Monday 27 February 2017

Taxpayer to pick up bill after Hogan septic tank levy U-turn

Fiach Kelly Political Correspondent

THE taxpayer will ultimately pick up a shortfall of up to €20m after Environment Minister Phil Hogan yesterday climbed down on controversial septic tank charges.

Mr Hogan announced the registration fee for septic tank owners would be reduced from €50 to €5 for a limited time.

The move was welcomed by campaigners, who had piled pressure on the Government. It will embolden groups opposed to the €100 household charge -- also brought in by Mr Hogan to fund services provided by councils.

However, there were questions last night about how a charge originally pitched at €50 could be slashed so dramatically -- by the man commonly seen as Fine Gael's enforcer -- without knock-on effects for taxpayers.

Mr Hogan's original plan to charge €50 each to the 485,000 who own septic tanks would have brought more than €24m to the public purse.

With that amount dramatically slashed because the Government is encouraging as many as possible to sign up early for the special fee, the income will be only €2.4m -- just 10pc of what was expected.

The anticipated €24m was factored in to reduced budgets for local councils who would have to rely on it and the household charge to boost their coffers.

The cash generated by the €50 registration fee was initially pencilled in to pay for septic tank inspections. This work will be carried out by local authority staff, once all tanks are registered next year.

Mr Hogan's spokeswoman said this cost will now be borne by the councils -- meaning it will potentially need to be made up from other taxpayers' funds. However, Mr Hogan insisted the cost would not be as high as initially feared, as not all tanks will be inspected.

There will be targeted inspections instead. For example, if local water supplies or streams are found to be contaminated, staff will look up the registered tanks nearby to see if any are causing pollution. "I don't envisage the scheme is going to be very expensive at all to administer, because local authority staff will be involved in the inspections, and they will receive training from the Environmental Protection Agency," Mr Hogan said. "If people have a problem arising from inspection, all they will be required to do is clean out their tank and de-sludge their system and carry out some maintenance work."

The Carlow-Kilkenny TD said he wanted to avoid situations like the cryptosporidium outbreak which left Galway city without safe drinking water for three months in 2007 -- which he said "was damaging to households, damaging to businesses and damaging to jobs".

Rural groups were celebrating last night after spending months campaigning against the charge.

Opponents have argued that rural dwellers have already paid for their tanks through planning permission costs when they applied to build their homes.

Rural

Irish Farmers' Association President John Bryan said the €5 announcement would "come as a relief to hundreds of thousands of people", but called on a retro-fit grant scheme for those who will have to upgrade tanks.

This was echoed by Fianna Fail's environment spokesman Niall Collins and Sinn Fein's Brian Stanley.

"The cost of registration is a drop in the ocean for septic tank owners, compared to the potential cost of replacing or upgrading tanks that fail inspection," Mr Collins said.

Mr Hogan's spokeswoman said the issue of upgrades would not arise until next year when inspections would start.

She added: "We're not in the business of writing blank cheques like the last government". However, she said genuine "hardship cases" would be looked at.

The European Court of Justice ruled in 2009 that Ireland had broken EU law for failing to enact legislation to deal with domestic waste water from septic tanks and other treatment systems.

Independent Mattie McGrath TD yesterday described the €5 announcement as "a sop" but he came in for further criticism last night from the minister who said he had been engaged in "misinformation".

Speaking before a public meeting on the issue in Co Tipperary, Mr McGrath said the minister should have announced the regulations before now.

Irish Independent

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