Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects Status

I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for the sensitivity in choosing this matter because the progression of the project relating to St. Mary’s special school in Navan, County Meath, means a great deal to many parents and students across the county. I understand the Minister for Education and Skills is delayed in the Seanad but the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, is well apprised of this issue. I hope he will address the issue of the logjam in progressing this project which was promised over seven years ago. I also hope he will have information in respect of the commencement of the construction process because parents have been left frustrated with endless tales of architects working on the tender process. As the parents have listened to information about tendering and other aspects of the construction process, they have seen two brand new schools built on the same educational campus where St. Mary's has had a site reserved. These two schools are a much needed primary school, St. Stephen's, and secondary school, Coláiste na Mí, for the large residential area of Johnstown in Navan. However, all three were announced together for this campus and the only one that has not been delivered is St. Mary's special school.

At Christmas in 2013, I sat in the hall of the new primary school and looked at the plans for the proposed St. Mary's special school. I also listened to affirmations that construction would be under way soon. What has frustrated the parents greatly is the fact that there has been such a delay while the other two schools progressed. They were completed on time on the campus while no work commenced on St. Mary's. The parents have been left in the dark about where their school actually stands and whether there was going to be any progress in building it.

I know the Department receives many requests for the advancement of schools. None is more deserving than St. Mary's special school in Navan. It is led superbly by the principal, Maria Corredor, and the chairman of the board of management, Bob O’Callaghan, as well as the team of dedicated staff who accommodate individual learning styles to ensure all students may experience success. The school has been in existence for over 42 years and caters for nearly 90 students from all across counties Meath, Cavan, Louth and Dublin. This week I met parents of students from Oldcastle in north County Meath, besides the Cavan border, whose children must get up at 6 a.m. to travel to this school. Some 60 km away in Ballinabrackey, at the far end of the county where one can puck a ball into Offaly, there are children doing the same thing. These children, some with acute special needs, are spending an hour and a half on a bus to get to school. While they are grateful there is a school to go to, they would like the new school promised to them on several occasions. They want a school that is not just surviving in an adapted and antiquated building where some students have to attend in a different HSE-owned building a mile down the road because there is not enough room on the site.

Last summer, the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, visited the school along with three fellow Ministers from Meath. The Meath Chronicle did not buy the photo shoot moment and captured the mood perfectly when it ran a front page the following week with the headline, "Build Our School Now Minister" and stated, "Despite the visit of four Government Ministers last week, staff and parents of 90 pupils of St Mary’s special school in Navan look set to wait another 18 months before work starts on their new building promised seven years ago."

The parents I met from the school this week want to know why there has been such a delay, what is the logjam and when will a shovel actually go into the ground for construction to start. One mother I met this week, Tracey Holsgrove - she said she could be named in the Chamber - wanted to know when would her little girl, Fionnula, get the same facilities and opportunity afforded to the rest of the children currently on the new educational campus. Her daughter leaves Oldcastle at 7.30 a.m. in order to get to school in Navan at 9 a.m. because the latter is the only school she can attend. Fionnula has done this commute since she was five years of age; she is 12 now. If Tracey knew that when Fionnula got to school that she had a dedicated purpose-built soft play room to enjoy, then she would have a weight lifted from her shoulders.

Many parents have seen their children progress through these outdated facilities over the past four decades. They are now fighting for the current crop of students and staff of the school. Perhaps they might get to enjoy the planned new school and have the dignity they deserve in receiving their education. I hope the Minister of State will have some positive news on when the school will commence.

I apologise for the Minister not being present. He is in the Seanad dealing with the Brexit emergency legislation.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline the current position on the major building project for St. Mary’s special school, Navan. This project is included in the 2016 to 2021 six-year construction programme, announced on 17 November 2015, to go to tender and construction. St. Mary’s special school will be part of a shared campus with Coláiste na Mí. The building project will deliver a phase 2 extension for Coláiste na Mí and a new school building for St. Mary’s special school. The new building for St. Mary’s will provide an area of 3,746 sq. m with 11 classrooms and associated ancillary accommodation to cater for pupils with a range of learning disabilities. In December 2018, the project completed stage 2(a), developed design stage, and has been authorised to proceed to stage 2(b), detailed design, which includes the applications for planning permission, fire certificate and disability access certificate, as well as the preparation of tender documents.

