Topical Issue Debate

Ambulance Service Response Times

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I wish to raise the matter of the ambulance response times in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. I must highlight a very harrowing case that actually happened to a family in County Monaghan.

Last July, a young man of 44 years of age, who was a son, a father and a husband, suffered a cardiac arrest in Castleblayney, County Monaghan. Luckily he was in company at the time and the 999 call was made. People who were on the scene at the time carried out CPR on this man and the locals who made the 999 call stayed in constant contact with the ambulance service while they waited for an ambulance to arrive. These people had the time both to get the defibrillator to perform the CPR and to make contact with the ambulance service and they waited and waited. The ambulance had to come from Navan. It was redirected to Dunshaughlin - this is all in County Meath as the Minister of State is aware - before it reached Ballybay, which is just outside Castleblayney, County Monaghan. I understand there is an ambulance and an ambulance service based in Castleblayney, which is literally ten minutes from where the incident was happening. In the end, this gentleman was waiting for the ambulance to arrive for one hour and 15 minutes. He was still alive and had a good strong pulse when the ambulance did arrive. Unfortunately, when the gentleman was taken into the ambulance, he lost his life. His mum and his family maintain to this day that had the ambulance response time been much quicker or had the doctor on call arrived on the scene, the outcome quite clearly could have been very different. This man has left behind young children and a wife, his mum, dad, sisters and brothers, who are absolutely traumatised and heartbroken at this outcome.

I put it to the Minister of State that it is just not good enough in this day and age for anybody in such a critical condition to be obliged to wait that length of time for an ambulance. Not only was the incident happening within ten minutes of Castleblayney, where there is an ambulance service to respond to such calls, they were another ten or 15 minutes away from Monaghan Hospital. The ambulance that was dispatched was directed to Cavan General Hospital, which has an accident and emergency unit. This response time is just not good enough. In December we met representatives of the National Ambulance Service, NAS, to address these issues but I have a couple of questions to put to the Minister of State today.

For this family, unfortunately, that is not where this issue finishes. Another family member, who had been ill for many years, became critically ill just ten days after he had lost his son. The ambulance was called again. This man's wife, who is in her 70s and had just suffered the trauma of losing her son, had to call on the ambulance service again. To not put a tooth in it, the ambulance got lost. When the family rang the 999 number, they were told the ambulance was in Shercock, County Cavan, which is literally ten miles away or a ten-minute journey at most. The ambulance got lost and when it did show up the family was told that it had no satnav and had been given no contact details as to where the 999 call had come from. This gentleman had to wait one hour and 25 minutes, ten days after they had lost their son, having waited one hour and 15 minutes. Thankfully, the outcome for this gentleman was much better and his life was saved. He was brought to Cavan General Hospital. That family are absolutely traumatised. I put it to the Minister of State that this family are not the only ones in the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan who are bewildered by the ambulance response times.

I thank Deputy Smyth for the sincerity and appropriateness with which she has brought this issue to the House. I extend my sincere sympathies to the family of that young gentleman and for the harrowing story and circumstances they endured. I am very conscious that no mealy-mouthed words I will issue today with statistics or figures will go any way towards answering the what-ifs, the maybes and the buts the family has to live with every day of their lives. Listening to me speak about the global macro picture, the response times in the Cavan-Monaghan area and what percentages of calls have been achieved satisfactorily and within an appropriate response time, will go nowhere towards solving the anguish of those people. When we talk about ambulance response times, the reality is that we are talking about life and death. We cannot afford to get them wrong. I absolutely accept this from the outset.

I ask the Deputy to not assume this response is a defence; it is by way of background and explanation from the Department. Ambulance response times are helpful for performance measurement, however, it should be recognised that sole reliance on response times does not provide a comprehensive picture of modern ambulance service performance. Response times tell us how fast the service was provided rather than how well the patient was cared for. Response time performance is being globally reviewed as to whether it is the only appropriate measure of pre-hospital patient care. While rapid deployment and timely arrival is accepted as being necessary, patient outcome indicators are now being viewed as a more appropriate measure of patient care and experience. The National Ambulance Service has developed a suite of key performance indicators to measure patient outcomes and experiences and these are currently being piloted to be included in the national service plan.

