Priority Questions

Questions Nos. 1 and 2 are to be taken together, but as Deputy Dessie Ellis is not yet in the Chamber, I propose that we begin with Question No. 4 to give him a chance to get here. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Road Improvement Schemes

Timmy Dooley

Question:

4. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the amount of money that has been collected through the community involvement scheme for works on local roads since its inception; the way in which local communities are asked to pay for the scheme; the average contribution asked for; the counties in which this scheme has been used to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31050/13]

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads are the statutory responsibilities of each local authority, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on these roads are funded from local authorities' own resources and supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded are also matters for the local authority.

This year my Department launched a new pilot community involvement scheme.  The scheme is based on contributions in a range from 20% to 50%, either through monetary contributions or the provision of materials, machinery or labour.  Where the local community is making a contribution and not undertaking the work itself, the local contribution will be 20%.  Where the majority of works are to be undertaken by the council, the local contribution will be 30%.  Should the majority of works be undertaken by the local community, the local contribution will be 40% and where all works are to be undertaken by the local community, with the local authority contributing by way of materials or machinery, the local contribution will be 50%. In the latter case, no cash contribution would be required from the community.

Each local authority taking part in the scheme assessed applications and took into account the length, width and condition of the roads concerned, the number of dwellings along the roads and then estimated the overall cost of each scheme taking account of material, labour, machinery and traffic management costs.  From this calculation, the local authority determined the local contribution, which is paid directly to the local authority.  

The pilot scheme is only recently under way, but I can confirm that applications were received from 25 county councils and one city council for 428 projects.  A total of 377 projects were approved, at an estimated overall cost of €14.1 million, of which €10.5 million is to be provided by the Department and the balance of €3.6 million coming from local communities by way of cash contributions or the provision of materials, labour or machinery. Local authorities will be requested to report on the operation of the scheme towards the end of the year, at which point we will be able to consider whether we should repeat the scheme next year and, if so, what form it should take.

I have been concerned about this scheme from the outset. I accept that community involvement is worthwhile in road projects where there is a misunderstanding about whether the council controls the roads concerned. Schemes were previously put in place for culs-de-sac and minor roads. The extension of schemes to a wider variety of roads changes the dynamic for those who live in isolated rural areas who are getting a second class service. They are paying road tax, the house tax and various other taxes and charges and are now expected to pay an additional charge for the benefit of travelling along the roads that lead to their homes. Local authorities do not appear to be taking a uniform approach. I recently had an opportunity to visit some of the areas affected in north County Meath. To say some of the roads in the area are in an appalling state is an understatement. It beggars belief that the responsible local authority has underfunded maintenance works on roads that serve tourism, industry, farming and general community life. While I accept that maintenance of these roads is the responsibility of local authorities, the Minister will have to take a more proactive approach in the absence of action on the part of local authorities instead of placing the burden on the shoulders of hard-pressed taxpayers who are already paying their fair share. It is regressive and inequitable to expect them to contribute through materials, machinery or hard cash. No one living in a city would be expected to pay for the street lamps or to repair a footpath.

A separate local improvement scheme deals with laneways and roads not taken in charge. It is open to local authorities to use a portion of their discretionary grants on that scheme. The community involvement scheme is aimed at local and regional roads taken in charge by the local authority. The background to the scheme is that funding for road maintenance works has decreased, whether from my Department or local authorities' own resources, with the result that local authorities are prioritising roads that are heavily used. We were approached by individuals and business people who offered to contribute to the cost of repairing their local roads. It is difficult to refuse such offers. I acknowledge the issues the Deputy raised, but it is hard to refuse people who want to help.

In regard to the position in cities, people living in urban areas pay motor and property taxes, as well as management fees for the maintenance of roads and lighting in their developments. I imagine this also applies in Ennis. Many more people live in managed estates in urban areas than along rural roads that have not been taken in charge. I do not think it is right to characterise this as an urban versus rural issue. I am aware that roads in the northern half of County Meath are very bad. A considerable number of people applied for community involvement scheme grants in that area and more than €1 million has been provided under the scheme. I hope that investment will make a big difference. Approximately €2 million in additional funding has been provided for Meath County Council in the past few weeks. However, it will take more than that sum to address the long-standing neglect of roads in the northern part of the county.

