Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Tourism Funding

I brought a delegation from the Leitrim Tourism Network to meet the Minister last year about this issue. There has been a decline in tourism in the north west and the Border region in particular. There was a 16% decline last year. Brexit is part of the problem because traditionally that area has relied on tourism from Britain and that is a cross-Border issue we have faced over the past couple of years. The Minister indicated at that time that additional funding would be put in place and it was allocated in the budget but the reports I hear from the industry on the ground is that it sees little sign of the additional marketing it requires to try to enhance its tourism product, promote the area and attract more tourism. I would like some information as to the level of funding in place and on how it has been spent and where. The local authorities tell me they have not seen it, as do the tourism and hotel networks on the ground. We would like to know where the additional funding is and the impact it will have in the future.

I am grateful to the Deputy for raising this issue. I applaud the fact that he is consistently on this worthy case and I hope I will be able to satisfy the Deputy that the north west and Border regions are taken seriously in the realm of tourism.

At the outset, I must point out that, with the exception of supports for greenways projects, tourism development funding is channelled through Fáilte Ireland which is responsible for regional tourism development. Under the tourism action plan 2019-2021, Fáilte Ireland will continue to develop and enhance tourism experiences as part of Project Ireland 2040. The aim is to develop things to see and do and increase regional spread, extend the season and promote sustainable growth. This applies across the country, including to the north west and Border counties of Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth. Fáilte Ireland does this work through the relevant tourism experience brands such as the Wild Atlantic Way. These brands guide both the capital investment as well as current spending on festivals, events and marketing and other supports for the region. The north west and Border counties vary in their offerings to tourists and traverse a number of experience brands. These include the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands and Ireland’s Ancient East. Fáilte Ireland is investing in the tourism in these counties through the grants scheme for large tourism projects and, more recently, through platforms for growth, which I launched last month. The region has also received national and regional festival funding and business supports for tourism operators to respond to the challenges of Brexit as part of the package I secured in last year’s budget.

Last July, following publication of the strategy for the future development of national and regional greenways, the Minster of State, Deputy Griffin, and I announced a funding call for greenways. In response to the funding call under that strategy, I hope to be in a position to announce awarding of funding to the successful applicants in the coming weeks. However, a number of greenways in the north west and Border regions are already being developed. These are being co-funded by the INTERREG programme, the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure and my Department.

The north west greenways network project has been awarded €14.8 million, phase two of the Ulster Canal greenway project has received almost €5 million and the Carlingford Lough greenway project has been granted a total of €3.46 million.

Although these greenways are focusing on switching cross-Border journeys from car to bicycle, there will be tourism benefits from them all.

Fáilte Ireland is partnering with the Department of Rural and Community Development on the outdoor recreation infrastructure fund 2018, which has provided funding of almost €11 million for 78 projects across 24 counties, including counties Leitrim, Sligo, Donegal, Cavan and Mayo. In addition, Fáilte Ireland is working closely with that Department on the rural regeneration and development fund to deliver quality visitor experiences nationwide to ensure local communities can benefit economically and socially from tourism growth .

I am keenly aware how important British visitors are to the Border region and how Brexit could potentially impact on this. The Deputy will be interested to hear that last week the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, launched a new strategy to grow tourism from Britain to Ireland which was developed by the three tourism agencies on the island of Ireland. The strategy aims to grow revenue from British holidaymakers by over 25% to €705 million by 2022 and will be of particular benefit to north-western and Border counties. Tourism Ireland continues to promote the north west as part of its promotional programme in key markets overseas, including the Wild Atlantic Way and Causeway Coastal Route, and promotes direct access to the north west through co-operative marketing campaigns. These investments are crucial, not least because growing tourism across the country and the seasons is a key part of the Government’s tourism policy and I see great potential in this region to contribute to that ambition.

There have been some developments in recent times, particularly in the area of greenways, which are very welcome. We are awaiting funding for two greenways, one of which is the Sligo to Enniskillen greenway. I know the Minister visited the Ballroom of Romance in Glenfarne earlier this year and walked some of the greenway, or may have danced with somebody there, although we will not go into that. That greenway requires additional funding and would be of significant benefit because it is a cross-Border project. The proposal for a greenway which runs along the old railway line adjacent to what was the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal similarly requires funding.