That said, I am aware that the Delta response times in the north east have been below target. I note, however, that Echo response times are on or above target in the period September to December 2017. A number of developments have been made by the NAS in order to address the issue of response times. I am also aware that in Border counties the NAS works closely with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service to provide a more responsive service for patients.

The capacity review published in 2016 identifies particular difficulties serving rural areas such as this region. The capacity review indicated that the only practical way to improve first response times in rural areas is through voluntary community first responders, CFR, schemes. The NAS continues to work with local CFR groups across the north east region to enhance services. There are currently 25 CFR groups in the north-east region.

I have also been advised by the NAS that it is improving regional coverage and deployment across rural areas including Cavan and Monaghan. The National Ambulance Service is moving away from ambulance provision from fixed bases to dynamic deployment. This means that resources can be used across a region so that if demand increases in one area, other resources can provide cover as required. In addition, the National Ambulance Service has developed the intermediate care service to provide lower-acuity hospital transfers, which frees up emergency ambulances for the more urgent calls. A permanent emergency aeromedical support service has also been established to provide a more timely response to persons in rural areas.

Over recent years, year on year, additional investment has been directed towards the National Ambulance Service. This year, an additional sum of €10.7 million has been made available, which includes €2.8 million to fund new developments. New developments include the development of alternative pathways to care, as well as the hear and treat clinical hub that is expected to go live soon in the national emergency operations centre. This will divert some lower-acuity patients to alternative care pathways and will free up some emergency capacity. In time it is hoped that such initiatives will help to improve response times around the country including in the Cavan-Monaghan area. I assure Members that the National Ambulance Service is focused on improving ambulance response times throughout the country.

I reiterate my earlier comments that I do not mean to be insincere by giving those facts and figures. They do not do a service to the individuals involved.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. As he has said himself, it has been a more general answer and I raise that matter as a Topical Issue because I am trying to get to the crux of the issue for this family. They really deserve answers. I appreciate that this is the portfolio of the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and that the Minister of State is stepping in for him today. I ask the Minister of State to bring back these specific questions to the Minister because the family deserves answers. We have met with the National Ambulance Service and that is fine but the family wants answers from the Minister with responsibility. Crucially, the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan is suffering. The family wants to know why they had to wait one hour and 15 minutes for an ambulance service on that particular day for their son who lost his life. They also want to know why, ten days later, they had to wait one hour and 25 minutes for the father.

Why was the advanced paramedic unit not sent to this emergency? Why did the doctor on call not come that night? I just do not think it is good enough for the National Ambulance Service to say, as it did in all sincerity at the meeting I mentioned, that the ambulance got lost, that no satnav was available in the vehicle and that it had no contact number for the family that made the original call. If someone in my office did not take the particulars of a constituent who came in, I would be very upset and it could be a sacking offence. This is a matter of life or death. It is not good enough in this day and age for the National Ambulance Service to answer by saying the ambulance got lost, no satnav was in use and no contact number was available. When an elderly gentlemen was in this scenario for a second time, the ambulance sat outside a local shop while the members of the crew blindly looked for directions to the house the call came from because they had no contact details.

I have written to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Taoiseach about this issue. The Minister kindly set up the meeting with the National Ambulance Service. The Minister and the ambulance service gave a commitment that if the family did not feel the answers were good or focused enough, the members of the family would be able to sit down with the Minister, which is the least they deserve. They want to be heard. That is all they are asking for. The Minister has written me to say that due to diary constraints, he cannot commit to a time now. This family deserves to be heard. It is not too much to ask for the Minister to provide 15 minutes out of his diary for a simple meeting. I ask the Minister of State to bring the specific questions I have asked back to the Minister so that I can get specific answers.

