Tuesday, 26 January 2010
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Phil Hogan: I am glad to have this opportunity on behalf of Fine Gael to move this motion which provides that we will carry out certain actions that will ensure we have a better response in future to crises, such as the recent flooding, frost and snow crises, than we have seen in recent weeks from the Government. We should learn from the experience of the past few months and put in place the necessary measures to ensure we are better prepared to respond on behalf of our people. Politics is about people. In recent months people suffered tremendous hardship as a result of the severe weather; houses had to be vacated and stock and property were badly damaged during the recent flooding. People suffered great inconvenience and the response was haphazard throughout the country, despite the best efforts of the front line services.
The Government amendment to this motion is a reiteration of what the Minister cynically announced yesterday on account of the Fine Gael motion. He said he would reallocate some moneys for the purpose of water conservation. He had no answer last week, but over the weekend an answer developed. In my view it was a cynical exercise to make that announcement rather than address the issue of what he intended to do in the House tonight. The Minister and the Government continue to operate on the basis that in the short term they cannot provide additional funds for local authorities and front line services to deal effectively with the crisis. Nor are they planning for the future to ensure that in the years ahead we will be better able to cope with the problems, particularly those relating to water. The Government cannot continue to bail out financial institutions but have no money for anything else. Last November, for example, when we discussed the flooding crisis, an indication was given that we would have an early warning system in various places similar to what is in place in the United Kingdom. We were to have a better website and better information with regard to flood warnings. I have seen no developments or initiatives taken since that indicate any urgency about these matters.
The difficulties experienced by the country following the floods last November, the severe weather in December and January and the water shortage crisis ongoing today have been compounded by a Government that has lost all capacity to plan and act quickly in an emergency. The ministerial decisions of this Government have been reduced to a bookkeeping exercise, as Ministers have been reduced to just signing off on funding or cuts in expenditure. The Government has lost the ability to see a problem with its own structures, let alone identify a solution. This is a symptom of a Government that has become tired and lazy in its term of office and it is unlikely to solve the problem in the coming years.
The Government never prepared a national plan to deal with severe weather. This is why its initial response to the severe weather took so long to organise. Despite numerous attempts by Fine Gael to obtain a copy of the national plan to deal specifically with severe weather, which was committed to by the Office of Emergency Planning several years ago, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government confirmed that the Government did not have such a plan. This explains the Government’s initial slow response to the weather crisis and its initial confusion when it finally met. The Office of Emergency Planning’s website clearly states, “A national framework for response to severe weather emergencies is being developed to ensure that all existing local severe weather plans are appropriately coordinated and linked.” A national crisis requires a national response. It is now evident that no severe weather crisis plan was drafted and that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government attempted to cobble together a response three weeks into the freeze when people were already suffering.
The three lead agencies, the Garda, the HSE and local authorities operate within an inherently flawed system. There is a framework which provides guidance to local authorities, the HSE and the Garda on responding to major emergencies. However, that in no way constitutes a national plan. There are not 34 micro climates across Ireland. The same problems were experienced widely across the country during the flooding and big freeze. Logically, this requires a national response and national co-ordination. It is wrong to suggest there are just three lead agencies. If the local authorities are the lead authorities, then there is a total of 36 lead agencies, including the HSE and the Garda. That is a recipe for disaster. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government must be always the lead agency into which the local authorities can feed information. Allowing local authorities call a national emergency means the reaction around the country to a crisis will be always fragmented.
Fine Gael wishes to express its admiration for the valiant efforts of local authorities and their staff who, despite cutbacks of 12% in their budgets last year and the termination of the contracts and employment of many people, dealt with the weather crisis during the holiday period despite the lack of leadership at national level. What should be in place is a plan that specifically outlines how the Government co-ordinates a national response. A national plan should clearly identify the following: specific named routes to be cleared and gritted as a first priority; access to airports to be cleared; ports to be kept accessible in their order of priority; major hospitals to remain accessible; ambulance and medical evacuation contingencies; identify specific public transport routes to be serviced as a priority if bus and rail services fail; the use of military transport to move people if public transport fails; and identify regions where the population is isolated and vulnerable and assign military helicopters and trucks accordingly. This is a real plan, but none of these measures was instigated by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government during the recent crisis because it did not realise there was a national crisis. The Minister for Transport abandoned ship when the country needed action and leadership over the Christmas period.
In the time remaining to me I would like to deal with the issue of water problems. My colleagues, Deputy O’Dowd, Fine Gael spokesman on transport, and Deputy McEntee will deal in their contributions with the problems concerning roads and other problems. It is appropriate to examine why, in 2010, Ireland can suffer from such massive systems failures that have resulted in prolonged water shortages when the country is still recovering from record levels of flooding. The answer is simple, a lack of reform. The policy of Fianna Fáil led Governments of simply throwing money at a problem, instead of analysing what has gone wrong with a system and how it can be fixed, can be blamed for our inefficient, outdated and fragmented water supply system. Fianna Fáil has stood over a system that saw 43% of all drinking water lost through leakage, before the recent cold weather caused the problems affecting supplies today. What Fine Gael proposes is to radically shake up the entire system to ensure a dependable, clean and cost effective water supply for everyone.
Radical change on how we provide water is urgently needed. There is a way to do this. Currently, Ireland’s 29 county councils and five city councils are responsible for the management of water infrastructure in their areas. They all apply for funding to Government for a slice of the €4.75 billion for capital works promised under the latest national development plan. These 34 water authorities then all work away on their own projects within their localities, with very little interaction or co-ordination between authorities. The recent flooding crisis in Cork, which caused severe damage to Cork City Council’s main pumping station, demonstrated why better integration with neighbouring water infrastructure is necessary. Fine Gael proposes, in its document NewERA which was compiled by my colleague Deputy Coveney, a new State utility company called Irish Water. The Minister stated recently that the Fine Gael proposals were not costed, but they are costed. We can get further enlightenment on how to draw greater resources to resolving our water problem by taking the opportunity to examine that document. Many of the problems associated with the current system, which is fragmented on a county by county basis, would be overcome by having a central utility company responsible for water provision. The Fine Gael plan is progressive and seeks to fix the current system and to provide a better quality of service to homeowners and businesses alike. In addition, a single company could achieve significant economies of scale by planning for water investments across the country. Water quality is a separate issue, but I will not go into that now.
