Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Road Projects Status

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and his office for affording me this opportunity and the Minister for attending to reply to this important issue. It is 20 years since the M4 opened. It was a major boost to traffic at the time and has served its purpose well. With the passage of time, however, we have come to understand that its capacity is no longer capable of dealing with the volume of traffic on it. Three or four times per week, and sometimes every second morning, we hear without fail of an incident on the M4 between junctions 7 and 5. In some cases, this involves a minor accident. In others, it is a serious accident. In every case, it leads to considerable delays for morning commuter traffic. It happened as recently as yesterday morning, when a heavy vehicle had a contretemps with a van. The van lost out and ended high up on the embankment among the trees. Traffic was held up by at least an hour at a crucial time in the morning. Drivers cannot turn around on a motorway. It is not like a minor road.

I have referred to this situation before and the Minister is aware of it, but it is now vital that, at the earliest possible date, provision be made to upgrade the section of the motorway where it merges with the regional road, which was backed up yesterday almost all the way to Kilcock on one side and Lucan on the other. It is imperative that steps be taken to upgrade the road in accordance with what would normally be expected in such a situation. Doing so is not only important to morning commuters, but also to those in the transport sector, for example, Bus Éireann and Bus Átha Cliath, who travel on that road at every time. They are all waiting anxiously for an intervention to be made, and I am looking forward to the earliest possible intervention.

I will make another suggestion that would probably do no harm. That section of road could do with a police motorcyclist on a regular basis to monitor traffic. Something that we have all seen, including the Ceann Comhairle, is traffic moving from one lane to another and creating a serious opportunity for an accident to happen. Sometimes, vehicles move without signalling. Ramps at both ends of the interchanges are overloaded with traffic and need to be extended to ensure that vehicles merging with fast-moving traffic have an opportunity to pick up sufficient speed without causing an accident and vehicles heading onto the ramp can do so by moving from the motorway's high-speed lane into the slow lane earlier.

I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this important matter. As Minister, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding in respect of the national roads programme. Under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, the planning, design and improvement of individual roads is a matter for the relevant road authority in respect of local and regional roads and for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned, in respect of national roads.

Within the overall context of Project Ireland 2040, the national development plan has been developed by the Government to underpin the successful implementation of the new national planning framework. This provides the strategic and financial framework for the TII's national roads programme for the period 2018 to 2027. In the ten years covered by the plan, more than €11 billion will be invested in the road network.

The national development plan identifies two categories of national road improvement project. The first covers projects to advance to construction, subject to the satisfactory outcome of the project appraisal and development consent approval processes. The second relates to projects at pre-appraisal and early planning stage that are being assessed with a view to developing a pipeline of suitable projects for development.

Overall, the TII considers that, taking steady-state and public private partnership, PPP, commitments into account, the indicative national development plan budget would allow for the projects in the first category to be progressed and a pipeline of projects to be taken through early planning, but it would not be possible to take all of the pipeline projects through the development consent process or to construction stage within the timeframe of the plan. Advancing projects in the second pipeline category will, therefore, be subject to prioritisation within the overall national road programme and funding.

The proposed M4 Maynooth to Leixlip project is included among a number of major national road schemes that were identified for appraisal and falls into the pipeline category. The overall aim of the scheme is to aid in the delivery of Project Ireland 2040 by enhancing connectivity between Dublin Port and the west, in particular Sligo and Athlone. The extent of the section of the M4 corridor under consideration includes the mainline carriageway between junction 7, Maynooth, and junction 5, Leixlip, and the associated mainline junctions. The proposed alignment is 10 km in length, with the majority of the route in Kildare County Council's area and approximately 1.5 km traversing South Dublin County Council's area.

The benefits of the proposed project would include improved journey time reliability; improved connectivity between the west and north west to Dublin Port; enhanced linkages between Dublin and the west, in particular Sligo and Athlone; catering for future travel demands; and improved safety.

As regards the current status, this project was subject to pre-appraisal to establish its compliance with the requirements of the public spending code and my Department's common appraisal framework and to identify whether it should be included in a portfolio of projects to be progressed to stages 1 to 4 of planning and design in accordance with the project management guidelines. The pre-appraisal plan submitted by Kildare national roads office to my Department was approved in January 2019. I understand that Kildare national roads office is now compiling the project management deliverables to submit to TII for approval in order to proceed with the appointment of consultants who will progress the planning and design phases one to four. It is expected that consultants will be appointed in May 2019.

