Thursday, 3 February 2005
Water Services Bill 2003 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
There is a need for a water services Bill but not that which is before the House because it restricts itself to the management of water. The broader issue of the provision of adequate water supplies to meet domestic and industrial needs is one I have raised in numerous parliamentary questions in recent years. Ireland has been lucky, or unlucky as the case may be, to have had heavy annual rainfalls for the last nine years. There has been no dearth of water supplies, making it necessary to draw on resources. However, three consecutive dry seasons could lead to a drought, meaning current storage facilities would be inadequate to meet requirements. In that respect, the Water Services Bill fails.
Many Members have decried one-off rural housing because it may damage the water table and pollute water supplies. I have read and listened to individuals in the media proclaim themselves experts on the issue. However, an ironic event has occurred in the Kildare North constituency. Part of the Bog of Allen is a high water table area. A proposal has been approved by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and supported by Kildare County Council to provide a landfill on this water-saturated site. While there is logic in all that local authorities suggest, occasionally it can stretch the imagination. What is the wisdom behind locating a landfill site in the Bog of Allen with the potential to pollute a large area as far as the River Shannon and north Munster? People wishing to build houses in the same area are regularly refused planning permission on the grounds of pollution risks in this high water table area. The excuse often given is that an extra septic tank or water treatment system would contribute to the pollution of the area. It is hypocritical of the Department, the local authority and experts to suggest that a massive landfill with a lifespan of 15 years will be less of a pollution threat than four dozen houses. I do not accept that notion.
We must legislate for people too. People have needs to live in the area in which they were born and raised. When the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, has disposed of the unworkable electronic ballot boxes that he inherited from his predecessors, possibly by igniting them, he might then consider other options in the provision of water services. Will he identify a route that will provide what the Bill intends without it being undermined by a serious flaw in planning guidelines?
It will be argued that everyone opposes proposals in their backyard, the NIMBY factor. I admit the proposed site is in my backyard. However, I oppose it because County Kildare has already catered for one landfill at Kill. I do not wish my constituency to become the location for every landfill requirement in the State. Every other constituency has its responsibilities. This proposal has the potential to pollute the water system. I have asked in parliamentary questions if the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government approves the concept of having a landfill in the middle of a water-saturated area. Twenty years ago the local authority proposed a scenic lake with an amenity centre, marina and wildlife sanctuary for the same site. However, that was superseded by planning. Wise men and women have taken over the process and proposed a landfill. This illustrates the contradictions that sometimes emerge with the intention of legislation. The objective behind legislation can sometimes become confused and dimmed by other activities.
We hear reports on a regular basis of the poor quality of the domestic water supply. Water supply sources need to be carefully monitored and tested to the same rigours local authorities demand of applicants for rural housing in respect of water supply for their dwellings. If other water supplies were tested on the same basis as that of an applicant for rural housing, they would not pass. As the theory is the potential for pollution is less in an urban setting, such water tests are not required. Does that mean rural dwellers are less pollution conscious? The monitoring of the piped domestic supply needs to be tightened. I do not agree that to facilitate this objective, everyone should be swept out of the countryside to live in high-rise urban blocks. It is possible to achieve the same objective by ensuring water supplies are not polluted.
Who are the main water polluters? The record will show that over the last 20 years local authorities have been among the culprits, particularly in the case of water treatment plants not functioning satisfactorily. In some cases, a year after they have been built, these plants fail to function. In other cases, the technology they use is out of date. There is no excuse for having a water treatment system in situ that is out of date in five years. Apropos of this, an expensive water treatment plant was built in Dublin city that within 18 months was failing to do its job.
The potential to pollute water supplies is not dealt with in this Bill. Instead it will put in place structures for the control and sale of the water supply system in the future. The next most powerful sheikh will not be an oil one but a water one. Every other service and facility has become extraordinarily expensive, such as housing. The State is supposed to be full of money with everyone having sufficient resources to meet their requirements. However, for the past ten years young people have been denied access to an affordable housing market. Great pious tearing of hair, beating of breasts and gnashing of teeth has occurred but nothing has been done to address the issue. If water supplies fall into the hands of various groups, they will become equally powerful and influential. Water will become a scarce commodity sold on the market at a high price. This will not be good for the economy or society. It naturally follows where the Government failed to do its job. The Government has failed to invest sufficiently in the provision of the water infrastructure. It has been obvious for the past ten or 15 years that when the Government fails to do its job, someone else is forced to take up the race where it left off. While the Minister is relatively new to his Department, he knows the environment fairly well. Given his appointment to the Department, I hope we will see positive changes, because most of the changes we have witnessed and suffered as a result of over a number of years were not beneficial nor helpful, they were the opposite. The Minister's previous knowledge and service on a local authority is also a positive aspect. Nowadays the rules of this House prevent people from having parallel membership of local authorities, the negative aspects of which are already apparent. It is clear now that local authorities are relieved that Oireachtas members are no longer there.
There is a relevance, but I do not wish to pour cold water on it just yet. The issue relates to who will run the services in the future, because obviously it will not be the local authorities. A structure will be introduced, which is allowed for under the Bill. However, it could be the local authorities. Up to three or four years ago, local group water schemes were set up by local community groups with whom the Minister's Department dealt directly. A liaison officer and engineer, who was always very helpful, dealt directly with the local people whether they were public representatives or community leaders, and the job was carried out. The responsibility now lies with the local authorities. When one rings up the local authority, no one answers the phone, they are at a meeting, they are returning from a meeting, they have not yet reached the next meeting or they are away, which is a serious problem.
These services will be replaced by something else. The Minister is heading for a situation where he could almost shut down the whole place. He could get someone to produce a report once or twice a year. These are ineffective and they are becoming less and less effective. I will say more about that another time. While I spoke in the House during the dual mandate debate, I intend to return to the subject at an opportune time in the future to address the issues that now arise as a result of the passing of that legislation. I am aware that officials in the Department will laugh at my comments. I know why the legislation was introduced in the first place, but I will say more about that later.