The current national development plan commits €4.75 billion to water infrastructural investment over the period 2007-13. However, the current financial crisis is having an impact on water investment. Last year the capital provision for water services infrastructure was cut by €60 million to €500 million from what was envisaged in the 2009 Estimates. New investment in water infrastructure in the future is unlikely to come from Government sources. Therefore a new way must be found to attract additional resources for the resolution of this matter. The €300 million the Minister announced yesterday to be provided over three years to deal with water conservation will mean the work on all the pipe networks the Minister wishes to replace to eliminate the leaks will be slow, cumbersome and will not happen for years.
Additional resources are required to fix the pipes and ensure there is good-quality water in the taps and that people have a good standard of living. That people cannot depend on their supply of water in the post-Celtic tiger era is an indictment of the economic policies that have been pursued in the past ten or 12 years. Fine Gael’s water policy, if implemented, would decrease the national debt by between €3 billion and €5 billion depending on the valuation of the existing network. If it were taken on board, it would free up resources in the local authority system. Financing would be achieved through State equity and commercial debt. The policy would provide an essential water system of good quality to those who need it.
It is not acceptable that there was a cut of €173 million in the allocation for the road network in 2009. This was done without a whimper by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. Investment in the road network must be considered urgently in 2010. I look forward to the Minister’s Department and the Department of Transport receiving submissions from the local authorities. I ask the Minister to take an interest in these matters bearing in mind the funding required by local authorities to carry out the necessary works. He should ensure the submissions from the local authorities on road reconstruction and rehabilitation will be considered such that we will accept there is a problem with some local and regional roads. Access is critical to people. It is a prerequisite that people be put first, and we should be able to reallocate resources to ensure this is ultimately the case.
Deputy Shane McEntee: I thank my colleague for the opportunity to talk about what we want and do not want in the future. I did not get a chance to talk to the Minister last week. I was very proud at the opening of the waste management company Panda and I am sure the Minister was also. The man behind the company told me what was in his head four years ago. It was great to be at the opening and to see how waste should be handled.
The road on which the Minister travelled to Meath is famous because it was built so the Queen of England could visit Slane Castle. It was built in a straight line. Any time I come to Dublin I come by that road because I encounter very few difficulties thereon. It is when one moves off the road that one encounters problems.
Opposite the Panda site there is a landfill and near Duleek there is an incinerator. I am glad the landfill may be closed and that the Minister will not allow any more incinerators in Meath. Planning permission is due for an incinerator in my village, Nobber, which has no adequate road into it. I hope An Bord Pleanála will be consistent——
Deputy Shane McEntee: I would like to make another comment on this matter and will come to the subject of the roads. The homestead of the Minister’s father is in the Laytown-Bettystown area. Having read this motion, I believe it is time we in the Dáil had a reality check. We read in the newspapers before our resumption after the recess that, according to some top economists, there is to be an economic upturn. We are supposed to believe this; yet, when one goes home at the weekends and talks to businesspeople, one realises the economists are not telling the people the truth. The same applies to roads and water, the two most vital resources required in terms of making progress.
I did enough shouting at Christmas over what did and did not happen but would like to believe that what will happen will be the total opposite of what the Government is doing. There are 400,000 people unemployed. The road network to the left and right of the road on which the Minister travelled is such that one cannot pass when going to Duleek or Kentstown. The same applies in other counties. I noted this last week when I was in eight different counties throughout the four provinces. We cannot continue to allow roads to deteriorate.
The Minister is not in office for a long time but it is time he and other Ministers were taken out of their ministerial cars and brought for a proper spin. Instead of going to the Cheltenham races, they should be brought in an ordinary car——
Last weekend, my phone was hopping. My house is full of bills left with me by constituents in the hope that the county councils will repair their cars. It is a complete nightmare. I refer not only to the roads for which the local authorities are responsible but also to the roads for which the NRA is responsible. The N52 from Dundalk to Tipperary is a complete disaster. I went to a funeral in Kells on Saturday and noted three roads out of the town were closed due to accidents. One was the main road from Kells to Navan, another was the N52 and the other was into Moynalty, yet the plan is not to allocate funding.
The same applies in respect of water, a basic need. Housing estate after housing estate is without water. Ballivor in County Meath is still without water. The houses to the left and right of the road on which the Minister travelled have no water. It was only four years ago that I realised 50% of our water is lost. What better way is there for the Government to create employment than to invest in the two phenomena that will ultimately ensure the country gets back on its feet, roads and water? Water is life.
Hauliers will not travel on the roads or go to the garages anymore because they cannot afford to do so. Garages are at a standstill because people cannot afford to fix their cars. Our engineers, plumbers and carpenters are all in Australia. Every last person from my village had to leave this country.
The Ministers should start taking control of their Departments and get rid of their advisers, who are covering up for them. They covered up for the Ministers at Christmas. I learned that although I am a slow learner. The advisers did not go to the Ministers’ Departments and tell them the truth. We were told the problem that arose was Fine Gael’s problem. This was stated in an e-mail to journalists. It was actually the problem of the Government that the people were experiencing hardship.
At Christmas people were spending a little, as one will learn if one talks to the traders on Grafton Street. However, it all stopped during the first week in January. The head adviser to the Minister for Finance, about whom one reads in the newspaper today, is away with the fairies. The VAT returns for January and February will prove to be the worst in the history of the State. I predict this because I talked to people on the ground. Shop after shop has closed. There has not been a load of concrete delivered and there is no plan to build anything. There are 400,000 unemployed.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should stop making cuts repeatedly and engaging in chequebook government. That is not the way to run a business. While one must tighten one’s belt, one should not stop investing. Some 400,000 are unemployed and we expect another 75,000 to join them.
I was ashamed of my life to learn on “The Frontline” last night that our plan is to start leasing houses and covering up. If this country is to make progress, the Ministers must acknowledge what real life entails. People are in desperation and houses will be repossessed one by one because we have looked after a group of people who have conned the Minister for Finance.  They will not tell him the truth and, at this stage, he does not want to know the truth. If one wants to run a country, one must invest in its basic infrastructure.
Last week, the Minister for Transport delivered an eight-page speech complimenting people on all the work they did. Those people are paid to do the work. Nobody compliments me on the work I do; I am paid to do it and do not care what people say. One does not have to write eight pages complimenting people on the work they are doing when they are paid to do it. In spite of staff leaving the councils, the Government will not hire engineers and front-line staff. We are going nowhere until someone on the Government Front Bench takes responsibility and realises what is happening in the country.
Deputy Paul Connaughton: I am sure the Minister will inform me he has no responsibility in dealing with the recent flooding. The tragedy is the other 14 Ministers also say the same. I commend this motion because I have never seen such flooding as that which occurred recently. I accept there will always be cases of unprecedented heavy rainfall and flood flashpoints but do people have to suffer as much as they did recently? I do not believe so.