Deputy Durkan might invite them in for a visit.

I would be delighted to do so. The Ceann Comhairle might rise to the occasion himself, as he has more than a passing interest - no pun intended. I thank the Minister for his reply. I am pleased that work is in progress but it must be accelerated to the greatest extent possible. We have spent the past number of years regretting the accidents that have occurred on the N7 and N9 and on the Sallins bypass although work on the latter is progressing well. We need to see the same kind of progress with this particular project. The sooner consultants are appointed and the work starts, the better. If it was yesterday, it would not be too soon.

Concern has been expressed by commercial and passenger transport operators about the costs to them of delays on the road network because of accidents that should not really happen, particularly when all of the traffic is moving in the same direction. There is a lack of capacity on the motorways and regional roads which are incapable of dealing with the volumes of traffic coming on stream. I am glad that there is every intention to proceed as quickly as possible. Many of us have been in touch with TII on the matter. I must emphasise that this project is urgent and the sooner it is fully operational, the better for all concerned. Lives will be saved if the project is completed in the shortest possible timeframe.

I thank Deputy Durkan and accept his point about the speed with which this project should be completed. I know that capacity at junction 7, Maynooth is proving to be a challenge but we must await the outcome of the various stages of the project's planning and design before pre-empting the extent of any capacity constraints that may exist. The feasibility working cost is estimated to be in the order of €100 million. That relates to phases 1 and 2. I understand from TII that this cost is a very early indicative estimate and would not, as yet, include project specific aspects. It is expected that the proposed scheme will address capacity demands but the solutions to the issues and alternatives are still to be examined.

In line with the requirements of the public spending code and my Department's capital appraisal framework, two sets of approvals are required for projects, namely, approval of the business case and the cost-benefit analysis of the project and, separately, approval by An Bord Pleanála of an application for development. As the Deputy knows, the project is at an early stage and I would like to take this opportunity to stress that any timeframe for the successful and timely delivery of any project depends on obtaining the necessary consents at various critical stages, including at the route selection, detailed design and tender stages. The necessity to meet the requirements of the public spending code and planning consent from An Bord Pleanála along with an adequate capital budget are also critical to delivering the project.

I wish Deputy Durkan and the Ceann Comhairle well in their endeavours.

I thank the Minister. He can consider the invitation already issued.

Electric Vehicles

We will move on to a somewhat different item. Deputy Rock wishes to discuss proposals for legislation or regulations in respect of electric scooters. Does the Deputy have an electric scooter?

Yes, I do.

I have been raising this issue by way of parliamentary questions for a year now. The Minister, as well as every other Member who represents an urban constituency, will be well aware of the explosion in popularity of this form of transport in Ireland and across Europe. There is no question that this is the way of the future for environmentally sustainable transport and for integration with public transport. I tabled a parliamentary question in July 2018 in respect of electric scooters and the Minister replied to the effect that governing legislation is currently in place for scooters that are powered by mechanical or electrical means. However, when other Deputies posed similar questions subsequently, the Minister's answer changed. It is quite clear that these vehicles exist in a legislative grey area. When it comes to taxation, they are, in effect, impossible to tax. Members of An Garda Síochána are unclear as to what to do with these vehicles. Due to the absence of legislation on these vehicles in the context of the Road Traffic Acts, local authorities have had to form their own views on them. Since I tabled this matter last week, Dublin City Council has made its views known. It believes that until legislation is enacted, these vehicles should be rendered illegal via a bye-law.

What is the plan here? It has been obvious for some time that something would have to be done about electric scooters but nothing has been done to date. It is clear that new legislation would have to be introduced or the Road Traffic Acts amended in order to bring these vehicles into line, legally. We need to set down clear regulations on speed, pedestrian safety and their use on footpaths and roads and in cycle lanes but none of this has been done. It is regrettable that we are being reactionary in this matter rather than being proactive. There are over 3,000 of these vehicles in use in Dublin right now and that number is growing by the week. A number of high street retailers are now selling electronic scooters and they are no longer a niche, minority vehicle. They are growing in popularity and will continue to do so.

