Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government

Water Advisory Body: Discussion

9:30 am

Photo of Maria BaileyMaria Bailey (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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In our second session today, we will engage with Mr. Paul McGowan, chairperson of the Water Advisory Body. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. McGowan, Mr. Darragh Page and Ms Sharon Kennedy. The purpose of this session is to engage with the witnesses and hear about the work of the newly established Water Advisory Body. In particular, we are keen to learn how the committee can engage with the body on an ongoing basis.

I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact 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. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, 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.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Dr. Paul McGowan:

Good morning. I thank the Chair and committee members for the opportunity to give evidence.

I have been appointed recently by the Minister as chair of the Water Advisory Body. I am currently a commissioner and chairperson of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU. I am joined by the other two members of the Water Advisory Body, also recently appointed by the Minister. They are Mr. Darragh Page, programme manager with the office of environmental enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and Ms Sharon Kennedy, senior executive officer with An Fóram Uisce. We have been appointed to the Water Advisory Body for a five-year term with an end date of May 2023. The remaining two members of the advisory body will be appointed through the Public Appointments Service. The advertisement for the two positions was published on 22 August 2018 on stateboards.ie. The closing date for submission of expressions of interest is today, 19 September 2018. I am hopeful that these appointments will be made in October of this year. We look forward to the appointment of the remaining two members in order that the Water Advisory Body can consider and submit its first report to the Oireachtas committee.

We are conscious that the Water Advisory Body has been established to provide a level of assurance to the Oireachtas and members of the public on the transparency, accountability and performance of Irish Water. Specifically, the advisory body has a legal function to advise the Minister on measures needed to improve the transparency and accountability of Irish Water and to provide an annual report to the Minister on the performance of the Water Advisory Body’s functions during the period since its establishment.

The Water Advisory Body will also furnish a quarterly report to the joint committee on the performance of Irish Water in the implementation of its business plan with particular regard to the following areas: infrastructure delivery and leakage reductions; cost reduction and efficiency improvements; improvements in water quality, including the elimination of "boil water" notices; procurement, remuneration and staffing policies; and responsiveness to the needs of communities and enterprise.

I will briefly outline progress to date. The Water Advisory Body has met on two occasions, 13 July and 31 August 2018. Early discussions have focused on several matters, including governance, rules of procedure and terms of reference for the advisory body, as well as the establishment of a website and identity to facilitate the transparency of our work. We have also commenced discussion on the content and format of quarterly reports to the joint committee. With specific reference to our reports, we have considered the sources of information which will feed into these reports and the frequency with which that information is available.

We are keen to ensure that the reports we prepare provide meaningful information about Irish Water’s performance in the key areas identified in the legislation. Our aim is to focus on what is important and explain why that is the case. We aim to identify and draw together a set of key performance metrics from various sources. These will include various CRU and EPA reports and data and information from other sources, including An Fóram Uisce and Irish Water. Our aim is for this set of metrics to help to demonstrate how Irish Water is performing against these headings over time.

Over the next few months, we will continue to develop our report structures and content sources, identify these metrics and determine how often they are updated. We will also explore how we might use each quarterly report to explore particular aspects of Irish Water’s performance in more detail. As soon as the remaining two members of the advisory body are appointed, the members will finalise the reporting structure and content and prepare the first formal report for submission to the joint committee. We look forward to meeting the committee regularly in the future to discuss our findings.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Dr. McGowan for his presentation. I wish the advisory body the best of luck. I was not a supporter of the establishment of Irish Water five years ago, but we are where we are. My objection concerned local democracy, not the national issue. The establishment of Irish Water removed from local representatives the power to decide how their county grew. I still hold that point of view.

