Priority Questions

Water Charges Introduction

Barry Cowen


1. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the timeline for the public release of the water charges rate and structure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12006/14]

I tabled my question in the context of the process that has commenced on the part of the Commission on Energy Regulation, CER. I seek information from the Minister so that the public can be made aware of the various options which will inform the document CER puts forward for public consultation, with a view to arriving at a fixed price for water. Has the Minister made a submission to CER yet on the free allowance, the social welfare support levels, the details of the first-fix policy and the level of the Exchequer subvention into the future? That in itself, in the absence of any other concrete proposal or leak from the Government, might allow the public to ascertain the level of expense they can expect to incur. It is especially important for the Minister to make his proposals known so that people can adjudicate on the process to date and the manner in which it has been handled.

With effect from 1 January 2014, Irish Water is responsible for public water services. The Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 provides that Irish Water can collect charges from its customers in receipt of water services.  The Act also provides that responsibility for the independent economic regulation of the water sector is assigned to the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. The commission has been given statutory responsibility for protecting the interests of customers.

Domestic water charges will commence with effect from 1 October 2014 and Irish Water will issue the first bills to domestic customers from 1 January 2015. The approach to charging will be outlined by Irish Water in a water charges plan to be submitted to CER in line with the provisions of the Act and CER will be responsible for approving the water charges plan. CER has indicated that in April 2014 it will be carrying out a number of public consultations, including consultation on the approach to the design of domestic water tariffs for both metered and unmetered properties. CER is expected to announce its decision on the approved water charges plan in August 2014.

The Government is committed to the provision of a free allowance, above which charging based on usage will apply. The free allowance and the level of funding to be provided by the Government to Irish Water will have a strong bearing on the net charges to be met by householders. Consequently, decisions on these matters will provide greater visibility on the expected level of charges in advance of the final determination of all aspects of the water charges plan by CER. I expect to bring proposals to Government in this regard shortly.

I thank the Minister for his response. However, he has merely restated much of what I said at the outset. We are already aware that the Government is obliged to make proposals regarding the free water allowance and the level of Exchequer subvention that will apply to Irish Water. That, as the Minister has said, will form the basis of a mechanism by which we might be able to deduce the sort of costs that will be borne by consumers in January when they get their first bill. When exactly will the Minister submit his proposals? When he says "shortly", what does he mean? We have heard different dates mooted in the media and elsewhere and it is rumoured that the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party will be made aware of the charges that may apply before everyone else. It is imperative at this stage to bring clarity to the situation. A definitive roadmap must be put into the public domain. When will the Minister submit the necessary information to CER? Will the Minister make that information public and will he assure me that it will be in the public domain prior to 23 May?

We have no difficulty with publishing the documentation that will be approved by Government in advance of any election. I know that the local elections are Deputy Cowen's primary concern, rather than the level of water charges. However, I would urge everyone to be patient. A lot of consultation is going on at the moment with regard to this matter. When I say "shortly", I mean that in the next couple of weeks the Government's submission to CER will be ready.

Is the Deputy happy?

No, I am not particularly happy, obviously. I would have preferred to hear the Minister say that the submission will be published this week, which would give us an opportunity-----

I must get Government approval first.

-----to assess it. Obviously, I will be making a submission to CER, as will colleagues and members of the general public, which will be included in the mix, with a view to arriving at a conclusion at the earliest possible opportunity. The Minister is urging me and everyone else to have patience but it is very difficult to be patient in view of the manner in which this process has been handled and the way in which public funds have been used and abused. We are no further on in terms of our knowledge of the level of charges because of the veil of secrecy that has engulfed this process since day one.

Deputy Cowen knows that it was his party in government which decided to introduce water charges as part of the memorandum of understanding with the troika. The timescale agreed between the troika and the previous Government for the metering programme and the establishment of a new company was very short. We have simply got on with the work. I can assure the Deputy that we will have the required Government decisions in good time to allow the regulator to publish a consultation document in April.

Building Regulations Application

Brian Stanley


2. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he will halt the implementation of the new building regulation to allow a distinction to be made between self-built homes and multi-unit developments; and if he will allow local authorities to have designated qualified personnel provide the final decision on buildings. [12004/14]

My question deals with the new building regulations for the construction of both one-off houses and multi-unit complexes. In those regulations, the Minister has not differentiated between the two, which is the problem and the nub of my question. The regulation process is causing enormous concern. I have heard that professionals are looking for between €20,000 and €50,000 to sign off on construction and I ask the Minister to comment on that, given that he gave estimates of between €1,000 and €3,000 previously. I have a quotation here for €18,012.35 for a modest house in County Laois, for example.

