Priority Questions.

Planning Issues.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

82 Mr. O’Dowd asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the steps he will take to prevent urban sprawl in Dublin as borne out by Census 2006 which shows the population of Dublin city rose by only 2% between 2002 and 2006 but that there was huge population growth in neighbouring Louth, Fingal, Meath and Kildare (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7677/07]

The regional planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area, which implement national spatial strategy principles and policies at regional level, comprise the principal framework for the sustainable development of the greater Dublin area. Their objective is to consolidate the physical and population growth of Dublin within the metropolitan area, and to provide for concentrated development elsewhere in the greater Dublin area at key strategic towns, particularly those along public transport corridors. Significant investment under Transport 21 in improving public transport services and links, together with other targeted national development plan investment, is now being made in support of these recommended guideline objectives to create more sustainable growth patterns in the greater Dublin area.

My Department's housing completion statistics for 2006 show that some consolidation is now occurring, with housing output rising by over 10% last year on 2005 in Dublin city and significant increases also recorded in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. Moreover, my Department's review of the 1999 residential density guidelines, in light of the experiences to date, will further assist planning authorities to deliver higher density and more sustainable communities.

Since the publication of the national spatial strategy I and my predecessors have guided local authorities to ensure that their development plan policies are consistent with the strategy. This has taken the form of formal directions in the case of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Laois, and advisory letters in the case of a number of other counties including Meath and Monaghan. In this regard, there is an onus on all political parties at both national and local level to work towards these objectives. Similarly, in recognising the need to increase residential densities in the existing Dublin metropolitan area I expect general support for the objective. There is little point in political parties advocating an end to urban sprawl at national level if, at the same time, they oppose increased height and density within the built up areas or, as has happened in the counties I have mentioned, they seek to rezone massive areas for speculative development.

Is the footprint of Dublin city not equal to that of Los Angeles yet it has only one third of the population? Have the Minister's policies failed dismally? While the population of Dublin city has fallen by 2% in 2002-06, the population in Fingal has increased by 22%, in Meath by 21% and in Kildare by 14%. The price of housing is driving people out of the city. A commuter from these counties spends 12 to 14 hours a day between work and getting to and from the office. The Minister is not doing enough to ensure brownfield sites are developed for adequate high density apartment blocks, large enough to be suitable for families and with high amenity value.

The last point is a good one and should be included in the debate. I am anxious that apartment blocks should be more family appropriate. I welcome support from Deputy O'Dowd and his party for greater densities because that is the way to go. He is right to say it is the way to go. If we do not go up we will go out. That has been a problem. We must have some sort of regulation when local authorities make extraordinary attempts to rezone massive areas of land and encourage speculative development of, for example, small villages to a state that could not be supported. There must be more regulation in this area. Deputy O'Dowd is right to say that Dublin's footprint is extraordinarily large. There are relatively low densities and the way to go forward is to look for better density and better quality.

A comparison of housing completions in 2006 and 2005 indicates a welcome change. In Dublin city, for example, the building was up 10%, largely because brownfield development sites were brought on stream. There has been an extraordinary renaissance in that type of development. Building in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown is up34%. There may be different reasons for that.

That is because Labour and Fine Gael are in charge of the council now.

I will note that because one of the complaints in the area is about houses going up. Building in south Dublin is down 1.9%. Interestingly, it is down in Wicklow and Meath but up in Kildare. A pattern of sorts is emerging. I support the Deputy's point that brownfield sites should be brought on stream and I agree that in areas such as the Dublin docklands greater densities would be appropriate and suitable housing units should be built.

Urban sprawl is endemic. The population of Cork city has fallen by 3.2% while that of Cork county has increased by more than 11%. In Limerick there was a 2.7% fall in the population of the city and an 8% increase in the county. People are moving out because the Minister is not providing affordable and social housing.

I wish to correct the Minister on one point. I said I am in favour of high density, high quality build and high value amenities for our society. We do not want seven storey blocks with no amenities, no recreational facilities and no jobs. The Minister's policy must change to become a proactive planning policy that mixes housing with work and recreation in one area, if possible, to encourage people to cycle and walk to work rather than use their cars. The statistics prove that the Minister's policies are an abject and total failure.

