Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects

I wish to raise the issue of special education in Wexford, in particular, two complementary schools - St. Patrick's special school in Enniscorthy and Our Lady of Fatima School in Wexford town. St. Patrick's special school has 131 students, 46 special needs assistants and 22 teachers. It is a large special school serving all of County Wexford and many people from south Wicklow. It provides schooling for children with moderate to severe-profound learning difficulties and is currently split between two campuses in the town, which makes it a logistical nightmare for the school. The campus was built in 1968. To say it is dilapidated is an understatement. I have been in that school numerous times. It has damp and mould and water is dripping down all over the school. The children play in a tiny car park when buses are not turning in it. Parents, teachers and the community are up in arms over the state of the school. They were promised that a new school would be built for them. In the weeks before the last general election in 2016, they were told that construction would start in 2016. There has been delay after delay after delay. All they are getting are promises. The school has still not gone to tender for the build. This is why I am in here - to reflect the anger that parents, teachers and students, who are the most vulnerable students, feel. They have a day counter in the school which is up to 717 days since they were promised shovels would be stuck in the ground for this new school.

That has still not happened. The teachers in the school are doing fantastic work in an impossible situation.

The second school is Our Lady of Fatima special school in Wexford town and the two schools are complementary. Our Lady of Fatima special school has 108 students at the moment and a waiting list of more than 50, which is a five year waiting list. Students who cannot get into the school have to go to a mainstream school where they do not get the supports they need. These are children with vulnerabilities but who, with guidance, support and training and a proper focus can thrive. However, they are not getting into the school because of a lack of spaces.

The school deals with moderate general learning difficulties. It deals with Down's syndrome, autism, Prader-Willi syndrome, fragile X, cerebral palsy and numerous other learning difficulties. The teachers, parents and the community are doing fantastic work in that school. They have been told that at a very minimum it will not even be considered until 2021.

The school backs on to HSE grounds where a new primary care centre is being built. An old primary care centre backs on to the school. The distance between the two is the same as the distance between the Minister of State and me. That old primary care centre had a brand new state-of-the-art third generation extension built and opened less than ten years ago. The HSE is due to knock down that building to put in car parking spaces. I got a letter from the HSE stating it will use that area for car parking spaces and will reserve it for the Department of Education and Skills, should it ever want to build a new school on it.

What is going on there is bananas. I ask the Minister to intervene in that situation and get on to the HSE. A school is desperate for spaces and a brand new building is right beside it. The school wants the building and the HSE is going to knock it down, but reserve the space for a new building to be built on if the Department of Education and Skills wants it. I ask the Minister to intervene in both of these cases. These are the most vulnerable people in our country. They are fantastic people and are not getting the supports they need.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the status of the accommodation needs of two specials schools in Wexford, Our Lady of Fatima special school located in Wexford town and St. Patrick’s school in Enniscorthy. As the Deputy is aware, the building project for St. Patrick’s school is included in the Department’s six-year capital programme. The building project will include a new three storey building of 5,926 sq. m, containing 20 classrooms, dining area, general purpose area, library, special education tuition rooms and various ancillary spaces.

The pre-qualification process to select the shortlist of construction contractors is nearing completion. Once completed, my Department will be issuing an authorisation for this project to proceed to tender stage. The tender stage for awarding construction contracts on a school building project normally takes between four and six months to complete. My Department anticipates that this project will progress to construction as early as 2018. That is some good news.

The Deputy also referred to Our Lady of Fatima special school. This school has a current enrolment of 112 students and a staffing level of principal and 12 permanent teaching posts. The school caters for students with mild general learning disabilities and some students have additional associated learning needs. A number of students with autistic spectrum disorder also attend. The school operates under the patronage of the Bishop of Ferns, who is the owner of the school site.

Our Lady of Fatima school has submitted an application to my Department for capital funding to provide additional accommodation and my Department has been liaising directly with the school on the application. I am aware that the school site is confined and that options for providing additional accommodation on the site are being explored with the school. In this regard, the school has undertaken recently to furnish relevant maps to the Department in support of the application.

