Priority Questions

Environmental Policy

Niall Collins

Question:

1 Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government when he will introduce the septic tank registration and inspection charge; the rate at which it will be set; if he will consider other alternatives to imposing this charge on rural communities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24272/11]

Brian Stanley

Question:

2 Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government his plans to introduce a publicly funded septic tank registration, inspection and retrofitting scheme, including a scheme of grants, in order to comply with the 1975 Council Directive on Waste, as amended, which the European Court of Justice has ruled that Ireland breached in 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24274/11]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

On 29 October 2009, the European Court of Justice ruled against Ireland with regard to the treatment of waste waters from septic tanks and other on-site wastewater treatment systems. The court found that by failing to adopt the necessary legislation to comply with Articles 4 and 8 of the 1975 waste directive as regards domestic wastewaters disposed of in the countryside through septic tanks and other individual wastewater treatment systems, Ireland had failed to fulfil its obligations under that directive.

My Department, together with the Office of the Attorney General, is finalising the preparation of a Bill to establish a system of inspection of septic tanks and other on-site systems. I expect to bring the Bill to the Government in the coming weeks, seeking approval for its publication. Full details of how the inspection system will operate will be announced at that time. The new legislation is being framed to minimise the impact on householders, who can be assured that if their systems are working properly and are being maintained, they need not be concerned. Householders will be required to register details of their on-site systems on a national register. This registration will be valid for several years. A nominal fee will be charged for registration. The draft legislation will provide for a proportionate and risk-based approach to inspections. It is intended that inspections will be targeted towards areas where drinking water sources or habitats are likely to be, or have been, impacted upon by septic tank discharges.

Where the new inspection system gives to any costs, including for individual householders, every effort will be made to keep these to a minimum. The key objective of the new legislation will be to enhance and protect public health and the environment, which will in turn benefit rural dwellers in terms of their quality of life. My Department will keep under review the possible options to provide financial support to householders whose systems are deemed, following inspection, to require remediation or upgrading. Any such support would have to have regard to the overall budgetary position and to the financial position of individual households.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Everybody wants to see good quality water, especially groundwater feeding into some public water supplies. It is an issue of vital social importance. There has been much concern expressed to all public representatives because of the charge element. There has also been some confusion in the debate, although we got some clarity in the Minister's statement yesterday when he indicated that he envisaged a fee of no more than €50. It is not clear how often that must be paid because the Minister mentioned it might have to be paid every five years. People are rightly concerned that this may be the thin end of the wedge in the creation of yet another charge.

The issue is rightly being perceived as a division between rural and urban dwellers. Rural householders will pay the €100 household charge in the same way as urban dwellers but in addition, rural householders will have to pay the registration charge. There is a perceived inequity in that respect.

Frame a question, please.

Will the Minister explore the scenario in other jurisdictions where there is no charge associated with inspections? We agree that monitoring must take place for the right reasons but we have the wherewithal within the Department and the Government to bring this monitoring forward without imposing a charge on people. As it stands it will not impact equally on different sections of society. We realise the Government is tied to the EU and IMF agreement but savings have been found as late as yesterday and additional revenue has been raised. There is the capacity to make decisions that will avoid some of the elements of the four year plan and the EU and IMF agreement. The Minister could avoid imposing the charge.

Ireland was roundly condemned in the European Court of Justice in October 2009, during the Deputy's time as part of the Government, but nothing was done. The confusion arose from people like Deputy Ó Cuív, Ms Marian Harkin, MEP, and the IFA, who all voiced the opinion that I intended to introduce a notional charge of €300 per annum for annual inspection and maintenance. I never said anything of the sort or conveyed that view.

I am disappointed there is no wholehearted support for what I am trying to do in ensuring groundwater quality on a risk-based assessment model is being implemented. Nobody wants to see cryptosporidium in Galway or rural and urban households forced to buy bottled water from shops because of poor quality groundwater. That has been the case in many instances.

