Wednesday, 25 January 2012
Seanad Éireann Debate
Senator Tony Mulcahy: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O’Dowd, to the House. Water is a resource that is essential to life. Every day we consume vast quantities of water, washing ourselves, and our clothes and dishes, flushing toilets, cleaning cars and drinking it. Industry uses it as a key input into the production process. Irish people use approximately 150 l of water each day. The single biggest issue facing the country is access to good quality water in the volumes that citizens require and industry needs to function. Hundreds of thousands of people depend on water in our taps. One of the key prerequisites for companies deciding to set up manufacturing facilities here is water, the others being cheap energy, a benign tax environment and the availability of a well educated workforce. Water is a finite resource and we cannot create it as easily as mother nature does. In a country where it rains nearly every second day, one would think the stuff should be free, but one would me mistaken. I recently heard a man with a water recovery system comment that we have world-class rain here.
The country is spending approximately €700 million a year on producing clean potable water, which works out at approximately €1.9 million a day or €80,000 an hour. The problem is that approximately 43% of our clean water is lost through leakage and waste. This equates to 301 million l of water a year flowing away. In these days when every euro counts, we cannot afford for this to continue. The solution is the establishment of Irish Water, which is a key element of the programme for Government. By centralising control over how water is treated we can reduce water loss and save the economy vast amounts of money.
We have 34 local authorities producing clean water. We have an infrastructure that is creaking because of age and pipe makeup. Some pipes laid early in the 20th century are corroding and reducing in size because of sediment build-up and chemical reaction. We have a problem with the presence of lead pipes in older parts of our towns and cities, which pose a serious health risk and must be removed. We have problems with water pressure in certain areas, with cast iron pipes — in my town of Shannon that is a big problem. If the pressure in the mains were increased we would have more fractures and leakages. This also poses a serious risk to life in the event of a fire as the fire brigade might not have sufficient water pressure to quench a fire. During last winter’s big freeze local authorities throughout the State had to send out emergency services to distribute water, which had to be moved around by bulk carrier to replenish areas where vast amounts of water were lost because pipes had burst.
We need to rethink how we spend taxpayers’ money. The Government is engaged in a public consultation process up to 24 February with interested parties on how this new utility company will run and who should run it. As vast amounts of money need to be spent upgrading current infrastructure through the relaying of pipes, and the construction of new reservoirs and treatment plants for domestic water and waste water, somebody will need to pay for this. Irish Water will be a State company but will also require investment from the private sector. This should not be seen as a threat to those working in local authorities who currently look after our fresh and wastewater needs, but an opportunity for new money to be invested in the latest technologies on the market.
To make their jobs easier and less stressful is it not better for them to have systems that can locate failures remotely from centrally located control centres, rather than going out into the field and spending hours trying to pinpoint where pressure has been lost and finding the exact location between two points?
As part of the EU-IMF programme, Ireland is committed to the introduction of water charges by the end of the programming period, which ends in 2013. Under the EU water framework directive we are required to charge consumers for the cost of water and treated waste water must take into account the full environmental costs. These requirements will lead to the introduction of water metering with the user paying the costs.
Commercial water rates are costs that businesses must pay. Prior to 1977 domestic ratepayers also contributed an element of their rates bill to pay for the costs of fresh water and waste water. The Government is committed to having a fair scheme of water charges under which households will receive a free allowance with charges applied for consumption above the relevant threshold. Households currently spend vast amounts of money on bottled water, which can cost up to €2 for a two litre bottle. This is madness as we should be able to drink water, as we used to do, from kitchen taps without any worries about quality. When a water source becomes contaminated the householders affected must buy bottled water or endure boil notices, such as that which occurred in Ennis between May 2005 and December 2009 when e.coli was found in the local supply or the problem of cryptosporidium in Galway’s water supply some years ago. Just this weekend, water had to be brought in by bulk carrier to residents of parts of County Limerick following an oil leak into the River Deel. The leak affected areas such as Askeaton, Pallaskenry, Kildimo and Shanagolden.
We are obligated under the terms of the EU water framework directive to protect our water sources. Some 83% of water here is sourced from surface water such as lakes and rivers, 11% is sourced from groundwater such as aquifers and 6% is sourced from springs.
In the next two to three years a programme of installing water meters to cover 1 million domestic premises will create approximately 2,000 jobs. This scheme will give work to many of those who have lost their jobs in the construction industry and we should ensure that jobless Irish people secure these jobs. The protection and creation of Irish jobs must be a key element of the programme. There is no point in putting contracts to tender to be won by overseas companies which will bring in outside labour to carry out the work when thousands of Irish people are more than capable of doing this work. It is critical that this work is done by Irish people and companies.
Once this part of the capital programme has been completed, substantial investment will be required in water infrastructure, including the construction of new treatment plants, pipelines, reservoirs and control centres. This will result in the creation of new jobs for engineers, surveyors, plumbers, technicians and scientists such as microbiologists. Additional spin-off jobs in the leisure and tourism industries can be created in areas where new reservoirs are developed as these can be used for leisure and pleasure activities such as sailing and water sports.
The regulator charged with oversight of the new utility will ensure consumers are protected and the utility is managed and works to the highest international standards. The creation of Irish Water will result in economies of scale, fragmentation will be removed, control will be tighter through regulation, staff who have local knowledge will continue to be involved in water services, new infrastructure will be built locally and nationally and the conservation of water will take place once consumers realise that water must be paid for and waste controlled.
I believe the speaker, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, sits at the Cabinet table of a Government that is introducing water charges. It is no wonder members of the public are cynical. My concern is the establishment of the proposed Irish water authority. While the Government has stated the new body will create 2,000 new jobs, it has not indicated what will happen to the 3,600 local government employees who currently provide water services.
The Minister of State need only cast his eyes a few miles north of his constituency to see the disaster which occurred under the supervision of the Northern Ireland water authority during last winter’s big freeze. In contrast to this part of the island where water supplies were affected but the problems were addressed effectively once identified, Norther Ireland Water did not have sufficient staff or resources on the ground to deal with the issue.
Once the proposed water authority has been established, what will local authorities do? The National Roads Authority has assumed responsibility for a large proportion of the road network previously managed by local authorities, while the Health Service Executive has assumed responsibility for health services. I am not a great fan of the HSE because while it has worked in some areas, it has failed in others. Its establishment resulted in the removal of powers from local officials and democratically elected public representatives. We now face the prospect of responsibility for water being removed from local government. As a county manager stated in Monday’s edition of The Irish Times, what will be left for local authorities to do? They will have little do because we are centralising more and more services and moving in a direction that is the reverse of what the European Union tells us we should do.
Arguments can be made for and against the establishment of a water authority. Local officials and council employees know exactly where a problem is when they hear of an issue in a certain area and are able to deal with it effectively. Sending some guy in a van from Cork to deal with a water problem in Kenmare will not work because he will not have local knowledge. We all know the importance of such knowledge.