Planning permission for this particular project was sought earlier than usual in the architectural planning process, during stage 2(a), as a means to identify any potential issues which might arise. All statutory approvals for St. Mary’s are now secured and the project design team is working on the completion of the stage 2(b) submission and bringing the project to tender ready stage. This will include the pre-qualification of contractors for the main contract and reserved specialist contracts, as well as compiling a shortlist of contractors. Upon receipt and review of the stage 2(b) submission, the project will then be authorised to commence the pre-qualification of contractors. Pre-qualification normally takes between eight and 12 weeks to complete. When pre-qualification is complete, the project will then be progressed to tender stage. A tender stage normally takes between seven and eight months to complete.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply but I would have hoped for a firmer and more detailed timeframe for the commencement of the building work. The parents have been listening to how long a tender process takes for the past several years. The Minister of State indicated that the school project is included in the 2016 to 2021 building programme. However, it was announced by the previous Government seven years ago. What frustrates the parents is that there were no qualified remarks when the project was announced seven years ago. The projects relating to the other two schools on the campus flew through the planning process, the approval stages in Tullamore and have been built. The only project that has not progressed is that relating to St. Mary's special school.

Why has there been such a logjam? Will the Minister of State ask the Department why there has been such a delay? Of all the students on the campus in question, those in St. Mary's special school are the ones who need the most up-to-date facilities. For the past 42 years, the school's students have been in two separate temporary antiquated facilities. The hope afforded those students seven years ago when the new school campus was announced was amazing. The frustration now is that another generation of students will go through it and not see the realisation of that dream. The parents who had children in the school are now fighting for the current generation because these children deserve the best. I know the Minister of State, due to his brief, will appreciate that and back those parents' sentiments.

The parents have heard the outlines for the tender process before. Will there be a shovel-ready site in January 2020 or will it be delayed even further? Will the Department come back with a definitive date as to when we can expect construction to start?

The Deputy’s frustration with the delays to date and his passion to see this project over the line are obvious. Nobody in the Department or the Minister wants to delay this project any further.

Planning permission had been granted earlier in the process but issues with traffic management arose on stage 2(a). That necessitated several meetings with Meath County Council which caused delays. We would prefer if these issues did not arise but it is a fact of real life when one is dealing with large-scale projects such as these. The Deputy acknowledged that two other projects in the town went through the planning and building processes well. However, not every project will sail through. We all have these issues in our constituencies, as well as the frustrations with projects which take extra time to deliver.

It is not the political system, political will or finances that is holding it back, it is just that it is undergoing the different processes. St. Mary's special school has passed all the major hurdles, including one of the biggest hurdles which is getting on the plan. There are schools in my constituency which cannot get onto the next plan, although they are trying desperately to do so. The school has planning permission, which is a great achievement. It has been through the design process, that is, the 2a stage, which is where the issues arose, and has now gone to 2b which is the final stage of design and which involves firming up some minor changes that have arisen as a result of the issues around traffic. That has to be approved by the Department and then the pre-qualification stage which is narrowing down the list of contractors and going to tender. I cannot give the Deputy a date here and I would be loath to do so even if I could because that can build expectation and disappointment but this is on track and progressing well. I outlined the timelines, namely, six to seven months for the tendering process, having gone through the pre-qualification stage and 2b stage relating to details. However, both of those processes typically take weeks rather than months.

Respite Care Services Provision

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue and thank the Minster of State for taking it. I raise the threat of closure, which is hanging over Midleton Community Hospital respite unit and which is causing fear. One of my party's local councillors has been working on this and I will quote from a recent article on the subject:

Concerns have been heightened an elderly care unit in east Cork will be closed for good.

The respite unit in Midleton was closed last December by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, over fire and safety concerns at the community hospital.

The health watch dog found the internal doors were too narrow at the former 19th century workhouse.

The community facility that currently caters for 53 elderly was required to widen the entrance door to the respite unit for clients with walking aids and the wheelchair bound.

The article continued that the work was carried out soon after, but a follow-up inspection required additional double doors fitted in order to access the lift.

