Deputies Kyne and Connaughton have two minutes each.
Topical Issue Debate
Installation Aid Scheme Eligibility
I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for choosing this topical issue. I know the Minister is attuned to the needs of young farmers and that he supported them in the recent Common Agricultural Policy review. For the first time in the history of the CAP there is a chapter dedicated to young farmers, which consists of a mandatory top-up on payments in the first years of farming. Macra na Feirme, which is very supportive and has a mandate on behalf of young farmers, had worked with the Minister and as backbenchers we fully supported the plight of young farmers in terms of generational change of farms, that we have qualified people and that the supports are put in place to ensure that farmers inheriting land, taking over the farms at home or those who have the ability to buy or lease land on a long-term basis would have assistance towards developing their farm business.
In the CAP agreement provision of 2% of funds under Pillar 1 was provided, and a mandatory 25% top-up on single farm payment for new entrants for farmers under 40 for the first five years of installation. I very much welcome those initiatives. However, a cohort of farmers known as the old young farmers have missed out on the previous installation aid scheme that was closed by the previous Fianna Fáil Government and, unfortunately, they will not benefit from the measures to be enacted under the CAP reform programme. Those individuals feel aggrieved that they have missed one boat and are now missing a second boat because it will not let them on board. Is any other measure available to provide them with additional supports either within the CAP programme with regard to easier access to the discretionary fund-----
-----or could the national reserve be made available to them or some initiative in that regard?
I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for taking this issue. Deputy Kyne clearly spelled out our concerns. I realise there is probably quite a small number of farmers caught in this trap but be that as it may they certainly have a grievance.
There are some who might not see the importance of it. These farmers, who are as well-trained and educated as those who went before them, and equally as ambitious in terms of what they can do to drive business, do not have the same opportunities as them. Having attended an agricultural college, I know many people in County Galway who were caught out by this. What we want more than anything else is for the Minister, while there is still some movement within the new CAP deal, to see what can be done to help these farmers. I am aware of the time invested by the Taoiseach and Minister, Deputy Coveney, in ensuring the best possible deal for young farmers within the new CAP agreement, which has been welcomed by the IFA and Macra na Feirme. Like Deputy Kyne, I am interested in hearing from the Minister if there is anything that can be done for the group of farmers who are caught in this trap. Is there any way of getting them additional support and aid? Those who previously qualified for installation aid say that it gave them a fantastic hand-up in a range of areas - taking over a farm, production and so on. It also gave them great career opportunities, which is something these young farmers believe they are being deprived of.
While I have a script which provides a great deal of technical information in terms of what young farmers are entitled to under the new CAP - direct payments, rural development programmes and positive discrimination in the form of a 20% top-up on single farm payments and access to 60% grant aid for capital investment programmes on their farms, as opposed to the 40% which applies to everybody else - I do not propose to read it.
For some time now, young farmers have been able to benefit from the national reserve and priority treatment in terms of milk quota allocations and so on. A priority for me as part of the CAP reform process was the facilitation and encouragement of generational change in agriculture. As Deputies Kyne and Connaughton work with young and not-so-young farmers, they will understand agriculture and how it works.
I would love to be able to solve the problem for the small cohort of farmers that are falling between two stools, including those who may be under 40 but will miss out because of the five-year rule. Under current regulations, which are mandatory across Europe in that they relate to schemes for young farmers, to qualify, a person must have started farming in the past five years. A person who just missed out on installation aid when the previous Government decided to abolish it and who has been farming for more than five years will not, even if under the age of 40, qualify, in terms of definition, as a young farmer. We discussed with the Commission the possibility of making an exception for the people about whom we are speaking today. However, we cannot do it without changing the regulation, which cannot now be done because the CAP process is finalised and the regulation is set. There are a relatively small number of farmers that are outside the definition of a young farmer and therefore cannot, we are told in definitive terms by the Commission, receive the 25% top-up. Likewise, they do not qualify for 60% grant aid on their farms. They will qualify for 40% grant aid but not for the young farmer top-up.