I will certainly go back to the Minister, for whom I am deputising here. I am happy and more than willing to go back to him. I will repeat the Deputy's request with sincerity and I will do justice to how she has presented it on the floor of the House. She is right when she says that the answer I have read is not acceptable to the family in question. Ifs, whats and buts are no comfort for the members of the family. I agree that such families need a voice in this Chamber and with the ambulance service. As such a representative, Deputy Niamh Smyth is right to demand accountability. It is not just a choice on our part - as public representatives we have a responsibility to ensure we get accountability for these failures in the systems. There is a management structure in place within the National Ambulance Service at a macro level and at a local level. There are operatives carrying out various duties. We have to get accountability and answers for this family. I will support the Deputy in this endeavour at whatever level I can. I will certainly impress on the Minister my desire to see this matter brought to a conclusion.

I know Deputy Niamh Smyth has met representatives of the National Ambulance Service. That was mentioned in the briefing note which was made available to me. I understand the service has undertaken to get back to the Deputy with the answers and with more detail on the operational failures that occurred that day. That is the very least it should do for the family in question and indeed for all the Deputy's constituents. We do not want to be tearing down the confidence in the system of everybody who is worried about their parents or indeed about themselves. We owe it to them to provide assurances that the mistakes which have been made - I appreciate that this is a very polite word to use - will not happen again. We need to assure them that someone is being held accountable, that systems have changed since this incident and that lessons have been learned and implemented from it. I will certainly do everything I can to support the Deputy in this regard. I will make sure to impress it on the Minister.

Medical Aids and Appliances Provision

I warmly welcome the HSE's decision to reimburse FreeStyle Libre for children and young adults. As the Minister of State is aware, almost 190,000 people in Ireland have diabetes, which is a chronic disease that takes a lot of management. This device, which allows blood glucose levels to be monitored without invasive finger-prick testing, is an absolute game-changer for anyone suffering with diabetes. In some cases, patients have to test their glucose levels up to ten times a day. This can be a real inconvenience and discomfort, especially for children.

While we welcome the HSE's decision, we believe clarity is needed in respect of it. We are here today because we need the meat on the bones now. We have questions to ask. We appreciate that the Minister of State might not be able to answer them all today. We would appreciate it if the Minister of State would bring our questions back to the Minister for Health. The Minister's press release mentioned that this will be available "for children and young adults". What exactly is meant by "young adults"? That is my first specific question. According to the press release, this will not be available for children and young adults on insulin pumps. Why is this group being excluded?

Would it be possible for the Minister of State to clarify the specific criteria which must be satisfied, in line with the recommendations of the health technology assessment group, in order for reimbursements to be made in respect of children and teenagers with diabetes? How long will it take to build the application suite for reimbursement support? As the Minister of Sate is aware, FreeStyle Libre costs approximately €120 a month. This is a huge cost for families with young children and for patients who are funding this themselves each week. The sensors, which cost €60 each, last for 14 days. This means there is a monthly cost of €120, plus €6 postage and packaging costs.

I am delighted to speak on this issue along with my colleague, Deputy Butler, on behalf of the diabetes community of Ireland. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber to respond to this Topical Issue. I raised this matter with the Minister for Health a number of weeks ago. It was announced a few days later that FreeStyle Libre was to be included in the long-term illness scheme for adults and children. This decision is to be welcomed. I acknowledge that this is a positive development. We are looking to see whether it can be extended to all sufferers of type 1 diabetes. This would be massively important for them. There is a great deal of concern and anxiety out there at the moment. The people who are not included in the current arrangements have put together a campaign to try to impress on the Minister the importance of their case. They have gathered 13,000 signatures to that end. The Minister of State might ask the Minister whether he is willing to meet a delegation or group to accept the 13,000 signatures and to discuss this matter for a few minutes. This would allow those who are seeking to get this extended to highlight the concern that exists in this respect.

As my colleague, Deputy Butler, said, this brilliant technology is replacing the finger-prick test. It has to be inclusive for all. We need to include it for all sufferers of type 1 diabetes. It is not right to discriminate between one class and another because they are all suffering from the same condition. At the moment, there are 20,000 adults suffering from type 1 diabetes. It appears that they are not included in the long-term illness scheme for the equipment that is being made available. The HSE advocates the use of insulin pumps in preference to other technologies. There is a direct contradiction in all of this because it has said that anyone using an insulin pump will not be able to avail of this equipment. There are major problems in this regard. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State. I welcome the decision to extend the availability of this technology to some people. We need to work together to extend it to everyone.