Deputy Collins was not embroiled to any great extent in this controversy and at least he knew what he was talking about. Deputy Ó Cuív should know, as a former member of a Government, what he signed up to in the revised Fianna Fáil and Green Party programme for Government of 2009. It stated: "We will introduce a scheme for the licensing and inspection of septic tanks and wastewater treatment systems". Has he had a loss of memory? It was not unusual in Fianna Fáil to have loss of memory over the years but I am surprised that a grandson of one of the founders of the party would have lost his memory to the extent——

He did not say he would introduce a charge.

——that he did not understand that he signed up to this document when he was sitting at the Cabinet table.

What charge did he sign up to?

He acknowledged that. I am introducing a nominal charge to pay for the expenses of people who carry out the inspections. There is only one charge, no annual inspection and no confusion.

I am glad to see the Minister is in good form after the summer and the good results and good harvest in Kilkenny.

We support the need to protect groundwater. There is no equivocation on that. We must do it. We also agree that this situation has been hanging over us since 2009 and it must be addressed. However, we must be careful about charges in the current climate. All wedges have a thin and thick end. A sum of €50 might appear to be a modest amount but we are talking about rural families with significantly increased school transport costs, the universal social charge which all rural dwellers pay from their earnings, increased mortgages and increased fuel bills.

Can we have a question from the Deputy?

I will quickly come to that. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle should give me a minute, as he gave to the last speaker.

There is a regime in other jurisdictions, particularly in the North, under which people do not pay. There is another example in Scotland. We support the risk-based approach as it is necessary to protect groundwater. Local authorities have a significant number of engineers and, as the Minister knows, not many capital works are taking place at present. Will those engineers carry out the inspections? We have no wish to see an army of new inspectors or a new quango being established for that task.

Many dwellings that have been built in the last ten to 15 years in rural areas have very elaborate septic tanks and waste water treatment systems——

Deputy, this is Question Time. I also reminded the last speaker of that fact. Please ask a question.

I have questions for the Minister on a number of points and this is the only opportunity to ask those questions. Is it his intention to introduce an income based grant scheme? Will there be a registration fee or will it be an inspection fee? Will it be an annual fee or three yearly fee? Will the local authorities carry out the inspections?

As the Deputy knows from my original reply, this is a once-off nominal charge for registration purposes. The charge I have in mind is no more than €50 but I will spell out the details of exactly what will be charged in 2012 when the legislation is published in a few weeks and brought before the House. The local government system will do the work; there will be no new empire building by any organisation. The local government staff already in place have spare capacity, as the Deputy correctly pointed out, and will do the job, but that will not be done until 2013 and 2014. There will be no annual inspection charge and no more registration charges.

The once-off registration charge I will introduce next year, for the purpose of meeting some of the costs associated with this for the local authorities, will ensure that groundwater is protected. It is in the interest of every householder, business and employer in this country that we have good groundwater. Inward investment opportunities were lost to this country, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows, due to the contamination of groundwater supply in County Galway. We have no wish to see that happen anywhere else. It is also in the interest of every householder to have good quality water from the tap rather than having to buy bottled water in the local shop.

I will take brief supplementary questions from Deputy Collins and Deputy Stanley.

Nobody disputes the merits of the scheme. The charge is the issue.

Deputy Ó Cuív did.

A question, please.

The Minister says today there will be a once-off registration charge but his statement yesterday said an interval of five years is envisaged between each registration. Is it a once-off charge or will it be every five years?

It is a once-off charge.

It is now a once-off charge, whereas yesterday it was every five years.

No, it was not. The Deputy asked about the charge and I told him what it would be and that it would be a once-off charge.

The Minister's statement referred to registration every five years.

That is registration but I did not say we would charge every five years.

Okay, that is clear. I will address the other issue.

A question, please.

Can the charge be avoided completely? The Minister has capacity now, following the savings the Government has accrued under the EU-IMF agreement through the interest rate reduction and so forth, to avoid the charge.

