Topical Issue Debate

Rent Controls

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, to discuss this important issue.

I absolutely support his initiatives on housing. They are excellent, first class and well thought out, and the intention is good, particularly in rent pressure zones. Having said that, I live in a town where some of the estates are divided. An estate called Beaubec has some of its houses in the rent pressure zone while the others are not. In an estate called Rosevale, there is a rectangle in the green space around the houses. If one drew a diagonal across it, one would find all the houses on the left are rent controlled while all those on the right are not. It is a joke. It is a joke because the boundary between Drogheda and east Meath does not make sense. The boundaries are historical, dating back hundreds of years. There are no rivers or bridges on the boundary, just an imaginary line drawn on the ground. The issue emerges only in cases like this.

The problem concerns families living in these estates who are renting homes, particularly poorer families. It is poorer families whose needs I am addressing specifically. The supports for families who live in Drogheda, be they in the rent pressure zone or not, are higher than those for poorer families in cities such as Cork, Galway and most parts of this country. Therefore, poorer families are denied the protection of the Minister's rent pressure zones in my town. They are denied this on the basis of an arbitrary line and a formula that is inconsistent and does not take them into account. There ought to be a change to the formula so families who are poorer, unemployed and qualify for housing assistance payments will be put first. Drogheda has greater supports for the families in question than Cork and Galway, yet it is still excluded. Those affected could well be exposed in rent reviews over the next six quarters.

What were the rent reviews like in the past? In each of the past six quarters, the rents in Drogheda increased more than anywhere else. The increases are higher than the national average. Many of our tenants are being fleeced by these rent increases. They cannot afford them and are under serious pressure. My office is inundated with families who are very upset and concerned about this.

I have raised this matter with the proper authorities, including the RTB, ESRI, Housing Agency and the Minister's Department but I am still not satisfied that the formula is right. I await the Minister's response in regard to this. Ultimately, we must stand up for the poorest families, who face the greatest pressure in towns such as Drogheda and who, notwithstanding the good intentions of the Minister, remain excluded from the protection and safety of the rent pressure zones.

I thank the Deputy for raising the concerns of many people he represents very effectively in Drogheda. He rightly points out that rent pressure zone designation is assessed on the basis of local electoral areas. When local electoral area boundaries divide urban communities, as they do in certain parts of Drogheda, there are anomalies and consequences about which some people are not happy. Drogheda is unusual in terms of local electoral areas.

Issues arise in the town in which I live, Carrigaline, just outside Cork. They were raised by Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire during the week. Since the local electoral areas in the town are separated by the river, half the town is in and half the town is out. I have to have an assessment process that works on the basis of what is likely to be best for the vast majority of places. The most accurate way in which we could do that was to assess on the basis of local electoral areas.

We introduced the legislation before Christmas. Up until Christmas, we could assess on the basis of local authority areas. On that basis, there were only five local authorities in the country that actually qualified under the designation - the four Dublin ones and Cork city. We then looked in a much more granular and targeted way at local electoral areas within local authority areas to add significantly to the number of rent pressure zones that were going to qualify. The way it works is that the legislation states that the Housing Agency, in consultation with local authorities, can make recommendations to the Minister on areas that need further detailed assessment to determine whether they qualify. The agency recommended a series of areas that should be considered. On that basis, we designated 23 towns, or local electoral areas, as new rent pressure zones. They were announced last Thursday. They include Ballincollig-Carrigaline in County Cork, Celbridge-Leixlip, Naas and Kildare-Newbridge in County Kildare, Ashbourne, Laytown-Bettystown and Ratoath in Meath, Bray and Wicklow in County Wicklow, and all of Galway city. I can understand that there is frustration in towns that are close to these areas that do not qualify. We have to have, however, criteria that are independently assessed and not politically driven. They must be data driven. This involves the RTB working with the ESRI to obtain accurate data on the two criteria, which are that rents must be above the national average and must have been increasing by 7% or more annually in four of the past six quarters. We felt that was a reasonable balance that would be relatively easy to assess and understand. If it were made too complex, the assessment process would take too long and there would be further anomalies and so on.