People in rural areas are to be required to pay thousands of euro to replace septic tanks they have legally installed. What will happen in respect of group water schemes? Many groups have come together to establish a water supply. While they may have received a little Government assistance, it was not a hell of a pile. They paid the initial set-up costs and continue to pay an annual maintenance fee. Will they be told that having paid for their water supply, unlike people living in cities who did not pay a penny towards their water supply, everyone will be treated the same and they will be required to pay for water they have essentially paid for? Will people living in rural areas who had to drill their own wells to secure a water supply be asked to meter their own water? They too spent thousands drilling into the earth to secure a water supply for their families. Having paid for and maintained this supply on the basis that the Government would not provide them with water, will they be asked to pay for it again?
I accept that we are wasting too a great deal of water and I realise the Tánaiste was engaged in politicking when we spoke to the Irish Examiner on this issue in June 2010. While the Tánaiste is a nice man, I expect he knew at the time he would not be able to fulfil his promise. People are tired of politicians knowingly promising something they cannot possibly deliver. This practice has dragged the reputations of all politicians through the mud. While one accepts that everyone makes mistakes, when one makes the statement the Tánaiste made and then proceeds to establish a water authority, it should come as no surprise that members of the public hold politicians in low esteem.
Water is a precious commodity which is expensive to provide. There is no doubt people are wasting it by leaving taps running and so forth. If, as proposed, an allowance is provided to each family and households pay for water consumed in excess of this threshold, people will start to conserve water and it will come to be considered a precious commodity.
A number of questions arise on this issue. What will happen to the jobs of the 3,600 local government employees who work in water services given that they cannot be redeployed? Will members of group water schemes be charged for water? Will those who have drilled wells be told they must pay for their water supply despite having given so much already? If charges are applied to such people, it will be an anti-rural measure. We see this already with the €100 household charge for which people in rural areas will get very little in return. If one puts in a group water scheme or one’s own septic tank, one gets nothing from the Government for one’s €100. If one is living in Dublin 4, one is getting water and sewage treatment for €100. Rural Ireland is getting nothing. This is more evidence of the Government’s lack balance, fairness and equity when it comes to raising revenue.
I have serious concerns about Irish Water. It will be a quango. We are taking power away from public representatives and are giving it to unelected and unaccountable people. Members of this Chamber all know the difficulty getting answers from the Health Service Executive, the National Asset Management Agency, the Road Safety Authority and the National Roads Authority but we are setting up another quango which will not be accountable and will take money and spend it. If a fellow messes up, as happened in the North of Ireland, he might resign but one can be sure he will get a big fat pay off. Currently, if there is a problem with the water supply, at least the constituent can telephone the public representative on the council to find out why. Who will the constituent telephone in Irish Water? The constituent will be put through to a helpline which will not be much help in trying to supply water to one’s house.
Will the Minister consider this again? We will be back here in a few years time wondering why Irish Water is not working. As with the NRA and the HSE, we are taking more power from public representatives and giving it to a large water authority which will not be accountable to anybody, will eat public money and which, ultimately, will be sold off, although the Tánaiste was quoted recently as saying Irish Water was not being set up to be sold off but that is worth the same amount as the paper his statement to the Irish Examiner in 2010 was worth.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Fergus O’Dowd): Not at all. I was quite happy to listen. The most important thing a Minister can do is to listen to the views of Members of the Oireachtas. I am happy to have heard many of the points made.
The reason Irish Water is being set up is to ensure the 34 local authorities and the 952 separate water supplies are brought together in a one-stop-shop and that there is a focus nationally, regionally and locally on improving the supply of water. This is not a quango, as it has been described by some people. Over a number of years, we will take all the experience of local authorities and move it into Irish Water. It will not be like the HSE, which was set up by a Fianna Fáil-led Government. It will not happen overnight because it will be done properly. Currently, Kerry County Council or Louth County Council is written on the side of vans. Next year it will be Kerry County Council or Louth County Council working with Irish Water.
Senator Daly is wrong about staff numbers. More than 4,200 staff work in local authority services. He left the back-up staff out of his figure. The Senator raised the very important issue of responding to the views of local authority staff and offering them a career choice, which they do not have currently. There will be new opportunities for people working in local authorities locally, because Irish Water will operate a local service, regionally, because it will make plans in regard to river basins, and nationally, because it will look at strategic infrastructure. This will be a very good career opportunity for thousands of people working in local authorities and it will be done in consultation with the unions. This discussion today is part of that consultation. It involves listening to Senators and to the Joint Oireachtas committee and meeting all the interested parties, specifically the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. This will not be done overnight but over a period of time.
Senator Daly asked what local authorities will be left with. I do not know the figures for Kerry County Council but I know it has a big contracting out service. A former Member of the Oireachtas supplied many services to Kerry County Council which amounted to millions of euro every year, although I do not know if it still does. The Senator should ask his colleagues on Kerry County Council what exactly the council pays for these services. I believe they are many and varied. I presume they involve hedge-cutting, filling in pot holes——
When Kerry County Council or Louth County Council makes a development plan, Irish Water must have regard to what is in it. In other words, if the council wants to expand zoning in Caherciveen, for example, if that is a legitimate proposal and if it is put into the development plan, Irish Water must have due regard to that. It must take on board the future plans of the local authority and the future plans of the regional authority. When it is planning water infrastructure, it will not make decisions rather the council, the councillors and the officials will direct where that investment should go. That is a very key point.
County Kerry has many disparate supplies. I do not have the figure but I think there are more than 80 separate water supplies, although I might be wrong. I went to County Kerry to look at them. I went to the base of Carrauntoohil to see what was going on there and I met the county manager and others. In fact, the Kerry county manager, Tom Curran, who is a very good friend of mine, is the County and City Managers Association’s link to Irish Water. He explained to me the problems and how they need to improve the water supply in Kerry. Senator Daly may be aware that it has the highest level of unaccounted water in the country. The reason is the very bad winter. It did not have the finances to recover and improve the water supply.
Kerry County Council is very focused on all of these issues, as are we and as Irish Water will be. It is a two-way process. At the heart of what we propose is local accountability and taking account of what councils want and need.
The key point is improving the quality of water nationally. The most recent EPA annual report on water quality for 2010, which was published just before Christmas, shows that in areas with populations greater than 5,000, we have the most pristine water in Europe. It is the same as it is in the UK. The problems lie with the group water schemes. The report stated that 11% of group water schemes have problems in terms of E. coli and so on. Those issues must be addressed and Irish Water will address them. There were approximately 60 boil water notices last year because there were questions about the quality of water and precautionary boil water notices were issued. With proper investment in water, we must ensure water is treated for cryptosporidium to prevent people from getting sick. The resources which councils do not have must be readily available and the national and regional input of Irish Water should be put in focus in order that we get the resolution people need.
On the question of metering, if one has one’s own private water supply, one will not be metered. There is no new charge if one supplies one’s own water. If one is not connected to the public water supply but to a group water scheme, of which there is a significant number, one will not pay. However, one will have to make the scheme more efficient. The figures are very significant there. We looked at figures on group water schemes which brought in metering. There are very significant savings in metering. Nationally, the expectation is somewhere around 10% but one gets savings of up to 40% or 50% in some of the group water schemes. Lower figures such as 16% are quite common as well. This year, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has renewed a scheme that will assist farmers who want to use a different source of water. We are doing what the previous Government agreed to do in the EU-IMF deal. We did not have a choice and we must charge for water but there are also other good reasons for doing so apart from the obvious financial reasons. These reasons include health and quality of water supply.