The Deputy is entitled to his views. The question was about Dublin, not Limerick and Cork.

I asked about urban sprawl.

The Deputy has had his chance to speak.

The Minister had his chance too. The Acting Chairman should not let him away with this.

The question was about preventing urban sprawl in Dublin. I do not disagree with the Deputy that the way forward is to have better quality, higher density, full amenity developments.

That is critical.

The recent development in the Dublin docklands area, one of the most successful projects of its kind, shows the way ahead. I agree that is the appropriate way to bring forward some of the brownfield sites in particular. That is how we will deal with urban sprawl.

Tribunals of Inquiry.

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

83 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the correspondence he has had with the Mahon tribunal; if he will publish the correspondence; if the Mahon tribunal has identified for him the list of matters it is investigating and on which it is intended to hold public hearings; the tribunal’s estimate of the expected duration of its public hearings; the estimated cost of this tribunal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7501/07]

On 15 December 2006, the chairman of the planning tribunal on his own initiative wrote to me to advise that the tribunal's public hearings would not be completed by 31 March 2007, the target date for the termination of the tribunal's work identified in 2004. The chairman stated that he anticipated that the tribunal would be involved in public hearings until the end of 2007 and possibly into the early months of 2008. Since this communication I have been in correspondence with the chairman regarding the duration and cost of the tribunal's work and have accepted an invitation to meet him to discuss these issues. I do not consider it appropriate at this time to publish this ongoing correspondence.

I am advised by the tribunal that it is engaged in five modules of investigation. The cost of the planning tribunal amounted to more than €62 million to the end of 2006. Expenditure in 2006 was nearly €16.2 million, of which €6.62 million related to the legal costs of third parties represented before the tribunal in the period 1997-2002. It is estimated that outstanding third party bills relating to this period might amount to some €5 million. The operational cost of the tribunal is approximately €10 million annually.

My Department does not have access to the detailed records of the tribunal which would be a necessary starting point for any accurate estimation of the overall cost of the tribunal. On the matter of costs it is interesting to note the contribution of the Comptroller and Auditor General to the Committee of Public Accounts last week where he spoke of the difficulties in estimating accurately the contingent liabilities of commissions and tribunals, commenting that he "may decide that it is not possible to do this".

Total costs, including third party costs up to the end of 2002, appear to be less than €100 million according to the information provided by the chairman of the tribunal. That is much less than €1 billion. Did the tribunal indicate to the Minister the likely costs for the period from 2002 to date?

Is it not inappropriate for the Minister to meet the chairman of the tribunal to discuss matters relating to costs and the additional modules to be investigated because the House, not the Government, established the tribunal? The tribunal was required to decide by May 2005 what modules were to go to public investigation. Do I understand the Minister to have said that five additional modules will go to public investigation and if so has the tribunal informed him what those matters are?

Will he publish the correspondence between himself and the Mahon tribunal? The Mahon tribunal was established by the House not the Minister. The correspondence between the tribunal and the Minister is the property of the House. The Minister is the agent of the House and, with the greatest of respect the correspondence, on all these matters should be made available to the House and put into the Oireachtas Library. This is the business of the House not that of the Minister.

All correspondence is covered by a confidentiality requirement. My natural disposition is to be open on the issue of correspondence. The correspondence is not completed and to break confidentiality I would show discourtesy to the tribunal. It is also more important that I complete this issue and then I will visit the issue of making all material available.

I do not disagree with the Deputy's thesis that the Minister is here to do the will of the House but the Minister also has a responsibility — as the Deputy has rightly pointed out — to keep in mind the issue of costs and finality in the tribunals. My correspondence with Mr. Justice Mahon has been respectful and cordial although I have read commentary to the effect that it is otherwise.

Mr. Justice Mahon has invited me to meet him and it would be the height of discourtesy to refuse that. We must decide how to determine what issues can be discussed. The House can be confident that I will be as forthcoming and as open with House as possible. It would, however, be misleading and discourteous to release incomplete correspondence. The Deputy correctly pointed out that this House determined the new arrangements that would apply after 2004. I will discuss the remaining issues with Judge Mahon. At the end of that process the Deputy might wish to probe further about the issue through a parliamentary question.