What is the Minister's plan? What are the timelines here? What kind of assurances can we give to people using these vehicles and how can we integrate them into a fully functioning transport network? Increasing numbers of people are using bicycles, buses and trains but how do we integrate scooters into the mix? We have ambitious plans for BusConnects, a metro system and so on . Scooters are particularly useful in the context of the final mile of any journey. People can use our high-speed and high-frequency public transport network and then use their scooters to get to a particular place such as, for example, Leinster House. They can get off the metro or the Luas and use their electric scooters for the final mile. In my view, electric scooters should be treated in the same way as electric bicycles, which is how it works in other European countries. That is the direction in which we should go but I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on the matter.

I thank Deputy Rock for raising the issue of electric scooters, which provides us with the opportunity to discuss these and similar vehicles. I am aware of the increasing number of electric scooters, electrically-powered skateboards and similar small vehicles on our footpaths and roads. I will start by advising the House of the current legal situation with regard to such vehicles.

The Road Traffic Act 1961 defines a mechanically-propelled vehicle as a vehicle intended or adapted for propulsion by mechanical means, including a bicycle or tricycle with an attachment for propelling it by mechanical power, regardless of whether the attachment is being used. It also includes a vehicle the means of propulsion of which is electrical, or partly electrical and partly mechanical. Electric scooters and powered skateboards fall into this category and are therefore considered to be mechanically-propelled vehicles.

Any users of such vehicles in a public place, as defined in the Road Traffic Act 1961, must have insurance, road tax and a driving licence. The penalties under road traffic laws for not being in compliance with these requirements include fixed charge notices, penalty points, fines and possible seizure of the vehicle. As it is currently not possible to tax or insure e-scooters or electric skateboards, they are not considered suitable for use in a public place.

Electric bicycles are in a different category to e-scooters. Where a bicycle has an electric motor attached that may be used as an alternate means of propulsion, the vehicle is defined as a mechanically propelled vehicle under the Road Traffic Acts whether or not the motor is being used. Under article 1(h) of EU Directive 2002/24/EC, e-bikes are defined as "cycles with pedal assistance which are equipped with an auxiliary electric motor having a maximum continuous rated power of 0,25 kW, of which the output is progressively reduced and finally cut off as the vehicle reaches a speed of 25 km/h, or sooner, if the cyclist stops pedalling,".

Legal advice obtained by the Department confirms that as bikes of this type require continuous effort on the part of the cyclist, they are considered to be pedal cycles. In other words, the engine is not the means of propulsion but an aid to the user. Pedal assisted cycles with a maximum continuous rated power of more than 0.25 kW and e-bikes that can be exclusively propelled by the motor are classified in the directive as low-performance mopeds, i.e. vehicles with pedals with an auxiliary engine of power not exceeding 1 kW and a maximum design speed not exceeding 25 km/h. Such vehicles are subject to road traffic legislation as I have just outlined, with the user obliged to have tax, insurance and an appropriate driving licence where the vehicle is to be used in a public place.

I have requested the Road Safety Authority to research how e-scooters and other such vehicles are regulated in other countries, particularly other member states. I am keen to understand the road safety implications of the use of such vehicles on public roads, especially when interacting with other vehicles. I will make a decision on whether or not to amend existing legislation when I have received the outcome of the RSA's research, and not before then. I will need to be satisfied that permitting such vehicles on our roads will not give rise to safety concerns for the users themselves and for all other road users including cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.

I thank the Minister and the Ceann Comhairle. I suppose it is better late than never in many respects. The Road Safety Authority's review could have been commissioned when the first parliamentary questions on this matter were being set down. Clearly it was going to be an area that deserved further scrutiny. Based on comparable European countries the matter was clearly going to be an area that needed legislative scrutiny or potential legislative change. I welcome the Minister's response, belated as it is. These electrically assisted scooters require a manual start. They have to be kick started by the user and must reach a minimum of 7 km per hour under the rider's own propulsion, before the electric assist kicks in. Accordingly, this is where the ambiguity exists. In discussions with the motor taxation offices it appears that these vehicles cannot be taxed. Even if one wanted to tax them one could not. This is where the ambiguity and grey area exists. Ultimately, multiple agencies of the State have differing views on how these vehicles should be treated. I believe, and officials of various agencies believe, that it is necessary to bring about some legal clarity on the matter either to legalise them or explicitly make them unusable. It is necessary to introduce legislation.