In terms of the general approach adopted, I believe in local government. It is the responsibility of the Government to deal with the national road and motorway network, but local and regional roads should be a matter for local authorities.

Perhaps my Department can take a regulatory role in requiring local authorities to ensure roads meet a certain standard, as they do at present in the waste management area, for example.

I take the Minister's point about whether this is an urban versus rural issue. I was not seeking to characterise it in that way. The point I make is that people in rural areas are responsible for their own laneways and for management and maintenance within the curtilage of their sites. That happens in housing estates as well. I am familiar with residents of developments in rural areas who have to make payments to cover the management and care of lighting and the upkeep of the estate. It seems they will now be expected to make an additional payment in order to be able to get to the main road, if it is the case that a stretch of the local road requires upgrading. Has the Minister considered the possibility that tax relief might be afforded on such contributions? Has he made a request to the Department of Finance in that regard? This further burden of taxation on householders, who are already making significant contributions at a difficult time, cannot be seen in isolation. I accept that the State does not have enough money to provide the services that are required. I am suggesting that tax relief should be offered to those who have to dig into their pockets to pay €3,000 or €4,000. If the Minister has not already sought a meeting with the Minister for Finance, or if there have been no discussions between the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Finance, I suggest that should be expedited in advance of next year's budget.

Taxes are in the purview of the Minister for Finance, of course. I think there is some merit in the suggestion that people should be allowed to offset against tax any contribution they make to help to repair a public road. We are considering it as we prepare our annual submission setting out the things we would like to see included in the finance Bill. I have not yet done due diligence on it. I want to do that first. I think the idea is worthy of consideration.

We will return to Questions Nos. 1 and 2.

National Roads Authority Expenditure

Timmy Dooley

Question:

1. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the way he intends to ensure the M50 is fit for purpose; the capital expenditure that is planned for the motorway; his plans to include bus rapid transit as part of a solution to ease the congestion on the M50; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31175/13]

Dessie Ellis

Question:

2. Deputy Dessie Ellis asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport his plans to ensure safety standards on the M50 while avoiding increases in tolls and forcing drivers into residential or built up areas. [31341/13]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

These questions are about the M50. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall maintenance and funding in relation to the national roads programme.  The planning, design and implementation of individual road projects is a matter for the National Roads Authority under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. The M50 upgrade project, which was approved in 2005, resulted in the addition of a third lane in both directions from the M1 to Sandyford and a fourth auxiliary lane in places, together with the development of freeflow junctions and the introduction of barrier-free tolling. This major investment has significantly enhanced the capacity of the motorway. There are no proposals at present for further investment in additional capacity. One of the conditions attached to An Bord Pleanála's approval of the upgrade was the publication of a scheme of demand management measures within three years of the completion of the work. The National Roads Authority, in conjunction with the relevant local authorities, has been working on such a scheme and a draft report was published recently.

I undertook a review of tolling policy when I took over as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Having reviewed the position, and in the context of budgetary measures that led to an increase in VAT and carbon tax, I decided in late 2011 that new tolls would not be introduced during my term as Minister. This position remains unchanged. The likely impact of multi-point tolling on the M50 would be to push vehicles onto other roads and through local communities. At present, congestion is not the problem it was when An Bord Pleanála granted permission for the M50 upgrade, but it will re-emerge as an issue if and when the economy recovers. At that point, we will need a joined-up solution to deal with congestion across the greater Dublin area, and not just on the M50. Apart from tolling, the draft report does include other measures specific to the effective operation of the M50 which merit consideration. Overall, I see the demand management report as part of a process to look at options for managing traffic in the greater Dublin area in the future. The potential role of bus rapid transport within the greater Dublin area is being considered in that context. However, I am unsure whether a bus rapid transport service on the M50 would be appropriate or useful given the difficulty people would have in getting to bus stops on a motorway.