I return to the lack of progress in addressing issues relevant to the water supply and quality of water. Some of my colleagues referred to the advisability of having colour codes for water, such as brown water, clean water and so on. It appears that in Holland water is recycled approximately seven times and in Belgium it is recycled six times and so on.
There is merit in one simple thing, which should have been done a long time ago. In rural areas, in particular, some builders provide a major water container during the construction of each dwelling. This means that roof water is collected, stored and pumped for domestic purposes other than for drinking. The water quality is perfect and prior to this many people used rain water for drinking water. There is no problem with that because it contains just what is in the atmosphere. To move that agenda forward, it might be possible to consider either a tax incentive or some other incentive to encourage the provision of major water storage tanks adjacent to houses. There is nothing to prevent that from happening in an urban setting. It would mean that people would have two types of water supply, one which is gathered free from the air and the other which is the domestic water supply. It would have advantages in that it would help to eliminate flooding because instead of the water being discharged immediately into ditches, water courses and shores, it will have the effect of storing the water at a crucial time.
The amount of water that could be stored to alleviate flooding following 24-hour rainfall is surprising. There is no reason this should not be satisfactory and beneficial because it is soft water. As it is not hard water, it is amenable to metals, pipes, utensils and so on, therefore, it has a huge number of advantages. It does not have an iron or lime content. It is effectively distilled water. Perhaps the Minister will examine the prospect of utilising in the future this freely available water supply.
I want to refer to the degree to which we get advice on how to manage water levels, deal with development in the countryside and manage the environment in an eco-friendly manner. It is becoming increasingly difficult because, as the population increases, so too will the number of demands on the environment, whether water or other services. It is interesting that there are still sceptic tanks in Brussels and several other European cities. Even though sceptic tanks have been advanced as a result of modern technology and so on, they still exist. Yet experts on housing tell us that we can no longer have sceptic tanks because they cause pollution. That is not necessarily the case if they are operated properly.
I was amused to read the overview of the Bill. It reads that the Bill concerns itself only with the actual provision of water services, in other words, the administration of water services. Why does it not seek directly to take on board wider environmental issues surrounding water resources such as pollution control; water quality in its broadest sense; river basin management, etc?
I am depending on the Minister, who has ample experience of local government, to ensure that this legislation is not just a doubtful accolade of the production system in the Department. Its aim should be to improve the delivery and supply of water services, but it does not address these major issues. It provides a framework for someone to pay for this commodity in the future. The Minister should check this out. It is the whole purpose of the exercise. I am disappointed because I see no great merit in the Bill. However, I will not go into a decline as a result.
I wish to share time with Deputies McHugh and Breen. If they do not turn up, however, I will use their time.
I am not the environment spokesman for my party, even though there are a number of environmental issues in my constituency. I read recently about environmental problems in the Minister's constituency. A study was carried out in Trinity College which indicated that great amounts of rubbish could eventually seep into the water system in Wicklow and on to its roads. The study suggested a refundable deposit on bottles and cans and I would like the Minister to consider that again.
On a couple of occasions during the past two years I have been on holidays in the south of Spain or the south of France to get a little sunshine outside this dreary House. When sunning oneself there, one can get a litre of water for about 30 cent in any shop. On returning to Ireland and finding a litre of water costing closer to €1, I thought this was because we had some form of water conservation tax to encourage people to use it sparingly. Unfortunately, that is not so. It is just another example of rip-off Ireland, where a bottle of still water in a pub costs more than €2 even though we are discouraging drink driving and urging people not to overdo things. Nevertheless, soft drinks and water, in particular, cost a fortune.
There are no measures to encourage water conservation here. The Bill is welcome in one context but my party will vote against it because although it is designed to modernise and manage water supply and distribution systems it does not emphasise any aspect of conservation or sustainability or — most importantly — water quality. The Bill would have to be amended before the Green Party could support it.
Our position on water has been clear for many years. I will give an example from my constituency. A couple of years ago, Lucan was flooded by heavy rainfall. A number of housing estates were seriously flooded when the river burst its banks in the village. There were rumours at the time that the new estates did not have proper drainage systems in place. The bottom line was that a housing estate was built on a flood plain and despite warnings the Adamstown strategic development zone was given the go-ahead without an environmental impact statement. I hope the European Commission might yet make a decision on that. We do not know exactly what the impact will be of building homes on flood plains in the Adamstown strategic development zone.
Throughout many urban areas, not merely in my constituency, flooding is on the increase. Some of it is due to increased rainfall and in that context I am disappointed that so far my colleague Deputy Eamon Ryan has not had a chance to raise the issue of climate change in a meaningful debate which might attract widespread media coverage. Rainfall will continue to increase because of climate change. The increase will not be alarming but unless we manage our urban areas properly we will have more and more localised flooding. There is an opportunity for this Bill to include measures to ensure that the impact of rainfall in built-up areas is minimised. Roofs, for example, could have storage areas to prevent rainwater from flooding streets. That water could then be used in washing machines, to wash dishes and in showers. This is the sort of forward thinking needed for the 21st century and which with regard to building regulations and in terms of amending this Bill could have far-reaching impact. It could not happen overnight. Water can be a dangerous resource in that it can cause flooding and a very scarce resource in the sense that we do not have a great deal of clean, drinkable water in the country. That aspect must be addressed.
It is a pity Deputy Jim Higgins is not present because his election to the Dáil in 1997 resulted from his fantastic by-election showing in 1996 on the water charges issue. I agree with him that a charge on water like a charge on refuse collection, is an unjust double tax. However, where my party disagrees with regard to that is that a measure must be introduced to ensure proper recycling or conservation of water, so we support for example tags on bins. In my constituency people are now getting free tags by means of waivers or they pay €6 per tag, which encourages people to use their green bins. Those bins should be collected more frequently but at least they are being used.
The Green Party supports measures which encourage conservation. In that context, water metering with the introduction of a water charge down the line could be quite welcome, not in the unfair and unjust tax manner to which Deputy Jim Higgins has alluded over the years but in a proper, sane, sustainable manner whereby eventually domestic homes are metered along with industries, but with people also given a generous free quota of water per household or per user. The details could be worked out. In that way people will know that water is a scarce resource but also a human right to be utilised to a certain extent. During a hot summer drought, however, people should not be allowed to use lawn sprinklers without charge. This is where proper water metering would come in. People who use water normally over the year would pay nothing but if they were to exceed their water quota they would pay dearly for this scarce resource.