I wish to raise some very frustrating issues regarding Irish Water. The first concerns the interaction between Irish Water and local authorities in respect of the planning process and how planning permissions are granted. An issue arise regarding whether such permissions are granted with Irish Water having agreed on connections and whether a service is provided. Local authorities are not accepting communications from Irish Water to developers indicating that a development may proceed. Clarity needs to be brought to the entire interaction surrounding the planning process. Once planning permission is granted, it should be possible for work to commence. In many cases, the developer must first enter negotiations with Irish Water on the provision of water and sewerage services or with other utilities on the provision of other services. This is hampering the process. Work needs to be done on streamlining interactions between Irish Water and local authorities in granting planning permission. I could provide examples of cases where this process is not working.

I have had many communications with Irish Water, often very positive. However, one area on which I receive few replies is infrastructure. I have raised this matter a number of times and I will not let it go. Irish Water is doing a good job on critical infrastructure and larger projects but does not look beyond that, unless a wastewater treatment plant causes problems. In rural areas and in towns with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, Irish Water is not at the races. It does not even consider these places unless they are polluting and causing problems.

We need to address the issue as to whether Irish Water has to set aside a team or a specific budget. These communities cannot be forgotten about but they are. The economic model does not stack up for small villages. The horizon which Irish Water set in its first report required payback within 15 and 20 years. There is no way a small town or a village will have a payback like that. Is there any report from Irish Water stating it will deal with small villages? In County Wicklow, villages such as Donard, Laragh, Glendalough and Avoca have no water infrastructure. As a result, they cannot expand or planning permission cannot be granted for houses. There is nothing coming forward on the infrastructure being upgraded in these areas. Irish Water needs to dedicate a budget or a team to that aspect of rural Ireland.

On the issue of charges, Irish Water has been established for five years but there is still not a national commercial rate charge. There are still 31 different charges across the country. Connection fees, whether to just connect into a sewer or the provision of a sewerage facility, are not done. At this stage, I have lost track of how a developer calculates how much the infrastructure will cost in a project.

Irish Water is working well in certain regards and I will not take away from that. While it is tackling key issues, many others need to be addressed. Elements in Irish Water are adding to the housing crisis because we are not getting clear communications on the granting of planning permissions in respect of who is responsible, who is making a final decision and who has the authority to allow it go ahead

I wish Dr. McGowan the best of luck. I am sure he will be before the committee in the future.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome Dr. McGowan and wish him well in his appointment which the Minister has made. This is not an interview process but I thank him for the courtesy of attending the committee and sharing some of his ideas as new chairperson of the Water Advisory Body.

The main issues for Irish Water, and the main challenges Dr. McGowan will have, relate to accountability, transparency and its performance. These problems have fed into many of the controversies relating to Irish Water. It was always going to be difficult when transferring a utility service from 31 local authorities in a disjointed way. There were HR, personnel and resources issues, as well as issues of responsibility and who would lead out from that. There are still difficulties and it is working its way through.

There are boil water notices and substantial leaks in the service. The citizen is rightly demanding a high-quality and consistent water supply. Infrastructure has to be both national and local. We cannot forget the small community. The challenge is how one is going to be responsive to the needs of the customers from big industry and enterprise, as well as small communities.

I wish Dr. McGowan well but he needs to go back to the same issue, namely what citizens are demanding of Irish Water and any service provider for that matter, which is accountability, transparency and performance. Those issues need to be kept to the fore in the delivery of public services and this is no exception. I wish Dr. McGowan the best of luck with his job and, hopefully, he will engage regularly with the committee. We certainly will seek to engage with him regularly.

Photo of Grace O'SullivanGrace O'Sullivan (Green Party)
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I congratulate Dr. McGowan on his appointment. He has one of the most important tasks because water is such an important resource for so many services and users. It is of significant importance and we saw that in the large demonstrations with regard to the implementation of water metering. It has not gone away in people's minds. People still remember it.