The reality of change and metering is that 2,000 jobs will be created per year over the three-year period as metering progresses. That means work for 2,000 people who are currently unemployed, such as plumbers, those who drive small diggers, site supervisors and people doing accounts. This contract will be broken into between 150 and 200 contracts of average size with approximately 5,000 to 6,000 connections to be made. There will be many jobs, which are needed in this economy. The big plus is the jobs and the effect on conservation. If we use less water as a result of this, our capital infrastructure costs will be lower. It costs €1.2 billion for the capital and running cost of water in this country and we must make up a gap of €1 billion. The State will be involved in supporting local authorities in this, notwithstanding the charges. We will have more money for new infrastructure builds.
One of the key questions is the shortage of water in Dublin. By 2018, Dublin will have a significant shortage of water. Ireland has a lot of water but we will have a shortage on the east coast. If we cannot meet the gap, industry will fail and business people will not proceed, nor will planning and new industry. We have been successful in attracting high-tech, water-intensive industry but if one cannot guarantee a supply of water, Dublin will lose out as a region and the country may lose out as well.
Regarding climate change, on the east coast we will have less water in future and on the west coast we will have more. We must deal with the issues of supply and the areas that have shortages in the future. One of the projects for the future is the abstraction of water from the Shannon, which is proposed. The estimated costs are €500 million so we must find that sum in order to ensure the water supply in Dublin is adequate for the future.
I refer to Dublin as the area where 60% of the population of the country lives. The two options are to pump from the Shannon or desalinate. Desalination involves removing the salt from the water but the problem is that desalination plants use a lot of energy and we must then deal with the brine left behind and pump it out to sea. Desalination is not an option on the table. A key factor is environmental sensitivity. When the proper democratic processes are gone through, the abstraction should not take place for five months of the year. It will not be happening all day everyday but only when water is at a higher level than normal. We all know about flooding in the Shannon and it is clear there is an excess of water. We are talking about abstracting the excess but not taking water when the level has dropped. It is very important to the Shannon and the lakes area that tourism continues. There will be no change in the environment for tourism, levels of water and the flora and fauna. The fish in the rivers will not be affected because their environment will not change.
Those are some of the issues that are important to address. I hope I have made the key points. This is the listening process. We are giving Senators our plans and we will study whatever they say. We will come back to Senators when this process is finished because we want to make sure this plan works. We want to ensure an accountable system. When the big freeze came in Belfast, it was not the lack of workers on the ground but the fact that the customer service was not there. Thousands of calls in a short period of time could not be dealt with and we have a focus on customer relations. When the new entity is set up, people can pick up their phones and they will have a 1800 number and someone will answer the query. This will be driven by service to the consumer and it will not be a remote, unavailable quango. The service will be accountable and available.
I am very happy to debate in the Seanad and to attend meetings of committees. We are determined to get this right. The only way to do so is to put out our plans, listen to what Members have to say, take on board their comments and move forward. I look forward to Members’ contributions.
Senator John Crown: I wish to address the broad philosophy of how we are addressing the water problem. There is a certain consistency across the public service that the way to solve real world, practical problems is to develop another bureaucracy. I am not saying that we do not need to have officialdom and regulatory oversight. The health service had the lowest number of specialists per head of population in the developed world 19 years ago when I first came back to Ireland. Some 19 years later, we still have the lowest number of specialists per head of population in the western world. We have seen a profusion of new bureaucracies, including HIQA, the HSE and the national cancer control programme. I have always thought that we need to look at the problems and fix them and give new bureaucracies a subsidiary priority.
I do not live in a remote area but within five miles of this House. Drawing a line from the American embassy to the German embassy, one passes through my front garden. I live on the Merrion Road, across the street from St. Vincent’s Hospital. As I live at sea level, water from a reservoir does not have to be pumped up to my house. When we had snow that was modest by European and international standards last year, we had a major problem with water provision in this relatively privileged area. Unlike many of my Seanad colleagues, I missed the page in the Constitution that refers to my constituency. I do not have a geographical constituency but a virtual one. However, I live in an area and I refer to it. In that area, we could not maintain water supplies. Many of my friends who emigrated in the 1980s from Irish medicine came back for Christmas and the new year and were stunned that they could not have a shower at any time of the day. I am not trying to make a case for privilege but for a real problem with infrastructure.
During the year, the manager of a Cork council stated that 50% of publicly provided water in Cork was wasted. I am sure the Minister of State is familiar with these figures throughout the country. We have a major infrastructural problem. Even when we do not have freezing weather and pipe ruptures, we have a major problem with water leakage when it comes to normal, week-to-week ambient demands.
I have said to the Minister of State’s colleagues that the three things which will determine our future as a species are probably food, water and energy. They will determine whether civilisation as we know it will exist when our children and grandchildren are living in new societies in 50, 80 and 100 years time. It is critically important that the water issue is taken very seriously, not just as an administrative or political problem. The first thing we should realise is that it is a crime.
We know from the Minister of State’s speech that we live in a relatively privileged area in terms of water. We live in a relatively privileged area in terms of rain, but in terms of water provision there are not many capital cities in western Europe which, when modestly challenging weather occurred, had to curtail water services to near wartime rationing levels. It is important that we give absolute priority to fixing infrastructure. Any resources which are going into buying, maintaining, monitoring and storing meters should only be used after the actual infrastructure is fixed and water wastage is dealt with. When we have done that we can then encourage people to have responsible water use. Appropriate public education could cause that responsibility in advance. If we have the money for metering, building, etc., we have the money to fix the infrastructure first.
Senator John Whelan: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This is an important part of the consultation process, as he said. It was initiated by the Minister, Deputy Hogan, last week. I encourage everyone who has a position on the issue, such as community groups, environmental groups, corporate groups, commercial groups, farming groups and residents associations, to contribute. A great window of opportunity has been afforded by the Minister of State and his colleagues leading the project, including the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Minister, Deputy Hogan. It is vital that if anyone has a position on this he or she makes it known now or forever holds his or her tongue. We are at the juncture of making a most important strategic decision.
I agree with Senator Crown that the importance of the water issue cannot be overstated. It is second only to the burden of the economic crisis we are facing, which will pass. The water issue will not if we do not deal with it properly. It will affect industry, commerce, agriculture and domestic use. It is the lifeblood of the country and economy. Over the past ten years we constructed more than 600,000 housing units, not to speak of the advances and development in agriculture and industry. Huge industries such as Intel and pharmaceutical companies expanded. It beggars belief that we have not built a reservoir in this country in over 67 years. It is hard to fathom.