That is the sort of water management measure needed. It would work if it were seen as an equitable measure rather than as an unfair flat rate tax. If it is shown to have an impact on people's income, some other form of refundable tax credit could be introduced to redress any loss people might incur. If one has to pay for something, one will conserve it: that message must go out in terms of all forms of waste, though people must still be allowed a free quota of water.
Part 3 of this Bill could have recognised measures dealing with the water supply rather than with the end demand for water. Currently one is talking of putting in place measures to ensure that enough water comes out at the end, but with regard to water coming in, as I alluded to with regard to Adamstown, one could have a collection depot on top of a roof; one could have legislation making low-flush toilets compulsory in any new homes; showers might have to have a linked rainwater option, possibly involving tax incentives rather than penalties; and one could have taps which control water flow. All these measures could have been included in the Bill but unfortunately were not.
My colleague Deputy Cuffe said that water conservation measures which looked at leaks and wastage in Dublin reduced leaks from two fifths of the original figure down to less than a third. However, that means nearly one in every three litres of water is still being wasted in the Dublin water supply, which is scandalous. Because we are seen as a country with abundant rainfall, the issue of water as a resource is not taken seriously, yet looking at the huge housing developments in the greater Dublin area it will be very difficult to supply all the people living there in the coming years without doing something like diverting water from the Shannon or elsewhere. That is why we must put more energy and investment into reducing the leaks and overhauling the pipework system over time.
I mentioned domestic usage and medium-term measures. In the shorter term there are opportunities to implement water metering earlier for commercial usage. That is being introduced to some extent but the Green Party believes every commercial entity should have to pay. In terms of encouraging conservation, if employers' PRSI were correspondingly reduced, for example, that would be a revenue-neutral effort but would encourage job creation and discourage pollution. These are the sort of policies the Green Party has been discussing for years. During successive elections we have been accused of being "loony Greens" or "for the birds" but the ESRI, for example, has come round to our way of thinking in terms of measures which promote employment and penalise pollution.
I hope the Minister will take all this on board in progressing the Bill. It is not even called a sustainable Bill and should be so renamed and made a sustainable Bill by means of amendments.
I fear that I will not be able to talk for that long. There are only one or two other things I would like to say on this Bill. Having an ethos of conservation and emphasising efficiency would be one way to make it workable and save the Government a great deal of money in the long term. Rather than facilitating end demand, if we could reduce water wastage and pollution at source, both domestically and industrially, we would have a more efficient, cheaper and healthier water system.
The last area to which I refer is water quality, which is not included in the Bill. However, the health of the drinker — or consumer, if one will — is crucial. Water quality has declined over many years. Many people would say that tap water is safe to drink, even in Amsterdam or London, where it is recycled seven times. However, is the water as good as it might be? In rural areas, there are opportunities to provide tax incentives to people who can separate and deal with sewage on their own land. I am not talking about septic tanks but disposal on the ground itself through planting and so on. There are also ways of using rainwater in both rural and urban settings.
How one treats water must be changed in policy terms. Rather than adding chemicals, we must minimise infection. I speak of the enforcement of the nitrates directive, for example. There are ways and means of providing income for farmers, including those my colleague, Councillor Mary White, has pointed out. The Carlow sugar beet factory could easily be transformed into a factory producing biofuel. There are ways of raising farm incomes that would outweigh any small negative impact caused by enforcing the nitrates directive. Another issue is rural septic tanks; legislation could be passed to eliminate them ultimately.
Regarding urban water, separation techniques are important. We are talking about dual piping in new buildings, with pure water used in drinking and "grey" or "brown" water in the shower and washing machine. I called for the use of roof rain, and I do not believe the householder should have to invest in installing such systems after the event, except where there are existing houses. In that context, grants should be made available for the installation of dual piping systems. If under the Bill that was mandatory for new dwellings, it would be a great step forward.
On behalf of my colleague, Deputy Gormley, I reiterate the fluoridation issue. I have previously raised it in the House on his behalf when he was not available. There is an opportunity to remove fluoride from the water. There has been ongoing debate on whether it is necessary, and the jury is out, but the precautionary principle should be applied when it comes to how we treat our water system. I will not enter into the health debate, since experts on both sides engage in mud-slinging. From having observed it, I believe that the evidence is inconclusive. If that is so, it is not good enough, and we should remove fluoride from drinking water, since enough chemicals are already being added to it.
Another emphasis may sound facetious in the context of this debate, but perhaps the Minister might talk to his colleagues and try to ensure that still and sparkling water in pubs is subsidised or that publicans are at least forced to make it affordable. That issue is something of a gripe on my part.
We have no strategy on wetlands, which play a substantial role in the water cycle, particularly in rural areas, and they should also be included in this Bill.
I am glad of the opportunity to speak on the Water Services Bill 2003, a large document that deals with many issues. I pay tribute to the many group water schemes that have done this country great service, particularly in rural parts. Without such schemes, many rural homes miles away from the main water schemes would not have had access to a basic water supply. Many years ago, those rural schemes were set up by pioneers who had no particular expertise in the area of water services provision but had a driving ambition to effect a vital improvement to the areas in which they lived, leaving the bucket and well scenario behind them. They did the country a great service; they were courageous and provided all their effort and labour voluntarily.
Having said that, it is unfortunate that some group water schemes are, for various reasons, not very well run, in many cases because the original trustees have become tired and, for health or other reasons, are no longer able to carry on. Responsibility for running such schemes is not being passed on. Trustees take on a lifelong commitment, and the issue warrants attention. I hope the Minister will establish a regime to resolve those questions.