The sooner a single authority to manage the Shannon river is introduced, the better for all concerned. I attended the IFA meeting on the recent flooding, a meeting I have attended 20 times over the years. Each of the participants — the OPW, Waterways Ireland, the ESB, the fisheries boards — gave a mission statement of their importance and what they do. That is not good enough. There must be an integrated single authority to manage the Shannon.
I am not silly enough to believe there will never be flooding. However, the Shannon must be managed in such a way that at the height of the flooding season it would be 1 ft. lower than it is now. Engineers inform me this is entirely possible and practical. Ships can easily navigate the river and fisheries will not be affected. Lowering the river level by 1 ft. would make a great difference to the tens of thousands of families living on the banks of the Shannon and its tributaries. Now that the recent flooding affected inland towns such as Ballinasloe, there will be a mood among the public for an amazing change in this regard. I cannot see how the Government will do this, given its track record. However, even at this late stage it must tackle the issue.
I believe the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government thought up his recent announcement on water conservation overnight. I know of a large water group scheme that lobbied the Department for an extra €1 million for nothing more than to ensure meters were installed. It had to sign a particular contract recently that would mean that two thirds of 580 houses in the scheme would be metered and the remaining third would not. The scheme was told there would be no funds available for it to install the extra meters. On the same day, the Minister announced €300 million was being made available for water conservation. Why was this not communicated to the scheme? Where was the forward planning? I will test the Government’s and the Minister’s sincerity on this and we will soon find out what conservation means to them. Will the €1 million now be made available to the Caltra-Castleblakeney-Ballymacward water scheme?
Deputy Michael Ring: I thank Deputy Hogan for tabling this motion. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Government and the local authorities failed the people in the recent cold snap. We were the laughing stock of the world. We got a small bit of snow and the whole country and capital city came to a halt. I had a visitor from Chicago at the time and he started laughing at our response. He informed me when it snows in Chicago, the ploughs are dispensed first to push the snow to one side and then the gritters salt the roads. In Ireland, we let the snow be frozen over and then we had problems for a month.
The people of rural Ireland suffered with floods in November and December and then snow in the new year. There was not a word about the snow until Dublin got five snowflakes. The minute they got five flakes in Dublin, the whole world knew there was a problem. Everyone was then looking for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, but neither of them could be found.
The local authorities did not do too bad a job in clearing the national primary roads. They were a disgrace, however, when it came to the national secondary roads and footpaths. From St. Stephen’s Day to when the cold snap finished, hundreds of people had to attend hospital with fractures due to falls on footpaths all because the local authorities did not do their job.
When I put down a question to the Minister on local authorities, I am informed by him he has no responsibility in the matter. That is carried through to the local authorities which also claim they have no responsibility for anything. When we did not have enough salt to grit a few roads, sand was not allowed to be taken from beaches because we were afraid it might damage the environment. The people were outraged by this.
Car owners have NCT tests and must pay road tax and car insurance. They must pay large Government levies when buying a car when one could buy one cheaper elsewhere in Europe. They expect the local authorities and the Minister to maintain roads in a fit state. Last week no Third World country had as bad a road as the Bellacorick to Belmullet road. It was inspected last week by the National Roads Authority. Under the old system, the Department and the authority would tell the local authority to start the work on it and the funding would be sorted later. Now, the authority tells the local authorities not to start the work until it gives them the funding and go-ahead.
Why was there no national plan in place for the recent cold snap? Why was the Army not called out sooner? Why were people who offered assistance in their communities ignored? They did not even get a bit of grit to spread because the local authority did not believe they were fit to do the job. The Government, the local authorities and the other agencies involved have all failed and let the people down. We were the laughing stock of the world because when we got a small bit of snow our whole economy collapsed.
Deputy John Perry: The motion calls on the Government to focus its attention on the dismal state of our national water services and the disastrous state of our county roads. The Government must take urgent and decisive action to address these problems. This is a time of national crisis and we must ensure all necessary action is taken to avoid the same widespread damage being inflicted again on people. I acknowledge the great work done by county council staff in Sligo and Leitrim in trying to keep roads open and water services in operation in spite of weather and resource difficulties this month. However, the great practical work done by the staff does not diminish the inaction and indifference of this Fianna Fáil-led Government to the state of our water services and roads.
The motion lists the large problems in water services and roads. I was without water supply for a week during the recent frost and snow and understand the difficulties faced by thousands of people who were also without water supply. In many counties the potholes are back with a bang. In Sligo and Leitrim, some local roads are so badly broken up that they are virtually impassable.
These problems follow on from the flooding before Christmas. During that crisis, water treatment plants were out of action while drinking water supplies were contaminated by human and animal waste. Families and businesses were forced to leave their property. Many local roads were blocked while towns and villages were isolated. Rail and bus services were cut off.  All these events show the consequences of the Government’s indifference to the real problems being faced in rural Ireland.
The widespread devastation caused by the flooding before Christmas and then the present failure of water supply services across the country demonstrates clearly the urgent need for a strategic and integrated plan for our national water resources. These resources are an important natural asset to Ireland. In the past, the priority for our major freshwater resources was electricity generation. For the future, the new national priority must be the freshwater systems as a national resource for drinking water. It must be managed from this perspective. The fundamental requirement is an integrated approach through which energy generation, amenity, fishing, boating, water sports, recreational tourism, drinking water resource, pollution control, flood management and protection are considered in a strategic and balanced way. In the recently introduced Inland Fisheries Bill 2009 the Government introduced the concept of eight river basin districts as the fundamental model for a comprehensive new approach to the management of water resources.
Deputy John Perry: Having made this major strategic decision, the Government’s focus dropped to a low level institution role and relationship problems. I urge the Government to withdraw that Bill. What is urgently needed is a single semi-State water utility tasked with the comprehensive management of all aspects of our rivers and lakes. It is only in this way we will get the best strategic direction and management of one of our most valuable natural resources.
On severely damaged local and regional roads, I urge the Minister for Transport to reconsider his priorities and to reallocate funds within his departmental budget so that we can invest heavily in the urgent repair of county roads. The Minister has funds that can be reallocated. For example, he is funding many suburban road improvement projects in the major cities, including a proposal from Fingal County Council for an additional bus lane in a Castleknock housing estate which will cost millions of euro. This new bus lane will serve approximately four morning bus runs and 100 passengers and might result in a five minute time saving. I believe this money should be reallocated. We must get our priorities right. The Government’s appalling mismanagement during the past six weeks illustrates its regard for and how out of touch it is with the needs of rural Ireland.