Previous Administrations were hung up on and distracted by vanity projects, such as the Bertie bowl in the middle of nowhere, in order that people could get their names up in lights instead of tackling the basics when we had the resources. Simple things like fixing leaking pipes and building reservoirs, which I would have thought were a fundamental part of any strategic infrastructure in a developed country, were not done.
Some people within the political apparatus are speaking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue. They are baying for safe, quality water that is secure and sustainable. In Galway it cost €40 million of taxpayer's money to resolve the water supply issue after it was contaminated. At the same time, 440,000 households in the country still rely on septic tanks, most of which function correctly as they are supposed to but many do not. Let us be honest. Septic tanks that do not work are polluting the wells, group water schemes and groundwater we all rely on for a safe and sustainable supply. I cannot understand people speaking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue. It is about time we restored honesty to the debate.
I agree with Senators Daly and Crown that we do not need a costly new quango in this country. We have enough chief executives. I use this opportunity to implore the Minister of State, who is a sensible man, to use his influence within the Department before the final decision is made to ensure that we do not set up a costly new apparatus called Irish Water, bord uisce or whatever with a highly paid chief executive, entourage of staff, new office block and consultants holding their hands for the next ten years and telling them what to do but being nowhere to be found when there is a problem. I agree with the genuine concerns of my colleagues in that regard because it is not the road down which we should go.
There is a more pragmatic, sensible and common sense solution. It is about time that we stopped blaming the IMF and troika for the decisions we are making. We should not apologise for doing the right thing. It is absurd that we do not have an Irish water utility company. It should not be something that should have to be forced upon us. I hope we do not need any more payouts from the troika. We do not need any more cop-outs. It is about time we set up a publicly owned Irish water utility that is accountable to the Oireachtas, Department and Minister to do the job properly.
I agree with Senator Daly that we should learn from the disastrous experience of Northern Ireland Water. A new company was established from the ground up by people who did not know what they were doing. They did not have the expertise, tradition, knowledge or grounding in providing the service. Therefore, at the first sign of a problem it imploded.
I cannot understand what the Green Party did in government for the past five years. This Government and the Minister, Deputy Hogan, in particular, have mainstreamed the environmental issue and embedded it in policy. They have done more in the past five months for the environment than the Green Party did in government in five years. It talked a good game on climate change but did nothing about septic tanks, water security and conservation. It was more obsessed with the directly elected mayor of Dublin. Who cares about that?
I am interested in making sure that the people in the country have safe, clean drinking water and are not worried about it being contaminated. That is what is important. It brings me to my core proposal for the Minister of State. We already have semi-State companies in place with the expertise, skill sets, resources, chief executives and office blocks ready to go. We do not have to reinvent the wheel in establishing an Irish water utility. Bord na Móna is the perfect fit for this task. Others believe the NRA would have a role to play. I have no problem with that. Those companies are already in place, have rolled out huge infrastructural projects across the country and have dealt with local communities and authorities in a fair fashion. This seems to be the kind of task we are talking about in terms of setting up Irish Water.
Bord na Móna is already in place and is ready to go. The Government cannot afford to take a punt and see if the new Irish Water company will work or how it pans out. We do not have the time for that and cannot afford the risks involved with that kind of approach. Bord na Móna has the proven capability over 75 years of dealing and working with local communities and local authorities across the country. It has a massive customer base. I have had my eyes opened and those of others should be as well. It is a long time since Bord na Móna only dealt in peat. It has moved, progressed and diversified. One division alone, AES, which is in the recycling and waste disposal business, dispatches 120,000 bills across the country every month and deals with thousands of customers in regard to flood management. It is already in the water business and has one of the most well established laboratories in Europe dealing with the question of water testing and water treatment, and already does such work for Intel, Wyeth and Pfizer. It conducts over 67,000 water tests per year. In addition, as it has access to the capital markets in Europe and the US, it is in a position to hit the ground running without placing any further financial burden on the Exchequer or the Government at a time when resources are very limited.
There is a lot of misinformation and mischief with regard to this issue, and the Minister has touched on this point. In the past decade, Dublin City Council and other local authorities have been examining alternative sources of water. Desalination is one of the areas that has been explored and most likely ruled out because it is not feasible and costs ten times more than other options. I call on those with good intentions who are genuinely concerned about the environmental and ecological issues surrounding abstraction of water from the Shannon to think again. The Shannon is in flood for 80% of the year. The proposal from Dublin City Council and Bord na Móna to build a new reservoir at Garryhinch will supply water into the Leinster region for the next 50 years and will only abstract water to the tune of some 2% to 4% on the flood, which is sustainable. People should stop scaremongering on this matter.
I urge my colleagues to be fair-minded about this. We do not have to go around the houses or to reinvent the wheel. We already have the expertise and skillset in place within the semi-State sector. That is the model the Government should embrace and I urge it to do so.
Senator David Cullinane: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O’Dowd, back to the House. Senator Whelan said the Minister of State is a very sensible man, with which I agree, but it is not always necessarily the case that sensible Ministers make sensible decisions.
On the issue of the establishment of a body to deal with water supply and distribution, we would support that in principle. It is important for all of us across the parties to recognise that water is a scarce resource. We have to treat water and ensure it is of the highest standard, all of which comes at a cost. There is a need to ensure we have joined-up approaches across the State. I happen to live in south Kilkenny but I represent Waterford. That whole area has been well serviced in recent times because of the huge investment made in the water treatment services in that area. The progress is disjointed, however, and the same is not the case across the country. We spend huge amounts of money treating water but the problem, as we know, is that well over half of it is then leaked through the system; therefore, we are treating twice as much as we use. The argument made by many is that the focus of Government should be to sort out those problems in the system.
On a small but important point in the context of the establishment of this body, the Irish language is very important and the body should be called Uisce Éireann, not Irish Water. Logos are important. We had a discussion in the House last week about the importance of the Irish language. There is no point paying lip service to the language if we then establish a national body and do not use our national language. I ask that we would give consideration to this point.
I concur with Senator Whelan that we do not need any more quangos in the State. I share all of his concerns in terms of setting up a new structure and having a new CEO, a new layer of management, new headquarters and all the costs that go with that. We need to make sure that is not what this utility becomes. It has to be about making sure we provide the very best service to people in this State.
I believe strongly the body should be in public ownership and would completely oppose any privatisation of water services in the State. In the context of today’s debate, I would have to express my opposition to water charges, which I know the Government is considering. People are asking themselves fundamental questions, namely, why are they paying taxes and what are they paying them for? They are paying more PAYE, more PRSI and more in terms of the universal social charge. They are paying more in direct taxation and more in indirect taxation, yet they are getting less in terms of services. People are asking why, on top of all the extra taxes they have been asked to pay in recent years — as the Minister of State knows, the universal social charge has hit families very hard — and all of the cuts they are living with, more taxes are being imposed in the form of stealth taxes such as the household charge, with a property tax to come, the septic tank charge and now water charges. Surely, when we pay our taxes and pay through our income, we are paying for basic services. Water should be one of those basic services.
