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Wednesday, 12 Jun 2013

Priority Questions

Water Services Provision

Questions (1)

Barry Cowen


1. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he will provide a county breakdown of the number of local authority staff engaged in water services; the future plans for those staff under Irish Water; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28195/13]

View answer

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Environment)

The independent assessment of the establishment of a public water utility undertaken by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2011 estimated that there were just over 4,000 whole-time equivalent staff directly engaged in water services. A breakdown of this figure is not available in my Department. The local authority water services transition office is gathering this information on a water services authority basis to inform the implementation of the water sector reform programme.

A fundamental underpinning of the water reform programme is to ensure that the skills and experience built up over many years in local authorities are put to the best use for the long-term benefit of the customer and that there are no negative impacts on services to customers during the transition. It is intended, therefore, that the legislation to transfer statutory responsibility for water services to Irish Water will provide for local authorities to act as agents for Irish Water, with this relationship being expressed through service level agreements. The majority of the existing staff will remain employees of local authorities working under such arrangements.

A specific structure, the Irish Water consultative group, chaired by Mr. Kevin Foley of the Labour Relations Commission, was established last year to facilitate engagement between unions and management on the water sector reform programme. The group meets regularly to work through the issues concerned and has agreed principles for the secondment of local authority staff to the Irish Water programme. Discussions are ongoing in respect of the proposed service level agreements, addressing issues such as their scope and duration and the protection of the terms and conditions of employees in various circumstances.

The Minister is right in saying that the PricewaterhouseCoopers report produced prior to the setting up of Irish Water identified more than 4,000 jobs in the area. It also suggested that there would be job losses. Despite the Minister's statement that when the Department went through the figures it was not done on a county-by-county basis, the Minister should seek to have that information provided to the House.

In respect of the service level agreements being sought under the stewardship of Mr. Foley, what progress has been made? Can the Minister confirm that those agreements will only bring us to 2017? What indication can he give the House regarding permanency for staff beyond that date? It is important that we and, more importantly, the staff are aware of the long-term role they have. Will service level contracts between local authorities and Irish Water continue and will staff have incremental contracts rather than the permanency they now enjoy? Does the consultative body contain a public representative or someone who could act as a conduit between local authority members and the staff under their control, who will not be under their control in the future?

There are a number of questions. Ultimately, there will be an increase in employment relating to water provision. What we are seeking to do is to generate an efficient implementation programme that will mean that the processes we have at the moment between local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government will be rationalised to the extent that we will be speeding up the investment programme. We anticipate that in two or three years' time we will have doubled the amount of money in contracts available through Irish Water for water and wastewater service provision. We need to do that if we are to keep pace with the level of economic activity that is required and the fundamental issue of providing adequate water and wastewater facilities for inward investment.

I am not in a position to give the Deputy exact figures about the outcome of those discussions that are ongoing at the moment about who and how many will be seconded. I will inform the House or the committee on the environment, culture and the Gaeltacht to keep it briefed on jobs on a county-by-county basis. At the end of the day, Irish Water is charged with the responsibility for delivering on behalf of the taxpayer an efficient and effective service and ensuring we have additional investment through the private capital programme in the future to assist Irish Water in achieving the aims of our water services programme.

Progress is being made on service level agreements. They are not concluded yet. I expect we will go beyond 2017 in respect of the relationships between Irish Water and local government, but there is a two-year review clause we are seeking to examine in two years' time to see how far beyond that we have to go. It will be up to the people around the table to decide many of these issues with Irish Water.