I thank the Minister for confirming he intends to maintain the policy of retaining the tolls at their current levels, rather than increasing them in line with some of the recommendations of the demand management report. Although growth in activity on the M50 has moderated somewhat and will not reach the expected levels by 2015, it is a fact that within the next ten years the expectation is that the M50 will have reached peak capacity at certain times of the day. Obviously, that is a concern from a forward planning point of view as we try to encourage people to invest and develop businesses in this city. What strategy does the Minister intend to put in place to take on board the issues that have arisen in the demand management report? What methodology has been put in place in the Department to plan for the future? It is fine for all of us to agree that the demand is not there, because of where the economy is at, and to wait and see what happens in the future, but I think we need to do more than that. If the Department has not already started to develop a strategy to meet the future need that is expected, I hope it will do so quickly. It would be very helpful if the Minister outlined his thoughts in that regard.

It may be projected that the M50 will be congested in ten years' time, but I am not sure it can be described as "a fact" given that it will depend on many things, not just the level of growth in the economy but also the modal split between vehicles and public transport. A number of the proposals that are made in the report, including the introduction of variable speed limits, the provision of increased information on the motorway, the establishment of a national traffic control centre and the development of some other smarter travel measures, could help to manage congestion. I expect that such technology will increasingly be used to manage our road network. It is a flawed approach to try to deal with the issue of congestion in Dublin as an M50 issue, because it is not that simple. This issue affects the roads adjoining the M50 and the greater Dublin area as a whole. Two things are being developed in that regard. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is developing a new transport investment strategy in preparation for the next national development plan. The National Transport Authority is developing a six-year plan for traffic and investment in Dublin. I believe we should approach this issue in that holistic context across the greater Dublin area and not just down the M50 mainline.

I thank the Minister. I am glad to hear he has no plans to put further tolls on the M50, which is undoubtedly the busiest road in the country. All the main carriageways from north, south, east and west converge on the M50. We were opposed to the tolling of the M50 from the outset. We saw what happened when the contract was drawn up with the company that was previously responsible for the tolling of the M50. A previous Government rectified the matter by taking on that responsibility. As a result, we now have the freeflow system, which is not perfect but is certainly a huge improvement. It seems that the M50 as a whole is managing pretty well, although problems have been identified during peak hours. Our plans need to be concentrated on what we can do in those peak hours. A price increase would definitely lead to rat-running in housing estates, residential areas and built-up areas, which would be a disaster. Does the Minister accept that more investment in public transport and integrated travel is needed? We have some integrated travel, involving the bus and rail networks, but what about the integration of bicycles etc.? In the long run, such measures will help to relieve congestion.

I accept there needs to be a joined-up approach to the management of traffic in the greater Dublin area and in all our cities and towns. That approach needs to take account of things like bicycle and pedestrian access, investment in public transport and demand management. I am not part of the lobby in this country that thinks we should persecute the motorist. I do not think we can put further pressure on motorists until we have provided alternatives. I am conscious that fuel prices are much higher than in the past, that people are struggling to take out car loans to replace their cars as they get older and that the requirement to pass the NCT also places pressure on motorists. It is certainly not in my plan for the next couple of years to make life harder for people who use their cars to get to work and bring their kids to school etc.

If the M50 does become a problem, and the Minister has said it might, the old plan for an orbital route around the northern part of the M50 could be considered for the future, although finances will obviously have a bearing on that. We have the example of the port tunnel, which used very high prices to ensure very few private cars use it while taking the trucks and heavy traffic off the main roads in the city centre. The example is there that increasing the prices will deter private cars from using roads like the M50, which is the lesson we have to learn. There has to be consideration of other alternatives. One of the past suggestions was this orbital route, which might be a way to go forward.