It is important for us to get the detail from the Minister. When he brings forward the Bill, we will seek to know exactly what the Government is proposing in terms of the composition, the management layers and whether the body will be public or privately run. I have given the Minister my view and that of my party. First and foremost, I ask him to address the issue of the name. Some might see it as a small point but it is very important that we protect our language.
I ask the Minister to take on board the points made by people across the divide today that we do not want any more quangos. What we want is a body that will deliver the best water services for the people of this State and end the discrimination whereby some people who happen to live in certain areas must suffer. We saw what happened to water quality in the west and, although this also happened in Waterford and other areas, it seems to be worst in certain areas. While my area has experienced an improvement, not every area has had the same. We must make sure, across the country, we are getting the very best water for our people. If this can be done through a body that can co-ordinate those services across local authorities, I will support it.
Senator Cáit Keane: We all know the importance of water and the requirement to support economic growth. In Ireland, water is a valuable resource and we have the capacity, if we use it and do not abuse it, to position Ireland well in terms of competitiveness. We should never lose sight of that. We all know the €1.2 billion cost of water and ask whether it is being spent in the best possible way.
I examined the various reports, in particular the independent Mackenzie report on water. The Minister of State referred to desalination on “The Frontline” in recent days but it was not mentioned in the report and I would like to hear some form of recommendation on that. I understand the energy required to use desalination has resulted in two different scientific views, one being that it would heat household water for €60 a year. In Perth, Australia, a desalination plant is being worked from wind farms. If we look forward to having 100% renewable energy in Ireland, we would be able to use a desalination plant to provide all the water we wanted at night and store the electricity to use later. I want to examine that side of the issue.
As Senator Mulcahy has spoken on the issue of jobs, I will skip that issue. On administration, the position of the 34 local authorities hinders the development of a co-ordinated approach to the infrastructure. This is one of the main reasons we must consider having a water authority. The quality of water in Ireland is generally high and it would be remiss of me not to compliment the various local authorities which, over the years, have provided us with good quality water. There has been the odd glitch, as in Galway in 2007, a point missed by another Senator. The new septic tank regulation will ensure we have even better quality water.
As to the setting up of Irish Water, will the Minister of State ensure we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater? The assessment which has been done shows that the experienced workforce in place knows the assets, is close to the customers and is accountable for quality. The Minister of State should write accountability to customers into the contract. In the transfer of waste management, we have seen that accountability to customers is not good. I would not like to see the same happening with water.
There are weaknesses in the current system and inconsistencies and variabilities throughout the country. The economies of scale simply are not there to deliver. There has been underinvestment but if the business is undertaken in a central manner, there will be more investment. Local authority boundaries do not reflect the riverine bays and districts that are so integrated in river basin management. I was a member of a local council when it passed the river basin management plans to upgrade the water system. Given there are seven river basins in the Republic, three of which are shared with Northern Ireland, will the new water authority work with the North? The report recommends that the river basin district is the recommended catchment area, rather than the local authority boundary.
If we look at the international experience as part of this work, and compare, even if only with our nearest neighbours in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland Water and Scottish Water, operating expenditure in Ireland per connection is more expensive at present, by 50% to 100%. Collection rates are much poorer for industrial entities. The number of employees per water connection and per customer are significantly higher than internationally. We must look at this.
Many speakers have mentioned quangos and I will, too, although I hope not to term this new semi-State water body as such. Senator Crown mentioned the number of different bureaucracies and I agree with him. In countries around Europe this is being addressed by amalgamation of municipal water services, the creation of utilities or the use of intercommunal structures. Creation of larger bodies for the provision of water service, often outside municipal control, is a key trend in most European countries in the past 20 years. Has the Minister of State considered the intercommunal model, where several municipalities join together and set up a company to which they delegate the provision of water services? I realise this is not the type proposed by Irish Water but I ask him to consider it.
Self-funding is a priority and most of the companies that have been set up in the past five years in other countries have become self-funding. It is a very attractive option. Consumption of and charging for water are other points. I will not blame the IMF, the EU or anybody else for this because it should have been done long ago. Ireland is the only country in Europe that does not have what is called the “polluter pays” principle. In Denmark, a reduction of 12.6% in household consumption was achieved when that country introduced charges. The average consumption per person per day in Denmark now stands at 114 litres, which is roughly 25% lower than consumption here. That figure refers to a conservatively consuming household.
We will introduce, in effect, a polluter pays charge when the Minister of State introduces this system, with the free allowance, However, in the UK, for example, for households with large families or sick members who may use a great deal of water, there is a support service called a water-share tariff. I ask the Minister to give consideration to that because it is an important part of metering. A person who is sick uses much more water during an illness than another person.
Senator Feargal Quinn: The Minister of State is most welcome, as are his words, particularly his stated objective to ensure that Irish water is best in class, a term I like a lot. I recorded an interview for RTE recently and was asked by Fingal authorities what I thought of its water quality. I said we always drank it and had never had any problem with it. I live in Howth. We had to stop because it turned out that sea water was what was intended. Sewage used to enter at a certain point but does not do so any longer. I discovered I had not been listening carefully enough to the question. In any event, the objective of having us as best in class is a worthy one.
I wish to ask the Minister about the recent PricewaterhouseCooper analysis, which was briefly mentioned in the report. It states that some non-domestic water users may have to pay more in coming years. Will the Minister of State elaborate on this as it may have a big effect on certain businesses and sectors of industry? For example, Matt Moran, the director of Pharma Chemical Ireland, represented by IBEC, stated: “Water is a major issue for the bio-tech sector in Ireland both in terms of the quality and affordability of supplies.” It is important. Will the Minister of State elaborate on these future plans? We may dissuade certain industrial development from locating here if we put more red tape and costs on such firms. One of the criticisms of Ireland in the past was the amount of red tape involved. We are working very well on this in many areas.
We must also remember smaller businesses. Water has been part of the success stories of a number of businesses in Ireland. For example, I have seen the advertisements on television sponsored by AIB for Celtic Pure, a Monaghan company which started selling drums of water door to door. Last year, the company’s workforce grew by about one third to 32, and it now wants to expand to mainland Europe. How can we ensure that both large and small businesses are being protected properly, particularly those that rely on water?
A related note, also in the report, pointed out that the collection rate of money due by non-domestic users is 52%. This was described as particularly low by international standards. From a business perspective, I struggle to understand why the collection rate is so low. Would the Minister of State be better served by making the collection of these amounts a priority, in whatever way he can manage to achieve that?
I am also concerned about the six weeks’ consultation process. There is a risk that the legislation will be rushed through the Oireachtas. It has been highlighted on the blog,irisheconomy.ie, that there are gaps in the PWC report. For example, the report states:
I have a final comment on Senator Cullinane’s point about the name “Uisce” being used, rather than “Irish Water”. I was involved in An Bord Phoist many years ago when we had to come up with a new name for the new service. We decided on “An Post”. The Minister at the time asked what it would be called in English. I told him there was no need for a translation because certain words are understood so easily. If “post” is understood in both languages there is no need for an English translation. “Uisce” is certainly understood by everybody in Ireland. Let us see if we can make this little gesture towards the Irish language by ensuring that rather than call the entity “Irish Water” we find a different term.