In this regard, we are currently examining how we could use the national reserve to try to help this cohort of farmers, but we have to do so within the regulations. I do not as a Minister have the power to spend what are essentially European funds, or partial European funds, on a cohort of people that fall outside the definition of young farmers, who are entitled to receive special supports. This is not a straightforward process. I have a great deal of sympathy for this group of farmers, many of whom I know and have met at Macra, IFA and farming events generally. I have a great deal of sympathy for those who missed out on the last occasion on getting financial supports to get themselves started and are now missing out again, essentially because they do not qualify under the definitions. The definitions are the same across Europe. Therefore, I cannot allocate resources that are directly linked to CAP funds without consistent application of the definition, because this will be audited. We are in communication with the Commission regarding what flexibility we may have in terms of how we use national reserve money to provide top-ups under Pillar 1 or supports under Pillar 2. If it is possible to do something, I will. However, I do not want to over-promise at this stage because so far what we have proposed has not been acceptable to the Commission.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I recognise that he is supportive of this group and that, as he stated in his response, he is actively investigating alternative ways of assisting them. Are the Minister's counterparts in Europe actively pursuing this issue? Will it be possible to put in place alternative arrangements by way of addendum to the existing regulations, albeit regulations not long agreed?
Obviously, the farmers concerned are faced with the same costs as everybody else, including transport, conveyancing, land stocking and farm improvement. In terms of the top-up, has the Minister discussed with the Commission whether, if all the funding is not spent, the remainder could be used to support these farmers?
I too thank the Minister for his reply. What the Minister achieved through CAP for young farmers was fantastic and is something about which young farmers are particularly happy.
The Minister said he was actively looking at what else could be done and that he did not want to over-promise, which I accept. In terms of what he is trying to achieve, can the Minister tell us when it might be known if anything can be done so that the farmers concerned have a date by which they will know what is and is not possible into the future?
The problem arose when installation aid was abolished without notice. Many people who had submitted applications missed out because there was literally a shut-down of that scheme. Many people were caught out by that. We have not been able to find the money to reopen that scheme and so I decided to prioritise young farmers through the new CAP, which we have done very successfully. A young farmer lucky enough to take over a farm of 50 hectares or more will receive €16,000 in single farm payments over a five-year period. This is a significant support provided through the new CAP. Also, a young farmer investing €70,000 or €80,000 in a new milking parlour or other facility on a farm that is eligible for grant aid will now receive 60%, as opposed to 40%, of the cost in that regard.
The problem that arises is one of definition. I agree with Deputy Kyne that costs are the same for everybody and that we need to be seeking to treat young farmers the same. The problem is that young farmers who have been farming for ten years do not meet the definition of a young farmer. Essentially, young farmers are defined as people coming into farming who need a good start to get their business up and running. This is the reason for the five-year rule. The problem with the five-year rule, which makes absolute sense in terms of defining young farmers who have come into farming in the past five years, is that a small number of people who missed out on installation aid because that scheme was shut down without notice are now also missing out on this support. Essentially, that is the problem.
I will examine this further in the context of the national reserve, which in my view is the only area where there may be some flexibility, because the Commission has been very rigid on this issue. For us to spend public money, that is, EU money, on young farmers, they have to be defined as young farmers. If they are not, we are limited in terms of what we can do.
I totally take on board what the Deputies are saying and I have much sympathy for it. Finding a solution is not as straightforward as they might think. I have had long conversations on this issue with various parties, particularly Macra na Feirme, to try to find acceptable solutions that could be applied consistently without setting an inappropriate precedent.
Deputy Robert Troy wishes to comment on his Topical Issue.
The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has asked me to defer it until next Tuesday, which I am happy to do.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
We really appreciate that.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, for coming to the House to address this important issue. I raise it today because, as the Minister will be aware, the NRA has issued a draft policy on service areas on the national road network. The draft policy is to be subject to public consultation until 23 June. I am concerned about it on a number of levels. When one reads it, one realises that the NRA references the trans-European network transport, TEN-T, policy as its basis for having to bring about change. The TEN-T policy has divided Europe's road network into two: the core network, which in Ireland comprises the M1, M7 and M8, and the comprehensive network, which in Ireland comprises the other motorways and dual carriageways, including the M9 and M11. It seems to be unduly hasty on the part of the NRA to be implementing the TEN-T policy given that the deadline for the development of service areas on the core network is 2030 and for the development of service areas on the comprehensive network is 2050.
The M9 goes through my local community. I know all too well from travelling up to and down from Dublin the need for online service areas. I am very much in favour of them but I do not believe the State should necessarily be building them without giving the private sector an opportunity to do so in the first instance. A striking feature of the NRA's policy is that there is no reference to privately developed projects. I believe these have been very successful. The State-led approach ignores the potential of existing facilities. It does not refer to specific private enterprises, such as Junction 14 in Monasterevin, of which I am very aware. A new one, known as the Barack Obama Plaza, is being developed outside Moneygall. This was developed at a cost of €7 million by a private investor. It will create in excess of 60 jobs overall. While expansion may be required in Tipperary to facilitate HGVs, the Junction 14 project meets all the necessary requirements regarding parking facilities etc.
