Is mian liom, ar an gcéad dul síos, mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Teachtaí uilig a labhair i bhfábhar an Bhille seo agus leofasan a labhair ina choinne, agus focal buíochais a rá freisin leis na Teachtaí a rinne comhghairdeas liom as ucht gur toghadh mé mar Aire Comhshaoil. Bhí caoi ag an iar-Aire, agus agam féin, éisteacht leis an díospóireacht ina hiomlán agus déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall anois chun na prionsabail go ginearálta a léiriú agus na ceisteanna a bhfuil baint dhíreach acu leis an mBille a fhreagairt.
I want to thank Members from all sides of the House who contributed to this debate and indeed for their words of congratulation on my appointment as Minister for the Environment.
Both myself and my predecessor, Deputy O'Hanlon, listened with great care to what was said. I will endeavour to respond as positively and constructively as possible. In replying, I will endeavour to deal with the main themes running through the debate and answer as many of the specific issues raised as I can. Needless to say, in the journey we have travelled over the past couple of days, it would be impossible to get down to the specifics of the various matters raised by all Deputies. I hope to go as far as I possibly can down that road and, in the context of Committee Stage, tease out the finer points in a manner which will enable Members on all sides of the House to do the very best job we can in ensuring that the provisions of this Bill will withstand the test of time.
A number of contributors to the debate called for an integrated transport policy. Some sought a single Department of Transport. Fine Gael speakers proposed a national roads and rail authority while The Workers' Party suggested a national transport authority. I might make a number of brief comments in response to those suggestions. It is my belief that, in large measure, we have an integrated transport policy. The Operational Programme on Peripherality covering the years 1989 to 1993, in which my Department act as the lead Department, is an integrated medium-term investment programme dealing with roads, rail, ports and airports.
The main emphasis in phase 2 of the Dublin transportation initiative, announced recently, is on an integrated approach to ongoing transport planning in the greater Dublin area. I would argue that the place to take strategic decisions on issues which go to make up an integrated transport policy — such as the distribution of scarce resources and selection of priorities — is around the Cabinet table. There is merit in a number of Departments and Ministers having transport responsibilities, as this encourages a greater degree of informed debate on relative priorities and allocation of resources, whereas a single Department, with a corporate view, might not facilitate the same level or quality of debate.
Indeed, whatever Government structures we adopt it will be possible for somebody to point to problems. There had long been calls for a single Department of the Marine. Now that we have one, Members want to strip it of its transport responsibilities. It has been argued that land use and transportation planning should be integrated, something which would be directly contradicted by the allocation of roads functions to a new Department of Transport. What about the synergy between tourism and transport? The only solution to all these organisational problems would be one, massive Government Department, something which even the most corporate-minded among us would not support. There would appear to me to be also a curious contradiction between The Workers' Party proposal for a national transport authority and their criticisms of the proposals for the National Roads Authority as being anti-democratic.
During the debate, there has been criticism of the funding of road improvement and maintenance ranging, from allegations that net State spending on national roads has decreased with the advent of 75 per cent EC grants to calls for increased assistance for county roads. Total Exchequer expenditure on improvement works on national primary roads in the period 1984-88 was £369 million with EC aid commitments of £173 million, giving an average annual State expenditure, net of the EC aid, of just over £39 million. Equivalent figures for the period 1989-93, including projected expenditure for 1992 and 1993 in the Operational Programme on Peripherality, are total Exchequer expenditure of £646 million with EC aid commitments of £411 million, giving an average annual expenditure, net of EC aid, of £47 million. Therefore, not only has total expenditure increased by three-quarters but net State expenditure has also increased significantly.
In passing, I want to comment on a suggestion by Deputy Yates that the Government had reduced the 1989 to 1993 expenditure commitment for national roads from an original figure of £687 million to £511 million. In fact he is not comparing like with like. The £687 million is the total planned improvement expenditure for national roads in the period 1989 to 1993 while the £511 million is the figure included in the Operational Programme on Peripherality for national primary roads only. The £511 million figure excludes all 1989 expenditure on national roads which was included in the national programme of Community interest on road development rather than the operational programme and also excludes expenditure over the five year period on national secondary roads which is dealt with elsewhere in the operational programme. I also want to make it clear that, contrary to suggestions from some quarters, expenditure to date on national roads is exactly in line with the commitments in the operational programme and it is my intention to continue to meet those commitments.
In addition to increased funding for national roads, the Government have also provided substantial extra funding for non-national roads. Since 1986 the discretionary grants paid to county councils for county and regional roads has trebled. A Government commitment to a £150 million three year investment programme for the years 1989 to 1991 has been more than fulfilled, with a total of £182 million provided. These substantial increases have been provided during a period of financial restraint and are a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to an improved road network.