In a statement to the East Cork Journal the Health Service Executive said that it was committed to reopening the beds at Midleton Community Hospital as soon as possible and that it hoped to do so within a matter of weeks. While the HSE said the closure of the unit was a temporary measure, Sinn Féin Councillor Danielle Twomey said health officials fear HIQA will not allow the eight bed ward to reopen. She said uncertainty is part of the problem, fearing HIQA does not understand the devastating effect a permanent closure of the unit would have. The unit has given carers much-needed breaks from caring and elderly to socialise, which has been lost since December. Closing the short break unit permanently would pile even more pressure on already stressed cares of the elderly.

This relates to 53 elderly patients but there is also a knock-on effect on their families. This is a vital service. The Committee on Future of Mental Health Care discussed how we must keep families in their local areas and support local services for local people as did the Sláintecare report. I seek clarity on this as sometimes the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. This is a fabulous community-based service which does great work and whose benefits to the elderly are incalculable. It is unimaginable that it might close over a couple of technicalities. It would devastate Midleton and the surrounding east Cork area.

In 2017 I tabled a parliamentary question for response by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. Under the residential care centres capital plan for 2016-2021, it was proposed to spend €10.3 million on a 50-bed community nursing unit within the grounds of Midleton Community Hospital, which was to be completed by 2021. I have seen no progress on this. I am worried about HIQA shutting down a centre that caters for 53 patients. It is necessary for that centre to remain open. On the other hand, the HSE and the Minister for Health have said they think it is appropriate to invest over €10 million in the same area for a 50-bed unit. I cannot understand what is being lost. I seek clarity and assurance for the people and service users in Midleton Community Hospital and the wider area generally that the unit will not close and that in coming years, we will see the new 50-bed community unit.

The Government’s core stated objective is to promote care in the community so that people can continue to live with confidence, security and dignity in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. This is clearly what older people and everybody in this House wants. We also have patients who are in genuine need of residential care either on a long-stay or short-stay basis and their safety and well-being is of paramount concern.

Residential care is provided through a mix of public, voluntary and private provision. It is worth highlighting that the budget for long-term residential care in 2019 is €985 million and over 23,000 clients on average at any one time will be in receipt of financial support.

Midleton Community Hospital is a 53-bed facility predominantly for the care of older persons. The current bed profile is 45 beds for continuing care, one for chronic young sick, five respite beds and two for community support. The hospital, which has access to a visiting consultant, provides 24-hour nursing care through a team of doctors, managers, staff nurses, multi-task attendants and other staff members.

As the Deputy is aware, community hospitals like Midleton are an essential part of our national infrastructure and we are determined to maintain our public stock. However, many public units are housed in buildings that are less than ideal in the modem context. It is important to note that, notwithstanding this, the care delivered to residents is generally of a very high standard. Without these units, many older people would not have access to the care that they need. On that basis, we need to upgrade our public bed stock and this is the aim of the capital investment programme for community nursing units. This programme includes a number of facilities in Cork, including Midleton Community Hospital.

Pending the building of the new facility in Midleton, we have to ensure that the highest standards of care are provided to all current residents in a safe and secure environment. On that basis, important upgrade works at the hospital are underway. These will be completed in a number of weeks. Once completed, the seven beds in St. Mary’s ward which unfortunately had to be temporarily closed will be reopened.

The HSE recognises the value and importance of respite care, and sincerely regrets that these beds had to be temporarily closed. However, there was no other way to undertake these important upgrade and fire renovation works.

As well as essential fire upgrade works, some improvements are being made at the hospital, including a new shower room, better storage facilities and an upgrade to a ward kitchenette. These works will be of huge benefit to residents and will enhance privacy and dignity for them.

Management at the hospital worked with public health nursing staff, who co-ordinate respite admissions to Midleton. I understand that every effort was made to keep families informed, to provide alternative arrangements where possible or to reschedule the admission dates for respite. Some clients have been facilitated in Youghal Community Hospital and others have been facilitated in nursing homes in the Midleton and Cork city areas.

The HSE has advised that it is committed to reopening the beds as soon as possible, and it is expected that this will be done in a matter of weeks.

I am delighted with the Minister of State's reply. It will give the people of Midleton and the surrounding east Cork area some solace that there is a full commitment to the unit. I also welcome what he said about the pending building facilities. The Minister of State said that some of the clients were facilitated in Youghal Community Hospital. The capital projects plan proposes spending €2.67 million on a 32-bed refurbishment there which I look forward to seeing in place. I welcome that the first line of the Minister of State's response referred to care in the community. I thank him for his response which has clarified a great deal. There can be fear in communities when rumours start and then snowball, especially when people are already in a distressed state worrying about elderly parents or loved ones. They need clarity so I thank the Minister of State for his response.