Finally, a political charge was made about Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael controls the majority of local authorities in this country, which are the biggest polluters of our waters and rivers. If he wishes to point the finger politically at who is responsible for this, he should look to his own party first. Fine Gael is in charge of the majority of the local authorities and they did not drive forward with the water investment services programme that was in place. They did not avail of it. That is a fact.

With regard to the maintenance regime for septic tanks, will householders be required to keep a maintenance log for de-sludging and so forth? What are the Minister's intentions in that regard? To clarify the issue of the registration fee and inspection fee, are they one and the same or will there simply be a registration fee and no inspection fee thereafter?

For the third time, there will be no annual inspection charge. I realise it is a disappointing for some people that this is the case and that I do not intend to take more money from people. There is a property tax in Northern Ireland which is a source of income——

Even the Minister cannot claim a win on this.

It is amazing, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, and I know you will agree with me, that after 14 years of Fianna Fáil in Government it is now Fine Gael's fault that there are problems in rolling out the waste water and water services programme. It is unbelievable that the Deputy has such a brass neck even to make that assertion——

Fine Gael is in control of all the local authorities and they are the biggest polluters——

The Deputy's party has been in Government——

A total of 90% of the pollution is from Fine Gael-controlled local authorities.

Can I answer the question, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle?

The Minister without interruption.

The Deputy's party in Government put us in the current financial mess and ceded our economic sovereignty under the EU-IMF programme. The Deputy's party is responsible for that and we are faced with the responsibility of picking up the mess, including septic tanks, to protect groundwater as a result of the Deputy's party's decisions. Fianna Fáil did nothing since 2009 to deal with this.

Fine Gael is in charge of local authorities.

We are now cleaning up the mess, literally and metaphorically.

We are over time on this question.

We must do so after the European Court of Justice decision. Otherwise we will have to pay €2.9 million before the end of the year from taxpayers' funds as a result of Fianna Fáil's inactivity.

Another stealth tax.

We will proceed with Question No. 3.

Will householders have to keep a maintenance log?

That detail will be outlined in the legislation.

Building Regulations

Clare Daly

Question:

3 Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government further to Parliamentary Question No. 222 of 20 July 2011, the reason the revised NSAI standard recommendation, which amended the building regulations technical guidance document TGD C, is deemed inadequate by the main non-Homebond insurer of houses affected by heave-inducing pyrite, and that this insurer demands in addition to the requirements in the NSAI amendment that replacement fill comply with TRL 447 (2005) sulphate specification for structural backfills, to ensure that there will be no further heave; and if he will immediately rectify this deficient specification in order to protect householders results. [24393/11]

The building regulations set out the legal requirements for the construction of new buildings, including houses. Part D, materials and workmanship, of the building regulations requires that materials used as infill in construction must be "proper materials which are fit for the use for which they are intended and for the conditions in which they are to be used". The presence of pyrite in building materials represents a failure to satisfy this requirement. Responsibility for compliance with the building regulations is a matter for the owner or builder of a building and enforcement of the owner’s contractual entitlements is a civil matter irrespective of whether a building is in private or public ownership.

Following the emergence of the pyrite problem in 2007, the National Standards Authority of Ireland, at the behest of my Department, reconvened the aggregates panel, an NSAI industry committee. The NSAI, in consultation with this committee, published a revised standard recommendation on the use of aggregates as infill for civil engineering and road construction work. The new standard recommendation came into effect on 7 December 2007 and provides guidance on reducing the risk of reactive forms of pyrite being present in material fill for use under concrete floors in dwellings and buildings.

The relevant technical guidance document of the building regulations dealing with site preparation was amended to incorporate the revised NSAI standard recommendation. The outcome of a recent high court case vindicates the position taken by my Department and demonstrates that the building regulations are appropriate and enforceable. The imposition of any additional requirement by a third party, for example, an insurance company, is a matter between that party and the builder or developer.

