Topical Issue Debate

I seek a postponement to next Tuesday of the debate sought by Deputy Regina Doherty as both the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coffey, are out of the country on business.

I agree to that.

EU Directives

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise the designation of lands under the birds and various other EU directives and the consternation it is causing in the communities I represent.

There is a major issue with the designation of lands in western Duhallow, in particular, and in other counties such as Kerry, Limerick and those along the western seaboard. It has now transpired, despite all the advice that was given at the start when the directives were being implemented, that the land has been rendered worthless with one stroke of a pen, as was said by one of the farmers who is leading the campaign in this regard. Many of these farmers have been trying to develop their lands or even sell them so they can move on to different enterprises or get involved in more productive farming such as dairying and so forth.

The substance of the issue is that we must get representatives of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and particularly the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the farmers concerned into a room to hold factual discussions on this matter. It is time for representatives of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to meet these farmers in a meaningful way. Lands have been declared worthless. The hen harrier issue has been ongoing since 2004 or 2005. There were issues at the time relating to afforestation and the development of wind farms on the lands that were to be designated, and all of the evidence or issues brought forward at the time have turned out to be non-existent. Some of the farmers concerned make the point that the best lands for the breeding of the hen harrier are not designated at all.

The scientific basis for designating the lands in the first instance must be challenged.

The European Union and the State, through the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, have wiped out the value of this land whose owners must be compensated. The plans to be submitted to Brussels are being delayed. As many of the farmers in question told me, the next step must be to have a meeting with officials from the Departments of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Agriculture, Food and the Marine to try to resolve these issues, which have been ongoing for some time. I call on the Minister to convey to his two ministerial colleagues, the Ministers for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the need to hold a summit meeting with the farmers in question as that is the only way to make progress on the issue.

Last week, I and my colleagues, Deputies Niall Collins and Éamon Ó Cuív, met farmers in Adare, County Limerick, to discuss this issue. The livelihoods of many of the farmers in question have been affected in different ways. I ask the Minister to ensure his colleagues arrange a crisis meeting or summit in the next week or two to allow the farmers in question, in the first instance, to air their serious grievances and, second, to try to find a resolution and make progress.

I will deal with this matter on behalf of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

As the Deputy is aware, the hen harrier is a protected but endangered bird of prey, listed in Annex 1 of the EU birds directive. Ireland is, therefore, obliged under European law to protect and conserve this species.

The position of the hen harrier was a major factor in a judgment of the European Court of Justice of the EU in 2007 against Ireland - it was known as "the birds case" - for failure to provide adequate protection for wild birds. This case remains open, with the continuing possibility of major fines being imposed on Ireland. As a result of the judgment, Ireland designated six special protection areas or SPAs for the conservation of this species. These SPAs are at risk due to a number of factors, such as the reclamation of upland open habitats for agriculture, development of wind farms and maturing of large-scale forests planted in upland areas. These activities have a significant negative impact on the birds' breeding and feeding habitats.

In 2012, following discussions with the European Commission it was agreed that Ireland would pursue a threat response plan for the protection of the hen harrier which would assist in meeting Ireland's requirements following the 2007 European Court of Justice judgment. It is acknowledged that there have been difficulties in granting consents for certain activities within these sites under EU law. However, the threat response plan aims to bring certainty to consent authorities and landowners and to develop a framework for consents that can operate in compliance with EU legal requirements.

In the early summer, an interdepartmental steering group was convened to assist in the development of the plan. The group comprises representatives from the Departments of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Environment, Community and Local Government and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. The group is examining all of the issues at hand, including forestry consents, planning permissions for wind farms and financial supports for farmers, with a view to determining the appropriate course of further action. Its first meeting took place in late July and it will continue its important work over the coming months.

A consultative committee of stakeholders, which will include farming representatives, is also being established. Through the consultative committee, the views of those affected will be incorporated into the work of the steering group. It should be noted, however, that officials from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht have already had significant engagement with farming organisations in regard to this issue. While the Department has a lead role in the implementation of the habitats directive and birds directive, the bulk of available EU and national funding to assist farmers in meeting the requirements of these directives is provided through the rural development programme operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Agri-environmental schemes such as the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, and agri-environment options scheme have provided a range of supports for farmers, including payments in respect of designated sites to tens of thousands of farmers. In future, the provision of financial supports for agri-environmental actions by farmers in special areas of conservation and special protection areas will be made predominantly through the green, low carbon, agri-environment scheme, GLAS, which is operated under the rural development programme.