We will re-examine Drogheda. At the end of each quarter, we need to assess again whether there are changing data for four of the preceding six quarters and whether the rent is above the national average. Towns such as Navan, big towns such as Drogheda and others may qualify in time but currently do not meet the necessary criteria. That is the only reason Drogheda has not been included to date.

I challenge the criteria being used. I accept and acknowledge there is no political involvement in the formula but the formula is wrong. In Drogheda, rents increased in each of the past six quarters. They have increased by 16% in the past year, which is much in excess of 7%. Poorer families are supported more because they have a greater problem. This is recognised by the Department of Social Protection and now by the Minister's Department.

I have asked the RTB to re-examine its formula. It is based on new available properties for rent, not on existing ones. There are very few houses available for rent in Drogheda in any case. People cannot get them. Those who are in properties accept rent increases because they have nowhere else to go.

I looked at, which is mentioned in the statement from the Minister's Department. On Monday of this week, there were 46 properties listed in the Drogheda area.

Drogheda is larger than just the town and stretches out to Clogherhead and almost to Dún Laoghaire. It is a huge area. Of the 46 properties, two thirds had rents of €1,000 or higher, which is more than the national average of €956. Most of the Drogheda properties below the €956 level were one- or two-bedroom apartments.

Is the RTB's formula correct? Is its mix of housing right? In urban areas, people are being charged a great deal for small, terraced houses. In east Meath, which I am happy has been included in a rent pressure zone, properties tend to be semi-detached housing or apartments.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to re-examine the matter. Poor families must be looked after and protected, but we are not protecting them under the formula. It must change.

Families on low incomes get many supports, for example, the housing assistance payment, HAP, the rental accommodation scheme and rent supplement. We took an extra 12,000 people onto the HAP scheme last year. We will take on even more, probably a further 15,000, this year. HAP and rent supplement payments were increased significantly last summer in many areas where there had been rental inflation. These increased support levels will cost the taxpayer an extra €50 million this year.

I agree with Deputy O'Dowd that the State has a responsibility to look after low-income families that are under pressure in the rental market. The core point is that we must increase supply. In Drogheda and many other towns, there are not enough available properties and there is too much competition for those that are available, which drives inflation. In some cases, landlords are abusing the situation. In others, they are not. Tenants are vulnerable in that type of market, which is why we have chosen to act in a way that no Government has ever acted, namely, to intervene in the private rental market and effectively put a cap on what rents can increase by each year for the next three years.

Under dispute in this debate are the criteria that allow an area to get into the protection zone for tenants. We picked something that was easy to understand. It was the subject of much discussion and consultation. It was relatively easy to assess independently by the RTB and the ESRI. Like the Deputy's figure of an increase of 16%, their calculation is based on new tenancies or new reviews and tries to get an accurate picture of the overall areas being assessed.

I apologise for cutting in, but we only have 48 minutes for the Topical Issue debate. I thank the Minister and the Deputy for their co-operation.

Hospital Services

Before we start, can the Acting Chairman inform the House as to why the Minister for Health is not present? This is a serious issue for cancer patients in Donegal who have been denied treatments in their local hospital. The Minister was present a couple of minutes ago.

I cannot. I am here to Chair the meeting, but I take the Deputy's point on board and will pass it on to the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, will tell us whether the Minister has another engagement.

I have been placing this motion for a Topical Issue debate for two weeks. It is an insult from the Government that the Minister has not turned up in person to hear the concerns that I am relaying on behalf of people in Donegal.

In recent weeks, I have been contacted by countless constituents across Donegal, each of whom has raised serious concerns about the health and well-being of their loved ones who are undergoing chemotherapy following cancer diagnoses. While each gave accounts of a relative, friend or loved one who was facing into his or her unique cancer journey, their stories shared a deeply alarming common trend - they were all being denied treatment at their local acute public hospital in Letterkenny and were instead being forced to travel four, five or, in some instances, six hours to Galway to undergo chemotherapy.

