Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Hospital Beds Closures

The Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, is aware of St. Mary's Hospital in the Phoenix Park and the important role it plays in community healthcare across the Dublin region.

It provides an important discharge facility for patients of the Mater hospital, Connolly Hospital, Beaumont Hospital and other hospitals across the city. It acts as a bridge between the acute hospital system and people returning home after a stroke, people with dementia or an acute intervention in the hospital system. It helps people who are well but who need that bridge to facilitate their discharge into the community.

A combination of serious issues have arisen in recent weeks due to the cuts to home help being matched with the reduction in the number of beds. A total of 27 beds in St. Mary's Hospital have been cut. They include eight community respite beds that provide positive support for people in the community who might have dementia or a disability and 19 other beds that provide a spill-over for many of the hospitals across the Dublin region. The beds are a significant loss. The perception among staff at the hospital is that this is a cost-containment measure and another example of mismanagement on the part of the HSE of the overall budget whereby the acute hospitals absorb the majority of funding. The safety valve that exists for so many elderly people is now being removed. They will be left on trolleys in the hospital system for longer despite being medically well. What has the HSE done in terms of forward planning so that such beds are kept open? The very essence of Sláintecare and Government policy is to keep community beds open and to enhance the capacity for healthcare in the community not to undermine it. The cut is aggressive. It is a blunt instrument in terms of the approach to Sláintecare and it deserves a proper explanation. It requires a reversal of the cut or a replacement of beds because it will adversely impact on communities across Dublin.

I wish to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, if this is what the Fine Gael recovery is about, that 27 medical step-down and respite beds in St. Mary's Hospital in the Phoenix Park will be closed by July. Staff have been told that will happen. Essentially, the reason is cost containment, in other words, cutbacks.

As Deputy Jack Chambers outlined, the patients who are catered for in the facility are from many hospitals, which will also be affected by the closure, for example, Connolly Hospital, the Mater hospital, and patients in need of emergency admission for social or other reasons. A significant number of patients are admitted for blood transfusions, treatment for infections, dementia, wounds, malnutrition and rehabilitation. In the absence of those beds, patients will have to remain in accident and emergency departments, adding to the acute crisis in them, and waiting on trolleys.

One member of staff who contacted me about the proposed closure of the unit, because they were so concerned, said they had no doubt some patients would die waiting for care. The effect on patients is obvious, but there will also be an effect on staff. We have just witnessed a major strike by nurses and midwives who were told that their conditions were of concern to the Government and the situation at St. Mary's Hospital will add to their demoralisation. When one combines this with the cuts to the home care package, people see it as a stark contrast to the overspends we hear about every week at the national children's hospital. In the past the Minister argued that bed closures were necessary, even though that was never the case. The top 300 in this country have €87 billion in wealth between them. It has increased 10% on last year. Meanwhile, ordinary, elderly patients are suffering this kind of humiliation in hospitals.

Unfortunately, the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, who has responsibility for mental health and older people, cannot be here so I am taking this matter on behalf of him. I thank Deputies Jack Chambers and Coppinger for raising the issue.

Social care services, including home care, daycare and short-stay residential care are all important components in enabling people to remain living at home and participating in their own communities. They also provide valuable supports to carers. The Government is committed to supporting people to live in dignity and independence in their own homes and communities for as long as possible.

Where that is not feasible, the health service supports access to long-term residential care, where appropriate, and we will continue to develop and improve health services in all regions of the country to ensure quality and patient safety. There is an obvious need to provide high quality and flexible services that not only best meets the needs of individual clients, but also reduces pressures elsewhere on the wider health system such as acute hospitals or on long-term residential care.

Public nursing units provide 5,000 long-stay residential care beds nationally. There are also approximately 2,000 short-stay community public beds providing a combination of step-up and step-down care, intermediate care, rehabilitation and respite care. Short-term beds contribute to the provision of an integrated model of care for older people, enabling them to return home following a period of hospital care or postponing admission to long-stay residential care.

