I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to come before this committee to assist members in their deliberations on this important subject. From the Department's perspective, the issues raised in the committee's deliberations cut across three distinct sections - the planning, water services and building standards sections of the Department - but also have direct relevance to the Environmental Protection Agency. With the Chairman's permission, a colleague from the EPA will make some remarks after my contribution.
As a Department we would like to reaffirm our own, and the Minister's, commitment to protecting our scarce environmental resources and ensuring that the highest possible standards are set and followed to protect water quality, particularly in regard to septic tanks and proprietary domestic waste water systems. The Department is concerned to ensure that the maximum possible safeguards are brought to bear on such systems.
I will address the issue of planning in the first instance. The position is that waste water treatment matters have been addressed in the Planning and Development Regulations 2006, which came into force on 31 March 2007. These regulations now require, in section 22(2)(c), that where it is proposed to dispose of waste water from a proposed development other than to a public sewer, information on the on-site treatment system proposed and evidence as to the suitability of the site for the system proposed must be submitted as part of a planning application. The regulations also provide for a standard planning application form for use by all planning authorities, which includes a question on waste water treatment.
Moreover, as set out in the Department's circular letter of 31 July 2003, SP 5-03, concerning ground water protection and the planning system, it is the responsibility of planning authorities to monitor the degree to which those carrying out approved development meet their obligations to comply with the terms of planning permissions granted, and to enforce such terms where necessary.
In addition, it is open to local authorities to make and adopt by-laws to require periodic inspections of septic tanks and other on-site proprietary treatment systems under the general powers available to them under the Local Government Act 2001.
I want to refer briefly to the Department's Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines for Planning Authorities, published in 2005. These guidelines are aimed at achieving a balanced, sustainable planning framework for rural housing and they remain relevant and practical in helping to secure that balance. The guidelines reaffirmed the need for adherence to the 2003 ground water protection guidance to which I have just referred.
The guidelines consolidate the approach taken in respect of rural housing in the national spatial strategy, which aims to support rural communities and provide a framework within which rural communities can develop economically and socially, with inherent environmental consideration. The guidelines are clear in specifying that environmental and health and safety issues such as site appropriateness, wastewater disposal and road safety are overriding concerns in all planning applications.
In addressing planning I should inform the committee that development management guidelines for planning authorities were issued by the Department in June 2007. The purpose of the guidelines is to assist planning authorities in performing their functions in development management which, members may be aware, was previously described as development control. The guidelines give advice to planning authorities on all aspects of the planning process from pre-application consultation, lodgment of the planning application, decision making to conditions and enforcement. They are intended to promote best practice at every stage of the development management process.
With specific reference to enforcement, the development management guidelines request planning authorities to prioritise enforcement and ensure they maintain good information systems to make sure the enforcement regime is efficient and effective. They are also encouraged to draft conditions attached to planning permissions in an enforceable manner. A dedicated website has been established as a portal through which planning authorities can share expertise and technical insight on enforcement activities.
Moving to the water side of the equation, in addition to the provisions outlined in the planning codes, it should be noted that the Water Services Act 2007 places a duty of care on the occupier or owner of a premises to ensure all drains, manholes and treatment systems, including a septic tank serving the premises, are kept in such a condition as not to cause a risk to human health or the environment or to create a nuisance due to odours. An authorised person appointed by a water services authority may direct the owner or occupier to take such measures as are considered by the authorised person to be necessary to deal with the risk. Refusal to comply with such a direction or obstruction of the authorised person is an offence.
Turning to the building standards function of the Department for which I hold responsibility, the position is that the building regulations apply to the construction of new buildings, as well as to the material alteration, extension or change of use of existing buildings. It is important to emphasise that the regulations do not promote or discriminate against any building product or system. They are performance based and it is a matter for all products or systems to demonstrate compliance.
Apart from the regulations, technical guidance documents, TGDs, have been published giving guidance on how to comply with each regulation. Where works are carried out in accordance with the guidance, this will prima facie indicate compliance with the regulations. However, members should be aware that the adoption of an approach other than that set out in the guidance documents is not precluded, provided that relevant requirements are complied with and can be so demonstrated.
