Priority Questions.

Question No. 1 lapsed.
Question No. 2 withdrawn.

Is Deputy Cowley available to take Question No. 3? If not, we will move on.

On a point of order, according to the schedule, Question Time is at 3.45 p.m.

Under Standing Orders Question Time always begins at 3.30 p.m. until 4.45 p.m. on a Thursday. There was a typing error on the schedule. I understand that Deputy Allen is unavailable and no other Member can take his question. Question No. 2 was withdrawn and there is no Member to take Question No. 3. Question No. 4 has been put down by Deputy Allen which he cannot take. Question No. 5 is in Deputy Morgan's name.

If a Member is about to sprint down from his or her office, can we wait for 30 seconds?

Something must be done. I was at another meeting because I presumed that Question Time would start according to the schedule.

The bell rang three minutes before Question Time, as it always does. Under Standing Orders, it is always at 3.30 p.m. on a Thursday.

It is the worst of typing errors.

One would think that when those Members heard the bell, they would have come to the Chamber. We will go back and take Question No. 5 in the name of Deputy Morgan.

Question No. 3 answered after QuestionNo. 5.

Question No. 4 lapsed.

Local Authority Housing.

Arthur Morgan

Question:

5 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will address the findings contained in the recent report of the Central Statistics Office in the 2002 census (details supplied) which shows that the number of local authority housing rented dwellings has declined in every census since 1961 and has hit an all time low of 88,000 or 6.9% of all housing units. [12367/04]

The recent housing data report published by the Central Statistics Office, based on the replies to individual census returns for the 2002 census, indicated that the number of occupied rented local authority dwellings stood at 88,206 in 2002. This figure does not accord with local authorities' records which confirm that the number of occupied local authority dwellings at the end of 2002 was almost 105,000, compared with almost 103,000 dwellings in 2001.

The change in the proportion of total housing stock represented by local authority dwellings can be attributed to a number of factors, principally the record increases in the numbers of private houses built in recent years and to the success of the various tenant purchase schemes where local authority houses were sold to tenants. For example, in 1993 local authorities and voluntary bodies built or acquired 2,400 units and private housing output amounted to 19,300 units. In 2003, local authorities and voluntary bodies built or acquired 6,150 units and private housing output had increased to 62,650 units giving a total output of 68,800 units. In the past 20 years, more than 55,000 local authority houses were sold to tenants under various tenant purchase schemes.

The Government is conscious of the increased need for social housing and has responded by expanding social and affordable housing output. It is anticipated that total social housing output in 2004 will meet the needs of approximately 13,000 households, taking into account new local authority housing, vacancies arising in existing houses and output under other social housing measures. This compares with approximately 7,000 households in 1993.

The housing problem is now resolved because it was simply that the Central Statistics Office's figures were skewed while the local authorities' figures were correct. There is no problem in housing according to the Minister of State's reply. This seems bizarre. Is the Government not alarmed by the numbers on local authority housing waiting lists and that housing stock has fallen to an all time low? This is a clear indication of the failure of the Government's policy after seven years in office in addressing this issue. Last week's announcement by the Minister for more funding of social housing is simply an election stunt which will only provide for the construction of 5,000 houses.

The Chair facilitated Deputy Morgan by going back to his question. Can he facilitate the House by submitting questions to the Minister of State? The purpose of Question Time is to elicit information from him.

Does the Minister of State consider that last week's promise of 5,000 houses will have any impact on the 48,000 applicants on local authority housing waiting lists? This figure represents more than 130,000 people. This is an indication that the Government has no real intention of providing for the housing needs of these people, many of whom have been on waiting lists for as long as 16 years. The Minister talks about local authorities selling off their housing stock — that is fine as long as they replace it.

Will the Minister of State agree that a number of housing authorities are removing themselves from the whole area of social housing? Dublin City Council has announced it intends to do this within the next ten years, while other local authorities are not announcing it but doing it by stealth. Does the Minister have a view on this? Will he instruct them to deal with the responsibility of providing social housing to the 48,000 applicants, which adds up to more than 130,000 people, on the waiting lists?

The number of occupied local authority dwellings has gone up, although not by large amounts. Ten years ago the figure was 93,000; it has gone up each year and now stands at more than 104,000. In a ten-year period there has been an increase in the number of local authority houses of about 10,000. It is now just over the 100,000 mark.

A total of 55,000 tenants have become tenant purchasers over recent years. Many right-wing economists think this is a bad idea. I saw an article to this effect in the newspaper last week. In my own constituency many people bought houses in the late 1980s for £20,000 which are now worth six times that. I believe in the sale scheme. It does much good for communities when people who are working and have a few pounds in their pockets decide to buy their homes. The fact that so many people have done this in recent years is an indication that the economy is doing well and that people have been able to aspire to buying a home. When people buy a house they make a statement that they are putting down roots. This does a lot for the community.

The number of households on the waiting list at the last assessment was 48,000. That equates to 109,000 people — people work out the figures differently. A total of 32% of those households are single-person households and another 30% or so consist of lone parents with one child. The official figures are 48,000 households and 109,000 people.

Last week I announced the capital figures for local authority spending. This is done every year, sometimes earlier than this. This money is spent annually. It has nothing to do with anything that is coming up. Everybody knows that. The Deputy's comment was a cheap shot. We expect that this year the needs of about 13,000 households out of the 48,000 on the list will be met through the local authority and voluntary housing sectors, the latter of which is growing all the time. Some 1,700 units of accommodation are built in this sector every year. That is a substantial number.