As I outlined to the Deputy in my reply to Question No. 197 on 26 January last, my Department is aware of a site adjacent to the school which I understand is in the ownership of the HSE. I understand also that these lands are associated with the development of a new primary care centre in Wexford town and are required for that purpose.

My Department is committed to providing improved accommodation for Our Lady of Fatima and St. Patrick’s special schools and will continue to liaise with the authorities of both schools to achieve this. Based on the information I have received from the Department we expect construction on the site of St. Patrick's school. I know promises were made. I cannot comment on the promises made to the Deputy a year ago or two years ago. I spoke to departmental officials just before coming in here. They expect construction to begin before the end of 2018. I know they are working diligently on it.

The students, parents and teachers associated with St. Patrick's school are fed up with broken promises as to when construction on the new school will commence. They were promised just before the previous general election that the shovels would be in the ground in 2016. It was promised for 2017 and subsequently June 2018. We are now hearing that it will definitely be in 2018, which could be the end of 2018. The parents and teachers will not be satisfied with that answer because it looks like it will be put further back. I hope the delays are not related to the problems with Carillion which has resulted in the brand new Loreto school not opening. I am not sure the school will be satisfied with the Minister of State's answer and I implore him to drive that school on as much as possible because the conditions those children have to put up with are not acceptable.

Our Lady of Fatima special school is boxed into a very tight location. The HSE on Grogan's Road is building a brand new primary care centre. However, the old primary care centre that backs on to the school is being knocked down, including the brand new extension to put in a car park. We should knock down the old part but give the school the brand new extension. The school wants it and it is right beside the school. It solves all its problems.

Today I received a letter from the HSE stating:

We had identified space within USE Grogans Road site that would facilitate some classroom expansion of the school as per their request. This area has been excluded from the Primary Care PPP site ... and remains in the direct ownership and control of HSE. This arrangement was put in place in order to facilitate School expansion ... if required following the completion of the new PCC.

The HSE is confirming that the land is available for Our Lady of Fatima school to expand. It is now back to the Department of Education and Skills to liaise with the HSE, acquire the land and give the building to Our Lady of Fatima school so that the 50 children with nowhere to go and who need training and education can go there. Teachers are queuing up to work in the school but there is nowhere to put them or the students.

I refer back to Our Lady of Fatima school and the old primary care centre on Grogan's Road. The Department is aware of the site located there, but it believes, and the Deputy might be able to clarify this for me, that the site is required for the development of a new primary care centre in Wexford town. That is what we are being told.

The Department is engaging with Our Lady of Fatima school as we speak. We are trying to explore options to address its accommodation needs. I accept what the Deputy is saying. I have studied the school and I recognise the severe necessity to do something with the school. If the Deputy wants to engage with me later in the week, I can update him on what is happening with Our Lady of Fatima school.

The pre qualification process to select the shortlist of construction contractors for St. Patrick's school is almost complete. Once that is completed, the Department will give authorisation to proceed to tender stage. As I said earlier, I believe the tender stage takes between four and six months, sometimes shorter. It is going through the pre-qualification stage and will go through the tender stage.

The Department is determined that this construction will start in 2018. Deputy Browne could push me for a date but I cannot give him one. I will keep in contact with him over the next couple of weeks and months to let him know what is happening with both schools. I promise that.