The pollution of sources for group water schemes is of concern to many in rural Ireland. Prevention of pollution should be a priority. The treatment of water to make it potable also gives rise to concern. I refer in particular to the use of fluoride in water treatment. Various researchers have expressed concern about the possible harm to people through the use of fluoride in water treatment. In particular, worries have been expressed that the use of aluminium and fluoride in water might be responsible for the increase in Alzheimer's disease and pre-senile dementia, while the British Medical Association states that very high levels of fluoride may lead to bone disorders and disorders of the kidney, liver, heart, central nervous system and reproductive organs. It is also alarming to recognise that the Irish Forum on Fluoridation says that levels of 8 mg. per day are safe. That is exactly the level that the British Medical Association says is unsafe. I suppose that it is a case of experts differing and, perhaps, people dying.
Pollution of water sources is a problem with many causes. One of the main ones can be found in the many inadequate sewage treatment plants dotted throughout the towns and villages of Ireland. Those inadequate plants, combined with the many towns and villages that have no sewage treatment plants at all, are the cause of a great deal of water pollution. Every day one can find evidence of untreated sewage lying on the surface of the land, flowing down the main streets of towns or being discharged into water streams.
Many people may have difficulty comprehending the situation that I have described, but it is reality. Another reality regarding inadequate or absent sewage treatment systems in towns or villages is that planning authorities are refusing permission to developments, many of which are very modest proposals, in some cases comprising just a few houses. Unfortunately, the locations that I describe are in my constituency of Galway East. Many parts of the county have been neglected for several years, and it is soul-destroying that, at a time when investment is available to some of those towns and villages, developments are not allowed to proceed because of those inadequate or absent sewerage schemes. I request that the Minister take a particular interest in that lack of infrastructure and sewage treatment facilities in towns and villages and make additional resources available so schemes in the planning pipeline can proceed to construction.
I thank Deputies for their contributions. I know this is a diplomatic form that most Ministers engage in at the end of Second Stage but I genuinely thank Deputies on all sides of the House for their contributions because they were valuable.
I listened carefully to the debate in its entirety, and it was a very good one. Deputy Ó Fearghaíl rightly categorised the Bill as modernising, reforming and consolidating legislation. It is aimed at bringing the water services, which were put in place in the 19th century, into the 21st century. Some of the points made can be incorporated in the Bill in changes we will make on Committee Stage.
The Bill does not provide for the reintroduction of domestic water charges, although I note that the Green Party indicated its support for domestic service charges for water in certain cases. It is probably the only party in the House that would urge a reintroduction of domestic water charges. Deputy Crowe and others might note that there is no hidden agenda in the Bill for the introduction of water charges. I have said that several times and it is in on record. Comments by Members to the contrary are unfounded and inaccurate. I repeat the assurance I gave Deputy Stanton, who asked about the issue. Charging for domestic water is prohibited specifically under the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act 1997. Nothing in the Water Services Bill will change that Act.
Oddly, Deputy Eamon Ryan of the Green Party swallowed this allegation hook, line and sinker, although his party colleague indicated this morning that he had some support for the concept of domestic water charges. Both Deputies can rest assured — they can sort out the differences between them — that this Bill does not provide for that. Deputy Ryan's contribution was an odd one for a party that advises higher taxes to pay for services and that has made something of a virtue of talking about the "polluter pays" principle and so on. As in so much else about Deputy Ryan, he always faces in two opposite directions. He espouses principles in theory but demurs from applying them in practice. Thankfully, all his colleagues are not the same.
Deputy Joe Higgins and others raised the issue of privatisation, and the usual suspects fell in behind him. Deputy Connolly and Deputy Crowe staggered into the same cul-de-sac. Oddly, Deputy Ring, who is normally a very sane man, took the same line. His colleague, Deputy Durkan, trespassed close to that borderline again but did not quite cross it. Deputy Boyle also tilted at the windmill. The Bill neither envisages nor does it provide for privatisation of the provision of water services at this or any future date.
Deputy Gilmore touched on the same issue but made a very interesting point. He particularly expressed reservations about the use of what he calls the unqualified reference to "other persons" in sections 27, 28 and 34. He felt that might be a device through which privatisation could occur. That is not the intention. The issue is one of terminology, and it is not a path to privatisation. If Deputy Gilmore or his party believes that the term "other persons" is sinister or that it has a potentially negative effect, I would be delighted to talk to him and perhaps insert alternative wording, if he has something in mind, into the Bill between now and Committee Stage. If Deputies on any side of the House have concerns about these words I ask them to let me know and we will deal with them if it is at all possible.
I agree with a number of the points made on the issue of a strategic water services plan. Deputies Gilmore, Morgan, Flynn, McCormack, Ó Fearghaíl and Eamon Ryan, among others, spoke either in the House or privately about the strong case for reviewing the provisions in section 36. Deputy O'Dowd in particular made that point. Deputy Durkan also made the point tangentially this morning, as he is wont to do. He was concerned, as were Deputies on all sides of the House, that this section makes it an executive function of the relevant county or city manager rather than making it a reserved function of the elected council members.
Members of the House will know my strong view that county managers play a good role but they are not the people who should determine policy in most areas. Deputy Lynch in particular need have no fears about that. She made the point somewhat trenchantly about county managers and that I would surrender the pass in this regard. I have asked my officials, particularly in light of the positive contributions made by Members on all sides of the House in this regard, to review the question of making this a reserved function between now and Committee Stage. I would be delighted to work with Opposition spokespersons and my own backbenchers who have made the same point.
Deputy Stanton queried whether the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act would apply. I am not sure what gave rise to the question but I assure him the answer is "yes". They will apply.
Deputy Durkan spoke in a roundabout way about public officials in local authorities not being available either to members of the public or elected representatives. He trod a well-trodden path about the dual mandate. It would not be appropriate to go into that now but I agree with the Deputy that there is a scourge of voicemail across all local authorities. If someone rings a local authority they have to push button 1 to get one section or button 2 to get another. They are advised to push buttons 3, 4, 5 or 6, if they want to go insane. They then get on to a helper, usually a mid-Atlantic voice, who tells them they will get back to them but they never do. There is something fundamentally wrong with that. I made the point to county managers recently at a number of meetings that I expect that the citizens of this State should have the right to deal directly face to face, or at least over the telephone, with public officials. I expect that elected representatives of the public, irrespective of party or status, will be treated with due regard and that the type of issue Deputy Durkan touched on will end.
