Historically, sanitation and public health were key local government function. The modern local authority system had its origin in the creation of sanitary authorities in rural and urban areas in the 19th century for the purpose of the provision of water supply and sewerage.
The initial principal Local Government Acts comprised of various Public Health Acts at the end of the l19th century. These acts have been updated and amended and consolidated into general local government legislation.
There is now specific legislation in relation to environmental protection. This is dealt with by the local authorities and in respect of certain larger scale operations by the environmental protection agencies. See our separate section on environmental law.
Planning legislation is a key local government function. Local governments make development plans setting out the land uses throughout their district. In modern times the development plan is a much more sophisticated document dealing both with land use in various categories of land use. Individual planning decisions are made by the professional planning officers of the authority. See our separate section on planning law.
Drains and Sewers
The Public Health Act established sanitary authorities in each district. Until Irish Water was established, most local authorities were also sanitary authorities for their areas. All local authorities except some town councils are sanitary authorities for their area.
Local authorities are obliged to provide public sewers. The sanitary authority refers to the council in its capacity as sanitary authority. Most sewers are vested in the sanitary authority. This is significant in that the sanitary authority is obliged to maintain them and has powers of access, repair, etc. Originally, a sewer referred to any conduit from the point it serves more than one premises.
Certain conduits which serve more than one property are deemed combined drains. They need not be maintained by the authorities. They are a single private drain used for two or more premises. They are usually in the immediate vicinity of and serve a handful of premises only. There can be difficulties in distinguishing between a sewer and a defined drain unless they are specifically designated as such.
If the local authority fails to maintain sewers there is a procedure by which complaint may be made to the Department of the Environment and Local Government. The Department may undertake an enquiry and order the authority to comply with its duties. The Minister may apply to Court for an Order compelling the authority to comply with its duties.
Connection to Sewers
The local authority may require persons to connect to sewers if it believes the premises are not being serviced in a satisfactory manner. The sewer must be within 100 feet.
Formerly there was a right for a premises to connect to an existing sewer within a certain distance. Because of compensation claims in planning refusal cases, premises constructed after the 1990 Act commenced, are limited in such rights. The consent of the sanitary authority is required.
Generally, planning permission has conditions dealing with the connection to the public sewers or other provision. Where planning permission is applied for adjoining an existing sewer the planning permission acts as a consent to connect to the sewer.
In other areas where there is no public sewer, there may be provision/condition for connection to a septic tank or equivalent system. Within the last 20 years, the provisions of private effluent treatment plants have been common under planning permissions. In some cases, such effluent treatment plants are privately maintained and financed by contributions under a contract or lease arrangement.
The other sanitary function of the sanitary authority was formerly the provision of water. The sanitary authority has a general duty to provide water for public and private purposes. It has a general power to construct sewerage facilities, apparatus, treatment plants etc. The authority has provisions to construct and maintain all the apparatus, plant equipment, reservoirs etc necessary for water provision.
County councils and city councils are sanitary authorities for water purposes. Sanitary authorities have an obligation to maintain pure and wholesome water. There are detailed water standards many of which emanate from European Union requirements which bind local authorities.
The Drinking Water Directive sets minimum water quality requirements. This is binding on local authorities. It is likely that the obligations under EU law in respect of quality of water may be enforced by direct legal action against local authorities for compensation.
Local authorities could charge or meter non-domestic supply. At earlier periods there were water charges payable for residential properties. See separately in relation to Irish Water and the revised legislation.
There are detailed provisions in relation to water pollution. See our chapter on water pollution in our environmental law section. Broadly speaking it is an offence to allow pollutants to enter water. A licence is required for discharges by non-domestic premises into any waters or aquifers.
Powers of Authority I
The sanitary authority may require the owner of a premises to connect to the public water supply. The premises must not be properly supplied and be within 100 feet of a connection.
In the case of both the sewer and watermains, the council has powers to bring the pipes and conduits to private land to make the connection. Generally, compensation must be paid.