With regard to the legal fees being paid to the legal teams at the tribunal and working for the tribunal, my understanding is that they were to terminate on 31 March. It was expected the public hearings would conclude on that date. There were reports in the newspapers this morning that the Minister was to bring a memorandum on this matter to Government today and that the Government was going to consider it. Has a decision been made on the legal fees to be paid to the tribunal lawyers, and what is that decision?

The Deputy is correct that a decision was made that, from 31 March 2007, different, lower per diem rates would be paid. The point can fairly be made from the point of view of the tribunal, and this is part of the ongoing dialogue, that while the tribunal would have anticipated a timetable for 2007, there has been a series of legal actions which have impeded or prevented the completion of that work. No decision was made today to change the decision made previously. In fact, I will refer back to the Government after I have had my discussions with Judge Mahon.

So the higher legal fees will apply.

No, I am not saying that.

What will they be paid in April?

If the Deputy would let me finish——

What will a tribunal barrister be paid in April?

The decision on a lower tariff of fees was that they would come into operation from 31 March this year. There is to be a dialogue between me and the tribunal on the timetable issue. The tribunal can fairly put forward a case that legal actions have impeded its work. The tribunal has a case to make and we must listen to it. I ask the Deputy not to press me to anticipate what will happen following my discussion with the tribunal.

The Deputy correctly points out that the tribunal was set up by this House. The tribunal was given a task and we should support it in completing that task as efficiently, effectively and economically as possible.

Does the Minister expect to end up in the Labour Court on the matter?

I am not sure that tribunal fees are a Labour Court matter.

Waste Management.

Ciarán Cuffe

Question:

84 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government his views on whether the Government’s waste strategy is working in view of the confusion over the status of plans for the proposed Poolbeg incinerator. [7762/07]

The Government's waste management strategy has delivered demonstrable and successful results, including the achievement of domestic and EU targets well ahead of schedule. This strategy, as formulated in successive policy documents, has been framed against the background of EU objectives to move to specified recovery rates for various waste streams and to divert biodegradable waste from landfill.

Our municipal recycling rate has increased nationally from just 9% in 1998 to 35% by 2005. In fact, in 2005 we passed the target set for this country for 2013, which was, by any standard, a significant achievement. With regard to specific waste streams, we have worked successfully with industry through a range of producer responsibility initiatives. Our recycling of packaging waste rose from 15% in 1998 to 60% in 2005, comfortably exceeding the 50% EU target set for 2005 and attaining the EU 2011 target. A total of 87% of construction and demolition waste was recycled in 2005, exceeding the national target set for 2013. Ireland was one of the few member states to implement the WEEE directive on time in 2005, and in the first year of operation we greatly exceeded the collection target set by the EU. We are 50% ahead of the EU target for 2008.

The Government is determined to drive forward and build on these recycling achievements, supported by appropriate infrastructure to deal with waste that cannot be prevented or recycled. Waste to energy treatment can make an environmentally valuable contribution in this context. Given EU requirements on diversion of waste from landfill, it will be particularly important in the future. It is worth looking at the contribution of the Comptroller and Auditor General last week on this issue. Against this background, the Dublin waste to energy plant is being procured as a public private partnership by Dublin City Council, acting on behalf of the four Dublin local authorities and within the framework of the statutory regional waste management plan.

Dublin City Council has informed my Department that the selected service provider for the project has been seeking significant changes in the financial and commercial terms originally agreed. This matter is the subject of continuing negotiations between the council and the prospective service provider, and I do not propose to speculate about the outcome of those discussions at this stage. The applications for planning permission to An Bord Pleanála, and for a waste licence to the EPA, are sponsored by Dublin City Council, not the service provider, and are being maintained.