Deputy Seymour Crawford: I thank Deputy Hogan for introducing this motion. It is timely given our recent experience in terms of rainfall, frost and snow. It is clear the Government had no plan in place to deal with the weather crisis. It is not funny that, Ministers abroad aside, Dublin city came to a standstill as a result of the snow. A friend of mine from Prince Edward Island asked me how the Government would deal with four or six feet of snow if it cannot deal with two inches of it. The Government must re-examine its plan. We cannot afford to allow the country to come to a standstill again. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, instructed all schools to remain closed without any regard to the needs of parents, both of whom may have been working, in terms child care.
I suggest that the Minister examine how Monaghan County Council works. It has been planning for such a storm for years and immediately gritted not alone national primary but national secondary and main regional roads. It ensured lorries were able to access farms to assist with poultry, pigs and so on and that commerce continued. There is no reason, except for a lack of ability on the part of Government, this cannot be done at national level. Monaghan County Council had to have in place a plan. The Government closed Monaghan hospital and had it not had a plan in place the roads required to bring sick people by ambulance to the nearest hospital would have been closed.
As a result of the weather crisis roads will need to be repaired. I represent Cavan-Monaghan which, as the Minister may recall, were recognised in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the pothole counties. I beg the Minister to ensure money is made available to ensure this does not happen again. The surface of our roads are damaged, some more seriously than others. However, if they are tarred again and sealed enormous damage will be avoided in the future.
Deputy Seymour Crawford: Conservation of water is important. Monaghan County Council reduced water loss from 40% to 30%. I accept this figure has increased a little recently owing to burst water pipes. Group water schemes were mentioned earlier by my colleague. There is a group water scheme in Monaghan and it is providing a good service to farmers and households, which is approximately 1,600 people. It is doing so without one penny of grant aid from Government although the Minister promised me that when he was elected he would look into the matter. My letters have never been answered. That is not the way to run a country. One needs to have in place a plan. I urge the Minister to ensure proper plans are in place and that funds are made available to ensure roads and water pipes are repaired. There is no point providing water and then allowing some 43% of it to be wasted at enormous cost. The Minister is in Government and we will give him all the support he wants if he does the job right.
Deputy Simon Coveney: I thank my colleague, Deputy Hogan, for bringing forward this motion. This is essentially a debate around learning lessons from the big floods and big freeze, which sums up our weather pattern for the past three months.
I am short on time and will for this reason concentrate on two specific issues, the first of which is water management. I am aware that the Minister has in recent days proposed a change in the funding model for water provision in Ireland, namely, the introduction of water charges. The Minister needs to also examine the manner in which water services and treatment is delivered. We must never again allow a situation whereby half the population of a city the size of Cork is left without water for ten days. Between 16,000 and 20,000 households had no water for ten days because there was no back-up supply or no way of connecting to Cork County Council’s water supply network. We must now consider the establishment of a single water authority or, Fine Gael’s preference, a single water company to manage and deliver the infrastructure that is necessary to provide clean drinking water as cost effectively as possible. We spend €1.2 billion per annum on the provision of water to our population, some 50% of which is wasted by way of leakage through pipes before it reaches its destination. To quantify it in monetary terms, we are wasting hundreds of millions of euro of taxpayers' money that could better be spent elsewhere because we have not put in place the type of infrastructure necessary to deliver water efficiently.
It is not good enough to simply change the manner in which we fund an inefficient way of delivering water. We must also change the structure and use local authorities as agents for delivery. We must give one authority or company the responsibility of delivering a comprehensive system for the entire country rather than have 34 local authorities doing their own thing in their own regions while dependant on the budget available to them in any particular year.
Deputy Simon Coveney: Second, I want to ensure that never again will we have elderly people in Cork city waking up to find flood waters lapping against the bottom of their mattresses. We have the technology and telecommunications infrastructure necessary to allow Government, throughout whatever emergency response unit it chooses, to warn people through mobile phones that flood waters are on their way. The Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, is currently considering proposals from Fine Gael in this regard. I hope he will take them on board.
The Government in a short space of time could require mobile phone companies to make available their mobile phone mast infrastructure to ensure it can make direct contact with people through their mobile phones. Every household in the country has a mobile phone and virtually every person has one. There is no excuse for not providing direct communications to warn people when emergencies or floods are on the way. I would ask the Minister to act on that without further delay.
I am pleased to contribute to today’s debate on this Private Members’ motion and set the record straight regarding the response to the recent severe weather. The Government appreciates all the personnel of the various agencies, both public and voluntary, individuals and communities for their the useful work in assisting their fellow citizens during the recent severe weather event.
The severe weather brought out the best in community spirit. Individuals and community and voluntary organisations played an invaluable role. This includes those who cleared snow and ice from outside their homes and business premises, people who visited their neighbours to ensure that they had food and heat and those who manned telephone help lines.
The cold weather started on 17 and 18 December and lasted through to the middle of this month. It was characterised by extremely low temperatures over a prolonged period, with a widespread incidence of snow and ice. The last such occurrences in Ireland were the winters of 1963 and 1978-79. We had a blizzard and lower temperatures in January 1982 which caused widespread disruption, but the thaw set in within a week. It is clear, therefore, that such prolonged severely cold weather is extremely rare and our response must take this into account.
At this point I clarify my Department’s role during the difficult weather period, particularly from the beginning of the year. Its primary role is to ensure that the local authorities are prepared to respond promptly to deal with issues directly under their remit. The Department also has a role to ensure that councils act in co-operation with the other principal response agencies — the Garda Síochána and the Health Service Executive — the voluntary agencies and the Defence Forces to limit the effects on individuals whose lives may be put at risk or who may be exposed to serious hardship. The main concern, therefore, is that effective emergency plans are in place. The management of the emergency response on the ground then falls to the local authorities and the other response agencies. It is a principle of emergency management internationally that the response to emergencies builds from the basic organisational units with a capability to respond. In Ireland, the principal response agencies are based locally and, where necessary, regionally.
As was experienced during the flooding event in November last, the local authorities are prepared to respond promptly and effectively. Part of the local authorities’ preparation includes ensuring that arrangements are in place to receive early warnings from Met Éireann and where necessary to be proactive in public relations and public information. The Met Éireann forecasting arrangements entail a single system known as public service severe weather warning and cover meteorological conditions and elements such as wind, rain, thunderstorm and coastal storm surge. The emphasis is on warning of weather events that will cause significant disruption or constitute a significant risk for people. Met Éireann issues a severe weather warning to local authorities where conditions are forecast in accordance with criteria set down by the authority.
