Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)

Water Supply Leakages

What occurred in the past seven days in Skerries in north County Dublin is nothing short of a disgrace and an unmitigated disaster. I refer to the failure of the supply of water to between 4,000 and 5,000 citizens in that community in what I can only assume was a predictable incident for which some sort of contingency plan should have been made. I would also like to highlight the pretty much abject failure of Irish Water to adequately communicate with citizens in the particular part of Skerries that is affected. My phone started ringing on Thursday evening in respect of water outages. Those outages resulted in numerous houses losing their supply completely. Irish Water stated that this was because the houses were on elevated ground or at the extremities of the network. Information has now been provided to locals, including by individual Irish Water engineers, to the effect that there might be a missing link within the network in that part of the community. I find this unacceptable. Planning permissions were granted and hundreds of thousands of euro have been parted with by dozens of families in recent months and years, yet they cannot rely on the basic principle that the State will supply them with water. On their behalf, I find what is happening completely unacceptable.

I would like to see cogent and deliverable plans put in place as quickly as possible so that a recurrence of this problem can be avoided in future. If that means an alteration to the capital plans of Irish Water, so be it. I absolutely insist that this matter be dealt with adequately, efficiently and speedily, so that we can ensure that this does not happen again. All that happened was that it did not rain for two weeks in the northern part of the county and all of a sudden thousands of homes have lost their water. I find that totally unacceptable.

I note that the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, is present. I am quite disappointed that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is not here for this debate, particularly as we are talking about water outages affecting, as Deputy Farrell mentioned, hundreds of houses and thousands of residents. This has not just been happening since last Thursday. We have regularly had issues with regard to water supply and water pressure in the area.

The standard of communication from Irish Water has improved in the past two days, which is welcome. I have spoken directly with the chief executive, Mr. Jerry Grant, on a number of occasions. I understand that Irish Water is now proposing to provide a booster pumping station in the area in order to deal with the issue once and for all. As a result of the fact that the 30-inch main in Swords is being replaced, there is a reduction in the water supply and an increase in demand because of the warmer weather. However, this situation has obtained since last Thursday. It is becoming an issue of health and hygiene that affects young families, many of them in the areas of Barnageeragh, Hamilton Hill and Town Parks.

Water is an absolute right. It is a necessity. It is required. I am asking the Government to back up the commitments that Irish Water, through its CEO, Mr. Jerry Grant, gave me to the effect that it will carry out whatever capital works are necessary and invest whatever money is required in order to rectify this problem once and for all. In the interim, we need measures that will ensure that the supply is constant to this part of Skerries in the north of my constituency. I need a commitment from the Government that it will financially back the request from Irish Water in order to ensure that any capital works that are required to rectify this problem once and for all are carried out. Residents will be meeting Irish Water this evening. I welcome that. We need to improve our communications in that regard and we need to quickly rectify this problem once and for all for the good of thousands of people in north Fingal.

The people of Skerries have experienced great hardship due to the collapse of the water system last week. While restrictions in supply have now been lifted somewhat, this comes with the caveat that they could be reapplied should the need arise. That is very difficult for people with young children, for older people and for those who are sick. The fragility of our water system is there for all to see. We saw it in Drogheda last year and we have seen it in many other areas throughout the country. As a national utility, Irish Water is tasked with fixing our antiquated water infrastructure system. The company says that the problem in Skerries is due to the low level of water in the Thomastown Reservoir due to the recent dry spell and to a number of networking issues. I understand that it has not rained in a couple of weeks, but I do not accept that as a reason for the water in the reservoir to drop to such a low level.

I have lived in Skerries for approximately 40 years. I have lived through numerous heat waves and dry spells but I have never before seen such a catastrophic failure in our water system. There has to be another factor to this, and I believe that there is. I think the main issue lies in the other networking issues to which Irish Water refers. The company needs to come clean on this. Separate to the general water problems in Skerries associated with the levels at Thomastown Reservoir, there is a particular problem in the newest estates of Barnageeragh Cove and Hamilton Hill. Both are on the edge of Skerries and located on higher ground. They have been impacted most severely, with no supply at all during the so-called restricted supply periods. This can only be due to poor water infrastructure design which has not taken account of the terrain in the estates. I accept that they are on high ground but explaining a failure of water supply by saying that a community is located at the extremities of the network is not an acceptable response from Irish Water. The network should be able to provide any planned estates with the same level of water security as homes central to the network system.