Does the Minister and the Government still support the construction of an incinerator in Ringsend? It is hard to know from the soundbites and U-turns of the Minister and the coalition partners over the last few days. Does the Minister accept that we are sending as much municipal waste, if not more, to landfill as ten years ago? Does he accept that Ireland is producing more municipal waste than any other EU country surveyed by the European Environment Agency? Would he accept that the debacle over the Ringsend project will mean the authorities will have to seek a three year extension for the landfill at Kill in County Kildare? Does he accept that householders are being swamped under an avalanche of packaging waste at present? I regularly hear stories of householders having to jump up and down on the top of their green bin to fit the packaging waste into it. That is no way to run a waste strategy. It is the wrong strategy for the Government to pursue. Surely the Government can regulate, legislate and mandate that packaging waste be reduced, so the poor unfortunate householder is not reduced to having to jump on top of the green bin.

The answer to most of the Deputy's rhetorical questions is "No". There is a degree of extraordinary hypocrisy in the Green Party's stance on this issue. I was pleased last week that, in the course of the debate, Deputy Quinn made it clear that incineration or waste to energy will have to be part of any integrated waste strategy for the future. Recovery and reduction of waste will also have to be part of the strategy. There is no simple one-way solution. Tragically, there is no zero waste solution and we cannot simply legislate waste away.

We must be honest with the public. If we wish to achieve the same high environmental standards as those countries in Europe that are always held up as the exemplars, we must have the same infrastructure as they have. I agree that far too much waste in this country goes into landfill. I wish I was in the same position today as the Deputy's colleague in the Green Party who was the Minister with responsibility for the environment in the last German Government who went to a Council meeting of Environment Ministers and boasted he had passed a ministerial order preventing further waste going to landfill until it had been heat treated.

We must be honest about this issue. Waste goes hand in hand with economic development. If we are to achieve the same levels of high environmental performance and recovery as the countries rightly used by the Deputy and others as exemplars, we must put in place the same type of infrastructure. It is dishonest to suggest there is some simple way of wishing the problem away. There is not.

Does the Minister not accept that the extraordinary hypocrisy is more on his side of the House than on ours given that his attempt to wrap the green flag around him is sullied by a burn it or bury it strategy and that his Government has paid little or no attention to any attempt to reduce waste, head towards a zero waste strategy or look at alternative options such as clean filling inert waste? The householder is suffering as a result of the lack of determination on the Government's part to reduce the amount of waste created and to recycle waste. The Government is not determined to examine many innovative approaches adopted in other European countries such as standardised packaging and the promotion of markets in recycled products. The Minister has made a late conversion towards the three R principles and he should get his own house in order first.

I do not agree with Deputy Cuffe. We have achieved extraordinary targets in waste management in recent years, for which the public is to be congratulated. We are in a position where recycling is a possibility and one on which we must work. Deputy Cuffe did not address the issue of combined heat and power energy production. To use waste as an energy resource is the next step.

The Minister means incineration. It is like changing the name from Windscale to Sellafield.

CHP, where energy is recovered from waste, has been adopted in every other European country. Even the deputy leader of the German Green Party boasted about it.

The Minister should use the word "incineration".

Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

85 Mr. O’Dowd asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the action he will take on foot of the latest report from the Environmental Protection Agency; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7678/07]

Ireland will deliver fully on its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. While the relevant Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, report shows the downward trend in greenhouse gas emissions was interrupted in 2005, this was expected and was in line with projections published by the Department in 2006. The report notes much of the 2005 increase in emissions can be attributed to two factors, the full commissioning in 2005 of new peat-powered electricity plants and the increase in private car ownership.

In several sectors, notably the waste, residential and agriculture sectors, emissions are either stable or are on a decreasing trend. Lower emissions in the waste sector can be attributed to the success of the Department's policies on maximising waste diversion from landfill. Lower emissions in the agriculture sector can be attributed to lower livestock levels and decreased fertiliser use.

The stabilisation of greenhouse gas emissions in the residential sector must be considered in the context of 81,000 house completions in 2005. Energy performance standards for buildings have increased three times since 1997. I will shortly announce a further review of the regulations to improve house energy efficiency by up to 40% or more. This will ensure Ireland's standards are among the highest in the EU and make the maximum practical contribution to our Kyoto Protocol commitments.

