Topical Issue Debate

Mental Health Services Provision

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. No disrespect to him, but I was hoping to discuss it with the Minister of State who has responsibility in this area, Deputy Jim Daly, because I met him before Christmas and he knows how pressing and difficult the issue is. Nevertheless, I will use this opportunity to discuss it, in the hope the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, will bring back the message and perhaps schedule a follow-up meeting for me with the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, after this discussion today.

We have a lack of mental health services in Kildare and I will focus on the constituency of Kildare North, in particular the areas of Celbridge, Leixlip, Maynooth, Kilcock, Clane and Naas, which have a population of approximately 120,000 people. The real issue is that services are not available on the ground. I will give three brief examples of this, before I discuss a possible solution I am trying to pursue with the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Daly.

The post of primary care child psychologist in Kildare was left vacant for more than two years and the appointment was made only last year. When we balance this with how serious mental health issues are we must ask ourselves why such a critical appointment takes so long.

Last year in Clane, an area very close to me, a 15 year old minor, who was on suicide watch, was taken into the care of the State but allowed to go from A to B unattended. As a result he went missing twice, on one occasion for up to five days. This was despite the fact gardaí were out looking for him. When he was returned to the care of the State it was allowed to happen again. This is a serious issue and it is a major concern. As I stated, he was on suicide watch. Another issue arose with a young individual who was affected by a brain injury. He received treatment and care but was discharged without any follow-up treatment or care. As a result, he was badly affected in September and October when he was sleeping rough, walking the streets and could not be found. He was not at home. Eventually, through the voluntary organisation which I will discuss later, we got him back into follow-up treatment and services. Another individual reported to the public health service over Christmas for mental health services. He was told in Celbridge that no services were available, that he could not be helped and that nothing could be done for him. Eventually we got him seen and put him in contact with Pieta House.

This is what is happening on the ground, despite all of the delivery and funding announced and despite all of the positive news coming from the other side of the House about these services. They are not being delivered. These are three brief examples because I am conscious of my time.

In Celbridge, a voluntary group has been operating for the past ten years. It provides counselling and dual diagnosis. It has more than 40 cases on its books. It operates purely from bucket collections and cake sales. I have met HSE senior officials in the past 15 months. I have met the Minister, Deputy Harris, the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, and his predecessor to try to get public support for the organisation and finances to help it. To date it has received absolutely nothing.

It is acknowledged that this is a good partnership approach. Where an organisation works with professionally qualified people, providing a service that is not being provided by the State, the State should partner it and support it, once it operates in a coherent and proper manner, which this organisation does. It has gone through the task force and it has engaged with senior officials in the HSE. The paperwork is done and all the boxes have been ticked.

It is disappointing the services are not being delivered through the public health service and that the agency working on a voluntary basis, despite all my efforts, still does not receive support.

I thank Deputy O'Rourke for raising this very important issue. I am well aware the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, has had discussions with him on the subject and will continue to engage with him. He appreciates the Deputy's very constructive approach in dealing with the issue and he apologises that he cannot be here today to take the debate.

With regard to this serious issue, the HSE National Service Plan 2018 commits to further develop all aspects of child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, including acute bed provision, better out-of-hours liaison and reducing waiting times, especially for those waiting more than 12 months. The demand for CAMHS has seen a 26% increase in referrals since 2012 and therefore CAMHS is a strategic priority action for the HSE.

In 2018, the Government has provided for an increase of €35 million in development spending for mental health. Part of this increase will pay for developments commenced last year. There also will be additional funding of €22 million for pay-related costs. This will result in a mental health budget of €910 million, which reflects an increase of around €200 million, or approximately 28%, since 2012. Mental Health is also guaranteed a further €55 million in 2019.

Additional resources and facilities means there are now 69 CAMHS teams, and three paediatric liaison teams, supported by 70 operational CAMHS beds nationally, with further beds planned to come onstream as approved staffing posts are filled at local level. It is envisaged that the increased funding will help develop the CAMHS service overall through provision of: a seven day per week service to enhance supports for vulnerable young persons in line with Connecting for Life; eating disorder specialist community teams; day hospital provision, in-patient admissions, and more appropriate supports for community teams; and enhanced access by older adolescents to specialist mental health services and, for those requiring acute admission, their continued appropriate placement and care.