In his contribution Deputy Yates proposed the establishment of a local roads fund to be financed from motor tax receipts and which would replace the present State road grants for non-national roads. If we accept the figures put forward by Deputy Yates, for the purposes of debate at least, Fine Gael are proposing to give £160 million in motor tax revenue to local authorities for non-national roads and to abolish the £80 million State road grant. In simple arithmetic this would mean a nett revenue loss to the Exchequer of £80 million and I have to ask the Opposition how they would propose to make up this loss. Indeed, this is a general point I want to make about extra road funding. It is easy for people to call for more finance while at the same time looking for lower levels of taxation. Government have to deal with the real world and the figures show that, even in difficult financial circumstances, we have in recent years provided significant additional funding for roads from the Exchequer.
Before I leave the question of funding, some Deputies commented on the availability of EC assistance for non-national roads. Under the Operational Programme on Peripherality just over £50 million in EC grants was made available in the period 1989 to 1993 for roads other than national primary roads, that is national secondary, regional, county and urban roads. That assistance is being used to support improvement works which contribute to economic development, particularly industry and tourism. About £6 million in EC aid is also available under the rural development operational programme and the Interreg cross-Border initiative. I want to stress the importance of local authorities carrying out high quality works which satisfy the relevant EC criteria and which will strengthen our case for additional aid when we begin negotiations for the next Community Support Framework, 1994 to 1998.
There were a number of references to the need for rail development which I will bring to the attention of the Minister for Tourism, Transport and Communications. My only comment at this point is that roads are, and will continue to be, the predominant national mode of surface transport, carrying 96 per cent of passenger traffic and 90 per cent of freight and requiring long term investment of £9 billion.
I now want to turn to some of the specific issues raised in relation to the Bill. References were made to the need to have a genuinely independent National Roads Authority. Concern was expressed that it should not just be another arm of my Department and that it would adopt a more coherent approach to the development of the national network. There was also a concern as to the impact of the National Roads Authority on local democracy and criticisms of its powers to override local authorities, as some Deputies saw it.
The Authority will take over all the functions exercised by my Department in relation to the development of the national roads system and my Department will no longer have any function in this area. As Minister, I will of course continue to exercise overall policy supervision and certain quasi judicial functions. I am happy to assure the House that the Authority will be a statutory body which will be genuinely independent in the exercise of its functions. I am also happy to confirm that Exchequer funding for it will be in the form of a block grant, the allocation of which will be entirely the business of the National Roads Authority.
I am satisfied that the Authority will provide a renewed emphasis on the improvement of the national roads and that it will carry out its task in a coherent and co-ordinated fashion. It is only in recent years that we have started to make a major investment in the national network. Before that successive Governments gave investment priority to other areas of our economic and social infrastructure — housing, telecommunications, energy and so on — achievements, which as Deputy Quinn acknowledged, we can be proud of. Another problem in addition to low levels of funding was the absence of a firm medium-term planning and investment framework. Now that we have a national consensus on the importance of investment in the network, a single-minded Authority with the power to do an effective job and firm medium-term framework through the Operational Programme on Peripherality and its successors, we will very quickly put in place another vital element of our national economic infrastructure of which we can be justifiably proud.
The Bill is structured so as to foster a spirit of common purpose and co-operation between the NRA and local authorities, to make continued use of the skills and expertise of the local authorities and to avoid overlap or duplication of effort. Local authorities will continue to acquire land and carry out a range of functions under the supervision of the NRA. However, at the end of the day the buck has to stop somewhere and it seems logical that the NRA, which is being given the overall responsibility for national road development, should have the reserve — and I stress the word "reserve"— powers necessary to implement its mandate from the Oireachtas. I would be surprised if the NRA will have to use these powers often, if at all; but it is essential that they have them. My Department have had few problems with local authorities when exercising their supervisory role in relation to national roads and the Minister has not to date had recourse to his directive powers under the Local Government (Roads and Motorways) Act, 1974. I would add at this point that there are no plans for a mass relocation of local authority design staff, through the NRA will, no doubt, want to examine how expertise in one area can be made available more effectively to others.
I also reject the criticism about so-called democratic deficit. The NRA will, I hope, be set up by the Oireachtas, acting as the elected representatives of the people. There are ample powers in the Bill for public consultation and for consultation with local authorities — for example, in relation to a draft plan under section 18; before issuing a direction under section 18; under section 20 before carrying out works which would materially contravene a development plan. I am prepared to look constructively at suggestions as to how these consultative provisions might be strengthened, but to give local authorities a veto would be contrary to the whole intent of Part III of the Bill.