With each new call, text, e-mail or Facebook message that I received, the crux of the story remained the same. It was the story of a seriously ill cancer patient being turned away from the local oncology department and redirected some 250 km distant, forced to endure all of the difficulties - health, financial and so on - that such a journey entails.

Having heard these reports, I immediately contacted the hospital. Last week, management confirmed our worst fears, namely, that Letterkenny University Hospital was no longer in a position to accept new patient referrals for chemotherapy. In its reply, management informed me that the decision to suspend this service for newly referred patients was taken due to the resignation of a locum oncologist consultant who had been providing cover for the vacant medical oncologist post at Letterkenny. Consequently, management has stated that, in the interests of patient safety, it was not clinically appropriate to start new patients on chemotherapy regimes when the hospital could only cover three of the six weeks until the new consultant was in place. Management informs me that, after my intervention, the new consultant will be in place on 6 March.

How was this allowed to happen? Why are some of the most seriously ill people in my county being forced to endure such suffering as to have to leave their homes, communities, families and all that they know and travel hundreds of kilometres to Galway? Will the Minister of State explain to the people of Donegal, the patients, the families that are affected and the professional staff in our hospital why it seems that action has not been taken to prevent the withdrawal of these services? Why is the consultant in Galway not travelling up to Letterkenny instead of asking these sick and vulnerable patients to travel to Galway for treatment that should be available, and had been available, in their local hospital?

I concur with the protest made by Deputy Pearse Doherty. The Minister was in the House and, with all due respect to the Minister of State, is more familiar with this matter. He was at Letterkenny University Hospital twice, once privately and another time in an official capacity when he dealt with the Donegal medical academy in conjunction with NUI Galway.

I praise the excellent front-line medical and auxiliary staff of Letterkenny hospital, who perform their duties to the highest standards under the most considerable pressure on a daily basis. They are to be highly commended.

The hospital is the only general hospital in the county and caters for a population of more than 157,000 people. There are significant pressure points and strains on services within the hospital and the situation is worsening. Full capacity protocols have been exceeded 104 times in 2016 and twice already this year, and we are only at the start of the year's second month.

The failure to have a second oncologist appointed comes despite a commitment given by the then Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, on 25 January last year before the election that there would be a second oncologist. We are still waiting on that appointment. In addition, I understand that the appointment of a second breast surgeon could have been made some time ago. Other issues include the lack of bed capacity, hospital department problems, constituents waiting on trolleys, delays in the accident and emergency department having knock-on effects for procedures and a lack of full diabetic services for adults and children. Dermatological services were transferred to Sligo on a three-month basis. Eighteen months on and they are still there. The rheumatology department and urology services are not operational.

I hope the Minister of State does not tell us that our €14.6 million last year will deal with all of the issues. I have a specific proposal, which I will make when I ask my supplementary question.

I apologise to Deputies for the Minister not being present, but he has another engagement. I was asked to take this slot. The Deputies could have withdrawn this matter before standing if they did not want me to reply. I am here so I will reply if that is okay with the Deputies.

That is unnecessary to say.

I must be honest, in that what I am going to say will probably not satisfy them, but I will convey their concerns when they finish their contributions.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the services at Letterkenny University Hospital. The hospital provides medical oncology services to patients and has two consultant medical oncologist posts.

One of these posts is currently vacant and, as has been said, it had been filled by a locum pending the appointment of a permanent medical oncologist but, unfortunately, as the Deputies also indicated, this locum recently resigned. A new locum consultant medical oncologist is due to take up post on 6 March and, in the interim, some alternative locum arrangements have been put in place. All existing patients continue to receive their chemotherapy services in Letterkenny University Hospital. All patients newly referred to the oncology clinic at Letterkenny University Hospital from 1 December 2016 are triaged by the lead medical oncologist before being seen at the most appropriate location for treatment, principally in Galway University Hospital. It is expected that the full service at Letterkenny University Hospital will resume when the new locum consultant starts on 6 March.