There is no public representation on the in-house management-union structure that is in place at the moment to work out these issues, but I envisage public representation on the board of Irish Water.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to having public representatives on the board of Irish Water. However, I again ask him to seek to have similar representation at the table for consultation on service level agreements. As the Minister said, the initial period is to 2017, with the arrangements to be reviewed thereafter. I hope a commitment will be given at this stage that any such review would look at the much longer term to safeguard and protect the jobs of existing staff within local authorities. I welcome what has been said in recent weeks in respect of the call centre and the jobs that will emanate from that. However, as I have told the Minister on many occasions in the past, there are many call centres throughout the country in which we have faith. Nowhere were they shown to be more effective than during the winter freeze a few years ago, based on the local knowledge, experience and professionalism of those concerned. How the new regime works will be measured in time against that performance. I am anxious for a place at the table to be given to some representative of local authorities and their members to make further progress in this area.

I do not agree with Deputy Cowen that it is appropriate to have public representation at the management-union talks that are ongoing under the chairmanship of Mr. Foley from the Labour Relations Commission. There are many technical issues to be resolved. Public representatives are in charge of policy and will effectively be the board of directors in respect of local authorities in the future. Management and unions should get on with the job of working out the details about how matters will be implemented, including staff arrangements.

Hundreds of people have expressed interest in secondment to Irish Water from local authorities. They must see career opportunities in Irish Water in the future, or they would not be interested in doing that. I hope we will be able to get agreement on service level agreements in the near future. I announced 400 jobs in the call centre dealing with customers but there will be about 1,600 jobs involved in the metering programme. Three regional contracts will be announced around 10 July.

Local Government Reform

Questions (2)

Brian Stanley


2. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in view of the new municipal districts proposed by the Local Boundary Commission, noting that some of these cover large geographical areas and in view of his stated intention to devolve further powers and functions to councillors, his views on whether councillors in the new municipal districts will be able to properly represent all their constituents. [28200/13]

View answer

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Environment)

I am confident that the new governance arrangements within counties will enable councillors to represent their constituents more effectively than under current arrangements. While the recommendations of the local electoral area boundary committee involve an overall reduction in the number of local electoral areas, the level of representation across local authorities will be more proportionate to population while maintaining a higher ratio of members to population in counties with lower populations. An important benefit of the new system is that different functions will be performed by members at county and district levels. This will result in greater effectiveness than the current parallel town and county system, which involves a significant element of duplication of functions as well as other weaknesses and anomalies.

The division of functions between county and district levels under the relevant legislation will be determined on the basis of what is most relevant to each level. Local matters will be dealt with at municipal district level, while those of wider strategic application will be decided at county level, without duplication between county and district jurisdictions. The elected members will perform a range of important reserved functions at district level on a fully devolved basis, subject to certain requirements for consistency with overall local authority policy.

This is a practical problem for councillors who are to be elected next year. Their electoral areas will be 50 km or 60 km in length with very large municipal districts. Sinn Féin supports reform, and certainly local government needs reform, but care needs to be taken with regard to the type of reform. We support the devolution of powers and functions but if the Minister carries this through - I have not seen any great signs yet - this will also mean an extra workload for councillors.

I have some information about practices in other jurisdictions. In France there is one councillor for every 118 people; in Germany there is a councillor for every 315 people; in Finland there is a councillor for every 410 people; and in Belgium there is a councillor for every 811. Even in England there is one councillor for every 2,603 people. Under this proposal Ireland will have one councillor for every 4,830 people, and the electoral areas will be very large. My concern is about part-time councillors. We want more people to get involved in politics. However, women with families - and also men, because they too have families - will have difficulties doing the work after 6 p.m. They have family and work commitments and I ask how they will carry out their functions as councillors.

I subscribe to the general principle-----

I include Fine Gael councillors, who have raised this concern with me.

I have an idea what they are thinking. I will tell the Deputy what Sinn Féin was thinking in advance.

The Minister should not mind that.

I agree in principle with the Deputy that councillors will be covering a wider geographical area and we will have a look at resource supports to ensure that the people in local government are able to do the job for which they are elected. They will have a lot more responsibility and devolved functions, as the Deputy will see when the legislation is published.