With regard to his ambition and vision for his new task, what will be his key priorities? How does he believe he can improve communications between the advisory body, members of the public and local authorities? We have witnessed droughts in recent months and flooding last year due to different storms. How will the Water Advisory Body deal with emergencies? With the information we are getting on extreme weather in the coming years, I am curious as to how he sees his function with regard to climate change.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I welcome our guests. The interaction my constituents and I have had with Irish Water is top-class. Irish Water goes the extra mile to help the individual. That is important in the work it is doing. We have many complaints and issues about water services but they are dealt with efficiently. When one picks up the phone, the staff are courteous and efficient. They will get back to one within an hour or two with the reference number. They are attentive to the individual's needs. On one occasion, a developer had a problem and could not get a supply because of some bureaucratic nonsense going on with the county council. It was sorted out quickly at a high level in Irish Water.

There was an occasion at the Donore reservoir when the water supply system collapsed. There was inadequate emergency planning, which meant the water supply for the town of Drogheda and east County Meath suffered greatly for several days. As a result of the excoriation Irish Water received at the time, which it properly deserved, it changed its ways. When it happened again, the company was much better prepared. When the pipes failed at 4 p.m., they had workers on site at 6 p.m. who worked throughout the night. Irish Water is learning its lessons.

Due to incidents and accidents such as this, as well as climate change and acts of God, I am concerned about water supply in the greater Dublin area. What role does the advisory body have in that? Part of the solution to preventing water supply to the greater Dublin area being interrupted and not adequately resolved for a significant time, is getting water from the Shannon. While I am not sure what involvement the Water Advisory Body will have in that, it is important the process be explained properly to the people in the areas from where the water will be extracted. There should be a complete immersion in all of the issues that affected residents might have by Irish Water. It is important, however, that the water needs of the greater Dublin area will be met.

I have had many problems and issues with Irish Water in the past.

There is an outstanding issue that involves transparency, notwithstanding everything I have said. We can get access online to the meetings of its board but it has refused under FOI to give me copies of the minutes of its management meetings, that is, when it meets at a level just below board level. I could appeal it to the Information Commissioner if I wish. In the interests of transparency, it might be useful if I could send the witnesses a copy of the correspondence. We should be able to see everything Irish Water does and no part of its activity should be excluded from public scrutiny and transparency. I do not know what is going on. The area I was trying to get at involved some of the issues in my own area. I do not have an answer to that but the role of the Water Advisory Body might be effective in ensuring all meetings are transparent. If there are commercial issues, that is fine. We do not need to see them but we do need to see what Irish Water is saying and doing and how it is planning. That will provide the public with increased confidence as the entity continues into the future.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I apologise for not being present earlier but I had to attend another event. I thank the witnesses for the brief presentation. The quarterly reports mentioned by them will be important for the committee's work. I wish to flag a few issues so that when the first of those reports comes in, they might be addressed. One of the big issues, particularly in the context of water shortages caused by weather difficulties recently, is leakage reduction. There has been significant public attention, particularly among the media and others, on leakage reduction and domestic wastewater reduction, which is legitimate and to which I have no objection. One issue we have raised with the Department and Irish Water is the need to address the greater level of leakage in the system, which is on the public distribution system, and in particular, whether the relatively modest targets for tacking leakage within the infrastructure are the most appropriate. Irish Water's capital investment starts to increase significantly over the next number of years. A figure of €777 million is in the programme for next year, €800 million for the following year and €900-odd million after that. When we compare the programme of leakage reduction with what happened recently in London, which is an old city with many of the comparable challenges of infrastructural upgrading, it seems Irish Water's targets are modest. When we put that to the company representatives, they told us that closing down the city centre is a challenge, but not all the leaks are within the city centre. There are large urban areas inside and outside the canals where work could be done. It is important that the witnesses give us a sense of what progress has been made on this and, by way of international comparisons with comparable cities, whether more work could be done.

In respect of cost reduction and efficiency improvements, which, again, are important issues, one of the concerns is that there is a change in the way in which Irish Water is accounting for capital and current expenditure because it is now working within the OECD's defined set of rules. One of the consequences is the fact that certain items that would have previously come under current expenditure such as the relatively small to medium-sized cost for repair of water treatments plants will be classed as capital expenditure because they are subcontracted to private contractors. If we are being presented with current expenditure reductions, it is important that they are genuine reductions and not something that has been transferred to the capital expenditure side for whatever reason.