In the draft policy, the NRA states there is a high level of public satisfaction with the existing NRA service areas. This is based on a customer survey. The service areas in question are in Lusk, Castlebellingham and Enfield. Did the NRA ever carry out a survey of Junction 14 in Monasterevin? If footfall is anything to go by, the customers are satisfied. I would imagine that those customers, who are taxpayers, would be happy to know hard-earned taxpayers' money was not used to build the facility.
I am concerned that the NRA seems to be going into competition with the private sector. We lack an holistic approach whereby the NRA, in conjunction with the local authorities, would have very much fixed criteria on how a private sector developer could develop online service facilities. The NRA’s document sets out where it would like them to be and where they need to be. It refers to a distance of 100 km, as in the TEN-T policy, and the requirement for drivers to take a break after having driven for four hours and 15 min, at a maximum. There are very few journeys in Ireland that would take longer than that. One would travel from one coast to the other. We are not comparing like with like. This is not Germany or Italy, which have large autobahns on which one could drive for days on end.
We need to develop an holistic approach whereby the NRA could work with the local authority and allow the private sector to develop the service areas in the first instance. Failing that, we have until 2030 to develop them. We would like to see them in place much earlier. If the private sector is given a clear, coherent way of going forward, it can do what is desired. Failing this, the State should intervene and develop service areas where the commercial sector has not recognised sufficient demand but where they are necessary from a road safety perspective. I am very concerned that we are investing taxpayers’ money in the development of service areas without affording an opportunity to the private sector to develop them first. Obviously, if the money were not used on public private partnerships, it could be used by the Minister for further road maintenance works, repairs and road development and construction.
I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to address this issue and to clarify the position regarding the provision of service areas by the NRA on the motorway network. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding regarding the national roads programme. The construction, improvement and maintenance of individual national roads, including service areas, is a matter for the National Roads Authority under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. In particular, section 54 of the Roads Act 1993 specifically provides for the National Roads Authority or a local authority to provide or operate service areas.
In 2005, the then Minister for Transport asked the NRA to review its policy of generally not providing service areas on national roads, particularly on the expanding network of access - controlled motorways and dual carriageways. Arising from this review, the NRA decided to proceed with a programme to provide service areas across the major inter-urban network. The imperative to have service areas on the network arises as a result of a number of factors: the major inter-urban motorway network is largely complete; the EU working time directives contain specific requirements for permissible driving and rest times for professional drivers, including hauliers; the significant road safety benefits of rest areas for other road users; and the TEN-T policy. Much of our national road network is part of the TEN-T network, and regulations include specific requirements with regard to parking and rest facilities on the core road network.
In October 2007, the NRA published its initial policy on the provision of service areas which incorporated a map showing indicative locations. In light of the funding constraints that emerged, the NRA scaled back on the development of service areas. At present, there are NRA service areas at three locations on the network. Two are located on the M1, at Lusk and Castlebellingham on the way to Belfast, and one is on the Galway road at Enfield. All three of these service areas provide a high range of services, including parking, fuel and restaurant facilities. The current NRA service areas that are in operation were developed as PPP projects. Overall, the NRA has indicated that there is a high level of public satisfaction with these service areas, as evidenced in customer surveys. A second group of three service areas is currently under development. The one at Gorey is at construction stage and those at Kilcullen and Athlone are at tender stage. These service areas, which are located on one side with an overbridge, are due to be in operation at some stage between now and 2017.
In light of developments at EU level, including the TEN-T regulations, the NRA has published a revised draft policy document entitled NRA Service Areas on the National Road Network. This document sets out the background to the existing NRA motorway service area policy, the legal context, plans for future needs, proposed locations and so on. Members of the public, interested groups, industry etc., have been invited to review the document and participate in the public consultation process. The needs analysis carried out by the authority determined an objective of locating online NRA service areas approximately every 45 to 60 km along the motorway and high quality dual carriageways. In addition, the road safety strategy sets out the need for a total of five additional service areas, to be provided by 2020. It is acknowledged that the revised motorway service area policy is a long-term plan and the full programme of proposed locations would involve a very substantial commitment in the current constrained budgetary situation.
The purpose of the public consultation is, therefore, to seek views, examine options and allow interested groups to submit suggestions and proposals. The public consultation process is being managed by the NRA and the closing date for receipt of responses is 23 June. Following this, the feedback will be evaluated and considered both by the NRA and my Department.