Hospital Closures

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, and thank her for taking the time to hear about this matter. It relates to the Alzheimer's disease unit in Sligo, which covers the north-west region. The unit is based on the campus of St. John's Community Hospital there. It was opened as a dedicated unit some 20 years ago. The backdrop here is that the Mental Health Commission or HIQA did a report some time ago and found in the region of 13 non-compliances with regard to upgrades that might be required and so on. Since then, it seems that a HSE or Government decision was made to wind down and close this unit, thus leaving the entire north-west region without a suitable unit for respite or long-stay residents with Alzheimer's disease with a dedicated staff as this one was. There are now four of the 36 residents remaining. I got an email from the HSE last week stating that these people would be transitioned out and so on. In reality, what has happened up to Monday of this week is that families were effectively coerced and told to remove their loved ones, that it was a matter for them to deal with, that the unit was closing and that was the end of the story, which is totally unacceptable. The loved ones of some of these families have been living in this particular unit quite happily, including one for ten years and another for the 20 years it has existed.

I appreciate the need for and welcome inspections to ensure all our facilities are up to standard. However, it seems to increasingly be Government practice that when HIQA, the Mental Health Commission or another body does, for want of a better expression, the dirty work of finding flaws with a particular unit, instead of applying the necessary investment to get the unit up to standard and ensure the region still has that service available, it sets about closing the unit down. In effect, the Health Act 2004 is being used by the Government to subcontract the entire running of our health service and the €15 billion of taxpayers' money involved to the HSE. The HSE now seems to be hell-bent on subcontracting out the provision of those services and acting like a broker, pushing families into the private sector to get care. One could be forgiven for asking what we pay social insurance for. Where is that €15 billion going? If that is going to continue, then the HSE is clearly a very expensive broker for the procurement of private sector services. There was no consultation with the Alzheimer Society of Ireland or with the patients. As I said, up to Monday of this week, two of the four families who loved ones still live there were simply told to move on, that they had to take their loved one home, put the person somewhere else, and that the hospital had nowhere else to put them. It is not acceptable, in any event, that the north-west region will be left without a dedicated Alzheimer's unit. What is next? Will it be Dungloe Community Hospital near the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Sheil Hospital, the Rock community nursing unit, St. John's Community Hospital itself or countless others throughout the north west?

People in the north west of the country, just like people in Dublin or in any other part of the country, are entitled to services and we are increasingly stripping them out and forcing people to deal with the private sector when there was a perfectly good functioning public service in operation. It may have needed some level of upgrade and continuing investment, as rightly highlighted by the Mental Health Commission, HIQA and other bodies, but that does not mean we should not apply those resources. We should not use it as an excuse to close services down. At some stage, we need to put the people, patients and families at the centre of our consideration of this process because, sadly, under the euphemism of "the best interest of the patient", the HSE is being budget-driven to close down and cut back services, and to push it back onto vulnerable families which have to dig deep for funds they do not have to procure these services in the private sector.

On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, I thank Deputy MacSharry for raising this issue. The rehabilitation and recovery mental health unit, formerly known as the Alzheimer’s unit, is located within the grounds of St. John's Community Hospital, Sligo, and serves patients with both dementia-related illness and mental health difficulties, as the Deputy has said. The Mental Health Commission carried out an inspection report on this unit on 17 November 2016. The inspection report highlighted that the rehabilitation and recovery mental health unit did not operate as a rehabilitation unit but as a continuing care unit, with a number of residents inappropriately placed there. Care and treatment was limited to that provided by a nursing staff and general practitioner, GP, only, with a lack of further clinicians available. There was no consultant psychiatrist or multidisciplinary team available for the approved centre. The Mental Health Commission approved registration of this unit in November 2016 on the basis of two conditions. These were that there would be no further new admissions or transfers of persons to the unit, and that the needs of the current residents of unit were assessed and residents were appropriately placed in accordance with this by 31 December 2016. As a result, no new patients have been admitted to the unit since 21 November 2016. Many residents have since been transferred to more appropriate care and facilities. By the end of March 2018, all remaining residents will be transferred to other placements more appropriate to their care needs. The HSE has assured the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, that all transitions will be fully inclusive and will respect the individual needs of the residents involved. This is also in keeping with the Irish National Dementia Strategy 2014.

