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Risk of water service 'failure' if Irish Water continues to operate through local authorities, civil servants warn new Minister

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Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien TD

Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien TD

Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien TD

A lack of streamlined delivery is hitting the supply of safe, clean water across the country and service ‘failure’ is now threatened, civil servants have warned their new Minister.

There is a ‘disconnect’ in the local provision of water to consumers and corporates because an old and different arrangement was spatchcocked onto Irish Water, Darragh O'Brien has been warned.

The new Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has been told in a briefing document that Irish Water largely operates through local authorities.

It uses a system of Service Level Agreements (SLAs) to do so – a politically-imposed bridging move to prevent large scale redundancies in local authority water sections provoking a public outcry.

“While the agreements have worked effectively to get the utility up and running, the limitations of this way of working is now beginning to impact on service delivery,” Mr O’Brien is bluntly told in the briefing document.

The mismatch in management and provision “is increasing the risks of service failure,” senior civil servants have written in unusually blunt language.

“Risks are being introduced in the delivery of assured water and wastewater supplies as a result of the disconnect between Irish Water’s legal responsibility for water services and actual delivery on the ground by local authorities,” the document says.

It also reveals that a process is now underway to bring the SLA arrangements to an end next year – when they were originally scheduled to run until 2025.

The Department is engaged with Irish Water, the trade unions and the local government system on moving more quickly towards an integrated single public utility.

“There are significant issues to be resolved to achieve this objective,” Minister O’Brien is told, with similar challenges “in relation to the holding of a referendum on water.”

The three-party Programme for Government commits to referring the issue of Constitutional recognition of a right to water to an Oireachtas Committee.

In parallel with such “major transformation,” Irish Water is also being separated from the parent Ervia Group. This will require legislation “and further significant organisational change,” Mr O’Brien is guided, raising the possibility of further dysfunction, at least during the transition.

Meanwhile an additional 330 million litres of treated water a day is needed in the Greater Dublin and midlands region by 2050, the report notes.

In 2015, Irish Water embarked on an extensive public consultation process to identify a new source of water supply for the capital, which will be the single biggest project it will ever undertake.

“It will take up to 10 years to complete.” Irish Water is still working on the detailed design and “in the meantime, the water supply in Dublin is currently running at capacity.”

Irish Water says it is taking both short-term and medium-term measures to deliver additional supply while the longer-term solution is put in place.

Meanwhile all aspects of housing policy will need to respond to emerging demographic challenges ahead, the briefing cautions the Minister.

And if Covid-19 has struck at the very rationale for nursing homes, then old folks’ homes are also in question, the document suggests. If the elderly instead stay in their homes, it will block new stock from coming on the market.

“The ageing of our population represents a significant demographic and societal challenge, with the number of people over the age of 65 expected to reach 1.4 million by 2040,” or nearly a quarter of the total population, the Minister is told.

“The issues raised regarding nursing homes during the Covid-19 crises are also relevant in this regard.”

The National Plan identifies a need for at least 25,000 new homes every year to 2040, to accommodate around one million additional people in Ireland and recognises that this will need to be at a level of around 30,000 homes per annum in the years to 2027.

“Notwithstanding Covid 19, the supply pipeline remains strong, with almost 50,000 new homes granted planning permission in the year to March 2020. On this basis, it is feasible that housing supply could increase to almost 30,000 homes per annum by 2022,” the briefing declares.

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