The acute CAMHS unit at Linn Dara, Cherry Orchard, covers the Kildare and south-west Dublin areas. There are three consultant-led multidisciplinary community CAMHS teams serving County Kildare. The north Kildare team is based in the new Celbridge primary care centre, the mid-Kildare team in Sycamore House, Millennium Park, Naas, and the south Kildare team is based in the new Kildare primary care centre.

In line with the recommendations contained in A Vision for Change, a fourth team is coming into operation in Kildare from mid February 2018. The fourth team has been established to meet the increasing population of the county. The new team will facilitate a realignment of catchment areas of existing teams, in line with the new primary care networks. It is planned that this team will be co-located with the south Kildare team, pending the completion of a CAMHS suite in the new Clane primary care centre. Six posts have been recruited for this team.

There are also plans to increase the consultant staffing in the Kildare area to allow further service development. The Linn Dara community teams also have access to a dedicated adolescent day programme and, from February 2018, to a specialist eating disorders team. Both of these are located on the Cherry Orchard Hospital campus.

The Deputy can rest assured that CAMHS will continue to receive priority from the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, the Department of Health and the HSE. One aspect in particular that the Minister wishes to develop is improved cross-referral within the HSE, and better inter-agency links between the executive and the education, disability, and child care sectors. The Minister of State, Deputy Daly, will ensure that, in light of the significant funding provided in budget 2018 for mental health, CAMHS will continue to be prioritised by the executive, including improvements relating to Kildare.

I thank the Minister of State for the detailed reply.

I do not disagree with the Minister of State's comments and I would not even suggest for a second it is down to a lack of funding. It is a lack of accountability, people taking responsibility and delivery on the ground. I accept everything the Minister of State spoke about in his statement but if it is the case, who is responsible for not delivering the service in just the three cases I have outlined to the Minister of State today because I was short of time? With the last case I mentioned, the individual was turned away from the Celbridge primary care centre between Christmas and the new year, when he showed up with mental health issues. He was told they could not help him as they had no services or resources. He made contact with me and we got him into Pieta House.

I am not coming after the Minister of State, the Government or the Minister because of a lack of funding. I do not doubt them for a minute. I have spoken with the Minister of State about other matters in his Department and despite the funding, we can clearly see cases that are not isolated. When I raised this with the Taoiseach, he said they were isolated cases but they are not. There is a trend here and the reality is services are not being delivered on the ground. Can we get to the people who are responsible and accountable in the Health Service Executive, HSE, for not delivering these services? Will there be consequences for not delivering them? Why was a minor allowed to roam on his own last year? He went missing twice on suicide watch. This is happening and it is a reality. We must find out why if there is no issue with funding. The Minister of State has indicated the resources are there and more are coming, which is great news, but why are services not being delivered on the ground? Why are there gaps in the service and why are we seeing such massive problems?

Will the Minister of State extend an invitation to the other Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, to come to Celbridge to visit the Abbey Community Project, which has done wonderful work for the past ten years? Will he pursue the HSE on the commitment to funding for it that was promised? Does the Minister of State know how much money was given last year for its two professionals providing dual diagnosis for 45 cases? It was €3,000 and they were told it was only to be used for stationery and renting office space. That is how bad it is.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. I take his points relating to accountability. He has accepted the point that we are investing money in services and I appreciate his acknowledgement of that, as many people in the Opposition do not even bother to say it. The question is about accountability and delivering services on the ground. I will bring the message to the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly.

As part of the changes we are advocating in the Department - I include my section dealing with disability services - we are trying to invest in services, as the Deputy acknowledges. We are also seeking to reform the services. The Deputy made the key point about having accountability and delivering on the ground. It is a valid argument and a debate we regularly have around the Cabinet table. It is something I will bring to the Minister.

The Clane case is a very serious matter, as is the case of the person with brain injury who is sleeping rough. I acknowledge that these are real cases, involving real human beings. We must ensure the money we fought very hard for is put in on the ground. I take the Deputy's point that these are not isolated cases. We speak with colleagues regularly and hear about cases. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, will meet the Deputy and his door is always open. People must be accountable within the HSE. I will raise the Deputy's request for the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, to visit Celbridge with him.