The closure of this unit is in line with the mental health policy, A Vision for Change, which sets out a comprehensive policy framework for the development of mental health services. It recommends a move away from the traditional institutional based model of care to a more patient-centred, flexible and community based service, where the need for hospital admission is reduced while still providing inpatient care, as appropriate. The closure of this unit creates further opportunity to develop additional services which will be available to more people in their homes and other community care settings in Sligo. This Government has prioritised the reform and resourcing of our mental health services in line with A Vision for Change. This can be seen in the mental health budget increase from €711 million in 2012 to over €910 million in 2018, an increase of around €200 million, or 28%, in six years.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I will come back in on some of the concerns he has raised.

I thank the Minister of State. Sadly, the response prepared for her on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, is inadequate. The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, said that the report showed there were anomalies in the service, that it was GP-only, that there was no psychiatrist, multidisciplinary team or clinical staff beyond a GP. There were chipped tiles and other issues. At no point did the report say that these services should not be provided. Our responsibility is to provide psychiatry, a multidisciplinary team, and a GP, to change the tiles, to clean the place up and to make the improvements and investments required. We have not done that but have decided to close it. What does the euphemism "more appropriate to the care needs of the family" mean? The families I have spoken to have been told to get their loved ones out of the place. That has nothing to do with A Vision for Change. Of course we want to support people to remain in their own homes when they can be cared for at home but we are talking about people who have been there for ten or 20 years. How could a place decide that a person is going somewhere else? As of Monday, the HSE was not in a position to tell the two families who I am in contact with where those people are even going.

This is driven by the budget under the cover of a lie that it is associated with A Vision for Change. It certainly is not associated with A Vision for Change and it is no excuse for the lack of investment in resources and clinical support that was identified by the Mental Health Commission in 2016. We cannot use these as excuses for our ineptness - something needs to be done. I appeal to the Minister of State to raise this at the highest level in Cabinet to ensure this unit remains open. The investment, resources and required clinical support should be made available and the people in the north-west region should have a support, not just for respite for those Alzheimer's disease patients, but also for those patients who are not capable of being looked after in their own home any more. I thank the Minister of State for her time but I must say, without any disrespect to her, that the response prepared is totally inadequate in the circumstances.

I do not know the location and have been given a prepared response, and it is unfortunate that the response has not facilitated the Deputy's frustrations and concerns. I will not comment on the service there because I am not familiar with it but it is unacceptable for any family to be asked at short notice to remove a family member, especially somebody who has been in long-term care, from such a unit.

The families should not have to decide where their loved ones will go; that is a matter for the provider or the HSE. I do not propose to comment on the sum of €15 million or private sector service provision, but I will bring the Deputy's concerns to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly.

I again assure the Deputy that the Government is committed to facilitating people through the provision of services which meet their needs and also in their homes. Where the latter is not possible, the responsibility is on us to provide adequate services where people can live in comfort and, above all, be cared for well. I agree with the Deputy in his remarks about the painting of walls and the washing of floors. I will bring not only his concerns in that regard but also his frustration at the response I have given to the attention of the Minister of State.

Special Protection Areas Designation

Yesterday I attended a briefing in the AV Room by a group of farmers from north west Cork, east Kerry, west Limerick and County Tipperary on the designation of their lands under the hen harrier programme, the lack of compensation for years and the scheme being put in place which they said did not adequately compensate them, following which the issue was discussed with them at a meeting last night of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. In 2007 the National Parks and Wildlife Service gave a commitment that any farmer whose lands were designated under the hen harrier programme would receive a payment of €350 per hectare, but this agreement was later broken by the service and the then Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. In 2015 the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, committed to paying €350 per hectare up to 40 hectares which was equivalent to 100 acres. However, nothing has happened in the intervening years.