Many Deputies wanted to pay tribute to the marvellous work done by group water schemes in maintaining and stimulating the life force of communities. I agree with the points made. I can think of very few organisations more entitled to credit, in terms of the voluntary sector, than the group water schemes. They are extraordinary. Since I have become Minister it has been my great pleasure to meet the federation whose members are a most progressive group, and we should support them.
Concerns were expressed about the Bill's licensing provisions. Those concerns are misplaced. A stronger regulatory regime is imperative if we are to meet the relevant standards, and we all want to meet the standards. It is also pertinent in view of the European Court of Justice judgment against Ireland but we should not seek to achieve good standards just because the European court said we must. We should seek to achieve the best standards because our people deserve the best standards.
The idea of the licensing arrangement is not to provide any sort of sinister control. The proposed licensing system for group water schemes is designed and intended specifically to help the sector to develop its services and fulfil its legal obligations. Deputy McHugh touched on difficulties that voluntary organisations can run into with the passage of time when trustees, for example, become old.
The licensing arrangement is to give us the kind of assurances that Deputies Sargent and Ó Fearghaíl touched on, that is, that the people can be assured of the quality of drinking water. The Department consulted widely on the issue with the rural water sector in the course of drafting the section. We had discussions at public fora and with the National Federation of Group Water Schemes. Both the federation and the national rural water monitoring committee expressed their general support for the introduction of this Bill. The concerns that have been expressed, therefore, are probably misplaced. Schemes that will require licensing will be those involving 50 or more persons. In general, there are huge benefits to come out of licensing and the major beneficiaries will be the consumers.
Training of volunteers and local authority staff alike is provided for under the auspices of the water services national training group. The overall approach would be to assist individual schemes in a systematic and programmed way. I know they are more than capable of responding to the supports and challenges that arise in that regard. The licensing scheme is intended to facilitate the systematic and planned improvement of services. I would like to see the new arrangements applied with a light touch and be subject to full consultation. We should not introduce a bureaucratic structure for bureaucracy's sake.
With regard to scheme takeover, a point touched on by Deputy McHugh, schemes can be taken over on a temporary basis where there is a risk to public health or the environment, or to assist in the resolution of temporary operational problems such as those referred to by Deputy McHugh. That would enable water service authorities to guide a scheme through a temporary difficulty while allowing it to continue in operation. The provision is a wise one.
There is perhaps no area on which there have been more confused contributions than on the issue of metering.
The first point Members should bear in mind is that metering is not a Trojan horse through which domestic water charges will be introduced. The National Federation of Group Water Schemes has identified universal metering as the most effective way to curtail wastage of treated water. A member of the Green Party stated earlier that metering could be a positive development. I hope that party continues to say so because it is the case. Some 5,000 households, mostly in the Cavan-Monaghan area, in group water schemes are already metered. Schemes representing an additional 30,000 houses are currently considering such an initiative.
The results of introducing monitoring as a conservation measure have been striking. Savings of up to 40% in water consumption levels have been achieved following the installation of meters. In one area alone, the saving following the introduction of metering for monitoring purposes was 67%. That is incredible. In this instance, metering for monitoring purposes helped local schemes encourage conservation attitudes among their users and deal with the issues under discussion such as those involving leaks. Installation of metering in the area of leak detection has given rise to remarkable results. In one instance involving a private house, 5,000 gallons of water were being lost each day through a leaking service connection. This was not the fault of the householder because the pipe was buried under concrete and nobody was aware that a leak existed until a meter was able to source its point of origin.
The group scheme metering programme has also provided assistance in identifying unauthorised connections and supplies. That is important because it is not fair that certain people should be free riders in group water schemes. The programme has led to improved cost-effectiveness in the schemes in general. I was told an interesting story about a group water scheme in a particular part of the country where people are noted for being canny with their cash. The suggested introduction of metering to this scheme led to such a decline in waste water that the scheme saved 40% of its electricity. I am sure Members can guess the part of the country to which I am referring.
I accept that many Deputies who represent urban areas would have some questions about metering. However, nobody who claims to be concerned about environmental protection and sustainable development can honestly seek to oppose its introduction because the savings involved are huge. For example, the current pilot metering project in Sligo has come up with some interesting data. This project is blazing a trail in terms of metering all non-domestic supplies. Most businesses accept that the metering of such supplies is fair and equitable. The project unearthed one case where almost 16 gallons were being lost per day through leakage in the service connection to a specific business premises. This represented an annual loss in terms of treated water costs of €13,000. Such a profligate waste of resources cannot be tolerated. The other businesses in the area paying for water were effectively carrying a cost as a result of the leak. Metering systems are introduced to help with conservation and management of water and for no other reason.
Deputies Morgan, Coveney, English and others referred to wastage and leaks in the water system. This issue has been identified as a priority matter for attention in the national water strategy which was completed in 2000. A study found that unaccounted for water formed a high percentage of water produced in local authority areas. That percentage rose to approximately 47% nationally, which is not acceptable because water costs a great deal to produce, treat and pump through the system. In some instances the leakage rate has been as high as 80% because of very bad or old pipes.
The underground distribution system is the largest source of leakage. In May 2003, the former Minister announced the allocation of €276 million as the first round in the water conservation programme. This funding was specifically aimed at conservation measures. The conservation programme is designed to identify and substantially reduce the levels of unaccounted for water, that is, leaks. Under the new programme, work falls into two broad categories. The first is made up of schemes which have already been completed in the study phase and which have either commenced network rehabilitation or are ready to do so. The value of work in that phase is €194 million and in my view the repayment of the investment will be significant. The second category is comprised of local authorities which are not engaged in the study and €82 million has been provided for this category. This investment will pay dividends. I agree with Deputies on all sides who indicated this is a serious matter.
In Dublin, where there has been a programme of remediation, the loss of water has been reduced from 42% to 29%, which is an extraordinary saving. The figures for Donegal are even more dramatic, with water loss dropping from 59% to 39%. In Meath water loss has been reduced from 47% to 34% and in Kilkenny it has decreased from 45% to 29%. Deputy Coveney made the point that every local authority should be required to give an indication as to the standards of underground pipes in their areas. This issue was raised in the national water study and it is envisaged that such a commentary will be included in the water services strategic plan for each service authority. The point raised by the Deputy is catered for in section 36 of the Bill. Section 49 also provides that local service authorities will have powers to elicit the necessary information for this purpose.