The Health Service Executive has operational responsibility for the delivery of health and social services, including those at facilities such as St. Mary's Hospital in the Phoenix Park. The hospital provides 150 long-term residential beds, located across two modern, purpose-built units, and registered with the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA. That is the maximum number allowable under HIQA registration conditions.

The hospital also has 75 sub-acute beds or short-stay beds, located separately in the main hospital building, dating from the 18th century. They include ten specialist stroke rehabilitation beds, 22 rehabilitation beds to support step-down from acute hospital, 20 transitional care, eight respite and 15 community response beds.

Following a recent health and safety assessment, issues have arisen regarding flooring and electrical works in one of the wards. To comply with legislative requirements, and in the best interests of patients and safety, the HSE needs to close the ward on a phased basis with effect from I July 2019. There will be some reduction in access to transitional care beds from acute settings, however, all patients will remain in the hospital until their current care is completed. The Department has also been assured that all commitments for booked respite care will be honoured and plans are being put in place to that effect. Staff were advised of this decision through their line management structure and they will be reassigned within the hospital.

The HSE has advised the Department that significant capital is required to address the health and safety issues and the HSE is developing a capital project plan to address the risks identified in this old building. The HSE has a clear responsibility to deliver services ensuring that the highest standard of care continues to be provided to all patients in a safe and secure environment.

The primary focus must be on the patient. Engagement with patients, their families, staff, union representatives and other relevant stakeholders is ongoing to ensure there is minimal impact on all concerned during the closure of the ward.

The Minister of State's words are the opposite of the reality. She stated that she will enable people to live at home and that she is committed to supporting people living in dignity and independence. These cuts are the opposite of that. The Government continues to do that, despite a €17 billion budget. The perception among the staff is that the health and safety report suited the cutting agenda when it came to community care beds. There is a reduction in the number of transitional care beds and that is a shocking development in community healthcare across the Dublin region at a time when we are aware of the level of demand and the necessity to facilitate discharges.

It was not last week, when the announcement was made, that the HSE first discovered that this is an 18th century building. Where was the forward planning unit? It knew that any 18th century building would give rise to health and safety concerns, but the HSE has allowed the building to fall into its current state and is using that as a means to facilitate the cutting agenda because it cannot manage its budget. Again, that is poor planning and evidence of a rudderless health policy. Sláintecare is further away than ever, particularly as St. Mary's is what Sláintecare means to the local community in west Dublin.

With a sleight of hand, the Minister of State has tried to give the impression that the patients will be released on a phased basis. However, that will be the end of the ward. The Department is not even going to try to refurbish it if safety is really its concern. The staff member who alerted us to this is very experienced and has worked at St. Mary's for several years. As long as she has been there, the staff have heard about this safety issue, but they were told there was no money to refurbish. Now there is plenty of money. It was pointed out that there is no need for any patient to lose a bed or for patients not to be catered for because there are empty wards throughout the hospital. With very little work people could be put into them. However, the Minister for Health has decided that these 27 beds will be phased out or closed down. There has been no mention of refurbishment or updating them. Some 300 people are catered for in this unit. That 300 will have an impact on other hospitals. One of the fears is that they will no longer be able to have the transfusions carried out in the Mater Hospital and that the hospital will lose the link with the Mater Hospital, which will impact on the small hospital overall.

The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, was mentioned. It is a pity he is not present. He is probably off getting his picture taken at one of these facilities, as I have seen him do in Clonakilty and other places. However, the current residents in the Phoenix Park will not be able to stay there.

There have been no cutbacks to home help services. I work daily in my community seeking home help services and I and the people I represent have never been turned down so I do not know where that is coming from.

It is from September.

I am very familiar with St. Mary's Hospital because members of my family stayed there in the past for long-term respite care. We can all agree that the quality of care for patients comes first. All patients should receive the same high standard of quality assured care. The decision to close the ward was based solely on health and safety concerns. I cannot emphasise that enough. It was not taken lightly and was not taken as a cost saving measure. The measures were taken to promote and protect service users' safety. That is very important.