I wish to state clearly and unequivocally that self-build and building by direct labour arrangements continue to be possible under the new Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014, which came into operation on 1 March 2014.

The Building Control Act 1990 places a statutory obligation on owners, designers and builders to design and construct buildings in compliance with the requirements of the building regulations. These statutory obligations apply to all sectors of the housing and construction market, including the self-build sector.

In a self-build, the legal responsibilities of both the owner and the builder rest with the self-builder. Under the new regulations, an owner who intends to self-build will, therefore, notify the building control authority prior to commencement that he or she is the builder and will sign and lodge the new form of undertaking by the builder. By signing the notice and the undertaking, the self-builder declares that he or she will construct the dwelling in accordance with the design as certified; that he or she and any persons employed or engaged to undertake any part of the works will be competent to undertake such works; that he or she will co-operate with the inspection plan prepared by the assigned certifier, who is the registered construction professional required to be engaged during construction to inspect and certify the building; and that he or she will take all reasonable steps to ensure he or she will certify the works in conjunction with the assigned certifier on completion.

In regard to allowing local authorities to have designated, qualified personnel provide the final decision on buildings, the new regulations do not involve local authority approval of buildings. The regulations seek to make those legally responsible for the quality of construction, that is, owners, designers and builders, accountable for the steps they have taken to ensure that the building complies with the building regulations. Local authorities have strong powers of inspection and enforcement under the Building Control Act 1990 but these remain separate and complementary to the building control regulations, including the recent amendments under SI 9 of 2014. In these circumstances, the question of halting the implementation of the regulations does not arise.

I thank the Minister for his reply but, unfortunately, he failed to differentiate between self-builds and multi-unit complexes. I have studied the guidance, the statutory instrument and the correspondence we have received from lobbying groups. While it is technically correct that an individual can self-build or hire his or her own builder, is the builder required to be registered with Construction Industry Federation of Ireland, CIF? This document appears to have been drafted by CIF. Is it necessary for the builder to be the director or principal of a company? If I am building my own house, can I hire qualified bricklayers, carpenters and electrician if I stand over their work?

The Minister has given a cash cow to architects and chartered surveyors. He said they will charge between €1,000 and €3,000 but I have seen a quotation for €18,000.

On the question of whether it is necessary to be registered with CIF, the answer is "No".

Can I hire a local subcontractor?

The Deputy can do so provided he has an assigned certifier who is registered on the list of professional bodies to stand over the work. I am concerned about the potential for costs to be exploitative initially. The same thing happened in respect of the building energy regulations introduced several years ago by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. People were charged between €3,000 and €4,000 for certification inspections that cost €150 in the market. The professions have tended to jump on the bandwagon to exploit the customer for what they can get. I advise those who are involved in self-builds to shop around. There are a considerable number of people on the register. One does not need to be an architect to sign off as an assigned certifier; a building surveyor or engineer can also be an assigned certifier provided he or she is a member of a professional body.

I expect Deputy Stanley, of all people, to support the new regulations in light of the experience of Priory Hall, in respect of which professionals and builders like Mr. McFeely drove a coach and four through the regulations in order to exploit ordinary people who had to pay for the mistakes made by others.

Sinn Féin supports the regulations in respect of multi-unit developments.

I have had my own problems with Mr. McFeely regarding a housing estate in Portarlington. We are on the same page in that regard.

A lot of people in Priory Hall can tell the Deputy about him.

Coming from a rural constituency, the Minister will agree that the quality of self-build is generally good. A farmer who builds his or her own house will stand over the work. We do not want to make the costs prohibitive, however. The experience of shopping around to date is that high prices are being quoted. The aforementioned quote of €18,000 is for a modest dwelling. The Minister clarified the big question of whether the local subcontractor, plasterer or bricklayer can be hired in. He has stated unequivocally that if I am involved in a self-build I can do that. However, the issue of the assigned certifier will still cause problems. The local authority building control officers carried out good work but they were under resourced. This could be a self-financing mechanism. If local authorities charged €1,000 or €2,000 for carrying out final inspections, people would be happy to pay them rather than pay €13,000 or €14,000 to somebody in the private sector. The final point I want to make is that housing extensions will be expensive as a result of these regulations.

