The Labour Party regard this Bill as dishonest, badly drafted and totally at variance with the statements made by the Minister in his opening speech. It was no surprise to me that the Minister's speech was so historically short. Anybody introducing this Bill in the context in which it has been introduced would be extremely shy about saying anything. I want to try and explain why I have made that kind of charge against a Minister for whom I have some regard. In this instance, willingly or unwillingly, he is the voice for what can be described only as a rather nasty hatchet job between a number of Government Departments.
We are told this is an enabling Bill for local authorities throughout the country. A lot of valuable parliamentary draftsmen's time has gone into its drafting. A lot of Dáil time—because we have a full Order Paper—will be used in this and the other House debating it. If the Minister was simply the Minister for Roads there would be some justification for introducing such a Bill. But I would sincerely and respectfully suggest to the Minister and his advisors that had they dusted the files on local government reform and removed theultra vires restriction that currently prevents local authorities from taking initiatives in the form in which this Bill now enables them, a far better day's work would have been done without the contradictions buried in the fine print of the Bill. Let us not fool ourselves about it being an enabling Bill and the apparent neutral umbrella under which such a Bill can sail through this House. There are other ways of providing enabling legislation that would be much more beneficial to all local authorities and would achieve the Minister's objective in this regard. I do not regard the Bill as simply an enabling one in that sense although, in the strict legal interpretation of the words, it enables local authorities to do things which previously they were unable to do. In my opinion it is a wrong way to go about it.
The second thing is that the motivation for this Bill is very clearly and explicity stated by the Minister in his short opening speech when he states:
It is the Government's policy that, subject to certain primary considerations on which the provisions of this Bill are based, private enterprise should be facilitated in participating with road authorities in the financing, construction, maintenance and operation of suitable projects. The Bill before the House will accommodate such a development in that it will enable road authorities to enter into agreements with private persons who are prepared to participate in the improvement of our public road system.
This is a response to the private sector which, on a number of occasions, has indicated its willingness and desire to participate in financing and benefiting from that financial involvement in our overall roads system. I recall the presidential address to the annual lunch of the CII in May last—the President. Mr. O'Donovan, did not deliver the paper; rather it was delivered by the then Vice-President, Mr. Williams, to whom the Taoiseach responded—in which they clearly indicated their willingness and enthusiasm in becoming involved in improving the roads system. In their newsletters and other documentation the CII have repeated this willingness. Understandably the building materials section have shown no reluctance to participate in any kind of activity that will promote the improvement of the roads system because, whether the private sector or the State finances it, the building materials industry will have to provide the material. Any proposal to improve and develop the roads system will automatically be welcomed by such a body. If this is a serious response to the request by the private sector to become involved in helping and developing our roads system would it not be fair to investigate whether this Bill enables the only one, specific, hard-edged application of the private sector to significantly develop our roads system at present? Could not the question be reasonably posed to the Minister for the Environment that if this is a Bill designed to enable a one-off project, then it should have been so phrased and introduced here. Subject to correction by the Minister my interpretation of the provisions of this Bill is that they will exclude specifically the only one explicit response the private sector has made in terms of wanting to improve the roads system. I am referring to the proposal to construct a bridge in this capital. By explicitly excluding harbour authorities and boards as having no role under the provisions of this Bill the Minister will exclude any prospect of the private sector responding by way of investment in a bridge project in any of our major cities. Why do I make that charge? I make it for the following reasons: any serious study of toll facilities in Europe, or more explicitly in the United States, will show that the majority tend to be bridges or ferries rather than roads. The figures are taken from an article in theIrish Engineer—unfortunately I do not have the date; the volume number is 32, the number is 2—by Wilbur S. Smith, Chairman of Wilbur Smith and Associates. The title of the article is: “Toll Road Facilities”.
In that article, which I am sure is known to the personnel in the Custom House, the following figures are given with regard to toll facilities. In the United States, of 394 such facilities, 190 were bridges, 132 were ferries, 11 were tunnels and 62, or 15 per cent, were roads. Of that 15 per cent many of the roads were toll roads in semi-private condominium resorts and not part of the major system. They were privately run, of course. On the basis of experience in other countries, the most likely prospects are bridges as distinct from roads. Yet in this Bill harbour authorities in Limerick, Cork, Waterford or Dublin are seen as having no role whatsoever. My interpretation of the definition section of the Bill is that they would be explicitly excluded from having any say.
