Thursday, 21 November 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. Senator O'Mahony is also present. He has a knee-deep interest in the Letterbrick, Keenagh, County Mayo, water scheme as well. I acknowledge the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is busy, and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, for taking this matter. It is a sad day when water is not fit for human consumption. There are only 24 houses involved. It is a very small scheme in the context of all the water schemes that are being funded the length and breadth of the country. The scheme is not fit for purpose. At different times when there is too much rain or bad weather, the water supply is contaminated and the water is undrinkable.
It is a remote area. The people there are trying to build up the community to keep the local school going and their GAA club in place. It does not help to have a water supply that is not fit for purpose. There is an onus on us to provide good drinking water to the 24 households in Letterbrick. There is not much to say on the scheme other than that it is not fit for purpose. There is not a large sum involved. The Department should lead the way and give the local people a scheme that is fit for purpose.
I thank Senator Burke for allowing me to share time. I acknowledge the support of Senator O’Mahony on this critical issue in County Mayo, which is the provision of a drinkable water to all households throughout the county. The households in Letterbrick do not have a public or a group water scheme. People mainly depend on wells or streams or so on. It is not adequate. Sometimes they do not have a water supply in the summer and they have dirty water at other times. There are many houses affected in County Mayo, including 17 in Downpatrick Head; 17 in Shrataggle; seven in Sallyhernaun; 16 in Carrowmore-Kilbride; 17 in Furmoyle; and a number of houses in Carrowteige, Porturlin and Portacloy. The Minister of State will tell us it is costing too much. At this point I do not believe this is acceptable. These people are out on a limb.
We know of the problem at the Leixlip water treatment plan and all the people without water here in Dublin. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and other State agencies, including the HSE, are saying something has to be done as the water is not fit for human consumption. There is no State agency, professionals or experts, to shout on behalf of the people living in these villages in Mayo. The exception is the very good work done by the rural water section of Mayo County Council. Something has to be done for these people. They are being told it is too much, that is it. Where are they supposed to go? They have been drilling wells, the water is not adequate. It is dirty, it cannot be drunk, clothes cannot be washed in it. Where are they to go? There does not seem to be a plan for them except to tell them there is not enough money and they are already paying money for water. All these houses need to be sorted out.
I thank Senators Burke and Mulherin for raising this important issue. I also thank Senator O'Mahony for his support. The points they raise are relevant particularly to the recent debate in the Dublin area.
On 8 February this year, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government announced details of the measures being funded through his Department under the Multi-annual Rural Water Programme 2019-2021. In parallel with the announcement local authorities were invited to submit bids for funding schemes or projects in their functional areas, with the deadline for receipt of proposals set as 14 March 2019.
The new multi-annual programme includes measure 4 - new group water schemes. This measure supports social and economic development in rural towns and villages and their hinterlands by providing new group water schemes where public water supply schemes or individual or private wells are not the most viable options.
Mayo County Council made a number of bids under measure 4, including for a proposal for a Letterbrick group water scheme. The estimated cost of the proposed 24-house scheme was €469,000, or €19,542 per house. An expert panel was put in place to support the Department in its bids evaluation process. In addition to providing an expert perspective, the panel brought independence, openness and transparency to the bids evaluation process, which was done on a national prioritised basis. The panel's membership included departmental, stakeholder and independent representations. The panel made recommendations to the Minister on the suitability of schemes and projects for funding based on objective criteria, which were set out in the framework document issued to local authorities when requesting proposals. In particular, the framework sets out that grants of up to 85% of cost are available for new group water schemes subject to a maximum grant of €7,650 per house. This means that the effective financially viable cost limit per house for a scheme is €9,000. A supplemental grant can be considered in exceptional cases, subject to the recommendation of the panel and departmental approval.
The panel, in considering the bid for the proposed Letterbrick scheme, concluded that at €19,542 per house it was not financially viable when viewed against the criteria in the framework. In the circumstances the panel did not recommend a supplementary grant. The panel recommends that the local authority engages with the promoters to consider alternative lower cost solutions for example, private wells for which, subject to terms and conditions, a separate grant is available. The private wells grant under the rural water programme can be accessed through the local authority, to assist with the necessary improvement of an individual water supply to a household.
In approving the new multi-annual rural water programme, the Minister also approved an improved and increased private wells grants scheme to replace the existing scheme. It is expected that the procedures for applying under this new scheme will be completed shortly when the necessary regulations dealing with the financial assistance arrangements and related administrative matters are put in place. This will enable circular letters, terms and conditions, guidance and the application forms to issue to local authorities shortly thereafter. I again acknowledge the interest of the Senators in this matter and I appreciate their interest in the water supply for County Mayo. I will bring their concerns to the Minister.
I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter and for taking our concerns to the Minister. It is not satisfactory. I do not think that Martina Hegarty and the other 23 householders in the area will be happy with the reply. While the expert panel has adjudicated on this, what happens when everybody drills a well, if new houses are built in the area or new people come in? The Department will be grant-aiding new wells all the time. It is doing nothing for the future of the area. That is one problem with the expert report. Whoever the experts were on this committee, they certainly were not thinking of the future of the Letterbrick area. There is no consideration given to whether additional houses will be built in this area or new householders come in whereas if there was a group water scheme, those houses could be connected to the existing scheme. Will the Minister of State take that issue back to the Minister?
In most of the houses and areas I have mentioned, they have spent a bomb drilling wells and it is not working. If it worked, they would not be going to the State and, quite frankly, if the State does not intervene, those people have no other place to go. I am disappointed that while there is provision for a supplemental grant where the schemes are costing extra money because of the topography of the landscape, not one additional supplemental grant was made in the whole of the county and, as I understand it, the whole of the country. How is this scheme being operated by this so-called expert panel?
I thank the Senators for their questions and absolutely take the validity of their arguments. The original point made was about Letterbrick and the argument about how other parts of the country are treated is valid. I will bring the Senators' concerns back to the Department. The people of Letterbrick should be treated the same as the people of Lucan and I agree with that argument absolutely. People have a right to water. Senator Mulherin highlighted the point about wells and that no grants have gone into that area. I give the Senator a commitment that I will go back to the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Department and raise these issues, as well as the points raised by Senator Paddy Burke about the urgent need to give funding to these families and the panel issue as well, which is something in which I am very interested having heard the debate today.