The Framework for Major Emergency Management put in place in recent years enables the Garda Síochána, the Health Service Executive and local authorities to prepare for and make co-ordinated responses to a variety of major emergencies whenever a major emergency occurs.  All principal response agencies have major emergency plans based on this framework since September 2008, and the various State and voluntary bodies used the procedures and training they received in responding to the difficulties encountered in their areas. The framework also includes a sub-plan for responding to severe weather events.
There are two levels of public response which require consideration — the local response and the national response. On local response, the co-ordination and inter-agency arrangements worked well in so far as was reasonably feasible. We must recognise that local authorities cannot salt all of the 96,000 km of roads in the country, which is extensive by European standards, or the footpaths of which in Dublin city area amount to 2,500 km. The local authorities kept the national roads, other key strategic roads and public transport routes, together totalling some 14,000 km, open for traffic over the 24 days that the severe weather lasted, which is an important point to keep in mind at all times. These roads carry an estimated 60% of total traffic and 80% of commercial traffic. While driving conditions were sometimes difficult, which can be expected in such weather, it was possible for the public and private sectors to maintain their delivery and receipt of goods and services. In response to Deputy Ring, the economy did not come to a halt. The economy continued because of the work done by the local authorities.
One could debate the response to the recent weather event at length comparing it to previous severe weather periods. What is important is the response to the prolonged period. Accessibility was maintained on the national road network and measures were in place to assist those in need by the statutory agencies and voluntary bodies. Like the flooding event, it was good to see the extent of co-operation and assistance from all organisations and individuals.
I note that the Fine Gael motion commends the local authorities and their staff for their response, which is a considerable change from what the party was saying during the cold weather when TDs accused local authorities of not doing their jobs.
Deputy John Gormley: ——which I find regrettable. I would have expected more support and encouragement of our local councils and responsibility from the party that takes pride in describing itself as the largest party in local government.
Deputy John Gormley: At central level there was no unnecessary delay in responding to the emerging situation. From the second half of December, staff from the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Transport were liasing with local authorities and the NRA and monitoring the ongoing situation.
Local authorities successfully responded to the severe weather demands up to the end of the year. They had staff out working throughout the Christmas period, unselfishly, including on Christmas day, to ensure main roads were kept open.
It was when the period of severe weather was prolonged, when business and schools were about to resume after the Christmas period and the possibility of a shortage of salt for the roads emerged, that 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 this month, before the position became acute and the need for convening the committee arose.
The committee oversaw the co-ordinated response at national and local levels and ensured that all statutory agencies co-operated efficiently and effectively and that any decisions required at national level were dealt with promptly. It is not a function of the committee to take responsibility from the Departments and agencies. It provided a forum for the exchange of information between the Departments and agencies concerned, oversaw the local level response, provided a forum for early decisions when a central government direction or decision was required and acted as a central briefing medium for the Government and the national media.
Having attended the National Emergency Response Co-ordination Committee, and in light of the interaction of the various Departments and statutory agencies, I am satisfied that 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 experience 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 identifying any relevant lessons that can be learnt from the experience here and in other European countries over recent weeks.
Several important issues arose including public transport, supplies of rock salt stocks, clearing compacted ice off footpaths, access to emergency services, water supply, electricity supply, school closures, and so on, but the main priority for local authorities was accessibility of the major road network.
To respond to some of the points made by Deputy Ring, the fact is that when it came to the flooding we were in a position to go down the country almost immediately, and I visited those areas worst affected such as Ballinasloe, Ennis — I visited there promptly, in fact, the very next day — and, indeed, Cork.
The point Deputy Ring made about sand is simply not valid. The emergency co-ordination committee looked at the prospect of using sand. In fact, we looked at every possibility. This was explained to the media at the time. The sand on beaches did not have sufficient salinity, and it would have had no effect. That was just not usable at the time and, therefore, we did not pursue that issue. All of that was looked at in detail. I, again, commend the work of everybody who sat on that committee.
There is one point to note. Perhaps I will make a comparison later, but let us compare our response to that of the United Kingdom. We had ten days’ supply of rock salt whereas the UK had a mere six days’ supply. Anyone on the Opposition side of the House may make these comparisons and I believe we would emerge from such comparisons very favourably.
Deputy John Gormley: Since mid-December all local authorities were engaged in an extensive campaign of road gritting, using a combination of sand and salt to melt the ice and snow in response to severe weather warnings issued by Met Éireann. One of the criticisms heard during the period related to the extent of the road gritting exercise. One could find fault with the extent of gritting but the ongoing availability of rock salt dictated that treatment was restricted to national roads. The extent of the extremely low temperature resulted in rapid depletion of supplies of rock salt maintained by local authorities. Coupled with the widespread extent of the severe weather throughout much of Europe, local authorities and the National Roads Authority experienced difficulties in sourcing sufficient new supplies to keep adequate salt for spreading on roads. The position regarding salt was much more severe in other European countries.
Deputy John Gormley: I refer to the two major areas referred to in the Opposition motion, namely, roads and water supplies. 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. These are the facts. With careful driving, most of our secondary road network remained passable throughout the period, with limited exceptions especially in upland areas. It is certainly true 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 bus services continued to operate in Dublin and nationwide, albeit with some cancellation or curtailments during the worst of the snow. The websites of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann provided regularly updated information on the impact on services. Irish Rail and Luas services were largely unaffected and some extra capacity was provided where possible. While there were delays and diversions at airports, the bulk of air services continued to operate. Where airports closed for short periods, it was for safety reasons to allow runways to be cleared of 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. More than 261 gritting trucks and 180 snow ploughs were deployed during the severe weather, often late at night and early morning. Approximately 60,000 tonnes of salt was spread over the period, more than the total annual average use in recent years. It will never be practical to grit all 96,000 kilometres of our public road network. At the moment we grit in excess of 14% of the network and it is unlikely to be justifiable to increase this substantially. What can be considered is whether there are ways of harnessing community effort, for example, by local authorities supplying salt to local communities and business districts. This would involve extra cost for the taxpayer at a time of severe constraints on public finances and may not be justified given the infrequent incidence of prolonged severe weather.
Local authorities typically maintain ten days’ supply of salt compared to a supply of six days in the UK. This is for gritting the prioritised roads and it is more than adequate for most years. Cold spells of such a long duration are rare. Nevertheless, the costs and benefits of maintaining a supply to cover a longer period will be considered. This could involve more expenditure on salt supplies and salt barns to protect these supplies.