The ward is in an old part of the hospital and significant capital development is required to address the risks identified. The HSE has confirmed that a capital development project plan will be drawn up as part of the normal capital planning process in order to address the issues and recommence services at this location. The HSE has assured the Department that engagement with patients, their families, staff, union representatives and other relevant stakeholders is ongoing in order to ensure that minimal impact on all concerned is achieved during the closure of the ward. The HSE confirms that staff will be reassigned within the hospital and all commitments made in respect of further respite care will be honoured. I do not know how more clearly the two Deputies wish me to put it.

The ward is being closed.

This is a health and safety issue and the ward is being closed for that reason. It is not a cost cutting matter.

It will not be reopened.

It is clear that the Deputies need to reflect on some the words that have been said. I am not responsible for the reply I have given, but I stand over it wholeheartedly. I know people who are being cared for in St. Mary's Hospital and the quality of care is exceptional.

Why not reopen the ward?

Primary Care Centres Provision

Níl aon rud pearsanta ann ach tá mé míshásta nach bhfuil an tAire féin anseo. An uair dheireanach a bhí Saincheist Tráthúla agam, ní raibh an tAire ann ach an oiread agus bhí mé ag caint ar an ábhar seo ansin fosta.

The Minister of State might not be aware of it but there are no child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, in north Louth. Sin é. Children who need CAMHS must travel to Drogheda for them. Despite the best efforts of the staff at Ladywell Daycare Centre in Dundalk it is impossible to deliver proper and effective community mental health services from a facility that is old, decrepit and unfit for purpose. I have been raising my concerns about this issue for years.

A new primary care centre for Dundalk was first announced in 2008 when the HSE advertised for expressions of interest to develop a centre. Over ten years later, not a brick has been laid. Information from the HSE, the Department of Health and the Minister has been confused and conflicting. In November 2016 I was advised, in response to a parliamentary question, that it was hoped the operational lease process for the primary care centre would be completed in the first quarter of 2017. In August 2018, I was told that the planning application would be submitted by the end of 2018, work would commence in 2019 and the centre would be open early in 2020. In April, in response to another Topical Issue matter I raised, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, indicated:

Louth-Meath mental health services are currently looking at a new town centre location in Dundalk with a view to providing improved CAMHS to north Louth. The HSE is hopeful that this will come on-stream toward the end of the year.

This was news to everyone. It is was the last anyone heard of it.

When I queried this information, I was told, in a letter Mr. David Walsh, the national director of community operations, last week, that disability services are now seeking space in the primary care centre. There was no mention of the town centre location. While I would welcome disability services being in the primary care centre, why was this not part of the original plan? I was also told that this new development has resulted in a requirement to review the project, that this has resulted in a delay and that the new updated proposal will require additional approval from the HSE property resource group, that is, the additional space that is now considered required. Last Friday, two days later, I received a letter from the Minister which states that a preferred provider was identified and a letter of intent issued last August. The Minister repeats that the Dundalk primary care centre is at design stage, but he makes no mention of the disability services now being part of the proposed centre. He does not mention the need to review the project or that the project will be delayed. It would appear that the Minister does not know what is happening with Dundalk primary care centre.

Incompetence has been a mark of this Government. Such incompetence leaves the most vulnerable in our society behind. The lack of child and adolescent mental health services for the young people of north Louth is unacceptable, as is the way the Government has failed to address the need for a primary care centre for north Louth and Dundalk. Can the Minister of State clarify the current timeline for the design stage of Dundalk primary care centre? How long will the review take? What are the cost implications? Will a new letter of intent be required and does this mean there is to be a new process and so forth? When will construction commence and what is the expected opening date now for Dundalk primary care centre?

