Wednesday, 25 January 2006
Water and Sewerage Schemes.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue and the Minister of State for coming to the House. We have a considerable amount of water schemes in County Galway and I estimate the county has the greatest number of water schemes in the country. I am slightly disappointed that both group water schemes and public water schemes have not progressed recently as much as I would have wished. Allegations have been made that Galway County Council has not spent all of the money allocated for group water schemes. From conversations I have had with some councillors they would contest this claim. A considerable amount of money has been spent on water schemes, a trend which should continue for both group water schemes and public water schemes.
The amount spent on sewerage schemes under construction amounts to €26 million, and €68 million will be spent on water and sewerage schemes in County Galway this year. It is disappointing that many of the smaller schemes listed in 2002 and 2003, and possibly earlier than this, appear to have been put on the 2007 list. Twelve of the schemes on the 2007 list cost less than €5 million. The smaller schemes, which make up the majority of the schemes in question, should be dealt with before 2007.
Some schemes were completed in the past under the reed bed system. The scheme in Williamstown in County Galway is an example of such a scheme. The cost of these schemes was less than 50% of the cost of a traditional scheme. Many towns have inadequate sewerage schemes and improvements to such schemes are included in the programme for 2006 and 2007.
"Design build operate" is a phrase used in connection with the construction of schemes. The scheme in Milltown in north Galway was once a standalone scheme but is now included in a group, as are schemes in Dunmore and Kilkerran. The schemes in the latter two locations are treated in conjunction with Leenane in west Galway. While I always believed it would be a good idea to use the design build operate model, I am concerned about schemes which were standalone but are now being included in bundled schemes.
I was pleased to hear the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government say before Christmas that schemes costing less than €5 million could be fast-tracked and that local authorities would not be forced to send every scheme to the Department. This is a very good idea. Allowing the county council to deal with schemes would be very welcome in a county like Galway, which has a considerable number of them.
I am sure the Minister of State is familiar with the progress of a scheme. A particular scheme looks like a very good idea, is drawn up, approved by the council and goes out to consultants. The next thing we hear is that the scheme must be enlarged, for example, it must be enlarged by a quarter of a mile on one road or half a mile on another road. The matter then returns to the Department because the scheme must be costed again, which causes significant delay. The estimated cost of schemes scheduled to start in 2007 is €256 million. I would like to have seen these schemes started this year. Progress on the 12 schemes that cost less than €5 million, such as those in Milltown and Kinvara, would be welcome. The Kinvara scheme has been raised in the Seanad by Senator Ulick Burke, in Galway County Council and in the European Parliament with regard to pollution and the threat to the environment. The Minister should eliminate some of the red tape and then we would have a great opportunity to give every small town and village a sewerage scheme and progress with the water schemes which need much more investment.
Batt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Kitt for raising an important national issue. I hope the information I am now going to provide will satisfy him that we are making real progress.
Providing modern water services infrastructure to support social and economic objectives has been a major focus of Government spending over the past number of years. There has been unprecedented investment by my Department under the national development plan on water and sewerage schemes and this has made a key contribution to the economic growth that has benefited every part of Ireland.
My Department's Water Services Investment Programme 2005-07, published last month, includes some 60 major water and sewerage schemes, with a value of over €451 million, for Galway. Many areas of the county, such as Carna-Kilkieran, Tuam and Headford will benefit from improved water supplies. Also included are new regional water supply schemes for Costelloe, Gort, Ballinasloe, Clifden, Loughrea, Dunmore-Glenamaddy and Portumna. All these schemes will play a major role in the development of the residential, tourism and commercial sectors of these areas. In addition, towns and villages such as Athenry, Ballinasloe, Barna, Carraroe, Clifden, Glenamaddy, Headford, Milltown, Oughterard and Tuam can also look forward to new or upgraded sewerage schemes.
I am as anxious as the Senator to see all these schemes get to construction and completion as quickly as possible and my Department is doing everything it can to ensure this happens. However, the Senator will appreciate that multi-million euro schemes that are being funded by the taxpayer must go through detailed planning and development processes to ensure they meet their intended objectives, are designed and constructed in an economical manner and produce drinking water or treated waste water to a standard that meets national and EU requirements. Moreover, the acquisition of land or completion of statutory planning procedures such as environmental impact assessments cannot be achieved overnight but must be completed before tenders can be invited for the construction of any scheme.
Over the years my Department has consistently delegated more and more responsibilities to local authorities to speed up the procurement of new water services infrastructure. For example, once the preliminary report for a project costing up to €2.5 million is approved under my Department's water services investment programme, the local authority can generally proceed to construction without further reference to the Department. I want to extend this devolution of functions further and I have recently announced that for every project in the water services investment programme valued under €5 million — there are 291 of them — local authorities will henceforth be entitled, after they receive preliminary approval, to proceed right through to construction without further reference to my Department. This will give local authorities unprecedented authority to advance individual schemes with a minimum of Departmental involvement.
I hope the result will be a significant speeding up of hundreds of individual schemes from drawing board through to completion. It will also mean that my Department's expertise can be concentrated on advancing bigger and more costly projects. The Senator will also be glad to learn that, as a particular measure to help Galway, my Department agreed last year to fund the costs of two additional engineering posts in Galway County Council's water services section. Much of the function will now fall on the local councillors to ensure their local authorities will expedite projects costing under €5 million because the responsibility has now been devolved to them.
On the rural water side, I am particularly pleased to acknowledge the great efforts being made by all the rural water stakeholders in County Galway to address the pressing problem of quality-deficient group water schemes. Approximately 15,000 rural households are dependent on group water schemes in County Galway. I am determined that funding will not be a constraint on the task of bringing over 100 quality-deficient group water schemes in the county up to standard. Spending nationally on rural water has increased dramatically, from around €15 million in 1997 to €119 million in 2005. This is real progress by any yardstick.
As the Senator is aware, responsibility for the administration of the devolved rural water programme rests with the county councils. It is a matter for each county council to determine and implement its annual programme of work. Over the three-year period 2002 to 2004, Galway County Council underspent its block grant allocation for rural water by over €8 million. This included an amount of €1.133 million earmarked for small public water and sewerage schemes. There is a lesson to be learned there. We must be far more energetic locally to ensure the council officials meet the demands and spend the money given to them during the year in question.
I am pleased that Galway County Council is now giving the upgrading of rural water schemes the priority and attention it deserves. In 2005 the council looked for funding for an ambitious programme of work that focussed on the provision of new, stand-alone water treatment plants for up 60 group water schemes with poor quality private sources. In response to the council's ambitious plans a record capital allocation of over €14 million was provided last year for rural water plus a further €410,000 to meet the council's administration and technical costs. I understand that construction is currently under way on the provision of 17 group scheme treatment plants that together will serve around 3,500 Galway households. Planning is well advanced on further contracts to provide fully treated water for up to 40 more group schemes serving over 6,000 households. Good progress is also being made on connecting quality-deficient group schemes to the county's expanding regional water scheme network.
The 2005 programme targets set by the council for 2005 were fully realised and the €14 million allocation was drawn down in its entirety. Galway County Council has submitted another ambitious programme of rural water activities for 2006. I am at present examining all the local authorities' proposals and I will be announcing the 2006 allocations shortly. There is already an unbroken eight-year record of increased rural water spending and I intend for this year's allocation to ensure that record is more than maintained.