One of the general issues which we continually encounter is that in addition to development in terms of infrastructure and product, the tourism product in the north west requires far more sustained and targeted promotion because there has been a fall off in visitor numbers. A representative of the Leitrim Tourism Network told me today that he or she had spoken to people in Donegal and Strabane, where he or she visited a hotel. All of the people with whom the representative consulted stated that there has been a fall-off in bookings this year and there are fewer people visiting the region. The same situation pertains throughout the Border area and in the north west in particular. The only way to arrest that decline is to have a targeted programme of investment in promotions and getting tourism providers and other people in the area out to meet the visitors who will stay and contribute to the product in the area. Those involved in tourism in the area told me that continental tourists are a key area for them. Although they welcome the initiative referred to by the Minister to increase the number of British holidaymakers by more than 25%, many told me that, particularly in the context of Brexit, that will be a very difficult hill to climb and that greater emphasis needs to be placed on continental tourists, particularly those from France and Germany, who traditionally visited the region. There is great potential to bring them back again. They know the area and have been there before. If we can, we should try to work more on promotion, particularly of the Wild Atlantic Way and the Hidden Heartlands, as well as more generally in the north west where we have a tremendous product and need to get more tourists from continental Europe to visit.

The Deputy will be aware that announcements on the greenways will be made very shortly, including announcements on what is happening in his area. That will probably take place within the next two weeks. I do not want to promise that but-----

I am writing it down.

-----the Deputy can anticipate that there will very shortly be information on the greenways. A total of 22 applications were received from 15 local authorities on the greenway strategy, including applications from the north west and Border counties. There were three applications from County Donegal, one from County Mayo, one for the Sligo greenway, one from Leitrim County Council for the Sligo, Leitrim and northern counties railway greenway and one from Louth County Council for a Dundalk-Blackrock greenway. There was also an application from Meath County Council for a greenway that terminates in Kingscourt, County Cavan, of which the Deputy may be aware.

The Government takes the points made by the Deputy about the north west very seriously. I understand that he pointed out that some of the numbers are down. We are very conscious of that and are particularly conscious of the difficulties presented to his area by Brexit. It should be pointed out that in addition to making commitments to the greenways, we have invested a significant amount of capital in the north west and Border counties, including large grant schemes and further opportunities for Fáilte Ireland capital support. I do not know whether the Deputy needs reminding of examples of Fáilte Ireland capital investment in the north west and Border counties. In County Donegal, the Fanad Head lighthouse experience received €469,000 and €396,000 was allocated to visitor facilities at Malin Head. In Country Sligo, the Strandhill surfing centre of excellence received more than €1 million, the Carrowmore Neolithic sites was allocated €262,000 and a grant of €201,000 was made in respect of the Sligo pontoon. In County Leitrim, €212,250 was allocated for Lough Rynn and €162,750 was granted in respect of Glencar lake and waterfall. Although the Deputy probably has legitimate cause for making his case, which he makes very strongly and well, particularly in the context of Brexit, it is important that the message does not go out that we somehow have a blind spot for the north west - we do not.

Areas of Natural Constraint Scheme Review

A review of the areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme has been ongoing for several years. I acknowledge the work carried out by the Department in the review. It did its best to get the maximum number of farmers and amount of farmland included in the scheme. Two weeks ago, Fianna Fáil representatives met departmental officials who explained the appeals process to us. All reviews lead to anomalies and hard luck cases, and I wish to focus on such cases.

