that go into the boxes and we laid down requirements for their radio signal to be capable of being picked up at a certain distance, at a certain speed of travel and with the meter in the boundary box to a certain depth. The suppliers of those meters had to take into account a number of factors, not least that the boundary box could have a plastic or metal cover. They also had to take into account the environment. The radio signal will pass through the metal cover. The issue is to what distance it will travel and to what extent it will be impeded by the density of a metal cover. However, it can also be impeded by many other factors, such as walls that might be between the van and the cover. Perhaps somebody might have parked a car in the vicinity. These factors can all degrade the distance the signal can travel. We have witnessed signals being picked up over 100 m away from boundary boxes in some very good circumstances.
However, the performance to date has been such that we have not seen a discernible impact from the use of metal covers as opposed to plastic covers in the small number of cases we have used them. That is probably testament to the quality of workmanship and the products used. I hope that addresses that question.
I believe Mr. Grant has answered the question on stopcocks. There are many examples of broken stopcock covers around the country. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is that the customer or whoever else will open the stopcock cover. The Deputy will be familiar with its horseshoe shape. When it is opened, sometimes somebody can accidentally give it a kick, the hinge breaks and the stopcock cover becomes loose and then disappears. That is a problem and an indication that, in a variation of an té nach bhfuil laidir cathfaidh sé a bheith glic, something can be stronger but not necessarily as clever. We believe our products meet requirements very well.
Mr. Kevin McSherry:
Irish Water has employed a field team of 60 engineers who are responsible for monitoring the performance of the contractor on the ground with a view to checking the quality and standard of works taking place. The Irish Water field engineers have carried out 13,921 individual inspections of the quality of the works on the ground. When the works are completed, Irish Water works with the contractor and the relevant local authority to confirm that they are to the relevant standard.
In response to the Deputy, if there are issues, they should be passed through to us and we will happily investigate any broken lid. Members of the public have telephoned us on 1890 278278. Of the 14 reported incidents to date, seven have involved broken covers. They were all replaced with class C covers within a matter of days. None of the seven replaced covers has been replaced a second time.
Two years ago a broken cover on a street in Cork was reported to Irish Water. It is still broke. Do the delegates seriously think only 14 covers broke in the entire country? That is ridiculous and they cannot possibly believe it. Everybody knows. We all see broken covers at different locations. The delegates must admit that they have seen them and if they have, have they reported them?
Mr. Kevin McSherry:
We have received 14 notifications in reference to the domestic meter roll-out programme, not the non-domestic meter programme. Seven of the 14 concerrned broken lids. Seven concerned compaction issues relating to poor workmanship on the ground. We have employed 60 field engineers who monitor the performance of the contractors on the ground. Of the contractors on the ground, 800 operatives have been trained in the installation of boundary boxes by the water services training group. Therefore, they are installed in the correct manner.
Mr. Jerry Grant:
As a company, we do not have ISO certification. Ours is a very new company and it is something at which we will look. Over time we will look at applying ISO 9000, ISO 14000 and ISO 55000 standards. They are part of a management system standard we would expect to apply in the next few years. Very few companies of our scale apply that standard. Very few utility and construction companies apply that standard.
There are 225,000 non-domestic meter boxes in the ground, practically all of which have grade C covers on streets with heavier traffic because they are in commercial premises. There are some instances of broken covers. They were put in by the local authorities and their contractors. In some instances, clearly, there were workmanship issues.
In the main the number of failures is very low. It has not been a problem for the local authorities to address the issues that arose that required occasional replacements.
Deputy Healy-Rae is a member of this committee. When we get the responses to the 24 questions, we will discuss them at a committee meeting. We reserve the right to invite the witnesses to return to clarify matters.
Chairman, that is a good idea. While Deputy Harrington requested that responses to the 24 questions would be forwarded to him, could the Chairman ensure that the response would issue to all the members of the committee?
Deputy, when we receive the response from Irish Water, we will circulate the questions and the responses to all the committee members. Deputy Harrington is a former member of this committee but it will require a decision of the committee before we can circulate the responses to him. I am confident that we will get the information next Wednesday and we will give it to him after the meeting next Wednesday.
A number of questions arise from the answers that Mr. Grant, Mr. Murray and Mr. O'Connor provided. I wish to refer to the design life of 50 years. Mr. Grant in responding to questions referred to the proof of the pudding, but in this case it will be 50 years before we see the proof of the pudding. That comes to the nub of the issue. I acknowledge that a great deal of work was done on the specifications, the delivery framework and the workmanship in advance of the procurement process, which was well pointed out by Mr. Murray. Surely some thought was put into the number of grade B and grade C boundary box covers that would be required as part of the tender process.