On behalf of the Minister, I thank Deputy Adams for raising this issue and for affording me the opportunity to provide further clarification. I understand that the issue here is that Deputy Adams believes that the information provided in a direct reply from the HSE to Parliamentary Question No. 170 of 23 January 2019 from his colleague, Deputy O’Reilly, conflicts with a response provided to him by the HSE in reply to Parliamentary Question No. 1817 of 24 July 2018 concerning the development of a primary care centre in Dundalk. I am informed that the HSE has replied to Deputy Adams directly on this matter in a letter dated 12 June in response to a parliamentary question that he tabled on 16 April. I also understand that, following his submission of a representation, the Minister sought clarification on this matter and responded directly to Deputy Adams on 14 June last. As the Deputy may be aware, the HSE has responsibility for the provision, maintenance and operation of primary care centres and other primary care facilities. The executive's response to the Deputy's original question in July 2018 outlined that under the operational lease mechanism, the HSE had identified a preferred provider for the provision of the centre in Dundalk, that HSE estates had issued a letter of intent to the successful applicant and that initial meetings had taken place to progress the design layout. It was intended that works would commence in 2019, subject to planning permission, with an expected opening date early in 2020. Confusion has arisen following the question submitted by Deputy O’Reilly in January of this year which sought information on the number of operational and planned primary care centres across the country. In the response provided by the HSE, Dundalk primary care centre was not included in the "Under Construction" or "Advanced Planning" appendices. The reason for this apparent discrepancy is that circumstances have changed regarding the development of Dundalk primary care centre. The HSE has advised that subsequent to the reply issued to Deputy Adams in July 2018, the disability services division advocated strongly for space in the primary care centre. This meant that the project had to be reviewed and, as such, it is now categorised as being in the design phase and does not meet the requirements to be included in the advanced planning category. Hence, the centre was not included in the list issued to Deputy O’Reilly in response to the parliamentary question tabled in January 2019 as that list included only centres which are under construction or in advanced planning.

Clearly, the circumstances pertaining to the development of the centre in Dundalk have changed and this has resulted in a delay. I have no doubt that Deputy Adams and the local community in Dundalk are disappointed by this but the HSE has offered assurances that it is the correct strategic move for long-term plans for care delivery in Dundalk. The HSE is following the required internal protocols to take account of the additional space requirements and hopes to have the additional approval submitted, as appropriate, in the coming months. At that stage, the time lines of the project would be laid out more precisely and I understand that the HSE has already indicated that it is happy to update the Deputy as appropriate.

It is unfortunate that the change in status of this project has caused some confusion and that the project will not be delivered as originally scheduled because of an expansion in scope. Nonetheless, I assure the Deputy that it is still very much the intention to develop a primary care centre in Dundalk and that work is ongoing to deliver this project so that we can fulfil our vision of delivering better care, closer to people’s homes, in their local communities.

Having studied the reply and listened intently to the Minister of State's reply, it would have been better had she just said, "I do not know". She should have said that she does not know when there is going to be a primary day care centre for Dundalk or when the young people of north Louth are going to have CAMHS closer to their homes and in their local community. Given that the Minister of State is here just to read out the reply, it is obvious that neither the Minister, the HSE nor the Department of Health knows either. Nobody knows and that has been the mark of the frustrating process of letters, parliamentary questions, topical issue debates and all of the other methods we use to try to get information. I will be updated "as appropriate" in the period ahead. In the meantime, citizens of the Republic, particularly vulnerable young people, are denied the care they need close to where they live and the health professionals who work day and night are denied the buildings, facilities and resources they need to do their job properly. It is no accident that disadvantage in communities gives rise to additional mental health problems, particularly among young people. A short reply to the effect that "I do not know" would have saved ink and paper.

I thank Deputy Adams, who took the words out of my mouth. I was going to say that I do not know the answer to the questions he posed. That is why I have taken note of them and will bring them to the attention of the Minister and ask him to reply to the Deputy directly.