I welcome the Minister's closing point in his statement that the RSA will be commissioned to put together a report. I urge the Minister to ensure that the RSA does this in short order and quickly. Many thousands of people use these vehicles and many hundreds more are buying them every week. There is an onus on us to bring clarity to the area and, as legislators, to make sure that we legislate accordingly.

As there are so many people using these vehicles I acknowledge there is a need for speed in clarifying the situation. I hope to do this today. The emergence of these vehicles, and other such vehicles, is an example of a case where the legislation, while unambiguous as it stands, needs to be reconsidered in the light of new developments, such as those we currently speak of. Any possibility of change in the legislation would first and foremost have to consider the safety of the people using these vehicles and the wider public. It is clear that there are implications for public safety in the use of these vehicles. Where they are driven on a public road they are extremely vulnerable. When driven on a pedestrian or cycle path they can pose dangers to legitimate users on those paths. As Deputy Rock said, I acknowledge that consideration by the Road Safety Authority is the right place for this to see what should be done and what legislative changes are required. When the authority has concluded its examination and reported on it I will consider that report. If any legislation is required I will introduce it as quickly as possible.

I would like to issue the Minister, Deputy Ross, with an invitation to use one of these vehicles on some of the private space around Leinster House, if he would be so willing.

You might give him a loan of your own.

I believe that the Minister has had enough dodgy photo opportunities.

Let us move on. We are getting a little carried away.

Home Building Finance Ireland

This week many homeowners and management companies of defective buildings, who were led down a path by the Government in relation to securing loan funding for the remediation of latent defects caused by rogue developers during the boom years, found that the path set out by the Government led straight into a brick wall. The Minister for Finance indicated in an answer to a parliamentary question in December that the Home Building Finance Ireland, HBFI, scheme would be in a position to consider applications from this month by apartment owners and management companies to undertake remedial works on latent defects, but it turns out that it is closed to assisting homeowners who face the appalling prospect of having to undertake work on their own coin just to make their homes safe.

Department of Finance correspondence to a Government Minister from November of last year states that “there is nothing contained in the HBFI legislation that would prevent such a funding application being considered.” Now, however, it seems there is. The HBFI is not able to imagine a situation where a remediation application would be funded, due to the possibility of further estimated costs once remediation is commenced if further issues present, and the inability of most management companies to provide security beyond personal guarantees from apartment owners. I put it to the Minister of State, Deputy English, that apartment owners have been led up a blind alley by the Government. Will the Minister of State please tell the House what happened here? Did the Government really not understand its own legislation well enough honestly to tell people affected by latent defects that there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that the HBFI fund would be of any use to them? Why would the Government direct them with this false hope?

While the affected apartment owners and management companies deserve an answer as to why the one direction pointed out to them turned out to be a dead end, they also deserve a comprehensive and accurate answer as to what the Government intends to do to assist them.

I first raised this issue in the Dáil with the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, more than two years ago. A Green Party motion has since been backed by the Dáil to "prepare and publish options for the financing and carrying out of remedial works to defective housing units, that will form the basis for a nationwide scheme, enshrined in legislation, for the orderly remediation of legacy defects in housing." There has also been the cross-party Safe As Houses? report that called for a redress scheme to assist homeowners with latent defects and for an information and advice service for those affected by non-compliance and regulatory failure.

The most straightforward part of the Safe As Houses? recommendation was the call to set up an advice service. After the fiasco of the Government's misinformation on the HBFI scheme it is clear that this type of service is needed more than ever.

Has the Government even looked at doing it? Does the Government intend to conduct a review, as called for by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, to ascertain how widespread and serious the problem of defective builds across the country is and, if not, why not? One cannot accurately assess potential reliefs without a comprehensive picture of the problem. Does the Government intend to investigate, or has it already investigated, the possibility of the provision of any sort of assistance for affected homeowners in the form of an advice service or the provision by some other means of accurate information for people dealing with defects; some form of tax relief, in particular given the reliefs given currently to builders and developers and those engaged in a wide range of other activities, in the form of VAT relief on remediation works, income tax relief or property tax relief; a low-interest State loan fund to assist those who cannot pay for remedial works, or a redress scheme for the orderly remediation of latent defects?