Senator Denis Landy: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. In athletics parlance, this is his third day of training on this issue. He had a good run out on Monday night and a better one at the committee yesterday. Today is the day when spectators look in.
I have just a few points to make. There was a good debate on the issue yesterday, with a good exchange of views. No more than the Minister of State, I have thought some more about the matter. First, it is extremely important that the organisations that represent local government, in other words the practitioners, are included in the consultation process. The Minister of State was a councillor for many years. There are three associations, AMAI, LAMA and the ACC. If these have not been included on the list in regard to a request for consultation they should be added and should get a hearing at some level.
Senator Daly and other Senators referred to what actually happens on the ground in the provision of these services. Nothing happens when everything works well but when it does not, as the Minister of State will know from his previous life as a councillor, as do I and the Chairman, the telephone starts to ring and answers are required from the elected representatives. If we do not have somebody we can ring, we are in trouble. For example, if there is a water leak anywhere in County Tipperary, within 20 minutes, the 26 members of South Tipperary County Council will receive a text message from the senior engineer telling them how long the water supply will be cut off for and that is of phenomenal benefit to them, particularly in their electoral areas. While as a Senator, I do not technically have a constituency under the Constitution, Tipperary South is my constituency and it is important that I have access to that information.
There are optimistic and pessimistic views about what the Minister is trying to do. The optimistic view is that little will change; staff will transfer from local authorities to Irish Water; the Government will meet the IMF requirements regarding the establishing of the body and metering; efficiencies will be achieved in the service; nobody will charged for the installation of the meters; and leaks in the system will be fixed quicker because it will be more efficient. On the other hand, the pessimistic view is that Irish Water will be another quango; connectivity with communities will be lost; there will be no accountability; lip service will be paid customers via the freefone service; leaks will not be repaired the way they used to be; and local councillors, Deputies and, even the Minister of State in County Louth, will be unable to check what is the problem and have it resolved. I do not subscribe to either view. Neither view is exclusively shared by Government Members, on the one hand, and Opposition Members, on the other, as has been witnessed in the debate thus far because there is a mix of views on this issue.
I have a number of questions, some of which the Minister of State addressed yesterday. He did not have an opportunity to address the remainder and, therefore, I will put them again. What choice will the 4,200 staff in the system have? If they decide that they do not want to transfer to the new company, what will remain for them? The Minister of State referred to the river basin model as the way forward for this system. However, it will not assimilate into the regional authority model, which currently has river basin management committees that mean nothing. The Acting Chairman may have served on such a committee during his career but they mean nothing because they have no statutory power. They are in place only to be consulted and advised about what is going on and, therefore, they are useless bodies. The regional authorities have little power either but, at least, they are part of a recognised structure and there are eight in place around the country. If the Government is considering a regional structure for water services, it should examine the regional authority model.
The Minister stated at yesterday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht that the new body would be accountable by way of parliamentary questions and requests to attend committees to the Oireachtas. I am not satisfied with that. The new company should be accountable to local government. I am not naive enough to believe that the body has to be hands on but it has to be put on a statutory footing and it must be required to respond to requests regarding leaks, breakages and services that are needed from local government on a structured basis. If that is the only measure the Minister of State takes on board from this consultation, he will make me happy.
Councillors are elected locally. Waste management and health functions have been taken from them in recent years. HSE committees have been established and they also have no statutory powers. The State has privatised much of the local authority housing stock and people are beginning to ask why they should stand for local government or become part of the local government process. Regional planning guidelines outline how a region should be developed. Local authority members must adhere to them but their views on them must be listened to.
One of the Minister of State’s officials stated yesterday it would cost substantially less than €1 billion to install the meters. If it costs, say, €500,000, how long will it take to get a return on the investment?
If we forget about setting up a new quango or structure, the Minister of State should go with Senator Whelan’s suggestion to give the responsibility for water services to an existing organisation such as Bord na Mona — he is a little biased because he is based in the midlands — or to pick the brains of the existing 4,200 staff who have the most knowledge, expertise in water services and transfer them into a new overarching body. He would not need to seek new staff, as they are available through the service he oversees currently. I agree with Senator Cullinane’s point about quangos and additional money. We do not need it because the expertise is available. The body should be drawn from the current staff.
I welcome the Minister of State. His debate in Irish with Senator Ó Clochartaigh and others has gone into the annals of the House, on which I compliment him. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform stated when he examined these issues when he served in the Department of the Environment, he found engineers much more interested in building and designing new dams than in fixing leaks. According to the McLoughlin report, the leakage rate is between 17% and 50%, depending on the local authority area. I was disappointed when Senator Quinn pointed out that a section of the report dealing with this was redacted. We experienced the same problem with a report on VHI in regard to health insurance. There should be no redactions where Oireachtas Members are concerned. We have to make vital decisions and we should have access to complete reports. I hope the Minister of State can use his influence with the Department of Health and others to ensure elected representatives have the full information. The word “redaction” should be removed from our vocabulary.
My other fear is that the reforms slated for the Department and local authorities in the McLoughlin report could be put to one side because the Government is too busy investing new forms of taxation such as the septic tank and water taxes and the household and site charges. The report found that there was a surplus of ten county managers, 50 directors of services, 220 corporate staff, 225 senior and middle management, 62 human resources, 1,000 staff in Dublin and Cork city councils, 180 professional, senior and middle management, 250 in roads sections and 171 in planning departments. Mr. Owen Keegan, county manager of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown local authority, estimates that there are 1,800 surplus staff. Both Mr. McLoughlin and Mr. Keegan presented papers on this in Kenmare, County Kerry, the year before last. That problem has to be tackled.
Mr. Keegan also stated on “Morning Ireland” the week before last that he found the Croke Park agreement an impediment to his attempt to meet the targets in the McLoughlin report. While the total number of local authority staff is 4,200 now, I do not know what the number should be and how many of the surplus posts relate to water services. As Senator Landy said, many other local authority functions have been transferred elsewhere. However, we need to examine the cost base of local authorities to make sure that the efficiencies that should have been generated since the report was published are being generated. It has been reported that the two local authorities in County Tipperary will be amalgamated, as will the both councils in County Limerick but is that radical enough?
I agree with previous speakers who are worried that Irish Water will be another quango. Both Government parties committed in their election manifestos to reducing the number of quangos. Can the new body be staffed from the slimmed down local authority workforce, which, as other Senators said, has the expertise in this area? We do not want a break in concentration away from the McLoughlin agenda where a new quango is set up with an expanded public relations department, thereby creating other problems. The expertise that is available should be used while slimming down the local authority structure.
The new body should have no budget and it should finance itself from the savings identified in the McLoughlin report, which are required from local government. Perhaps, even a dividend to the Department could be generated to be used for other purposes. I would not like the Seanad to wave a green flag regarding another quango, which could go out of control with large public relations and human resources departments duplicating what is in place in local authorities. The number of staff in the HSE doubled between the previous recession in the 1980s from 55,000 to 110,000 at peak in the late 2000s. We are experiencing how difficult it is to reduce the numbers to the previous level and it is difficult to recognise improvements in services in many cases.
