Thursday, 4 March 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Penrose: I wish to thank the Chair for giving me the opportunity to raise this important matter. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, for taking this matter but I had thought the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, or the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, might have taken it.
The day 30 April 1997 was a red letter day for people living in rural and isolated areas, when my Labour Party colleague, Deputy Howlin, the then Minister for the Environment, announced the  details of a new grant scheme for private individual water supplies. This was part of a comprehensive package of measures to support rural water supplies and had, as its central thesis and aim, the provision of a water supply to those houses which did not enjoy the benefit of such a supply at that time.
The main terms of the grant scheme were that the grants would be about 75 per cent of the approved cost, up to a maximum of £1,600; the scheme applied to households which were not connected or did not have the option of connecting to a public or group water supply scheme; and the grants would be available for works related to the provision of new supplies or the improving of existing supplies that were seriously deficient. Water supplies for domestic purposes to houses occupied as a normal place of residence would qualify. The qualifying works had to cost more than £500. Applications were to be made to the local authority for inspection, prior to the commencement of the work, and the scheme was to be administered by the county council. Those were the broad parameters of the eligibility criteria.
When the scheme came into existence, the Department, in a cost saving exercise to limit the number of qualifying applicants, stated that a person is eligible for a grant if he or she is carrying out improvements to a seriously deficient existing pipe supply of water to a house, where the supply of water concerned is a supply other than a public or group water scheme. For the purpose of the memorandum, a group water scheme was defined as a scheme providing a private supply of water by means of a common or shared source of supply or distribution system. If the house concerned is connected at present to a public or group water scheme, it will not qualify.
It appears from the advice the Department gives to local authorities, particularly to my own local authority of Westmeath County Council, that anyone who is receiving a supply from a neighbour at the moment is considered to be availing of a group supply and, therefore, is ineligible for assistance. The Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, is a rural person, as am I, and he knows that often only happens as a courtesy – I am sure the same happens in Mayo. Indeed, this scheme is operated by Jim Ganley and the other officials in the Department of the Environment and Local Government in Ballina in Mayo. Those people have a good view of rural Ireland.
The quantity and quality of water is extremely important for all aspects of life. The importance of a dependable supply of high quality water cannot be overestimated. Assurances as to quality and reliability of supply are absolutely essential.
Until this new grant scheme was introduced on 30 April 1997, many people were not in a position to undertake the provision of a water supply. This grant was a recognition of the major problems that people in rural Ireland were having in providing a top class, reliable water supply. People might be surprised to learn that some houses are  still not connected to any water supply and that some people still have to carry water in buckets from wells or rivers across the fields.
The Department has engaged in a literal interpretation of the rules which is over strict and has resulted in clear hardship. People cannot be forced to co-operate in a group water scheme, as the Minister of State is aware. Group water schemes have been very important in the provision of rural water supplies, but there are occasions when it is not feasible to operate a group water scheme, especially in isolated rural areas. Furthermore, is it feasible to expect two pumps to work out of one well? Surely, that is an impossible engineering feat. The Department officials in Mayo know this is the situation. What happens if water is contaminated and becomes unpotable?
Common sense must prevail over excessive bureaucracy in this area. I am sure that when the then Minister, Deputy Howlin, introduced the scheme, he never intended it to be fettered in a blur of restrictive interpretation.
There were 342 applicants under this scheme to Westmeath County Council, 64 of whom were refused for various reasons. However, 25 per cent of the refusals were on the grounds that the applicants' current supply was from a shared well with one or more of their neighbours. They were advised to apply under the group water scheme if their current supply was deemed unsatisfactory in relation to quantity or quality.
I know the Minister of State will give me the same reply, but the officials in his county of Mayo are very eager for this to be interpreted liberally. He should not let bureaucracy take over but should let common sense dictate.
Dr. Moffatt: I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, is unable to be in the House to respond to this item and has asked me to do so on his behalf. I welcome the opportunity to clarify matters with regard to the eligibility criteria attaching to the grant for the provision or necessary improvement of an individual water supply to a house.
The Deputy will know that, responsibility for the administration of this grant scheme rests with the local authorities. It is, therefore, a matter for each county council to process and adjudicate on applications in accordance with the eligibility criteria laid down by the Department. The objective of the scheme is to assist households dependent on private individual supplies, who incur capital expenditure on providing a domestic water supply.
The scheme does not apply to houses to which a public or group scheme water supply has already been provided or can reasonably be provided. For the purposes of this scheme, a group water scheme is a scheme providing a private supply of water by means of a common or shared source of supply and distribution system. I note that the applications referred to by the Deputy  were rejected on the basis of a shared source, supplying one or more neighbouring houses.
In the case of the Deputy's own county of Westmeath, I understand the county council has received some 343 applications under the scheme to date. Of these, 64 applications were rejected, 16 of which were deemed ineligible on the basis of a shared source and/or distribution system.
Two or more households served by a common source or distribution system are eligible for grant assistance in respect of the upgrading of the supply under the devolved group water scheme programme. Such households are not disadvantaged as a result of their ineligibility under the scheme of grants for individual supplies. In the case of a group application, a grant of up to £1,600 per house can be drawn down for each house in the group; this compares to a single maximum payment of £1,600 in the case of an individual supply.
 Last year, the Department of the Environment and Local Government provided more than £11 million for the development of new group schemes and the upgrading of existing ones. The Minister recently flagged a significant increase in capital spending for the year ahead, details of which will be announced shortly.
Having regard to the fact that substantial capital resources are being provided for the rationalisation and improvement of group supplies, the Minister has no proposals at this time to review the eligibility criteria for the individual water supply grant scheme to accommodate shared ownership or shared usage of sources and equipment. However, I will communicate the Deputy's views on the inflexibility of the scheme to date.
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