Prior to last Christmas, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, announced the compensation scheme currently in place. For example, for the first 25 acres, or 10 hectares, if awarded the maximum 1,000 points, a farmer is paid €2,000. However, as the average number of points for this category is 600, the payment is €1,200. For the second 25 acres, if awarded the maximum 1,000 points, the payment is €1,500. However, as the average number of points in this category is also 600, the payment is only €900. For the third 25 acres, if awarded the full 1,000 points, a sum of €1 per hectare is payable, which equates to a figure of €1,000. However, one is more likely to receive €600. For the final 25 acres, the payment is supposed to be €750, but the likelihood is that it will be €450. The maximum payment possible is €5,250, but the likelihood is that it will be €3,150 against the promised €14,000 per 100 hectares in 2007 and 2015.

At the meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine said that as the agreement had been broken by the then Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, not the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, it was not a matter for them. A gangster in the Windy City of Chicago would not attempt to do what is being done to honest farmers. What does the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine propose to do about it? Does he propose to continue this blatant robbery of their assets?

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, who is leading an agri-food trade mission in Turkey.

The hen harrier programme is a new locally-led project funded jointly by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the European Union under the European innovation partnership initiative. It is not a compensation scheme; rather, it is a pilot project designed to test new ways of managing these landscapes to the best advantage of the bird and the farmers living there. The hen harrier is an open moorland bird of prey. Hen harriers nest on the ground and their preferred nesting sites are unenclosed open moorland and heath or bog habitats. They also nest in young pre-thicket forestry plantations.

The hen harrier is one of our rarest birds. In Ireland the population is estimated to be in the region of 108 to 157 pairs and declining. The species is listed in Annex 1 of the birds directive, which means that these birds are subject to special conservation measures which, among other things. require member states to designate special protection areas, SPAs, for their conservation. Some 4,000 landowners have lands which are designated for the protection of the hen harrier, covering an area of 169,000 hectares. The agricultural area is a lot smaller, at 57,000 hectares.

The Department has no role in the designation of land as areas of conservation or protection. It is entirely a matter for the National Parks and Wildlife Service. As part of the current rural development plan, the Department seeks to address a wide range of environmental objectives, involving farmers in different ways and paying for additional actions undertaken and income forgone. Members will be familiar with most of them, notably GLAS, the organic farming scheme, the Burren programme and, more recently, the locally-led measures. The locally-led model is a bottom-up response to environmental challenges, involving farmers directly in the process, with flexible schemes and incorporating a results-based approach. This fits well with the European Commission's plans for European innovation partnerships, EIPs, which saw a range of actors working together, namely, farmers, NGOs, scientists and so on, in testing new and innovative approaches to a range of challenges, not only environmental ones.

In developing its proposals the Department was very conscious of the report and recommendations issued by the Oireachtas joint committee in 2015. While the report focused largely on the wider question of designation and compensation, it also highlighted the role farmers played in providing a public good when they worked to preserve the hen harrier and that they should be paid for this. It also recommended that farmers and farming groups be more involved in the entire process of protecting the hen harrier. This is the process from which the new hen harrier programme has grown. It is active in all six SPAs, including counties Cork and Kerry. While funded and supported by the Department, it is not a departmental scheme but a partnership involving many players. As well as seeking to protect the future of the bird, it explicitly seeks to create a stronger socioeconomic outlook for the agricultural communities in these areas and promote positive relations with these communities that have managed these sensitive landscapes for generations. The new hen harrier programme has been designed by a locally-led project team which worked in close collaboration with the farmers on the ground in these areas. A total of 31 separate meetings were held during the design process across the six SPAs, with over 500 farmers attending.

The Minister of State's time has expired, but she can read the remainder of the reply during her next time allocation of two minutes, if she so wishes.

I am amazed by the Minister's statement that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has no role in the designation of land, yet that Department is supposed to pay compensation to the farmers. The story before was: "Pay as you go; if you don't pay, don't go." The Government should de-designate the lands or else pay the people fair compensation. They were promised €350 per hectare, which would amount to €14,000 for 40 ha, but they will now get €3,150. Al Capone would not have done that at the height of his notoriety.