Regarding procurement, remuneration and staffing policies, when Deputies talk to water engineers in local authorities, there is a value in having that local knowledge within local authorities. These water engineers know the community and the area and have a level of intelligence or institutional memory that is built up over a long period of time. One of the difficulties is that is lost by using subcontractors for regional-based bodies of work in which Irish Water is engaged. People who do not necessarily know the county or region could be in Cork one week, Donegal next week and Dublin the week after that. That is not to say they are not as skilled but they do not have that local knowledge. In respect of staffing policies and efficiency, is there a gain in terms of shifting towards contractors but a loss in terms of local knowledge and information?

In terms of responsiveness and the needs of communities, I agree with Deputy O'Dowd that Irish Water's response to elected Members is good. I am a long-standing critic of Irish Water but I acknowledge that. I hear from many members of the public that they do not get the same response. That may not be the case across the board. It may just be isolated incidents but it would be interesting to know how we determine in respect of the public when they make the call because people often come to us after they have gone to Irish Water or the local authority and not received a response. It would be interesting to look at that.

I am not necessarily looking for comments on those issues, although I would welcome anything the witnesses have to say about them. They are some of the answers we will seek in the first report so if it would be helpful if the witnesses could keep that in mind when they are drafting the report.

Photo of Grace O'SullivanGrace O'Sullivan (Green Party)
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My question is probably pertinent to Mr. Page. I will provide an example of a problem in Tramore, County Waterford, the area I am from. We have a Blue Flag beach, which is affected by rogue pipes and grey water or sewage water enters the bay area and people get sick as a result. In one case, members of the RNLI became sick. It is an ongoing occurrence. What can be done to alleviate that problem?

Dr. Paul McGowan:

Members raised many issues that we, as a body, need to absorb and take on board in how we interact with Members in the future. We are mindful that our function relates to accountability and transparency, and whether Irish Water is performing compared to what it says it is going to do. I represent the Water Advisory Body but I also work for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities. We will draw on whatever we can use from our own work, as will the EPA and An Fóram Uisce. We will also have the external view from the two other members of the body. It is important that the five members act together. I come back to what is important and why. Members of the committee have set forth some issues and we will take them on board.

I ask members to be patient because holding Irish Water to account across such a range is a tall order. We expect to deliver four reports per year to this committee. Each of those reports will not be a full and comprehensive report on every aspect of Irish Water's performance because the data do not get generated with that level of frequency. Each quarter, we are looking for a theme for a report. What area might we look at? If members bear with us, we will try to come up with a reporting structure that will meet the requirements of the committee. As we interact with the committee, we will take feedback and try to the best of our abilities to do the job with which we have been tasked.

I will try to address a few of the questions that were asked. Our vision is at the core of what the legislation says. We recognise that this is about transparency. It is about holding Irish Water to account to the Oireachtas and the public at large. There is a huge volume of information out there and there will be increasing amounts of information coming forward from Irish Water. It is about cutting through that to identify what is important and what people are interested in. Hearing the views of members today will help us frame that.

How can we can improve communication?

It is only through having reports that cut to the chase and that look at the important issues, and through interacting with the committee as we produce quarterly reports to explain what we have found, that we can identify further areas at which we can look not only on behalf of the Oireachtas, but also on behalf of the public.

Deputy O'Dowd raised a point about emergencies, which was well made. As Irish Water would admit, it is learning from the experiences it has had, for example, in respect of the burst pipe at Staleen. Subsequent to that burst, it identified where it needs to improve. One would expect of any utility that it should learn. What has been highlighted by the recent events, in terms of both the cold snap and the drought, is the resilience, or lack of resilience in some instances, of the water system. That comes down to investment in infrastructure and process and ensuring not only that water and wastewater are processed to quality standards, but also that the capacity is available and conservation is at the core. That means conservation on both the public side and the user side of the stopcock. All of these matters are of relevance to the role of the Water Advisory Body as we report to the committee.