The National Roads Authority are not being given a totally free hand however. They will be obliged to consider what is said to them during consultation and to have regard to the relevant local development plan and to the possible environmental impact of proposed road projects. In carrying out their mandate they will also have regard to the wider public good and will have to weigh in the balance local and national impacts. At the end of the day the Authority will have to live in the real world like the rest of us and be sensitive to genuine public concerns. In reality they will no more be able to ride roughshod over such concerns, as some contributors seemed to suggest, than would any local authority.
Some Deputies suggested that this Bill was a road builders' charter and that the Authority would be used to push a policy of road building to the exclusion of other areas of transport. That is simply not true. Successive speakers have acknowledged the deficient state of our national road network and the need for a co-ordinated and concentrated programme to remedy these deficiencies. This programme is vital to our economic wellbeing, especially since these roads carry more than one third of all road traffic. As Minister for the Environment with responsibility for the built infrastructure, environmental protection and physical planning, I am well aware that road construction does not in itself solve traffic and transport problems in major urban areas, and I can assure the House that the establishment of the Authority does not imply a roads-only policy for cities, such as Dublin. The Dublin Transportation Initiative demonstrates my commitment to a balanced and integrated transportation strategy for the metropolitan area. They will look in an integrated way at all transport modes — road, rail, bus, cycling and walking. They will examine all the options — new road construction, light rail, busways and the better use of our existing infrastructure and facilities. The Eastern By-Pass, to which a number of Deputies referred, will be among a range of options to facilitate north-south movement and port access which will be evaluated by the initiative.
During the debate Authority membership was sought for representatives of various organisations and I have taken note of these suggestions. My concern is to ensure that the members of the Authority will be of high calibre who will bring a wide range of relevant expertise and experience to bear on their activities. I do not want an authority comparised of mandated representatives of various interest groups pursuing their own sectoral agendas, though I will of course be happy to listen to suggestions from such groups as to persons suitable for appointment.
Suggestions were made that staff transfers to the Authority should be subject to the consent of the individuals concerned. While I am prepared to consider an amendment to provide for prior consultation with staff interests, I do not think it would be practical or appropriate to give individuals a veto. This certainly has not been the approach adopted in the case of a range of State bodies established by the Oireachtas such as An Post, Telecom Éireann, Coillte and the National Authority for Occupational Safety and Health. A criticism was made of the provision for the secondment of employees of the Authority once they were nominated as candidates in local authority elections. I am prepared to look again at this, but in fairness I should point out that the Minister can designate grades of employment to which this restriction would not apply. I am also prepared to look at section 33 again in so far as it applies to candidates for election as distinct from those already elected.
I have taken note of and will review the various suggestions made regarding the specific functions of the National Roads Authority, including proposals to give it powers relating to improved design, road safety, training of local authority staff, harmonisation of standards and so on. Some of these are already covered in the existing text. The general obligation to provide a safe and efficient network of national roads encompasses road safety, while road design and the setting of standards are specifically mentioned in section 19. Section 19 (3) gives the Authority wide ancillary powers to do things connected with their overall functions. My only reservation is that the Authority should avoid overlap and duplication with bodies such as the National Safety Council, the Environmental Research Unit and the Institute of Public Administration — all of which have functions in the areas referred to. I also want to assure Deputy Yates that any assignment of additional functions to the Authority would, under section 7 (3), require the approval of the Oireachtas. In response to Deputy Howlin's and others' concern about signposting, section 19 (1) (c) empowers the Authority to prepare co-ordinated schemes for traffic signs, while section 68 prohibits unauthorised signs and gives local authorities enforcement powers.
A number of Deputies expressed reservations about the proposed assignment to the Authority of tolling powers in respect of national roads. I want to begin my response by emphatically rejecting the allegation that tolling represents extra or double taxation. Tolling is nothing of the kind; instead it is a method of raising additional funds for the development of the road network. It has been the policy of successive Governments, including those with Fine Gael and Labour representation, to seek toll-based investment in roads and it has been the consistent policy of successive Governments that revenue obtained through tolling should be used to accelerate road development. In my view logic dictates that tolling powers should be available to the Authority as part of their overall financial responsibilities, which include the powers to allocate State grants, borrow money and promote EC investment in national roads. I would remind the House that this is not an unfettered power. The Authority are obliged to consult with the appropriate local authority. There is a public consultation process. The Minister must hold a public local inquiry into any objections and tolls cannot be levied without ministerial approval. Members should also note that the scope for tolling here is very limited and that there are no projects on national roads which could be fully funded by toll-based private investment — all would need a contribution from public funds. I also want to assure Deputies that the Authority's borrowing power is not a backdoor method of Government borrowing; it is a genuine part of the authority's financial armoury.