In response to the difficult and distressing problems faced by home owners and tenants affected by pyrite, I am setting up a panel with suitable expertise to prepare a report, which I will publish, on the way forward in relation to pyrite contamination in private housing stock. My Department will provide technical and administrative support to the panel in carrying out its work.

I thank the Minister for his reply but it does not deal with the content of the question. Clearly, the pyrite issue is devastating for the tens of thousands of affected householders. The Minister's response is an attempt to say that the State has no role or responsibility in this regard.

The nub of the question is that the State is responsible for bringing in building regulations and that these regulations are, and were, deficient. When I asked the question in July as to why the building regulations did not require testing for pyrite, even though knowledge existed in the industry, in engineering circles and in regard to the geological strata that this could be a problem, the Minister said the building regulations had been amended by the NSAI implying that the problem had been solved but that is not the case.

Householders have found that Premier Insurance, the second largest insurer, is not satisfied with that new requirement. It is not deemed good enough for it. Is the reason this standard, required by Premier Insurance, has not been included because it would cost the quarries and the aggregates more money? Does the Minister not think it is somewhat strange that the NSAI standard took direction from the concrete consultative committee, which is dominated by the industry? Will he comment on the fact that some of the lead agents on that committee, which was responsible for the new standard, were two of the largest quarry owners whose quarries have been found to have heave inducing pyrite, namely, Roadstone in Huntstown and Kilsaran in Rathcore, County Westmeath and if this might be the reason the standard is inadequate?

Deputy Daly would have to see a lot of things around corners. I have answered the question she asked which was a highly technical one and I answered it in a technical fashion. If there was any aspect of the question I did not answer, she certainly did not ask a supplementary in regard to it.

The Building Control Acts clearly place responsibility for compliance with building regulations on the owner of a building. That has been tested in the courts and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is not liable. Compliance with technical guidance documents, which were amended after 2007, has stood the test of time.

I appreciate that homeowners find themselves in a difficult situation through no fault of their own because of the inadequacy of the materials and aggregates provided. The material for these dwellings and foundations have been found to be deficient and so on. That is why I decided to act as an honest broker in this matter between homeowners and the people responsible to see if we can get solutions and I have set up a panel. I did not have to do that but we are here, as politicians, to try to help people. I did not go around apportioning blame. I am facilitating a dialogue, or an opportunity for people, through a panel of experts, to help them, if at all possible.

With respect, the question was not answered. The question was twofold. Why is the standard in the building regulations deemed to be inadequate vis-à-vis the standard put forward by Premier Insurance? The Minister’s answer was that it has a different standard from us. It has a higher standard and surely we, as the guardians of householders, should stand by the highest standards.

The second part of the question was what will the Minister do about it. Will he rectify the building regulations to take account of this? I assume the answer to that is "No". The Department and previous Governments have a responsibility in this regard.

I welcome the fact the Minister has set up a committee and we will participate in, and work with, it. However, the solution must come from the Minister's Department as well because otherwise the builders, quarry owners, the local authorities and everybody will be at each other's throats. There must be a lead from the front and this must be rectified for the future and the building regulations must be changed. If the standards are not good enough for Premier Insurance, they should not be good enough for Irish citizens.

We are here as legislators and to make regulations. The people who supplied this material are in breach of those regulations and that has been found by the courts. We do not have to improve any regulations because the courts have found these people to be negligent in regard to compliance. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government's regulations have stood the test of time. We were not found culpable but rather the people who supplied the material were. I know that does not suit the Deputy but I am telling her the outcome of the court case where this was tested. In case the Deputy does not know, it was a High Court case.

It attributed liability to the quarry owners. It did not say the building regulations were fine.

Did it attribute any liability to the State?

It said the quarry owners were liable.

That is correct. The quarry owners are liable. Therefore, we must take that into account when we come forward with solutions. The State is not liable but I am prepared to set up this panel to help homeowners who are unfortunately caught between the quarry owners and solving this problem, and to facilitate whatever I can to help them.