Emergency Departments Services

I express my disappointment that the Minister, Deputy Harris, is not here. It is déjà vu as this is the fourth time I have had a Topical Issue on pretty much the same matter and the Minister has not yet turned up. Senator Paul Gavan and I requested an urgent meeting with the Minister but we have not had a response to that either. I ask the Minister of State to request the Minister to meet me and Senator Paul Gavan as soon as possible. I am disappointed that the past few times I have had a Topical Issue on practically the same matter, the Minister has not been available. As I say, I have tried to raise a number of times the serious position in this hospital and the way patients are treated.

Today, there are 60 people on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick, with 668 people on trolleys nationally. That is almost another outrageous record. Almost 10% of patients on trolleys across the State are in one hospital in Limerick. The hospital consistently has the highest number of people on trolleys across the State's hospitals, and it was the most overcrowded hospital in the State last year. University Hospital Limerick saw 8,869 people on trolleys last year, which is absolutely disgraceful. My constituents are entitled to an excellent facility that is not chronically overcrowded, the same as all other areas. Unfortunately, it seems they are bottom of the priority list for the Minister, Deputy Harris.

When the new accident and emergency department was scheduled to open in May last year, I tabled a Topical Issue and the Minister, Deputy Harris, was not available at that time either. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, took the question. I indicated the nurses had a serious concern before the opening of the planned accident and emergency department that 24 patients would be accommodated on trolleys and chairs from the get-go in the new department. At the time, the Minister of State rebuffed what I said, dismissing any such suggestions. He said there was no basis for any suggestion that 24 patients would be accommodated on trolleys in the new department. He said that on 25 May 2017 but it has not been borne out as true. Almost every single day there are more than 24 patients accommodated on trolleys in the new accident and emergency department.

The Minister of State may be aware that these problems stem from the downgrading of Ennis, Nenagh, and St. John's hospitals' accident and emergency departments and the establishment of a so-called centre of excellence. That has not worked and the facility has been overwhelmed. One might walk into the accident and emergency department at University Hospital Limerick today and explain to the 60 people on trolleys how the plan has not worked.

I raise in particular the full capacity protocol. The Minister of State is well aware this was designed to be an emergency measure to deal with overcrowding and is not supposed to be used every day. It has consequences and it results in patients being put in inappropriate areas of the hospital, leading to overcrowding in wards, cancellation of elective procedures and aggressive discharging. It is not intended to be used every day and become the norm. In University Hospital Limerick it has, unfortunately, become the norm. It was used on 361 days last year, compared with nine days in 2014. Yesterday, we learned the number of patients waiting for outpatient appointments in University Hospital Limerick has increased by a massive 6,786 people in just one year to an astonishing 32,632 people. It is a 26% rise in one year. The Minister has said he has a handle on the health crisis and I am sure that will be in his response when he gets back to me. The number of patients being forced to wait in excess of 18 months for treatment has more than doubled in one year, rising from 1,517 to 4,124.

I commend the nurses, doctors and staff who work in University Hospital Limerick in what can be extremely challenging conditions. I am running out of time but I could stand here for another 20 minutes highlighting the issues. What action will the Minister, Deputy Harris, take to ensure the full capacity protocol is not implemented in University Hospital Limerick almost every single day, which it was in 2017? How will he ensure it is only ever used when there is a genuine emergency?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. It is unacceptable that patients must wait on trolleys for long periods, especially those who may be elderly or vulnerable. The full capacity protocol was devised in order to redeploy hospital resources towards surges in demand for emergency care, thereby reducing emergency department waiting times. I accept the argument that the department in University Hospital Limerick is one of the busiest in the country, with approximately 67,000 attendances annually. Demand for emergency department services at the hospital continues to rise, with an increase of 6% in attendances at the hospital in 2017 compared with 2016.