Dublin City Council is considering innovative ways of changing the management style of the housing sector. Many of the housing associations provide better on-the-ground management. We have tried to move away from the time when local authorities built massive estates in green fields with no local management. I am sure we would all support this.

Can I ask a brief supplementary question?

Sorry, Deputy, we have gone well over the time allowed for this question.

Tourism Projects.

Jerry Cowley

Question:

3 Dr. Cowley asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if his attention has been drawn to the fact that an essential all-weather tourism project on Achill Island is being denied funding of €818,123 under the NDP operational programme for tourism due to his and his Department’s failure to allow Mayo County Council to underwrite operational losses on the project for a ten-year period; if he will immediately take steps to give sanction to Mayo County Council to allow this essential tourism project to proceed, due to the severe problems in the Achill area, with hotels closing due to the lack of an all-weather tourism product; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12366/04]

The provision of an operational guarantee for any project is a matter for consideration in the first instance by the local authority concerned and my Department has received no approach from Mayo County Council in regard to this project. However, in order to be of assistance, my Department has ascertained that the county council has decided not to provide an operational guarantee for this project. This decision is entirely a matter for the local authority and the question of sanction by my Department has not arisen in this case.

I thank the Minister of State for his answer. I am gutted about this. I know it is not the Minister of State's problem. I really asked the question to find out whether the Minister had any responsibility in this matter because I was not receiving straight answers from the local authority.

I come from the west, from an area that is on its knees. A number of hotels have closed recently because there is no all-weather facility — there is nothing to keep people in the area. This is a project under Fáilte Ireland and the national operational programme for tourism, which could cost €1.38 million. People have gone into the bank and obtained personal loans to give to the group interest-free so they may build this facility. All that was needed was for the local authority to underwrite the project. It is projected to show a profit from year one.

Does the Deputy have a question?

How can the local authority justify not backing this project when its profit is projected to rise from €23,314 in the first year to €116,443 by year five? There are questions to be answered by the local authority, particularly the county manager. The project is being developed by a not-for-profit organisation. Local people have got together and formed a company in their own time, putting in €5,000 each. I have personally gone to the bank and obtained a loan at my own expense to give to the company, to be repaid at zero interest when it can do so. The company has €308,000 and somebody else is providing the other half.

As I pointed out to Deputy Morgan, the purpose of Question Time is to elicit information from the Minister.

Is there any way the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government can put pressure on the local authority to ensure it does its statutory duty and allows for people to come and stay in Achill even though it is raining? Otherwise they will not stay. We need this all-weather centre. More than €50,000 has been spent in studies to show this is feasible. The project has been going on since 2000. To be refused by the local authority, which is supposed to be encouraging such projects, is a scandal. I hope the Minister of State will investigate this.

As I pointed out in my reply, no application was received by my Department from Mayo County Council.

It is a scandal.

The Deputy has acknowledged that the Minister has no role here. The decision to provide operational guarantees for this or any project is a matter, in the first instance, for the local authority without any reference to the Department. The Department has no knowledge of this proposal but when the matter was raised we made some inquiries. We understand the project was approved for a grant by Fáilte Ireland, as Deputy Cowley suggested, subject to the local authority agreeing to underwrite any operational losses the project might incur in ten years. According to Deputy Cowley's information, there are no projected losses at all but a net profit of €23,000 in the first year.

Local authorities generally have concerns about giving operational guarantees to any project that is not under its direct control. The local authority must make decisions with regard to its own policies, financial position and assessment of individual needs. The manager and the council should be the best people to judge this. There has been much focus on the principle of local authorities funding operational losses since theJeanie Johnston. I understand that some time ago in Tralee there was the possibility that staff would need to be laid off because of losses. The Deputy will also recall that around that time, following a report on the Jeanie Johnston which was prepared by the former Secretary General of the Department of Finance, Mr. Seán Cromien, and the consultants Mazars, the Department of Finance wrote to every Department explaining that the report was critical of the practice of public bodies seeking and obtaining guarantees from other public bodies as a means of passing off some of the risks inherent in funding decisions.

I empathise with Deputy Cowley. I represented the island to which he referred during my time as an MEP. It has a serious unemployment problem and is very much dependent on tourism. However, this is totally outside my control.

All the local councillors wanted it——

Question No. 4 lapsed.

Question No. 5 taken before Question No. 3.

Recycling Policy.

Trevor Sargent

Question:

6 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government his plans for the introduction of deposits on aluminium cans, PET bottles and other such containers to encourage reuse of packaging, which happens in other EU member states and which is recommended in the national anti-litter strategy of July 2000. [12277/04]

Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste is based on the concept of producer responsibility, which effectively requires producers to contribute to the waste management costs of products which they have placed on the market at end of life. Under the directive, Ireland was required to achieve a 25% recovery rate of packaging waste by 1 July 2001, increasing to a 50% recovery rate by 31 December 2005. Practical implementation of the directive in Ireland is organised mainly through a collective industry-based compliance scheme operated by Repak, which is working successfully and which met the target of 25% packaging waste recycling required under the directive in 2001.

The progress of the scheme is now being further facilitated in a number of ways. As indicated in the recently published Taking Stock and Moving Forward policy statement, copies of which are available in the Oireachtas library, implementation of waste management plans is advancing, assisted by my Department through the environment fund.

