I welcome the opportunity to present this Bill for detailed scrutiny. When I was elected, I promised the people in my constituency that I would try to address their needs in the Oireachtas. The issue of depopulation in the north west is a long-term and insidious blight on my county of Leitrim and other parts of the region. There are many reasons for this. We need jobs, infrastructure and transport, but we also need to fight to hold onto what we have. This Bill is designed to tackle the situation of young families who want to stay in rural Ireland not being able to get planning permission to build homes there. The problem lies in the nature of the soil in parts of the region and in parts of the south west and other parts of the country. It is particularly bad in Leitrim and west Cavan where the soil is very dense. In these areas, the current code of practice of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has virtually halted construction of one-off dwelling houses in areas of heavy soil. The nature of the soil is such that the standard T-test, the percolation test, will not be passed. According to the EPA code of practice, there must be zero discharge of effluent, regardless of the efficiency of the wastewater treatment systems. The achievement of zero discharge is impossible in these areas and, particularly, in the Irish climate but it is possible in this day and age to install a system which will mean that the wastewater produced will be bathing water standard.
This amendment to the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977 will allow the Minister to design and regulate a discharge licence which would be issued by local authorities for one-off houses where the percolation test fails. The Government has acknowledged that rural Ireland needs rehabilitation after years of neglect and austerity. In my own area, I can instance dozens of young families who, for the refusal of planning permission, have not been able to settle in their home place where they wanted to live for the rest of their lives. If discharge licences of this nature are granted in an appropriate and proportionate way, there is no danger to the environment from this amendment. I truly believe that this is a good move for rural Ireland and I propose this amendment in that spirit.
Refusal of planning permissions has been a problem in Leitrim for many years, including prior to the introduction of the EPA code of practice. The council has tried to develop alternative guidelines. Over the past 20 years, in almost all places where planning permission was sought mechanical treatment systems had to be used. Usually, they had to go to a percolation area where there was imported top soil or to a raised percolation. The council was trying to address this problem long before the stringent code of practice came into effect.
A lot of people in rural areas are conscious of the mindset that houses in clusters are good and one-off houses are bad - once described to me as the Animal Farm type mindset that all two legs are bad and all four legs are good. That kind of mindset does not recognise the reality of the world we live in. It is a closed mindset that we need to open up. There are hundreds of parishes around the country where there are no towns and people living in isolated rural communities. In my own parish of Aughavas in County Leitrim there are 600 people living in houses scattered around the countryside. There is no town or village but there is a small three-teacher school. For the past ten years, practically no new houses have been built in the community. There are at least a dozen young people who would like to live in the area but they cannot get planning permission to build. The aforementioned school will become a two-teacher school next September and will, probably, close within the next ten years. The situation is similar in all the small rural areas in County Leitrim, including Drumreilly and Gortletteragh. The response is often that those who want to live in these areas should live in the town. The nearest town is seven or eight miles away. People are living in rural communities because it is where they want to live. In terms of where I live, on leaving the main road, my house is the first house on the left-hand side of the L1511. There are 2 km between my house and the main road. There are a couple of hundred metres between my house and the next house. This is not about wanting to have houses close to each other, cluster developments, ribbon developments or over-development. Where that is proposed, appropriate planning is necessary.
In regard to the EPA guidelines, where problems arose in the past with heavy soils, Leitrim County Council and other councils developed other means of addressing them. I have come across many situations in west Cavan and Leitrim where people got planning permission having put in place reed bed systems to deal with the effluent, which was a natural way of addressing the problem. Willow beds can also be used. Willow trees are planted and as the sewage comes through from the septic tank the evaporation from the willows soaks up and deals with all of the nutrients. This is a very effective way of dealing with the problem. Mechanical treatment systems have been used in many cases. Most of them do an excellent job as well.