Some 700 townlands fell out of the scheme, having been deemed ineligible this time around. Some 2,200 formerly excluded areas have been deemed eligible. Obviously, from an economic point of view, that is a good financial gain. In my county of Tipperary, there are several farmers in certain townlands who feel hard done by. The strictness of the appeals process will make it very difficult for them to be successful. In a particular area of my county, there are several fairly significant dairy farmers in townlands who are farming on difficult lands. They spent a lot of money through the years draining, improving and maintaining that land. The land carries with it a cost as regards cost of production because there is later turnout and earlier housing of stock, as well as the cost of keeping the drains maintained. Those farmers are being excluded from the ANC scheme even though we were told that they would qualify on the basis of the physical criteria of their land. However, they are being excluded because of their stocking rate. That is extremely unfair. The impression was given at the start that if one's land met the physical criteria, one would qualify as the review would be strictly based on the physical criteria of the land. There are farmers in these areas whose lands are adjacent to intensive dairy farmers, but far less intensively stocked. They are being excluded because of the farming practices of neighbouring farmers. That must be looked at and addressed. My understanding of the guidelines for the appeals process is that it will be extremely difficult to address that issue.

Another group of farmers who feel aggrieved is those whose land is flooded on a fairly frequent basis. They are not being accommodated under the review of the ANC scheme.

Some farmers' land is flooded three or four times a year. Last summer's weather was an exception. There are flood plains, whether they border the River Suir or any other major river, that are flooded frequently. Again, the farmers affected feel very hard done by that this is not a criterion for inclusion in the scheme.

As I said, I am not here to score political points against the Minister of State but to highlight the fact that, as is always the case with reviews, there are hard luck cases and people who fall outside of the remit of the review. There are farmers who have invested a lot of money in improving land that was marginal. I feel very strongly that that land is still disadvantaged, even though it gives a very green image. As I said, the farmers affected farm intensively and have the land that is highly stocked, but that land carries a cost of production and that these farmers are being excluded on the basis of the stocking rate when their land meets the physical criteria is wrong.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I acknowledge his complimentary comments about the departmental officials in how they sought to ensure as many people as possible could be included under the new criteria.

The areas of natural constraint, ANC, scheme was introduced under the rural development programme 2014-20 as a replacement for the disadvantaged areas and less favoured areas schemes which had been in place since 1975. The scheme was originally introduced in recognition of the fact that farmers in particular areas were faced with challenges related to lower productivity and higher production costs compared with farmers in other areas. The ANC scheme is an important support for the 95,000 farmers across the country who receive the payment annually in addressing cash-flow issues. In recognition of its importance, the annual budget for the ANC scheme was increased by €23 million in 2018 and by €23 million in 2019, bringing the total annual budget for the scheme to €250 million.

The scheme is implemented around a tiered payment structure which recognises the different levels of constraint experienced on differing land types. Under the 2019 scheme, those farming on category 1 lands, previously called mountain-type land, will receive €148 per hectare for the first 12 forage hectares, with €112 on remaining hectares up to a maximum of 34 ha. Farmers with category 2 land, previously called more severely handicapped lowland, will be paid €111 on the first ten forage hectares and €104 on remaining hectares up to a maximum of 30 ha. Those with category 3 land, previously called less severely handicapped lowland, will be paid €93 on their first eight forage hectares and €88.25 on remaining hectares up to a maximum of 30 ha. These new rates represent an increase across all land categories, with the higher support being targeted at the greatest constraint.

The ANC scheme has had a long history of review and refinement since its introduction. From the first EU review of the scheme in 1976 through to the fifth review in 1996, Ireland has been successful in increasing the number of hectares eligible under the scheme, from just under 4 million ha to over 5 million ha, and incrementally increasing the level of funding available under the scheme.

Until 2018, under the Common Agricultural Policy, lands eligible under the ANC scheme were defined based on a range of socio-economic indicators such as family farm income, population density, percentage of working population engaged in agriculture and stocking density. This approach has now changed on foot of new EU regulations. From 2019, eligible areas under the ANC scheme must instead be designated using a set list of biophysical criteria. Under this change, where a member state has not introduced the new system for payment, the regulation sets out that the old scheme remains in place but payments must phase out on a digressive basis, which would result in significant cuts in payments. The purpose of this change in approach is linked with a concern at EU level that areas were not being designated as disadvantaged in a consistent manner across the various member states.

The biophysical criteria set out in the legislation to underpin the new system of designation are low temperature; dryness; excess soil moisture; limited soil drainage; unfavourable texture and stoniness; shallow rooting depth; poor chemical properties; and steep slope. The Department undertook the process of identifying eligible areas at townland level. Essentially, where the agricultural lands in a townland display one or more of the biophysical criteria listed and meet the 60% threshold set in the regulation, they are identified as constrained.