The House will be aware that overcrowding at the hospital's emergency department has been a concern for some time. It is frequently working above capacity using full capacity protocol and this contributes to inefficient ways of working and poor patient experience. In recognition of this high demand, funding of €24 million was provided for the new accident and emergency department at University Hospital Limerick, which opened in May last year. The new facility is triple the size of the old department and immeasurably improves the experience of patients in terms of their comfort, privacy and dignity. The Minister, Deputy Harris, visited the department on its opening last year and was very impressed with the pod-based design to streamline patient pathways.

I accept the Deputy's point. The emergency department at UHL continues to be challenged and sees too many patients on trolleys each day. The Minister has been in direct contact with the director general of the HSE, the hospital group chief executive officer, the group clinical director and the head of the HSE's special delivery unit to express his concerns about high trolley numbers and to seek assurances that action is being taken to address the situation urgently. The special delivery unit has been working closely with hospitals currently experiencing emergency department pressures with a view to improving patient flow and reducing the number of patients on trolleys. At the request of the Minister, Deputy Harris, UHL has submitted an emergency department performance improvement plan which sets out in detail how performance will be improved. The plan is currently being implemented and I expect to see incremental improvement.

To alleviate overcrowding pressures, 17 new surge capacity beds opened in the old emergency department in UHL in September 2017. These beds will be converted into a medical short-stay unit in 2018 which, again, is a measure to combat the requirement of using the full capacity protocol. UHL was also chosen as a pilot site for a national HSE programme designed to improve patient flow across acute hospitals and the wider health service. This programme is aimed at developing and assessing different approaches to the improvement of patient flow.

To conclude, the Minister is acutely aware of the current situation in UHL in terms of using the full capacity protocol and is monitoring the situation closely. The Department, the HSE and the University Limerick hospital group are carrying out measures to improve this situation and reduce the need to utilise the full capacity protocol.

I agree the new emergency department in Limerick looks great but, unfortunately, the concerns we raised before it opened have come to pass. Huge numbers of people are waiting on trolleys and for unnecessary durations of time. My fear is that I will be in the House again next year highlighting the same problems in that hospital. The Minister, Deputy Harris, brought a bed capacity review to the Cabinet today. However, we do not need any more reviews, studies or investigations. What is needed in UHL is more money, extra beds and more staff today, not ten years hence, to accommodate the number of patients presenting at the hospital.

The Minister of State might be aware that the interns and non-consultant hospital doctors, NCHDs, are to ballot on industrial action in the hospital next week. We do not know when the 96-bed extension will be up and running. It will alleviate the problems but it is years late. There is no point in constantly talking about it. If the work begins immediately it will be years before there are extra beds for patients in the hospital. Has the funding for the 96-bed extension been allocated? It has been talked about for a long time but when will it be built? Obviously, if the Minister, Deputy Harris, were present he might be able to answer that question but perhaps the Minister of State will relay my concern to him. What interim measures are being put in place to bring down the hospital trolley count or will the Minister just sit back and hope that the influenza passes, which will bring down the numbers?

The main question in this Topical Issue, however, is: what measures will be introduced to stop the use of the full capacity protocol? Does the Minister think that using the full capacity protocol - having extra trolleys in the hospital every day in 2017 and every day so far in 2018 - is safe and does he stand over the fact that it is happening? Will he confirm if any additional staff will be assigned to deal with the outpatient waiting list, which has grown by more than 6,000 in a year? These problems are massive and urgent. They require comprehensive solutions. If the Minister cannot provide them he should consider why he is in office.

Of course, we accept the Deputy's point. He is correct that the Minister, Deputy Harris, brought the bed capacity review plan to the Cabinet today. There was very strong support for it because we accept there is a need to invest in extra beds, particularly in 2018 and 2019. However, there is also a historical issue here. Before our time in Government, the accident and emergency departments in Ennis and Nenagh were closed. This was part of creating a logjam in the system. I accept the Deputy's argument that extra new beds are needed, and we are determined to provide them. The Minister is committed to action.

With regard to the specific issues in Limerick hospital, the Minister has been in direct contact with the director general of the HSE, the CEO of the hospital group, the group clinical director and the head of the HSE special delivery unit. I am optimistic that action will be taken. We must ensure that people are no longer left of trolleys. As regards the funding issues, I will raise them with the Minister, Deputy Harris, and we will refer back to the Deputy with a further detailed response.