The Government is trying to hide between two Departments. Officials at the Oireachtas committee last night said they could not be blamed, yet they are part of this structure and Government. They are denying that they have any role in this. At the same time, it is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that pays compensation. This could not be more crooked. It is robbery, it is thievery, it is everything one could call it. What is being done to these people is the height of blackguarding. Cork North-West, the constituency of the Minister, Deputy Creed, includes part of the affected area. Ballydesmond and Lyre are in his constituency. Brosna, Knocknagoshel and places on that side are all affected. The people there are honest, good-living people. They have been and are being blackguarded.

I do not blame the hen harrier; no one could blame it. I would like the hen harrier to be protected but not at the expense of people. The affected landowners cannot sell their land; it is worthless. I will give an example of just one case, that of a farmer who inherited a bit of land and paid €22,000 in stamp duty. It was worth €1,000 per acre and there were 400 acres. It is worthless now. I ask for fair play. The Minister should not be blackguarding these people because that is what is being done to them by this Government.

I certainly have not raised any question about good-living farmers across the country, and I do not believe the reply has done so either. There is nobody doubting them. I can only read the reply given to me. I will relay the Deputy's concerns to the Minister.

The project team consulted the IFA, IFDL, ICMSA, INHFA and ICSFA during the design stage. The first four organisations also nominated farms to be included in the development process, supplemented by additional farms identified by the project team. The hen harrier payment is something we have never tried before. It is effectively a bonus payment to farmers if a successful breeding roost site or nest site is identified on or near their land, or where the outlook for an entire SPA stabilises or improves.

Examples show that a farmer with 15 ha could earn between €3,000 and €4,000 per year while a farmer with 40 ha could earn between €6,000 and €7,000 per year. I hope this explains what the new hen harrier programme is about. It is about trying to devise a new way of managing the landscape in these areas, involving farmers at all stages of the process and rewarding them for their work.

As somebody who has not come from a farm and who has only seen a hen harrier in a picture, I can only relay the Deputy's concerns to the Minister. I will certainly bring them to his attention. Perhaps the Minister will speak to the Deputy and to my colleague Deputy Tom Neville, who also has concerns about this. I will pass on the message.

All I will say-----

There is no provision for a third intervention.

-----is that it is not fair on the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to be landed in here, and it is not fair on the people. All I will say is-----

The Deputy must be reasonable. I call Deputy Ellis.

The Government and-----

Whatever about the hen harrier, the Deputy should be reasonable to his colleagues.

They can have all the airy-fairy issues they want to, but if they cannot pay the compensation, the land should be re-designated.

Please. The Deputy should have respect for his colleagues. That is the end of the hen harrier issue.

Light Rail Projects Provision

There have been some welcome developments in transport but they are not ambitious enough and, in some cases, will take many years to complete. The Luas link to Broombridge has been a wonderful success, with many commuters from the Finglas area commuting daily. One of the biggest problems with Broombridge is the lack of parking and set-down places, in addition to the lack of feeder buses to service the station. Amazingly, these were overlooked. I would like the Minister to look into this.

The southern part of Finglas is the area worst serviced with public transport in the whole of Finglas and the rest of the city. Areas such as Scribblestown, Valley Park, Tolka Valley, Dunsoghly, Rathvilly, Virginia, Kilshane and Deanstown have little or no service, although they have many elderly residents, young children and people with disabilities who cannot walk long distances.

One of the first public private partnerships for 70 housing units is planned for Scribblestown and the project is expected to start in the near future. Dunsink Lane in Finglas, beside Valley Park, has the potential to accommodate between 4,500 and 12,500 units, as does the valley area in Finglas south. A link to the proposed metro north - to the airport from Broombridge - could be constructed across virgin lands that are not yet developed. Even a stand-alone link from Broombridge to the top of north Finglas could be a stand-alone project. It would be economical and open up lands for development, especially along Dunsink Lane. It would also service one of our best hospitals, Cappagh hospital.