I thank the Deputies for the opportunity to speak about the provision by the HSE of a new management device for children with type 1 diabetes. Diabetes places a substantial burden on the individual, on society and on the economy. Much of this burden is attributable to short-term and long-term complications. Almost 190.000 people in Ireland have diabetes. As the prevalence of diabetes increases, diabetes-related complications represent a growing global public health and health service challenge.

In accordance with the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013, the HSE has statutory responsibility for decisions on pricing and reimbursement of medical devices in the community drug schemes. In February 2017, an application by the manufacturer was submitted to the primary care reimbursement service of the HSE for the reimbursement of the FreeStyle Libre flash glucose monitoring system. Glucose monitoring allows people to self-manage diabetes by making adjustments to their diet, lifestyle and treatment to reduce the risk of diabetes-related complications. Current glucose monitoring methods include self-monitoring of blood glucose, which involves finger-prick blood glucose monitoring using testing strips and electronic glucose meters, as well as continuous glucose monitoring, which needs to be calibrated with a blood sample.

The FreeStyle Libre flash glucose monitoring system is intended to be used as an alternative to current methods for people who administer multiple daily injections of insulin. This innovative technology allows glucose readings to be taken non-invasively and does not need to be calibrated with a blood sample. The HSE health technology assessment group carried out an appraisal of the evidence submitted with this application. An expert group under the auspices of the health technology assessment group considered the FreeStyle Libre application for addition to the reimbursement list in line with the 2013 Act. The health technology assessment group recommended that reimbursement for the device should be considered subject to certain conditions.

The HSE has accepted its recommendations in principle and will be developing an application suite for hospital clinicians to use when proposing suitable patients for consideration of individual reimbursement support. This will be confined to children and young adults who require multiple daily injections of insulin in the first instance, with a review after 12 months.

The HSE has indicated that it will take some months to build the application suite for reimbursement support. When the application suite is ready and in place, hospitals providing a diabetic clinic service will be able to apply for the device for children and young adults, in line with the recommendation of the health technology assessment group. As patients receive approval on the application suite, pharmacies will be able to see their approval status and will be able to dispense to the patient under their long-term illness scheme eligibility.

We have made huge strides in treating and managing diabetes and I am happy to welcome the HSE’s decision to reimburse FreeStyle Libre, which will be welcome news for young people and their parents.

Unfortunately, there is no new information available here. It is really hard on parents of children and young adults, who received this information and were so excited with it, that there is very little detail. This will be a game changer. However, a timeframe for the roll-out is essential and is required sooner rather than later. In the long run, the Exchequer will save money because when diabetes is properly monitored and controlled, the amount of hospital care required will decrease.

I also ask the Minister of State to request the expert group under the HSE's watch to consider the additional roll-out to adults as a matter of urgency. I have no doubt they will monitor closely how it affects children and young adults but we certainly cannot have discrimination in that regard. I concur with my colleague in respect of the petition with 13,000 signatures. That is a lot of signatures and I hope the Minister will accept it from the organisers.

I welcome and acknowledge the Minister of State's response. To be fair, he does not have the information or details available to him to deal with the issues we have raised today. We hope that discussing the matter in the Chamber today might create the vehicle through which we could sit down with the Minister or some of his appointed officials so that we can get the detail about all of this for the people who have been included.

We continue to acknowledge that this is a good news story. This is not negative at all, but we need it to go further. What is key here is that the Minister of State asks the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, when we can meet him and get the information from him and get a commitment from him that it will be extended to all type one diabetes sufferers. That is hugely important. The cost of this is €120 a month. That is a lot of money for people who are struggling as it is and we need to get a commitment about the roll-out for the people who are approved, but most importantly when a decision will be made for all type one diabetes sufferers. Will the Minister also come back to us and let us know if he will meet a small delegation with the 13,000 signatures to see if we can discuss this and bring clarity and definitive delivery deadlines?

I thank the Deputies for their constructive and positive approach; both of them are known for that so it is no surprise in this particular matter. I accept there are many more unanswered questions and their job as representatives is to get answers for those people who are very anxious about it. Deputy O'Rourke acknowledged the cost to individuals who have to pay for the device. They need more clarity and certainty.