In parallel to this biophysical approach, two processes set out in the EU regulations were used to refine the identification of eligible land. First, a number of areas were identified as having "overcome the constraint" by reference to high levels of stocking density and arable land cover and are thus not eligible under the 2019 ANC scheme. This is referred to as "fine-tuning" in the EU regulations and was a mandatory step for all member states. Second, some areas were identified as eligible for the 2019 ANC scheme as they faced other specific constraints. In Ireland's case, this process identified townlands as eligible areas of specific environmental importance and townlands facing structural issues related to farm size, field size, farm fragmentation and the level of permanent pasture.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, but to get to the heart of the issue, land that qualified under the biophysical criteria is now, because of the fine-tuning, being excluded from the scheme. There is not a huge number of such cases, but my understanding of the appeals process is that farmers have no hope of winning an appeal, which is extremely unfair. If the land qualified under the biophysical criteria, we are obliged to ensure the farmers concerned are made eligible under the scheme. The Minister of State said farmers' lands had overcome their disadvantage. The criteria were used and the farmers showed that the lands still met the biophysical criteria and the 60% threshold; therefore, the fine-tuning is changing the goalposts. As I said, I am not laying the blame at the door of the officials on Kildare Street because they have done all in their power to ensure the maximum number of farmers qualify, but I am laying it at the door of those in Brussels. To introduce this fine-tuning to take farmers who have satisfied the physical criteria out of the scheme is wrong and the appeals process will not rectify the position. As I said, when there is a review, there are always people who are unhappy, but the farmers in question have a ustifiable case. They have extra costs of production which, to me, makes their land eligible for ANC payments. It is wrong of those in Brussels to introduce this fine-tuning. The clear understanding of farmers on the ground was that the biophysical criteria were to be the only determining factors. The Minister of State was right when he said the last time there was a review of disadvantaged areas, as they were formerly known, there were many criteria that could take farmers out of the scheme. Even population density was used as a reason for inclusion or exclusion. That was also very unfair. As I said, there are farmers in district electoral divisions who have the misfortune to be located beside intensive farmers and who are being excluded from the scheme, which is extremely unfair. The review taking place must allow the farmers who met the biophysical criteria to receive payments. It is a big ask, but it is in Brussels that we must win this argument. We need to take it back to Brussels and say we have a small number of farmers who meet the biophysical criteria but who are being excluded because of stocking rate. That is not fair.

I will finish some of the statistics. The Department received 1,537 appeal notifications in respect of 759 distinct townlands. The closing date for receipt of such appeal notifications was 8 April. I am told that the relevant information underpinning the decision on the relevant townlands has been provided in response to all of the appeal notifications and that, to date, the Department has received 376 full appeals to the independently chaired appeals committee in respect of 273 townlands.

There are two criteria and one is stocking density, which as the Deputy noted had the effect of fine-tuning out people. There is also a fine-tuning of people to be included as well.

We will not concentrate on that.

I am just making the point that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Member states can designate an area of up to 10% of the area in their territory. This approach was taken to designate the offshore islands in 2015. Areas with specific constraint are those where 50% of the district electoral division, DED, is covered by Natura 2000 directive lands and the natural heritage areas, where the landholding in the DED is in multiple blocks and fragmented, and where the average farm size in a DED is less than 80% of the national average, or 25.5 ha. The areas also include locations where more than 50% of the townland is in permanent grassland and the average field size is less than 4 ha. Criteria were used to keep areas in this.

I accept there are always difficult cases but the Department officials went to the Commission and had quite a job in persuading its officials that this would be in line with the Commission's demand for member states to be consistent in how they designate these areas. The 10% allowed some flexibility but we can see how they had to justify the balance. I accept the matter is not sitting well in some areas but the net result is that 760 are out but more than 2,200 are in. The coverage under areas of natural constraint has seen a net increase.