The possibility of introducing a statutory obligation on householders and businesses in urban areas to clear snow and ice from footpaths outside their premises without incurring any liability for negligence will be considered by the Department of Transport. While local authority staff were deployed to clear the busiest footpaths in urban areas, similar to the case of the national primary roads, it was not practical for them to clear all the footpaths in urban areas. As I stated at the time, I took advice from the Attorney General’s office and I was informed that the idea that people could be held liable was not the case. If people made a reasonable effort to clear the footpath that was deemed to be fine. However, I understand people may need such a reassurance and for this reason it is something we could consider putting into legislation, which is the case in other jurisdictions whereby there is an obligation on the individual to clear in front of the house or business premises concerned. In other jurisdictions there is a series of rules that goes with severe weather, related to winter tyres and the wearing of chains. We are not used to it in this country and we do not have the legislative framework at this stage.
Another area for review is how public information was handled and what could 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 sending 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 both the National Roads Authority and local authorities have, and will continue to incur, significant additional expenditure as a direct result of the prolonged severe weather. I understand the Department of Transport does not have an emergency financial reserve. It will allocate all the road grants from the Exchequer for the coming year, more than €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 position of the Exchequer finances. Since 1997, more than €15 billion has been invested on national roads while some €5.7 billion has been contributed from the Exchequer for local and regional roads. Local authorities have been advised to set aside contingency sums within their overall roads funding for weather related works. In addition, local authorities and the National Roads Authority are calculating the additional costs involved over and above the normal provision. The Minister for Transport will assess this when finalising the allocation of regional and local road grants, as will the National Roads Authority in respect of national roads. It may be necessary to change priorities in the 2010 allocations, taking account of the available financial resources.
In the meantime, the Minister for Transport has issued a circular to local authorities requesting 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 the local authorities flexibility to revise to their 2010 restoration improvement programmes. The role of the Department of Transport in respect of local and regional roads is to provide grants to supplement road expenditure by local authorities. Some local authorities contribute as little as 5% to their total road expenditure from their own resources. Local authorities must prioritise increased expenditure from their own resources on their own roads this year in view of the current difficult situation.
In assessing the Irish response during the severe weather, it would be valuable to compare ourselves with other European countries. When one does so, the clear fact emerges that the disruption here was no worse, and in many cases much less severe, than in most other European countries, including those with regular experience of severe cold weather.
Significant traffic delays during snowfalls were a common experience throughout Europe, but unlike many other countries Ireland was able to keep the main arteries open. Airports were forced to close for periods during snowfall in every northern European country. While train services suffered limited delays in Ireland, they ground to a halt in many other European countries. Finally, the national co-ordinated response in January ensured that salt supplies were managed to keep main roads open, unlike other European countries. I can confirm this is the case following a meeting with ministerial colleagues recently. Given my interest in this issue, I asked my colleagues how they coped in such countries as the Netherlands, Germany and throughout Europe and we fared better. That is the fact of it and I would be pleased to subject the response to any objective review to establish how we managed our resources. Comparisons with what took place in 1982 are completely misplaced because we are in a far better position now to deal with these issues than we were at that time.
The severe weather episodes this winter have identified a number of weaknesses in our water services infrastructure. It has also shown that although 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 this water to our homes and businesses. Some 1.6 billion litres of water are treated daily by local authorities. The low density and spatial distribution of the population means an extensive water network is required to distribute this water compared to many other countries. The public water services network amounts to more than 20,000 km of pipes, 8,000 km of which are in the greater Dublin area. This fact alone poses challenges for ongoing maintenance and management.
The recent prolonged period of particularly 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. Typically, over a fortnight period, demand was up to 25% greater than maximum water treatment capacity in most authorities. This was as a result of both leakage and some consumer usage to avoid frozen domestic pipes. Excess demand resulted in the depletion of treated water at the reservoirs, which would normally provide two day storage which is the international norm. Demand has been progressively reducing through local authority efforts to find and fix leaks and manage supplies, and conservation by consumers. However, it could be a number of weeks or months, depending on local circumstances, before reservoirs are restored to pre-Christmas levels. It is a huge inconvenience to people and continues to be an inconvenience. I am well aware of this from my constituency, which has suffered from this problem. For that reason, we must act. I agree with all Deputies that it must be addressed and that is the reason we are reprioritising the funding. I will discuss that later in my contribution.
Some of the incidents of burst water pipes in housing estates across the country, which have 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, such as those set down in my Department’s “Recommendations for Site Development Works for Housing Areas”, which include standards for the amount of cover to be laid over water pipes. Within the home, the building regulations provide that in bathrooms and kitchens, the cisterns, service pipe and fittings and any associated cold water pipes should be adequately protected against damage by frost.
When considering planning applications, local authorities generally attach conditions to ensure that these standards are properly adhered to by developers. Where it is found as part of the formal taking-in-charge of an estate or through assessments of compliance with a permission, that sub-standard piping or inadequate systems have been installed, the local authority should take enforcement action against the developer to bring the development up to the standard required by the planning permission and the building regulations. My Department will be writing to local authorities to remind them of the development management requirements under the building regulations and the site development guidelines and to impress on them the need for regular monitoring and enforcement to ensure a consistent application of these standards across residential developments.
These recent events arose from exceptional weather conditions. I commend the many local authority workers who responded to these events, working much longer hours, often in difficult conditions, to restore supplies and to find and fix leaks. While we rightly expect to turn on our taps to see good quality water flowing out, we often fail to appreciate the costs and complexity of providing this basic service, or that prolonged periods without water such as were experienced by some consumers this winter are indeed very rare. The difficulties do, however, point to the fine balance in water treatment capacity in some of our larger urban areas, and the extent and age of networks which already have an unacceptably high level of leakage in normal circumstances. This means that the infrastructure can be particularly vulnerable to disruption by severe weather events. Consequently, it is appropriate to consider the wider policy issues facing the Irish water sector, in tandem with efforts in the short term to return service to normal.
While €4.6 billion has been provided by the Exchequer to local authorities for investment in this sector over the past nine years, this 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 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 92% compared to 25% at the start of 2000.
With the adoption of the water framework directive, which emphasises a holistic approach to water resources management considering all aspects of the water cycle, the water services sector is entering into a new phase. The river basin management plans, required under this directive, are the key tool for the strategic planning of the range of actions required by the different actors to meet the objectives of the directive. These objectives are to prevent deterioration in the status of existing waters and, where feasible, to achieve at least “good status” for our waters by 2015. The evolving river basin management plans will be a critical underpinning of investment in the sector over the coming years. The renewed programme for Government has committed to maintaining record levels of investment in water, and this year some €508 million has been allocated, one of the few areas of capital provision which saw an increase over the 2009 provision. This is evidence of the Government’s commitment to this important area in these difficult economic times.
