I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time with Deputies Pearse Doherty and Stanley.
The Bill before the House is the Local Government (Water Pollution) (Amendment) Bill 2018. It is to deal with a situation that has developed in many rural areas over the past seven to eight years, in particular, but even going back further than that, where rural planning permissions have been denied because of the stringent approach of the EPA guidelines for rural housing.
Rural planning permission is not about pollution, or damaging the environment, or doing anything that would have any negative effect on our watercourses, or drinking water, or anything like that. This Bill is designed to enhance the level at which we treat sewage in rural areas and ensure people can live in the rural environment in a safe way because they also enjoy that environment and drink that water and want to ensure it is a safe and adequate place to live.
The standard of practice in the EPA code of practice was written in 2009 and came into effect in 2010. It stated that if the soil on a site was too dense and failed the percolation test, the result would be what they call zero emissions or zero discharge. In other words, no matter how well the treatment system on site treated the effluent, even if it treated it to drinking water standard, a cup of that water is not allowed into a river or stream. That was taking it to an extreme that I do not think anyone ever intended it to go. The other part of the guidelines said that, as an alternative, one could apply for a wastewater discharge licence. The legislation around that was difficult.
I want to go into the detail of what this has done and the effects it has had. The effect in places like Leitrim, where almost 90% of the soil will not pass the percolation test, has meant that, over the past number of years, in many rural parishes where there is no town or alternative, there can be no planning permission. People have been denied permission to build a house and to live in their own community, where they grew up, or to send their children to the schools they went to themselves and have their children play for the football club that they played for. That is the effect it has had. It has, if one likes, sterilised whole communities and, in large areas of County Leitrim and other areas in the west, rural communities are in decline. People deserve to be able to live where they choose to live. Most people who want to live in rural Ireland want to do so in an environmentally-friendly manner. In the vast majority of cases where people are building houses like that, they are doing so either on their own land or family land. When they do not have to buy a site, they usually put the additional money from the purchase of the house into building a really good quality home because it is the home they intend to live in for their lives. It is not like a developer who is going to shoot it up quickly and turn it over to somebody else. Therefore, they build a good quality home that is really well insulated. In most cases when one speaks to people in the profession, they will tell one that most of the one-off rural housing is almost to a passive standard.
The issues have had a very negative effect on County Leitrim. It is an unintended consequence of what the EPA did. I spoke to people in the EPA when I was putting this Bill together. I also spoke to people in the environmental sections of the county councils. All of them said that this was not intended. The EPA's intention when drawing up these guidelines was to improve the standard rather than to ban planning permission, but it has had that effect. In 2013 the Minister's predecessor, Phil Hogan, visited County Leitrim and met with councillors. He told them that he would come back with a solution within six months because it is wrong that people are not able to build a house in rural areas. He said we have to come up with a solution and ensure that people can live in rural Ireland again. Unfortunately nothing happened. We have had reports and assessments.
In fairness to many local authorities, and Leitrim County Council in particular as been most acutely affected, they have done an awful lot of work with the EPA and the Department to come up with a solution. They were trying to come up with a solution that produced zero effluent discharge. This meant that effluent would go through a treatment plant and into a reed or willow bed and that any waste left in it would evaporate. That waste, as I have said, would be treated to a very high standard. We live in a very damp climate however. It is a very wet country and it proved practically impossible to do that. Where it was possible, it involved a very high cost. It was not possible to do it.
What we have done here is to look at the alternative to that, which is the discharge licence. At the moment the discharge licence is really only available for very large projects or industrial units. The clear intention of this Bill is to allow a local authority to issue a discharge licence for a single house where the effluent is treated to the highest standard possible. The standard about which we are talking is bathing water standard. That can be assessed, tested, regulated and stood over by the local authority when it issues the licence. This would not put us in conflict with the EPA guidelines because they state that one can apply for a water discharge licence. The environment would be protected to a new standard, which is actually much higher than the one we have at present.
I am aware of the Minister's amendment which intends to kick this can down the road and to have us wait a year or more before coming back to assess this again. I am very sorry to say that just does not work for people who have waited almost ten years to get a solution to this problem. We really need to deal with it now. We are all happy to co-operate with the Minister, the EPA and the Department in meeting whatever requirements they want met to allow people to build houses so that they can live where they want to live.
It is not about a free-for-all. I want to make that clear. It is not about building thousands of houses across rural Ireland. There have been examples of large numbers of holiday homes being built in some seaside resorts. There are examples of towns around which an awful lot of one-off housing has been built. People have pointed to that as a problem. Excess in one place should not be an excuse for a famine somewhere else. That is really the point in this matter. This is about a small but significant sector of people who want to build houses in their own area and live where they used to live.
I want to go into our solution in a little bit of detail, but only for a minute. It is about producing high-quality effluent and clearly regulating treatment so that nobody would pollute, because we do not want to see that happen. I want to make that clear. I was on the radio a few times today and it was interesting to get emails from different parts of the country. One person would say that it would outrageous to pump effluent into our rivers and to pollute them. We want to let effluent of bathing water standard into the rivers. That is what we are talking about. It would be treated to a very high standard. Many people in urban Ireland have been fed a myth that rural Ireland has somehow destroyed the environment. The reality, of which the Minister and all of us are aware and with which we need to deal, is that up to 30% of sewage produced in many of our towns and villages goes into the rivers and the sea totally untreated. That needs to be dealt with. We all want to work with the Minister to deal with that. Wherever people live, they produce waste. The people who do not live in rural houses because they cannot get planning permission for them are living in some of those towns and villages where 30% of sewage goes untreated. We are offering a solution which helps with that problem rather than hindering it.
I am disappointed with the amendment which has been tabled which tries to kick this can down the road. It is not appropriate. The notion that the EPA and all these other agencies should be given another year to produce more reports is ridiculous at this stage. Every Department has shelves lined with reports covered in dust that have been there for years. We do not want this to go down that road as well. It is now time to deal with this issue. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy English, he has told me that he has been aware of the issue for many years and that he has been lobbied by Leitrim County Council and other councils to get this sorted out. He says he is on the same page and wants a solution. If we want a solution, let us work together and produce it. Let us do something that is right for the people and provide a solution that will allow people to simply live in their own communities. That is all they are asking for. I do not think it is too much to ask a Government to co-operate, to make that happen and to commit to it.
I know that officials in Departments can sometimes have a lot of power and stand in the way of things, but at the end of the day the Minister is the person who is elected and who is in charge. I call on the Minister to stand up for the ordinary people out there who simply want to do the right thing for the environment, for their families and for their communities.