On the policies and measures already agreed, Ireland is positioned to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 14.6 million tonnes per annum between 2008 and 2012. I am preparing a revised national climate change strategy, for publication by April 2007, which will set out the additional measures that will be implemented to close the remaining projected gap for compliance with Ireland's Kyoto Protocol commitments. From our advanced calculations, we will not just close the gap but go beyond our target.

This morning The Irish Times published a table of European greenhouse gas emissions showing Ireland’s transport emissions are one from the bottom. Will the Minister agree he has failed to control emissions in this sector and they have increased by 140%? The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government has failed to meet the Kyoto targets. Its failure also extends to public transport and planning policies and how people get to and from work. There is no metro line to Dublin Airport, the Luas system is not joined up, no rural transport scheme is in place and the existing bus network is woefully inadequate. Will the Minister agree that new and radical thinking is required in the Department and across Government to tackle the failure to meet the Kyoto targets in transport emissions? Ireland is one of the worst European countries in this regard because of the Minister’s lack of interest and involvement.

I do not agree that Ireland is one of the worst countries in Europe. The Deputy should examine other comparisons. The Deputy is correct that there have been significant increases in emissions in the transport area. One reason is there are more cars on the road but there are other factors. The Deputy is correct that there is no rail link to Dublin Airport. However, there are advanced proposals for a metro line.

In the past five years, however, the Government has put substantial additional funding into public transport. In one year, 20 times more was allocated than when Fine Gael was last in Government and held the transport portfolio. I am not clapping ourselves on the back for this because for generations there was far too little investment in public transport. The Luas has been brought on stream. The DART's capacity has been more than doubled and its network extended. Additional commuter rail services have been provided for and the bus service has seen major investment.

A great deal has been done and much more remains to be done. The chances, however, of it being done are far greater under this Government than they would be under any alternative.

Ten years ago when Fine Gael was last in Government, travelling by car from Drogheda to Dublin city took one hour while now it takes at least an hour and a half. People must get up at 5 a.m. to commute to Dublin city to work because no park-and-ride facilities are available. Commuters must sit in traffic queues for hours. People are drifting out of the cities, living in the commuting counties and spending hours away from their families getting to work. Notwithstanding the money the Government has spent on public transport, its policies have failed dismally. Is it not time the Minister led joined-up thinking in the Government to have a real coherent policy to tackle climate change? Will he agree the Government is a failure and deserves to be kicked out of office?

I hope the Deputy does not expect me to answer the last question in the affirmative.

I agree with the need for a cross-departmental co-ordinated effort in tackling this issue. Some time back I suggested the establishment of a Cabinet sub-committee on the matter and the Taoiseach appointed me chairman of it. It will produce——

How many meetings has the sub-committee had?

We had a successful meeting today.

What has it done? That was only the first meeting.

The Deputy will see the fruits of this meeting shortly.

Fuel tourism, a factor never considered in this debate, contributes to a degree to our high emissions in the transport area. It is calculated in Luxembourg's emissions as drivers in neighbouring countries go there to buy fuel. I can provide the Deputy with statistics on this matter.

Housing Grants.

Emmet Stagg

Question:

86 Mr. Stagg asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will introduce a grant to people whose homes have been identified with high radon gas concentrations and who are living alone on a weekly State pension of €209.30, to assist them with the cost of retrofitting their home against radon gas. [7620/07]

For many years, the Government, through the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, has committed significant resources to assessing the incidence of radon gas, highlighting public awareness of it and the health risks associated with prolonged exposure to high concentrations.

During the 1990s, the RPII carried out a nationwide survey of radon gas in domestic dwellings. Based on its results, the RPII estimated that 91,000 houses, approximately 7% of the national housing stock, have radon concentration levels in excess of the national reference level of 200 Bq/m3. This is the reference level adopted by the Government for houses, and the level above which it is recommended that radon remediation works should be considered. The nature of the survey does not make it possible to estimate the number of occupants, whether they are elderly people or people in receipt of social welfare payments, living in houses estimated to have radon levels above the reference level.