It is a good news story and a positive development but we need to know how far it goes, how long it is going to take to roll out and when it can impact and change people's lives in such a positive way. There is no point having a wish and something that is announced. We need to have it in real practice.

I will pass on the Deputies' concerns to the Minister and reiterate their request to get the detailed answers they want, whether it is through a meeting with his officials or with himself. I will certainly pass on that request to him and will encourage the process to happen sooner rather than later so that the 13,000 people who signed the petition and many others who are impacted by this will get the clarity they deserve and the Deputies will get it on their part.

We should be moving on to the third Topical Issue in the name of Deputy Durkan, but it appears the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, has not arrived yet. With Deputy Durkan's permission, we will go on to the next matter in the name of Deputy Tóibín.

North-South Interconnector

We in Sinn Féin support a North-South interconnector and an all-Ireland energy market. Most importantly, however, we only support it if it is undergrounded. Shockingly, the Government plans to overground it. Fine Gael and the Independents seek to construct 409 pylons, some of them up to 51 m high, carrying 400,000 V through Meath, Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh and Tyrone. Some will be constructed at a minimum distance of 13 m from people's houses. There are significant fears regarding threats to health as well as the value of homes, farms, and businesses. Tourism, agriculture and the bloodstock industry will all be affected.

The truth is that the technology the Government is seeking to build is becoming increasingly out of date. It is being superseded by new underground technology that is being rolled out elsewhere in the world. EirGrid itself has conceded that it can be done. We also know that the price of undergrounding is falling all the time. The fact is that EirGrid has pig-headedly forced through a particular version of the interconnector. This has actually slowed down the delivery of the infrastructure. It is ten years on the go and still without a shovel going into the ground.

There is another crisis arising. EirGrid has stated that it has access to the land to build the pylons but, lo and behold, An Bord Pleanála has not approved access for EirGrid to the lands to build the pylons. It is not included in the planning permission that has been received by EirGrid. An Bord Pleanála has not approved any one of the 584 access routes required on the lands. That is very significant. There are 400 landowners along the route of the interconnector, 97% of whom have said that EirGrid will not be allowed on the land.

If EirGrid accessed the land without agreement of the farmer, it is my understanding that it would be breaching An Bord Pleanála's permission. Is this something new? Is the Minister aware of EirGrid breaching An Bord Pleanála's permissions before, in County Laois, for example? What is to happen when EirGrid breaches these permissions? Is the Minister going to stand idly by and allow that to happen?

Legally, it is EirGrid's duty to get an agreement on an access route, which should be achieved between the farmer and the council. Is this going to happen? How is EirGrid going to gain access to the land if it does not have planning permission for access? That is a serious conundrum that could leave the Minister, Deputy Naughten, with another massive problem within the space of a couple of weeks.

Has the Government factored in the cost of dealing with this problem and has it factored in the cost of dealing with the lack of co-operation from farmers? We hear from the Minister, Deputy Regina "Che Guevara" Doherty, that there is going to be potential for civil disobedience along the route and that she herself is going to take to the barricades and defend the farmers. If she showed the same level of energy and enthusiasm defending farmers at the Cabinet table or in the Dáil Chamber, we would all welcome it. What is the Minister going to do if we get to this point?

The farmers along the routes are decent, law-abiding people. It is not in their wildest dreams to seek to come into conflict with the Government. However, there is a danger that the Minister is sleepwalking into a Shell to Sea situation, except far worse; Shell to Sea was in a couple of townlands in one corner of one county. This is going to happen along the whole route, in Meath, Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh and Tyrone. How is EirGrid going to gain access to the land when it does not have permission to do so? Has the Government costed the opposition to this?

I thank Deputy Tóibín for providing me the opportunity to discuss the proposed North-South interconnector. It is important to state at the outset that it is not part of the Government’s remit to direct EirGrid in the development of energy infrastructure to particular sites, routes or technologies. This policy was clearly expressed in the 2012 Government policy statement on the strategic importance of transmission and other energy infrastructure.

