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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 27 Jun 2019

Vol. 984 No. 4

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Emergency Accommodation Provision

Brú Aimsir was opened as a temporary facility in 2015 on Thomas Street in Dublin city centre. The building is owned by the Digital Hub Development Agency and it was always envisaged it would be a temporary facility. I raise the matter not to argue that it should be a permanent facility but to give the Minister of State the opportunity to put on record the arrangements being made for the 95 people who have been recently using the service. It is primarily a night-to-night facility and it deals with single homeless people, many of whom have other complex needs. Having visited the facility and knowing the good work done by Depaul, I realise a very good service is being provided by the support team.

Will the Minister of State confirm that the facility is closing and when it will close? What arrangements are in place to meet the temporary accommodation needs of the 95 people using the facility? I am not asking him to say where the people are moving to but I would like some reassurance on who will provide the support. Will it be Depaul or other agencies? How is that being managed? I appreciate that moving emergency facilities is always difficult and there are a range of considerations, both for the service provider, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, and the Department. Nevertheless, I was a little surprised to find out earlier this week that the closure of Brú Aimsir was imminent, and a little more transparency might have made it a little easier for everybody. Will the Minister of State address why the decision was taken?

The broader issue is the monthly homeless figures, which were finalised with the Department yesterday and are with the Minister now. If the Minister of State is in a position to give any information on those, as they have not yet been published on the Department's website, we might be able to have a conversation about the broader homeless crisis in my response.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter and for the opportunity to clarify what is happening. I do not have the numbers referred to by the Deputy but I am happy to discuss the general point. We naturally hope the good work happening during each month is demonstrated in the figures. Although the figures are far too high, quite a number of families are helped at a much earlier stage now and we find them homes much more quickly. The numbers are still high, as both we and the Deputy know, so there is no disputing that. Progress is made every month working with different families, so I hope that will be evident in the figures coming in the days or weeks ahead.

The homeless hostel mentioned operated from Brú Aimsir since 2015. As the Deputy mentioned, this was always intended to be a temporary facility and was due to close at the end of March 2016. However, the closure was subsequently deferred and is only taking place now in the context of the DRHE having put in place additional enhanced facilities for those who used the service. The DRHE is continuously working to ensure there is an adequate supply of emergency accommodation so there is shelter available for those at risk of rough sleeping. At least 200 new permanent emergency beds have been introduced in the Dublin region each year under Rebuilding Ireland. At all times we try to ensure there are enough beds in the system, as well as upgrading those beds and making them more suitable for the needs of people. Every year we engage with non-governmental organisations, NGOs, and service providers to try to ensure we have enough capacity in the system, which I believe we do. The capacity is generally there.

Brú Aimsir had capacity to accommodate 105 individuals and the DRHE has opened 120 new beds to replace those previously provided at this facility. By 10 July, the executive will increase the supply of new emergency beds by a further 45. This will mean 165 new beds will have been provided. The majority of the new beds being put in place will be supported temporary accommodation, where individuals will be provided with a 24-hour service and will receive the housing and health supports they need to exit homelessness. It is a more enhanced service than they received at Brú Aimsir. It is still very much a temporary emergency service, and I am not saying people would want to live there permanently. However, it is better that this will be a 24-hour service and people will not be asked to leave in the morning. We try to ensure to provide that option in most of our emergency bed accommodation.

I assure the Deputy and others that the DRHE has confirmed that nobody in Brú Aimsir will be left without accommodation. We have engaged with Depaul in that regard to ensure nobody will be left without accommodation. Supporting rough sleepers is a priority for the Government. We also recognise that many of those engaged in rough sleeping have significant health support needs, particularly in the area of mental health and addiction. The Deputy referenced the other needs of these individuals. In addition, we are focused on the delivery of long-term solutions for these individuals beyond providing emergency accommodation, which is of course essential but must be matched by the necessary wrap-around support services.

