South Tipperary Co. Council is to suffer another major blow to its status by ceding responsibility for the county’s water and waste water services and infrastructure to a new national public utility company over the next five years.
The news was broken to the Co. Council’s elected members at a meeting on Monday where they were given a detailed presentation on the Government’s plans to transfer the responsibility for all aspects of water services from the country’s 34 county and city councils to the public utility company, Irish Water, by 2017.
The new public utility will also have responsibilty for collecting the new domestic water charges the Government is planning to introduce.
The major reform, decided by the Cabinet in December, represents a further significant diminution of the public services South Tipperary Co. Council provides.
Last October, the Council sold its long standing refuse collection service to a private company. On top of this, the Council is being amalgamated with North Tipperary Co. Council.
Water services accounts for 18% of the Council’s annual budget and amounts to €12m a year, excluding annual capital and rural water programme investment.
There are currently 53 staff in the Council’s water and waste water services section and their work is supported by five revenue collectors and 12 town and borough council staff assigned full-time or part-time to water duties.
Water service staff will be transferred to the new Irish Water company, which will operate regionally but it’s expected that there will be some staff reductions as it’s envisaged that the number of employees required for Irish Water will be “significantly lower” than the 4300 staff currently involved in water services across all the local authorities.
Jim Harney, the Council’s Acting Director for Water and Environment Services, said negotiations would be taking place with water services staff and their trade unions in relation to the transfer.
He said staff will have concerns and he imagined the discussions will be difficult. “There will be concerns obviously from a security of jobs point of view and also in relation to salaries. There is going to be a lot of negotiations on this,” he said.
There was widespread dismay and opposition to the proposed reform expressed by councillors at the meeting.
A motion, proposed by Cllr John Crosse (FG) and seconded by Cllr Sean Lonergan (Lab), was passed calling on the Government to retain water services as the responsibility of county councils and calling for other local authorities to do the same.
Councillors were informed that the Government is seeking their views on its plans for reform of the water sector but the closing date for submissions is this Friday, February 24.
Council Chairman Cllr Michael Fitzgerald (FG) said this was the most seismic change to the way local authorities work throughout the country that he had ever witnessed and it would certainly change the role public representatives had in the area of water services.
He questioned what benefit the creation of other centralised bodies like the National Roads Authority and HSE had been to road and health services but echoed Jim Harney’s phrase that the “train had left the station” on this matter, namely that the establishment of Irish Water was going ahead regardless.
Fianna Fail Cllr Sylvia Cooney-Sheehan said the Government’s decision was wrong because she believed there was nothing better than the local knowledge of water services that you get with the Co. Council where leakages reported by the public were dealt with so promptly.
“I would hate to see that standard of service deteriorating and I think it will happen if water services are removed from the councils,” she said.
Independent Cllr Eddie O’Meara from Mullinahone said on the one hand the Minister for Environment was saying the powers of local authorities were going to be increased but on the other hand councils powers were being eroded bit by bit and this was another step in that erosion of powers.
Another Independent Cllr Denis Leahy feared the creation of Irish Water was paving the way for the country’s water services to be privatised where profit will be the main focus.
Cllr Michael Murphy (FG), however, said the fact that much of South Tipperary’s water mains were more than 50 years old was down to lack of investment in water services nationally. He saw some merit in the transfer of the water services capital investment programme to a national utility that would have the capacity to borrow on the international markets as envisaged with Irish Water, but only if it resulted in increased investment in South Tipperary’s water infrastructure.
Cllr Murphy stressed that he strongly believed that routine maintenance of the water infrastructure system should remain the responsibility of the local authorities.
Several councillors criticised the short time frame they were given to lodge submissions to the Government on its plans for reform of the water sector.
It was decided to submit to the Government a synopsis of the views expressed by councillors at the meeting on the issue.