I will just clarify in respect of Deputy O'Dowd's question on our involvement in the water supply project to bring water to the Dublin and eastern region that we do not have a direct role in any project. Our role is to report and to try to bring some level of transparency and structure to the data and information that exist out there so that we can be much more effective in communicating how well Irish Water is performing against its business plan. Of course part of that - and this speaks to the issue of operating expenditure, opex, and capital expenditure, capex, which was raised by Deputy Ó Broin - is being very clear. What is the baseline? What has Irish Water set itself up to achieve and how is it performing against that baseline? Part of our work is to try to ensure that we are clear about how it is performing, but also about what it is performing against - the targets it has set or the targets that were set for it.

I welcome this interaction with the committee at this first opportunity we have had. I hope we will have a full complement within a small number of weeks. I do not know exactly what the timing of that will be, but the committee can rest assured that our focus is on determining when we can produce the first report. To be clear, after producing the first report, our obligation will then be to do them quarterly. We want to get this right, but, at the same time, we are conscious that the committee will look for the first report. I hope it will bear with us. We will seek to produce it at the earliest opportunity. We very much look forward to interacting with the committee, taking feedback, and ensuring we can fulfil our statutory function in respect of transparency and accountability.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge Mr. McGowan's comments but I still have to make my point clearer. The key failure that might occur in the State in terms of water supply is a collapse in the Dublin system. The key demand is to make sure that does not happen by being alert and aware and by dealing with public opinion that is opposed to this. That is a fair comment. Public opinion in Limerick or wherever the Parteen weir is opposes this. While I acknowledge and accept that the Water Advisory Body has no role whatsoever in the day-to-day administration, I am referring to the risks and transparency. If this does not happen, it will lead to an appalling vista. I acknowledge Mr. McGowan's definitions but the board should have a role in ensuring Irish Water's high priorities. Irish Water should tell the board what its priorities are and how it intends to ensure they are achieved as quickly as possible. I worry about the interests of the greater Dublin area and those of the people who live in the abstraction area. This project has been there for many years. I do not want to comment on it because I am not part of the process, but it does require attention if Mr. McGowan can find a mechanism to say that this is a high-priority area, to ask Irish Water what its plans are and what it is doing, and to benchmark it against its efficiencies in that respect.

Mr. McGowan did not comment on the question I raised about the transparency of the organisation, which is accountable under freedom of information, and about how it can say that some of its meetings are not subject to freedom of information requests. That is not acceptable. I could give him some of that correspondence and, perhaps, he could examine it and form an opinion in light of his role in ensuring the accountability and transparency of Irish Water.

Photo of Grace O'SullivanGrace O'Sullivan (Green Party)
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As the CEO of the Water Advisory Body, does Mr. McGowan advise the Minister, Irish Water, or both?

Dr. Paul McGowan:

Our function is to advise the Minister and our other function is to report to the Oireachtas. We see both of those roles as being relevant to ensuring accountability and transparency around Irish Water's performance. We would make recommendations to the Minister is respect of how the accountability or transparency of Irish Water could be improved.

Photo of Maria BaileyMaria Bailey (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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Mr. McGowan might catch Deputy O'Dowd after the meeting.

Dr. Paul McGowan:


Photo of Maria BaileyMaria Bailey (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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In the same way, in respect of Tramore, Senator O'Sullivan might catch Mr. Page after the meeting rather than getting into local issues here. I thank Mr. McGowan, Mr. Page and Ms Kennedy for attending this morning. This will be an ongoing engagement. I wish them well in their new positions. They have a vital function in respect of the infrastructure and the transparency that is required to develop the island. I thank them very much for engaging with the committee. I propose to go into private session to deal with some housekeeping matters. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The joint committee went into private session at 10.45 a.m. and adjourned at 11.25 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Wednesday, 26 September 2018.