The Minister acknowledges the concerns of patients and the inconvenience associated with having to travel for chemotherapy treatment. However, patients continue to receive quality treatment and the HSE has assured him that every effort is being made to resume normal service at Letterkenny University Hospital at the earliest possible date. In relation to services more generally at Letterkenny University Hospital, my colleague, the Minister for Health, is aware of the need to provide services that are accessible to patients in Donegal and to minimise patient travel time where possible. There has been significant capital investment in Letterkenny Hospital in recent years. I can advise the House that most of the works required to repair the flood damage sustained by the hospital in August 2013 are now complete. In addition, a significant number of other capital projects are operational. They include the medical academy, blood science laboratory, replacement of sterilisation equipment, expansion of the recovery unit, provision of additional space for expansion of the dialysis unit and renovations to provide accommodation for a pharmacy, respiratory laboratory, cardiac investigations facility, medical records and mental health. The Minister opened the new state-of-the-art blood science laboratory, the new medical academy and the clinical skills laboratory when he visited the hospital just before Christmas.

Letterkenny also benefits from the development of a number of cross-Border initiatives in conjunction with Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry, whereby patients can access necessary services in Derry. The cross-Border cardiology service provides emergency primary PCI services for the treatment of patients from County Donegal with a diagnosed heart attack at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry. From May to 20 December 2016, some 23 patients from County Donegal received treatment under the scheme. In addition, the north-west cancer centre at Altnagelvin Hospital opened in November last year and will provide access to radiotherapy services to people in the north west, including patients from the Republic. As of 6 January 2017, six patients from the Republic have commenced their care pathways for this facility.

There is no need for the Minister of State to apologise to me. I am not a person requiring chemotherapy who has to travel for 45 minutes to Letterkenny General Hospital only to find that it is closed for my treatment and I have another four hours journey ahead. The people who deserve the apology are the cancer patients of Donegal who have been denied a chemotherapy service in recent weeks.

The response I got is pathetic. I knew everything that was in the response. In fact, I know more than was said. Serious questions must be asked. I understand there is a gap that needs to be filled when people resign, but the HSE has told me it can fill three out of the six weeks between now and 6 March until the new locum is appointed. In that case, why have patients been denied chemotherapy services in Letterkenny General Hospital since Christmas?

I hope the Minister of State will never have to find out what it is like for those patients and their families who have recounted to me the experience of what the journey was like for them. Their appointments were scheduled for 8 o'clock in the morning-----

Deputy Doherty must conclude.

I will finish on this.

No, I am sorry but the Deputy has exceeded his time. He must abide by the Chair.

I will finish on this sentence. Their appointments are at 8 o'clock in the morning and they must do a five-hour journey. The response from the Government is pathetic. I expect the Minister to take a hands-on approach to ensure cancer patients are no longer treated in this way in the future.

I am also disappointed. There was no reference in the reply to the questions about the breast surgeon, lack of diabetes services, dermatology services, rheumatology services and urology services. I have one message for the Minister of State to take to the Minister. I request that he appoint a review team to immediately go to Letterkenny and conduct a root and branch review of the hospital services, budgets and where the services are lacking. The team must work in conjunction with the front-line services and with management but report directly to the Minister. When the recommendations are made to the Minister, he should then implement them and provide the necessary funds. Although it has not been mentioned in this reply, to say €14 billion has been allocated to the health budget this year is of no interest. We are interested in ensuring that the people we represent in our county receive the best services. Rather than say what we got in the past we want to look forward. A team should examine the matter objectively, report to the Minister and the Government should respond. That should be done in a matter of weeks.

I know it is frustrating for Members when I call on them to conclude when they raise very important issues but I am trying to keep within the time limits. I apologise to Members in that regard as I know they are trying to represent their constituents on a very serious issue. Does the Minister of State wish to respond?

I do not mind. I note what the two Deputies have said. With the greatest of respect to them, their knowledge of the area they speak about is far greater than mine. Although it might be against my will, I agree with them that I would not like anybody to have to travel more than 200 miles for a service.

