Dáil debates

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

Priority Questions

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

1:00 pm

James Breen (Clare, Independent)
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Question 111: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if in view of the fact that the network designed and approved under the preliminary report for the Scarriff, Feakle, Quilty and Mullagh sewerage schemes and also the pricing policy report submitted by Clare County Council continue to be under discussion with his Department with a view to extensive rationalisation of the network, he will provide the housing figures and commercial margins used for each area to determine the figure of €8.8 million allocated; the way this amount was sanctioned without prior approval of the pricing policy report for the combined design, building and operation scheme; when he expects the capital allocation to be drawn down and used for the actual construction of the scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31184/06]

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I hope I will have less contentious news for Deputy Breen.

Discussions between my Department and Clare County Council in respect of this scheme have been satisfactorily concluded. My Department has approved the council's revised proposals for the scope and scale of the new infrastructure to be provided in each of the locations involved which, I understand, do not involve any significant reductions in the areas to be served by the scheme. My Department has also agreed the overall funding arrangements for the scheme with the council.

The council is now updating the tender documents for the three new treatment plants. These will be procured as a single contract to optimise cost and construction. How quickly work will start on the treatment plants will largely depend on progress made by the council with the tender process. I have instructed my Department to request the council to submit the updated tender documents for the waste water treatment plants for approval as quickly as possible. They will be dealt with urgently by the Department on receipt with a view to allowing the council to invite tenders with the least possible delay. I insist on the least possible delay because these schemes have been going on for a long time. I am hopeful that construction will commence in the latter part of 2007. In the meantime, the council may proceed with the work on the collection systems without any further reference to my Department in accordance with more streamlined approval procedures I introduced earlier this year to accelerate progress under the water services investment programme. At that time I reduced from four to two the number of stage approvals which local authorities are required to obtain from my Department for schemes costing less than €5 million. Following approval of the preliminary report in such cases, local authorities may now proceed to construction without any further approval from my Department, provided they remain within budget.

Last month I eased the approval system further by dispensing altogether with the need for local authorities to obtain clearance from my Department to award traditional contracts, irrespective of cost. At the same time I introduced a standard scale for calculating the contribution to be made by the non-domestic sector towards the capital cost of new schemes. This will obviate the need for local authorities to produce detailed water services pricing policy reports and should lead to quicker progress with less bureaucracy for these schemes.

James Breen (Clare, Independent)
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After 26 years of broken promises, I welcome the allocation of €8.8 million for the Quilty, Mullagh, Scarriff and Feakle schemes. However I ask the Minister to explain the purpose of a pricing policy if an allocation can be made without the policy being finalised. How has the magic figure of €8.8 million been arrived at?

Labasheeda and Carrigaholt are small villages in the west of Ireland which are crying out for sewerage schemes but are being held back indefinitely because of the pricing policy. What criteria were used here to raise the magic figure of €8.8 million? The contract documents were submitted to the Department two years ago. Why have they not been finalised? I welcome the allocation but I cannot envisage this scheme going ahead for a long time.

The Minister hoped to save money by asking the county council to trim the schemes in the case of Mullagh and Quilty and to trim by nearly half in the case of Feakle. How is it possible to ask the councils to trim the schemes once the allocation has been made? Why was this not taken into consideration by the Minister before he made the allocation? He has given them money on one hand and told them to trim the schemes on the other hand. Those four towns are looking for a sewerage scheme but some houses will be unable to tap into it. Will the Minister change the pricing policy? Labasheeda and Carrigaholt are small villages which cannot be developed to their full potential and because there are so few houses the price per house is enormous. It is all right to have a pricing policy where there is an existing sewerage scheme but in those cases where there is nothing, will the Minister ease the pricing policy?

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy has referred to schemes which are not the subject of his question.

I will deal with the water services pricing policy and specifically with the point made by the Deputy about Feakle, Quilty and Scarriff. When the preliminary reports for Feakle, Quilty and Scarriff were approved in 2000 and contract documents were received in late 2004, it appeared on the basis of the information available in the Department from the Deputy's county council, that the cost per existing house in Feakle would be €33,134, €18,587 in Scarriff and a massive €56,410 in Quilty. The Deputy well knows that a householder could provide a proprietary single house treatment plant for a fraction of those figures. It would have been a disgrace to proceed with such a scheme. This House and the Committee of Public Accounts would have been justified in asking the Minister of the day how a scheme costing €56,000 per house was agreed to. We have a responsibility to tend to the interests of the taxpayers as well as the interests of the residents of those areas.

I am surprised at the Deputy's response because the news I have given him today is extraordinarily positive. In the case of Quilty, Feakle and Scarriff we have made extraordinary progress in containing costs.

It is not conceivable that the Deputy could come to the House and expect any Minister, irrespective of whom the Minister was, to stand over a scheme costing €56,000 per house to make a connection. This would be grotesquely unfair to taxpayers.

With regard to the water services pricing policy, reports are calculated at the proportion of the capital cost of the infrastructure which must be paid by the non-domestic sector if it is charged on a country-wide basis as part of the non-domestic consumers' water services charges. We do not apply water charges on the domestic sector.

To simplify the process, a standard percentage contribution will now be applied to schemes where the non-domestic capital contribution has yet to be determined. This is fair and reasonable for the county councils because it is very difficult for them to deal comprehensively with the contribution or with the take up from the non-domestic sector. This approach obviates the need for elaborate water services pricing policy reports which are costly, which take a lot of time to prepare and which are contentious by their very nature. This course of action could still be the final solution. However, in the case in question, a group of schemes which were tied up in red tape for years have now been released. I think a smidgen of support from the Deputy's side of the House in recognition of this would not be uncalled for. I accept his frustration that these schemes were tied up, considering the schemes for Feakle, Quilty and Scarriff were first approved in 2000 and the contract documents arrived in the Department in 2004. I suggest if the Deputy has a query about that period he should address it in Ennis, not in Dáil Éireann.

James Breen (Clare, Independent)
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The Minister did not listen to what I said. I welcome both the schemes and the progress made. I wish to ascertain how the Minister arrived at the figure of €8.8 million. How many houses were included in the make-up of the amount? Why did the Minister ask for the scheme to be trimmed after the €8.8 million had been allocated? I welcome the scheme with open arms and I will help the Minister in every way to progress it. I was trying to achieve this during my 26 years as a county councillor in Clare County Council without success but I am here in this House now and I want to help the Minister in every way I can.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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Even if the Progressive Democrats pull out.

James Breen (Clare, Independent)
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Is dona linn an briseadh seo. I just wish to know the number of houses and the reason the Minister asked for the scheme to be trimmed.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I think the Deputy will accept that the figure of €56,000 per house is not acceptable. A further calculation was carried out with the county council to achieve the €8.808 million Exchequer grant. This was agreed in July 2006 and approved by the Department in August. It allows €10,000 each for 99 existing houses in Feakle, 372 existing houses in Scarriff and 351 existing houses in Quilty. An additional allowance of €4,000 will be made for 23 future houses in Feakle, 62 houses in Scarriff and 62 future houses in Quilty. This works out at 40% and is a quick rule of thumb to allow for further expansion in those areas. In the circumstances, a figure of €10,000 per house plus a 40% rule of thumb for expansion is generous.