In the past 18 months, there have been 20 separate incidents of water shortages and outages in Skerries. I know this because my home has been affected. It gets worse the further up the hill one goes. There are young families, particularly in Barnageeragh and Hamilton Hill, who are having serious issues. For people with small children, it is not good enough to get 12 hours' notice of a water shortage. Sometimes they do not even get that. I echo what the other Deputies said, namely, that any alterations in the capital plans that have to be made should be made. I do not think it is acceptable to say to people that their water supply cannot be guaranteed because they live on a hill. Certainly, that was not said to them when they were buying their homes. They have the same right to an adequate supply of water as anybody else. It is disrespectful to refer to water restrictions and water shortages when many are experiencing a complete cessation of supply.

If the sun is shining, it is supposed to be a good thing. It cannot be the case that if one happens to live in Skerries, the sun shining means that one cannot have a shower in the evening. That is just not acceptable. It is not right. If a booster pump can be put in place, that should be done. Equally, measures to address this need to be taken because more building is planned. Skerries is a fast-expanding town. That is a very good thing. More building is planned even further up the hill in question. What will the Government say to those families? It is not acceptable that families with young children have to go to tanks or go to Swords and elsewhere to source bottled water, particularly when one considers the number of young families affected. The Government must be mindful of the fact that there have been 20 separate incidents in the past 18 months.

In all my time here, I do not recall any instance where all of the local Deputies managed to give notice of the same Topical Issue matter, without any co-ordination at all. What does that tell us? It tells us that people in our constituency have endured a nightmare for the past week, while the rest of the country was celebrating the good weather. These are not water restrictions; there is no water at a location within a 30 km radius of our city centre. Where would you get it? There are parts of Africa that do not stand over such inadequate infrastructure. That is why we are here. That is why we all gave notice of this matter without checking with each other, because our constituents have been severely affected, and not only now. As the other Deputies said, this has been an ongoing problem which has reached acute levels in recent times.

Frankly, I found it insulting to listen to Irish Water representatives on the radio earlier in the week telling us that there is a problem, demand is exceeding supply, and to conserve water and not to run power hoses. This patently failed to deal with the issue of why this particular problem was occurring in this part of Skerries. Meanwhile a local festival was going on in another part of town where there were no water restrictions or water shortages. This is an infrastructural deficit as a result of poor planning decisions, which must be examined, and account must be taken of this in the light of the other development going on in the area. On top of this, we need to identify a solution because this is an ongoing issue. Residents familiar with the area have pointed to the groundwater studies undertaken in the area years ago and the substantial Thomastown aquifer near the reservoir, which could be tapped into to provide an alternative groundwater supply and end this nightmare for young families and older residents in our community.

I thank the Deputies for raising this Topical Issue, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. The ongoing issues with the water supply in Skerries have been prominent for the past week.

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 level. Irish Water, as a single national utility, is taking a strategic, nationwide approach to asset planning and investment. The company recognises that many decades of underinvestment have led to a legacy of deficiencies in our drinking water and wastewater treatment plants and networks. Its water services plan published in October 2015 sets out a strategy over 25 years to ensure the provision of clean, safe drinking water, effective management of wastewater, environmental protection and support for economic and social development.

The first ever water services policy statement, prepared in line with the Water Services Acts, which was recently launched by the Minister, outlines a clear direction for strategic planning and decision-making on water and wastewater services in Ireland. It sets out a series of high-level policy objectives across the three thematic areas of quality, conservation and future proofing, which must be pursued when planning capital investment and framing current spending plans. It will provide the context in which necessary funding and investment plans by Irish Water will be framed and agreed.

