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Minister Phelan's Speech to the Water Services National Training Group Annual Conference 2019

Published on Thursday, 10 Oct 2019
John Paul Phelan TD

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Deputy Lord Mayor, Chairperson of the Water Services Training Group, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to join you this morning to open this 23rd Annual Conference of the Water Services Training Group. Before you face into your agenda, I want on behalf of Minister Eoghan Murphy and myself to acknowledge the hard work being undertaken by all of you and your colleagues who work in the sector to deliver and develop essential water services to citizens and customers on a 24-7 basis.

The theme of this year’s conference “Delivering Sustainable Water Services” is very timely.  In recent year’s we have seen storm, flood and drought weather conditions follow in quick succession.  With the commitment of Irish Water, local authorities and group water schemes, the public continued to receive water. Today is an opportunity to reflect on the operation of our systems and structures to learn, develop, plan and improve. This applies to our infrastructure, the management and protection of water sources, as well as the people who work on the ground.

Sustainability is key.  It speaks of the need to make the best use of our water resources particularly in the light of climate change and the threat to the natural environment.  But it goes beyond that. Sustainability is not an abstract concept.  Water services are critical to the wellbeing of Ireland.  They underpin our communities and our businesses.  Their sustainable management is imperative for social, environmental and economic reasons.

The presentation from Irish Water on the National Water Resources Plan will be of particular importance in setting out how we secure sustainable and reliable drinking water supplies over the next 25 years having regard to changing climate, demographics and economic development. The Government will also be publishing in the coming weeks a suite of Climate Adaptation plans, including a plan covering the water services and water quality areas to guide us as we adapt to the changes which climate impacts are bringing. While we face many challenges, it is important to remember that a lot has been achieved. By continuing to work together we will succeed in delivering the modern and effective water services that our citizens and businesses expect and deserve. Today’s programme I think captures the sustainability agenda very well.  There is a good balance between policy and practice in addressing key operational and delivery challenges.

Government’s Vision

When I spoke at this conference two years ago in 2017 in Kilkenny we were coming out of a period of intense public debate about how water services should be delivered and paid for. Since then, legislation has formally ended domestic water charges, and refunds have been made. While that was the end of one chapter, it was the beginning of another. Now that the funding model is determined, the focus has now shifted to developing and modernising our water services.

In May 2018, the Government approved and launched our Water Services Policy Statement covering the period up 2025.  This was the first such policy statement prepared by any Government. It is now guiding investment planning and is being implemented. Based on this statement the Irish Water Strategic Funding Plan for 2019-2024, was put in place this time last year. The Strategic Funding Plan is made up of a €6.1 billion investment in infrastructure and assets and €4.9 billion in operating costs.  This is the right balance to deliver services in the present, and to plan for the future. This significant multi-billion euro investment Plan will support the continued operation, repair and upgrading of the country’s water and wastewater infrastructure.  It is underpinning social and economic development across the State and is protecting of our water environment.

In 2018 alone, 10 water treatment plants were newly constructed or upgraded by Irish Water.  11 wastewater treatment plants were newly constructed or upgraded. We are investing in the present, but we have a vision for the years ahead and beyond. The Water Services Policy Statement’s three thematic areas of quality, conservation, and future proofing, are closely aligned with the two pillars of Project Ireland 2040. 

The National Development Plan estimates that close to €14 billion will be required by Irish Water over the period to the mid-2030s.  The Government is providing this necessary investment. Policy and investment planning on water services also dovetails with the Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness, which remains a top policy priority for Government. Just as importantly, we are making sure that value for money is achieved.  This investment must be spent in an efficient and effective way.  We are now in a new era of Governance, Oversight and Accountability in relation to the delivery of Water Services.  The role of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities critical in regulating the water sector.

Other key bodies are also now in place and have been put on a statutory footing.  The National Water Forum – An Fóram Uisce is giving a voice to citizens and stakeholders.  The Water Advisory Body is in place and reports directly to the Oireachtas. The Government’s ambition for water services is matched by a funding commitment.  A shared understanding is in place between Government and Irish Water of the broad financial parameters and investment priorities. We are all working together – Government, local authorities and Irish Water to translate this vision into action.

Policy Developments

I know that Feargal O’Coigligh, Assistant Secretary for the Water Division in my Department will address you on some of the key policy areas before the Department at the moment. However, I would like to highlight a couple of issues. The proposals by Irish Water to fully integrate its operations, which was a subject of the Conference last year, will be of keen interest to many present here, as it will give rise to significant organisational change for Irish Water and for local authorities and their staff. The Government wants to see an agreed outcome on how this is achieved and the Workplace Relations Commission engagements which are now underway provide an opportunity to reach that outcome – an outcome that will be of long term benefit to staff and to the people of Ireland who all depend on modern water services.

Ownership has become central to the public debate on the future of our water services. The Government is firmly committed to public water services remaining in public ownership.  This position is outlined in the Water Services Policy Statement 2018-2025, which I have spoken about already, and is reflected in the Water Services Acts. There is also proposed legislation to allow for a constitutional referendum to be held on this issue. Minister Murphy is working proactively to achieving a wording proposal that will have broad cross-party support.  He is confident that work on a revised wording can be concluded which would facilitate the holding of a referendum in the first half of 2020, subject to the approval of Government and the adoption of the relevant Bill by the Oireachtas, which ultimately determines the holding of a referendum.

Rural Water Review

I also want to say a few words about the Rural Water Programme. In parallel with the funding of the public water system nationwide, the Government is prioritising funding for the group water sector and for owners of private wells.  This is informed by the work of an expert Working Group put in place in 2018, which is reviewing the investment needs required to improve and sustain rural water services. Capital funding for the Multi-annual Rural Water Programme for 2020 has risen to €25 million and this level of funding is being maintained during 2021. In addition to this, a further €24 million is being spent annually to support the on-going operational costs of group water schemes. Through the Working Group we will continue to develop the policy responses to plan for the future and guide the decisions by the Government on rural water services.

Water Quality

The River Basin Management Plan for Ireland 2018-2021 is now in its second year of implementation. The Plan outlines the measures the State and other sectors are taking to improve water quality in Ireland’s groundwater, rivers, lakes, estuarine and coastal waters in the period to 2021. With effective implementation, Ireland can expect to see actions to improve water quality in over 700 water bodies, with changes in agricultural approaches and an increase in urban wastewater treatment leading to reduced pollution pressures.

Conclusion

I hope today provides much opportunity for learning, dialogue and new ideas. The Government’s vision for water services is that they are delivered and developed in compliance with legal obligations and in a fair and cost-effective manner. Water resources must be managed in keeping with the principles of social, economic and environmental stability. I think these are objectives that we all share. 

I want to finish as I started in acknowledging the work done by all in the sector who deliver us with vital water services. This work is as much a vocation as a job, and the impact on all of our lives is profound. With Government support through policy and resources we can all deliver our shared objectives together. I wish you well with the rest of the conference.

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