I take the Minister's point that the potential future growth in traffic on the M50 cannot be resolved in isolation, and it of course has to be part of a co-ordinated plan. However, I am not convinced the Minister or his Department are taking seriously the potential for the M50 to reach a threshold beyond which problems are created. From an historical point of view, we all look at the legacy of the past in regard to not getting rid of the barriers at a much earlier stage, yet growth came much quicker that we expected because of the boom in the economy. I get the sense around many of the Departments that there is almost an inertia in regard to the thought that we will ever see significant levels of growth again. When growth comes, it can come quickly and in an unpredicted way. When that happens, we will see a level of increase. I would like to think there is somebody in a positive frame of mind who is planning in the hope, expectation or belief that this will happen sometime into the future. For that reason, I hope the Minister will establish a steering group across all infrastructure in the State that looks to where the potential bottlenecks might be in the event or hope that we will see a sustainable level of normalised growth again, which is a regular feature of economies in the developed world.

The work the Department is doing in regard to the integrated transport strategy is exactly that. Rather than just using a projected growth figure, given these are always wrong one way or the other, which is the nature of these things, we are looking at different scenarios, for example, a low growth scenario, a middle growth scenario and a high growth scenario, and examining what bottlenecks and issues may arise in those different scenarios.

With regard to the Leinster outer orbital route, the big idea in the past was to put a motorway through Leinster and allow people to bypass all of Dublin. That would be horrendously expensive - we are talking of billions of euro - so it is way down the priority list. There are so many other public transport and regional road projects, as well as the need to improve road access into the north west and the west, which I believe should take priority over a new motorway around Dublin.

Harbour Authorities Appointments

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport when and the way the new chair of the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company will be appointed; if he will address with the company outstanding industrial relations issues and the management plan for Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company between now and the transfer to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council as per the new national ports policy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31174/13]

The question relates to the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company. I expect to bring a memorandum to Government in the coming weeks in regard to the appointment of a chairperson for the harbour company. Following this, the individual will be required to appear before the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications prior to his or her appointment being confirmed. The occasion of his or her appearance and the questions that will be asked of the chairperson designate will be a matter for the committee itself.

Requiring all newly nominated chairpersons to appear before the relevant Oireachtas committees is in line with broader Government reform proposals in the area of State board appointments. These initiatives include a public invitation for expressions of interest in serving on State boards.  Furthermore, on the appointment of board members to the individual port companies, I now issue them with a letter of mandate setting out the issues and priorities to which they should have regard in carrying out their functions, subject to their fiduciary duties under the Companies Act.

As the Deputy is aware, the new national ports policy, which I launched, provides a coherent framework for all State-owned ports to allow for their future development in a manner that suits their individual circumstances. Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company has been designated as a port of regional significance and will be transferred to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in due course. In the interim, the port will continue to operate and carry on its day-to-day business as normal.

The successful completion of this transfer process will be the key priority for the incoming chairperson.  My letter of mandate to the incoming chairperson will clearly set out this priority. In addition, the letter of mandate will request that the incoming chairperson will, first, appear before the relevant Oireachtas committee as requested, second, pay due regard to the totality of Government policy in the area of CEO remuneration in any board decisions on the matter, and third, with regard to consideration of the future development of the port company, ensure that it is carried out in a prudent fashion.

I thank the Minister for his reply. As he knows, I have previously raised the issue of what I believe are very serious problems and irregularities in Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company. There was the issue of one company director who wrongly claimed €40,000 in expenses and, while there was a commitment he would pay it back, as far as I know, it still has not been paid back. A CEO who already pays himself €136,000 got an extra €20,000 and claims this was bought back annual leave, which as I understand is not allowed and, in any event, would amount to 35 days annual leave, which does not exist in the public sector. We still have not got answers about this issue. Meanwhile, there are widespread allegations by the workforce of bullying and intimidation. A court case is currently being taken by one staff member on those issues and on the issue of the Harbours Act against the management of the company. The latest development is that all pensioners and existing staff have received a letter stating there will be a meeting about problems in the pension fund on 18 July. Pensioners and staff are panicked about this because, to give one example, one pensioner who worked there for 40 years receives only €11,000 a year, which is one tenth of what the CEO currently receives, and he is worried about what may happen to his pension.