I seek clarity on a number of issues. How many times has the interdepartmental group, comprised of representatives of the Departments of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Environment, Community and Local Government and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, met since July? A new organisation has been established by farmers who have been directly affected by the relevant directives. I ask that the Minister ensure this organisation is consulted as it reflects the concerns of the communities and individuals affected by the directives. It must be given prominence and a seat at the table when the interdepartmental group meets.

I have first-hand experience of the problems I have highlighted because they affect my own community. What daily fine would be imposed if we were to decide to no longer implement the directive? How far advanced is the threat response plan? Is it near completion and, if so, when will it be submitted to the European Commission? Will the farmers affected have an input into the development of the plan? Their voices must be heard loud and clear and their representatives should be invited to meetings of the interdepartmental group.

The Deputy asked how many times the interdepartmental group had met since July. I do not have this information but I will revert to him on the matter.

The Deputy also made a not unreasonable point on consultation with farmers who are directly affected by the directives. As I indicated, there has been engagement with representative bodies of farmers. The Deputy indicated that specific ad hoc groups are dealing with this issue. I see no reason not to engage with these groups and I will communicate the information the Deputy provided to the Minister. Perhaps the matter could be also raised with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In circumstances such as this, Ministers are generally open to meeting representatives of persons affected by policy decisions. I am sure the Deputy's concern in this regard can be, therefore, addressed, although I do not propose to make a direct or specific commitment on behalf of a colleague in respect of meeting a particular group or body. As a general proposition, however, it is a good idea that people who are affected by issues should have their voices heard by government, notwithstanding that the Minister has already engaged with the main farming representative bodies.

As to the precise level of the daily fine, I cannot possibly answer that on my feet but I will revert to the Deputy on the matter. If there is a lack of compliance and a threat of infringement proceedings, these must be addressed. This does not depend entirely on the level of the fine. If a fine is possible, we will wish to avoid it. On the other hand, if the Deputy wants more information as to precisely what is the risk in respect of fines, including the level of fine, I will do my best to assist him in that regard.

Green Paper on Energy Submissions

I thank the Minister for attending the House to discuss this important issue and the Ceann Comhairle for selecting it for discussion. In the short time available to me, I propose to make a couple of points.

There has been much media coverage in the past two weeks of a report that was commissioned by the ESB and submitted as part of the consultation process on the Government's Green Paper on Energy. Submissions on the Green Paper were taken over a number of weeks in the summer. The report deals in detail with the proposed upgrade of the national grid and various measures announced in 2008 which came to be collectively known as Grid25.

The report goes into detail, outlining the fact that the expected increase in demand for electricity that was included in the Grid25 project in 2008 will not materialise as was projected, for obvious reasons. Furthermore, the ESB stated that the Grid West and Grid Link projects should be reviewed so that the research reflects the latest evidence. There is a process in place in regard to the Grid Link project which stretches from Kildare to Great Island and east Cork.

In light of the fact that the increased demand which was projected in 2008 for electricity use in the country will not now materialise, and the comments of the ESB, which is the largest electricity supplier in the country, that this is the case, is it not now time that the Grid Link project and perhaps Grid West would be parked?

In 2006, as the Minister is well aware, EirGrid was formed. It forecast at that time that there would be an increase in energy demand in Ireland up to 2024 of 60%. When the former Minister, Eamon Ryan, launched EirGrid's Grid25 project in 2008 the forecast was reduced to 45%, but still suggested a 45% rise in demand for energy prices up to 2024.

This year in its submission to the Green Paper and review on energy policy, the ESB, using Eirgrid's latest demand projections, suggested only a 5% increase between now and 2024. In its submission, the ESB confirmed that the capital cost of the infrastructure build in any year will be recovered from electricity bills for up to 50 years. Infrastructure must be planned well in advance so that it will be in place when it is needed. However, the ESB stated it must be delivered no sooner than needed or it will act as a drag on electricity prices.

There are two key stakeholders. The first comprises communities throughout the country. The Minister is aware of their concern. They are in the root corridor of the proposed Grid Link and Grid West project and have grave concerns about pylons and high voltage tension lines being in their areas. The other is those who will pay electricity bills, business and residential customers alike, for the next 50 years. We have to be absolutely sure that any suggestion that the proposed level of demand is not needed is thoroughly investigated.

Our economic landscape has changed utterly since 2008. Having borne that in mind, what assurances have the Minister's Department received from EirGrid as to the necessity of this project? What communication has the Department had with the ESB regarding Grid25 plans? Prior to 2006 and the formation of EirGrid, it was the job of the ESB to decide whether to build more pylons. It now says we probably do not need Grid Link or more lines.