It is not "my" Government but our Government; it is a Government made up of representatives of this House.

The decisions that have been taken on this project were taken by previous governments, not this Government. Of course, there was no Government in Northern Ireland to make a decision one way or the other.

On 21 December 2016 An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for the North-South interconnector project in Ireland. The decision concluded a lengthy planning process which included an oral hearing completed over 11 weeks from March to May 2016.

The planning process carried out by An Bord Pleanála heard from my Department that the North-South interconnector is a key project in delivering the objectives of national energy policy, specifically, security of supply, competitiveness and sustainability. The interconnector will bring benefits directly to electricity consumers across the island of Ireland through lower prices as a result of more efficient operation of the all-island single electricity market. It will also ensure a safe and sustainable source of energy for both jurisdictions.

All aspects of the project were evaluated, including the potential for undergrounding, and it was determined by the inspector that an overground option was the most appropriate solution. This is dealt with in considerable detail in the inspector’s report. On 23 January 2018, full planning permission was granted for the section of the line that lies in Northern Ireland. The Department of Infrastructure in Northern Ireland stated that the decision was based on the urgent and compelling need for the proposed development and was taken because the Department considered that it is in the public interest to take this decision without further delay given the strategic importance of the project for the region. So, the statutorily-independent planning processes on both sides of the Border have determined that the proposed North-South interconnector should be developed as an overhead line, not as an underground line. I fully accept the outcome of both planning processes.

The proposed interconnector had already been the subject of a variety of studies, all concluding that an overhead line is the best solution, both from a technical and cost perspective. However, based on concerns expressed to me at meetings with various parliamentary colleagues and local community representatives and to address the main points of the motions passed in the Oireachtas in February and March 2017, I have commissioned two further independent studies into the project. The first study is specifically examining the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the interconnector. The second study, at the Deputy's request, is examining the levels of compensation provided to property owners in proximity to high-voltage transmission lines across Europe. Both reports will be published this quarter, and people will have the opportunity to consider them in detail at that stage.

The Minister has studiously avoided answering my question. An Bord Pleanála has granted planning permission to EirGrid. It does not include access in over 500 situations. Without access EirGrid cannot build the interconnector. Unless it breaches that permission this will meet another stone wall. Is the Minister going to tell us how exactly EirGrid is going to gain access to build the North-South interconnector?

Why should it not be the policy of the Government to direct that EirGrid builds the interconnector underground? If it is the policy of political parties, why is it not translated into Government policy when that party has its hands on the steering wheel?

It is disingenuous to say that I asked for an investigation into the levels of compensation for families living along the curtilage of the North-South interconnector. I asked if the Minister would find out what the project would cost in terms of the fall in value of the properties concerned. These are two separate issues; they are unrelated. The Minister knows that is what I asked for in the meeting we had in his office. It seems that something has got lost in translation between us or in the Department. The Department also did not pick up the request mandated by this Dáil with regards the investigation last March. It purposely decided to carry out an investigation that was not asked for. The question I asked was what the costs on the value drops were likely to be along the curtilage of the interconnectors. The answer I will get will show the likely compensation levels for farmers.

Answers to the following questions might shed some light on this process. How is Eirgrid going to build the interconnector without the permissions from An Bord Pleanála and how is it that we are not going find out the drops in value of property in this investigation?

The report will outline how compensation is calculated and the comparable figures across Europe. The figures are relative to issues such as depreciation, loss of use, loss of value and so forth

They are not equal to it.

The current planning permission for the delivery of the North-South interconnector in both Ireland and Northern Ireland is for an overhead line. An underground line would require a whole new planning process. It is important that I put that on the record because the impression given at a recent meeting with Monaghan County Council was that a new planning process would not be required.

All of the existing information pertaining to the undergrounding was available to An Bord Pleanála as part of that planning process. In the oral hearing the inspector heard testimony both in favour of and against the overground and underground solutions. The inspector examined those issues thoroughly and concluded that the overhead line was the best technical and economic solution for the North-South interconnector to meet its objectives.