Deputy Naughten referred to the introduction of on-the-spot fines for gratuitous waste of water. There is no such proposal in the Bill but it is an interesting suggestion, particularly because some people believe that water is costless. If he or his party spokesperson have a specific proposition in mind, I would be delighted to take it on board and see what can be done.
A number of Deputies referred to devices to save water. For example, an inordinate number of them referred to the use of dual flush toilets as a conservation measure. It is a sensible proposition. There are several other measures, such as fitting and material standards, the design of apparatuses in terms of the water conservation matrix, investment in upgrading infrastructure and consumer responsibility, which were also mentioned. I accept that these suggestions form pillars in a water conservation strategy. I will look favourably at the proposal relating to dual flush toilets when amending the part of the building regulations relating to hygiene. I intend to publish the relevant draft regulatory proposals for public-industry in consultation with the building regulations advisory body. If Members have views on this matter, I would be delighted to listen to them and take them on board in terms of seeing what might be done.
A number of Members, including Deputy English, inquired as to whether rainwater could be used instead of treated potable water for commercial applications. Reduction of water demand by such means is a sensible proposition. Currently, agricultural demand stands at over 50% of the throughputs of the group water schemes. It is also estimated that some 35% of consumption in homes is accounted for by the use of toilets. Harvesting rainwater is a matter to which we should give consideration. A pilot scheme on harvesting rainwater is currently being funded by the Department. This scheme is being spearheaded by the Dublin Institute of Technology in association with the national rural water monitoring committee, Teagasc, Carlow County Council and the National Federation of Group Water Schemes. The project is intended to determine the cost-benefit of substituting rainwater for treated water in certain domestic situations, particularly in respect of farmyard uses. I am sure the contributions made by Deputies will help to encourage that study.
Deputy Shortall raised an interesting point when she referred to the powers available to local authorities to intervene where a shared service connection linking a number of premises to a sewer is blocked. We have all had experiences of this problem. The current position is less than satisfactory and the Bill provides for a more balanced approach. Under section 43 of the Bill, while the onus to carry out the necessary work remains with those responsible for the connection in the first instance, a water services authority is given the necessary powers of intervention to carry out these particular works where a problem arises. Deputy Gilmore will be aware that this is a particularly common feature in parts of his constituency and in mine where there have been slightly different problems with connections over the years. Bad practices cause problems where groups of houses are linked into one particular pipe. If a problem occurs down the pipeline everybody suffers and nobody takes action. Section 43 should be helpful in that regard.
A number of Deputies instanced the question of builders walking away from problems relating to water and sewage in housing estates and suggested that matters would be helped if the Bill provided local authorities with the powers to refuse connections to public supplies until satisfied that proper standards were being adhered to. It is a good point and I will bear it in mind. I am not sure what I can do, but I am reiterating it so Deputies know I am taking it on board.
Sections 55 and 61 respectively prohibit connection to a water supply or waste water supply without the agreement of the service provider. This also enables water service authorities to require that pipes be open for inspection and give directions as regards the completion and related infrastructure. This addresses, in part, the issue of rogue builders and rogue developers. The best people to address the issue of rogue builders and rogue developers, however, are local authorities doing their job well and ensuring that an estate is not handed over and that the inspections are carried out. All too frequently in the past there have been difficulties in this regard.
Planning authorities are also urged to use their powers under the Planning and Development Act 2000 in regard to this issue. Deputy Coveney touched on this, specifically. Section 34(4)(g) of the 2000 Act enables a planning authority to impose conditions under a planning permission, requiring the provision of a bond for the satisfactory completion of a proposed development. As all Members of the House know, unfortunately in the past there have been cases of ludicrously low bonds being put in place. Significant profits are currently being made in the building trade, particularly on the development side. It is not unreasonable that local authorities clear and cover themselves with appropriate bonds.
Under section 180, where a development has not been completed to the satisfaction of the planning authority in accordance with the permission, it is obliged to take it in charge where so requested by a majority of the residents. Section 180 also allows the planning authority to apply any security given as a condition for planning permission for the adequate completion or remediation of the development. Again, that has happened in some cases, but not in others. Substantial amendments were also made on the enforcement procedures under the 2000 Act in order to ensure their effectiveness. I reiterate all of these point because a number of Deputies who take their roles seriously in representing the public interest, have recorded their dissatisfaction in this regard. This causes me concern. Powers exist within the planning laws and I insist that local authorities use those powers to ensure the type of issue mentioned by Deputy Coveney and others is not repeated.
Deputy O'Dowd was gracious in his comments on the level of investment. Funding was mentioned by many Opposition spokespersons and by Deputies from my own side. Many of the commentators were less accurate than Deputy O'Dowd in their observations. I was surprised at this because a significant investment in improvement is being made in the water area by the Government. Exchequer expenditure on water services infrastructure increased from €155 million in 1996 to €400 million in 2004. That is an increase of almost 160%. Some €4.4 billion has been provided under the National Development Plan 2000-2006 to deliver a first-class water service to people, which is something we all want. In the period 1994-96, when conditions were different, total funding was €433 million. I make these points because I consider that some of comments made about inadequate investment are not just inaccurate, while I am sure they were not made out of malice. Neither were they made to score political points. I am putting the facts on record so that people may be informed.
The latest roll forward, for example, of the water services investment programme, covering the years 2004-06, consists of 869 projects at various stages of development, with a total value of just under €5 billion. I will stray from the text, so to speak, to make one point in this regard. In quite a number of local authority areas where services are being rolled out which are desperately needed, the delays are being initiated from within minorities in these communities, ie, people abusing the planning system. We have just had the extraordinary case in Arklow where a much-needed sewage scheme has finally cleared the planning process after 12 years. There is no other country in Europe or in the OECD where it takes 12 years to get through the courts and the planning system. I have completed the review necessary for moving forward the Strategic Infrastructure Bill 2004.
