Problems in sewerage system delay Tallaght housing development

Irish Water refuses to issue feasibility cert for planning permission for 236 homes

Independent councillor for Tallaght, Mick Duff, at a site in Cookstown   which is being proposed for a strategic housing development.  Photograph: Laura Hutton

Independent councillor for Tallaght, Mick Duff, at a site in Cookstown which is being proposed for a strategic housing development. Photograph: Laura Hutton

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Conor Martin is just about ready to seek fast-track planning approval for 236 new homes near Tallaght in west Dublin, exactly the sort of project the Government is trying to encourage as it battles to boost housing supply. But he has a big problem.

Mr Martin, head of development at Belvedere Living, can’t go to An Bord Pleanála without Irish Water paperwork and it won’t give him the document he needs – a certificate of feasibility – because of a problem with the sewerage system.

If everything went to plan, Mr Martin would have the certificate after 16 weeks. But he has been waiting 16 months, increasingly frustrated by what he considers to be an unacceptable delay in the middle of a housing crisis.

“It’s unprofessional to be dealing in this way at this level of large development projects, where we should be given co-operation and assistance to deliver housing from all Government bodies,” he said.

Computer-generated image of the Glen Abbey strategic housing development in Cookstown, west Dublin: Irish Wahar has withdrawn its certificate of feasibility. Image: Glen Abbey Complex SHD
Computer-generated image of the Glen Abbey strategic housing development in Cookstown, west Dublin: Irish Wahar has withdrawn its certificate of feasibility. Image: Glen Abbey Complex SHD

The site in question is in Cookstown, where an old industrial estate has been earmarked for thousands of new homes to meet surging demand. Far from moving ahead swiftly with building work, Mr Martin is in limbo and concerned the deadline for making fast-track applications for strategic housing developments (SHDs) looms in February.

Irish Water won’t discuss individual projects. But sewage problems are nothing new in a creaking system that dates to the late 1800s in many areas and requires huge spending to modernise.

Environment Protection Agency (EPA) data show 12 waste water treatment plants don’t meet EU standards and raw sewage is still being discharged in 34 areas. “There are some significant issues there,” said Noel Byrne, a senior EPA waste water inspector. “We have identified 97 priority areas where there’s improvement needed to waste water infrastructure.”

Investment

Irish Water has invested heavily on improvements to waste water infrastructure, spending €308 million in 2019 and €230 million in 2018, with big projects under way in Dublin at Blanchardstown, the upper Liffey Valley and Loughshinny.

Yet there is a mountain still to climb. With an accumulated shortfall of 120,000 homes and an estimated need for 30,000 new units every year, experts say constraints on the sewerage system in many areas of the State have curtailed the ability to deliver new houses and apartments.

“I won’t say that it’s going to stop things happening but it’s certainly going to delay things happening. I’m not sure what the housing targets are for 2022 and 2023 but I think there’s absolutely no chance in hell of us achieving them anyway,” said Mark McConnell, an environmental consultant with Ecos in Limerick.

“If you can’t start a project, you can’t finish it and this will be a reason why projects can’t start or don’t even get off the drawing boards.”

The problem confronting Mr Martin in Cookstown lies in a bottleneck on the Dodder Valley sewerage network near the N81 Tallaght bypass dual carriageway. Large volumes of storm water flow into the system when it rains heavily, risking floods of noxious waste water.

Irish Water has been assessing the situation since 2018, with survey work almost complete. “We will have a clearer view as to what solutions are required by July,” it said. “Once we have identified the upgrades required, we will invest in the networks to provide the capacity to support housing, subject to funding and planning approvals.”

The Blanchardstown Regional Drainage Scheme is one of a number of Irish Water projects under way. Photograph: Irish Water
The Blanchardstown Regional Drainage Scheme is one of a number of Irish Water projects under way. Photograph: Irish Water

Withdrawal of certs

Just when any capital or remedial work might be done remains uncertain. But emerging data on the sewerage constraints led Irish Water to withdraw certificates of feasibility it previously issued for two fast-track planning applications that are already in process and are supposed to deliver a total of 1,274 apartments. These are from Square Foot Property Services whose plans are submitted as Glen Abbey Complex SHD and from Joseph Costello Absolute Limousines.

Property industry sources said such applications simply can’t proceed without the paperwork, so the move has interrupted the delivery of new homes.

Like councillors throughout the State, members of South Dublin County Council dislike SHD fast-track planning schemes because they cut the local authority from the approval process. Still, they say Irish Water’s move to declare two feasibility certificates invalid has raised questions over the prospects of other housing projects proceeding in Cookstown and other parts of Tallaght.

“I didn’t support these two projects and I’m not heartbroken over the rescinding of the certificates,” said Mick Duff, an Independent councillor for Tallaght. But he added: “What impact will it have on proposals for student accommodation and other family homes that are being proposed in those areas?

“In the middle of a housing crisis it can be very significant... even on the small-scale plans that South Dublin County Council would have for the provision of accommodation for elderly people or single or two-bed units in the central Tallaght area. Have we taken into account this apparent bottleneck in the waste water system?”

Such problems are not confined to Dublin. Seán Canney, Independent TD in Galway East, said several new housing projects were being held back in Athenry, Craughwell, Corrofin and Abbeyknockmoy because of the lack of sewerage capacity. “They’re all gone off the agenda. There is nothing happening with them and Irish Water don’t have any money to do anything about them,” he said.

“We’re talking about building houses and we don’t have the infrastructure. If you want to build affordable houses, rather than building them in the cities you should be building them in the towns and the villages and doing your regeneration as well as actually bringing people to live there.”

Mr McConnell, the consultant, cautioned that there was no quick solution. “There has been decades of under-investment in sewerage networks and waste water treatment plants throughout Ireland and Irish Water essentially inherited a basket case,” he said.

“They have some of the best technical minds working for them. But even if they were given unlimited budgets, they physically couldn’t upgrade everything to the standard within relatively short periods of time.”

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