Dormant Accounts Fund

Niall Collins

Question:

4 Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if funding will be provided to the RAPID scheme in Rathkeale, County Limerick before the year end; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24273/11]

In December 2009, the previous Government approved disbursements from the Dormant Accounts Fund for a once-off measure to the value of €1.25 million for the five new provincial towns incorporated under RAPID. These are Ballina, Dungarvan, Enniscorthy, Mullingar and Rathkeale. In December 2010, Pobal, which advertises, appraises and recommends beneficiaries under various dormant accounts measures, submitted recommendations to the value of €1.25 million for this RAPID additionality measure. All the recommendations are for capital expenditure.

However, under Government accounting procedures, disbursements on dormant accounts measures are paid in the first instance up front from the Department's Vote in the same way as with any other spending programme. We have to source funding for dormant accounts programmes from our Exchequer allocation in the annual Revised Estimates Volume. The dormant accounts capital budget for my Department for 2011 is fully committed to existing projects and our priority in the light of the available allocation must be to ensure that there is sufficient funding to meet existing legal contractual commitments.

The position with dormant accounts expenditure compared with other funding programmes is that once spending takes place, it is reimbursed to the Exchequer from the dormant accounts fund in accordance with the Dormant Accounts Acts, in the form of appropriations-in-aid payable through the Department's Vote. In this way, the costs associated with dormant accounts measures are Exchequer neutral. Departments cannot spend appropriations-in-aid directly themselves once they are reimbursed from the fund. They are instead refunded to the central Exchequer. Moneys disbursed from the Dormant Accounts Fund increase Government debt levels as the money belongs to the account holder, who can reclaim it at any time, and not to the State. Consequently, every euro spent from the fund is regarded in accounting terms as a potential Government liability.

I can confirm that eight capital projects have been prioritised by Pobal under the RAPID additionality measure for Rathkeale. The matter of progressing the measure to contract stage is being kept under active review in the light of availability of funds between now and the end of this year.

I thank the Minister for his reply which brings a little more clarity. I take this opportunity to press him on it because it is of vital importance to the town of Rathkeale. Arguably, Rathkeale is the second largest town in County Limerick and it has severe social and physical problems, of which I am sure he is aware.

The town is bypassed but it has a massive indigenous Traveller population. Over the summer, we have seen connections with the halting site at Dale Farm in England where the local authority there has ring-fenced £20 million to deal with the issue. There are also connections with Green Acres and the allegations of slavery. There are systemic problems in Rathkeale. Some members of the Traveller community use the Traveller movement as front when, in fact, they are engaged in criminality. Every piece of property which goes on sale in Rathkeale is bought by members of the Traveller community. There are major problems there. I could go on at length but I know there is a restriction on time.

Will the Minister prioritise this? I have met the community council in Rathkeale a number of times, as have the other public representatives. It wrote to the Minister recently and I know this has been passed to the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, who cannot be here due to ill health. I wish him well and hope he has a speedy recovery. Will the Minister and the Minister of State take the opportunity to meet the local community council and walk through the town street by street? When the Minister of State, Deputy Penrose, was last in the area, he visited Limerick city regeneration. Rathkeale is similar in that there are deep-rooted social problems and derelict properties with all the social fall out which goes with that. Rathkeale needs something similar to the regeneration projects going on in Limerick city.

I would like a commitment that the Minister and the Minister of State will meet the local community council and walk through the town street by street in the near future and take this matter seriously. The situation is so bad that when maps are produced in County Limerick, Rathkeale is omitted. It is the second largest county town, although it might have been overtaken by Kilmallock. Tourism organisations, hoteliers and the agencies promoting the area have dropped the name and symbol of Rathkeale from maps, which is quite serious. Will the Minister prioritise RAPID funding and give us a commitment that in time, he will meet the local community council, although I know he is busy?

