I am referring to the framework document and the suite of guidance and protocol documents which, together with the local major emergency plans on which response is built, form a plan for dealing with not only single major emergencies but also events such as we have had since November last. This suite of documents enables the principal response agencies to prepare for and make a co-ordinated response to a variety of major emergencies whenever a major emergency occurs, including severe weather.
They used the procedures and training they received in responding to the difficulties encountered in their areas. The framework identifies local authorities as the lead agency with responsibility to co-ordinate all other services in cases of severe weather. The local authority major emergency plans also include a sub-plan for responding to severe weather events. The framework and other plans, which I have identified, are available on the Department's website, a special websitewww.mem.ie and websites of the principal response agencies.
In the short time available I will explain briefly the role of organisations at local and central levels. My Department's role is to ensure the local authorities are prepared to respond promptly to deal with issues directly under their remit. Second, the Department also has a role to ensure that authorities act in co-operation with the other principal response agencies, the voluntary agencies and the Defence Forces to limit the effects on individuals whose lives may be put at risk or may be exposed to serious hardship. The management of the emergency response on the ground then falls to the local authorities and the other response agencies.
The framework which I have referred to also provides for linking between local and central Government levels. At central level there was no unnecessary delay in responding to the emerging weather situation. From the second half of December, staff from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Transport were liaising with local authorities and the NRA and monitoring the ongoing weather situation. When the period of severe weather was forecast to remain in place for a prolonged period, when business and schools were about to resume after Christmas and the possibility of a shortage of salt for the roads emerged, the need for the National Emergency Response Co-ordination Committee arose. I convened the committee at the request of the Taoiseach in the first week of the year before the position became acute. This is the complementary role set out in the framework which engages the national level.
The committee oversaw the co-ordinated response at national and local levels, ensured that all statutory agencies co-operated efficiently and effectively and that any decisions required at national level were dealt with properly and promptly. It is not a function of the committee to take responsibility from the Departments and agencies.
Having attended the committee and seen the interaction of the various Departments and statutory agencies, I am satisfied there was an active and sustained response to the recent severe weather conditions by the local authorities and the other principal response agencies, with the support of the Defence Forces and co-operation of other statutory and voluntary bodies. It will be important to learn from the recent experiences and, accordingly, a review of the emergency response co-ordination and inter-agency arrangements will be undertaken. This will assist in determining what further improvements can be achieved and in identifying any relevant lessons that can be learnt from the two experiences here and in other European countries during recent weeks.
By and large our national roads, other key strategic roads and public transport routes were kept open for traffic during the 24 days that the severe weather lasted. With careful driving, most of our secondary road network remained passable through the period, with limited exceptions especially in upland areas. It is certainly the case that road and footpath conditions were difficult and dangerous where iced over but most roads were open and people were able to get about as they needed to, albeit perhaps more slowly. The majority of public transport services continued to operate in Dublin and nationwide, albeit with some cancellation or curtailment during the worst of the snow. As part of the overall review of this recent experience, the Department of Transport will re-examine the priorities for gritting of roads. At present, the priorities are national roads and other roads that carry significant traffic volumes, including heavy goods vehicles and public transport services.
What can be considered for the future is whether there are ways of harnessing community effort by, for example, local authorities supplying salt to local communities and business districts. Another area for review is how public information was handled and what can be improved. Local authorities made very effective use of local and community radio. The public transport websites were regularly up to date. Some local authority websites provided detailed road gritting maps and the Road Safety Authority was very helpful in getting out targeted road safety messages. Best practice examples will be built upon and any information gaps or failures will be identified.
The Minister for Transport is conscious that local authorities have, and will continue to incur, significant additional expenditure as a direct result of the prolonged severe weather. Road grants from the Exchequer for the coming year will be in excess of €1.1 billion for national roads and approximately €411 million for local and regional roads. This is a significant investment in our transport infrastructure on behalf of the Government despite the difficult Exchequer finances. Local authorities are generally advised to set aside contingency sums within their overall roads funding for weather related works. The Minister for Transport will assess the additional costs involved over and above the normal provision when finalising the allocation of regional and local road grants. It may be necessary to change priorities in the 2010 allocations, taking account of the available financial resources. In this matter I am keen for local authorities to contribute more from their own resources for non-national roads. In the meantime, the Minister for Transport has issued a circular to local authorities asking them to give priority to the repair of damage to regional and local roads caused by recent weather and authorising them to incur expenditure under certain grant categories of up to 25% of the amount allocated for these categories in April 2009, pending the allocation of the 2010 grants. He has also allowed local authorities flexibility to revise their 2010 restoration improvement programmes.