Second, the 2003 packaging regulations require those who place packaging on the market to segregate their back door packaging waste and have it collected by authorised operators. Bottles and cans sold and consumed in pubs, clubs and hotels are all covered and must be recycled. The latest indications are that Ireland is on course to meet the higher recovery and recycling targets for end 2005.

Successful deposit and refund schemes operating internationally are generally located in those countries where there has been no break in the continuity and cultural tradition of deposit and refund arrangements. This is not the case in Ireland and it is likely re-establishing deposit and refund arrangements would involve significant costs. Account would also have to be taken of the impact on existing compliance arrangements. Given that these arrangements are achieving the desired result in terms of meeting recycling targets, the introduction of deposit and refund schemes is not under consideration.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a gabháil leis an Aire Stáit as an freagra. He said there are many reasons not to take up initiatives but we should try to find ways to improve policy and follow best practice. The national anti-litter strategy, Taking Pride in our Environment, dates from July 2000. One of its key recommendations is to address litter pollution through a system of returnable deposits. Is the Minister of State turning his back on the recommendation? Having invested in the report, will he follow through on it? Has he another proposal to reduce waste given that the Government has overseen an increase in waste year on year? Does he agree that, according to best practice in other countries, deposits on returnables works and that it worked in Ireland previously? It should be reintroduced.

Deposit and refund schemes for used beverage containers operate in a number of countries and the Scandinavian countries feature prominently in this regard within the EU. Sweden has used deposits on cans since 1984 and on PET beverage containers since 1994. Recovery rates in excess of 75% and, in some cases, of more than 90% have been achieved in respect of the beverage containers to which the deposit and refund arrangements apply. The only other EU member state offering a deposit and refund scheme is Germany, which has only recently introduced such a scheme on non-refillable containers that hold carbonated soft drinks and water. However, the scheme has experienced serious operational problems. I accept recommendations were made in the national anti-litter strategy in 2000.

In black and white.

I accept recommendations were made. A total of €13 million per annum is available through the plastic bag and landfill levies and I have not turned my back on the recommendation completely. However, I must examine the overall context and take into consideration what has happened in Germany, the logistics involved and the problems the retail sector could face.

I refer to the contribution to Repak by vested interests in the retail sector. Will the Minister of State outline the scale of Repak's investment? There is a concern at the lack of investment, despite the significant charges that are levied. The responsibility for administering the previous returnables scheme fell to retailers. I agree with the Minister of State that, unless another methodology is employed to administer the scheme, it will be fraught with difficulty. Repak is levying significant charges. Will he explain the scale of its investment and where it is taking place?

Does the Minister of State accept the following recommendation in chapter 3.4.11 of the national anti-litter strategy: "Beverage cans and PET bottles are significant sources of litter pollution, which could be addressed by means of a system of returnable deposits and, because of the danger they involve and their impact as litter, glass bottles should also be considered for inclusion in such a system"? Is he turning his back on the recommendation or will he implement it? Does he accept a similar scheme worked in Ireland previously and countries outside the EU consider it successful in terms of minimising litter and waste overall?

The Deputy has raised the litter problem resulting from fast food packaging, ATM receipts and chewing gum and the economic sanctions that could be taken. A number of recommendations have been made and they are under consideration. My previous reply referred specifically to PET packaging.

With regard to Deputy Perry's question, I do not have the information on investment he requires. However, Repak is playing an important role in recycling. It was established by industry as a voluntary producer responsibility initiative to promote, co-ordinate and finance the collection and recovery of packaging waste, with a view to achieving Ireland's packaging waste recovery and recycling targets specified under the EU directive on packaging waste. Member companies pay annual fees based on the type and volume of packaging material placed on the market and they are used to subsidise the collection of waste from both the household and commercial sectors.

Repak is playing an important role and Ireland is on course to achieve the target set down by the EU of 50% by end December 2005. Repak processes all packaging waste whether it is cardboard, paper or glass, wood fibre or aluminium. We must continue to support it and remind all consumers and businesses that they have a responsibility to the environment. It is not the Government's country but the people's country, and people have that responsibility. We are making major advances, although perhaps not as quickly as we would like.

The level of waste is growing.

We are victims of our success.

It is failure.

National Spatial Strategy.

Arthur Morgan

Question:

7 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the progress that has been made to date on the national spatial strategy objective of balanced regional development; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8026/04]

The Government has put measures in place at national, regional and local levels aimed at achieving the strategy's objective of more balanced regional development through a better spread of economic activity, population and employment growth. At national level, my Department is co-ordinating the process of embedding the national spatial strategy into the programmes of Departments and agencies to ensure that relevant programme support the spatial strategy. An interdepartmental steering group has been established to facilitate this process. In addition, my Department and the Department of Transport have jointly established a spatial strategy integration group to work on spatial strategy implementation from a transport perspective.

At regional level, regional planning guidelines are being prepared by all regional authorities with the objective of having these adopted in all regions by the end of May 2004. At local level, planning authorities are putting in place development frameworks and plans for gateways and hubs to support the achievement of critical mass at these strategic locations. These are already in place in Cork and Galway and are well advanced at other locations.

In adopting the spatial strategy, the Government decided that it would be an important factor in the prioritisation of capital investment, and in the allocation of sectoral investment. Substantial progress is now being made on many major capital investment programmes supporting more balanced regional development, especially in providing key regional linkages under the roads programmes, and measures supporting the development of gateways, hubs and other large urban centres under the public transport and environmental services investment programmes. Infrastructure projects which are of particular significance in this regard include the Dublin-Galway motorway on which work is being prioritised, the Ennis bypass, the Sligo inner relief road and the Mutton Island waste water treatment scheme, which will help to attract major industrial investment to the west.

