Speech under Private Members Motion on Water dated 12 Jan 2011.

Sitting Time 18:40

Sitting Date 12/01/2011

Senator Joe O’Reilly: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. During the freeze, two problems or difficulties arose. First, pipes were generally not deep enough in the ground to withstand the unprecedented drop in temperatures. That should not be the case as we should be ready for eventuality. The fact that pipes are close to the ground surface was a difficulty in many new housing estates. That was the first difficulty.
The second difficulty was that we have a great deal of old infrastructure. Much of the 25,000 kilometres of pipeline is out of date. Obviously, a considerable number of sections are not, but there is a great deal of old piping, certainly where many of the water schemes are old and in the case of old houses. There was a combination of old piping and piping being located near the ground. They were the two major difficulties that arose.
It is worth mentioning that while we have this old infrastructure or infrastructural deficit, at the same time there are many engineers and construction workers in this country. Construction is the sector that has been worst hit by unemployment. There is also a high level of unemployment among engineers in the construction sector and among young graduate engineers. It does not make economic planning or social engineering sense to have unemployed construction workers and engineers and, at the same time, an old and beaten water supply infrastructure. The two do not add up and must be knit together.
The result of the difficulties that arose was extraordinary hardship for farmers and householders. Great tribute should go to the voluntary organisations, neighbours who helped others and to the meitheal approach, or people coming together, that was manifest throughout the storm. That community spirit, especially towards older people, merits salute. Farmers experienced great personal hardship feeding their cattle and accessing water. One farmer who was bringing water to an outlying farm told me that by the time he reached that outlying farm, given the nature of the roads, the water had frozen. It was really perverse. It was a very difficult time. Their effort and human suffering must be acknowledged.
I wish to point out, without being parochial but with great sincerity and notwithstanding any proposals for a national authority which I will discuss later, that I am very proud of the response of Cavan County Council. It was huge, quick and wonderful. The outdoor, professional and technical staff of the council worked overtime, around the clock and went beyond the call of duty. That includes the clerical staff who manned the telephones and responded to the people. They were very responsive to local and national representatives who were regularly on the telephone to them.
End of Take

I acknowledge the role of Cavan County Council. It is important we salute good results when they are achieved, and the response to the storm was certainly good.
How do we finance the necessary infrastructure repair and renewal? We live in times where this question cannot be avoided. It used to be fashionable for people at all levels of politics to call for reform and infrastructural improvement, but not necessarily mention the financial issue. There is no avoiding that issue in contemporary Ireland. With that in mind, Fine Gael has bitten the bullet and, courageously for an Opposition party, we have said that once a certain allowance should be made for absolute domestic supply where a core amount is needed, there would have to be a charge for water after that. It is courageous for a party in Opposition to say that, but it is what the national interest requires at the moment. We propose to finance the infrastructural deficit through the collection of a water charge. The metering process has to go ahead to achieve this. It is difficult to say this in Opposition, but it must be said.
How do we set about replacing the infrastructure, repairing the pipes and accommodating the infrastructure to deal with storms? We have proposed a national water authority. This will not replace the local authorities but will co-ordinate the effort nationally and will streamline the activities of local authorities to allow for a certain homogeneity in approach. There should not be disparate approaches. One of the criticisms has been that there are different responses throughout the country. At budget time, different councils identify different priorities. They scramble for funding and there is no co-ordination. We would hope to achieve that. Over an interim period, the councils would maintain absolute control, but at a later stage, the national co-ordination would go to the water authority which would create a national strategy using the money raised by water charges. It merits mentioning when we think about the money factor. Up to €1 billion per year is being spent on fixing piping. We must also think about the cost of insurance and ancillary costs, so it would make good sense to deal with the question and we would have national body look after it.
Senator Glynn asked whether this body would allow for privatisation. It is clearly stated in our NewERA strategy that we would not sell the electricity or water networks. We would maintain the piping infrastructure at all times and we would maintain the grid in the case of electricity. Only crazy people would do otherwise, and we are not proposing that. That is a red herring and I am sure Senator Glynn would be happy to be corrected on that.
We obviously need to marry the replacement of infrastructure with a national insulation strategy in homes to preserve piping and so on. We need to have pipes buried at a deeper level to accommodate winters that may arise. We must be ready for every eventuality. This will take co-ordination and planning at a national level. We will have a strategy in government that will have a monitoring process to avoid waste. Consequently, we will not allow the new water authority to become some sort of a wasteful organisation. It will have to produce results on a day to day basis.
I will conclude by saluting those who worked hard through a very painful period. This should be the last winter they have to do that, and we should learn from it.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website