We will ensure that these resources are targeted at priority areas from an economic and environmental standpoint. Last summer, as part of the development of the Water Services Investment Programme 2010-2012, local authorities were asked to critically review their water services needs to ensure that contracts advanced and schemes in planning over this period meet the programme priorities, are affordable, offer value for money and are the most cost effective solutions for addressing problems. 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.
The Government’s policy document “Building Ireland’s Smart Economy — A Framework for Sustainable Economic Revival” and specific work by Forfás in 2008 in assessing the water and waste water needs of enterprise, provide the framework for prioritisation of the infrastructure required to support economic recovery. The work associated with the first cycle of river basin management plans and the priorities identified by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for monitoring and reporting on performance on both drinking water and waste water services, provide important inputs on the priorities for investment on environmental and public health grounds.
An important aspect of the new Water Services Investment Programme 2010-2012, which will be launched towards the end of February, 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. The €130 million we spent on various water conservation measures over the past seven years has made a considerable difference. This investment has mainly been focused on establishing water management systems and active leak detection and repair programmes. Local authorities have identified some €300 million in contracts to commence over the period 2010-2012. This investment is only part of the overall action on water conservation. I am grateful for the public response.
As I have only two minutes left, I will focus on water conservation. Water metering is a necessary component of ensuring that our valuable water resource is managed and used efficiently. I was pleased to hear Deputy Hogan voice Fine Gael support for this on national radio yesterday, albeit that it has taken Fine Gael 12 years to see the error of the decision it took in 1997 to scrap domestic water charges.
Deputy John Gormley: This Government’s intention, which we announced in December, is to introduce charges for water in a way that is fair, significantly reduces waste and is easily applied. I will shortly bring detailed proposals to Government on a programme of metering of households on public supplies. It is envisaged that the installation of water meters will commence during 2011. International experience shows that once water meters are installed people are more careful in how they use this resource.
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 bemused by Fine Gael’s ability to criticize the Government for the number of State agencies currently in place, while at the same time proposing the establishment of a new one.
Deputy John Gormley: I will outline why I see no reason for the introduction of such a quango. Indeed, I can only conclude that Fine Gael wants to establish such an agency because the party wants to privatize our water services.
Deputy John Gormley: I am generally satisfied with the current arrangements which I believe will improve considerably with the implementation of a river basin approach to water management. The response arrangements of the statutory and voluntary agencies in dealing with the developing situation were substantially tested. The arrangements put in place did work, but there is some room for reflection and review of lessons learned which can be built upon.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: There are three parts to the Fine Gael motion. The first is the approach to the recent severe weather we experienced around the country. The second is the aftermath of the recent weather and flooding in November and the costs which will have to be borne by local authorities in clearing up the damage to our roads which resulted. The third issue is water disruption and what needs to be done in response to that issue, which was also caused by the recent weather.
I read an article by Tom Clonan in The Irish Times on how the Government responded, what the framework was for its response and if its response fitted into that framework. One point he made, which is the correct description of our recent weather, was that it was a slow-moving and entirely predictable emergency. We all knew before the Christmas holidays there was bad weather and we would have a white Christmas. The bad weather was predicted for at least a couple of weeks before it happened. The snow started in earnest on 1 January. I was travelling from Cork on that Friday. It started to snow and the traffic started to slow down on the N7.
By Monday it was clear there were problems arising. People were having difficulty getting out of their housing estates and getting into work and there were many slips and falls. The Government’s emergency co-ordination committee did not meet until the following Thursday. We know that because it was confirmed by Sean Hogan at the recent meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. There was a Cabinet meeting around that time. The emergency co-ordination committee meeting took place very late in the day. After Sean Hogan made his presentation to the committee I am still not clear who was in charge of co-ordinating the responses to the bad weather. I am not clear who the lead agency was.
My reading of the framework document for major emergencies is that the lead agency for the situation we had regarding the recent snow, ice and flooding should have been a Government Department. In regard to the snow, it should have been the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, but Sean Hogan argued that was not the case and that it should have been the local authorities. That is my understanding of the debate. He had a document which said the lead agencies for responding to the flooding in November were local authorities. I do not accept that was the Government’s correct response. It has misinterpreted its own document because when I read it, it said local authorities should only be the lead agency by default and that ideally the lead agency should be a Government Department.
I read Tom Clonan’s analysis and he has the same interpretation. He refers to the lead agency and the severe weather, and says the document identifies the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as the Department with responsibility for co-ordinating a national response in emergency situations. There was a major problem, namely, that the Government was not willing to take on board the responsibility to give leadership regarding how to respond and co-ordinate the response to the recent weather and the flooding. There was an idea that local authorities should be left to fend for themselves. To be fair, their response was not perfect but local authority workers were out in many areas on New Year’s Day and Christmas Day and were very much left to their own devices until the emergency co-ordination committee met on Thursday, 7 January, when the crisis was well under way and all of the problems had arisen. There had been many small accidents and many people had slipped and fallen. Schools were also in a problematic position, nobody knew what would happen regarding the opening of primary and second level schools.
For future reference, the Government has to take responsibility. The weather and flooding do not fit within local authority boundaries. The idea that local authorities should be the lead agency is not the correct response. In future the Government must take responsibility from the outset as soon as it becomes apparent that there is a crisis. It needs to meet and co-ordinate activity much earlier.
In the aftermath of the severe weather, local authorities have had severe cuts in funding to their roads budgets and have had to cut a large number of staff. For example, Cork county, which was very badly impacted by the flooding and bad weather, has lost some 500 staff over the past year. I note the Cork county manager said it would need substantial funding to repair the roads in the aftermath of the flooding, snow and ice, that the roads had been damaged by gritting and that substantial road repairs would need to be carried out. Cork County Council applied to the Minister, Deputy Gormley, for €16 million to carry out the necessary repairs after the flooding and it was granted just under €6 million, which falls well short of what it needs. The county manager also complained that its overtime budget has been cut substantially so it cannot have people working overtime to carry out the necessary repairs.
Cork County Council is just one example and is probably one of the worst hit local authorities, but local authorities will be struggling in the year to come unless special provision is made for them to carry out proper road repairs. If these road repairs are not done, they will get worse. We will have accidents and lives may be lost because of the condition of the roads. I urge the Government to make sure that when the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, announces the road budget in February he makes extra provision for local authorities which need to carry out road repairs because of the recent flooding and bad weather.