I want to bring to the Minister's attention a matter of which he will be aware and to which he referred. In my constituency of Kildare South, just south of Kilcullen, between junctions 2 and 3 on the M9, there is the development of an online service area in a bundle with other services areas, including in Athlone on the M6 and the Gorey bypass. I want to know why private enterprise was not given an opportunity to try to provide a site before the NRA charged in to use taxpayer's money. It went to tender previously but could not attract private sector interest. In some way, one could argue that the NRA’s sites are possibly over-spec and do not meet commercial realities. I have talked to people involved in the industry who tell me it does not stack up or make commercial sense for the private sector to develop according to the current spec. Whether that is the case, this is not Germany or Italy. We are developing this site and anybody who drives north on the M9 will see the diggers onsite, but it is still at the tender stage and we have not attracted private sector investment. Moreover, the site will require the construction of another bridge, even though plenty of bridges were built when the motorway was built some years ago. Why can there not be a development like that at junction 14 at an existing bridge instead of having to build a new one? We have gone ahead with developing the site without having a private operator in place. I want to know why we are spending money on it and why Kilcullen was selected. It is a very strange choice, given that the site is a long way from Waterford. There is no question that service areas are needed along the M9 and the nearest one to Kilcullen is 25 km away. Even in the draft policy, in which the NRA references the position in Australia, Germany and Italy, most of the distances are set at 50 km, 60 km and 70 km, while TEN-T refers to a distance of 100 km. However, we are developing this site at Kilcullen which is 25 km from the nearest station, when an area much further south would have struck me as being the optimum at which to locate the first service area. I do not believe we are getting the best value for taxpayers’ money.
Several issues arise. First, it is important to point out that this is just the public consultation phase. It is not a policy decision and the NRA is welcoming an input from the private sector, local authorities and, of course, public representatives. I know TEN-T very well as I was chairman of the Council of Ministers when it went through the European process. What it states is that we should have rest areas every 100 km and that this is in line with the needs of society, the market and the environment in order to provide appropriate parking space for commercial road users and for an appropriate level of safety and security. It seems the NRA’s document interprets this to mean that, in an Irish context, service areas should be more frequent than every 100 km. My own view is the reverse, that we probably need them to be less frequent than every 100 km. I would be more in line with the road safety strategy which suggests we need a few more but not one every 40 km or 50 km.
The Deputy’s point about the private sector is well made. I hope potential private sector operators and developers take the opportunity presented by the public consultation process to indicate very clearly what they could offer, whether online or offline services. On the M9, Dublin-Waterford, we all agree that a service area is needed. One can almost drive the whole way without finding anywhere to stop for petrol or to take a break. Originally, there were to be two service areas, one at Kilcullen and one at Paulstown, which is probably how the NRA came up with the location, as there would have been one one third of the way along the route and a second two thirds of the way along it. Had there been a plan just for one, perhaps somewhere further south might have made more sense, but that decision was made a long time ago.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important matter and the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O’Dowd, for coming to the House to deal with it. The issue is one which affects many householders throughout the country, namely, the need for tree height legislation to be introduced to protect the right to light. The height of trees is a source of trouble among neighbours and many disputes are caused because there is no tree limit legislation in place in order to set a height restriction. My office receives many queries on this issue and I am sure it is the same for the Minister of State. Residents are looking for assistance to have the issue dealt with effectively. We know that residents have no power regarding the height of trees surrounding their gardens which are blocking their natural light. This poses major problems and causes a lot of stress and negativity between neighbours.
One constituent in Kilbarrack has contacted my office on a number of occasions. She has substantial concerns about overgrown trees on her neighbour’s property and the effect they are having on hers. The problem is that the trees in question are leylandii which grow to 60 ft. in height. She cannot use her back garden and is concerned about the danger of significant damage or even the destruction of her home if the trees were to fall on top of her property during bad weather. She has approached the owner on a number of occasions to ask that the trees be better maintained, but the neighbour refuses to do so. That is the nub of the issue in that unnecessary stress is being caused for residents because the woman in question and no other resident have rights.
I have raised the issue with the Minister for Justice and Equality and been advised that a mediation Bill is being progressed in order to deal with this type of issue. However, a mediation Bill would not deal directly with the issue of a right to light, although it would promote mediation as an alternative remedy to court proceedings, with the aim of reducing legal costs and speeding up the time it takes to deal with a dispute. However, the key issue concerns tree height and ensuring neighbours’ trees are at an acceptable height so as not to cause unnecessary distress for neighbours. We know that, in some cases, neighbours approach homeowners who can be reluctant to take action because of the cost involved in cutting trees and the time it takes to deal with the issue. However, it is important for the welfare of residents to have natural light. There are the obvious health benefits. It also affects the price of property if someone looks to sell a property with no natural light in a back garden.