Flood Relief Schemes Status

In light of the near flooding a few weeks ago and further weather warnings forecast for the period ahead, I seek an update on the flood relief and main drainage scheme in Bandon. Bandon is known as the gateway to west Cork. It is a beautiful town. It is the town where I grew up, where I and my husband settled and where we choose to bring up our two sons. There is a song called "Bandon town I love you so". I will spare Members hearing me sing it here today, but it sums up-----

We will hear a bar of it later, a Cheann Comhairle.

That would be different anyway. However, it sums up my feelings for my native town. The Minister of State has visited it many times on a personal basis.

Unfortunately, the town has been brought to its knees due to flooding on three occasions since 2009, the last two floods happening only weeks apart. I acknowledge the amazing heart and extreme resilience of the people of Bandon. They got up and fought back each time. The Minister of State will be aware that a €16 million flood relief scheme for Bandon is currently being undertaken by the Office of Public Works in partnership with Cork County Council. This badly needed scheme is expected to alleviate the serious flooding that has blighted the town for many years. The work has been progressing well to date, but local residents and business owners are becoming extremely anxious as a result of the weather conditions we have been experiencing lately. On 19 January last, the town was again on flood alert. I acknowledge the fantastic work done that day by the fire service and council workers who kept the flood at bay.

Quite simply, residents and business owners are at the end of their tether and unable to deal with the devastation another flood would cause to their properties, particularly in circumstances where they are unable to get insurance. Bandon experienced a severe flood in 2009. We were told then that it was probably a one in 99 year experience and we hoped that was the case. Unfortunately, it happened again in December 2015 and, unbelievably, again a few weeks later. After 2009 many residents and businesses were unable to access flood insurance so the next two floods left the people in Bandon devastated. People in many towns in west Cork, such as Bandon, Clonakilty, Bantry and Skibbereen, cannot get flood insurance. Although this is a matter for another day, it would be only fair that after the flood relief works are carried out in these towns people should once again be able to get flood insurance.

It is imperative that the main drainage scheme in Bandon commences on schedule, which we understand will be in the second quarter of this year. The drains in Bandon are extremely old and are no longer fit for purpose. When there is heavy rain the drains are unable to cope. If the Bandon river rises the water comes up the drains, so there is an up and down problem. In essence, these drains are well past their sell-by date and major works are essential. My constituents need and deserve answers. It is not acceptable that they must live in constant fear of the next weather forecast. Can the Minister give an undertaking that no more time will be wasted on these works and that definite dates will be provided, particularly a guaranteed commencement date for the main drainage scheme in Bandon?

I thank Deputy Murphy O'Mahony for raising this important issue. I am replying on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran.

As the Deputy rightly pointed out, I have personal knowledge of this issue. My brother is a publican on the main street in Bandon and his business premises was one of those flooded. The Deputy is correct in so far as his premises flooded not from the street but, rather, the toilet cisterns. The flooding came from the sewer, up the toilet and into his pub. Such an occurrence would be absolutely devastating for any business. I also have first-hand experience of such events in my town of Newcastle West, which was also flooded. I thank Deputy Murphy O'Mahony for raising the issue.

The Minister of State, Deputy Boxer Moran, visited Bandon last summer to see the great work being done to bring much-needed relief from flooding to the people and businesses of the town. He met with councillors, local Deputies, residents and business owners, who were all very relieved that, following some early delays, works were finally under way. The Bandon scheme is progressing well. Like any major civil engineering project, it is not without its difficulties but, on behalf of the Minister of State, I assure the Deputy that he has been emphasising to his officials that every effort must be made to ensure the scheme remains on target for completion in mid-2019 in accordance with the latest agreed construction programme.

Following the severe flooding in Bandon in November 2009, the Office of Public Works appointed consultants to develop proposals for a flood relief scheme for the town and to undertake an environmental impact study of the developing proposals. A preferred scheme was brought through the public exhibition process in 2012 and the proposals received a generally positive welcome. The Office of Public Works has been working in close co-operation with Cork County Council in developing and progressing the scheme. The scheme includes the following main elements: new walls and embankments; excavating the channel by approximately 1.6 m for a distance of 3.5 km; replacement of the pedestrian bridge; underpinning Bandon Bridge; construction of new fish passages; and associated drainage works, including new pump stations.