Arrangements have been made in the case of my Department's expenditure programmes on non-national roads and water services to ensure that projects being proposed for funding take account of and facilitate the implementation of the spatial strategy.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The public services Estimates for 2004 and this year's public capital programme confirmed the Government's continuing commitment to investment in the infrastructure needed to support balanced regional development. My Department is compiling a more detailed progress report on the spatial strategy for the steering group for Sustaining Progress and this will be made generally available upon completion.

I welcome the national spatial strategy and its implementation so far. Is it reasonable to expect local authorities to adhere to those guidelines pending the full development of the regional development plans? Would the Minister agree that counties Meath, Kildare and Wicklow in particular appear to be ignoring the general guidelines in terms of the formulation of the regional plans? I drove down the country last week and saw that what used to be a green field now has a housing scheme built on it with no appropriate facilities or infrastructure in place. Can we combat such development?

I welcome the Deputy's comments regarding his pleasure at what is happening, but these are still early days. It is meant to be a 20 year strategy and will not happen overnight. Through Departments and agencies, the Government can merely try to direct investment towards the regions to build up the infrastructure. Guidelines are issued as such. When the process is gone through, they are then designated as ministerial directives. There may be a period in which people, while they have the process of consultation, might not fully subscribe to the direction in which we are heading. Once the guidelines become ministerial directives, they all feed into one another at national, regional and local level. We must have joined-up government where all these aspects work and influence one another. The direction will be clear, and it will feed down.

Regarding the NDF, the national development funding agency, there is disappointment about the development of public private partnerships. Dr. Somers said today that €200 million is sitting in an account and in respect of which no application has been received. Will the Minister of State explain that difficulty? At the same time, billions are being invested in the foreign exchange, money which could be invested in this country. I am disappointed about that. The national development fund agency, whose role is to develop the spatial strategy, is not getting the work on which the money in the Exchequer should be spent.

Is there any logic in the fact that a spatial strategy was evolved only to be followed by a decentralisation programme? A hub town such as Monaghan got only 15 jobs from decentralisation. Does that make sense? Does one hand know what the other is doing?

The M2 road is under way, which the Ceann Comhairle and I appreciate, but the M3 planned to go through Cavan and on to Belturbet is not on the map. If we are to have the spatial strategy we need that sort of infrastructure.

I hear what people are saying, but this is a long-term issue. Funding is being earmarked and prioritised towards projects in the regions. Not every region will be able to access the funds in the first year.

There is no application whatever.

Some of my own colleagues and constituents might not be quite as committed to it as the Government. There is no doubt about the commitment when one looks at the expenditure priorities. I see the effect at departmental level, in the bilaterals between the my Department and the Department of Finance, whereby the latter wants to see if one is being consistent with the overall Government strategy. It is not simply a case of issuing a report. It is being rigorously examined in terms of consistency filtering through. It will happen but will take a while.

The Government move on decentralisation fully conformed with the spatial strategy. I hear people suggesting that is not so, but I do not understand that. Six of the hubs identified in the strategy benefited from the new decentralisation programme, and two of the remainder already had decentralised offices. The decentralisation programme is aimed at making a significant and well-planned contribution to the objectives of the spatial strategy. It was not the only factor when they were deciding it. Other factors had to come into play. A number of the hubs, including Cavan and Monaghan, benefited from decentralisation. Tralee and Killarney also did, along with Kilkenny, Wexford and Mallow. Six of the nine got decentralisation benefits, and two already had them. The notion that we went off on a different tangent is mistaken. There were other towns which were not hubs or gateways, which were designated for decentralisation. The term "regional" applies to more than just hubs and gateways. It is a case of other towns within the sphere of the gateway feeding in.

That is so in the east and west, but not in the midlands.

I do not know the answer to that. It might be more properly directed to the Minister for Finance. There is a general drive in every Department about directing finance. I will ask to have that matter considered and will contact the Deputy.

Nuclear Plants.

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

8 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the progress he is making to reduce radioactive discharges from Sellafield to zero. [12292/04]

The UK Government and other contracting parties to the OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic signed up to the OSPAR strategy with regard to radioactive substances, which was adopted in 1998 at the ministerial meeting of the OSPAR Commission.

The objective of the strategy is that by the year 2020, discharges of radioactive substances to the marine environment are reduced by way of progressive and substantial reductions to levels where the additional concentrations in the marine environment above historic levels arising from such discharges are close to zero. The Government is determined to ensure that the OSPAR strategy is fully implemented within the 2020 timeframe.

The OSPAR Commission, at its ministerial meeting which I attended in Bremen in June last year, reviewed the progress towards implementation of the strategy. At that meeting the commission discussed the national plans submitted by the contracting parties to the convention for implementing the strategy and concluded that, provided the plans are implemented as forecast, the overall level of discharges will be reduced by 2020.

The commission also adopted the period 1995-2001 as the reference period for establishing the base lines in respect of discharges, concentrations and doses against which progress in implementing the strategy can be measured. The commission agreed, at the 2003 meeting, that given the intermediate nature of the national plans and the need for their refinement and revision over time, it will not be possible at that stage to make a final assessment as to whether the combined effects of the national plans would achieve the objective of the strategy to the extent required by the 2020 timeframe. The meeting agreed, therefore, on the need to determine by 2006 a methodology for assessing progress of the plans towards implementation of the strategy and for updating national plans.