Studies done here on the possibilities of toll facilities have clearly indicated that the volume of traffic throughout the country is, relatively speaking, quite low and would not in many instances justify a commercial private investment in toll roads: there are only a certain number of areas where the volume of traffic, coupled with the time saving by the shortening of a distance over a river, would represent a serious prospect for commercial investment. I am satisfied with my own research in this regard. I am satisfied that if there is a commercial possibility for toll facilities here it is located in those large urban areas where there is sufficient demand in terms of volume of traffic and where an effective saving in terms of travelling time would result from the construction of a toll facility. I also know that in most instances port authorities would have a major role in agreeing to, participating in or supervising the provision of such a bridge or ferry facility.
Therefore, for the Minister to come in here with a page-and-a-half of a speech and to say that this enabling legislation, which has taken up valuable time, is designed to meet the response of the private sector here is, I can only conclude, at best an attempt to confuse this House. I would have liked to have heard in a Second Stage debate the indentification of the private sector interested, the scale of its interest, the form of its interest and the identification of the balance between the public and State which must be established at national level in order to facilitate a known interest by the private sector in developing our road facilities. The Minister opened his career as Minister for the Environment in this House by abolishing rates on domestic houses and introducing the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Bill of 1977. This Bill, which, regrettably, is now law, had the effect, among other things, of taking away the financial autonomy in any real sense of local authorities. For that Minister to come back within the same calendar year and to give them extraordinary powers through this enabling legislation, so that they can all go off and make separate profit sharing and non-profit sharing arrangements with the private sector up and down the country, is to demonstrate total confusion and chaos either in the mind of the Minister or in the mind of the Department.
I have some respect for the people in the Custom House and I am brought to the conclusion that this is a token response to the private sector. This is not a response at all. I challenge the Minister to show me in his reply exactly how he anticipates the private sector will actually respond and to tell me the areas the private sector might be interested in. In case the Minister might say he does not wish to reveal commercial interests or breach confidentiality, and does not therefore want to release either names or venues, he could indicate whether we are talking about bridges or by-passes or stretches of inter-town dual carriageway or motorway. These are the three basic modes, since ferries do not really worry us in this island of ours. They are the three basic facilities—roads, bridges, by-passes and possibly tunnels, although tunnels and ferries are non-starters in my view.
I would like to hear from the Minister, in his summing up which presumably will be a little longer than his introduction, what is the basis of his assessment of the private sector's interest in the road system and their desire to invest in it—to meet which he has gone to the trouble of introducing this enabling legislation. Or is this really based on the response to an after dinner speech? Is Dáil Eireann reduced to debating legislation which is drafted by a Government Department and circulated to 14 other Departments on the basis of an after dinner expression of interest in participating in improving our roads? Because, if it is, the Minister should make it very clear—not just to Deputies but to the public—that that is the way this Government are drafting legislation. I am constrained to make that rather sarcastic observation because of the total absence of any assessment by the Minister last week when he introduced this Bill. I was being sarcastic, because I do not believe it was drafted in such a form—I think the Minister takes his job far more seriously than that. But we would like to see the figures. Does having 84 seats in Dáil Éireann now remove from any Minister any kind of responsibility for arguing the case? Are the remaining Fianna Fáil Deputies taken so much for granted that they do not even have to be persuaded in public to say nothing about persuading us?
Before I turn to the Bill itself I would like to look at what the Government have said on a number of other occasions about roads and the road system. Let us start with the Book of Genesis, which in this instance is the Fianna Fáil manifesto. On the question of roads it states, at page 27, item 10:
Fianna Fáil will prepare a major Road Development Plan designed to anticipate the demands of the 80s.
Item 11 goes on to local authority structures:
We have a commitment to produce a road development plan.