Following completion of the detailed design, the Bandon scheme was confirmed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, on 4 April 2016, which allowed the Office of Public Works to proceed with the scheme. The contract was awarded on 9 of June 2016 to Wills Bros Limited and construction of the scheme commenced in late July 2016. There were some initial contract issues to be resolved which led to a delay in substantive works getting under way. Thankfully, those issues were resolved.

Good progress is being made across all the main areas of work. Bandon footbridge works are progressing well and are due for completion by the end of February. The steel deck was lifted into place on 6 December last. Works associated with the ramps and walls, including large service diversions, are ongoing. Finishing works, including polished concrete surfacing and railings, are anticipated to commence this month and the bridge is due to be opened in March. Works are ongoing at Glasslinn Road and are due to recommence at Brady’s Lane and Bridge Street this month. Culvert installation works have been completed at Mill River within the grounds of the old distillery, almost completed at the Kilbrittain Road stream and are ongoing at Moanarone or Distillery Road. The construction of new flood defence walls is ongoing at Graham Norton Walk, The Stretch, Watergate Steet, Glasslinn Road wall and Mill Place. Some major elements of in-river works are scheduled to commence in May on the Bandon river and on a fish pass in the river. These are critical works and the project management team will be working very closely with the contractor to ensure they are completed within the programme. The scheme is expected to be substantially completed by July 2019 and the Minister of State is confident that target will be met.

As Deputy Murphy O'Mahony pointed out, the completion of the Bandon scheme will bring great comfort to the residents and businesspeople of the town. Like the residents of other towns such as Mallow, Fermoy, Kilkenny and Clonmel where major OPW schemes have been built, they will no longer have to live in fear of severe weather and rainfall warnings but, rather, will know their homes and businesses are protected from flooding.

The Government is committed to addressing the most significant flood risks in the country. Some €350 million has been spent on building 42 major schemes, protecting almost 9,500 properties. However, there is more to be done. Within the existing programme of capital flood works, eight schemes are at construction phase, eight more are due to start construction this year and a further 18 are in the pipeline. In addition, approximately 100 other schemes are included in the flood risk management plans under the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme for which the Minister of State will shortly be seeking approval. This represents a major programme of investment in flood protection and the Minister of State is confident that the new ten-year capital plan 2018 to 2027 will see a continued significant allocation of funding for flood relief projects, including in places such as Bandon.

I am glad the Minister of State acknowledged that he realised first hand what the people of Bandon went through. His brother suffered badly during those floods. I am disappointed that the Minister of State spent most of his four-minute reply going over works that have been completed, of which I am very well aware. He also spent much time speaking of works done all over the country. With all due respect to such works, my question solely regards Bandon. I ask the Minister of State to provide more specific dates for the commencement and completion of the main drainage scheme.

As I outlined in my response, the Minister of State, Deputy Boxer Moran, has stated that he hopes the scheme will be completed within the agreed timeframe and delivered in mid-2019. I can ask the Minister of State to provide a more detailed direct response to the Deputy on the outstanding individual elements.

I will arrange to so do. The Deputy is correct that I saw at first hand the devastation caused in Bandon. The issue was raised directly with the Minister of State, Deputy Boxer Moran, by the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. On the night my brother's pub and sister-in-law's shop flooded, Deputy Murphy O'Mahony and other public representatives, including Councillor O'Donovan, a namesake of mine, were on hand to give tangible help to those affected. Cork County Council must also be acknowledged in that regard.

The Bandon scheme is one of those that has been prioritised by the Minister of State because he does not want to see a repeat of people's properties being flooded with raw sewage coming up from toilets. There is no hesitation on behalf of the Office of Public Works, the Minister of State, the Government or Cork County Council on this matter. There was, as I pointed out, some minor delays in respect of the completion of contracts. That is now under way and Wills Bros Limited is the contractor in place. As regards what is scheduled in the individual steps from here on, I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Boxer Moran, to liaise directly with Deputy Murphy O'Mahony.