While a relevant point has been raised, the Minister also raised a relevant point in the reply in saying somebody will be appointed on 6 March. I know that is probably not of any satisfaction to those who have to travel but I assure them that I will bring many of the points, in particular some of those raised by Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher about the review team, to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Harris.

I am sorry if Deputy Pearse Doherty already knew the information outlined in the reply. I will bring back the concerns of both Deputies to the Minister. I apologise, through the Chair, for the fact the Minister, Deputy Harris, was unable to be present.

As there is a minute remaining, I urge the Minister of State to recommend the appointment of a review team to the Minister.

I have made a note of it. I will pass on the suggestion to the Minister.

National Children's Hospital

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important topic today. I am disappointed the Minister, Deputy Harris, is not present but I say that with no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne.

This is a very serious issue given the serious impact the project is set to have on all of the sickest and most vulnerable children in society and their families. As the Minister is aware, the concerns around the national children's hospital, NCH, do not simply relate to the cost, although that is a massive issue. The Sunday Business Post reported recently that the cost of the project has exceeded €1 billion, and that excludes the fit-out of the hospital. The project appears to have already overrun by hundreds of millions of euro. I estimate the cost overrun to be approximately €600 million, a staggering figure.

The main concern, however, is the impact the NCH project will have if it continues to be located at St. James's Hospital. There is enormous fear that best practice with respect to the co-location of the new national paediatric hospital is not being followed. That is very serious. It is absolutely vital that co-location occurs simultaneously. One could ask whether that is going to happen and the answer is "No", it most definitely is not. As a matter of record, the project director of the national paediatric hospital, Mr. Fitzpatrick, said in a recent talk at the Institute of Technology, Bolton Street, that it will be ten to 15 years before a maternity hospital is co-located with the NCH at St. James's.

In the meantime, we must examine what are the risks and outcomes for sick children. Those certain to be affected are babies born with congenital diaphragmatic conditions whose chance of survival will rapidly diminish. I beg the Minister of State to listen to those concerned. A total of 15 consultants from Crumlin have written a letter stating that if the maternity and paediatric services are not co-located, it will result in "avoidable deaths and disabilities for newborn babies".

I also wish to raise the point that for the NCH to be built, the St. James's outpatient department will have to be demolished and relocated as it currently occupies the space. Is anyone aware of that and the potential consequences? It will also mean, at the very least, that St. James's adult accident and emergency unit will have to be demolished and relocated as well as the intensive care unit, at enormous expense.

We can also mention the impact on the facility management hub at St. James's Hospital. All this is expected to add between €100 million to €200 million to the cost.

Where is the accountability? Is anybody listening? Organisations such as Connolly for Kids and the Jack and Jill Foundation are ignored and locked out of committee hearings. This is disgraceful. What consultations have been held with ambulance drivers and paramedics? This issue has all the signs of becoming the new NAMA in a few years' time but this time children will have died or become disabled and families will have been ruined. A RED C poll in June 2016 showed that 73% of the public thought that St. James's Hospital was the wrong site. A total of 60,000 people signed a request to the Taoiseach in June 2016 to change the site to the Connolly and relocated Rotunda Maternity Hospital site in Blanchardstown at the M50-N3 interchange. The site location decision carries enormous adverse consequences for so many. It is still not too late to do what is right by sick children, their families and future generations. The public would respect the courage and integrity it would require to do that. We know the site at the M50-N3 interchange is accessible despite what I heard the Minister say earlier in reply to a parliamentary question. We all use that junction, which is accessible by road, rail and air.

I apologise for the fact the Minister cannot be here to take this Topical Issue but I am glad to take it because it is in my constituency and I have been involved for a long time in respect of the location of the project in St. James's Hospital. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I am pleased to take this opportunity to update the House about the new children's hospital. The project to develop the new children's hospital is an extraordinary opportunity to enhance paediatric services for children. The granting of planning permission in April 2016 for the hospital, satellite centres and related buildings was a huge and very welcome milestone for the project. Independent reviews since 2006 have reaffirmed the importance of co-location of the paediatric hospital with a major adult academic teaching hospital. The Government decision in 2012 to locate the hospital on the St. James's Hospital campus was made in the best interests of children from a clinical perspective. St. James's has the broadest range of national specialties of all our acute hospitals in addition to a strong and well-established research and education infrastructure making it the hospital that best meets the criteria to enable the children's hospital to achieve our vision of excellence in modern paediatric practice.