The first White Paper reiterated that commitment and confirmed the Government's, as distinct from the party's, commitment to it. The Green Paper published on 16 June stated at paragraph 510, page 56:
An accelerated investment programme in road improvement would not only provide welcome extra employment both directly and indirectly but would also lead to the up-grading of deficient parts of the road system. An allocation of up to twice the 1978 provision of £23 million for road improvement could be put to good use by 1980. If these funds were made available the works undertaken would be chosen from those to be programmed in the Road Development Plan promised in the Government's preelection Manifesto. Work is well advanced on the preparation of the Plan which will give high priority to the improvement of the main access routes to Dublin and to the development of the major route networks linking cities and larger towns. It will also be concerned with the construction of major bridges and relief roads in a number of cities and towns, the need for which has been established by studies already undertaken.
The Green Paper was followed by another document, which was published in January of this year, despite the fact that it had been indicated on the previous occasion that a number of studies existed already which would serve as the basis for road improvements around the country and that the areas for major improvements had self-evidently been identified by referencing to Dublin and to other major cities. We know that the Custom House is besieged with road proposals from Dublin city and Dublin county local authorities. The officials in the Custom House concerned with these matters are well aware of the explicit proposals for road development in the Dublin region but we can only wonder why the road plan is not before the House. It was not available before the publication of the last White Paper, paragraph 5.24 of which reads:
Present indications are that the bulk of increased traffic arising from economic development will fall on the roads. In terms of kilometres of road per head of population and per vehicle registered, Ireland has one of the most extensive road networks in Europe.
That is attributable more to the benign concern of the famine landlords than to any advantageous programme of Government planning. The paragraph continues:
It is recognised that there are seriously defective elements in the road network and a substantial programme of investment is essential to improve, in particular, the principal urban and inter-urban routes.
Again, this is focusing on the areas of need but this time there is a change of phraseology. I suppose the Government had to change something. The paragraph continues:
The importance of these routes can be gauged from the fact that the National Primary Routes alone, which comprise only 3 per cent of the road network, carry 25 per cent of the traffic.
Another paragraph in this White Paper is the first official indication, apart from the Government's announcement in August or September last, that toll roads legislation would be introduced. I quote from paragraph 5.28:
Legislation has been introduced under which road authorities (subject to the approval of the Minister for the Environment) would be empowered to enter into an agreement with other persons or bodies to provide roads and bridges and to defray costs through toll charges. The Government hope that the private sector will respond to this opportunity to participate in the improvement of the roads system.
That is an explicit statement of hope from a Government who, by constitutional definition, have collective responsibility and it is backed up by a Minister with explicit responsibility in this area. Again we have the Government saying that the legislation is in response to the private sector, but it is a piece of legislation which, if my reading of the Bill is correct, excludes port authorities by virtue of its definition of "road authority". Consequently it must lead effectively to the discreet killing of the only explicit response to the private sector on the question of the building of roads. Who is trying to cod whom?
I suggest that we are wasting much time having regard to the definition of, for instance, "public road" in the definition section. I shall not bore the House by reading out the long list but shall move on to the definition of "road authority" which is the council of a county, the corporation of a county or other borough or the council of an urban district. On the surface that appears to be a reasonable definition of a road authority. In respect of 99.9 per cent of activities in relation to roads it is an accurate definition. However, if we talk in terms of a public road meaning, among other things, any bridge, viaduct, underpass, subway, tunnel, overbridge, flyover and so on, we are talking in the context of toll road legislation which has the explicit purpose of responding to the private sector's interest in participating positively in development. In this case we must be talking about major urban areas where bridges might be built. In such areas there are usually substantial harbour facilities. To exclude harbour authorities specifically is to put a discreet but sharp trapdoor under any proposals which may be before the Government.
I can only regret that the Minister has seen fit to bring in first this piece of legislation rather than legislation dealing with the roads development plan. I should be happy to sit here on Saturdays and Sundays debating such a plan and to support the Minister on the corresponding legislation, because it is something we have been lacking for many years and is needed badly. I assure the Minister that in principle he will have every support from this side of the House for a properly-balanced national roads development plan. The Labour Party recognise fully the importance of such a plan for commerce and industry with the consequent effect on employment throughout the country. We recognise also that the cost of fully implementing such a plan would be enormous and that, regardless of what kind of shuffling one might try to engage in either in terms of the Regional Fund or in terms of EMS money, the shortfall in terms of actual capital required would be large.