Deputy Kelly is not yet here to speak to his issue, and although Deputy Wallace is here to speak on the national children's hospital, there is no Minister of State here to reply to him. It is Thursday, which is normally the day for the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne. As we are running a little ahead of schedule we can suspend for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended at 4.55 p.m. and resumed at 4.58 p.m.

National Children's Hospital

In the absence of Deputy Kelly, we will take the item in the name of Deputy Wallace. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, for being here for her normal Thursday evening slot.

This will probably be my last Topical Issue matter so I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing it and the Minister of State for taking it. I have said many times that I find it a bit unfair on the Minister of State that she is wheeled out on a Thursday evening to listen to all and sundry on different matters.

I have covered this topic so many times in recent months and struggled to get answers. The Minister of State has probably not brought them with her either. On the previous day with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, I asked 25 questions and he answered two of them poorly, leaving 23 unanswered. I did not get any answers to them since. The Government's handling of the children's hospital issue is one of the most disappointing things I have seen in my eight years in here, and it would probably only be beaten by the tolerance of what went on in the National Asset Management Agency in that time.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers report indicated it was not a good idea to retender but provided no evidence as to why that was the case. It was incredibly disappointing. The Tánaiste told me when I asked him about this that a gross underestimate that should have been flagged earlier was evident. Public benchmarking gives advance estimation of what the works would cost, but when I inquired about who decided not to do this public benchmarking, I was not told. I do not understand why people cannot answer questions. I have asked so many questions about the nature of the contract, and although I have received some written answers, there is still confusion about it. I realise at this stage that a bespoke contract was used rather than the black and white construction works management framework, which is a disaster. For the life of me I still do not understand why the Government has not abandoned it.

I have heard politicians and the media discussing what we heard at yesterday's committee meeting and it is making me pull out my hair.

It is being said that because construction inflation may have exceeded 4%, the contractor will be allowed to charge so much extra. Why was inflation removed from being the contractor's risk? That does not make sense. Why was the 4% figure used? Who made this decision, which means if there is inflation above 4%, the contractor is entitled to more money. The FIDIC contract template was recommended as best international practice, and if this had been used we could have attracted European contractors rather than the couple of fish in a bowl in Ireland.

However, FIDIC set the benchmark at 12% or 13% before the problems of construction inflation would kick in. For the life of me can someone in Government tell me who made the call that the benchmark would be 4%?

The talk yesterday was that construction inflation is the big problem and so on. That is rubbish. It is part of the problem. We are not talking about a cost of €1.7 billion. The cost will not stop at €2 billion. The Government does not have a clue where it will stop because of the nature of the arrangements it has made. The nature of the contract is so poor it cannot know where the price will stop. How can that be a satisfactory arrangement for the Government? It is beyond me. I do not understand how the Government can possibly stand over it.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris. I begin by congratulating Deputy Wallace on his election as an MEP to the European Parliament. I wish him well. I am sure we will still hear his voice loud and clear from across the waters.

I want to remind the House of the significant progress that has been made on this project. After false starts and failures to build this hospital over many years, difficult issues such as planning, completing the enabling and underground works and contract negotiations have been dealt with and this project is now in the major construction phase.

Considerable work has already been undertaken on the project with Phase B, above ground works, well under way at the St. James’s site. Works at the paediatric outpatients and urgent care centre at Connolly Hospital are complete and the centre is on target for a phased opening from the end of July. Works at Tallaght outpatient department, OPD, urgent care centre are also under way with a target hand over date of July 2020.

The contract in place to build the hospital has allowed early phases of work to start while the detail on later phases was finalised and agreed, resulting in a saving in total delivery time. Another advantage of the contract approach is that it has brought issues on cost to the fore much earlier in the life of the project than is the case where traditional procurement approaches are deployed.

The contractors are now required to take all risk for quantities thereafter and their recovery of additional costs is limited to clearly defined scope changes and, post July 2019, inflation in excess of 4%. Given the cost escalation of this project over that originally committed to by Government in 2017, three options were considered in December 2018 for completing Phase B: carry on with the current contractor, retender in the hope of getting a lower quote, or break up the contract into smaller parts and retender.