As announced in June 2015, the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital will relocate to the campus, in time achieving the tri-location of adult, paediatric and maternity services. Tri-location has benefits for children, adolescents, newborns and mothers. In all cases, the benefits of tri-location are maximised where the adult hospital provides the broadest possible range of clinical sub-specialties and expertise, which are readily accessible for paediatric and maternity patients on the shared campus. Also, tri-location that delivers the most significant breadth and depth of clinical and academic research on site will enhance the potential of research to drive best clinical outcomes.

Furthermore, excellence in modem paediatric practice cannot be achieved without an embedded culture of, and focus on, research, education and innovation. More than a hospital, the new children's hospital and satellite centres will be a research-intensive academic health care institution. To deliver this vision, the main facilities for research and innovation will be located at the Children's Research and Innovation Centre on the St. James's Hospital campus. This facility will be located adjacent to the Institute of Molecular Medicine, a cross-university facility which delivers both undergraduate and postgraduate education and which has a strong research platform in cancer, infection and immunity and neurosciences. This direct adjacency reflects one of the many and significant opportunities being leveraged by co-locating on the campus with St. James's Hospital with its rich history in clinical research. Clinical management and research staff at the new children's hospital will be able to study, evaluate and improve the health care services provided to children and young people in Ireland.

Objectors to the location raise concerns primarily about access to the site. I wish to reassure parents that the plans and design for the hospital recognise the need of most families to access the hospital by car while noting that the campus is better served by public transport than any other hospital in the country. While the Minister for Health is aware that not everyone agrees with the decision on the location of the hospital, he believes the priority is to make progress on the new hospital as soon as possible so that we can ensure children, young people and their families have the facilities they need and deserve.

I thought the Minister of State would add something from her personal perspective.

We have been there and seen that. What consultation did the Department have? Were the ambulance drivers ever consulted? In respect of problems with the St. James's campus, helicopter restrictions mean that the helipad, which is on a fourth floor roof at one end of the children's hospital, can receive only the lighter Air Corps AW helicopters and then only on flight paths not restricted by the adjacent upper hospital floors. The heavier coastguard and marine rescue Sikorsky helicopter is not licensed for roof landings and must land at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. How are they going to get there then? Ambulance drivers and paramedics have contacted me to say they have listened to nurses and parents screaming at them about how much longer it will take to get to the hospital because they are stuck in traffic. The Minister of State knows it better than I do because she lives in the area. I would not dare to suggest something about access. The Minister of State knows the problems with traffic.

The parking limitations are appalling in respect of the proposed children's hospital. There is no space left on site for almost 600 surface spaces leaving them with a net gain of only 420 spaces. This gives one a final cost of over €138,000 for each of the 420 car parking spaces. We have been told they go down but one would think they were going down into soft sawdust. It is accepted that the children's hospital will have to cope with 10,000 arrivals and departures every day. An additional 3,500 staff will work at the children’s hospital. If the essential maternity hospital is ever built, St. James's Hospital has indicated that there will be no additional parking. I have met nurses who work there. I am not demeaning the area but they fear for their physical safety going to and leaving the hospital. The biggest issue is the distress caused to patients. A community group in Munster is trying to set up a community air ambulance. It has raised €3 million to buy and run it voluntarily. We have volunteers who are willing to work along with the Jack and Jill Foundation and other groups yet the Government is making it more difficult. A helicopter cannot even land there. This is reckless and dangerous and will cause trauma, stress and, in what are not my words but consultants' words, unnecessary deaths.

Hopefully, there will be no unnecessary deaths. The children this hospital will most benefit are very sick children who must endure very cramped conditions in Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin. These conditions go back 30 or 40 years. For the first time in this country, there is a commitment by this Government and the previous one to build a national children's hospital.