The ESB submission highlights that as Grid Link and Grid West was planned nearly seven years ago there is a need to review them in order that research reflects the latest evidence. That request from the national energy company cannot be ignored.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. The report referred to in the question from the Deputies is the ESB submission on the energy Green Paper. It is one of over 1,240 submissions received earlier this year during the period of public consultation on the Green Paper. That submission, like all those received is a useful contribution to the process of developing a definitive energy policy. That process is continuing, with further stakeholder engagement planned over the coming months, including a number of events at various regional locations before the end of the year.

We had a very useful seminar this week in the Chester Beatty Library. I encourage Deputies, as I have said before, to participate in the process regarding the preparation of the White Paper which will be the definitive energy policy statement for this country for the next generation. We will develop this in the next six months. The process is not being rushed. Deputies will have an opportunity to contribute and I encourage those on both sides of the House to do so.

Deputy Heydon is correct. My Department is focused on ensuring that the assumptions on which the final policy paper will be written are tested and accurate, so as to produce a dynamic and responsive evidence-based framework. This work will facilitate us in steering an appropriate course as we seek to address sustainability, security and competitiveness challenges and opportunities. The text of the policy paper will be progressed during the first half of 2015, with a view to publication of the final policy paper by September 2015.

The ESB and EirGrid are fully in agreement on the need for critical energy transmission and distribution infrastructure. Both companies also acknowledge the need for Irish electricity networks to address citizen and community concerns, to take account of changes in the level of electricity demand due to changing economic circumstances and to accommodate evolving European energy policy. The ESB and EirGrid work closely together on development and reinforcement of the transmission and distribution systems in order to ensure security of supply and to meet customer and stakeholder needs.

As a matter of course, EirGrid regularly reviews its strategies and projects. Grid25 was originally developed in 2008 when the macro-economic climate was very different. In line with Eirgrid's review policy, Grid25 was updated in 2011, when the scale and scope was reduced to reflect the change in circumstances. As a result, the cost was revised downwards from €4 billion to €3.2 billion.

Grid25 was developed to improve security of supply and to provide a high quality of electricity supply to all areas, including the west, and to enable the delivery of electricity generated from wind farms to the major urban areas. In May this year, EirGrid initiated a further update of Grid25 to take into account the most up-to-date information available, including technical innovation and future economic and demand projections. Following discussions with my Department, this update also includes an independent review to verify the strategies of Grid25 on the basis of changing circumstances since 2008. EirGrid expects this review to be completed and published early in 2015.

I welcome the Minister's answer, in particular the fact that the review is to be published in early 2015. A lot has happened since 2008. There is an interesting paragraph in the Minister's response where he speaks of the ESB and Eirgrid working closely together, as one would assume they would. The point of raising this issue is that the ESB, in its submission, clearly pointed out that the demand increases projected in 2008 will not materialise.

I hope and fully expect that Eirgrid's review, to be published early next year, will take into account that demand will not be what was expected in 2008. Therefore, in particular for Grid Link and Grid West, demand does not exist at present. People in those communities who are directly affected have a legitimate expectation that their views will be heard. Those views are being echoed by the ESB in its submission and we hope that will be reflected in the final report next year.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. If we have a White Paper in early 2015 that says demand is not what was estimated and we cannot have a lag on electricity costs by building infrastructure which is not needed, the mechanisms have to be in place for EirGrid to halt its plans for Grid Link and Grid West. That seems to be the ESB's current position.

In regard to wind energy, 182 wind farms have been constructed around the country and 188 are at the planning and development stage. In its report the ESB estimated that we need another 1,000 MW and at present we have 2,200 MW. The CEO of the Irish Wind Energy Association disagrees and said we need to almost double our output. One could say, "They would say that, wouldn't they?" Many commentators say the wind lobby has been very effective in selling wind to us at a policy level. I hope the wind energy element, as well as the power requirement element, will be taken on board by the Department in the White Paper and when it is published it will have an impact on our wind energy policy on proposed wind farms around the country, Grid25 and, in particular, Grid Link.

I reiterate that the ESB submission to which the Deputies referred will be considered, together with all of the other submissions received as part of the consultation process, and will contribute to the develop of a new energy policy for Ireland.

It is important to understand ESB and EirGrid are fully in agreement on the need for critical energy infrastructure, including both transmission and distribution infrastructure.