I acknowledge everything that Deputy Niall Collins has said about Rathkeale. The case he has put forward is a strong one. I have been to Rathkeale but I did not meet anybody there. I walked the main street there in recent times and I am familiar with the projects that have been submitted. The problem is that five areas were identified under the Dormant Accounts Fund, but no money was provided in 2011. In the context of that fund, I am doing my best to see if I can get some resources for some of the projects in order to give the identified areas a lift. I acknowledge that everything the Deputy said is right and I will do everything I possibly can to facilitate the projects that have been submitted. Hopefully, we can come to some resolution of the matter in the interests of the people of that area between now and the end of the year.

Introduction of Water Charges

John Halligan

Question:

5 Deputy John Halligan asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the proposed cost per household per annum for these water charges; if he will define the free allowance per household; if there is to be a waiver system in place for those households struggling on low incomes, in receipt of social welfare payments and old age pensions; if he will provide information on the proposed creation of a semi-State owned water company called Irish Water; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24394/11]

The programme for Government provides for the introduction of a fair funding model to deliver clean and reliable water. The objective is to install water meters in households and move to a charging system based on usage above a free allowance. My Department is currently preparing a strategy to implement these proposals, which will include consideration of the impacts on those categories of households referred to in the question.

The programme for Government also proposes the establishment of a new State-owned water company, Irish Water. The memorandum of understanding between Ireland, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund commits Ireland to undertaking an independent assessment of the establishment of a water utility. Work on the independent assessment is under way. The assessment will examine the optimal organisational structures for Irish Water, consider the associated legal, financial and organisational issues, and recommend an implementation timetable. The outcome of the assessment will be considered by the Government together with proposals for the establishment of Irish Water before the end of 2011.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Unfortunately, it is practically the same response he gave last March to similar questions that were asked then. Householders are preparing for 2012 so they should be given some clarity as to what water charges they can expect. The issue of waivers for those on social welfare and other low incomes should also be addressed. In that way, householders can have clarity and see what is coming down the tracks. This has been flagged so well in the programme for Government and it was also flagged by the previous Government. The same questions were posed in March, yet we basically received the same responses. Will the Minister of State provide some clarity in response to these questions?

The Deputy referred to the answer provided in March and will know that the report was commissioned at the end of July. A draft report will be before us shortly, so the Government will be examining all the issues he raised. When that report is to hand we will make decisions that will bring into effect what is in the programme for Government. There is no doubt about what we will do and the issues are clear. The report will outline the type of structure to be in place when Irish Water is established. All the issues mentioned by the Deputy will be dealt with.

The programme for Government states that there will be an allowance for every household and that charges will be for usage in excess of that allowance. People will have discretion as to how they use their water allowance. When the report is published we will be examining all the issues the Deputy raised in his question.

I presume the report will examine what the standing charge will be for households, which will make the free allowance moot. I believe the standing charge will be significant and will raise the cost of water charges significantly for householders. Are there any current discussions to indicate what the standing charge will be for householders?

The Deputy is trying to raise hares that do not exist. The programme for Government states that "to achieve a better quality water and environment we will introduce a fair funding model to deliver clean and reliable water". So the objective is to install water meters in every household in Ireland and move to a charging system that is based on use above the free allowance. That is what we are talking about, but the Deputy is raising hares that are not running in this race.

Standing charges already exist for industrial users.

We want to improve water services and funding is badly needed. There is an inadequate water supply in Dublin, so water will have to be pumped from the Shannon to protect the city's supplies in future. There are various issues concerning climate change also. While water does come out of the sky it must be purified to make it potable. Creating any other scenario does not make sense if the water is not safe to drink. In addition, as a result of climate change, it may not be available to those living in the greater Dublin area. Counties from Donegal to Dublin will not be able to attract industry without an adequate water supply. Some 44% of water produced currently never reaches the taps because it is wasted.

All those issues must be dealt with and that is what the report will deal with.

Will the Minister of State confirm what the standing charge will be for households?

There has been no decision.

So will there not be a standing charge?

No decision. When we have a decision we will let the Deputy know.

People are waiting for that information.

The Deputy should have a bit of patience.