In terms of the written response from the Department, it is apparent that confusion around the status of the project has arisen because the intended timeline for delivery was amended to enable disability services to be provided from the centre in addition to the services originally identified. It should be stressed that when the centre opens it will include primary care, mental health and disability services and will be a real asset to all of the people of Dundalk, young and old. I am sorry that I do not have a reply to the list of questions Deputy Adam's posed. However, I will tell the Minister that the Deputy would like a more comprehensive reply.

Schools Building Projects Status

Following a very long and intensive lobbying campaign by South Kildare Educate Together, parents in the community and public representatives, including myself, last November the very welcome news was announced that a new 1,000 pupil school would be established in the Curragh, Kildare, Newbridge area. The proposed school would take in the existing ETB school at the Curragh and discussions would commence with Educate Together on joint patronage of a newly built school. This is what campaigners had sought because there are two Educate Together primary schools in the area, in Newbridge and Kildare. The proposed amalgamation was really good news. It was hoped that the new school would accommodate increasing numbers of people living in the area, both now and into the future. However, I am absolutely frustrated by the responses I have received from the Department of Education and Skills to questions regarding the progress that has been made to date on securing a site for the new school building. I am also frustrated by responses to my queries regarding the timelines for site acquisition, construction and opening the new school. We are already six months into 2019 and it seems as if nothing as been done since the announcement in late 2018.

At this point in time, parents are incredibly frustrated. In Newbridge, I am inundated with parents coming to me who have no school place for their children this year, the following year or the year after that. St. Conleth’s community school, the Patrician boys primary schools and the convent secondary school are full for September of this year and for the following year, and they have waiting lists. We are facing a crisis at this point in time.

I cannot understand why we are not getting any information. I have also asked for details of correspondence between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Defence because it was intimated there was the possibility of the Department of Defence providing a site within the Curragh area for this proposed school. At this stage it is a real concern for parents and the school community in the existing school. What assurances can the Minister give me today for the concerned parents and school community? We are not getting any updates on the progress being made in securing a new site. I have put forward suggestions. I have gone out and looked at potential sites and forwarded that information to the Department but I have not received a response. We cannot afford to let so much time go by. The Minister will be aware of the delays to St. Paul's school project in Monasterevin, which has not helped matters. Children from Kildare are looking for school places in Laois and in nearby counties. What assurances can the Minister give to the parents who find themselves in this situation?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As she may be aware, my Department recently completed a review of provision at post-primary level across the school planning areas in the south Kildare area. My Department is satisfied that the needs in the area can be met through the replacement and expansion of the existing Curragh post-primary school with a new 1,000 pupil school building. It is intended that the expansion of the existing Curragh post-primary school, a multi-denominational community college under the patronage of Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, will also cater for demand arising in the adjoining Newbridge and Kildare school planning areas. Pending delivery of the new school, there is capacity in the existing Curragh post-primary school building.

A new site will be required for the new school and my Department has commenced the site identification process. In line with protocols for the use of State property assets, my Department has written to the Department of Defence inquiring if the Department is in a position to provide a site that could be suitable. Due to commercial sensitivities surrounding site acquisitions in general, I cannot comment further at this point in the process, although I can assure the Deputy that my Department is making every effort to progress the matter.

The Minister's reply is very similar to what we heard when the initial announcement was made, which I accept was very welcome. The only new or additional information in his reply is that the Department of Education and Skills has written to the Department of Defence. It would be appropriate to inquire if a reply has been received. The other two Deputies representing Kildare South and myself had a meeting with the Minister for Defence two years ago to see if there was an opportunity to secure a site, but there was no progress on foot of that meeting. This is a major problem. Statistics show that Kildare South is the fastest growing area in the country. Between 2011 and 2016, the population of the area grew at 143% of the State's growth rate. In that period, the population of children of school going age grew at an even higher rate. The South Kildare Educate Together, SKET, report, which was sent to the Minister and to his predecessor, noted that by 2025 there would be at least 415 students without a school place in south Kildare.