On foot of the water services policy statement, Irish Water’s forthcoming strategic funding plan will set out the costs of providing domestic and non-domestic water services and the recovery of these costs. It will distinguish between operational and capital expenditure, and provide projections of income over the multi-annual period, 2020 to 2024. Subject to its approval by the Minister, Deputy Murphy, the strategic funding plan will feed into the allowed revenue determination for Irish Water by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, as the economic regulator of Irish Water, and, ultimately, feed into annual Estimates and the budgetary process.

The water supply issues in Skerries and elsewhere are a consequence of legacy underinvestment, which has been exacerbated by a lack of planned asset management and maintenance programmes. Furthermore, Irish Water has confirmed that the recent dry spell and increased seasonal demand are contributing to the reduced available supply of treated drinking water for Skerries and surrounding areas, while increased demand, in particular from Rush, has led to reduced levels in the Thomastown reservoir. Consequently, the company had to impose restrictions on the water supply serving Skerries and surrounding areas. Irish Water has asked those customers who do have full supply to conserve water by refraining from watering gardens, washing cars, using power hoses and minimising their use generally. Every small effort to save water will contribute to maintaining supplies and benefit the entire community by reducing the likelihood of further restrictions.

Irish Water, together with Fingal County Council, is investigating the possibility of network reconfiguration to provide flows to the areas worst impacted by the restrictions, namely, those at the extremities of the network and on higher ground. In the longer term, the company is examining an option to provide a booster pumping station on the feeder main to the Thomastown reservoir to increase its capacity from about 2.8 million l per day to 4 million l per day, subject to full evaluation of the pipe capacity for the increased pressure. This option will require detailed planning, design and construction and, therefore, will be targeted at 2019 delivery. With regard to the Deputies' comments, the Government will financially support the measures Irish Water deems necessary to ensure people have access to proper water in Skerries and the surrounding areas.

As part of the review of water supply infrastructure across the greater Dublin area, other strengthening of the strategic networks is planned over the next two to three years to give greater resilience in the system, for example, to enable greater flexibility between the Fingal and Dublin city supply networks in this area. Consequently, Irish Water is exhausting all avenues in implementing a series of actions to address the challenge of water supply and minimise disruptions to the communities in Skerries, as well as longer-term plans to ensure a sustainable resilient water supply.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I have to ask the simple question: what happens next month, the month after or the month after that while Irish Water is planning these improvements? The Minister of State mentioned there was an infrastructural deficit and poor maintenance, but I would like to know who is responsible for this. Was it the local authority prior to 2014? Was it a failure on the part of Irish Water to make submissions to planning applications over the past four or five years? Was it a failure on the part of the local authority in approving occupation or commencement orders for planning permissions that had been granted? If the residents who forked out as much as €500,000 for properties in Skerries and who have no water for a sustained period were informed of that, perhaps we might be in a different position. I accept what has been said by the Minister of State, and I accept there are planning issues associated with the infrastructural requirements, but that will not resolve the problem in the short term. Short and long-term resolutions are needed to these issues. The Minister of State has not put the timelines on the record of the House. I would be interested to hear whether they are available to him. He might be able to interject and provide this support to residents in the community.

I welcome the commitment of the Minister of State and the Government to fund whatever works are required. I received much of the Minister of State's response from Irish Water yesterday. I say this to show it has not moved on further. We need to focus on short-term measures. My understanding is Irish Water is examining a reconfiguration immediately of the existing network. The booster station, which will increase capacity to 4 million l a day, could be delivered in 2019, according to Irish Water and the Minister of State but what can we do now?

This happens in certain areas throughout the country on a regular basis, but being selfish about Skerries, there is, and has been, a health issue. I have spoken to people with young children. There is a serious hygiene issue; it is not just an inconvenience. It is also an issue for the businesses in the town. Will Fingal County Council consider rate rebates for the period they have not had water? Skerries is a town with many restaurants, hairdressers and bars. They have gone to additional expense during this period. I agree with Deputy Farrell that a detailed timeline is needed. What are we doing now to make sure there is a robust supply in the interim while Irish Water delivers a solution for 2019, according to its statement? Will the Minister of State pursue this with the Minister? Along with colleagues, I will make sure this remains on the agenda in order that we know clearly what will happen next and that we can see improvements, with the water supply returning to full capacity without further delay.