I thank Deputy Catherine Martin for raising this issue and acknowledge the distressing situation in which some owners and residents have found themselves, through no fault or their own, due to defects in buildings. It is an ongoing issue which we have debated here, as the Deputy said, over a long number of years. In general, building defects are matters for resolution between the contracting parties involved, namely, the homeowner, the builder and the developer and their respective insurers or structural guarantee and warranty schemes. While my Department has overall responsibility for establishing and maintaining an effective regulatory framework for building standards and building control, it has no general statutory role in resolving defects in privately-owned buildings, including dwellings, nor does it have a budget for such matters. While I acknowledge that calls for such a fund have been made, it is not possible for the State to take on responsibility or liability for all legacy issues nor would it send the right message to the industry regarding responsibility for compliance. In this regard, it is incumbent on the parties responsible for poor workmanship and the supply of defective materials to face up to their responsibilities and take appropriate action to provide remedies for affected homeowners.

The legislative position is very clear in terms of where responsibilities rest. Under the Building Control Acts 1990 to 2014, primary responsibility for compliance of works with the requirements of the building regulations rests with the owners, designers and builders of buildings. Enforcement of the building regulations is a matter for the 31 local building control authorities, which have extensive powers of inspection and enforcement under the Acts and which are independent in the use of their statutory powers. When a building is constructed and occupied, statutory responsibility for fire safety is assigned by section 18(2) of the Fire Services Act 1981 to the person having control of the building. In multi-unit developments, the person having control is generally the owner management company. Under the Multi-Unit Developments Act 2011, the owner management company must establish a scheme for annual service charges and a sinking fund for spending on refurbishment, improvement or maintenance of a non-recurring nature of the multi-unit development.

In response to the building failures that have emerged over the last decade, my Department has advanced a robust and focused building control reform agenda and will continue to ensure that these reforms have an impact. While that does not solve matters for the existing people, we are confident the proper regulatory framework is in place to prevent this happening with developments commenced after 2014. The difficulty the Deputy raises relates to who can deal with the problems arising in buildings constructed in previous years. The Deputy asked a number of questions, but her principal one was on the Home Building Finance Ireland, or HBFI, scheme. The scheme was established under the Home Building Finance Ireland Act 2018 as a supply-based measure to help address the shortage of new housing and falls within the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Finance. The Minister has been very clear that the HBFI was established on a commercial basis and that its activities must comply with state-aid rules. Any funding provided by the HBFI will be backed by appropriate security and normal banking terms. As such, conditions will apply and HBFI will not be in a position to offer cheap or subsidised credit. It is not about subsidised credit but a cost-neutral approach.

It is important to recognise the complexity of the funding of remediation works. These are high-risk projects which pose significant issues for lenders having regard to access to appropriate security. While the HBFI will be open to considering all residential development construction-related activity, it is the responsibility of applicants to ensure their applications for funding are commercially viable to allow the agency to comply with state-aid rules. I am advised by the HBFI that only a small number of calls and emails have been received on this type of funding to date and that no inquiry has progressed to a full application to date. People are welcome to progress to a full application but it must be on a commercial basis and security must be provided. Lending of that nature will probably not suit circumstances such as those outlined by the Deputy in respect of developments in need of remediation. It is not that they are prohibited from applying. No one has misled anyone in that respect. However, such an application might not be approved due to the requirements around commercial viability and securing the loan.

With respect, these homeowners need more than an acknowledgment of their stress. With regard to the Home Building Finance Ireland scheme, the Minister of State said the Minister for Finance had been very clear, which he was. I have his remarks. He said nothing contained in the HBFI legislation prevented a funding application like this being considered. In reply to my parliamentary question, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, stated that the HBFI would be in a position to consider applications from apartment owners and management companies for such funding. The mixed messages here are cruel. Instead of giving people hope, the Government has given them a sense of hopelessness. They were given that hope and then the Government took it all away.