The Labour Party, who have a creative approach to the State sector, would welcome a recognition on the part of the Minister for the Environment that one of the interests expressed by the private sector in participating in the improvement and development of our road system is an interest expressed by the managers of long-term finance who wish to seek some kind of gilt-edged return on their investments. The managers of such long-term finance in many cases are the managers of the pension funds of the employees of the State sector. They are the managers of the pension funds of such bodies as Bord na Móna, Aer Lingus, the ESB and other State agencies. Those managers must ensure that over a period of time there will be an adequate return to ensure the payment of such pensions. The pension fund manager of the blue chip fund of Irish Life—I have a personal interest in that—is guided by the same concerns and interests.
If the State constructed some kind of framework which would enable investment in a national roads improvement system the State would provide for such pension fund managers and managers of long-term cash a safe and gilt-edged return. Some of the difficulties in relation to capital needed for a national road programme could thus be overcome. There would then be the possibility, within the context of enabling legislation, for a positive role for tolls in that regard. If the Minister told us that we drastically needed roads and that irrespective of how we raised money there would be a shortfall which would impede economic development and our job creation programme and for this reason it was his intention to try to attract capital that otherwise would not have gone into the road building sector then we would be involved in serious legislative business. The Minister could expect from the Members of the Labour Party constructive legislative participation in relation to such business.
The Minister has done a disservice to himself in introducing this legislation because he has not put forward any supporting arguments. A case can be made in a variety of ways, and there is a case for this legislation. The only case that has been made is that which is contained in the White Paper, a hope that the private sector will respond. Can anybody on the Government side give any indication of how they anticipate a pension fund manager or private developer deciding to get going on this. The Minister's party like to say that they are the party of reality, among other things, and they have enough contacts in the construction industry to test privately how the private sector is likely to respond to this enabling legislation. It would be interesting to hear the results of such soundings on Committee Stage to find out whether the private sector has any role in an entrepreneurial sense to play in the improvement or provision of public roads. I doubt if the private sector is interested. I am not party to the details of the national road development plan but I have a reasonable cursory knowledge of the work done to date and the areas needing improvement.
One objective in relation to improving our road system certainly concerns time saving. A lot of time could be dramatically saved on the journey from Dublin to Cork or Dublin to Shannon by the provision of a number of urban by-passes. It is conceivable that these could be partially financed through a system of tolls but, other than making the capital available, what would the entrepreneur contribute? The scheme would be prepared by local authority engineers or consultants and the local authority would be the managing authority on completion of the scheme. Local authorities are the only bodies in a position to acquire land for such work and in most cases have already attempted to do so. In most cases local authorities have plans prepared, irrespective of the merits of them. Local authorities have the technical staff, the experience of building roads and the accumulative responsibility of maintaining our roads system. Cash is needed, not for pump-priming, but for long-term capital. A national roads plan should not impose on every local authority the responsibility of setting up their own terms of participation, of coming to their own conclusions as to how the balance and the mixture should be but should point out the defects in the national primary routes to be financed partly by way of tolls.
Such a proposal not only makes sense but, if adopted, would suggest that the Right wing drift within Fianna Fáil was stopped or turned around partially. Sadly that is not the case. How does the Minister envisage private sector participation? Does he anticipate that somebody would put a proposal, for example, to the Kildare County Manager for a by-pass or put a proposal to the Westmeath County Manager for an Athlone by-pass? All entrepreneurs can do is provide cash and then they are into the realm of total speculation as to how the thing will develop. They would have to get from the manager an idea of the rate of toll and conditions of contract. If the manager is interested he must prepare his scheme and then get the permission of the Minister. The Minister did not give us any indication as to what his attitude is likely to be. There is no indication that he would propose, as part of the legislation but separate from it, a draft of the ideal form of participation by the private sector.
Local authorities do not get any assistance. Some local authorities are not adequately staffed at the best of times and they are certainly not staffed to do the complex exercise this would entail. They no longer have the financial autonomy to hire consultants to do it for them. It is not as if they were not a precedent in this area. In terms of drafting national building by-laws and by-laws under the 1966 Housing Act for rented accommodation, the Custom House were not slow to produce a draft model local authorities could adopt. No indication is given that such a draft model would be provided by the Custom House in this instance.