On the issue of water, over the past few years the focus on investment in water infrastructure seems to have been on meeting the need for increased capacity in the water supply because of all the extra housing we built, the need to improve the quality of our drinking water because of requirements under European Union law and the need to comply with the water framework directive by 2015. That investment has been made. As a result of the recent problems with the existing creaking water infrastructure, the Minister has now decided to divert moneys which were to go new capacity and projects to deal with existing infrastructure. That appears to be a knee-jerk and crisis driven response by the Minister. He is also being opportunist because he is using the issues that have arisen as an excuse to say he will introduce water metering and water charges.
Whatever about the merits of those proposals, they are a red herring in terms of what needs to be done about our water infrastructure. A national strategy is required to deal with the need to increase capacity, the need to improve water quality and the need to repair the creaking water infrastructure that is in place for many years. We do not have enough information about what needs to be done. Instead of responding in a knee-jerk and headless chicken way, the Minister should present a national strategy on what he will do to improve the water infrastructure. He must provide information on what needs to be done, where the problems arise and where the infrastructure is in need of repair. That information must be made available to public representatives and to the wider public.
Deputy Martin Ferris: I wish to indicate my support for the general thrust of this motion, both in its references to the impact of the recent weather crisis and the inadequate response of the Government, as well as the proposals regarding measures to ensure an improved response in the event of any future recurrence. I would also like to refer to some of my party’s views and policies on these issues.
I note and welcome Fine Gael’s commitment to public control of the water supply. We will all watch closely to see what measures the Minister will introduce, as he has promised, to address the current situation. Clearly privatisation is not the way forward. That has been proven in other countries. Public utilities have been one of the targets for venture capital unwilling to invest in the real economy, mainly in less developed countries but also in some developed states where companies seek to profit from pre-existing public facilities. Britain is an example of this where the consensus appears to be that despite increased investment, this has been offset by a huge increase in the cost to the public in charges, as well as resulting in a decline in both the quantity and the quality of the water supplied to households. I trust this is not a route that the Minister will ever contemplate going down. I certainly hope not.
Some of the problems associated with the absence of a single State body in charge of water supply were illustrated by the recent crisis and the manner in which supply was cut off in some local authority areas. Most local authority areas have experienced that in the recent past. A national body would be in a position to ensure not only a constancy of supply but also that this operates evenly across the State. It would also, of course, have the responsibility to ensure the proper upkeep of treatment facilities and the supply network.
Both the motion and the Minister in a recent interview have referred to the dangerously high level of treated water that is lost, which has been estimated to have been 43% prior to the cold spell. That is an indictment on the State and local authorities that so much water is lost. There is also the scandalous waste which the Minister is correct in stating must be addressed. However, linking that to the proposal to meter and charge for water to households is not the solution if the wastage is due to leaks within the system rather than people being careless or abusing the water supply, which is a problem as was again witnessed recently and needs to be tackled.
There is a need for proper conservation and people need to be educated in regard to the importance of preserving the water supply and the damage done by wasteful household practices. Some people are not aware of how much wastage is actually involved. For example, during the cold weather some people were leaving water taps running to cut down on the risk of frozen and burst pipes. Some of my neighbours did this. I can understand why. Primarily, the water was getting frozen coming from the supply to their houses rather than inside the house. In order to prevent damage to boilers, back boilers and so on they allowed the water to trickle overnight and there was wastage as a result but that was not their fault.
Sinn Féin is opposed to the introduction of water charges as a solution as, in effect, it only acts as an extra tax with no guarantee that the revenue gathered will be directed towards the water supply. As with waste charges the suspicion is that they amount to no more than a double taxation, which gets away from the issue, particularly in the case of water where the State has been negligent in investing in this area. The question that also needs to be answered is why the infrastructure was allowed to fall into such a bad state during the years when the State did have the revenue to undertake the necessary capital works to modernise it and to ensure that this most vital of public utilities was not threatened, as it patently is now, by facilities that are not capable of guaranteeing security of supply, even at times when there has been no shortage of the raw material to be treated and supplied to the public.
In regard to the flooding in the west and the midlands, the division of responsibility for the River Shannon caused serious problems, especially when none of the ten existing agencies involved were in a position of ultimate control. The ESB controls its weirs along the River Shannon, with the main weirs located at Athlone, Meelick and Parteen. The Shannon Regional Fisheries Board, or Inland Fisheries Ireland after the amalgamation from April 2010, has responsibility for conservation, but has no statutory obligation in respect of flooding. Waterways Ireland has an interest in water levels but only so that cruisers have enough water for navigation and on occasion it removes small pockets of silt so that cruisers do not run aground. The Office of Public Works has an annual maintenance programme of dredging in tributaries of the River Shannon each year and was a key player in the meetings called by the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, in response to the crisis.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service, like the Shannon Regional Fisheries Board, has to be consulted before any dredging and has an obligation under EU legislation regarding the protection of certain species. Local authorities, Bord na Móna, the Shannon River Basin District Authority and the Environmental Protection Agency also have responsibilities regarding various aspects of the health of the river and its basin. There is clearly a need to co-ordinate the overall responsibility for the River Shannon under one authority.
The exceptional rain experienced in November raised the water on the River Shannon to record levels and caused severe flooding to nearly 100 houses with a further 70 families affected by access in the Athlone area. The impact of the flooding exceeded all past experiences and left homes flooded, contents damaged and destroyed, road impassable, land and businesses flooded and individuals and families having to abandon their homes and relocate elsewhere. Some people are still in temporary accommodation around the town.
The flood co-ordination group, involving Athlone Town Council, Westmeath County Council, the HSE, the Defence Forces, Civil Defence, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Athlone flood relief centre distributed 30,000 sandbags, provided evacuation assistance, emergency accommodation, transport and humanitarian and financial support. Waste disposal facilities, skips, cleaning materials, disinfectant, gloves, brushes and protective clothing were distributed. The cleaning of all public roads and sewers was also undertaken by the local authorities. This voluntary effort was immense and should be commended.
Other parts of the country were also affected and I witnessed some of the damage caused in Carlow and Sallins. The main complaint that I have heard was as referred to in the motion, the slowness of response on the part of the State. There are also serious issues, as I have referred to elsewhere, in regard to planning permission being granted for housing developments in places where location and history would have indicated a serious risk of flooding in some areas.
The motion also refers to roads, and again serious problems were encountered during the cold weather with many roads closed. Every county has been affected. I have never seen roads in such a dilapidated state as in recent weeks. We have been told that given the cuts in local authority funding this will have huge repercussions for the repair and restoration of most of those roads. There is an urgent need for funding to be made available to local authorities so that they can deal with this issue. I support the motion and call for the establishment of a plan for a severe weather agency in the event there being a repeat of such poor weather conditions, whether prolonged rain, ice or snow.
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