The testing of houses for radon is a straightforward, non-invasive and inexpensive process, costing approximately €50. Furthermore, in many situations, relatively straightforward and inexpensive remediation measures, such as improved ventilation, can be effective in reducing radon concentration levels.

I understand from the RPII that in recent years, information has been provided to it from the public and contractors that enables it to keep general track of the cost of remediation work. On that basis, the average cost of remediation is between €2,000 and €3,000 per house. The most expensive remediation work brought to the Department's attention cost €8,000, and that was a unique case.

The RPII keeps a list of contractors who provide remediation services. That list is offered as a public service. The RPII recommends that any householder planning to carry out remediation should contact several such contractors to get the most competitive quotation.

There is no provision for a State grant to assist in remediation work; nor had that been included in the types of works covered in the past by the essential repairs grant or the special housing aid for the elderly scheme. However, in the context of the new housing aid for older people scheme, which is to be introduced later this year, and in deference to the Deputy, I will have the Department examine the possibility that where a suite of works is grant-aided to make an older person's home habitable and radon levels are of serious concern, radon remediation measures might be allowable.

I welcome the last part of the answer; the rest I knew fairly well already, having asked the question perhaps 15 times in the course of the Government's life. I am a very strong believer in pursuing matters to the point where the responsible person is caught.

I thank the Minister for his helpful inclusion of radon remediation under the grant scheme. Perhaps we might go a little further. Will the Minister also consider the very similar community works scheme under which doors, windows and draught exclusion measures are provided to keep older people warm? While ventilation is important, the type available in the houses of which I speak would not be sufficient to exclude radon gas, as I am sure the Minister is aware. Does he agree that we cannot continue spending taxpayers' money making houses comfortable and warm for old people but leaving them in a situation where they could die as a result of the additional insulation provided? Previously, draughts would have allowed radon gas to blow out of houses.

There is a very easy way of measuring numbers. If one includes radon gas in the schemes of home improvement for the elderly, including the essential repairs grant and the community works scheme, one will get the figures very quickly. Perhaps the Minister of State might respond.

Obviously, the more often a Deputy asks a question, the more likely it is that he will get an answer to his liking.

It is pester power.

We have a very open mind on the matter, since we have serious concerns, and we want to ameliorate the situation as much as possible. However, I temper my answer by saying this.

I hope the Minister of State does not take the good out of it.

In countries where a grants system has been established, for example, in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and Denmark, it has not improved the take-up. Even where people are aware that radon levels are high and that assistance is available, it is surprising how low uptake has been. Denmark in particular, having examined its scheme's cost-effectiveness, decided that a far better mechanism to save lives would be to concentrate on getting individuals to give up smoking. The Deputy will understand where I am coming from. The Danes have concentrated on that issue, since in more than 90% of deaths arising in a situation where radon is present, the victims are smokers.

It is important that we do not allow a red herring to be drawn across the trail. The Minister of State will be aware of many international studies on radon gas and smoking. Even where there is an overlap, the evidence is very clear that radon gas is a lethal killer, causing lung cancer; in Ireland, it is estimated to cause 200 deaths per year. It is quite extraordinary that we do not pay more attention to that entirely preventable list of deaths, particularly in the case of older people who cannot afford remedial work. I am very surprised at the figures and would love to know from which contractors the Minister got them, since I have seen estimates of €10,000 to €12,000 to retro-fit a standard house. I have come across that several times rather than in only one case. To fit in the first instance is not that costly.

I urge the Minister to look favourably on the essential repairs grant, the disabled person's grant and the community works scheme as they apply to people on low incomes who might not be able to afford this.

Regarding the figures that I quoted, we tell people to shop around, and we have a list of contractors. Our evidence is that the general norm is €2,000 to €3,000. If a contractor is charging €8,000 or €9,000, we would like to see evidence of those charges, and we will deal with them and inform customers where they might secure much better value for money. I do not want to underestimate the dangers associated with radon gas. Given our concern, I am quite willing to take suggestions on board. We will examine them and consider the feasibility of including them in the new scheme.