The announcement on 21 April 2004 by the UK Environment Agency and BNFL of the success of the TPP chemical plant trials at Sellafield to reduce discharges of technetium 99, Tc 99, into the sea is a welcome development. Ireland, with a number of the Nordic countries, particularly Norway, had been expressing its serious concerns in the OSPAR forum and directly with the UK Government about Tc 99 discharges. In the OSPAR ministerial statement following the 2003 OSPAR ministerial meeting, the OSPAR Ministers had again noted these concerns and had welcomed the moratorium on Tc 99 discharges pending the outcome of the TPP trials. In welcoming this technical development to reduce discharges, I would expect the new situation to be reflected appropriately in the UK statutory annual discharge authorisation for Tc 99 from Sellafield.

The Government, with like-minded states, in particular Norway, is maintaining the maximum pressure within the OSPAR forum to ensure the objective of the OSPAR strategy is fully delivered and on time. Progress towards implementation of the strategy is also continually raised by Ireland at meetings with the UK, both at ministerial and official level.

The comparison between the statement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK and what the Minister stated is interesting. Obviously there are similarities in terms of the OSPAR strategy on radioactive substances, as mentioned by the Minister, but does he accept that when the UK authorities say they are committed to a reduction of discharges to levels in 2020 that will add negligible amounts to historic concentrations of radioactivity in the marine environment and that those historic concentrations include deliberate discharges during the 1950s of large amounts of plutonium? It is not satisfactory, therefore, to talk about levels being akin to those concentrations.

Has the Minister taken his foot off the pedal in regard to zero discharges and whether the Government is satisfied that the UK position on what it calls negligible amounts is adequate and if that can be compared to a negligible impact on the marine environment and negligible deaths if it comes to radioactivity becoming airborne or coming through the food chain? Does he accept that there is no safe level of radioactivity? Notwithstanding the natural background radiation, does he accept we should not add one iota to the radioactive background, and are zero discharges the objective?

The Government has been pursuing a policy to close down Sellafield for a considerable length of time. The Deputy will be aware of the case we took under UNCLOS to The Hague last year in respect of Sellafield, and a question was raised by the European Commission about the competence, whether of UNCLOS or the European Court of Justice. That is now being considered by the European Court of Justice. At the same time, as a result of our involvement in The Hague, we are working closely with the UK authorities in preparing reports but I am told it could be next year or shortly after that before a decision is taken in regard to the competence. We believe the competence is of our own and not of the EU, but that matter is to be decided by the courts.

I am anxious to ensure there are no discharges into any sea, particularly the Irish Sea, but as a result of meetings we have held at OSPAR and other venues the Deputy can take it that neither the Minister nor myself will take our foot off the pedal. We have made progress. Last year we met the Minister for Energy, Patricia Hewitt, in London and we are in constant contact with Elliot Morley, and at all meetings I take the opportunity to raise the issue. I have got a good deal of support from the Nordic countries also. It is dangerous to suggest a zero rate but we want a realistic reduction in discharges. I will not seek a back-loaded reduction to 2020 but one that is progressive and substantial from now on.

Will the Minister of State agree that neither he nor I, nor anybody in this country, should believe a word uttered by British Nuclear Fuels because it has told us nothing but lies for generations?

The word "lies" is not appropriate, Deputy.

Will he elaborate on the position of the RPII? Will it have a role in the monitoring of the Tc 99 emissions, particularly the TPP process? Will its representatives be invited to the Sellafield site to scrutinise that process and report back to the Minister and the Department and, through them, the Irish people on the unfolding of that process?

We are in constant contact at official and ministerial level. Shortly after my appointment I spoke with representatives of the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland who made a number of visits at that time. I would like much more information but we are within the realms of what we are allowed to do. The Deputy will be aware that the European Commission was very critical of the storage arrangements and the audits that were available to them. I assure him we will be in constant contact with them to try to progress the matter.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

John Gormley

Question:

9 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the progress being made in implementing the waste water directive in light of delays in bringing into operation waste water secondary treatment plants to serve Balbriggan, Skerries, Loughshinny, Rush, Lusk, Donabate and Portrane in Fingal, County Dublin. [12295/04]

Excellent progress is being made nationally in the provision of waste water treatment facilities to meet the requirements of the EU urban waste water treatment directive. Since 2000, waste water collection and treatment systems have been completed under my Department's water services investment programme in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway and in the major towns of Dundalk, Drogheda, Wexford, Midleton, Westport and Courtown-Riverchapel.

The recently completed Ringsend wastewater treatment plant in Dublin deals with the waste water treatment requirements of all Dublin city and south Dublin, significant areas of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Fingal, and parts of County Meath. It will produce the single biggest ever improvement in the quality of Irish coastal waters and will restore bathing water standards throughout Dublin Bay.

Other major schemes under construction, or due to start this year, include those at Cork Lower Harbour, Dungarvan, Tramore, Waterford, Sligo and Shanganagh. Schemes for Bundoran and New Ross are expected to commence in 2005, together with the Arklow main drainage scheme, subject to the outcome of legal proceedings relating to the location of the treatment plant in the latter case. Completion of these schemes will provide secondary treatment of waste water discharges from all agglomerations down to a population equivalent of 10,000 as required by the urban wastewater treatment directive.

The Balbriggan-Skerries sewerage scheme, which will also serve Loughshinny, is also due to commence this year. Fingal County Council's tender report on this scheme is under examination in my Department and will be dealt with as quickly as possible.