Again I am drawn to the reluctant conclusion that this Bill is not what it appears. I do not believe it will enable anything to happen but I do believe—perhaps sinisterly this may be part of its motivation, and I do not make that charge lightly—that it is designed to prevent some things from happening. If that is the case, it is time for a bit of political honesty in this House. If that is the case, why try to cod us by referring to the private sector? I qualify all my remarks by saying that this is a party judgment, a personal judgment, which is put on the floor of this House by way of argument and if it can be refuted I will accept it. From my analysis it appears that it will not effectively respond to the private sector. I can only marvel at the amount of time that has been spent drafting this legislation and the time spent debating it here, all regrettably, in my view, to no avail.
The January White Paper alluded to the fact that we had probably more kilometres per person in terms of roads than any other population in western Europe, and the concentration of traffic is confined to a number of areas. The Minister could have given some indication of how he envisaged his Department facilitating the operation of a toll system, because other than simply referring to the agreements or the explanatory statement there is no indication from the Custom House as to how they would be responding to any action or any draft explanatory statement that would come from Clare, Cork, Kildare or anywhere else for the Minister's approval. It would have been interesting to have heard the Minister's response to the fairly substantial volume of documentation on toll roads that now exist.
Do the Department share the view of the British Ministry of Transport which reviewed the question of toll roads and the extensive motorways system and decided that the cost of collection would be too high to justify it? The figure given stated that 25 per cent of all revenue collected would be required to service the cost of collection. Have the Department, in preparing this legislation done any specific research here as to the minimum level of vehicles per day for any route which would be required before a toll road could be operative? The figures I am aware of would suggest that a minimum flow of something like 10,000 vehicles per day would be the basic threshold a road would normally have to carry before a toll would begin to make sense. Have the Department carried out this kind of study? If so, are they in a position to identify the routes and demands in terms more explicit than those set out in paragraphs 5.24 in the Green Paper and 5.28 in the January White Paper? If they have not carried out such a study, why is this legislation being introduced? What technical study was drafted beforehand? What kind of interaction in terms of transportation plans took place between the Departments of the Environment and Tourism and Transport? Had the latter any observations to make in relation to the transportation impact of such toll roads generally as indicated in this enabling legislation?
I do not wish to delay the House unduly but every section of this legislation, other than those sections which are self-evidently consequential, raises questions to which one can only suggest speculative answers—obviously from this side of the House they can only be speculative. We have heard nothing from the Minister about what the answers to those questions could be. One point to which we must return over and over again is the primary motivation of this Bill, which is to respond to the private sector. It is not clear to this party how that sector might be likely to respond. The other sections, which govern such things as the system of public inquiries and so on, are reasonable and we do not have a great deal of opposition to them. On the contrary, while one might look for streamlining of the possibility of separate inquiries under the CPO legislation, the Motorways 1974 Act and this Bill, it would be conceivable to roll the three inquiries into one. That would be my intention because the prospect of three separate inquiries would exhaust even the most enthusiastic supporter or opponent of motorways.
One must look at this legislation in the context of road legislation generally, but specifically in the context of CPO legislation and the Motorways Act. Officials in the Department of the Environment, devoted themselves to drafting four or five pages of legislation. That energy would have been put to better use if they had proposed to amend the compulsory purchase legislation which is very ancient.
As far as we are concerned this legislation is unacceptable and badly drafted. As far as we can judge, it cannot meet the objectives for which it was introduced. The Minister has not only failed to convince this side of the House of the merits of the legislation by the way in which it might respond to the private sector but has simply avoided doing so. In principle, the way in which it is proposed to operate is such that it would not really enable local authorities to take on the role laid down for them in this legislation for the simple reason that the framework within which the local authorities would be asked to draft the explanatory statement is not indicated in the Bill, which is understandable, and there is no suggestion that the Minister would attempt to assist on a national basis any local authority which wished to finance part of their road system directly from a toll. My reading of this may be inaccurate and if it is I will welcome a correction.
For those reasons we will be opposing this legislation on Second Stage but in anticipating that the Bill will reach Committee Stage we will be putting down a number of specific amendments which will be based on my comments. At that stage, and if the Minister gets his enabling legislation, we hope he will be open to constructive amendments which will attempt to give effect to some of the measures he is trying to introduce.