The Deputy is making the case about the size of the areas. I draw his attention to the Sinn Féin submission to the local electoral area boundary committee, which proposed 123 local electoral areas. This is 14 fewer than the 137 local electoral areas that would arise based on the committee's recommendations, which were published recently. The smallest local electoral area that the boundary committee could recommend had six members. Following the review there are to be 67 such areas. Had the Sinn Féin proposal been accepted, there would have been only 14 of these six-member local electoral areas. Most of the recommended local electoral areas in the boundary committee's report have six and seven members, which is in contrast to Sinn Féin's proposal.

We had to respond on the basis of the criteria and terms of reference of the committee. We were in a straitjacket in that regard. If the Northern model was followed there would be 1,180 councillors, 230 more councillors than the Minister is proposing. I welcome the fact that the Minister will examine the issue of resources, considering the number of meetings, the category of each council and the fact that representatives will attend monthly municipal authority meetings and also county council meetings.

The Minister has set out a menu of possible provisions for the devolution of powers. However, the only ones to which he is giving serious consideration are to do with tourism and economic development, the realignment of local development and the establishment of an economic development officer. Sinn Féin supports the establishment of the position of economic development officer for local authorities. However, I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to other areas. A menu is in existence and power must be shifted out from the centre. It must not be a power grab. There are signs of this, including the Minister's reduction of the number of councillors who will sit on the regional authorities to only two per authority. This rules out everyone bar the bigger parties. I have a real concern about that and I ask the Minister to address my concern.

I am disappointed at Deputy Stanley's negativity about a legislative proposal for local government reform which he has not seen yet.

It is in the book: two per council.

I will be delighted to deal with Deputy Stanley's amendments on Committee Stage. I will be very open with anyone who brings forward suggestions. I remind the Deputy that the local government system has not been reformed for a long time. I am doing what I can to devolve more functions from central government and agencies to local government. I have abolished half the agencies in my Department which are no longer required. I want to devolve as many functions as possible at the lowest level to be as near as possible to the citizen. We have introduced a local property tax - with which Sinn Féin has a problem in this jurisdiction but no problem in Northern Ireland - which gives councillors an opportunity to have a say in the priorities for their own local areas and how they can access the funds. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating with regard to the legislation. We look forward to a constructive approach when the legislation is published and put before the House. It is hoped it will be enacted between now and the end of the year if everyone co-operates. This will ensure we have a body of powers at the lowest possible level to assist in giving our people a better and more effective service with fewer councillors.

Water Charges Administration

Questions (3)

Thomas Pringle


3. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he foresees a reduction in commercial water rates under Irish Water in view of the fact that the local authorities have been operating the polluter pays principle in relation to commercial water rates for many years and full cost recovery for the supply of water to commercial users; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27066/13]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Environment)

The water sector reform implementation strategy, which is published on my Department’s website, is focused on ensuring that appropriate policy and legal frameworks are put in place for Irish Water and the water sector. A key objective is to rationalise the cost of the current service delivery and ensure more efficient operation of water services by moving from 34 water services authorities to a single body. Following enactment of comprehensive legislation later this year, Irish Water will, therefore, become the water services authority from 1 January 2014.

The Government has decided to assign responsibility for the economic regulation of the water sector, including the setting of charges, to the Commission for Energy Regulation. It will be a matter for the Commission for Energy Regulation in due course to satisfy itself on the appropriateness of costs incurred in the operation of Irish Water as part of the process of setting the tariffs for both the domestic and the non-domestic sector in the future. It is envisaged that the commission will engage in public consultation as part of this process. A key role for the regulator will be to protect the interests of all customers and to drive efficiencies in the water services sector.

It is very difficult to divine whether there is an answer to the question in that reply. I asked whether the Minister foresaw a reduction in charges to commercial water users under Irish Water. The message is being given that commercial users will see a reduction because domestic users who have had water free for so long will now be paying. I do not believe this will be the case. As the Minister knows, the local authorities have been operating for many years on a full cost-recovery basis in the charging of commercial users and have also operated under the polluter pays principle in certain water charges. This means that the supply of water to commercial users in local authority areas is fully paid for by those commercial users, and therefore it will have no bearing on the cost of providing water to domestic users or related charges. In my view, the commercial users will not see a significant reduction. I am interested to hear the Minister's views.