The automatic meter reading technology was mentioned and the grade C covers, which account for 80% of covers, present no inhibiting factors in the reading of the meters. It was mentioned that factors such as a wall, a car or other impediment could affect the efficient reading of the meters. I suggest that cast iron covers would inhibit the efficient reading of meters. Was that considered as part of the process for the grade B covers? I would be surprised that Irish Water would purposely put an impediment to the efficient reading of meters, given that it employs only 11 meter readers.
I have a question that I wish to put to the officials from the Department.
The Department has issued guidelines which we assume are based on the engineering assessment of best practice. Today it was said that those guidelines are not binding. What is the point of guidelines, if they are not binding? Most people who are building their homes or running businesses understand there is a regulatory environment. The concern is that the guidelines for Irish Waters and others to implement are not binding. It is puzzling why we have a Department with oversight if the guidelines it issues are open to interpretation and can be dismissed arbitrarily. I am sure that would be a very serious concern for people paying attention to the proceedings.
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
To clarify, it is a guidance document and in the guidance document, it clearly states on the cover that it is recommendations. Within that document there is mention of standards. There are Irish standards, international standards and European standards.
It is not without reference to standards but what I am saying is that the recommendations are what they are - recommendations. When they were developed they applied to local authorities that did not have any standards at the time or any declared document one could use as a standards document. That is why it was developed over the period in question, as I have explained, through An Foras Forbartha in 1974 on to the Department's own publication of this document, which advanced it. It also includes guidance on roads, for example, road turning circles and so forth. They have been superseded by developments in design. The issues that are dealt with here - those which develop over time - are the subject of the recommendations. There would be standards within that to the effect that if one is to follow it or deal with a particular concern, then one follows an Irish standard, a European standard or, in some cases, a British standard.
Mr. O' Connor must appreciate the point that has been made. What is the point in making a recommendation? One of the issues that got us into the massive economic crisis of recent times was light-touch regulation or the non-existence of regulation. Here we have a Department that has gone to the trouble, we assume, of establishing engineering standards and issuing recommendations but these can be completely ignored and dismissed.
Essentially, from the evidence given by Irish Water and the Department, we know there are guidelines but they do not have to be followed. They are not binding. Irish Water has stated that repeatedly and Mr. O'Connor has confirmed it. It is a matter of profound concern that we have a Department which is responsible for good practice, regulation and oversight and which issued recommendations that are pretty important. However, those recommendations are not binding. What is the point of such recommendations?
I wish to raise an issue in support of that point, Chairman. These pictures confirm that the boxes in question are being installed on roads where traffic is driving over them. At the same time, the manufacturer of these grade C surface boxes has stated clearly they are not to be used in situations involving motor vehicles. The manufacturer further states that no warranty is given or liability accepted for failure to comply with its installation instructions. The Department bought the boxes but was told by the manufacturer not to install them in locations where vehicles can drive over them. They are being put down in places where creamery lorries, trucks and heavy machinery are driving over them. Am I correct or incorrect in saying that the suppliers of the boxes clearly state that? Am I right or wrong?
In fairness, that is absolutely correct. The point Deputy Healy-Rae has made is not supplementary to the point I raised. That said, I will ask Irish Water to respond to Deputy Healy-Rae's point in a moment. I believe the Deputy is referring to documentation from Thames Water. He is referring to a Thames Water, company-specific addendum which states that boundary boxes of class B may be used in areas subject to "occasional traffic loading" but a wise precaution is to install these out of the line of traffic wheels, in the centre of the driveway. Irish Water will deal with that point in a moment but I ask Mr. O'Connor to deal with the point I made first.
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
-----are falling short of standards. The recommendations refer to standards. They point out that the authority is responsible. This referred to the local authorities at the time but that situation has now changed. Irish Water is now the authority and, therefore, it is a matter for Irish Water.
Obviously, the Department issues guidelines and recommendations to local authorities on a wide range of matters regularly, as is its right. Does Mr. O'Connor not believe it would also be prudent to issue to Irish Water guidelines that are binding and that protect the public interest?
Mr. Aidan O'Connor:
We are here to speak about standards from our Department and, in particular, those which relate to the building standards. I explained before that we are mainly concerned with the building regulations and the standards therein. The Chairman is asking a much broader question now. There are other sections within the Department that deal with their own areas of expertise. I have guided the committee on the document itself and how it can be interpreted.