It is important to recall also the projections for demand changed and the extent to which they changed between 2008 and 2011 and this work has been taken into account. One of the Deputies used the phrase "demand at present." Demand is a dynamic. We can look at the years 2008, 2011 and 2014. The challenge is to project forward three, seven and ten years to try to predict as best we can what the demand will be in these years. We cannot do this on the basis of what we had in 2008, nor can we be definitive today about what our requirements will be in five years. The dynamic in the projection agenda must be borne in mind. We must ensure the infrastructure is provided, but we must also ensure we engage in a better way than heretofore with communities and citizens. Our energy policy is not just the energy policy for industry or the political system; it is also the energy policy for the entire community and the people. For that reason, I encourage people to participate in the debate. I thank the Deputies for raising the issue.

Public Transport Provision

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and take the opportunity to wish him well in his demanding portfolio.

The issue of fare increases is important and will have a substantial impact on large numbers of my constituents and others across Dublin who use DART and Dublin Bus services every day. At the end of October, an announcement was made that ticket prices for rail and bus services were set to increase and they have subsequently been increased. It is difficult for commuters to stomach the fact that ticket prices have continued to increase, despite the fact that there has been no improvement in service. My constituents are already paying substantial amounts, between €3.85 and €5.75 for a day return ticket, if they are not using a Leap card.

I am aware that Leap cards provide cheaper fares and that more people are availing of this service. However, those passengers who pay cash face substantial price hikes, increases of up to 13% in fares across rail and bus services. This amounts to a total increase of 40% since 2012 because of the reduced Government subvention from the Department. These price increases are not justified, particularly when the service is patchy. For example, on Monday and Tuesday of this week, two major signal failures occurred at peak commuting time, around 5.45 p.m., as a result of which thousands of passengers trying to commute home from the city centre were stranded after their day's work.

I raised the issue previously of the reduced number of DART carriages to four, particularly at peak times. This is unacceptable and the Minister should raise the issue urgently with Irish Rail management. Another issue is the lack of information when there is a difficulty with the service. Doors are left open on some trains and commuters are allowed to board. However, they are then told there is a delay in the service, but they are not given any further information or only hear muffled announcements on the train's communication system which is unfit for purpose. Commuters are unhappy with the level of service and I hope the Minister will take these issues on board.

Last week the NTA sanctioned price increases on rail and bus services. In ten years there has been an increase of almost 85% in the lowest fares on Dublin Bus. It seems criminal that at a time when Dublin Bus passenger numbers are increasing and there is further potential for growth, these fare increases have been proposed. In the past few years Dublin Bus has restructured and rejigged routes and services, causing great upheaval. This restructuring was supposed to save money, but it is now going to add to the cost of journeys by increasing cash fares by up to 15%.

Dublin Bus had a surplus of €3 million last year which was achieved despite a cut in the subvention. Recently, the new head of Dublin Bus said at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications that he did not envisage fare increases. What has happened since? It is important to note that some Leap card fares have been cut and that any increase in prepaid fares is smaller than other increases. Dublin Bus wants to encourage a further move to Leap cards and prepaid options by bus users. The problem is it is going about it in the wrong way.

In the context of the substantial fare increases in recent years and increasing passenger numbers, Dublin Bus should be using a carrot to attract new customers and new Leap card users. Instead, it is using a stick to beat cash fare users into using prepaid models or beat them out of using public transport altogether. It is now possible that a person living in Finglas or Ballymun will pay almost €6 for a round trip to the city centre. One might argue such persons should have a prepaid card, but it not so easy for them to have €30 or so every week to pre-load onto a Leap card. Also, owing to the inflexibility of Leap cards in terms of top-up options, regular small top-ups are inconvenient to say the least.

In order to make Dublin Bus increasingly viable, we must make it more accessible and better value. There have been big improvements, but this move shows much more is needed in the company's thinking.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter.

Under the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008, as amended by the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009, the National Transport Authority is responsible for determining fares on publicly funded bus and rail services. I have no role in the setting of public transport fares. It is the responsibility of the NTA to adjudicate on applications from the CIE companies and the Railway Procurement Agency for fare increases or changes. On 28 October the NTA issued its 2015 fares determinations for Luas and the CIE companies - covering monthly and annual tickets, cash fares, Leap card fares and pre-paid tickets. In contrast to a trend of reducing public service obligation allocations in recent years, I have ensured the level of PSO subvention for bus and rail services will be maintained in 2015 at current levels.