I referred to four possible ways in which the Government could assist homeowners but it has done nothing. At this stage, every time I stand up to speak in the House, the Minister present presumes I am going to ask about helping these homeowners. That is how often I have raised the issue. However, the Government has done nothing. It has not even put in place a phone helpline for people who are in need. They do not know to whom to turn. It is abundantly clear that two years down the road, the Government is intent on abandoning these homeowners. I received a letter today from a person whose family member has been hit with an unexpected bill of more than €16,000 to fix fire safety issues at an apartment building. The bill was accompanied by a stern notice that the matter should not be discussed even with friends because if the media got to know about the problem, the property would be rendered unsaleable. People are terrified and, to its shame, the Government is thriving on that terror. The Government depends on the fear those people have about speaking out publicly because doing so might mean they will not only have to pay for the defects but their properties will be rendered unsaleable. That means no political pressure on the Government and, therefore, no problem.

With respect, I hear every time this matter is raised about the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2014. Let us not talk about those any more because they are of no help to these people.

This is a pre-2014 issue. I ask the Minister of State to accept as a fundamental principle that this is not simply a matter of private contract. For many of these homeowners, there is no recourse to builders and developers who have long since gone bust. Does the Minister of State accept that this is a public safety issue? The Government cannot simply sit idly by.

Thank you, now, Deputy.

Is it waiting for a tragedy to occur? Will it take a death? Fire alarms are going off in these buildings and people think their apartment complexes are going to burn down. They are living in fear and the Government must act.

Thank you, Deputy. The point is well made.

The Government must indicate that it intends to do something.

I call the Minister of State to conclude on the matter.

With respect to Deputy Catherine Martin, I had to focus my reply on the main question she submitted for debate. I understand she has other questions to which she wants answer. That is fine. However, the Deputy asked perhaps ten questions and I do not have time to respond to all of that. I had to focus on the charge the Deputy made that the Government had misled people in relation to the funding model provided under the HBFI scheme, which is not the case. We were very clear that the HBFI was to be established as a commercial entity in full compliance with state-aid rules, with full lending terms and conditions to be approved by its board in due course. No other impression was ever given. That is the charge the Deputy makes today and that is what I will deal with. It is unfair to say we misled people when we did not. We understand the difficulties people are experiencing. We have all had situations in our constituencies where we have had to work with groups of people who found themselves in very difficult circumstances due to rogue workmanship at an earlier stage under previous Governments. We have tried to help where we possibly could. The Deputy should not accuse us of misleading anyone in relation to this fund. It was set up as a supply issue to help builders today to meet demand by building houses. To be clear, people can apply to the HBFI and each application will be examined on its merits and in the context of its particular circumstances. It is a matter for the HBFI to assess applications and, if appropriate, issue a term sheet having regard to state-aid rules and its commercial obligations. I ask the Deputy to bear in mind that, as with all lending, some security is required. That is a difficulty here.

I refer to the general approach to the issue. I referred to the changes we have made because the Deputy has asked repeatedly what we are doing as a Government. The first thing the Government had to do was put in place changes to ensure this could not happen again.

It means self-certification.

It does. The Minister says it does not, but it does. It is not robust.

Please let the Minister of State respond.

We put in place a system and, as the Minister of State in the Department, I have full confidence that this system can prevent a recurrence of what happened in the past. The situation the Deputy is raising will not happen again. That is the difference we have made. Experts in this area all over the world will tell the Deputy that the Irish system is one of the best. Self-certification works and even countries that do not have self-certification are considering going back to it because it has been proven over the last number of years that it is working. It is making a difference in the quality of the buildings. We are also working with the sector on changing the culture as well in respect of the workers.

The Deputy referred to calls for a fund to be established. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, addressed this last Tuesday in the Dáil. If there was a magic way to intervene and help in this area without exposing the State to an unquantifiable amount of money, because there are over 200,000 apartments-----

Does the Minister of State know how many apartments there are?

The Minister has been clear that if somebody can come forward with a roadmap whereby we can intervene and help people, we will look at it. However, we must be very careful about the exposure of the taxpayer.

School Accommodation Provision

Gabhaim buíochas as an deis chun an t-ábhar seo a ardú inniu. Is ábhar an-tábhachtach é do go leor tuismitheoirí i gCill Dhéagláin i Contae na Mí, mo Dháilcheantar féin. Tá a lán daoine buartha faoi seo. Tá páistí ag dul ar scoil lasmuigh de Chill Dhéagláin agus lasmuigh de Chontae na Mí, uaireanta i mBaile Átha Cliath. Táim ag impí ar an Rialtas agus ar an Roinn le blianta bunscoil nua a chur ar fáil i gCill Dhéagláin toisc go bhfuil an t-éileamh ann.