The population of Finglas is rising. Traffic congestion on the Finglas Road is at an all-time high and the nearby M50 resembles a carpark at peak hours. One does not have to be an Einstein to see public transport is the only way forward. The most economic, environmentally friendly and straightforward way to achieve what I describe is through the Finglas area.

This issue is very relevant to my constituency, including the community and families of Finglas. It may have come to the attention of the Minister, and I may have said to him at meetings in the past, that Dublin North-West is the only constituency in Dublin without two modes of public transport. It is entirely reliant on the bus network. It is fair to say that congestion is hitting Finglas harder than many other areas of the city. We need infrastructure and investment and we need them now.

We have spoken about this in the past. I am campaigning based on a two-step process. The first element of the first step is to develop, as Deputy Dessie Ellis said, proper park-and-ride facilities in Broombridge that would unlock the Luas cross-city route for a great many people in Finglas in the short term. The second is the development of Tolka Valley Park to allow pedestrians to gain access to it more easily and safely, particularly in the evening hours. The third is to have a feeder bus route. I have spoken with Dublin Bus and the NTA on this matter. They have, I am glad to say, agreed to a feeder bus to Broombridge. I hope to see it on stream in the very near future. I understand the drivers have been informed of it this week.

The second part of the process, after we demonstrate the demand in Finglas for the Luas, is to extend it there. This should have been done as part of the original Luas cross-city project. Finglas is a town with over 30,000 people, yet the line terminates in Broombridge, which is effectively an industrial estate. This is senseless. It is quite clear that the NTA is very keen on the proposal to extend the route to Finglas. I urge the Minister to use his considerable power and influence to expedite the project, not only putting Finglas on the agenda but putting it at the top, where it deserves to be.

I thank the Deputies for presenting their case. Both Deputies and I have ambitions. The only difference between them and me is that I have a chequebook they do not have, but I cannot just open it at will. The aspirations of both Deputies are ambitious and they have made a very good case.

The only problem is the timing and the commercial viability and good sense of doing those things. In terms of convenience, the constituency of the Deputies and the development of transport, the proposal should come under consideration but I am afraid it will not necessarily be immediate. I thank the Deputies, both of whom have legitimate cases to make, for acknowledging the fact that there are improvements in transport in Dublin. There are also great ambitions for same.

I urge the Deputies also to make the case to the National Transport Authority, NTA, which can provide a more immediate interface than mine with Members, the public and others. They should make their presentations to the NTA because it has the power and makes the decisions. Issues only come to me at a later stage. The NTA is the operating unit that will in the first instance make a decision on the suggestions the Deputies have made, which are both extremely plausible even if they are not immediately practical.

The NTA's transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, GDA, provides a framework for the planning and delivery of transport infrastructure and services in the GDA over the next two decades. The delivery of these projects is obviously subject to a number of influencing factors, including funding availability. I have already ensured that budget 2018 will provide an enhanced four-year capital envelope of €2.7 billion for public transport over the period 2018 to 2021. The funding will progress key capital programmes set out in the NTA's strategy that will help address congestion and emerging capacity constraints on the public transport system across cities, including major projects in the greater Dublin area such as BusConnects, the DART expansion programme and metro north.

The recently opened Luas cross city will add an estimated 10 million extra journeys every year on the Luas network. In addition, the green line capacity enhancement project, recently approved by the Government, will address current capacity limits at peak hours on the Luas green line and cater for future demands along the line. Funding of more than €300 million has been allocated under the plan to continue planning, design and construction of the new metro north, with construction work commencing in 2021 and passenger services starting in 2027. Design and planning work is already under way and I am pleased to inform the Deputies that in a few weeks a public consultation process will be undertaken on the emerging preferred route, EPR. The cost of completing the new metro north project is estimated at €2.4 billion and is being considered in the context of the ten-year capital plan which will be published shortly.