This issue has reached crisis point. Some of the feeder schools that are included, such as the Cross and Passion College in Kilcullen, cater for a large area, including children from areas such as Dunlavin in Wicklow. It is not only for people from Kildare. Kildare Town Educate Together national school will see its first cohort of sixth class pupils finish in the next few weeks. Newbridge Educate Together school's sixth class students still do not have an option to continue their education in that ethos. What does the Minister expect parents to do in September of this year when their children are supposed to start secondary school in the area but simply cannot find a place?

To reiterate, the Department and the Government are committed to the new post-primary school in the Curragh. I appreciate that when diggers are not on site it can lead to frustration but the commitment is very clear. We will build a new post-primary school. The way politics works, Teachtaí Dála, who are messengers of the people, do their work and raise the issue. I thank the Deputy for raising it today. When I meet Deputies from that constituency, whether it is the Ceann Comhairle or Deputy Heydon, this issue and those concerns are raised with me. That is important, and it is important to keep this issue alive. However, Department officials are in touch with the Department of Defence. It is not a question of simply producing a map. There are military installations on the Curragh, so there has to be proper consultation. It is even wider than that, however. There is consultation and communication with Kildare County Council as well. If there is information the Deputy believes is important or potential solutions, Department officials and myself are open to hearing those but I reiterate and re-emphaise that we will build a new post-primary school on the Curragh. It is needed, and it was announced towards the end of last year. That commitment is steadfast.

I appreciate the frustration of parents who wonder where students will go in the time ahead. However, it is important to point out that every effort is being made at Department level. I will ensure that the officials keep on this case and continue the communication. Unfortunately, because of commercial sensitivity, we cannot have a public forum when it comes to land and site acquisition but I assure the Deputy, the parents and the staff concerned publicly here today that we will ensure this will be a priority in the time ahead.

Inland Waterways Development

I thank the Minister for taking this important issue regarding the need for us to progress the Barrow Blueway. She will be aware of my keen interest in the progression of the blueway through County Kildare. I have raised it with her and her officials on a number of occasions in the past.

The Barrow Blueway project is being dealt with by Waterways Ireland which originally made applications to Kildare, Laois and Carlow County Councils in 2017 for the development of the Barrow towpath to enable it to become a blueway. The planned upgrade was to provide a multi-use shared leisure route connecting Lowtown beside Robertstown in County Kildare, with which the Ceann Comhairle will be very familiar, to St. Mullins in County Carlow, a distance of 115 km of off-road, flat, accessible public space. The original proposed trail was to pass through the village of Robertstown and the towns of Rathangan, Monasterevin and Athy in County Kildare linking on to Carlow and it was anticipated to become a blueway.

There is major interest in and support for this project in County Kildare. I want to put on the record that despite pockets of objections further south in other counties, the people of Kildare are absolutely supportive of this project. They believe it is the right thing to do and can appreciate its great potential when we consider other greenways and blueways and the economic prosperity they have brought to other rural areas and towns and villages.

There has been a long planning history to this project since then, which I will not go into. An Bord Pleanála ruled on the project in February 2019 refusing permission for the proposed development along the Barrow in all three countries of Carlow, Kildare and Laois.

However, in respect of Kildare and Laois the decision pertains only to the riverbank. Waterways Ireland has been given the green light for a new track on a section of the canal stretching for approximately 50 km from Lowtown and Robertstown to Athy.

My main purpose today is to find out what the intentions of Waterways Ireland are with regard to progressing the blueway in County Kildare, which is much anticipated by recreational users and businesses alike. Waterways Ireland stated clearly in its application to An Bord Pleanála that it would only proceed on the basis that the project was approved in its entirety. The 50 km stretch of the proposed blueway in Kildare is ample reason to proceed and can stand on its own two feet. I have no doubt that some of the people in County Carlow who objected without full information on what is being sought would demand that the blueway be extended to St. Mullins if they saw it being successfully developed in County Kildare. That is their business, however, and a matter for another day. We want to focus on the area for which planning permission has been given. While certain elements of the route along the River Barrow were not approved, the element in Kildare is sufficient to make its development feasible for development. This will give the towns of Kildare, Rathangan, Monasterevin and Athy an opportunity to develop the economic activity that can be spun off from these projects, as has occurred in other areas.