I ask the Minister of State to consider introducing legislation in this area that would strike a balance between the rights of owners of trees and nearby residents and ensure they were not negatively impacted on.
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan. I thank the Deputy for raising it.
The current legal position on high trees and hedges is that planning legislation does not make a particular provision for recognition of a right to light or a remedy from any other nuisance which may be caused by trees in a residential area. Complaints where branches or roots of trees are encroaching on a neighbour's property would normally be remedied under civil law between the parties concerned.
In response to a number of representations made to my Department on the issue of high trees and hedges, the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, wrote to the Minister for Justice and Equality in June 2012 to explore the possibility of providing a broader civil law remedy for affected parties. For example, this could be a provision to be enacted in appropriate primary legislation along the lines that a person substantially deprived of the enjoyment of his or her property due to the deprivation of light caused by high trees on a neighbouring property could apply to the courts for an order and that the courts court make an order as they saw fit.
The Minister for Justice and Equality responded in July 2012 suggesting that such disputes could perhaps be more appropriately dealt with through mediation rather than through the courts. I understand that the Department of Justice and Equality intends to publish a mediation Bill during 2014.
My Department has also looked at the “high hedges” legislation operating in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Under these provisions, an owner or occupier of a property, having made reasonable attempts to resolve the matter with their neighbour, may make a complaint to a local authority that high hedges or trees on a neighbouring property are affecting their reasonable enjoyment of their home. Following its assessment, the local authority will decide whether to issue a remedial order requiring the cutting back or maintenance of the trees or hedges in question. Failure to comply with the requirements of a remedial notice is an offence and subject to a fine and is enforceable through the courts.
While the UK regulatory regimes have merit, the implementation of a comparable system in Ireland would have significant resource implications for local authorities in the investigation of complaints, the issuing of notices and the enforcement of same. It should also be noted that the UK local authority schemes require their case processing costs to be carried by the individual complainant, which can be quite onerous. The enactment of bye-laws would similarly have resource implications for local authorities in respect of enforcement. My Department will, however, give consideration to the high trees issue in the context of its legislative programme.
I thank the Minister of State for his response and I note that he referred to the fact that a neighbour having a difficulty may apply to the court for an order and the courts may make an order as they see fit. Perhaps that is something that my constituent can follow up on in this particular case.
The mediation Bill will not deal with it to the degree that has been referred to here. I do not think it will deal fully with this particular situation. The Minister of State referred to the “high hedges” legislation in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He said that we might not be able to implement this legislation here because of the significant resources that are required. Could he define exactly what he means by that? Local authorities are responsible for maintaining trees within their own areas. Perhaps the people who are involved in that work would be able to adjudicate where issues arise, particularly major issues like the case I outlined involving a 60 ft. tree that would cause significant damage if it was to fall down on a neighbour. Surely a local authority would be able to make adjudication in a fairly straightforward fashion having examined the tree in question.
On a related topic, residents consistently complain about local authorities and the length of time it takes for local authorities to cut down trees. In particular, I am informed by Fingal County Council that it is unable to prune or cut down trees because it does not have the available resources and that the tree in question will be listed in a future programme of works. This has been ongoing on a consistent basis. Local authorities have failed. They have not maintained their own stock of trees. In some instances, they have just planted the trees and left them. They have never pruned or maintained them down through the years. This causes much distress for residents as well.
Two areas need to be looked at. Local authorities must be serious about helping and adjudicating on situations where residents have concerns. They are very genuine concerns that are being raised with all Deputies in this House and this area must be looked at seriously by the Minister.
I thank Deputy Flanagan for his contribution and the points he raised. I will ask for a direct reply from the Department in respect of the query he raised about the costs and why that would be prohibitive and the way in which it would be prohibitive. My Department will give consideration to the high trees issues in the context of its legislative programme and will have to identify the most cost-effective approach. We have to discover the most common sense and effective way to do it. I agree with the Deputy because I have heard cases in which people are placed at a big disadvantage. They may not have the resources to hire a solicitor and go to court.
Our local authorities are already operating under resource constraints and restrictions, as the Deputy noted. They must enforce many statutory codes including planning, building control and fire safety so if we introduce a new resource-intensive response, we must be able to justify it. I am happy to bring that to the attention of the Minister for direct reply to the Deputy if that is acceptable.