I ask that Mr. O'Connor consult his Department colleagues on this issue. The Irish Water representatives will come back to us within a week with responses to questions that were put to them so perhaps Mr. O'Connor could issue the committee with a response to the broad question, which is whether the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is aware of any statutory guidelines relating to these matters that are binding and, if not, why not.
Mr. Martin Vaughan:
My understanding of the legal situation is that under the Water Services Act 2014, Irish Water is the national authority responsible for the provision of water services infrastructure. Previously that responsibility fell on the Department working through the local authorities. That context is now entirely changed.
I must interrupt for one second. That is an interesting point but if a local authority wishes to introduce rules and regulations relating to wind energy, for example, the Department can enforce its own guidelines, even though that is a matter vested in the local authority. There is precedent, therefore, of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government enforcing guidelines on a local authority, a vested body, in the public interest.
Mr. Martin Vaughan:
Absolutely. I was getting to that point. Within the Water Services Act, there is provision for the Minister to issue instructions and directions to Irish Water. However, I am not aware of that having been done. Mr. O'Connor and I do not work on the water services side of the Department but that provision is there in legislation. The legislation also contains a provision for complaints from the public relating to the infrastructure and all aspects of Irish Water's remit to be made to the parent company, Ervia. Apologies, I am wrong about that - there is a provision for complaints to be made to the Commission for Energy Regulation and the commissioner can then make a direction on such matters. That is the legal framework that now pertains to water services-----
Mr. Vaughan will appreciate our frustration. Today, in evidence given to this committee, Irish Water confirmed that there are recommendations or guidelines in place but that they are not binding. That is the difficulty. People are puzzled as to why the Department would issue any guidelines-----
As a former county councillor, like many of my committee colleagues, it would be my understanding that it is not good practice to ignore guidelines, recommendations or frameworks that have been issued, whether binding or not. Why is it being tolerated that a local authority would be expected to comply with departmental guidelines or circulars but Irish Water would not?
Mr. Martin Vaughan:
My answer to that would be that one must look at the context in which the circulars were written. They were written in the context of local authorities taking estates in charge. They were taking into charge works that had been carried out by private developers.
The local authority was taking over responsibility for that infrastructure, so it had a right to insist on the standard of infrastructure of which it was taking control. It is no longer taking control of water services infrastructure. The circulars are still relevant and binding in that other elements of the site development works document are taken in charge by local authorities. However, water services infrastructure is not. Therefore, if there is a problem now with water services infrastructure and it needs to be replaced, the responsibility for that no longer falls on the local authority. It falls on Irish Water to replace it. The circular no longer applies in that regard, but that point is not appreciated.
Go ahead with that. When we get the response to that, we will wrap up. We will expect a response back to the committee on the 24 questions listed and we may then get back to the witnesses for further clarification.
This is a core question. The tendering process was referred to and it has been said that Irish Water tendered for grade B and grade C covers. It must have made an evaluation of, for example, how many grade B and C covers it would require.
Mr. Jerry Grant:
I make the point again that the materials to be used in the meter box installation were procured ahead of the contracts being procured. They were procured quite early. In our assessment of the requirements, we allowed for up to 10% of boxes to be grade B. That was a considered view that had regard to the situation in Britain and here in Ireland with non-domestic meters. We had clear evidence that the majority of situations would be satisfied by the grade C cover, but we anticipated that perhaps up to 10% would require grade B. That said, we took no decision to specify that, say, 10% were to be used.
I wish to make an important point. In regard to any guidance or standards in the public domain, we would never summarily or arbitrarily ignore them. We have responsibility to the Commission for Energy Regulation to deliver the most cost-effective and efficient solution to any problem. We will not be compensated by the CER for failures that occur from our lack of control over quality. Therefore, we are at risk if there is a problem in this regard. We took these decisions clearly understanding the construct and quality control process we were putting forward. If we are setting criteria for private developers for infrastructure that we might be taking over in the future, we may take a very different view and will take an appropriate view in all those situations. This is particular to work we are carrying out under contracts and supervision and to our specifications, and that is the core point. There is nothing arbitrary or summary about this.
I did not say arbitrary or summary. The issue is the guidelines, frameworks and regulations are clear and one either adheres to them or does not. The lay person following these proceedings would ask the question. We are all subject to regulation, particularly those involved in building or engineering works and there are clear standards to be adhered to. It is not about going about them arbitrarily or any other way. The issue of contention is that Irish Water would have any degree of discretion on the matter. The point is whether recommendations, guidelines and circulars are binding. It is not that Irish Water dealt with them either arbitrarily or summarily. That Irish Water had any flexibility is the issue.