The regulations deal with new builds -----

And extensions over 40 sq. m.

Please allow the Minister to continue.

This is important.

I know it is important but there are time limits and the other Deputies in the Chamber should be considered.

Anything under 40 sq. m is exempt. That would be a significant extension. I am concerned about the possibility of customers being exploited by professionals under these regulations. I will monitor the situation over the coming weeks and if I detect that the professional bodies are exploiting customers to the extent that the Deputy alleged - he only mentioned one quotation - I am prepared to consider ways of ensuring customers are not financially exploited in the manner to which he alluded.

Unfinished Housing Developments

Catherine Murphy


3. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if his attention has been drawn to the fact that public lighting was recently abruptly turned off in an estate (details supplied); if, considering the severity of the problem and the extent of unfinished estates around the country, he will consider a re-evaluation of which estates may fall into category 4 estates to remove obstacles to taking in charge and specifically avoid situations where public lighting may be turned off by a supplier arising from non-payment of bills; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12005/14]

This question pertains to unfinished estates that are not designated as category 4. The public lighting in one estate in my constituency was switched off last week because the builder had gone into receivership and there was nobody to pay the bill. I am concerned about the public safety issues arising from the loss of lighting and how estates can transfer from category 3 to category 4 when a developer ceases to exist as a legal entity.

I am chairing the national co-ordination committee on unfinished housing developments to oversee implementation of the report of the advisory group on unfinished housing developments, together with the Government’s response to the recommendations. In March 2011, my Department launched the public safety initiative, PSI, which provided funding to address immediate public safety issues. The types of works that have been approved to date under the PSI include the fencing of unsecured and hazardous areas, capping of pipes, installation of street lighting and other works to secure sites. Under the PSI my Department has made allocations totalling €4.5 million to local authorities from the funding made available. To date, €3.26 million has been drawn down.

The public safety initiative provides funding only in instances where a developer has abandoned the development. In circumstances where the developer is merely inactive, responsibility for the maintenance and resolution of issues surrounding the development need to be addressed between the developer and the relevant stakeholders, and my Department has no remit in this regard. However, I understand that public lighting in Chambers Park has been restored.

Budget 2014 contains a special provision in the form of a targeted €10 million special resolution fund, SRF, to assist further in addressing the legacy of unfinished housing developments. The SRF has been proposed to encourage the resolution of the remaining tranche of unfinished developments identified in the national housing development survey of 2013 and, particularly, those developments unlikely to be resolved in the normal way through developer, owner or funder action because of the presence of specific financial barriers. It is envisaged that the SRF should be targeted at addressing remaining unfinished developments with residents living in them and, in particular, any developments that local authorities identified for the purposes of the local property tax waiver as being in a seriously problematic condition. My Department is currently evaluating SRF proposals from local authorities. I hope that the SRF will enable very substantial progress to be made in resolving as many of the remaining unfinished developments as possible.

Some of these estates were categorised for the property tax last year. The number of estates will increase as companies are liquidated, and they require a mechanism to transfer from category 3 to category 4 to allow them to leverage funding. In the case of the aforementioned estate, approximately €200,000 is needed for the wearing course on the road and to finish other aspects of work on the estate. There is a commercial building on the estate and any assets from its liquidation would have gone to the Minister for Finance.

There is no bond in place in this particular estate. I am using this estate as an example, but it is not unusual and can happen anywhere in the country. The assets will go to the Minister for Finance and will not be available to the local authority. The estate will be retained at category 3 unless there is a mechanism for it to go to category 4 to resolve these issues. How will the Minister of State deal with the growing number of estates which will fall into this category? There will not be thousands, but there certainly will be some which need to go into this process.

I understand the local authority has intervened and the lights are working. If there is anything further we need to investigate with regard to the estate we certainly will do so. We asked local authorities to categorise estates and this information was used to draw down the public safety initiative. We have moved on to the site resolution fund of €10 million which I announced recently and on which we will make decisions soon. The fund will be used for estates with public infrastructure work to be done, including public lighting, footpaths and roads. It will encourage funding by developers to bring the estate fully into use and then move it forward to be taken in charge by the local authority. This is the purpose of the fund, which will be a mechanism to address the ongoing issues which arise in unfinished estates. We have site resolution for each unfinished estate and the intention is that gradually they will no longer be unfinished and will be either fully finished or, in a very small number of cases, cleared.