The realistic and least risky option available to the Government in order to avoid long delay and, potentially, the non-delivery of a children’s hospital was to carry on with the current contractor for Phase B. Any change now would definitely create delay, very likely cost increases and significant contractual difficulties. All of these presuppose that other contractors would want to take on this project, which is not at all certain in the current construction environment.

As Deputies will be aware, the PwC report of the independent review into the escalation in the cost of the new children’s hospital was considered by Government on Tuesday, 9 April, and published that same day.

The Government noted the recommendations of the report and agreed that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Health would revert to Government to outline an implementation plan for the recommendations contained in the report. Work in regard to this implementation plan is ongoing.

Any consideration of retendering at this stage ignores the contractual position, the substantial work done to date and runs the risk of delaying if not outright derailing this much-needed facility.

The focus now is on the enhancement of the delivery and oversight arrangements to reduce the risk of future cost increases to the greatest extent possible. This is a vital and much-needed project that will have a transformative effect on the provision of paediatric care in Ireland. I will respond to Deputy Wallace's questions.

The Minister of State said that the realistic and least risky option available to the Government to avoid long delay and potentially the non-delivery of a children's hospital was to carry on regardless. I do not accept that. The notion that the hospital will not be built is untrue. It will be built by somebody and if the Government improved the contract, it would save a lot of money. That is a fact.

Given that so many mistakes have been made, and the Government has accepted it has made many mistakes, how come nobody is being held responsible? Why are the legal team, Cantor Fitzgerald, not being held to account? Do they not have insurance? I do not understand that. There is no sense to it. If the Government is not going to hold consultants to account when they fuck up, it should stop hiring them. The idea of hiring consultants is to ensure they will take responsibility for their decisions. We are hiring consultants and paying them crazy amounts of money but not asking them to be accountable for what they did. We are not calling in the professional indemnity. Why were they hired in the first place? The Government says it will learn from these mistakes. I do not believe it will. If it cannot hold private consultants to account I suggest it stops hiring them. I suggest the Government should hire people of quality to work in Departments who have the know-how to be able to deal with these problems.

I refer to the people who oversaw what went on with the children's hospital - the contract and the way the board worked. It is nonsense. The Government is putting up with it, and it is losing this country hundreds of millions of euro. If it retendered it could change that but it does not want to retender because it would not look good and the project might be stalled while the Government parties are running in the next election. That is nonsense and it is not the way to run a country. I am being serious.

I cannot get over the fact that the Government has managed this project so poorly. There are so many questions that have not been answered. I would say I have asked 50 questions in this House that were not answered. There is so much confusion about everything. The Government is now hiding behind consultants who gave bad advice and a board that is not accountable. How laughable is it that a guy who was involved with an illegal board - with McCann Fitzgerald - and who was on the hospital board is now moving over to the Land Development Agency? How many mistakes does someone have to make in these bodies before the Government stops offering them work in other bodies? I predict that the Land Development Agency will be another part of the problem. It will be another quango that will not deliver for the people in the same way this hospital board has not delivered. The consultants who were hired and paid crazy amounts of money in terms of the children's hospital have not been held to account and have not come up with goodies. When will things change? This is absolute rubbish.

I thank Deputy Wallace. I am sorry that I cannot answer some of the detailed questions he has asked but I will relay them to the Minister.

I fundamentally disagree with the Deputy on the way the project has been run from the outset. We are not just talking about a building. It is about having a facility for all the children of Ireland. It is about having a facility in a community that I know personally has changed the lives of people who are working in the construction industry now. There are many tentacles, so to speak, to this project besides building the new national children's hospital. It is about a community being revitalised as well. I have no other opinion on that.

The independent review of the cost of the new national children's hospital undertaken by PwC pointed out that a project of the complexity of the hospital can never be fully de-risked. The report states that a number of risk areas remain that have the potential to place further cost pressures on the budget, some of which are outside the control of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board. One risk related to construction inflation and further likely costs arising from the impact of excessive inflation post July 2019, that is, in excess of 4%, as provided in the contract and measured using the average of the published tender price index. The primary focus of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board is to manage risk with a view to preventing further cost escalations.