Irish Water needs to come clean on all factors contributing to the problem. I was informed by the Irish Water managing director, Mr. Jerry Grant, earlier this week that, "We have identified a need for a booster pump to increase the supply to the Skerries reservoir and that will be put into our work programme." I hope that means doing it with immediate effect and leaving it in place to meet ongoing need for as long as the networking issues remain. The reservoir levels in Thomastown need to be stabilised as a matter of urgency. The engineering failures that leave estates on the edge of town and on higher ground with problems need to be resolved. The Minister of State does not need to worry about people conserving water and not using power hoses. They are doing this anyway. They need water to drink, wash and keep their homes in a sanitary condition. They are carrying water up to their attics to facilitate water flow through their homes. They need the basics to be delivered and they need them now. I look forward to a plan of action. It needs to be comprehensive and delivered without delay, and not in the longer term as the Minister of State's reply suggests.

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. It is regrettable that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is not here to take it, particularly as it is very serious. There is not much in the form of commitment to a timeline for people, although we welcome the commitment that this will be financed. It should be borne in mind that more houses are being built as we speak. As a result, this problem will possibly only get worse unless there is an intervention to ensure that water levels at the reservoir can be stabilised and that supply for young families can be guaranteed in future. There is a persistent and ongoing problem with water pressure and my neighbours and I must all have additional pumps in our homes because of that problem. That is before any additional houses are built.

Will the Minister of State advise the communications people that it is not acceptable to tell people to conserve water? We are already doing it and it is a bit insulting to people to say that. As a community, we are already trying to make that contribution.

Two of the Deputies here are living with this problem in Skerries. For the rest of us, the legacy underinvestment and people having to conserve water during dry spells applies in all the areas in which we live. We have not had to endure what the people in Skerries have had to endure for the past week. That is the nub of the matter - they have not just endured this for the past week, it has been the worst part of the problem but it has been evident for a period. We must address the fact that the usage of the reservoir is more than the rate of recharge and the system cannot cope with the number of houses using it. Somebody made a decision and it was not the people who are enduring this problem. Whoever made the decision to which I refer must be held to account for it and for other decisions to use the same network.

The rate of recharge must be increased by using appropriately treated groundwater. We are in the unique position of having a high-yield aquifer right beside the reservoir in Thomastown. For God's sake, it could help to recharge the reservoir and we need to do it now. We must take on board all of the other points made by the Deputies present.

In terms of a timeline, the longer-term response will take in the pumping station, the Thomastown reservoir and the interconnection between Dublin city and Fingal. Local authority boundaries correspond with district electoral divisions and are not necessarily natural geographic boundaries, so gains may be made. The shorter-term response is that Fingal County Council and Irish Water are looking at the possibility of network configuration for the areas worst affected, namely, those on the extremities of the network. I do not have a specific timeframe but I will endeavour to get it.

Deputy Daly mentioned the Thomastown aquifer and it is not in the documentation but I will certainly bring it back to the officials. It is interesting that all Deputies agree that this is not a completely new matter as there have been problems on the extremities of Skerries for a long time before the recent dry spell, as Deputy Brendan Ryan notes. I have heard Members' comments on timeframes and I have been told that Irish Water and Fingal County Council are investigating right now the possibility of network configuration for those worst affected areas. In the medium term the actions will concern the interconnection between Dublin city and Fingal and the boosting of the reservoir in Thomastown, as well as the aquifer.