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for giving me the opportunity to raise primary school provision in Ashbourne again. I have raised it previously in parliamentary questions and in the education committee. The population of Ashbourne continues to grow. At the end of the recession, house building was starting in Ashbourne when it was not happening in other places. We are beginning to pay the educational price now. There is simply not enough room for all the children who require primary school places in Ashbourne. Over the last number of years, as people moved to Ashbourne, inquired about schools and found there were no places, some of their children continued to go to the school they attended previously, perhaps in Dublin. In one case the school is in Bray and in another it is Drogheda. In other cases they attend schools in the countryside outside Ashbourne. The Department of Education and Skills helpfully provides a list of alternative schools, but one of them is 22 km from Ashbourne. That is unacceptable and should not be suggested to parents.

Children are entitled to exercise their constitutional right to primary education. It is an important constitutional right. They are entitled to have that education in their local area among their friends in the excellent community in Ashbourne and in association with the sports clubs, drama groups, scouts, guides and other groups for young people in the area. Children should go to school with their peers in their local area, and that entitlement is not being satisfied in Ashbourne at present.

Last year, there was an attempt to bang heads together to find out whether extra places could be extracted from local primary schools. Not much emerged from that. However, the queries still come to my office and I am sure to the offices of other Members about where there might be school places. The Minister has organised a meeting with the school principals at the end of this month in Ashbourne. I welcome that insofar as it goes and I am happy to attend it on foot of the Minister's invitation, but it is not the job of the local principals to provide places if there are no places. That is the job of the Department of Education and Skills. The Minister's colleague, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, announced yesterday that the Department is open to providing a new school. I would prefer if the Department was actually opening a new school. It is always open to opening a school, but the question is whether it will open one in Ashbourne next September. I do not know what the purpose of the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty's, statement was because it was not an announcement but simply restated the obvious.

We seek something concrete. We want places for children. I invite the Minister to visit Ashbourne - his party colleagues have probably already invited him - to see the housing development, visit the excellent schools and meet some of the parents involved in this campaign. They have set up an online petition. They have visited my office and I am sure they have visited the offices of other politicians. They are worried and desperate. I could raise all sorts of school issues in my constituency, such as Lismullen, O'Carolan College in Nobber, Dunboyne and a list of schools that need building work, but this case involves children who may not have a place in their home town.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta fá choinne an tseans labhairt ar an ábhar iontach tábhachtach seo. Tuigim na deacrachtaí in achan cheantar a éiríonn as an bhrú, in Átha Cliath agus na contaetha atá cóngarach dó ach go háirithe. Dá n-ardódh an daonra, bheadh an brú ann. Sa cheantar seo bhí suas le 150 daltaí scoile i gceist anuraidh. Bhí imní ar na tuismitheoirí nach mbeadh spás ar fáil i mbunscoileanna an cheantair, ach socraíodh an cheist. Táim cinnte go mbeidh réiteach ar an fhadhb seo i mbliana.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it gives me the opportunity to set out the situation with the lack of places at primary schools in the Ashbourne town area. In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. The Department uses a geographical information system, GIS, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. The GIS uses data from a range of sources, including the Central Statistics Office, Ordnance Survey Ireland, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Department's databases. With this information the Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises at primary and post-primary level to determine where additional school accommodation is needed.

Major new residential developments in an area also have the potential to alter demand in that area. In that regard, as part of the demographic exercises, the Department engages with each of the local authorities to obtain the up-to-date data on significant new residential developments in each area. This is necessary to ensure that schools infrastructure planning is keeping pace with demographic changes as there is a constantly evolving picture with planned new residential development, including additional residential developments arising from the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF.

Where demographic data indicate that additional provision is required, the delivery of such additional provision is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may be provided through either one, or a combination of, the following: utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools, extending the capacity of a school or schools or provision of a new school or schools. Approximately 40% of extra school places are delivered by extending existing schools. In April 2018, the Government announced plans for the establishment of 42 new schools over the next four years, 2019 to 2022. In addition to the new schools announced, there will be a need for further school accommodation in other areas in the future.