We have introduced a Housing First model in Ireland that has worked quite well in other countries, namely, Finland, Canada and elsewhere. It is a good model and I am glad it is rolling out in a few other countries this month and next month as well. The Government introduced the Housing First national implementation plan, which is a joint initiative of the Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government and Health, the HSE and local authorities. The plan enables rough sleepers and long-term users of emergency accommodation, who have complex needs, to obtain permanent secure accommodation with the provision of intensive supports to help them maintain their tenancies. The plan sets targets to create more than 660 Housing First tenancies in the period to 2021. It is all the better if we can do more but that is certainly the minimum.

Prior to the national implementation plan being launched, Housing First operated as a pilot project in Dublin. The Dublin region Housing First service has housed 276 homeless individuals to date, 87% of whom have successfully retained housing, which is a major positive. Following a tendering process by the DRHE, the Peter McVerry Trust will operate this service to deliver a further 400 Housing First tenancies over the next three years. A complementary street outreach service operated by Dublin Simon Community is assertively engaging with people who are sleeping rough in the Dublin region to support them into temporary accommodation and long-term housing options. Both services commenced on 1 June. Addressing the complex needs of rough sleepers and people in emergency accommodation will continue to be given the highest priority by the Government. We have personnel on the streets every night of the week trying to encourage rough sleepers to avail of services.

The DRHE put it on record earlier this week that nobody would be left without accommodation. The questions I hope the Minister of State will answer are a little more detailed so perhaps I will go through them again. We know the facility is closing but when will that happen? It is an important piece of information. My understanding is that prior to it closing, it will have approximately 95 residents. I would like to be assured that not only will they all have a roof over their heads but that the location they are going to will be appropriate in that it should at least be within the city centre. Support services must continue, whether provided by Depaul or others. I have had some conversations with Dublin City Council officials and they have told me approximately 70 of the individuals will move from the night-to-night facilities to locations with 24-hour service provision. Will the Minister of State confirm if that is the case and who is making that provision? That would be welcome.

A further 25 individuals will go to supported temporary accommodation, which I presume are six-month placements with a private room or at least a room only shared with one individual. Will the Minister of State confirm that? Will he also confirm that all the accommodation that these individuals will go to will be run by voluntary sector providers and that hotels or temporary private sector emergency accommodation will not be used? There is no suggestion that will happen but if he puts it on the record, it would be welcome.

His reply mentions increasing the capacity by 120 beds. Is he saying those 120 beds that were opened had not been occupied prior to the winding down of Brú Aimsir and they were opened specifically for the purpose of accommodating, in the first instance, the 95 to 105 individuals who on any given night would be in the hostel? Are they other beds that have been opened? I am seeking the maximum amount of information and my intentions are genuine. What I am hearing from Dublin City Council is giving me less cause for concern than when I first heard the news. Nevertheless, the more information that can be put in the public domain, the better it would be for everybody, and particularly those who use the Brú Aimsir service.

Deputy Ó Broin seems to have plenty of information but I understand he wants to put it on the record of the House, and there is no problem doing that. If I do not have the full answers to any of the questions he asked, I will get them for him.

My understanding is that they are 120 new beds to replace the previous beds and that they will be run by different service providers. I cannot give the Deputy a list. I have a fair idea of the locations but I will not put them on the record, and I am conscious the Deputy did not ask for the individual locations. They are run by a number of different organisations and I can get that list for him also.

To clarify again, these will be enhanced services providing 24-hour beds in most cases and beds for longer periods in other cases. With all our emergency provision our aim is to ensure that 24-hour option is available, and the six-month option in many other cases, which is much better for many clients. Everybody agrees it is not ideal that people have to leave 24-hour emergency accommodation the next morning, so that is our aim. In total, there will be 165 new beds - 120 plus another 45 beds that I understand will open on 10 July. The aim was that the facility would close today, 27 June. I presume that has happened. It takes a little time to make sure everything is managed properly, but that was the intention. There are places and I believe the majority are quite close in location and all the services will be available also.

The Deputy asked some other questions.

Are they dorms or single beds? Is there the same distribution of-----

I do not have the breakdown as to whether they are dorms or single beds. I will get that information for the Deputy. It is possibly a combination of both.

And the male-female split as well.