Roads Maintenance Funding

I welcome the opportunity to raise this important matter. I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, for coming to the House to address the issue. Like many colleagues, over the Christmas recess I had the opportunity to traverse County Offaly more thoroughly than I would while the Dáil is in session. Many of the important routes in the county are in a state of disrepair following harsh winter weather conditions and persistent heavy rainfall, coupled with the unique circumstances that pertain in Offaly and parts of north Tipperary as a result of the extent to which our road network crosses boglands. The water table has been very high all winter, which is putting huge pressure on the road network. Subsidence and large potholes are developing on our regional roads, which makes driving conditions very dangerous for motorists, who expect regional roads with speed limits of 80 km/h to have consistently good surfaces. In recent weeks, I have been inundated by constituents contacting me to express concern and frustration with the condition of the roads.

Now that the economy has recovered and we are all working in a determined manner to attract enterprise and increased tourism activity to the county, the road network urgently requires additional investment that recognises the very specific nature of the network, which is built on peat foundations. I am very concerned by the situation. Engineers accept that road surfaces built on peat foundations require significantly more investment to ensure standards are maintained. The surface of such a road will last for approximately five years in normal conditions compared to an expected lifespan of 20 years for roads built on proper foundations. The Minister will recall a presentation in Edenderry at which the local engineer highlighted that issue to him. It is apparent following the recent persistent rainfall that structural problems are developing on the regional, local and tertiary road network, which means that local authorities in Offaly, Tipperary County Council and Laois require additional funding from the Minister’s Department to help mitigate the problem before it gets worse.

I wish to highlight the routes by which I am most concerned. The R357 from Blueball to Shannonbridge is a very important, busy regional route, many stretches which have been undermined over the winter months. Many other road arteries are causing a driving hazard for drivers who may not be familiar with them. For example, in north Tipperary the very important R438 Borrisokane to Athlone regional route is flooded. The last time that road was so heavily flooded, people were able to jet ski on it because it was like a huge pond. I do not advocate such behaviour but it illustrates how much water was on the road.

Locally there are engineering solutions and I am aware that the local authority has suggestions and ideas but the funding is what is at stake.

I drove the R436 recently when I did my clinics from Tullamore, back through Ferbane and on to Moystown Cross via Belmont. That road is in dreadful condition for a regional route. The road is actually subsiding at the edges and in the middle, not to mention the amount of potholes, and it is really dreadful to see the damage there.

I also spoke of the additional work that is required on the N62 and the N52. I will not go back into that again because I know the Minister is well aware of this. There needs to be recognition that rural dwellers pay their motor taxes, their property taxes, their VRT and so on. They depend on the road network to go about their daily lives. I am very concerned about the deteriorating condition of the regional, county and tertiary road network.

I thank Deputy Corcoran Kennedy for raising this very important issue, which has become even more acute since I visited the Deputy's area in Offaly a few months ago. The case was made very eloquently by the Deputy and by others for the difficulties experienced when roads have been built on peat foundations, and the effect that lack of investment has on these roads. I am particularly taken by the statistic given by the Deputy - and which was given to me on that visit - that a repair that might be expected to last for 20 years in the normal case might only last five years in some of the roads mentioned. The case made by the Deputy today should certainly be considered in the future when road grants are being handed out.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities’ own resources supplemented by State road grants. The selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is, therefore, a matter for the local authority.

Ireland has just less than 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. The Deputy will be aware that because of the national financial position, there were very large reductions in the Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure after the financial crisis. For this reason the focus has had to be on maintenance and renewal rather than new improvement projects in recent years. I envisage that this emphasis on maintaining assets, together with safety measures, will continue into the next capital plan period.

Account has been taken of conditions referred to by Deputy Corcoran Kennedy as encountered in Offaly. This will be reflected in terms of the grant programmes that will be announced by me in the near future. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has allocated €153,962 towards Offaly’s winter maintenance scheme. In this context, it is important to reiterate that the purpose of Exchequer funding is to supplement the own resources spending of local authorities and I have emphasised to local authorities the importance of prioritising expenditure on roads when allocating own resources, including revenue from local property tax receipts.