I know that Deputy Pringle has a very detailed knowledge of this work arising from his former employment. It will be a matter for the Commission for Energy Regulation to assess charges and to examine what is happening in the water-in, water-out system and whether it is being implemented by the local authority system, which will become part of Irish Water. Therefore, I am unable to answer Deputy Pringle's questions. However, I hope that all people currently being charged for water, whether in the commercial sector or the group sector, will be able to pass on to all other sectors in the domestic area the sense of urgency that is required in order to show how we can achieve a reduction in water consumption. We must realise that water is a finite product and that the cost to local government is high. We must reduce the cost to local government and be able to reduce commercial rates and lower costs for business. Equally, there is a requirement for additional capital investment and, in my view, this will not be available from the public capital programme in the next few years. We do not have the money, so it will need to be sourced from the private sector. This can only happen when we have a stream of investment income.

Given that the Commission for Energy Regulation will be setting the tariffs in the future, one of its roles will be to look at the cost-effectiveness of the service level agreements.

Will it be within the remit of the Commission for Energy Regulation to consider the liberalisation of the provision of water services across the country?

Will the Deputy clarify to what liberalisation he is referring?

When service level agreements come up for renewal, will the Commission for Energy Regulation seek to tender them?

No. Water services will continue to remain the preserve of the public utility company, Irish Water. We have learned from the previous experience with Eircom and the difficulties its sale created in service provision. Certainly, the Government does not intend to do anything other than to enshrine in legislation the need to keep public resources such as water, an essential resource, in public ownership. The liberalisation of services under service level agreements does not come into play in relation to this as far as the Commission for Energy Regulation is concerned.

Leader Programmes Funding

Questions (4)

Éamon Ó Cuív


4. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the total revised amount of funding available under the LEADER programme for projects; the amount of this funding allocated to the integrated companies to date; the total commitments entered into by the companies to date; the total spend to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28197/13]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Environment)

The Leader elements of the rural development programme 2007 to 2013 commenced in February 2009 after a delay of more than two years, which reduced the time available to allocate funding to less than five years from the normal seven. During 2010 and 2011 it became evident that a significant number of local development companies, LDCs, contracted to deliver the programme were not committing funds at the level required to ensure all funding would be allocated by the December 2013 deadline in line with EU regulations. Similarly, it became clear to me that a number of LDCs were more than capable of allocating additional funding if it were made available to them. In this regard, in January 2012 my Department notified all LDCs that the original LDC allocations awarded in 2009 were no longer valid and that the programme was being opened up on a first come, first served basis to all LDCs to ensure all available funding would be allocated to eligible projects within the timeframe allowed. All LDCs were encouraged to maximise the opportunity this created for them. Some companies availed of the opportunity more than others.

During 2011 the European Commission approved a change in the maximum co-funding rate from 55% to 85% for the Leader elements of Ireland's rural development programme but only for expenditure incurred in 2012 and 2013. This had the effect of reducing the available funding under the programme from €427 million to an estimated €370 million. In addition, in late 2012 and early 2013 and after repeated requests from many LDCs, I agreed to allow significant additional programme funds of more than €19 million to be assigned to the basic services measure. In the light of all the changes to the programme, it became necessary in January 2013 to carry out a comprehensive review of the level of commitments and expenditure across its various measures in order to apportion the remaining funds among LDCs taking into account the level of commitments already entered into. As a first step, I released €42 million worth of projects which had been approved by the boards of LDCs, asking them to progress projects that were in a position to proceed. Unfortunately, only €25.5 million worth of projects in that category had all of the necessary approvals in place to proceed to contract.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Using an estimated final programme allocation of €370 million, the total spend to date and outstanding contractual commitments were established and deducted from the €370 million. A total of €6 million was provided for the former MFG legacy files, new Gaeltacht projects and associated administration costs. Funding was also provided for projects greater than €150,000 in value that had been submitted to my Department for assessment. The original percentage of the programme which was awarded to each LDC in 2009 was then applied to apportion the remaining funding among all LDCs. Where an LDC would receive less than 80% of its original allocation, bearing in mind that the overall programme complement had been reduced by approximately 13%, an adjustment was made to maintain the revised allocation at 80% of the original. The total funding of €370 million has now been allocated to all LDCs. To date, they have committed some €228 million on projects and spent €54 million on administration and animation.