I am familiar with the greenway from Waterford to Dungarvan, which attracted 250,000 visitors between March and December 2017. An analysis has shown that each visitor spent on average almost €30 in the locality, with those who stayed overnight spending almost €110. This type of economic activity could transform Monasterevin, Rathangan, Athy and all of the areas in between that we want to see developed. I ask the Minister, through her good offices, to implore Waterways Ireland to drive on with the Kildare element of the project and allow us to develop it to show the benefits it can deliver to our area and show off to visitors the beautiful landscape and countryside of south Kildare. One other major benefit of a greenway from Robertstown would be that it would create a direct link between south Kildare and Dublin. We know how many tourists stay in Dublin and that many of them drive through County Kildare. The challenge we have is to get them to spend the night in Kildare. A greenway and blueway from south Kildare to Dublin would create major opportunities in the south of the county.

I thank Deputy Heydon for raising this issue. I acknowledge his keen interest in the Barrow blueway.

Work on developing the Royal Canal greenway from Maynooth to Richmond Harbour, Clondara, County Longford, as a walking and cycling destination is nearing completion. At 119 km in length, this will be one of the largest of the greenways and blueways in Europe. The Royal Canal blueway at Mullingar offers 23 km of paddling. The Grand Canal towpath is also being upgraded. Waterways Ireland is working with local authorities, LEADER groups, the National Transport Authority and the National Trails Office to ensure planning and funding are progressed.

Waterways Ireland views blueways and greenways as a vital means of encouraging the development of recreational opportunities in rural areas. Experience has shown that the branding of trails, such as greenways or blueways, attracts visitors resulting in rural regeneration. The development of trails encourages private entrepreneurs to establish or extend recreational activity businesses such as bicycle hire, canoe hire and paddle boarding.

Blueways are not just the provision of infrastructure but, more importantly, they provide a model for partnership collaboration between the private sector, community and voluntary sector and local and national bodies in the provision of sustainable services which provide access to recreational activities for local people and visitors alike. The blueway model has worked successfully on the north Shannon with all of these bodies working in partnership to provide rural regeneration in areas where tourism was not previously high on the agenda. Waterways Ireland is continuing to support and expand the existing network of blueway trails across its waterways, including the Shannon blueway, the Shannon-Erne blueway, the Lough Derg blueway and the Mullingar blueway on the Royal Canal.

In relation to the Barrow blueway, Waterways Ireland received the decision on the appeal for the development of the Barrow blueway from An Bord Pleanála on 10 April 2019, as the Deputy will probably be aware. The decision effectively upheld the decisions of Kildare, Laois and Carlow planning authorities granting permission for the proposed development from Lowtown to Athy, that is, the canal section, but refusing permission from Athy to St. Mullins, which is the river section. The primary refusal reason in each case related to the board's opinion that the potential impacts of the proposed development on the special area of conservation could not be ruled out arising from the use of the unbound material in areas that could flood. They highlighted an associated perceived potential impact of the proposed development on ecology.

Waterways Ireland considered the detailed inspector's report and had a number of options available to it. The first was to seek a judicial review of the decision of An Bord Pleanála. This option has not been pursued. The second option was to develop the element already granted permission and seek funding to develop the towpath from Lowtown to Athy, as planning has been granted for this section. Funding could be sought under the next round of greenway strategy funding. While funders have shown significant interest in the potential of a full Barrow trail, the potential success of an application for part of the route would have to be discussed. Kildare County Council has indicated that it is keen to have this progressed. The third option was to submit a new planning application for the areas which have not been given consent. This would require a redesign informed by further review and landscape assessments. In order to do this it would be necessary to undertake a detailed hydrological model for the Barrow catchment. A detailed flood risk assessment would be a very large project in itself and would also be subject to challenge in terms of the certainty that is required to make conclusions on potential impacts. This is not an option which Waterways Ireland believes would have a successful outcome at this time.