The figures for investment show that record levels of resources are being provided because they were not made available in the past. None of us can take joy in the past but we can all celebrate the fact that significant resources are being invested. On capital expenditure mention was made of shortfalls under the Department's Vote last year. The figure of €650 million quoted, was incorrect. At the time the issue was raised the actual underspend compared to the comparative spend was €268 million. That was too much, in my view, but it is significantly less than €650 million. I am unhappy with that, but there are reasons why projects do not go ahead. I mentioned, for example, the Arklow scheme. The money is there for it to move forward. One or two local residents decided to have recourse to the courts. People with deep pockets can delay schemes that are in the public interest and it is happening all too often. Traditionally, the bulk of construction work took place during longer days and in better weather conditions and perhaps that is one of the excuses for delays.
I want to move on to the cost to commercial users. A number of Deputies spoke about the cost of water to commercial users, raising the issue of water service pricing policy and its implications for non-domestic users. This was related to the issue of metering. Deputy Crowe raised a question on the recovery of costs. The recovery of costs for the provision of non-domestic water services, he suggested, should be operated on principles of transparency and equality. I suggest to him that this principle may not be put forward while one is viscerally opposed to the concept of metering. That is to be somewhat inconsistent. Water service costs will be recovered from the vast majority of non-domestic customers on the basis of per-cubic metre consolidated charge, which includes margin or capital costs. Metering of all non-domestic consumers is progressing nationally. I believe it is the most equitable way to deal with this. It will certainly facilitate the application of a charging mechanism and is the most equitable way of passing charges to commercial users. It is also the best way to reduce profligate waste.
One Deputy described the charging for water services to business as a stealth tax. I suggest the Deputy might just grow up. It is not a stealth tax. To ask people who charge their customers for the services they provide to pay for the services provided to them by the taxpayer is certainly not a stealth tax. In general, if there is not some form of charging to commercial users or if, for example, such charges were to be abolished, then the general taxpayer would have to pay the bill. We all know water is an expensive commodity and I do not believe any sane person would really suggest that. I will not embarrass the Deputy by naming him. He is normally a sensible enough person.
The Bill applies to waters in the pipe. A question was asked by Deputy Durkan as to why it does not deal with estuarial waters and all the other matters. The answer is absolutely simple, because we want to focus on water in the pipe, on the abstraction and the management of the water bodies. If one tries to cover the issues such as the management of water in lakes, river basins and all the other matters touched on and which, no doubt, require attention, I do not believe we would get the legislation through. It is appropriate we should focus strategically and tactically on this particular issue and resolve it.
Deputy Ó Fearghaíl mentioned the perennial problem of water leakages or breakdowns in schemes. Every public representative is aware of this. It normally happens at the weekends, particularly on holiday weekends. The only person available to be contacted is the local Deputy. The service providers are nowhere to be seen. Deputy Ó Fearghaíl put forward a good proposition on a 24-hour emergency number. I will ask county managers to do this. A local mobile phone number can be locally published as the emergency on-call number and be made available to every citizen. If there is an emergency in the water system, people can be contacted. As the taxpayer pays for much of the phone services in councils, county managers should take this on board. Through their network of councillors, I suggest that Deputies put proposals like this before councils.
I remember an incident years ago where someone decided to dig with a JCB all day on Christmas Day. Whatever was on the television was not up to standard and his family was obviously driving him mad. He helpfully severed the water connection to several hundred thousand people in my constituency, and another councillor and I had the job of operating as water carriers for the day. It was simply not good enough.
A number of Deputies dealt with the statutory right to water services for each household. In a modern society, I accept that every person should have access to water supplies. Deputies Gilmore and Twomey spoke about this. To oblige, by statute, water services authorities to provide water services in every and all conceivable situations would place an impossible burden on the system. While I fully accept the point made by Deputy Gilmore that everyone should have a right to expect a water supply, I am not sure that we should enshrine that right in statute. It could land us in grave difficulty if someone decides to build a house on the side of a mountain 15 miles from the nearest water connection. A blanket obligation to provide water services could force water service authorities into unreasonable circumstances. If someone decides to build a mansion on top of a mountain, replete with jacuzzi and all mod-cons, I am not sure that the taxpayer should pay for that. It is not what Deputy Gilmore had in mind when he made his proposition, but it would inevitably be the outcome of an obligation.
It is apparent from the contributions that the term "water services authority", as used in the Bill, is being misinterpreted and misunderstood. A number of Deputies spoke of water services authorities in doom laden terms. Deputy Ring saw the term as indicating a move away from local government. Nothing could be further from the truth. Deputy Ring might base his oratorical skills on reality because the water services authorities currently are the local authorities. To suggest that the terminology has some sinister use is over-egging the cake. I cannot think of a more accurate way of describing the various authorities and there is no possibility that the term "water services authority" can be regarded as anything other than benign. If people want to use words that do not frighten the horses, I will be willing to listen to them.
A number of Deputies mentioned the nitrates directive. The Green Party is characteristically disingenuous in this area. Farmers were attacked, as is usual. The reality of the directive has moved on since the particular contribution was made. We have received a very disappointing response from the Commission and we are currently working to resolve the issue. I have had contacts with the farming organisations, which are very positive on the issue. The Brosnan report has been very helpful. Unfortunately, having made our submissions to Europe, certain complaints were made and the Commission has been back to us on the issue. There have been extensive discussions with the Commission and they will continue. I am disappointed by the initial response, but I regard it as a good proposition.
Deputies referred to requirements for the EU wastewater treatment directive. The directive requires the provision of secondary treatment for wastewater in urban areas, where certain population thresholds are reached. This has to be done by the end of 2005. It also requires appropriate treatment for sub-threshold populations. Very good progress was made during the course of the national development programme up to 2000. By the end of the 1990s, our compliance with the directive was approximately 25%. With the completion of the new wastewater treatment plant in Ringsend in 2003 and other plants in Wexford, Cork, Limerick and Galway, Ireland's compliance rate with the directive has now risen to 90%. The Department has been systematically working on a priority basis for the elimination of the practice of inadequately treating wastewater discharge. The Department's water services investment programme for 2004-06 also includes all schemes necessary to give effect to the commitment in the programme for Government. The wastewater treatment of every amalgamation of population of over 1,000 will be in place or at an advanced stage by the end of 2005. The level of provision exceeds that required by the EU water directive. An issue that will arise will be whether people are willing to use the law of the land to stymie positive developments that are in the public good.