The site resolution process does not deal with estates not categorised as category 4 estates. This is my point. There is no site resolution on this estate of 300 houses. The local authority picked up the €25,000 tab left by the developer, but the estate cannot get into the resolution process unless it is recategorised from a category 3 estate to a category 4 estate which means it has been abandoned by the developer who has been put into liquidation. This is my point. The process of getting from category 3 to category 4 must be seamless where the developer is no longer a legal entity and no longer around. It does not seem possible to get from category 3 to category 4. This is the question I want answered.

We are genuinely trying to resolve all these issues and we have had a number of mechanisms, the current one being the site resolution fund. Recently I chaired a meeting with representatives of all the various interests involved. We intend to get to a point where these estates are ready to be taken in charge by the local authorities. There are ongoing issues and I concede there are issues in some estates which are difficult to solve, particularly where the developer has gone. We must be careful the State does not take on the obligations of private developers. We must get the balance right. This is an ongoing issue. There are some difficult estates where we have not reached a position where they are resolved. We will continue to work on them, including this one.

Leader Programmes Expenditure

Éamon Ó Cuív


4. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the total amount of money available under the Leader programme from 2007 to 2014 for expenditure on projects; the amount spent to date; the amount spent since the beginning of 2014; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12008/14]

This is a very simple question. I wish to know the spend on the Leader programme because we must ensure full spend on the programme before the end of 2015.

The current value of the axes 3 and 4 Leader elements of the Rural Development Programme 2007-2013 is €370 million. In addition, €5 million has been provided for an axis 1 agrifood measure. Of this, up to a maximum of 20% may be spent on administration costs, leaving a minimum of 80% of the funding available for projects and animation expenses.

Of the potential €300 million available for projects and animation, to date €190 million has been spent on projects and €12 million on animation expenses, with €52 million spent on administration. This gives total expenditure under the programme of €254 million or 68%. The spend to date in 2014 is €9.58 million and I expect this to increase steadily over the coming months.

Under EU regulations, expenditure can continue under the programme up to the end of 2015. However, I anticipate that most local development companies will complete their expenditure by the end of 2014 with a small number completing in early 2015.

The rural development programme has provided significant financial resources to rural communities throughout Ireland. It has provided assistance to 6,744 enterprises, supported 2,189 new tourism initiatives and led to the creation of 2,930 full-time jobs. In the current economic climate the value of this level of support for indigenous microenterprises in rural Ireland should not be underestimated. Along with direct support for economic activity in rural areas, the programme has increasingly provided support for community activity which ensures the maintenance of vibrant communities that are a critical component of a healthy rural economy.

The Minister gave me many figures.

The Deputy asked for them.

I asked for some of them and not others. My calculation is that approximately €110 million has yet to be spent on projects. The Minister seemed to indicate that €9.58 million has been spent after two months, which would work out at an annual spend of €57 million. On the other hand, the Minister also indicated all the money will be spent by the end of the year. Does he accept it is likely that as the year progresses word will come back, as happens in all schemes, that projects will not go ahead and therefore the Minister needs to have more projects lined up in case this happens? As an example, spend on the capital sports grant is never more than 90% of the money sanctioned. It is very important that whatever happens we ensure all the money is used. Will the Minister outline the contingency plans put in place for alternative projects if projects do not proceed?

As Deputy Ó Cuív knows I made every effort in 2013 and put enormous pressure on the local development companies to give us the necessary and true information on projects sanctioned from 2009 to 2012 and let us know whether they will not go ahead in order that we could examine reallocating the money. This process will be continued to ensure we have the maximum spend which is essential as part of the programme. I will contact the companies again shortly for an update on all the projects since the start of the scheme in 2009 to establish once and for all whether there can be further reallocation of the money to projects in the pipeline to ensure they are allowed go ahead.

I welcome this and I will certainly support the Minister in ensuring this happens. It is important the money is reallocated from non-performing projects or companies. Does the Minister have any white smoke with regard to co-funding, as his colleague at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine did? I know these programmes never run for the full seven years and there is always a delay in their establishment. It will probably be 2015 before we see the new Leader programme. Does the Minister have any white smoke on co-funding for the next round of the Leader programme?

I do not believe Deputy Ó Cuív expects the type of smoke he got from the Minister from Agriculture, Food and the Marine on co-funding for the Common Agricultural Policy.

I expect much better from the Minister. He is even closer to the Taoiseach.

When Deputy Ó Cuív was the Minister he obtained 5% from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and I obtained 7% as a good start, which is €153 million.