While I welcome the move into Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, what will be the procedure through which we select a chairperson? Can we have a guarantee these issues will be examined and that we will get answers on them? Is it the intention of the Minister to abolish the existing board, as seems necessary, and that the board will not just be transferred into the council but will be abolished and the workforce employed directly by the council?

The procedure is that the chairperson will be nominated by the Government. While there has been some delay in doing that and it has not been entirely under my control, I intend to nominate a new chair before the recess. The committee will then have an opportunity to question the chair, and I am sure Deputy Boyd Barrett will take an opportunity to do that with vigour.

The exact mechanism by which port companies will be transferred to local authorities is not yet decided. There are a number of different options and we have to pass primary legislation to enable us to do so. It probably will be next year before we are in a position to do that with new ports legislation. In addition, there are different models. In some cases, it may follow the harbours model whereby the companies just become part of the council. In other areas, it may follow a different model whereby the company becomes a corporate subsidiary of the council, in which case it would retain a board, a chairperson and a separate identity, and, essentially, the shareholder function would transfer from my Department to the council. However, that is not yet decided.

I strongly urge the first option, namely, that the board be abolished and be transferred directly under the control of the council. There is no need for this board, which is a waste of money and, frankly, has been a disaster for the harbour company. I am not exaggerating when I say there was a civil war going on in Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company between the management and the workforce and pensioners, and there are a lot of unanswered questions.

I ask the Minister to look into the following specific matter. A meeting has been called about problems with the pension fund. The Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, when he was Minister of State with responsibility for the marine in 1997, gave a letter to all staff stating that if there were any problems in the pension fund, the company would first have to look after the staff, but if the company was unable to look after them, the State would guarantee their pensions. I ask the Minister to look into that and to ensure that the State and the Government stand over that commitment to these pensioners.

By and large, my preference is to retain the corporate identity of these companies and to have them as companies of the local authority. As I said, I will be guided by the views of the company, the local authority and the local representatives on that issue.

Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company is a State-owned enterprise. Like many State-owned enterprises, there are problems with some of the pension funds.

It is the same in the Electricity Supply Board, ESB, Córas Iompair Éireann, CIE, and the Irish Aviation Superannuation Scheme, IASS, which is a scheme for Aer Lingus and the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA. Those issues must be resolved. The best way to do this is through co-operation between the staff and management with the assistance of the Labour Relations Commission, LRC and Labour Court if need be. A civil war will not protect anyone's pensions.

There is a civil war; that is the problem. They do not want a civil war.

Tourism Promotion

Tom Fleming

Question:

5. Deputy Tom Fleming asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the up-to-date international response regarding The Gathering; the number of visitors from January to June 2013 in comparison to January to June 2012; the number of The Gathering events that have been organised nationally; his plans to target the lucrative British and German markets; the marketing strategy and plans he has to address this major issue for Irish tourism for the remainder of 2013 and in future years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31340/13]

The reaction to The Gathering, both domestically and overseas, has been overwhelmingly positive. We are targeting at least 325,000 extra overseas visits to generate €170 million in revenue. The most recent figures from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, show a 4% increase in overseas trips to Ireland between February and April 2013 compared with 2012. Detailed CSO figures for the first quarter of 2013 are particularly encouraging as they show a 12% increase in spending by overseas visitors in Ireland compared with 2012.

More than 4,000 individual Gatherings are confirmed with approximately half to take place in the second half of 2013, such as clan gatherings, special sporting events and concerts. Alongside established events, we are supporting targeted events such as New Year's Eve in Dublin, the people's parade at the St. Patrick's festival, with almost 6,000 overseas participants, and the Riverdance Gathering in July. Along with my allocation of more than €37 million in 2013 for overseas tourism marketing to enable Tourism Ireland to roll out campaigns in all key markets, this will ensure we maintain our good performance to date this year.