Hospital Accommodation Provision

Three of us from different parts of the mid-west region and of different political perspectives are raising this matter, which relates to the intolerable position faced by patients in the mid-west as a result of overcrowding at University Hospital Limerick. Looking at any statistics for the past month or year, the hospital has been at the top of the list regarding people waiting on trolleys. There is no sign of that letting up, even during the summer when one might think things are going to be a bit easier. We simply cannot allow this to continue and face another winter, or perhaps more than one, before we get the promised 96-bed unit. We absolutely need interim solutions now. Such solutions exist. For example, we could open all the available beds in the area. A number of us have raised the idea of a modular unit. It is essential that the level of staffing is sufficient for the needs of the people in the mid-west. I do not have time to get into the statistics involved but a senior clinician, Dr. Gerard Burke, has demonstrated that there is an inequality in the number of whole-time equivalent acute hospital staff in the mid-west compared with other regions. It is estimated at 10.16 per 1,000 in the mid-west, with the national average being 11.4 per 1,000. We are understaffed and under-resourced. We absolutely need a solution and funding in the service plan and forthcoming budget to ensure this matter can be addressed quickly.

There is constant and recurring overcrowding at the Limerick hospital and this is down to multiple factors. There is a deficiency in bed capacity and staffing. Bed capacity at Limerick runs at approximately 97%, when 85% is the maximum at which a hospital can work efficiently. This leads to poorer outcomes for patients and an increased incidence of cross-infection and hospital-acquired infection. The mid-west has a catchment area of 400,000 but it does not have the bed capacity or staffing to deal with that.

As Deputy Jan O'Sullivan noted, whole-time equivalent rates in the mid-west are 14% lower than the national figure. This leads to an increase in the standardised mortality rate in the mid-west. It is a shocking indictment of the health service that there is such disproportionality between one area and another. It comes down to retention and recruitment of staff across all hospitals in the region but also arises from deployment of consultants and medical staff across the model 2 and model 4 hospitals in the region. There is also a deficiency in funding primary care to allow patients to come out of hospital as quickly as possible and the funding of community intervention teams to assist discharge.

I am very much wearing the green jersey today in backing up the statements from my colleagues across the political divide, particularly as they relate to capacity. I have had personal experience of the workings of the hospital with a person close to me in the past couple of months and I commend the staff on the exemplary work they are doing under pressure. The pressure is felt in the accident and emergency department in particular as bed capacity has not been built behind it. I welcome the initiative to build a 96-bed unit at the hospital. It is long overdue. While it is being designed and built before operation, there will be a shortfall. I ask the Minister of State about the possible use of modular units in Limerick to address that shortfall. I have put down parliamentary questions about that and been told there is an ongoing broad assessment. I have not been given any specifics relating to University Hospital Limerick so I would be grateful to receive clarification in that regard.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, I thank the Deputies for raising this very important matter. Let me start by recognising that this Government has approved a record level of capital investment in health at €10.9 billion over the next ten years, which will provide for a major enhancement of the capacity of our health services to meet demand in the coming years. Within this context in February of this year the Department of Health published the health service capacity review, the findings of which now provide the evidence base for capacity decisions. This report concludes that if the required reforms are implemented, nearly 2,600 additional acute hospital beds will be required by 2031.

As a first step towards implementing this recommendation, the Minister has asked the Department to work with the Health Service Executive, HSE, to identify the location and mix of beds across the hospital system that can be opened and staffed this year and in 2019. The HSE is continuing to work on a submission in this regard, with the aim of formulating an evidence-based plan for increasing bed capacity nationally that will form the basis of discussions with colleagues in government on the financing of this important programme of work.

Deputies Jan O'Sullivan, Harty and Neville have specifically raised concerns about the plans as they relate to University Hospital Limerick.

The need to address bed capacity at University Hospital Limerick, UHL, is recognised by all stakeholders. As the Deputies will be aware, a new emergency department was opened at University Hospital Limerick on 29 May 2017. The €24 million development aimed to provide University Hospital Limerick with increased capacity for emergency medicine to meet the demands of population growth and changing service models and to improve efficiency targets. In addition, 17 new short-stay beds were opened in December 2017 as part of winter measures aimed at alleviating pressure on the emergency department and meeting the growing demand for services in this period. Looking forward, the national development plan includes provision for a 96-bed replacement ward block at University Hospital Limerick. The Minister, Deputy Harris, can confirm that the HSE capital plan for 2018 includes funding to progress the design phase of this project. In the meantime, the HSE is also considering a submission by University of Limerick hospital group to develop a modular inpatient facility at University Hospital Limerick which will have capacity for up to a further 60 beds. A decision on this, as part of the broader work being brought forward by the Department of Health and the HSE to increase bed capacity in advance of this winter and throughout 2019 will be made as soon as possible.