I got a lot more money.

The Minister has only a few months left to make it up.

I know that, but there was much more money to spend. In fairness to Deputy Ó Cuív, he had so much money he solved every problem by throwing money at it. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform at the time, Michael McDowell, stated we did not need stamp duty. That was another era and I am in a different place, but I am working with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to resolve the issue by the middle of the year.

Water Quality

Luke 'Ming' Flanagan


5. Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he will ask Roscommon County Council to provide bottled water for the residents of the county as compensation for not being able to drink the council's supply for which the public pays through direct taxation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12211/14]

I wish to know whether the Department will provide money to Roscommon County Council to provide free bottled water for people already paying through the general taxation system for their water.

The matter raised in the question is an operational matter in relation to the provision of water services. Since 1 January 2014 Irish Water has statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. The Arigna, Boyle-Ardcarne, Roscommon central and south Roscommon regional water supply schemes were included as water treatment plant upgrade contracts to start and a network contract at construction in my Department’s water services investment programme 2010–13.

In March 2013, I approved the council’s contract documents for the water treatment plant upgrades for the Arigna, Boyle-Ardcarne, Roscommon central and south Roscommon regional water supply scheme after many years of Roscommon County Council waiting for this. Early in November 2013, I approved the commitment of the necessary capital funding of just over €12 million for the scheme to enable Roscommon County Council complete the contract formalities with the successful tenderer and to commence, as soon as possible, the works involved in the design build operate contract on the scheme.

In December 2013, I also approved the provision of funding of €3.976 million to allow Roscommon County Council to complete the tender formalities to commence the network contract on the Boyle-Ardcarne and Arigna regional water supply scheme. This approval of funding provides for the construction of five treatment plants and other ancillary works on the scheme and will also provide treatment works for areas badly affected by recent boil water notices in Roscommon.

I thank the Minister. In the meantime, while people are waiting for all this to happen, I ask the Minister to provide funding to the council, or whoever he wants, to get water to people in my county. It is unsustainable for people who are already put to the pin of their collar to have to spend €500 to €600 a year on water. The Minister might think that is excessive but when one has four and five year old children having to pour bottled water on toothbrushes before they use them, the water goes quickly, no matter what regime one puts in place. The idea that one has to put a regime in place in the first case, that one has to stand over one's children to ensure they do not poison themselves with what is coming out of the tap, is a major problem.

I appreciate the Minister cannot solve everything overnight and he is trying to do something but as things stand, we cannot drink the water. We pay for it through general taxation and we deserve something for what we pay. Mr. Jerry Grant, from Irish Water, said at a conference in Athlone he would guarantee that by the end of this year there would be no boil notice anywhere in County Roscommon.

Approximately 19,000 people are affected by the legitimate complaints people have about water quality in Roscommon. These have been serious matters for many years and nothing was done about it.

I have initiated action and got the necessary contracts in place. I am told the Boyle-Ardcarne scheme will be finished by the end of this year and the Killeglan scheme will be finished early next year. These will resolve 64% of the problems in the area which is under a boil water notice. I advise the Deputy - and I will do the same - to make a submission to the regulator to take account of the issues he raised regarding boil water notices. The €500 or €600 people have to privately spend, which they should not have to, is a lot of money for any family. I intend to ensure they will get a cheaper amount of good-quality water through the local government system and Irish Water when charging comes into play on 1 January 2015. In the meantime we will make a submission to articulate the financial and water-quality issues here in the context of the charging mechanisms that will be brought in for the remainder of the people who, unfortunately, will not be able to get quality water for a little longer.

I repeat, in the meantime they have to buy this water, so can something be done for them? They do it in other countries where there is a problem with water. They did it in Galway when the water was polluted there. People were given water, but they are not being given it in County Roscommon. I am reluctant to say the water is so bad because it puts people off coming but, at the same time, we must bring this to a head. The Government has a long-term plan, credit where credit is due, but in the short term, having to go to the local supermarket to buy five litre bottle after five litre bottle, people are choosing between buying good quality food, heating their house or getting water. The heat is not being put on because water is the priority. That is unacceptable.

The Deputy has outlined the precise reasons why we are reforming the water sector, to ensure we have quantity and quality of water in the future. We have a very rickety system due to historic under-investment. That is why we must establish a new way of doing things, to deal with the issues the Deputy rightly points out. I will examine the issues he raised and speak to Irish Water about the issues that arose in Galway and see how we can replicate them in Roscommon.