Turning specifically to the issue raised by the Deputies, the latter period of the NTA's GDA strategy 2016 to 2035 includes a number of proposals to develop the light rail network further in the GDA. This includes the extension of the Luas cross city from its terminus at Broombridge to the north of Finglas to provide a high capacity radial service from this large suburb into the city centre in the latter period of the strategy. There are currently no proposals to provide a metro link from Broombridge to the airport via Finglas. Provision for appraisal and planning for Luas to Finglas and other Luas extensions being included in the latter stages of the NTA transport strategy are being considered in the context of the forthcoming ten-year capital plan.

I thank the Minister. We all welcome metro north and we are waiting for it to get moving. I wish we could speed up the process as the timeframe is a bit long. There is an onus on the Minister, the Department, the NTA and Transport Infrastructure Ireland. They should look at the project and all the State agencies should be instructed to examine it. It would not cost an arm and a leg to extend the line from Broombridge to Finglas as it is only a short distance of approximately two to three miles to extend the line into north Finglas. It could be planned that the spur would link into metro north. The project could be a stand-alone one or linked in.

There would be significant benefits to the environment in terms of traffic congestion and pollution. The main Ashbourne road is chock-a-block with traffic coming into the city. People also come off the M50 from various areas and the road into the city is chock-a-block as well, especially in the Hart's Corner and Glasnevin areas. We have an opportunity to plan in advance. The fields in Dunsink Lane are virgin fields. We have an opportunity to put the metro north through the area and then to talk to Fingal County Council.

I thank the Minister very much for his response. I noted with interest yesterday that the Taoiseach said it took him 75 minutes to get to work, which is an indication perhaps of the increased traffic levels throughout the city and the increased busyness of the economy. However, it is not unusual for my constituents in Finglas to take that long to get to work. According to the small area census data, it is routine and regular for people living in Northway estate, Scribblestown, Finn Eber, Rathvilly, Heathfield, Kilshane and Valley Park to spend in excess of an hour on their commutes to work. None of them has access to a train station that in some cases is only 1 mile south of them. None of them has accessibility to the Luas, which terminates only 1 mile south of them. The expansion and extension of the Luas would do a great deal to transform the lives of these families, commuters and communities. It would unlock the city for the citizens of Finglas but it would also unlock Finglas for the citizens of the city. There is a great deal of potential in Finglas to build residential accommodation on the available land. Now is the time to strike. A railway order should be signed now while the land is available and empty and while we have the capacity to build key capital infrastructure projects which this area has needed for years if not decades.

I thank the Deputies for what they have said. I understand Deputy Elllis's plea and I sympathise with it. I do not think he could contest that with me. He outlined the benefits for the proposal he made in terms of traffic reduction and the environment. That is fair enough. In terms of cost, Deputy Ellis said it would not cost an arm and a leg.

It is virgin land.

That is not very specific to say the least. My suggestion is that a cost-benefit analysis should be carried out on it. I would be happy if the Deputy could provide to me an estimate of the costs and the benefits in writing.

Deputy Ross is the Minister.

I would be very happy to present it to the NTA and to hear its criticism or assessment of it.

I do hold out some hope for what Deputy Rock said. I wish to respond to him about BusConnects because he mentioned the fact that his is the only constituency in north Dublin without at least two forms of transport. The NTA, which is the primary mover in this regard, does not think of places in terms of constituencies. It looks at the situation in a different way. However, I accept the Deputy's point. BusConnects is a very exciting programme that is being introduced on a cross-city basis. The four-year capital plan provides for investment of more than €770 million to progress the BusConnects programme. It was launched last summer by the NTA. It will completely overhaul the bus system in Dublin by implementing a network of next generation bus corridors with segregated cycling, three bus rapid transit routes, a complete redesign of the bus network, a simpler fare structure, a cashless payment system, a state-of-the-art ticketing system, new bus livery, new bus stops and shelters, and the use of low emission vehicles.

We must acknowledge the significant progress that has been made in all constituencies, not just by BusConnects but by the Luas cross city and metro north in the capital's transport network.