I will contribute my own thoughts on this matter. I was long involved in the lead up to the decision to locate the national children's hospital on the St. James's Hospital site. I do not think that some of the Deputy's accusations that certain buildings will need to be knocked down are true. An extra 670 car spaces will be provided for families. Some of the staff live less than 20 minutes away while some who arrive by car live less than ten minutes away so saying that this will present a problem for staff is an overstatement.

I will finish because I do not want to end up arguing with anybody in the Chamber. That is not my way of doing politics. I assure the Deputy that there has been wide consultation during the past two years with every community group, every family with a sick child, every neighbourhood and all the staff and different services on the campus. I attended the oral hearing, which lasted more than two weeks, and sat through many presentations by people for and against locating the hospital there. The new national children's hospital on the site of St. James's Hospital will give us an excellent hospital that will facilitate and care for the very many sick children in this country, particularly those coming up from the country.

Architectural Heritage

I point out to Deputies Burton and Gino Kenny that as they are dividing their time I will be strict in allocating two minutes each initially. They will have a second opportunity of one minute each.

I propose that the State should move to acquire the famous Luggala estate to ensure that the public can continue to enjoy its beauty and that it can also attract tourists to the Roundwood area of County Wicklow. This is one of the Guinness family's ancestral homes in Ireland and it has been put on the market with a suggested value of up to €28 million. The Luggala estate comprising 5,000 acres has been immortalised in poetry by Seamus Heaney. It has featured in some of the most famous Irish films on numerous occasions. It is enormously popular with Irish people and tourists to Ireland as being one of the most beautiful and iconic points in Ireland.

The estate has been the long-time home to the founder of Claddagh Records, Garech Browne, whose contribution not just to ensuring the preservation of the estate, but also to Irish culture and music has been outstanding. His stewardship of Luggala has ensured that the vast majority of the estate, other than the area immediately around the house, has become a favourite for local Irish people and foreign tourists alike. This is undoubtedly unique and is one of the most pristine estates in the country. If it is acquired for the people of Ireland, it would undoubtedly grow in popularity with tourists in a very rural and wild area of the Wicklow Mountains.

Unless the State intervenes, Luggala could be bought by a wealthy private purchaser or investor, leading to uncertainty over access to the estate. State ownership would ensure the pristine condition of the estate is maintained. This sale provides a unique opportunity to extend the Wicklow Mountains National Park and to secure access for the public forever.

Deputy Burton has robbed all my lines.

I would be interested in the Minister of State's view on the sale of Luggala estate. I probably go to Wicklow once a week. The backdrop with that road coming into Luggala estate is probably the most scenic and picturesque place not just in Wicklow, but in Ireland. Thousands of people use the amenity each year. There would be great value to owning the house and its 5,000 acres. It is an incredible site. I do not know if the Minister of State has been there. It is very accessible. As Deputy Burton has said, the current owner has made it accessible. We do not want it to become inaccessible. The land belongs to the people of the country and they should not be denied.

If it is sold it could become inaccessible meaning that people could not use it. I am sure that will be fought very hard. We are asking that the State should try to buy it in order to make it accessible for the people of Ireland. It has huge potential to be part of the Wicklow Mountains National Park and be an asset to the people of Ireland.

I thank the Deputies for raising the matter. I am aware from media reports that Luggala house and estate comprising some 5,000 acres has been offered for sale with a reported asking price of €28 million. It is situated near Roundwood and is within the area of the Wicklow Mountains National Park.

The main mechanism for protection of our built heritage is the inclusion of buildings and sites on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, NIAH. As Minister I can make recommendations for inclusion on the record of protected structures arising from the survey to the planning authority. Luggala is recorded in the NIAH and is rated as of regional importance. Inclusion of buildings or structures on the RPS is a responsibility of the local planning authority and both the main house and a garden temple in the grounds of the house are included in the record of protected structures in Wicklow County Council.