Deputy Dukes asked about Government tolling policy. Broad statements of policy are to be found in the 1985 road plan and in the 1989 roads operational programme. I assure the Deputy that toll agreements are public documents.
I now want to turn briefly to the remaining Parts of the Bill which concern the general law on public roads. First, I want to try to clear up some confusion about the classification of public roads. Public roads will be of three classes — national, regional and local — and the purpose of this is to allow for the assignment of responsibility to various categories of local authorities. In addition to the road classification, there are also roads with special characteristics — motorways, busways and protected roads. These are two entirely separate issues. For example, a motorway will also have to be classified as a national, regional or local road. Designation as a motorway only ensures that frontage development is prohibited and that it is restricted to certain types of traffic. It does not determine which category of local authority is responsible for it — this is decided by its classification.
As is the case at present, the Minister will classify national and regional roads, while all other roads in the charge of local authorities will be automatically classified as local roads. The existing national primary and national secondary roads will continue in large measure to be designated as such under the new Act. An administrative classification of regional roads carried out by my Department has existed for many years. The new Act will give a legal basis to the Rnumbers we are all familiar with and have been using on our signposts for some time.
Before formally establishing the Authority, I will complete a review of the national road classification. Roads serving the State airports and the key commercial seaports will be classified as nationals, if they are not classified as such already. I will also be looking at what other changes are required to take account of new construction, changed traffic management arrangements and changed traffic patterns. I regularly receive requests for reclassification and some suggestions as to correction have also been made in this debate. I want to urge caution. We already have a very extensive network of national primary and secondary roads, over 5,600 km in length. It was selected after a long period of study and is intended to meet our strategic transport needs. Reclassification as a means of getting funding for a particular road is, ultimately, self-defeating. Resources are allocated on the basis of priorities and newly classified roads would simply join the end of the line for funding. Adding roads willy nilly would also dilute the available funding for the network — if we spread our money too thinly we will end up with an extensive but mediocre network of strategic roads.
There also seems to be some confusion about the declaration of public roads or their abandonment. Both functions will be the responsibility of the elected members of local authorities, with provision being made for prior public consultation. The only restriction is that the abandonment by a local authority of a national road or regional road will require ministerial approval, since the Minister would have been originally responsible for their classification as such.
A question was raised about roads improved under the local improvements scheme. These must be non-public roads when assisted under the LIS. These roads could in principle subsequently be declared to be public roads provided they satisfied the criteria in section 11, which include the general public utility of the road and the financial implications for the local authority.
I have taken note of Deputy Howlin's comments on local authorities as custodians of public rights on way and I hope to be able to respond in an appropriate way on Committee Stage.
The concept of a protected road presented difficulties for Deputy Dukes. It is designed to be a much more flexible instrument than a motorway in its control of access. Controls will be tailored to suit the particular road and may apply to a new or existing road.
Deputies referred to the need for improved co-ordination of road openings. Statutory undertakers such as ESB, Telecom Éireann and Bord Gáis have statutory powers to open public roads and, unlike other persons, do not require a licence from a local authority to do so.
There are controls of their activities however. Section 101 (d) of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, as inserted by the Dublin Transport Authority (Dissolution) Act, 1987, enables prescribed local authorities to issue directions to statutory undertakers and others for the purposes of co-ordinating road openings and minimising traffic disruption. In September 1988 the Minister made regulations prescribing Dublin Corporation, Dublin County Council and Dún Laoghaire Corporation as authorities who could exercise these directive powers and my Department have recently written to local authorities asking if any more of them wish to avail of these powers. Arrangements are also in place in Dublin to ensure the advance notification of planned works to enable them to be co-ordinated as far as possible. Section 71 of this Bill updates and strengthens the powers of local authorities to temporarily close roads. They will be able to impose conditions when closing a road to facilitate works and will also be able to recover the cost of any damage done to the road arising from the works.
Suggestions were made that the seasonal sale of fruit and vegetables should not be prohibited under section 68. In fact, under the section as it is drafted at present, they are not. Trading of this type is permitted under the Casual Trading Act, 1980, which is the primary legislation in this area. Trading with such lawful authority is not affected by the new provisions in section 68. Under the section it is also possible for the local authority to consent to trading activities which would then not be affected by the section. I have received a large volume of representations on this section and I will be looking at it again before Committee Stage.
I hope that my response has been of assistance to Deputies. I have tried to deal as comprehensively as possible with the main issues raised and to touch on as many as possible of the less important points. Any points I have neglected to mention will no doubt be raised on Committee Stage and I will respond to them then. My thanks to Deputies for their contributions and their attention to my response. I hope we will have an opportunity over the next few few weeks to complete the final Stages of this important Bill.