As Minister I have an overarching duty, unless lawfully challenging a decision, to respect the decisions of lawfully established bodies. Having said that, I fully respect that this is an emotive issue for many people, particularly those in close proximity to the proposed project. For that reason I met with the people on the ground. I was the first Minister in a long time to do that. I met with Members of the Oireachtas here on a number of occasions. I met with Monaghan County Council last week, and some very disingenuous comments came out of that meeting which were untrue. It is disappointing, when I as Minister am prepared to meet with public representatives, that comments like that would come out of such meetings. Having said that, the reports will be completed this quarter. They will be published and will be made available to interested parties so people can see for themselves in black and white the information contained in them and the conclusions, whatever they are, and make up their minds after that.

Regional Development

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this particularly important issue for north County Kildare, particularly for the people of Naas and the surrounding area.

The question of the stalled development of the town centre of Naas has been a moot issue for several years. It is ten years since the development stopped. Various procedures have been gone through in the meantime. I have raised the matter in this House, with the permission of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, on a number of occasions. I raised it in parliamentary questions and with Ministers. I have also raised the issue with the local authority. The position remains that the development, although in its final stages of inertia, is about to move on to the next stage, with a little bit of a push. I wish to raise that crucial strategic movement tonight.

If we count the amount of time and energy that has gone into evaluating the situation in Naas over the last number of years and put a cost on it, it would be colossal. The symbolic vision of the stalled cranes on the horizon will have been there for ten years now and will remain there unless something very serious is done to move the process on. I know there is a process in place. On the last occasion the arbitration system had been referred and deferred; after sitting for a year it adjourned for a year, which is an extraordinary situation. At this stage I am asking the Minister of State if he can liaise with his colleague in the adjoining Department with a view to finding out exactly what is happening with the arbitration. Nothing positive can happen unless the arbitration is dealt with. There was only one arbitrator in the entire country. That was supplemented by four or five others, to the best of my knowledge, but we have heard nothing about that particular process since. To allow the prevailing situation to stand much longer will have a very serious impact on Naas because the town is now beginning to recover from the worst parts of the recession.

Now is the time to take the initiative and move it on. A good deal of work can be done in the interim before the final stages in respect of the development, which may be planning permission and many other issues, but if that work is not undertaken now it will have to be done at some stage in the future. For the life of me I cannot understand why it takes so long to do simple things. Everything seems to take forever in this country. We find that the simplest of issues that should have been dealt with in five or six weeks can take up to ten years. That does not give a good example to the rest of the country and it does not give a good impression of the country as to the way business is done here. I ask the Minister of State to take responsibility on this occasion and drive this forward in rapid fashion. If he cannot for some reason, I would like to know it.

I apologise to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I thought I was taking the fourth issue-----

-----and I am sorry if I delayed the House earlier.

I thank Deputy Durkan for again raising the matter of the stalled town centre development in Naas. I appreciate and understand his eagerness that it be brought to a satisfactory and speedy resolution. This is our third or fourth time discussing it here so I know it is an issue that is very close to the Deputy's heart and that he raises it out of genuine interest. I want to try to help as best as I possibly can, as does the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. We have been trying to get it resolved as best we can within our powers but that is not all in our gift.

As indicated in earlier Topical Issue debates and replies to parliamentary questions on this issue, the management of the stalled town centre development in Naas is a matter for Kildare County Council in the first instance. Furthermore, with processes under way involving both NAMA and arbitration, it would be improper for us, as Ministers, to get directly involved.

I further point out that under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act, both I and the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, are specifically precluded from exercising any power or control regarding any particular case with which a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála is or may be involved, except in very specific and extreme circumstances, which do not appear to apply In this case.

Nonetheless, I am advised that Kildare County Council has continued to make every effort to influence and encourage NAMA to offer the town centre site for sale as soon as possible and that a receiver has already been appointed for this purpose. I understand people are interested in purchasing it. I believe Deputy Durkan is aware of that and has been trying to work with people who could make something happen on that side also.

As I have previously outlined to the Deputy, and subject to a satisfactory planning approval, there is no impediment to accessing the site or to the appropriate development of the site. Kildare County Council fully recognises the strategic importance of the site to the town of Naas and will continue to support and work in partnership with any stakeholders involved in the site.