I predict that the Minister will woefully underspend under this programme. Does he accept that if he wanted a total spend under the programme, the amount for projects approved by the end of the year would have to be 10% to 20% higher than the amount of money available? For many reasons, many of the projects which will be approved may not be completed within the very tight timeframe involved in the programme. Does he further accept that it will not be possible to sanction further projects under the regulation if he finds that there are projects going ahead after the end of the year? The regulation requires all projects to be completed by the end of this year.

More than anyone else, the Deputy knows that we are in a difficult financial position. I do not expect to receive approval from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to allocate additional moneys over and above what is included in the programme. I have already received the co-operation of the Department to make a great many changes to the funding for the programme to help to draw down 100% of what has been allocated. I draw the Deputy's attention to the fact that only 43% of all that has been committed has been drawn down under the current programme which has six months left to run. I am monitoring every local development company on a monthly basis and have given them until 31 August 2013 to state what they are going to do on projects to which they have already committed. If I believe a company is not in a position to draw down the money between now and the end of the programme, I will recommit the money to other Leader or local developments companies which are in a position to spend it.

If I understand the Minister correctly, the number of projects sanctioned at the end of the year will match exactly the amount of money available under the programme, which will mean that 100% of projects sanctioned will have to be completed for a full draw-down. If one considers all capital programmes across Government, particularly where there is a time limit for completion, one sees that never happens. I was looking at comparative programmes and that was quite obvious. The Government is setting about leaving money in the European Union which it could draw down. When does the Minister expect the Leader programme 2014-20 to commence? Does he expect it to commence in 2015 or 2016? Many of the larger projects require the Minister's permission to proceed, presumably before the end of the year. Does he accept that, unless it is at an advanced stage of the planning process, any project that needs planning permission will not be ready for approval? Is the Minister limiting the spend by companies under the basic services measure and the countryside and rural development measure?

I have already allocated an additional €19 million for the basic services measure and each of the Leader companies was told last December that no more money was available other than what had already been committed. We have earmarked and committed a substantial amount of money in 2009, 2010 and 2011, which will not be drawn down. I will reallocate this money after 31 August 2013. I expect that some projects committed to in 2012 may not go ahead and accept that we will not reach 100%. Inevitably, there will be projects which will not obtain the local funding or bank loans required to draw down the money. We will do everything we can to draw down as close to 100% of the money as we can. Given his own comments, Deputy Ó Cuív knows it is not possible to hit 100%. If we hit 99%, we will have done exceptionally well.

It is possible. We did it the last time.

The Government of which the Deputy was a member did not do it.

Rental Accommodation Scheme Administration

Questions (5)

Dessie Ellis


5. Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if his attention has been drawn to the problem that many tenants are having finding suitable accommodation under the rental accommodation scheme following the completion of their original RAS contract and that in some cases families with young children are being forced to enter emergency accommodation despite a local authority commitment that this would not be allowed to happen; his plans to rectify this issue; and if he will ensure that this will be rectified where it has occurred and not allowed to happen again. [27055/13]

View answer

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Environment)

The grounds on which a tenancy in the private rented residential sector may be legally terminated are clearly set out in the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. The Act provides the main regulatory framework for the private rented residential sector and the operation of the Private Residential Tenancies Board. It provides for security of tenure and specifies minimum obligations for landlords and tenants under a tenancy. In addition, it contains provisions relating to the setting of rent and rent reviews and sets out the procedures and notice periods that must be complied with when terminating a tenancy. The ongoing development of a stable, well regulated rented sector is a key goal for the Government and stability of tenure is fundamental to that goal.