The establishment of the new children's hospital provides a unique opportunity to introduce the new model of care for all paediatric services to help tackle current and future challenges in child health and deliver the huge advantages that are possible in children's healthcare.

As someone who lives quite close to the new national children's hospital, I note the impact it will have, not only on the lives of many children from across the country, but also on those of the community in an area which has been left behind over many years.

That is ignoring the point of my question.

One speaker at a time, Deputy.

I do not know of any project in the time of this Government or the last, or the one before that, that did not exceed some of its costs. The Government and the Minister for Health have given a commitment that every precaution will be taken to reduce the risk of inflation. Ultimately, when this is completed we will have an excellent hospital, probably one of the best in Europe if not the world. I welcome that on the Government's behalf and the many children who will use it. As a mother and grandparent who has spent many days in and out of Crumlin hospital, the opportunity that awaits the children and the staff of this new hospital will overcome any overspend.

I welcome that Deputy Wallace has come to the House this afternoon for what might be the last time. I wish him every success as a member of the European Parliament. There are many things which he and his colleagues of every party and none can advance for Ireland, including in health. I wish him all the best.

Regeneration Projects Funding

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for taking the question. Tipperary town and the issues it faces have been discussed in this House for many years by myself and many other Deputies from Tipperary. People feel it has not had any economic bounce in recent years, and that when it comes to priorities, Tipperary is a town that has been forgotten. There are various social issues and a lack of infrastructure. The N24 bypass has not been developed around the town. It is a town with a great history and fantastic people. It is located in a special part of the country. There is great tourist potential up the road. It is close to the hub of Limerick. It has a rail service and a gas line. It is on a main thoroughfare. It has access to educational facilities nearby. It has a lot going for it but economically and socially it has suffered. There is a crazy scenario where we cannot get DEIS status for schools there, something we have discussed here previously.

I applaud that the Government decided to appoint a taskforce for Tipperary town and has appointed a chairperson, Alison Harvey. Her appointment was welcomed universally across the town and area and by all the Deputies here. However, despite having held several initial meetings, Alison Harvey cannot do her work because she has not been provided with funding. She has no resources. I have spoken to her at length and she is very much enthused about this work. She believes there is great potential in the town. A team of students from Queen's University Belfast are in the town as I speak examining how the town might be improved, the footfall in the town and at the town centre and how it might be regenerated, and potential benefits.

We very much welcome Ms Harvey's appointment and the plan that she will put in place. We welcome her enthusiasm and the structure around the work she wants to undertake. She has exceptional ability and I have dealt with her on other projects in the past. She gets things done. Contrary to what was said here in the last 48 hours in response to other Deputies, I wish to leave here with a positive news and information that the funding for the task force will be provided by this Government. In the grand scheme of things, for a town that has been let down, it is not a huge amount of funding but would have a dramatic impact. I know the Minister of State is himself familiar with the town, and has turned up to public meetings which I also attended. Fair play to him, he is a near neighbour. I have been in discussions with his colleague, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy and the Minister of State, Deputy English whose interest in this I wish to acknowledge. I ask the Minister of State to give the House some positive news that funding is being provided for the task force and that it will be able to get to work immediately because we all want that and want to work with them.

I am taking this question for the Minister of State, Deputy English and the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy who are unable to attend. As Deputy Kelly noted, Tipperary town is a town I know very well. I could not agree more with him about the town. It has many things going for it but it is equally true that even during the Celtic tiger years it was a town which was behind the curve of much of what was happening in the country. I was in the House when the question he asked was referred to and I am glad that I have some good news for him.

Supporting the development and growth of towns and villages across Ireland is a major priority for the Government and to this end policy interventions are being pursued across a number of Departments and are being implemented by local authorities around the country. In particular, €2 billion is available under the urban regeneration and development fund, with a further €1 billion available under the rural regeneration and development fund.

The national planning framework, which underpins Project Ireland 2040, clearly articulates the importance of making our cities, towns and villages more attractive and liveable in order to offer a quality of life that is improved for those who live or want to live in those towns. It emphasises the need to regenerate and rejuvenate urban centres to provide for increased population and employment activity and enhanced levels of amenity and design quality in order to sustainably influence and support their surrounding areas. It is precisely these outcomes that the Government and Departments are supporting under the national planning framework and the various funds that are available.