The local authorities have the widest rights to acquire land, build apparatus, plants, treatment plants etc. for the purpose of acquiring and supplying water.
Sanitary authorities may acquire lands for the purpose of undertaking their functions. They are entitled to carry sewers and water mains through lands within their premises. A sewer may be brought to any district upon giving reasonable notice to the occupier. Some of the legislation does not require obtaining a Court Order although modern constitutional principles would suggest that this is prudent.
Powers of Authority II
Generally, the local authority can apply to the District Court for Orders authorising them to enter lands for the purpose of making, repairing or examining the relevant water apparatus. It is an offence willfully to obstruct the sanitary authority, its agents or employees in relation to such works. A Court Order must be obtained before the authority can obtain a conviction for obstruction.
The sanitary authority can undertake works and lay sewers outside of its district. More elaborate procedures apply.
Land may be acquired for the purpose of water or other apparatus. The general compulsory purchase powers would generally be used. The owner of the land would be entitled to compensation for damage caused by a result of a sanitary authority laying the sewer.
Sanitary authorities have powers to compulsory enter lands and lay sewers. They will not be liable for the act of doing the work itself. However, if the work is done negligently they may be liable for specific loss and damage that may occur.
If an agreement cannot be obtained on compensation, it is referred to arbitration. See generally our chapter on compulsory acquisition.
Prior to the more modern detailed environmental legislation, sanitary authorities relied on wide powers to prevent so-called statutory nuisances. The focus was generally in terms of the prospective risk to public health.
The authority may apply to the District Court to abate a nuisance which is injurious to public health. Under certain circumstances the, local authority can enter without a Court Order.
The nuisance may relate to the state of the premises. The matters aimed at include anything injurious to the quality comfort of life or injurious to health. The purpose is to improve livithe ng conditions of persons in the vicinity. These areas have largely been overtaken by modern legislation, for example, in relation to noise pollution, building regulations, private laws of nuisances, environmental controls.
The list of so called statutory nuisances include: pools, watercourses, cesspits, animals kept to be such as to be a nuisance or injurious to health, accumulation of waste or deposits which may be nuisance other injurious to health.
In relation to animals any keeping of excess animals, dogs etc. may be removed, accumulation or deposit which is a nuisance or injurious to health. This may include any deposit of building materials, scrap, refuse, etc. In practice, this legislation may be overtaken by legislation and planning.
Overcrowding houses which are dangers to health: in practice, this area has been overtaken by Housing Act legislation and unfit and overcrowded houses as well as private rented dwellings legislation.
Air furnaces, fireplaces which do not consume smoke arising from combustion: as with other areas this nuisance is largely overtaken by air pollution. The sanity authority may apply to the District Court. Notices are served requiring the abatement or removal of the nuisance. This may include undertaking works. A time limit is set. Following the failure proceedings can be brought in the District Court. The Order may set out works to be required.
Local authorities have powers to control dangerous structures. A number of incidents occurred over the last 40 to 50 years by which buildings fell into disrepair and became a danger to the public. The legislation in relation to dangerous buildings and structures operates in tandem with the derelict sites legislation.
Where a building, wall or other structure is likely to be dangerous to any person or property the sanitary authority may give notice to the owner or occupier requiring works within a certain period. This may include demolition. The notice can require termination or modification of the use of the structure.
The local authority may enter the premises to carry out the works if they are of the opinion it is necessary in the interests of the safety of any person. The local authority may apply to the District Court if the notice is not complied with. There is power to enter in an emergency.
If the person is not served with the notice, called a dangerous building notice, the local authority may apply to the District Court for an order directing the carrying out of the works or in the alternative authorising the authority to carry out the work.
The Court Order may also prohibit the use of the structure. The court may prohibit the repair and letting of the structure until remedial costs incurred by the authority are discharged.
The sanitary authority may require persons occupying a dangerous structure to vacate it. It may apply to the District Court for an Order directing compliance. The Order may be enforced with the assistance of an Gardai.
The local authority can require the demolition of structures that are dangerous.
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