Visits from Germany were up 4.5% to 92,300 in the three months from February to April 2013 compared with 2012, whereas visits from Britain fell by 2.2% to 638,600. I am encouraged by Germany's recent strong performance. The continuing economic difficulties in Britain show the need to take a medium-term approach to this market, as agreed by the stakeholders on the tourism recovery task force in its report, GB Path to Growth. The recommendations of this report are reflected in the 2013 plans of the tourism agencies. For the longer term, to ensure our policy framework continues to support the long-term competitiveness of the Irish tourism sector, I am commencing a tourism policy review this year.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. It is heartening to hear The Gathering is gaining momentum and the projected number of visitors is being achieved. I hope we can build on this. It is giving a great uplift and reaching every corner of the country. It is invigorating rural areas that have been suffering decline in many ways over recent years and is giving great community spirit. I hope we can build on these foundations and repeat this Gathering in future years. It shows the major potential. It will benefit the country in many ways. People may come in and make various investments or encourage our diaspora to participate more in a continual way in this country.

There is a major void in the British tourists coming in. Figures have plummeted over the past three or four years. We have lost approximately 1 million in that period. Has the Minister of State plans to strive to recover the figures we were getting previously from the neighbouring island? It was very positive to hear the German statistics. We are still losing out in a large way on the German market. It is to be hoped there will be no repercussions due to the latest events over the past week. We are getting only 1% of the German market up to now, which is disappointing.

Tourism Ireland is rolling out a new plan for 2013 development, in conjunction with industry partners, called GB Path to Growth. We hope we can return the GB market to growth by 2016. The positive news is that there are 92,300 extra German visitors to this country. Britain is down only 13,000. We need to grow the British market and we are looking at that and working on ways to promote it. The positive thing is that all the other markets are also up. That is important.

We have more than 4,098 gatherings up to 24 June. Deputy Tom Fleming is correct that this has been community led in every corner of the country. They have had their gatherings and every place where gatherings have taken place has been positive for business, hotels, bed and breakfasts, carry-outs, pubs and vintners. They are all supportive of it and saying they can see a gain from The Gathering this year. We are reaching our target and we need to start examining how to get a legacy to continue it for the next few years. I particularly thank and compliment the voluntary sector. Businesses will naturally work hard to ensure they get as many people into their premises as possible, but the voluntary community effort throughout this country last year involved 8,000 to 9,000 people coming out on bad winter nights, organising Gatherings and carrying them through, and they are now working very well. They must be complimented.

The Continent should be a growth area for us. I mentioned this to the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, at the budget meeting of the Select Sub-Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport on Tuesday. He emphasised very much the use of the Internet as a marketing tool to get out to people. That is where they are accessing information. From other people involved in the market I am hearing about the hands-on approach whereby in the past we went to holiday fairs throughout Britain and Europe in particular. We were getting through to people at first hand, speaking to them on personal terms, speaking to the tour operators and the public. We were getting good publicity and public relations from it. We need a mix of that in tandem with the Internet. The first thing we must do is get it into their mindset. There appear to be five main visitor countries in Europe and we are among them, but we must get ahead of the other four.

Last year, 30,000 people came into this country for an American football match and they dispersed from Dublin into the other areas. That was a wonderful achievement which we should strive to repeat. That 30,000 was the biggest movement of people to come out of the United States in one venture since the Second World War. We need to replicate that.

We did a major campaign, Jump into Ireland, which ran on television channels, newspapers, at Tube stations and on the Internet. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and I have done fairs in Germany, France and Britain. We have gone there, shaken the hands, met the trade and talked to the people who are bringing people into this country. I am very confident we can deal with the British market. We must remember the British market, like ourselves, is in recession. Surveys have shown they are not going somewhere else and instead are not travelling because of their economic crisis. I am delighted to see all the other markets, including the German and French markets, increasing. Top countries all over the world are bringing their Gatherings into Ireland and we expect that from here onwards, July, August and September will be the major months for The Gathering. We already have a 4% increase so I am confident we can reach the target of 325,000 visitors.

We have tried everything in the British market and we will continue to do so. We will also continue to look at the other markets, in particular, the markets where we are doing well, such as the German, French, and Italian markets. The British market is weak and we have to keep working at it.