The severe weather episodes this winter have identified a number of weaknesses in our water services infrastructure. It has also shown that even though we are fortunate to have an abundance of raw water in Ireland, there is a lack of recognition of the real costs of treating this water and distributing it to our homes and businesses. The length of the public water services network, which amounts to more than 20,000 km of pipes, 8,000 km of which are in the greater Dublin area, poses challenges for ongoing maintenance and management.
The recent prolonged period of especially low temperatures caused difficulties for most local authorities in maintaining normal water supplies. The initial difficulties arose mainly from frozen supplies, but as the thaw set in, further damage was caused by the moving ground. During a fortnight period, typical demand was up to 25% greater than maximum water treatment capacity in most authorities. This was as a result of leakage and some consumer usage to avoid frozen domestic pipes. Excess demand resulted in the depletion of treated water at reservoirs, which would normally provide two days storage, the international norm. Demand has been progressively reducing through local authority efforts to find and fix leaks and manage supplies, and conservation by consumers. While it will take some time to restore reservoirs to pre-Christmas levels, I understand the situation has improved substantially during the past week especially in the Dublin area, where the need for night time restrictions is expected to ease during the coming two weeks.
Some of the incidents of burst water pipes in housing estates throughout the country, which caused significant hardship for householders, could have been avoided by proper workmanship and by developers ensuring that construction standards for new housing fully met basic requirements. My Department will write to local authorities to remind them of the development management requirements under the building regulations, the site development guidelines and to impress on them the need for regular monitoring and enforcement to ensure a consistent application of these standards in residential developments.
While €4.6 billion has been provided by the Exchequer to local authorities for investment in this sector during the past nine years, it was against the background of historical under-investment. In addition to catching up with these deficits, the sector has had to respond to the increased demand arising during a time of economic and population growth. This investment has led to significant progress. Substantial improvements have been made in the quality of water in the group water sector and some 480 major public water and waste water schemes have been completed since 2000. These schemes have delivered an increase in drinking water treatment capacity equivalent to the needs of a population of 855,000, and have led to improvements in compliance with the requirements of the EU urban waste water treatment directive on secondary waste water treatment facilities, which now stands at some 92% compared to 25% at the start of 2000.
The renewed programme for Government has a commitment to maintaining record levels of investment in water. This year some €508 million has been allocated, one of the few areas of capital provision which received an increase from the 2009 provision. This is evidence of the Government's commitment to this important area in these difficult economic times. The programme priorities for the coming period include the need to mainstream and enhance water conservation activity, to address environmental and public health compliance issues, to support the overall strategic and sustainable development of gateways and hubs and to support employment creation.
An important aspect of the new water services investment programme for 2010 to 2012, which will be launched towards the end of this month, will be the targeting of investment on water conservation. It does not make economic sense to provide for further water supply capacity in areas with unacceptability high levels of unaccounted for water; the leakage levels in some areas are stark and must be tackled. We have spent €130 million on various water conservation measures during the past seven years. This investment has mainly been focused on establishing water management systems and active leak detection and repair programmes. Most counties have now completed or are close to completing the initial phases of this programme. This provides an important platform for identifying the areas which have the highest leakage levels and for targeting investment in mains rehabilitation. Local authorities have identified some €300 million in contracts to commence in the period 2010-12, with further schemes to be progressed through planning in that timeframe. I will be making funding available as part of the next water services investment programme. This acceleration of the water conservation programme will allow for some 600 km of mains to be rehabilitated and will make real inroads into addressing leakage levels in local authority systems. This investment is only part of the overall action on water conservation. I am grateful to the public response to calls by me and by local authorities to conserve water in light of current shortages. This needs to be sustained.
I note Fine Gael has proposed that a new semi-State water utility company should be established to assume responsibility for water investment and management nationally. I am somewhat bemused by Fine Gael's ability to criticise the Government for the number of State agencies in existence while at the same time proposing the establishment of a new one. I see no reason for the introduction of a further new body.