The fourth option is to pause development and work with all of the local authorities, sports partnerships, communities and groups along the route of the River Barrow to activate the area as much as possible in terms of recreation and tourism. Waterways Ireland is currently organising an entire Barrow walk during the European Week of Sport in September. By undertaking such programmes, it is hoped to positively impact on mindsets in the area.

I thank the Minister for her detail response in which she listed the various options available. It is clear what option people in County Kildare would take. I agree with Kildare County Council that we should proceed with the second option of having the Kildare element of the project, for which planning permission has been given and which is ready to go, considered in the next round of the greenway strategy funding.

The cost of completing the entire Barrow blueway running for 115 km has been estimated at €11 million. Completing 50 km would cost significantly less but the economic return for the area would be significant. We already have a canoe loop in Vicarstown near Athy and people are able to cycle, walk, trek and canoe in the area. Athy is unique in that the town is located on the banks of the Grand Canal and the River Barrow. With its famous triathlon event, TriAthy, dragon boat racing, canoe club and ambitious plans for a new water sports hub, the town has embraced water sports and tourism potential. This investment would be a considerable shot in the arm for Athy. Monasterevin is known as the Venice of Ireland. It and Rathangan are towns in rural Kildare which do not have enough economic activity. Tourism is a key option that would link us directly with the Dublin tourist market. We have an exciting opportunity for businesses and individuals to consider setting up cafés and the various spin-off industries that come from blueways and greenways. A couple of years ago, while cycling from Achill along the greenway on a family holiday, I was struck by the number of new businesses that had sprung up along the route. The same applies in Waterford where a greenway of only 46 km attracts 250,000 visitors each year. We are aiming to attract 50,000 visitors.

I implore the Minister to use her good offices. The second option she listed would be our preferred one. At some point, we could consider submitting new planning applications to try to deliver the full Barrow blueway. For now, let us prove that Kildare can be a success and let us take every opportunity to have the economic development that is so crucial for the south of the county.

As part of the evaluation of the various options, Waterways Ireland is exploring the availability of third party funding for the Lowtown to Athy section in County Kildare. It is anticipated that the evaluation of options will be completed in the coming months.

Given the success of blueway projects to date and recognising the capacity, resource, seasonality and mobilisation constraints, and that this is a matter in the first instance for Waterways Ireland, it is my view that the agency should proceed to plan, schedule and resource those elements of the project for which planning is secure. That is, in effect, the second of the options I laid out for the Deputy. My Department will continue to engage with Waterways Ireland to that end. I share the Deputy's desire to see this project proceed.

However, Waterways Ireland will ultimately make that decision itself. There is a Waterways Ireland monitoring committee meeting on 9 July. It is my desire that we go ahead with the parts of the project that have planning permission. Some of the advantages outlined by Deputy Heydon in tourism, cafes and of it being an exciting overall opportunity for Kildare should be acknowledged. Even if we cannot do all the Barrow Blueway at the moment, we should certainly try to do those aspects and parts that have planning permission. There are many blueway initiatives throughout the country. It is a multi-activity trail on or along the water and it is defined by trailheads with readily available trail information and safe access points to the recreational activity. As the Deputy said, these are not only recreational trails but they link the physical activity with places to rest and to have refreshments and with heritage sites. Places of interest can be visited and people can browse the local arts and crafts and experience the local culture.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I know how important this is for Kildare and I acknowledge his enthusiasm. My desire is that the second option will go ahead and we will await the decision of Waterways Ireland on 9 July.