It is always good to have the opportunity to clarify matters where there concerns have been raised in a community. That is one of our responsibilities as public representatives. I visited Midleton Hospital some time ago with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. It is a wonderful facility which is exceptionally well regarded by the local community. Its respite service is of equal importance to the families who depend on it as those who are staying there long term. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, keeps pressure on me to update him regularly on the future development of the project. A project advisory team and a technical advisory team have been appointed for the hospital's redevelopment at the site at the back of the hospital.

Indeed, my good friend and colleague, who I am sure was a former colleague of Deputy Buckley, Councillor Noel Collins, whom I sat alongside for many a happy day in County Hall in Cork when I was on the local authority, writes to me fairly often about Midleton community hospital as well to ensure that its future is secure. I am glad to be able to confirm all of that for the good people of Midleton who Deputy Buckley, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and Councillor Collins have the honour to represent.

Commission for Regulation of Utilities

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me raise this issue and I particularly thank the Minister for taking it.

The Minister will be more than familiar with the Mayo renewable power project which is located in the former Asahi plant just outside Killala in County Mayo. This project will give 42 MW of combined heat and power, CHP, which will greatly aid us in attaining our national targets in this area. At its peak, it could over 300 construction jobs and, potentially, 130 full-time positions when it is up and running.

It has had a chequered history, however. The plant received, in 2012, a CHP plant certificate under the refit scheme at 100% rate. On that basis, it proceeded to construction, involving expenditure to date of €95 million, and the sod was turned by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, with much publicity.

In 2016, there were changes in the structure and the financing of the company. It was then required to resubmit for permissions, which it received very efficiently and expeditiously from Mayo County Council and from the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, the grant of the 100% rate, which had been given in 2012, was reapplied for and on this occasion to the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities of water and electricity. That application has taken eight months to decide on. Instead of 100%, it came back with an 18% approval which has completely changed the viability of the project. The project itself has not changed. The environmental impact of the project has not changed since 2012. Nothing has changed in this project since 2012 except this analysis. The application for the re-analysis was made, not on the back of an envelop but by internationally renowned companies with expertise in this area which dealt with all of the issues and presented all of the challenges that were given. This project is now under threat. The job potential, the energy potential and the contribution to Ireland's carbon targets are all under threat.

I understand and appreciate that the Minister cannot intervene in the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU. However, that cannot make it unaccountable. As a former Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I ask is it acceptable that investors are allowed to proceed with expenditure of €95 million on the basis of all of these permissions being in place and then, effectively, on the basis of a change of mind, that investment is left in the ground. Is it appropriate that a community, which was given this offer of significant job creation and potential in terms of further energy, is left hanging and without any information today as to where it can go? Is it appropriate that there is no avenue of appeal, bar a judicial review which is enormously expensive for any business to take? What has changed since 2012 in terms of the make-up of the project that has made CRU issue such a different decision today?

I am aware that the Minister cannot interfere but we need answers. One cannot have unaccountable Government bodies going around making decisions like this. I would appreciate if the Minister could offer some pathway by which we can remedy this and address it quickly because we have already lost eight months in their analysis, and so that we can give assurance that Ireland, and Mayo, is a place that one can invest in, that one can be confident about such investment and that we are interested as a country in proceeding with this kind of project.

I acknowledge that Deputy Calleary and indeed Senator Mulherin have been in touch with me on a number of occasions about this. There is a great degree of concern in Mayo about this project and I fully acknowledge that.

Deputy Calleary acknowledges in his comments that this is an entirely independent regulator and it is independent under EU legislation. That is the essence of the approach.

What is at stake here is a decision on the level of effective subsidy that would be provided for a plant on the basis that it achieves certain desirable features that were set out in the programme agreed at EU level. It requires the regulator to evaluate any project that comes before it and look at matters such as its electrical, thermal and overall efficiency, its power-to-heat ratios, the electricity from combined heat and power, the amount of fossil fuel displaced and all the other issues that are set out and the CRU has set out clearly for any investor to evaluate.