With regard to Ashbourne, in 2018 concerns were raised locally about waiting lists for primary schools of up to 120 pupils. The Department worked closely with the principals and patron bodies of the schools in the area to put contingency measures in place. Notwithstanding that those numbers of pupils did not ultimately materialise in September 2018, the Department considers that there is a need for increased capacity in the area in the short term and over the medium to long term taking account of residential development in the area. I am aware there are a number of schools in the Ashbourne school planning area with waiting lists for enrolment for September 2019.

The Department is engaging with the principals of the five schools in the Ashbourne town area, and I thank the principals for their engagement. The school principals met recently to carry out a joint exercise to establish the net demand for 2019.

This information has been received within the past week by my Department and it is currently under consideration. I acknowledge and welcome the engagement and co-operation of all of the political parties in that regard. In parallel, my Department is actively engaging with the patron of one of the schools in the area in regard to expansion of that school for 2019 to deal with immediate needs. Interim accommodation solutions for September 2019 and September 2020 will be developed with the aim of utilising, in the first instance, any available existing capacity. As pointed out by Deputy Thomas Byrne a meeting has been arranged between myself, principals of the local schools and Oireachtas Members to discuss the issues. I have on doubt Deputy Byrne will participate in that meeting.

My Department is conscious that Ashbourne is an area of growing demographic demand and additional residential development and it is open to establishing a new school to respond to the medium to long-term demand arising in the area, if necessary. Factors such as the scale and timing of developments in the Ashbourne area will determine the medium to long-term requirement for additional school places, including the potential need and timeline for a new school. These medium to long-term requirements are currently being examined by the Department. The process will include an opportunity for patrons to assist the Department in identifying requirements for new schools in rapidly developing areas beyond the 42 schools announced in April 2018.

Go raibh maith agat. I acknowledge and do not disagree with anything the Minister said. He is correct that these concerns were raised last year by principals. They were also raised with me and I raised them privately with the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, but nothing materialised. It is also the case that the Minister and the Department do not know how many children from Ashbourne are being educating outside the town. I know for a fact that the Minister's officials handed out a list of alternative schools to a number of parents last year, including one school that is 22 km away. I am aware that children from Ashbourne are attending school in Drogheda, Bray, Malahide and other parts of Dublin. There are people whose children are on the list for Malahide as well because that is where the parents came from. I do not think the Department is able to track this activity, which is failing in the assessments that are taking place.

There are two major difficulties, one of which is ready-made families, which was first mentioned some years ago by a former and esteemed colleague of mine. These are families who have older children when they move into particular areas. These children are not expected and that is a particular problem as well. They should be expected. This issue should have been dealt with at least 12 years ago when the Department first started to deal with these issues. The other issue in Ashbourne is the people for whom English is not their first language, many of whom are Irish citizens and all of their children are Irish citizens. These people are as local as anyone else in the area. There is definitely a language barrier with a proportion of these parents and that is a problem. In an effort to get some movement on this issue I previously used the word "discrimination". There is no question that there is a language element to this. People either do not understand the system or they are not confident to communicate. That is my experience. Without question, the number of parents that have been in touch with me and other politicians has increased this year. We need action quickly and we need certainty for parents and schools. The Minister spoke about September 2019. Parents watching and listening to this debate are worried about the future of their children and their schooling and they need certainty fairly quickly.

That certainty will be forthcoming. The information from the principals was received last week. We will meet at a political level at the end of the month when we will have an opportunity to be updated by the officials. If I have information before that, I will share it with colleagues.

On the language barrier and parents struggling to communicate through the medium of English, it is an issue. During one of my visits to St. Luke's national school in Tyrrelstown in regard to infrastructural issues I visited another building in the complex where parents are taught English. There is provision within the higher education institutes and education and training boards for people who are not proficient in the English language. The model operated in Tyrrelstown is interesting. It might be of interest to the Deputy in the context of the deficiencies in his own area. When I was there I met parents from Georgia, France, Syria and as far as Pakistan, which is indicative of the range of people who are being taught English while their children are at school. It is a very interesting model.

The Minister is aware of the urgency around the issue.

The Dáil adjourned at 4.35 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 March 2019.