The maintenance of subsidy funding for public transport in 2015 at current levels has enabled the NTA to moderate the fare increases necessary in order that the operators can, as far as possible, maintain the current level of services and respond to sectors where demand is growing and capacity needs to be increased. The NTA has continued its plans to increase use of the Leap card integrated ticket by keeping fare increases to a minimum on the card when compared to cash. In fact, even with the fare increases approved by the NTA, a Leap card fare in 2015 will nearly always be the same as or lower than the cash fare was in 2012. There are now over 750,000 Leap cards in circulation and almost €2 million per week used in travel credit, which provides evidence of the convenience and value it offers to the travelling public. I emphasise again that the Leap card fare in 2015 will be almost always the same or lower as the cash fare three years ago.

Before the end of the year the NTA will introduce a second-journey discount on Dublin Bus Leap card fares. This will be further rolled out to cover all PSO operators in 2015. This will reduce the cash penalty currently paid by a person who is required to change buses to make a trip from A to B. Also, an off-peak reduction in Luas fares has been introduced for Leap card users, as the cash fares for peak and off-peak have been merged. The NTA aims to increase Leap card use to simplify fare payments, improve bus journey times and cross-mode transfers. It has also incorporated a wide-ranging structural review of fares across and between all operators, with a view to simplifying and streamlining fares to encourage increased use of public transport by removing some of the confusion around anomalous and illogical fares and pricing.

I understand that for people who are paying cash fares, this represents an increase, and I understand that we are asking people to pay more in a time when they have less income available to do that. However, the payments they are making are going directly towards maintaining the level of public service available at present on our buses, Luas trams and trains, and it is giving our public transport companies the best capacity possible to provide a better service in the future.

I thank the Minister for his very detailed response and for dealing specifically with the issue in front of us. However, the issue is broader in that customers are not getting the service they deserve and demand. As I stated, there were two signal failures on the railway line this week, with little notification given to paying customers as they left their workplaces to try to get home after a day's work. It is unreasonable to expect people to pay more, particularly given that the service is so poor at present. I would ask the Minister take an active interest in this issue by using both rail and bus services to see for himself what people have to deal with.

Is capital investment needed in regard to the signal failures, which, while not a daily occurrence, do happen periodically? Can the Minister ensure proper customer service is given by all staff of CIE to customers so they know exactly where they stand, by providing either information on screens within stations or proper and audible public announcements?

At a time when we see huge increases in passenger numbers on Dublin Bus and other services, it seems hard to understand how we could be looking for price increases. I believe it is counterproductive and I do not understand the logic for it. Dublin Bus had a surplus of €3 million and the subvention has been cut substantially, even though the Minister said he would try to maintain it in the coming years at the current level.

We cannot afford increases like this when people are struggling. The people who are most affected are the least well-off, because they pay cash when they get on the bus with a buggy or a child, although they might only be going a number of stops. It is the least well-off in society who are getting hurt the most, which seems to happen every time we have an increase.

I acknowledge that the Leap card has been a huge success and that it provides much better value for money. However, most of the people I meet in the suburbs, whether it is in Ballymun, Santry, Whitehall or Finglas, do not have a lump sum to hand out for a Leap card, as they only have the bare minimum left at the end of the week. None the less, these are the people who will be affected.

The Minister said the NTA and the RPA had been given the legislative role of dealing with this, but there must be some input from the Minister. He must be warned in advance that this is going to happen and he must have some input in telling them this is unacceptable in these times of austerity.

There is a broader picture in this regard, which Deputy Flanagan touched on. To consider the issue from the point of view of Irish Rail alone, it has accumulated losses on its balance sheet of over €200 million. That is the scale of difficulty that is being faced, which feeds directly into the point Deputy Flanagan put to me regarding the need for investment in the future. There is a very clear need for investment levels not just to be stabilised, as I have done for next year, but to be increased in the future.

A point I want to make very clearly in response to the different issues that have been raised with me is my hope that, due to the current economic growth, we will see our public transport companies increase their revenue because more people are using bus, tram and rail services. My hope and ambition is that during my time in office I will be able to increase the investment these companies need, particularly within rail, to deal with the capital needs that exist.

Are there problems with the signalling system?

There is signalling work that needs to be done, and some of that work will take place next year. However, if we get ourselves to a point at which revenue is going up because of an improving economy, and the Government is also able to increase investment, it is my expectation that the fare increases we have seen in the past will not continue in the future, in either their level or their frequency.

An objective we must have is that, as we encourage more people to use public transport, two things must happen. The first is that it must be affordable, and the second is that we have to deliver a service that meets the needs of the public. That will need investment and it will need a recovery in revenue. We are seeing encouraging signs, but, I have to say, it is only recently that we have seen the kind of increase that the Deputy is referring to actually occur month after month. As these issues improve, it is my expectation that the fare increases of the past will not be the fare increases of the future.

We need improved customer services.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Friday, 7 November 2014.