The decision in respect of its evaluation, which the Deputy acknowledged has seen a much lower certification of combined heat and power than was originally given, is a matter for the CRU.

The question of accountability of the regulator is one not to the Minister but to the Oireachtas committee. It is open to the Oireachtas committee to invite the regulator to attend and explain the approach that it takes, but I have full confidence in the regulator's fairness of approach in these matters. Indeed, not so long ago, the OECD conducted an evaluation of the CRU's procedures and practices and found it to operate in a strong manner. There is not any question that the CRU does not conduct its affairs in the fairest possible way.

There may be some issues of misunderstanding. The CRU is always open to meet the sponsors to clarify any issues that may need explanation or if there are issues of clarity. There was - I understand this was partly the delay - quite an amount of information acquired and exchanged and to my knowledge, considerable care has been taken over this decision.

I cannot intervene, as the Deputy has indicated, in a decision such as this. However, I can point to the fact that it is open to the company to meet the regulator and seek explanations or engagement on some of the assessment that has been carried out. The assessment is done against an objective set of criteria. The regulator has assessed many other projects in similar ways and I understand many have been well short of the 100% allocation in terms of the certification of combined heat and power.

The two avenues I mentioned are the only avenues open: from the Oireachtas point of view, the CRU may be invited to the committee and from the company's point of view it can of course seek clarification of the basis of the decision that has been made. It is not open to me to intervene in a case where an independent regulator evaluates the extent to which an application meets important criteria that must be met under this state aid provision.

The independent evaluator already assessed this project in 2012 and gave it 100% certification. The project has not changed. The regulator reassessed it and then reduced 100% certification to 18%. We must be able to get answers in that regard.

I accept the regulator's independence. The Minister used the word, "misunderstanding." There is a lot of misunderstanding in a reduction from 100% to 18%. Either the misunderstanding was in the first place in giving it 100% certification which then allowed a pathway of €95 million worth of investment or the misunderstanding is in this phase in bringing it to 18%.

I certainly will pursue with the committee Chairman, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, bringing the regulator before the committee, and I understand Senator Mulherin will do the same. However, as the Minister with responsibility for climate action, Deputy Bruton must also be satisfied that we have the kind of pipeline of projects to assist us meet our targets. Surely the Minister should look at this project from a Department point of view, without interfering in the CRU, to see whether the project is adding up in terms of the refit and whether it is adding to the kind of targets the Minister needs to meet for the country.

As a former Minister of State with responsibility for enterprise, I reiterate that it is not good enough for the Minister to be sitting on the fence in respect of this project, leaving 130 jobs in abeyance and €95 million of investment literally in the ground. It is a project in respect of which many people were very happy to have their pictures taken. The project is needed for regional development and national targets in the area. I accept the independence of the regulator but it cannot be unaccountable either. I will pursue its appearance before an Oireachtas committee but the Minister's Department should engage and see if our pathway to reaching national targets in combined heat and power are being affected by the way the regulator does its business.

Under this scheme, we give a premium payment on the basis that high-efficiency combined heat and power is delivered. A biomass combustion generating electricity would get a much lower rate of electricity pricing if it did not meet certain criteria setting it aside as high-efficiency combined heat and power, displacing fossil fuels and so on. That is the basis on which the premium is payable and the state aid rules underpinning that are approved by the European Union. When it comes to the interpretation of whether a project has met those standards, it must done independently of the Government. Those are the established rules of the renewable energy feed-in tariff, REFIT, 3 scheme. Somebody must independently assess each project to see if it is delivering efficiencies, carbon reductions, fossil fuel replacement and so on that were intended by giving this additional state aid to it. The CRU does that.

I am fully confident the commission does this in a fair and objective way. I have not see the papers surrounding this and it would have been improper if I had seen them as it is entirely a matter for the CRU. Every project that comes in is fairly evaluated against these rules. Many projects have come in and been evaluated and not all are getting 100% certification. The Deputy has correctly said we must be attentive in achieving our climate targets, and I am determined to step up the pace of achievement for those targets, but it does not mean a Minister will interfere in the way in which existing rules or new rules developed to promote decarbonisation will be applied. This must be independent of the Government, and that is what the CRU is doing.

I know the Deputy wants more of an explanation but I can only offer the information I gave already. Either the company should approach the CRU or the Oireachtas could ask the CRU to explain how it handles these applications.