It was originally envisaged that two separate sewage treatment plants would be constructed to serve the areas of Rush-Lusk and Portrane-Donabate. Fingal County Council now proposes to construct a single waste water treatment plant in Portrane to serve the four towns, which will obviate the need for a second treatment works and sea out-fall in the Rush-Lusk area. The preliminary report for the Portrane-Donabate element of the scheme, but not as yet for Rush-Lusk, has been submitted to my Department but once they get the remaining paperwork, they will complete the tender works.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

My Department will deal as quickly as possible with the overall proposal, which is approved for construction under the water services investment programme.

The urban waste water treatment directive requires specific waste water treatment and-or collection facilities to be in place by 31 December 2005 for discharges from a graduated range of agglomeration thresholds. The current water services investment programme, which covers the years 2003 to 2005, incorporates all the remaining waste water schemes needed for full compliance with the directive. At the beginning of the current national development plan, compliance with the year 2005 requirements of the directive stood at 25%. This had risen to 84% by the end of 2003. Overall, I am satisfied with the rate of progress being achieved in the waste water treatment area in response to our obligations under the directive.

When the Minister talks about the Department considering the Balbriggan, Skerries and Loughshinny scheme, what is the turnaround time for his Department issuing to Fingal County Council the all-clear and the signal to proceed further? Is it being treated as a matter of urgency in light of the large number of complaints against Ireland in the EU? Ireland has the fourth-largest number according to one table after Spain, Germany and Italy.

Is it possible to say that, on planning grounds, the applications coming in thick and fast for Balbriggan, where a tripling of the current population is envisaged over a very short time, would be turned down on the basis of sewage treatment capacity not being in place? Is that a valid reason to turn down an application? Does the Minister not agree that it should be seen as a factor in a planning application if sewage treatment is not in place to withstand the burden on the system? What completion time does he envisage for the treatment plants serving the towns of Balbriggan, Skerries, Loughshinny, Rush, Lusk, Donabate and Portrane?

I understand it is being treated as a matter of urgency. There was a change of plan by Fingal County Council and as I said in the reply, there will now be only one plant. The scheme is being constructed through a public private partnership arrangement using the "design, build and operate" method and will provide wastewater treatment facilities for an initial population equivalent of 30,000, with scope for future expansion to cater for a population of up to 100,000 if it so develops. It is being treated as a matter of urgency. The Department's examination of the tender work will be completed as soon as possible and work should get under way this year and be substantially if not totally complete by the end of 2005. Such things are not built overnight.

Historically, we have not been great, but it is important to say that, at the beginning of the current national development plan period in 2000, our compliance rate with the urban wastewater treatment directive stood at 25%. That rose to 84% at the end of last year. We were coming from a low base, but enormous progress has been made in the last few years. With the completion of other planned works we will be substantially in compliance with the directives.

I take it the Government will still need to add to that population capacity. If the Minister is saying it will cater for 30,000 in Balbriggan and Skerries, and the population of Skerries itself is expected to grow to perhaps 35,000, does he accept he must instruct the council not simply to build a plant that is too small but to put in place one that will allow for the capacity increase? What policy is being followed by the Department in that regard? Will we be sitting here next year talking about the enlarged capacity, having put in place a plant that is already too small?

They cater for the equivalent of 30,000 people, with scope for expansion up to 100,000, so they are looking at it from a long-term perspective.

It is being designed and built so the capacity can easily be increased if required later.

It is required now.

Planning Issues.

Róisín Shortall

Question:

10 Ms Shortall asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will make a statement on his recently published draft guidelines on rural housing; the way those guidelines will be enforced; and if and when it is intended to place them on a statutory basis. [12221/04]

Ruairí Quinn

Question:

33 Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if his attention has been drawn to the concerns expressed by the Irish Planning Institute regarding the implications of the new draft guidelines on rural housing and particularly the suggestion that they are counter to rational planning and legal precedent; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12223/04]

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

145 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government when he proposes to introduce primary or secondary legislation to facilitate rural dwellers who wish to live in the countryside; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12421/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10, 33 and 145 together.

In accordance with normal practice, the guidelines for planning authorities on sustainable rural housing have been issued in draft form to give all those interested an opportunity to comment before the guidelines are finalised in statutory form. I intend carefully to consider any suggestions for clarifying or improving the guidelines before they are finalised. Comments are to be submitted to my Department by 30 April.

In view of the importance of the rural housing issue and the fact that there has already been extensive opportunity for public debate, I have requested planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to have regard to the draft guidelines with effect from the date of their publication. The guidelines are a material consideration both regarding development plans and in the consideration of planning applications. Planning authorities are required to review and vary their development plans, where necessary, to ensure their policies on rural settlement are consistent with the policies set out in the guidelines.

The new guidelines have two main functions. First, to facilitate people who have roots in or links with the rural community, and are part of or contribute to that community, in getting planning permission for their housing proposals, subject to normal planning requirements. Second, in the interest of sustaining population levels, planning authorities are required under the guidelines to ensure that any demand for housing in rural areas suffering from population decline is, subject to good planning practice, accommodated.

The guidelines provide a policy framework setting out in detail how Government policy on rural housing as set out in the national spatial strategy is to be taken forward by local authorities in planning more effectively for rural areas. I am aware of the views expressed by the Irish Planning Institute. However, I reiterate that, regarding rural housing, sustainable development requires an explicit acknowledgement of the role that people living in rural areas have to play in supporting a dynamic rural economy and social structure.