Community interaction and engagement in this process is essential and it is very encouraging to see the level of local commitment to the rejuvenation of Tipperary town as evidenced by the establishment of a Tipperary town centre forum, a local initiative which is supported by Tipperary County Council

The Minister of State, Deputy English, has taken a keen interest in the issue and met with local stakeholders and officials from Tipperary County Council on 24 January to discuss how a three-year action plan could be developed, and then delivered, for the town.

It is proposed to engage specific planning expertise to support the development of an action plan for the town and to carry out a consultation exercise to allow all stakeholders in the town to input into the overall process. A key output of the action plan will be the identification and development of key rejuvenation projects for which the strongest possible bids can be submitted for funding under the national funding programmes.

A submission from Tipperary County Council seeking funding to support the forum has been considered by my Department and I can confirm that my Department will provide financial assistance to the council to assist with the costs of bringing in expertise to help drive the regeneration project. This funding will allow specific planning and stakeholder expertise to be brought in, as well as dedicated project management expertise to support the overall process.

A funding allocation has been ring-fenced within the Department and will be communicated to the council shortly, together with the finalisation of the council's own expected contribution from its own resources. This amount will be made public when it has been communicated to the council in Tipperary.

It is not every day that I compliment a Minster of State on coming to the Chamber with positive news but I do appreciate it.

Basically, in the past 48 hours, we have had confirmation that the funding is in place. I will not die in the ditch over the announcement of the amount, but I presume the amount is appropriate to the submission that was put in by Alison Harvey working with Tipperary County Council based on the meeting in January. The Minister of State might refer to that in his reply. I presume the amount will be announced once the letter has gone to the council in the coming 24 or 48 hours. It is appropriate that the council would be notified first. Pat Slattery, the man working on this, and his team will be notified. I will take the word of the Minister of State that this is what will happen. If I am wrong, he might let me know, but I take it that is the position. I have no problem with his colleagues making the announcement as long as it happens. That is not something I will die in the ditch over.

This is important and I appreciate the Minister of State coming back with positive information. I am focused on the economic issues because I believe the social issues can be addressed with an economic stimulus. Economically, this town has great potential. I have worked with Corajio Limited to create the Sky Innovation Park, which is a massive retail building that has been re-orientated to become an inward investment site. A range of former retail units is available and the planning designation has been changed.

Which road is that on?

It is off the roundabout on the Limerick road. It is a fantastic building. IDA Ireland officials have it on their list and officials in Enterprise Ireland are aware of it. Considerable work has gone into it. The point is to get investment into Tipperary town following this work, especially through IDA Ireland. Limerick gets so many jobs, and I welcome that as a mid-west person, but Tipperary town, like Nenagh, is only out the road. There are fantastic assets there as well as fantastic people and fantastic educational opportunities. We should be able to market the town. If we do that and get one anchor tenant to bring several hundred jobs into this town in the next year or two, these developments will serve as the stimulus to change the town. It is a fabulous town already but it would be a better town and more prosperous economically in future with these developments. That would address many of the issues there now.

I confirm for the Deputy that the Department will provide financial assistance to the council. As I understand it, the assistance will be in line with the submission received. The details will be communicated to the council first but they should be communicated to the wider public as soon as possible thereafter.

I could not agree more with the Deputy about Tipperary - this coming from a Kilkenny man. I have always been struck driving through. I was in Tipperary town a good deal in recent months in the run-up to the plebiscite in Limerick. I was passing through a good deal. In fairness, Tipperary County Council has invested money in the Limerick road and on improving the streetscape there. I know the building to which the Deputy is referring. It has been idle for some time but it would be perfect for the type of investment he is talking about.

Not only will the Department provide the funding but that funding has been ring-fenced. What is happening at present is the finalisation of the Tipperary County Council contribution. Once that is done and the letter is communicated, then the public, the Deputy and everyone in Tipperary will know as well.