Local authorities are aware that it is a matter for each council to determine its priorities and to allocate funding accordingly. Given the funding constraints, my objective has to be to allocate funding to local authorities on as equitable basis as possible. The main grant categories are, therefore, based on road lengths in each local authority’s area of responsibility. The division of Department grant moneys under the restoration improvement, restoration maintenance and discretionary grant programmes between different local authority districts is decided at local level. Before the financial crisis, local authorities could apply on a regular basis for specific grants for schemes costing less than €5 million and for strategic improvement grants for schemes costing more than €5 million with a view to strengthening, widening or realigning regional and local roads. The extent of the cutbacks in grant funding during the crisis meant these grant schemes had to be curtailed from 2013 because expenditure on maintenance and renewal was falling well short of what was required to adequately maintain the regional and local road network. It is a matter for Offaly County Council as part of its budget and road programme planning process to assess the condition of its road network and what works might be needed taking into account its overall priorities.

When I am making any allocations in the near future, I will bear in mind Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's comments today.

I thank the Minister for the answer and for acknowledging that consideration will be taken of the special condition of roads in that area. I certainly appreciate that. The Minister made reference to schemes being curtailed since 2013. We can really see the effect of this curtailment five years later with some roads becoming narrower. I also believe that climate change has an impact on it and I have no doubt that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport will examine the impacts on our roads from the monsoon-like rainfall Ireland is having. The R400, which we spoke about when the Minister was in Edenderry, is a connecting route from Rhode to Portarlington. It is a very important strategic route that links the M6 to the M7 and it needs to be prioritised. I have no doubt that Offaly County Council will most certainly do this.

The re-launch of the local improvement schemes by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, and the Taoiseach was most welcome at the National Ploughing Championships last year. There was a queue of communities waiting to avail of that funding and it was used up very quickly. I am aware that an enormous amount of funding remains in that scheme. I hope that we could get an increase in that funding. I welcome that new funding will be announced for that, as mentioned earlier today by the Taoiseach on Leaders' Questions.

Will the Minister consider looking again at the community involvement scheme? When I was a county councillor we found it to be a marvellous way to ensure that roads in the charge of the local authority could be resurfaced or have some structural work, in partnership with people in the rural area who had access to various types of mechanical equipment. It was very good value for money and was a tremendous scheme. I hope the Minister might consider that.

I will look at the scheme again. We have looked at it since I came into office, but financial constraints and priorities have restrained us from putting any more money into it. We will consider it in the next budget.

Funding for road maintenance and improvement in County Offaly is provided by the council's own resources, supplemented by grants. The allocation for 2018 is expected to be announced in the next two weeks. The Department has also emphasised to all councils the importance of prioritising expenditure on roads when allocating their own resources, including local property tax receipts.

The main grant programmes operated by the Department are focused on specific policy objectives such as surface sealing to protect the road surface from water damage. Restoration maintenance grants cover road strengthening, based on pavement condition and weighting, to lengthen the life of roads. Restoration improvement grants are discretionary grant schemes that cover various activities including the provision for winter maintenance. These three grant programmes account for most of the grant funding and are allocated based on the length of the road network in a particular local authority area.

Applications for funding under the low-cost safety improvement scheme in 2018 were invited on 26 September 2017. Councils were made aware of the conditions for the applications for funding and were advised that preference would be given in the cost range of €2,000 to €30,000, and that proposals in the higher cost ranges of €30,000 to €250,000 may be considered if the benefit-to-cost ratio was promising. Offaly County Council applied for funding for six schemes to the sum of €292,000. The council will be notified shortly of allocation of funding for these schemes. It is up to individual local authorities to submit applications in order of priority. Allocations to individual municipal districts within the county are a matter for the county council and the Department has no role in that process. TII is progressing major pavement renewal and strengthening schemes on the N52 and N62, costing a total of €1.97 million. TII operates a programme of minor works and maintenance works, including winter maintenance. TII is undertaking a number of such schemes in County Offaly. TII has allocated €2.5 million to Offaly County Council in 2018.