Deputies Allen, Stanton and Connaughton referred in their contributions to the position on the drinking water directive. The European Commission initiated proceedings in the European Court of Justice in August 2000. The court found Ireland to be in breach of the directive. We are responding to the judgment by continuing to intensify numerous measures to strengthen delivery management and supervision of water services in Ireland. This Bill is part of that response. The most recent annual report from the EPA confirms a fundamentally good quality of drinking water in Ireland in 2003. The overall compliance rate of public water supplies with the prescribed standard now stands at 97.7%. When I compare the judgment against Ireland to the water quality in other member states, I am somewhat mystified as to why such a judgment could be given against us. The water quality here is significantly better than that in other countries. Nonetheless, we have to aim to comply fully with the requirements. Planned investment of €4.4 billion on the development of the upgrading of water supply infrastructure by the end of 2006 is intended to maximise compliance. We will depend on local authorities to help roll out this development.
The issue of fluoride was mentioned by a number of Deputies. Hydrofluorosilicic acid is the fluoridation agent currently used in Ireland and is a product of a specific manufacturing process. It is not a by-product or a waste product, as Deputy Gormley suggested. The opponents of fluoridation frequently ignore the positive effect on the dental health of the nation. There is an issue of balance here. Deputy McHugh pointed to the fact that there is dramatically differing attitudes among experts on this issue. The amount of vigour, heat and energy put into the debate does not help our understanding of the issue. It is simply not good enough for Deputy Gormley to dismiss the work of the fluoride forum because he does not agree with the outcome. That is not dialogue or debate, it is simply adopting a Dr. Strangelove attitude. The rogue pilot in that film took a similar view to Deputy Gormley on the worldwide conspiracy of fluoridation. If he has not seen that classic film, I suggest the Deputy do so before he engages in any other flights of fantasy.
The water framework was also mentioned. Clarification was requested on why section 30(3) of the Bill does not refer to Article 9 of the framework directive. Section 30(3) requires the Minister, in carrying out his or her functions under the Bill, to have regard to and take into account the full legal requirements that apply, including Article 9. I wish to clarify that the transposition of the terms of Article 9 into Irish law is included in the Bill. Deputy Gilmore specifically asked that question. Section 30(3) is included to address the requirements of Article 9. If the Deputy has a query on it, we can discuss it later.
There is no hidden agenda. Article 9 reflects the established position relating to the continuing exemption of the domestic sector from charges for water services in Ireland. Our position in this regard is acknowledged. The Deputy's concern was that where Article 9 was not specifically referred to ipso facto there could be a problem with domestic charging. It does not arise and, in fact, the purpose of section 30(3) is to transpose the reference in Article 9. If the Deputy believes the section could be strengthened, I will be prepared to discuss it on Committee Stage.
This is landmark legislation. It is another item in our regulatory reform agenda. It is the first time in more than a century that a single enactment will encapsulate the main provisions relating to the management and delivery of water services in one easy and accessible code. That is welcome. Consultation was part of the approach to the Bill and I intend to deal with Committee Stage in the same spirit. I have demonstrated that in my response on Second Stage. I will consider any reasonable proposition made.
I sought to give Deputies assurances, particularly on the issue of where the function will lie and whether it is a reserved or an executive function. I will approach future debates in the same spirit because through partnership we can produce good legislation that will provide a good service for the people. It is not an issue that touches on individual party political interests but one on which all parties share a common resolve. I hope this Bill will be in effect for many years.
I commend the Bill and the consolidation it contains to the House. I am grateful to all the Members who spoke in this debate. I cannot remember a Bill that attracted more contributions. I am particularly grateful to Deputy O'Dowd and Deputy Gilmore and I look forward to working with them to improve the Bill further on Committee Stage.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 59 (Michael Ahern, Noel Ahern, Niall Blaney, Johnny Brady, Martin Brady, Séamus Brennan, John Browne, Joe Callanan, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Michael J Collins, Beverley Flynn, Mary Coughlan, Brian Cowen, John Cregan, John Curran, Tony Dempsey, John Dennehy, Jimmy Devins, John Ellis, Michael Finneran, Dermot Fitzpatrick, Mildred Fox, Jim Glennon, Noel Grealish, Seán Haughey, Joe Jacob, Cecilia Keaveney, Billy Kelleher, Peter Kelly, Tony Killeen, Tom Kitt, Conor Lenihan, Tom McEllistrim, John McGuinness, John Moloney, Donal Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Michael Mulcahy, M J Nolan, Charlie O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Liz O'Donnell, Noel O'Flynn, Batt O'Keeffe, Fiona O'Malley, Tim O'Malley, Tom Parlon, Peter Power, Seán Power, Dick Roche, Mae Sexton, Brendan Smith, Michael Smith, Noel Treacy, Dan Wallace, Joe Walsh, Ollie Wilkinson, G V Wright)
Against the motion: 42 (Bernard Allen, Dan Boyle, Pat Breen, Tommy Broughan, Joan Burton, Simon Coveney, Seán Crowe, John Deasy, Jimmy Deenihan, Bernard Durkan, Eamon Gilmore, Paul Gogarty, John Gormley, Tom Hayes, Séamus Healy, Joe Higgins, Brendan Howlin, Paul Kehoe, Pádraic McCormack, Dinny McGinley, Paddy McHugh, Liz McManus, Arthur Morgan, Denis Naughten, Dan Neville, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Fergus O'Dowd, Jim O'Keeffe, Brian O'Shea, Séamus Pattison, John Perry, Pat Rabbitte, Michael Ring, Eamon Ryan, Seán Ryan, Róisín Shortall, Emmet Stagg, David Stanton, Billy Timmins, Liam Twomey, Mary Upton, Jack Wall)
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Kehoe and Stagg.
Question declared carried.