I would like the Minister of State to make sure that not many of his staff are devoted to finding new forms of taxation because that aspect of the IMF agreement has not received sufficient attention. Current expenditure between now and 2015 will be approximately the same but provision is made for an additional €10 billion in taxation, including the various charges that will be applied by the Department. The emphasis should have been on why this is needed because that will create problems in reviving the productive capacity of the economy. Water has a significant role to contribute and I hope the Minister of State will first examine the local authorities which, according to the McLoughlin report, manage to lose up to 50% of the water they are supposed to supply. That is unacceptable and charging people to drink water or to have a bath when 50% of the supply never gets to the house would be a misapplication of resources and I ask the Minister of State to apply his energies to correcting that.
Senator David Norris: I thank Senator Barrett for sharing time. I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the Bill which has three main proposals, including the creation of a new utility. I hope there is no intention to sell it off down the road, similar to what happened in Britain. However, it is unlikely. I have no difficulty with a water charge. It is a question of the consumer paying, not the polluter, and it is interesting that, as the Minister of State pointed out, we are unique in Europe in not having such a charge. I have a small place up the mountains in a remote agricultural village in Cyprus. I have been metered since I bought the house ten years ago. I have no difficulty paying because I pay for what I use.
It is important that metering be installed. The process will take time and it will be costly but the State will recover the cost via the water charge. However, it must be ensured the meters are accessible, particularly for people such as me who live on their own. I am not often there when staff from the other utility companies such as the ESB or Bord Gais call and it is a complete nuisance to have to use estimates and so on. Can care be exercised in the placement of the meters in order that they can be visible without access to the house? They should be discreetly installed on a wall outside. I wonder whether it is possible to link them to a centralised computer in this era of technology in order that they can be read directly. The technology is available and it should be done now. Perhaps the Minister of State will explore that in order that there will be a centralised collection of information and if there is a need to check the meter, the householder can do so if it is accessible to ensure the bill is accurate.
I have always found it astonishing that in a climate such as this, we suffer from water shortages because we are regularly drenched with rain. We are lucky to live in such a temperate climate and there is no excuse for such shortages. The leakage rate was referred to by Senator Barrett and I raised this on a number of occasions during previous Seanaid. The lowest rate is 17% but one local authority has a leakage rate of 50%. That is because the infrastructure has not been renewed and I hope the new central authority will look after that.
I agree with Senator Landy regarding the changeover of staff. Local authorities have expertise and he spoke effectively about the way the engineer gets in touch with local representatives. That is a good indicator of a community service that looks after the community. I hope a scenario will not develop where moving money will be paid where staff continue to do the same work but the unions negotiate disturbance money or a promotion. I am a good union man but that would be counterproductive.
It is astonishing that more than 50% of the money due from businesses is not collected. Some of the heaviest users of waters are in the distilling industry. They use massive volumes of water in the distillation of whiskey and if they are among those who do not pay, there is no excuse because they are part of multinational operations and they are successful. Jameson used to be an Irish company and it is the fastest growing whiskey brand in the world.
It is the responsibility of government to make sure water is drinkable. To have had non-potable water in a city such as Galway is appalling and it is damaging for the tourism trade. It was not fair on the citizens who had to buy significant volumes of imported bottled water in the past two years. That is wrong and it had an impact on the tourism trade. If there are breaks in the water supply, hotels, guesthouses and farm houses that take guests are seriously affected.
Senator Colm Burke: I welcome the Minister of State. When I was Lord Mayor of Cork a number of years ago, I had to take a trip to Kenya. I visited a hospital 125 miles south of Nairobi, which did not have a water supply. The only water staff had to use was collected from the hospital roof during the two weeks of the year it rained, which was pumped into ten 50,000 litre tanks. That was the hospital’s water supply for the remaining 11 and a half months of the year. When one visits such a place, one appreciates how much water we waste. The hospital was still able to undertake 2,500 operations a year in those conditions.
I support Senator Whelan’s proposal. It should be examined whether it is feasible to use existing organisations to provide this service rather than setting up a new structure. If savings could be made, this should be considered. It should not be ignored, especially given the NRA has the expertise and it is only a question of bringing in additional staff to deal with this new responsibility.
In 2010, the State spent €1.2 billion supplying water, of which €500 million was allocated to capital investment. Over the previous ten years, more than €5 billion was spent on the water services capital programme. That is a considerable amount of money. We must be economical in terms of continuing to provide a good service while achieving value for money. My colleagues have referred to the savings that have been made in other countries. The Scottish water authority achieved savings of over 40% in real terms through the establishment of a single, centralised body.
It amazed me during last year’s cold weather that when people went to turn off water supplies to their houses they found the stopcocks were buried in concrete or tarmacadam because of road resurfacing. One of the things I noticed in Brussels, where I lived for two years, was that I had to shut off the central valve for the water supply to my apartment when I left it on a Thursday evening. All that is needed to waste a significant amount of water in our schools is to leave two or three toilets dripping over a weekend. It should not be a case of going outside to find a stopcock. Why can we not introduce regulations requiring every property built from now own to have installed an internal valve to control water supply so that people can disconnect the water if they go away for a weekend or a week?
My colleague, Senator Keane, noted that usage decreased when metering was introduced in the UK, Northern Ireland and Denmark. When water metering was introduced for commercial premises in Cork city, a jeweller’s shop which employed two people discovered that it was using 4,500 litres of water per day either due to leaks or because it supplied other buildings. Metering will identify where water is wasted.
We should also consider other mechanisms, such as the aforementioned internal stopcocks, to help people prevent water wastage. I refer in particular to office buildings, schools and public buildings which do not need water during weekends or holiday periods. We should consider new regulations in this area.
I welcome the proposal to centralise the system. I have received complaints from local authority employees who work on the ground to repair sewerage systems and water lines about the mobility of engineers within departments. One workman told me that an engineer never remained in charge of a particular area for longer than 12 months, with the result that those who did the manual work had to provide the expertise. The establishment of a central authority will allow for continuity of staff. Local knowledge is extremely important. When we establish the water authority we should get the best value and the best service possible.
Senator Michael Comiskey: I have a special interest in this area because I operate a small business which employs approximately 15 people to install mains and metering. Senator Mulcahy touched on an issue close to our hearts. When one sets up a company it is important to vet anybody coming from outside. I refer to the problems that arose in the Border counties where Northern Ireland contractors hired sub-contractors before moving out of the jurisdiction and leaving behind huge bills.
I also welcome the scheme introduced by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to encourage farmers to harvest water for washing machines and milking parlours. There is no point in using treated water for that sort of on-farm work. The scheme will also create jobs. I know an individual who is in the business of going to marts and farmers’ yards to sell tanks.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Fergus O’Dowd): This important debate is only the commencement of our deliberations on water services. The legislation is not being rushed and the full details will probably not be finalised until next year. That is not to say, however, that Irish Water will not be established before the summer. We will need time to draw up legislation providing for its powers.