As the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, is deemed to be a social housing support, local authorities retain the responsibility to source further accommodation for a RAS household should the dwelling that the household is living in become unavailable through no fault of its own. There is no prohibition on households sourcing alternative accommodation themselves if they so desire, as long as the local authority is satisfied that the accommodation meets the needs of the household and conforms to standards for rented accommodation which are set out in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2008. Statutory responsibility for the provision of accommodation and related services for persons requiring accommodation rests with housing authorities. My Department has no function in regard to, nor is it involved in, decisions on specific cases.

The first thing we must do is recognise that there is a major problem with the rental accommodation scheme. Many landlords are now saying they must sell the houses which have been available for rent, with the result that people are ending up homeless or looking for new rental accommodation which is not forthcoming. Rents are rising and it is more attractive in some cases to move into the private market. It is a significant problem for residents. Local authorities have the responsibility to house people who have been housed under the residential accommodation scheme and they must live up to it.

In several instances across the country they have not done so. In an incident in Bray, tenants barricaded themselves into the local council because they had to go into homeless accommodation due to the removal of the rental accommodation scheme tenancy. Their children are being forced into homelessness and it is unacceptable. That is not what this was about, according to the rules laid down. We are seeing this more and more. Landlords are using the excuse that they must sell their houses. The rules are too lax and we are allowing them off the hook too easily.

There have been difficulties where, for various reasons, the rental accommodation scheme landlords end tenancies. There are various conditions under which landlords can end tenancies. Then, the local authority works with the tenants to try to find suitable accommodation. Ultimately, the local authority has the responsibility and if it cannot find an alternative in the area where a person or family wants to live, there may be cases where people are offered accommodation they consider unsuitable. However, the local authority has an obligation to offer something.

The rental accommodation scheme tenant has the protection of the Residential Tenancies Act and is entitled to the normal notice period required in any private residential tenancy. It presents difficulties where there are supply issues, particularly in areas of high demand and where it is difficult to find suitable accommodation. Although I am aware of the case to which Deputy Ellis refers, I cannot comment on individual cases. My Department will provide any assistance it can but, ultimately, the local authority must fulfil its obligations in so far as it can and meet the requirements of the tenants.

It is unacceptable that some contracts are for three and four years but landlords are saying properties must be sold six months into the contracts because the banks are forcing them to do so. Under the forthcoming insolvency system, I can see this increasing because banks are putting more and more pressure on landlords to meet their obligations. The families pay the price and it is unacceptable.

In one case, ten people are in a hotel because they cannot receive rent supplement. It is totally unacceptable. It is difficult to get rent supplement for ten people but setting a level of €950 for ten people allows no flexibility in terms of the number of people. If they are going for a three-bedroom house, they are entitled to €950, irrespective of whether there are three or ten people. Even that would not be sufficient to deal with the problem. There are major problems and when the local authority takes over the role, the problems may get bigger because we are not building enough social housing. We need to bring these people into more permanent housing. In the recent past, the Minister of State said she was looking at the matter of more social housing. I would welcome that.

We must try to address people's needs in the various ways available to us. As soon as we can do so, that will include the direct provision of more local authority houses. Deputy Ellis had raised this case with me at a meeting of the committee. The Minister for Social Protection recently announced revised caps, which in the case of the Dublin area are an improvement on the current situation. There are different rules for different types of housing, whether it concerns rent supplement or the rental accommodation scheme. That is why we are working towards having a system whereby people with a housing need, apart from short-term needs, are catered for under the local authority system. Then, we will get rationalisation. There is a supply problem partly as a result of the fact that, despite the Celtic tiger era, waiting lists increased consistently over a number of years and are now very high. We must address that in whatever way we can.