In the context of the committee's deliberations, Parts H and D of the building regulations are relevant. Part H sets out the legal requirements for drainage and wastewater disposal and includes requirements for septic tanks. Part H 2 entitled, Septic Tanks, requires that "a Septic Tank shall be - (a) of adequate capacity and so constructed that it is impermeable to liquids; (b) adequately ventilated; and (c) so sited and constructed that - (i) it is not prejudicial to the health of any person, (ii) it does not pollute, so as to endanger public health, any water (including groundwater) which is used as a source of supply for human consumption, and (iii) there are adequate means of access for emptying".
The relevant technical guidance document, TGD-H, which accompanies regulations H, provides guidance on how to comply with the requirements of Part H and calls up the following standards. The first standard concerns septic tanks serving single houses - a standard recommendation or SR6 of 1991 - recommendation for domestic effluent treatment and disposal from a single dwelling house issued by the National Standards Authority of Ireland. The second standard concerns septic tanks serving groups of houses, British Standard (BS) 6297 of 1983, entitled code of practice for the design and installation of small sewage treatment works and cesspools, AMD 6150, issued by the British Standards Institute. It is important to note that TGD-H also states:
There are other satisfactory wastewater systems for treating domestic effluent which are not referred to in S.R. 6 1991. These systems are based on biological action such as filtration or activated sludge. Each should be considered on its merits. It is essential that they be operated in accordance with manufacturers' instructions, including the necessary regular maintenance.
Part D of the building regulations sets out the legal requirements for materials and workmanship. It requires that all works must be carried out in a workmanlike manner and that all materials used must be suitable for the purpose for which they are intended and the conditions in which they are employed. Innovative materials or systems such as waste water treatment systems must have specified appropriate agrement certification from the Irish Agrément Board or equivalent certification from an approval body in a member state. I should, with particular reference to the committee's deliberations, inform members that the Irish Agrément Board is the national and European recognised body for certifying new building products or systems for which national standards are not in place and has been notified as an approval body for Ireland under the EU construction products directive. Accordingly, a septic tank or other treatment system which is in compliance with Part D dealing with materials and workmanship and which is installed in accordance with TGD-H dealing with drainage and wastewater disposal is deemed to comply with the building regulations.
A new European standard for small waste water treatment plants has been introduced and will come into force on 1 July 2009. This standard was adopted by the European Committee for Standardisation, CEN, and transposed in Ireland by the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, as IS EN 12566-3:2005. It specifies requirements, test methods, marking and evaluation of conformity for packaged and-or site assembled domestic wastewater treatment plants used for the treatment of raw domestic sewage and serving populations of up to 50 inhabitants. IS EN 12566-3 contains the following definitions for two types of plant: packaged domestic waste water treatment plant which is defined as a prefabricated, factory built, wastewater treatment installation that accepts domestic wastewater and treats it to a declared quality; and site assembled domestic waste water treatment plant which is defined as a unit composed of prefabricated components, assembled on site by one manufacturer, that accepts domestic wastewater and treats it to a declared quality. The need for new systems to comply with this standard, together with recommended performance levels for treatment systems determined by the Irish Agrément Board, has been brought to the attention of local authorities by means of circular letters issued by my Department in November 2006 and January this year, respectively.
The Environmental Protection Agency published a wastewater treatment manual on treatment systems for single houses in 2000 and is currently finalising a review of the manual with a view to publishing a code of practice. With the Chairman's permission, Mr. O'Leary will, immediately following my presentation, outline what is involved in that regard.
It is the Department's firm intention to amend TGD-H of the building regulations dealing with drainage and wastewater disposal to replace standard recommendation No. 6 with the new EPA code of practice when the NSAI withdraws this standard recommendation. This will incorporate new and additional guidance in TGD-H based firmly on the EPA's code of practice.
The measures I have outlined clearly demonstrate that a significant number of safeguards are in place in respect of septic tanks and domestic wastewater treatment systems. Moreover, the Department is prepared to improve this area of control by proposing to include the finalised EPA code of practice under the building regulations. In accordance with established practice, the Department will also issue a circular letter to the 37 local building control authorities to draw their attention to the amended guidance document. If considered necessary, it will underpin the provisions of the EPA code by way of a circular letter to planning authorities. I thank members for their attention.