Senators have raised a variety of issues and if I fail to address any points they can raise them again. I would be happy to return to the Seanad whenever it is appropriate to give this issue as much time as it needs, to ensure the messages Senators send are heeded and to return with the answers.
I support those who believe we should have an ainm as Gaeilge. Uisce is fabulous. There was a company in Kerry called Fíoruisce Ciarraí— I knew the individual who ran it — but it has since gone out of business. We cannot call it “uisce beatha” even if whatever amount of uisce Senator Norris desires will be perfectly dilute.
One of the key issues that Senators raised pertained to staff. While it will ultimately be a matter for Irish Water to determine the staffing and skills required for the new organisation, it is likely that the numbers will be lower than those deployed today. These reductions will be achieved over the period to 2018 in a managed way by designing a fit-for-purpose model, eliminating existing duplication of activities, deriving synergies and efficiencies from the delivery of a national service and leveraging technology. These are key issues to address in developing the implementation plan, which will involve close co-operation with local authorities, staff and unions to ensure the change is well managed, taking into account the age profile of staff in the sector and wider local government staffing needs. In the initial phase, Irish Water will largely work through service level agreements with local authorities to ensure a smooth transition to the new model and guard against loss of local expertise.
We engaged with ICTU at the outset of the independent assessment and my Department has written to that organisation about further discussions as part of the consultation process which commenced on 16 January. From a staffing perspective, Irish Water will be able to offer opportunities not otherwise available to those who wish to pursue careers in water services. Increased specialisation will provide routes for career development. As Irish Water will be a public body, considerable protection will be provided by law for staff transferring to it from local authorities. The transition of staff from local authorities to the water utility will involve, as I said, full discussions with staff and unions. That is a key point.
The question about quangos is important, because a few years ago we had so many quangos one could not count them. We are in the business of reducing quangos. First, existing State companies, a number of which have expressed interest, are being seriously considered. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and NewERA are meeting with these bodies to identify how they would do the job if they got it and the criteria that would apply. The intention is most certainly to examine the possibility that the water company will be an amalgamation of existing local authority staff and will include, as many people here have mentioned, an existing organisation. This is what we all want. However, if it is Bord na Móna or the ESB, we must be careful to ensure the new entity is separated from the mothership, as we could call it. The water company would have to be totally separate from its parent company and all of its borrowing requirements and so on would need to be separated. Then there are all sorts of other issues to do with human resources and so on.
What we are talking about is a new body which will achieve, specifically, more coherent and integrated organisational structures, consistent and transparent service quality and rapid deployment of resources to a national consumer service centre with a regional and local presence. That is important, as I said earlier. This is about accountability, nationally, locally and regionally. If there is a problem locally, one can pick up the phone, dial a 1890 number or whatever, and be provided with the answer. There must be total accountability. That is terribly important. There will be a more efficient cost base, lower unit cost of delivery, elimination of duplication and the garnish of advantages due to economies of scale. As I said, in parallel with the consultation process, a detailed review of the State agencies is ongoing.
I mentioned — some Members came in after I had said it — that the water company would need to have due regard to the plans of local and regional authorities. In other words, it cannot decide without consultation. Senator Landy made a good point: how will the company report back in order that we know what is going on? We cannot have the water company turning up at every meeting of county councils and other bodies. Accountability on a customer basis is required. We must work out a transparent, accountable system, so that local authority members have access to the answers they need about their county. There must be two-way messages all the time. Regional authorities have an important function as well, because we are talking about plans based on river basins. We will consider all these points and return to the Senators before actual decisions are made in this regard.
The issue of the Border counties is an important one. Who will get the contracts and how will we invigilate them? For example, I might have a contract for 5,000 houses and decide to employ Johnny Murphy’s contractors to do the job. That is a key issue. Given that this contract will be so important, we will have to make sure we have independent hands-on assessment of where the work is going on, how it is going on, and the capacity of companies to deliver. I presume that if a company is using contractors, accountability will revert to whoever gets the contract. All of these issues will have to be dealt with fully and satisfactorily and there will be no cowboys doing the job. That is the bottom line. We cannot have that, whether north, south, east or west. It is important that the work done meets all the required standards and that those doing it are properly qualified to do the job. There will be significant supervision — not day-to-day, but overall contract supervision — by people who are qualified and know what they are doing. They will make sure, if there are problems, that they are dealt with completely.
Unaccounted-for water is a serious issue. Something like 41% of all water is unaccounted for. This does not necessarily mean it is wasted because, as I discovered, some unaccounted-for water is used in illegal connections that people do not officially know about. This is happening in different parts of the country. I do not know the amount that is diverted in this way but I know it is there. We have 25,000 km of piping around the country. Where there are leaks, we must ensure, as part of the plan, that local authorities have a plan for dealing with unaccounted-for water. It has been significantly addressed in the Dublin region: unaccounted-for water is down to about 28% in the greater Dublin area now, which is very good. I have been told it would be difficult economically to achieve a figure of less than 25%. This is an average international figure and represents good practice, although not best practice. One can find countries — I will not name them, but they are in the Middle East — that have a figure for unaccounted water of zero, but we do not believe those figures. At the same time as improving our resources, we must ensure we are not treating twice the volume we need. This requires hands-on work.
An analysis has been carried out of why the collection rate for charges from non-domestic water users is around 52%. There are legacy issues involved; in other words, the bills owed this month in a particular county include unpaid amounts from companies that may have gone out of business. We need to get to the bottom of this. In addition, a significant amount of the uncollected moneys are owed by group water schemes and so on which have not paid for some time. All of these issues must be addressed. Another problem is that water in County Kildare costs about €1.32 per cubic metre, while the cost in County Wicklow, which adjoins it, is at least double that. Why do we have different charges in different counties? In the context of the new utility, there are strong arguments in favour of one national charge, as is the case for the ESB. There is also an argument, which some people made in today’s newspaper, for regional water charges. We will come back to that issue. If there was a higher regional charge for electricity in the west, where so many more pylons must be erected, than in Dublin city, I do not think people would be too happy. There is a good argument to be made for everyone to share the pain nationally. We all go forward together with the plans, and if Cork benefits from my money, why should it not, if it gets the infrastructure it needs?
One of the key points made was about the cost of local government. Since 2008, the number of people who have left local government across all sectors is 7,500. The amount of money that has been saved is about €350 million; that is the benefit in terms of the wages that do not have to be paid. However, the 7,500 represent 30% of the total workforce that have left the public sector, even though local authority employment makes up only 10% of total employment across the public sector. There have been significant efficiencies in local government, but there has been a considerable reduction in staff compared to the public sector as a whole. That is an important point.
If there are other issues that Members want to raise with me later, I will be happy to deal with them. I thank Senators for their time and for the points they made. To return to the main point, this is consultation. We are listening, and after consultation we will make decisions. We will come back to the Seanad at that stage. We need all the advice and help we can get, and we will take into consideration the points made by everyone, from whatever political party or none. What is best for the country is to move forward under Uisce Éireann, or whatever we are going to call it. Tiocfaidh an t-uisce, agus beidh an tír níos fearr as.
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