As a Department responsible for our national heritage, my Department is fully aware of the cultural and economic importance of historic built assets nationally and of the importance of securing their future on an ongoing basis. Part IV of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, provides for the protection of architectural heritage. The Act gives primary responsibility to planning authorities to identify and protect the architectural heritage by including relevant structures on the record of protected structures. Inclusion on the record of protected structures places a duty of care on the owners and occupiers of protected structures and also gives planning authorities powers to deal with development proposals affecting them and to seek to safeguard their future.

Over recent years several important houses have been offered for sale by their respective owners and negotiations in most cases concluded with their future secured by the support of new owners. My Department has no direct role in this process as it is a commercial matter between the owners of the properties in question and the parties interested in the purchase.

As the Deputies are no doubt aware, the scope for funding for the conservation of our built heritage is currently constrained by the significant reduction in the public finances. Funding for the protection of built heritage will continue to be provided by the Department in 2017 via a number of schemes.

The Department could only consider acquiring this property if the price fell within a certain range. In this context, I would also remind the House that in late 2016 my Department negotiated the extension of Wicklow Mountains National Park by purchasing almost 4,900 acres of Dublin Uplands at Glenasmole at a cost of €800,000. The Deputies might remember that the vendor was looking for €4 million at the time.

Clearly, the Guinness name is very famous in Ireland and should a donation of the property by the family be in prospect, then I would be very happy to entertain overtures from the vendors, in particular, as to the presentation of the house and lands as a publicly owned and accessible property.

It would, by any measure, be a significant addition to our stock of publicly owned heritage properties and lands and would add greatly to the integration of the Dublin and Wicklow national parks. It would sit on a par with the family's far-sighted and generous donation of Iveagh House and Gardens to the State in 1939. I hope they would consider giving the property to the State. I will negotiate with them and will ensure that the State protects and looks after the property. It would be a very generous contribution to the State. The Guinness name has been well recognised in the country. The family has many businesses and I have no doubt that it might consider this.

The time for the Topical Issue debate is up, but I will allow the two Deputies and the Minister of State a short response.

I thank the Minister of State for a very positive initial response. He is clearly aware of the significance of this estate to people in Ireland. It also ties in with one of the Government's key issues, which is the development and protection of rural areas. There could be no more remote and rural area than this wonderful and beautiful estate in the Wicklow Mountains.

The Minister of State rightly referenced the Guinness family's donation of Iveagh House and Gardens in the earlier history of the State and that building now houses the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Guinness family sold - albeit at quite a high price in Celtic tiger times - Farmleigh, which has been a magnificent addition to Dublin and also St. Anne's Park. I draw the Minister of State's attention to a place where I walk every year once or twice - the woods at Cong, beside Ashford Castle.

We have many examples of what can be done here. This is part of all our heritage and I thank the Minister of State for his reply.

The Minister of State's reply was quite positive. He said the Department could also consider acquiring the property if the price fell within a range.

If the price reduced, would the State be interested in buying the house? It would be even better if it was donated to the State. Is the Minister of State saying that if the price reduced dramatically, the State would engage with the owner?

Deputy Burton is correct. I have just gone through this process with regard to Westport House, and I want to state on the record again today that I am delighted the Hughes family has bought Westport House.

It was an issue of great concern. With regard to what the Deputy said earlier, I, too, was pleased with the outcome. I spent a year, as did the people of Westport, making sure that part of it was held in State hands but the rest of it by a family that is committed to Westport.

Deputy Kenny asked me a question. I will give a straight answer. The State does not have €28 million. I would ask the Guinness family, and Deputy Burton was correct when she said they have a great connection to Ireland in terms of the Guinness brand, to consider offering the house to the State. I am prepared to sit down and negotiate with them but I would hope they would hand it over to the State, as they did with Iveagh House. This house is a very important piece of infrastructure. It is of regional importance but in my opinion it is of national importance. I am prepared to negotiate with the family. The State does not have many resources but if the family are prepared to hand over the house to the State, it will be delighted to accept it and maintain and retain it.

I thank the Deputies for their co-operation. I had to cut them off to some extent but I am sure they understand that I have to try to move things along.

Sitting suspended at 4.25 p.m. and resumed at 5.05 p.m.