I consider that planning authorities must adopt a positive and proactive approach to dealing with housing in rural areas. The guidelines provide that they should act as facilitators in bringing together the elected members, officials, farming and community organisations, organisations representing rural dwellers, environmental organisations and the wider public to create a shared view of how rural housing is to be addressed, with a view to building ownership in development plans and their implementation.

I welcome the discussion on rural dwellings. I am not clear that the Minister's proposals will add anything to the present situation. I would like to highlight one case and ask the Minister of State whether he believes it is the way to go. In a very backward rural parish in my own area, a young man has to sign an agreement that he will not allow any more houses to be built on his land. He has allowed one already apart from his own family dwellings. However, another person has nine or ten not far away. Is this the type of regulation that we are to introduce to stop people living in rural Ireland? I warn the Minister of State about this issue.

I am sorry, but it is not necessary for the Deputy to warn the Minister of State. One asks a question to elicit information from him.

I am trying to ensure that serious mistakes are not made in the new guidelines since people have great expectations.

The Deputy should allow the Minister of State to answer the question. There are other Deputies waiting and the one minute is concluded.

People have great expectations concerning this new proposal by the Taoiseach and the Minister. Will the Minister of State assure people that they will be able to get houses in isolated rural areas where they want to live?

That is what the guidelines set out to achieve. It is about trying to bring balance between accommodating rural housing needs and protecting the quality of the environment. However, if a planning application is for a location where the population may be falling it must still be judged and normal standards apply. The intention is quite clear.

Many local authorities seem to do their business in a fair even way. In some local authorities there was a rather harsh interpretation of the rules and the Government wants to move it that notch or two to accommodate people who have roots, who work in and are from an area and who should live there. It is to bring balance because there are many purists on both sides of this argument. It is to get everyone pulling together. In the past the problem has been there were so many people with different views on this issue. We want people to pull together so that they can have a consensual view on the plans for their county or region.

I agree entirely with the comments of Deputy Crawford. Does the Minister accept that most of us in this House have encountered situations similar to that which the Deputy described? I would like to ask if these new guidelines will change the current situation whereby it appears to be much easier to get planning permission for 400 houses in the middle of nowhere than it is for one individual — a long-standing resident of a community — to get permission for a single bungalow or house in his or her own area. Can he bring forward an instrument that would rein in the planners and change that around whereby massive developments are required to have proper infrastructure and to allow residents of long standing to build on their own property in the countryside?

Submissions have been invited. The closing date is tomorrow. After that, the Minister will consider them and will issue ministerial planning guidelines under section 28 of the 2000 Act. That provides that planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála must have regard to the provisions of those guidelines when exercising their functions — either laying down individual development plans or when considering planning applications. Once the process becomes an informal ministerial directive, that will permeate through and should bring about the Government objective, to bring more consistency into what was happening throughout the country and to liberalise it that notch or two.

Will the Minister of State clarify what discussions have taken place within the notifying bodies, namely, An Taisce, the regional fisheries boards and the six or seven other organisations which have a critical role to play? Will he clarify what the consultations were with An Bord Pleanála? We can notify everyone else, but the key players in the processing of planning applications are the notifying bodies. Has there been consultation in particular with An Taisce which has a critical role in the prevention of development in many parts of rural Ireland?

I believe everybody and anybody has been invited to make their submissions.

Does that include the critical bodies?

I am sure all the critical people are included in that. As to whether individual meetings have taken place with other people, I do not think so. I do not know, but all the submissions will be considered, whatever the normal process is. I am not fully up to speed on that issue. Once the guidelines have ministerial effect they have to be obeyed by everyone, down through the chain. That is the way it will operate.

Is that for every county?

That is the way it is, and not just at any one level. People must take note of them and give effect to them at development plan stage and also with each individual application. Good planning standards and guidelines will always apply. It does not mean that because someone is putting in an application from a severely depopulated area that he or she is on a winner. The application must be duly sensitive to the landscape and normal planning guidelines. Everything must be examined and, if possible, local authorities should act as drivers of this initiative, so that if people want to build holiday homes, for example, they should be encouraged to cluster. The local authorities should encourage this. It is not an all or nothing situation.

I have a final question as regards county development plans where the responsibility will rest with new local authority members elected after 11 June. How critical will their role be under the directive to be announced by the Minister? Will they have a critical role in formulating the plan in their own area?

That would depend on what stage the plan is at. Some local authorities might be more advanced than others. However, whether they are new or old councillors, they will have to take account of ministerial directives.

Will the Minister of State assure the House that the Minister, when he issues the directive, will ensure that people are treated equally? I refer to the situation I raised earlier where somebody, building his own home who has already sold one site, must sign a pledge not to do any more, whereas someone else a few miles away has already got nine and applied for two more. We cannot have one law for one person and another for someone else.

I urge the Government to have a full discussion with An Taisce because it is creating the most problems in rural Ireland. There is no point in the Minister issuing guidelines etc. if An Taisce can ultimately overrule them.

There is supposed to be one law for all of us. Planning is dealt with at local level. What the Government and the Minister do is lay down the basic framework. The guidelines are supposed to influence everyone down the line at national spatial strategy, regional planning and development plan levels, and each individual planning application. That should work out. There will always be cases such as that referred to by the Deputy. It is up to people to raise these matters for public scrutiny. However, ministerial guidelines must be taken on board and everyone should be treated equally, subject to normal good planning.