At the time the EPA guidelines came into effect I was on Leitrim County Council. The general view was that they would lead to practically nobody in the rural areas getting planning permission. I think it was former Senator Paschal Mooney who organised a trip of representatives of the council to Leinster House for a meeting with representatives of the EPA and the Department who told us that what happened was an unintended consequence, that they had not foreseen that this would happen and that they would try to find a solution. Since then, Leitrim County Council and other councils around the country and the EPA have undertaken studies on how to achieve zero discharge. One of those studies is research No. 161 by Laurence Gill, which outlines the examination process in regard to the systems. I have a copy of the main findings of the study, which I can provide to members after this meeting, but I would like to go through a couple of them now. The study examined the evapotranspiration, ET, system.
In such systems, when a septic tank is installed, the percolation area becomes a shallow bed. A large area in the garden is dug out, an impermeable plastic layer is inserted and the hole is refilled with soil. The willows are planted and given a year to start to grow before the effluent is added to the bottom of the system. The system works very well. In the research paper's conclusions, it is shown that the system of using willow trees is unlikely to act as a zero-discharge system. The problem is the zero discharge, but why? The requirement for zero discharge was put in place to achieve zero effect. We want zero effect that has no impact on the environment. As is stated in the conclusion of the report, the evapotranspiration or ET system promotes excellent pollutant attenuation, significantly reduces the net discharge to the environment and, therefore, should be considered a viable passive treatment. The conclusion also states it would require a change to the current consent procedures to allow for such a controlled discharge to surface water. The conclusion of the EPA's report states the willow ET system produces an effluent of similar quality to the effluent from a system with no sewage discharge entering it. The EPA found the system had zero effect. If that is the case, we need to examine why we have a zero-discharge rule.
It was in that context I presented the Bill. In fairness, Leitrim County Council has since done more work on the ET system and continues to do so. It has a pilot scheme in place to try to minimise the rainfall entering the system. It found that it could achieve zero discharge for most of the year except in winter, when there was heavy rainfall, although it was mostly rain escaping rather than any pollutant effluent. The council is considering building willow beds and sloping it off in order that as little rain as possible can enter, to try to achieve zero discharge. My argument, which I consider logical, is that if there is zero effect, it will have the same impact as zero discharge. If one takes water from the river, puts it in a 40-gallon barrel, keeps it until night-time and returns the water to the river, it will have a zero effect on the river, which is exactly what the Bill provides for. There will be a zero effect.
I acknowledge that the Department has raised some issues with the Bill, which I examined. One such issue is that it appears that the local authority must issue a licence under section 4. I cannot find the word "must" anywhere in the Bill. Rather, it states, "Notwithstanding the generality of the foregoing nothing in this section shall prevent a water services authority from granting a waste water discharge licence [...]" That there is nothing to prevent a water services authority from granting a licence does not mean that it must. Similarly, the Bill provides that the Minister "shall" introduce regulations to provide for the application for a wastewater treatment licence. He shall introduce regulations to do it but will not insist that it must happen. It will happen only when a person or agent applies for a licence and meets the standards required.
The Bill further states: "The Minister may introduce such regulations as are necessary, incidental, supplementary or consequential for the purposes of giving effect to this section." This new section - section 13 - will do nothing to affect any of the other sections in the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1997, and vice versa. The present system of issuing a discharge licence is in place specifically for cases where there is a large number of houses or an industrial-type unit, which is fine. Provision needs to be made, however, for a different type of licence for single houses where a system is in place that will ensure zero effect and allow for minimal discharge. That is what we want to achieve. Others, such as the EPA and many of the local authorities, are working in a similar vein to try to do so but the sole obstacle in the way is the issue of zero discharge.
If we wanted, we could try to change the code of practice but doing so is difficult, which I understand because an application has been lodged with the European Commission. The code of practice states that if a house fails to pass the T-test, it must have zero discharge or a discharge licence. My Bill will put in effect a means of granting a small discharge licence to deal with that in an appropriate way where all other planning requirements are already met, and assessing how a zero impact on the environment can be achieved, such as with the type of ET system developed by the local authorities in co-operation with the EPA.
I welcome any questions.