Thursday, 24 November 2016
Commencement Matters (Resumed)
I join the Leas-Chathaoirleach in welcoming our visitors from Slovenia. They come from a fabulous country. I climbed one of their mountains many years ago and I really liked the country. It is similar to Ireland when it comes to rural tourism.
I thank Senator Ó Domhnaill for providing me with an opportunity to outline the position in regard to this important matter for those affected throughout the State. I agree with him that it is an important issue. Like Councillor Bonner who asked the Senator to raise the matter, I have had many contacts from residents of estates in Meath and other counties facing the same issue. It is of concern and it needs to be addressed. We are certainly aware of it. It can cause great difficulty. While it does not happen every week, one can suddenly experience conditions that cause the problem, at which point it becomes an urgent issue for the families involved. I will take the opportunity in my reply to set out the legal position but there is a commitment to work with local authorities and Irish Water to find a solution. We have to do that.
As the House is aware, the Government, Irish Water and local authorities are continuing to deliver on an ambitious transformation programme of the water sector in Ireland. Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. The Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 provided for local authorities to act as agents for Irish Water with this relationship being expressed through service level agreements. Through these 12-year agreements, local authorities are utilising their experience and expertise in asset management and operations to provide services on behalf of Irish Water. This expertise is being combined with the considerable network and utility management experience available to Irish Water. The agreements are based on partnership, continuous improvement and the delivery of efficiencies. Each service level agreement in place with a local authority is supported by an annual service plan which reflects the required programme of transformation for that authority. It also outlines agreed objectives and standards of performance set against a budget covering headcount, goods, services and investment in the coming year. Annual service plans encompass a set of operational objectives, key performance indicators and a related budget, including payroll. The plans set out the context for the delivery of water services for each local authority for a given year.
The Water Services Act 2007 sets down the obligations and responsibilities of water services authorities and property owners in respect of water infrastructure. Sections 43 and 54 of the Act provide that the property owner is responsible for the maintenance and replacement of any water or wastewater pipes, connections or distribution systems which are connected within the boundary of their property. This was the case also prior to the transfer of responsibility for public water services from the local authorities to Irish Water. However, I am aware, as the Senator says, that individual local authorities may, at their own discretion, have undertaken clearance works in respect of common wastewater infrastructure on private property in the past. I am familiar with cases like a particular terrace in Navan and St. John's in Kells where this has happened. At the time, the local authority did the right thing because garden boundaries had often extended out to take in some of the public infrastructure, which caused a difficulty. These works were not a requirement of the law pertaining at the time and not every local authority provided such services. Those that did acted in good faith in my opinion. The Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 transferred responsibility for the maintenance and repair of pipes and combined drains under publicly owned roadways and pathways to Irish Water while responsibility for storm water sewers remained with local authorities. The position as set out in legislation provides clarity on the responsibility for the maintenance of common sewerage pipes.
Notwithstanding the legal position, I recognise the importance of local authorities and Irish Water working together to agree operational guidelines on this and other boundary type matters so as to provide clarity to householders as to the services which they can expect to receive from Irish Water working in partnership with the local authorities under service level agreement arrangements. While further legislation in this area is not envisaged, my Department is engaging with Irish Water to set out clearly the responsibilities of Irish Water and property owners in regard to water supply and wastewater infrastructure. We will find a solution to this working together with local authorities. We will not have to go down the legislation route albeit there may have been a missed opportunity at a previous stage. We can resolve it without doing so, however, and already some local authorities are making great progress, including Westmeath County Council. It is about bringing in a system whereby this can be dealt with nationally.
I thank the Minister of State for his excellent understanding of the matter. He is well aware of the issues. I acknowledge his sentiments and ask him to look at the difference between the reply to the parliamentary question asked on 7 October 2015 and the reply today. In October 2015, the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, referred to the curtilage of the private property. The reply today refers to the boundary of the private property. If it were the curtilage of the private property, it would solve the problem. It would be like the situation where the water network is within the curtilage of the property and the responsibility of the property owner and thereafter Irish Water is responsible. If we could define it as just the curtilage of the property instead of the boundary, it would resolve matters because the boundary includes the whole estate and all those parts which are in charge.
A solution is urgently required. Having spoken to Irish Water, I believe it is very anxious to resolve the issue which has major implications for its good name. I am sure Irish Water does not want this to turn into a huge issue. I urge the Minister of State to find a resolution and to ascertain from the Department why there is a different response today to the one provided in the Dáil on 7 October 2015. The legislation has not changed in the intervening period but clarity is required. If it is possible, I ask the Minister of State to come back to me with that clarity when he has an opportunity. There is no rush.
I will certainly come back to the Senator with that clarity. The reply today is similar to the reply I gave here a number of weeks ago when I addressed the matter first with some of the Senator's colleagues. I committed then and commit again to the Department finding a solution to this as it is the right thing to do. This situation leaves people very vulnerable. They cannot afford to fix the problem and the solution is often outside their boundary whereas the problem is being caused on their properties. It can cause difficulties for neighbours. In some cases, it is something that was always fixed or addressed over a period of 30 or 40 years. We will find a solution. Regardless of differing versions over the last year or two, there is a commitment to resolving the issue.