Septic tank hype veils public subsidy to rural dwellers


At least 450,000 tanks discharging 250 million litres of effluent daily is simply not sustainable

NOTHING HAS stirred passions more in rural Ireland, it would seem, than the proposed registration and inspection regime for septic tanks. And given that there are at least 450,000 of them – serving farmhouses, bungalows and boom-time mansions – the political pressure being exerted is substantial and widely dispersed.

It has already resulted in Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan cutting the proposed €50 inspection fee to just €5 – “the price of a pint” – although this raises a serious question about whether there will be sufficient funds available to carry out inspections even in the most environmentally sensitive areas, with poor soil percolation.

One of the key points being made by the campaign is that it’s unfair to impose costs on rural dwellers for the maintenance of their septic tanks when hundreds of millions of euro of taxpayers’ money is invested in upgrading sewage treatment plants in cities and towns. Thus, urban dwellers are being subsidised by their rural counterparts.

But are they really? Development levies by local authorities reveal a different story. The average levy for a new house in the countryside amounts to €9,300, with no charge for sewerage, whereas the purchase price of a similar-sized house in an urban area would include a much higher levy of €28,650 – of which €5,350 is for sewerage.

On a wider front, rural dwellers are being heavily subsidised by their urban counterparts to cover the cost of installing electricity and telecoms lines, postal deliveries and school transport services, as shown in a study done by An Foras Forbartha (the National Institute for Physical Planning and Construction Research, abolished in 1988).

In a 1976 report – suppressed because its findings were politically unpalatable at the time – it compared the relative costs of servicing closely knit housing with dispersed one-off housing, and queried “the extent to which the public costs involved are borne by the community at large, thus providing a form of hidden subsidy” to rural dwellers.

For example, it found that postal deliveries to widely dispersed houses were 3½ times more expensive than to urban houses. Nearly 30 years later, planning consultant Diarmuid Ó Gráda estimated that it was four times more expensive. But proposals for more efficient US-style roadside boxes in rural areas were resisted.

On school transport, Ó Gráda estimated that 140,000 kids were being taken to school by State-funded bus every weekday – 96 per cent of them outside the Dublin area – at a cost of €111 million in 2004. Years earlier, An Foras Forbartha said “the financial outlay on the provision of school buses is costing as much as the schools capital programme”.

The cost of waste collection in rural areas is also significantly higher. According to the Foras study, five bins could be collected per minute in an urban area, compared to just 1.4 per minute in a rural area. Similarly, the capital cost of providing telecoms lines was found to be five times more expensive in a rural area with dispersed housing.

Or take electricity. Comparing house frontages of five metres (fairly standard for suburban estates) and 58 metres (the usual length for a house on a half-acre site), the capital costs of providing power lines to serve the latter were 2.4 times higher, according to the 1976 study. Like the other metrics, that’s unlikely to have changed since then.

Ó Gráda found that the built-in subsidy for installing electricity connections was €390 in urban areas in 2003, compared to €865 in rural areas. On an ongoing basis, ESB staff were being paid 41 cent for each urban home and 96 cent for rural ones. And although rural costs were 134 per cent higher, less than half of this was actually charged.

He also noted that, of the €500 million allocated for non-national roads in 2004, only 12 per cent was going on urban roads; the rest (88 per cent) was to be invested rural areas. Yet the proliferation of one-off houses in the countryside – most of them “urban-generated” – represents a major traffic hazard in itself, because of their driveways.

As James Nix and myself noted in Chaos at the Crossroads(2005), the Foras Forbartha study did not examine the septic tank issue in great detail. It looked at what it would cost to link a rural area to a sewerage scheme and calculated it to be five times the cost of urban housing, again based on 58-metre and five-metre frontages.

Examining the issue in 2004, Ó Gráda noted that Ireland had the highest rate of microbial groundwater pollution in the EU, for which he believed farming and domestic sewage were equally to blame. What figures are available indicate that at least 250 million litres of effluent are discharged by the 450,000 homes with septic tanks every day.

And that’s simply not sustainable.

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