We all acknowledge that the challenges we face are significant. Therefore, importantly, this focus on increasing capacity will be matched by forthcoming reforms as set out in the all-party Sláintecare report. This work will be overseen through the establishment in the Department of a Sláintecare programme office, the publication of a detailed Sláintecare implementation plan and the appointment shortly of an executive director for the Sláintecare programme office. I know we have a long road ahead of us, but this is a journey of reform and strengthening of our health services. I will come back in on some of the issues the Deputies raised.

I regret that the Minister, Deputy Harris, is not here but I thank the Minister of State for her reply. In the context of what she has just said about the fact that work that can be done in advance of this winter is to be identified, I urge that our region be prioritised in respect of both the modular unit and the opening of extra beds. It is quite clear we come out on top of the trolley list constantly. Furthermore, when we talk about the inequality in the provision of acute medical staff, we have the statistics. We are not just talking about unfilled posts; we are actually talking about unallocated posts. In other words, the region simply is not allocated the equivalent number of posts as other regions. We are therefore asking that the mid-west region be prioritised so we do not have to put people through an absolutely intolerable winter, with elderly people lying on trolleys for hours and hours waiting to get beds. The staff do wonderful work, as Deputy Neville said, but they cannot move people if they do not have beds into which to put them. I therefore ask the Minister of State to prioritise our region.

The issue, in a broader sense, is that the mid-west is actually competing with Galway and Cork for services. The Saolta west group and the southern group are, I think, getting a disproportionate amount of resources compared to the mid-west, and this is a fundamental issue which is leading to overcrowding in our hospitals. Regarding the Minister of State's reference to the Sláintecare report, it has been published for over a year, but there has been no Government response to it. In the Sláintecare report reference is made to how these issues can be tackled on a national basis, though I am of course particularly concerned about the mid-west. The failure of the Government to respond to Sláintecare is most regrettable. The issue really amounts to beds and staffing. We need more step-down beds in our model 2 hospitals, we need modular units in the regional hospitals and we need enhanced community intervention teams, but we also specifically need more diagnostics. Patients are waiting in hospital for inordinately long periods to get diagnostics, particularly scanning. Unfortunately, our scanning units work on a five-day basis, nine to five, but people require them on a 24-hour basis. We need to look at all these aspects which feed into the issue of overcrowding in Limerick because it is a multifactorial issue. Limerick, unfortunately, is a black spot in respect of bed capacity and overcrowding. As Deputy O'Sullivan said, there are 53 people on trolleys in Limerick today, in the middle of summer, and that is completely unacceptable. There is a specific issue which relates to the mid-west which must be addressed.

I thank the Minister of State for her update on this. Obviously, it is imperative that we get moving on this as quickly as possible, particularly before the winter. Deputy Harty has outlined the statistics as of today, but the statistics were much higher last winter, when there is more demand on services. I have communicated the correspondence from Dr. Gerry Burke to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and am awaiting feedback on it from the Minister. There are modular units going into South Tipperary General Hospital. Perhaps it would be an idea to try to speed this up in order that something could be done in conjunction with Tipperary to try to get this into Limerick before the winter. It takes 26 weeks to build these units off-site. Obviously, there are planning permission issues as well, but all that can be dealt with off-site. Twenty-six weeks is three months, so we still have time to try to get this in before winter kicks in. I would be very grateful if that could be considered.

I again thank all the Deputies who spoke very passionately of their concerns about University Hospital Limerick with facts and figures. I assure them I have taken a number of notes and what I have missed I will get tomorrow from the Official Report. I assure them that I will raise their concerns, including the point about the modular units, as soon as I can with the Minister, Deputy Harris. The point about the modular units may be of significant help in the coming months. I will also raise with the Minister the request that the mid-west be prioritised, particularly coming into 2019 with some more units becoming available, whether it be through modular units or opening up some of the beds in the units that are not available. I will raise all these points with the Minister as soon as I can.