Electronic Voting.

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

11 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the total expenditure, including VAT, incurred to date on equipment, software and training for electronic voting; the total estimated cost including VAT of the proposed system; the total estimated cost, including VAT, of the proposed computerised electronic counting system; the total estimated cost including VAT of the publicity campaign to promote electronic voting; the reason for the decision to purchase 300 additional voting machines in January 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12188/04]

Joan Burton

Question:

45 Ms Burton asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the basis on which an official of his Department wrote to the Department of Finance justifying the purchase of additional voting machines in which they said that there were strong indications that there may be a further ballot paper at the June 2004 polls; the information on which his official was acting; if he, as Minister, was privy to the information; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12189/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 45 together.

Some €45 million has been advanced to date by the Department of Finance to returning officers to meet expenditure on the cost of system hardware and other election expenses, including training. The estimated cost of the system software for the June polls is €467,000. The estimated cost of the equipment and software is €46.4 million, including VAT. The voter education and awareness campaign is estimated to cost €5 million, including VAT, of which €1.125 million has been advanced to date. This programme will also include approximately €1 million on promoting awareness of the polls in June and to encourage the electorate to vote.

An additional 300 voting machines were ordered on 14 January 2004 based on the likelihood, following previous experience, that there could be multiple polls beyond those already envisaged on 11 June 2004, and the need to ensure a strategic reserve of machines available for use by returning officers having regard to estimated demands.

This is the first major investment in the electoral system for many years. Substantial savings will arise over the life of the equipment on the printing of ballot papers and reduced staffing requirements at counts. In addition, there will be savings from more streamlined pre-poll and post-poll arrangements. While future cost savings are an important factor, they are not the only rationale for introducing the system which is intended to make it easier for electors to vote, to eliminate spoilt votes, except if they arise in the postal and special voter categories, to improve the accuracy of vote counting and to provide more efficiency in electoral administration.

Electronic voting and counting is a welcome modernisation of our electoral process. It reflects a broader process of modernisation in our public services and an expectation that democratic processes should keep pace with other progressive developments in our society.

How much was spent on the roadshow and what allocation was spent through the county registrars? In County Sligo it will appear in only two towns for a very short while. It is welcome but should tour with more equity and fairness through the county. Does the Minister of State agree that as machines have been delivered to each county, the county registrar should bring the machines to each town and village and put them in public areas prior to the election to show the electorate how they work?

The voter education awareness campaign is estimated to cost €5 million, including VAT. Deputy Perry's view was raised several times yesterday on Committee Stage of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill and it was felt that the machines possibly were not available in many towns. I said that I would report that to the relevant officials in the franchise section. The Deputy is right that the machines are available in every county and I hope they would be available in all the local authority offices. Although the offices are not situated in every town and village people visit them frequently. The awareness campaign for electronic voting in the 2002 election in Dublin West, Dublin North and Meath was smaller than the present one. The same applied to the seven constituencies which had electronic voting for referendum on the Treaty of Nice. The survey conducted afterwards on our behalf recorded voter satisfaction of 87%.

Was that a percentage of those who voted?

Apprehension and fear of the unknown is understandable but while I will not say they are as easy to use as 1,2,3 or be facetious, anyone who has seen the machines knows that they are easy to use. We are trying to familiarise as many people as possible with them through the awareness campaign. I will take the Deputy's views on board.

What level of the €4.5 million has been distributed to each of the county registrars in the country? Could the Minister of State also indicate the level of the indemnity given to the supplier of the contract with regard to its obligations? If there is any possibility of litigation who takes the total risk?

Does the Minister of State agree that the proposal for electronic voting has been a very expensive fiasco from the outset and that an opportunity has been lost to introduce a proper electronic voting system for the electorate? Does he further agree that it will be very difficult to recover confidence from the public in a system that many of us believe is unsafe and unreliable?

I do not wish to pre-empt the work of the commission that will report on this matter but will the Minister of State take into account the fact of life, whatever about 1,2,3, that in towns such as Balbriggan, which has a town council, there will be 1,2,3,4 votes: the referendum, European elections, county council and town council elections? Can he ensure that the roadshow would give due recognition to that and ensure that people who must vote in four different electoral processes are familiar with the system? This would prevent the formation of queues given that this is the first time we have used electronic voting over four processes.

I am not aware of how much money was allocated to each county registrar. It is not part of the question and I do not have the breakdown of figures. If one works through international accredited institutes, such as the PTB, there is no problem about indemnity. However, the independent commission established to verify the secrecy and accuracy of the vote requested the Government to provide the necessary indemnification. That indemnification cannot be provided until the Bill is enacted and it may not be required. I am not sure, this is hypothetical until the report is made available. The Government has indemnified the commission and its agents. I do not wish to stray into the area of the source code and the PTB because I do not want to infringe on the commission's work.

Electronic voting is not a waste of money. There is confidence in it among the public. The only place where there is no confidence is among the Opposition. The people want electronic voting and I have every confidence in the intelligence of the voter and that it will work extremely well.

We will see on 11 June.

The people voted for Fianna Fáil in the last election.

Dublin West, Dublin North and Meath are a microcosm of the rest of the country. It worked well there and it will work on 11 June.

We have considered the question of multiple votes. It may well be that where there are town council votes, if the list exceeds 18 we will need another space. That is part of the reason for bringing in extra machines. The machines should be available where there are local authority offices, as in Balbriggan, and I will bring that to the attention of those who are responsible for the awareness campaign.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.