Seanad Éireann - Volume 160 - 19 October, 1999

Adjournment Matter. - Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Mr. Ross: I welcome the Minister to the House. The reason I raise this matter is that to my absolute astonishment I received a representation from [949] someone who sails in and out of Arklow on a regular basis and who has for many years been telling me that he is disgusted that the Avoca river is polluted by raw sewage. My initial inquiry suggested this was a problem which would be resolved very quickly and that it was not as bad as either I or he had thought. However, I found to my astonishment that there is no sewage treatment available at all in Arklow. All sewage in Arklow is raw, an astonishing fact in this day and age in a town the size of Arklow. It is more astonishing that we should expect tourists to be attracted to and sail into an area of this sort when raw sewage is a serious problem which has not been tackled.

I bring this to the attention of the Minister because I am well aware that there have been bureaucratic problems in establishing a sewage treatment plant. However, it is a clear case of the planning procedures being inadequate when sewage treatment cannot be provided because of what the Minister will undoubtedly tell us is a problem with planning procedures.

Six years ago an application was made to the county council to build a plant in Seabank. Permission was granted in 1993 – I am open to correction – by Wicklow County Council. This was appealed by objectors to An Bord Pleanála, as happens in many cases of this sort. In a full oral hearing permission was granted by An Bord Pleanála. For some reason, which I hope the Minister will explain, the scheme was not funded by the Department of the Environment and Local Government within the life of the planning permission. I do not know why this is so and I am interested to hear the reason from the Minister. Neither did the Cohesion Funding come from Europe. Therefore, there was a delay in funding from Europe and the Department in 1993. This was one of the reasons why the planning permission expired in February 1999. It is extraordinary.

New planning permission was granted in July this year. This was again appealed by the objectors in August 1999 to An Bord Pleanála and we are waiting the result of that process. In the meantime I gather that the objectors have taken two actions to the High Court, and this is the complication. I am sure the Minister will be familiar with this by the time he has read his speech. One action is for a judicial review to quash the planning permission granted by Wicklow County Council. The other action, which makes the issue even more complicated, is to prevent An Bord Pleanála from hearing the appeal until the judicial review has been decided.

We have, therefore, an extraordinary situation with a judicial review, delays, High Court actions, ministerial inaction and lack of funding which has resulted in the Avoca river being a cesspool. The result is that people from overseas visit Arklow and never return and that the development of the entire town is hindered. I do not wish to put too [950] fine a tooth on it, but the crude sewage which results every time a person flushes their lavatory in Arklow goes into the river and then the sea. If this is not a recipe for driving people out of a town this size, I do not know what is.

I do not want to hear the Minister reply, as officials often do in documents written by them, that nothing can be done because of the bureaucratic procedures. What is necessary is a change in the planning laws, because we are tired of hearing Ministers, county councils and others saying there is nothing they can do. The Minister is part of the Government and what I want to hear is not an explanation of the history of the issue, which I have outlined to save him the trouble, but a declaration of intent as to what he will do so this particular incident is not repeated elsewhere on the coast of Ireland.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. D. Wallace): I thank Senator Ross for raising this matter. Unfortunately the Minister is unable to be in the House and has asked me to respond on his behalf.

The Minister is aware of the need to ensure that the town of Arklow, the Avoca river and surrounding amenities are provided with the appropriate level of waste water treatment so that these great national assets are not damaged. The Avoca river and the Wicklow coastline and beaches are valuable natural resources that are important to the growth areas of tourism and amenity. The continued development of water and sewerage services is fundamental to the development and expansion of the local economy. It is vital that investment in these services will be maintained at its current high level so the necessary infrastructure is available to meet domestic, commercial, tourism and recreational requirements.

The provision of a modern environmental infrastructure at national level to support economic objectives and successes is a high priority of the Government. This has been, and continues to be, well demonstrated by the current huge level of investment in the water and sanitary services programme countrywide. This year the Minister announced a capital programme of £275 million, which represents an increase of 50 per cent on 1998, and is the highest ever annual investment in the water services programme.

Wicklow has benefited substantially from the 1999 water services investment programme, with the inclusion of the Rathdrum sewerage scheme as a major public scheme to start construction this year at an estimated cost of £1.5 million. Arklow water supply scheme and Wicklow town sewerage scheme are included for advancement through planning in 1999, with estimated costs of £5.4 million and £18 million, respectively. Funding has been provided for six schemes under the service land initiative which will provide over 4,000 hous[951] ing sites countywide. The Exchequer provides 40 per cent of the funding for these schemes.

Arklow main drainage has also been included in the water and sewerage services investment programme to advance through planning in 1999. The estimated cost of the scheme is in excess of £10 million. It includes a sewage treatment plant north of the town on the coast at Seabank and will involve construction of a new network of sewers and renovation of existing pipework. The preliminary report for the scheme was approved in April 1997 and the Minister approved the appointment of consultants for the scheme in September 1998.

When the Arklow main drainage scheme went through the planning process, an environmental impact statement was prepared and planning permission was granted by Wicklow County Council in March 1993. An Bord Pleanála upheld the planning approval following an appeal. A compulsory purchase order was approved in November 1995.

On 13 July 1999, Wicklow County Council granted a ten year permission for the waste water treatment works and associated sewers and roads at Seabank, subject to conditions. The permission has been appealed and a decision is awaited from [952] An Bord Pleanála. Until the appeal has been dealt with, it will not be possible to advance the scheme any further.

As I have indicated, funding has been approved for the scheme to go through the preliminary stages and the Senator's comments will be borne in mind when the matter of construction can be considered.

Mr. Ross: The Minister's response is totally unsatisfactory. There is a gap, which I hoped he might fill, between the years 1993 and 1999 and there is no explanation why nothing was done about this matter. It seems to concern funding but I have not had an adequate explanation from him. I would like him to indicate a date by which action will be taken or, alternatively, if he hides behind the excuse of the planning laws, an indication of changes he will make to the planning laws to ensure that these bureaucratic delays do not go on. I would like a reply – the Minister has to reply.

Mr. D. Wallace: I assure the Senator that we are as concerned as anybody about this project and as anxious that it would be up and running as soon as possible.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 20 October 1999.