During the past two years, Kildare County Council has initiated and supported a number of projects with the strategic objective of ensuring that the social and economic development of Naas is protected and enhanced. Our Department will stand full square behind it in that regard. This work is underpinned by the work of the Naas roads and transport steering group, the URBACT group and the Naas regeneration group.

I accept that the Deputy is frustrated by the length of time it has taken to get this matter resolved but as I have outlined, the local authority is doing all it can within its available powers and the parameters of its role, while also recognising the relevant due processes that are required to be followed, with a view to seeing the sale of the site by means of the receivership process and its subsequent further development.

I am hopeful that with the appointment of the receiver, the matter can be further advanced towards resolution with a view to facilitating the further development and completion of this strategic town centre site in Naas. Our Department, and the Minister, Deputy Murphy, directly, have been in touch with the Department of Justice and Equality to try to move this on as quickly as possible and bring some pressure also. We do not have any powers to get involved from a planning point of view but, as I said, Kildare County Council wants this to happen as well. It is fully on board, and resources will not be the issue when we get this arbitration sorted out.

I thank the Minister for his reply, the contents of which I note and agree with generally. However, I believe there rests in the hands of the local authority more powers than it seems to want to exercise. In the first instance, I cannot understand the reason it takes a year for the arbitration process to be reinstated. It should have happened long ago. I do not know how long it will continue but I do know that the future of the reinstatement of the development at the town centre in Naas is largely dependent on the extent to which that matter can be resolved.

In the past, we have seen arbitration issues drag on for years up and down the country. It is time that we set an example in that enough is enough; we have waited long enough for the restart of the town centre development in Naas. It is not possible to wait forever. The delay will do irreparable damage to the restoration of the development, the confidence of the trading people of the area and to our standing in today's marketplace if we cannot see the ways and means of moving on that particular project.

John Steinbeck famously wrote about the grapes of wrath. If he was around today, I am sure he would be inspired equally by the cranes of Naas. They have been there for long enough. It is time they were moving again. I appeal to the Minister of State to make a telephone call to somebody who knows where the arbitrators are ensconced and try to prevail upon them the urgent necessity to carry out their function regarding the Naas town centre as quickly as possible.

I fully accept Deputy Durkan’s desire that this long-running matter, which is an unfortunate legacy of our recent economic recession and is impacting on the further development of Naas, be progressed and completed as soon as is practically possible in order that the expanding town of Naas can achieve its full potential. If we can help bring Naas back to its former glory through our urban regeneration fund, we will certainly do that.

As I indicated earlier, it would be inappropriate for me as Minister of State, or the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to become involved or make any further comment on the matter while a number of processes are under way. In any event, we are precluded in law from becoming involved in specific planning cases. However, we will try to help around that and when it is sorted out, we will be able to step in and do as much as we possibly can.

As regards the availability of only one individual arbitrator across the entire State and the ensuing backlog of hearings, I have no direct role in that matter and I understand from my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, that he has no official role either in regard to it. However, the appointment of property arbitrators is a matter for the Land Values Reference Committee, which comprises the Chief Justice, the President of the High Court and the President of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland.

Under the Property Values (Arbitration and Appeals) Act 1960, the reference committee may appoint one or more persons as property arbitrators but the Minister has no role in those or in other policy or operational matters. If Deputy Durkan wishes to follow up on this issue, he should contact the secretary to the Land Values Reference Committee, who is based in the Supreme Court Office in the Four Courts. I do not have the telephone number the Deputy asked me for but that is the person he needs to contact.

Believe me, I have tried.

We will also try to make a case for him as well because this is something our Department, and the employment and development Departments, want to see addressed. It is an issue that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, discussed with all the local authority managers and housing officers at the recent housing summit. We want to try to strengthen the powers of local authorities to deal with unfinished sites and developments, but also derelict sites, through the compulsory purchase orders, CPO, process. A review of that is currently taking place as well as other matters, because local authorities need to be able to take action in these cases. In this case Kildare County Council wants to take action but it cannot, so we intend to try to strengthen its position and hopefully help in future cases also.

I thank the Minister of State.