I do not have that but, if possible, I will get it for the Deputy. I want to be clear. All Deputies know, because they engage frequently with the NGOs, that we would prefer people not to stay on the streets. There are beds available. We make sure there is extra capacity in the system and that there is a bed available for everybody. During major weather events more people come in but on a nightly basis our teams are out on the streets asking people to come in to avail of these beds. We would rather they would come in to use our services so that we can work with them to find more long-term solutions. If it was shown that we needed more capacity, we would provide that. There is no restriction on what we can provide in terms of capacity because we want people to come in and use the service. I believe the Deputy knows that in his heart also. It is important people know that because that is what they would expect of us.

Community Development Projects

The next issue is in the names of Deputies Ruth Coppinger, Jack Chambers and Joan Burton. The Deputies have one minute each.

Can you give us one and a half minutes each, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle? It is normally four minutes for three Deputies.

Nóiméad amháin. We have to-----

This is a very important issue for the community of Hartstown in the Dublin West constituency, which has a population of more than 7,000. There is a crisis facing Hartstown community centre, which requires emergency works to be done in terms of fire exits, windows and a number of other issues. It was deemed necessary in an audit by the St. Laurence O'Toole trust, the church which owns the land.

This centre is extremely important to the community. It has a range of clubs, including sports and youth clubs and services for elderly people. Religious groups and many ethnic minorities use the centre who do not have other places to worship. Also, two childcare facilities use this community centre every day and 120 children and their families will be very put out if it closes, many of whom are on low pay. Those families rely on the centre.

The issue straddles a number of Departments, not just that of the Minister of State. The community is willing to fundraise but the State has to step in and assist also. This is a community provision so the Departments of Community and Rural Development, Children and Youth Affairs and Transport, Tourism and Sport, and obviously Fingal County Council, are involved. People are busily fundraising but they need State help as well.

I am appealing to the church which owns the land and the building to provide the management committee with a legal agreement and a lease giving them security. The community is willing to raise funds but it has to have security of tenure in that building in the future and in order to access State funds.

The Deputy took her minute and a half.

It will have devastating consequences for the community of Hartstown if a local community centre, of which I am sure the Minister of State has many in his area, closes down. More than 100 families avail of preschool, Montessori and after-school services. Many local voluntary groups use the community centre on a daily basis. It is a busy centre, which has a significant level of throughput numbering some thousands per week.

With the scale of the capital investment required based on the fire safety audit and report, there is a major volunteer effort to secure funding to get the works required done but that cannot be done alone. The State needs to provide some support to this community. It will have a major consequence with respect to childcare, sport and a massive amount of voluntary activity that takes place in the centre. A solution must be provided by the State side to ensure the community centre can remain open. There is a voluntary board in place and the option facing it is to secure the funding to rectify what is required or else the centre will be closed. That will leave a major vacuum within the community. It will leave a vacuum for many parents who will not have a place for their children to attend while they are at work but also for many volunteer groups which use the facility in the evening. I would appreciate any support or guidance the Minister of State could give on the matter.

Hartstown community centre has served the community of Hartstown and surrounding areas for the past 30 years. The community centre has suddenly found that there is a real threat to the continued provision of a wide range of services from preschool to crèche to sports services, dance classes and activities for retired people and other local people.

The building, which I understand is owned by the local Catholic Church on behalf of the St. Laurence O’Toole trust, has received an insurance inspection that has declared that urgent remedial works are required in respect of key elements of the building. The cost of the amending works to the building, which include upgrading fire safety, windows and doors and other elements of the building, has been estimated to cost initially somewhere around €100,000 minimum. Other works as yet to be described in detail may add significantly to that cost.

This is a centre that is used by hundreds of people in Dublin 15. The community has organised a very large public meeting to declare its support for fundraising but the community cannot do that on its own. This is one of the communities that was hardest hit by the collapse of the building industry in Ireland. Many family members lost employment at the time. Happily, that situation has changed. However, the community has a limited capacity to fundraise for all the money required.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. As we all know, community centres are a cornerstone of many communities around the country. They provide a vital function, bringing together members of the community for social, educational and informational purposes. We need community centres open and working well in communities because they help tie all communities together, particularly new, developing communities. As Members of this House, we see on a daily basis the benefits of a strong community centre for a local community.

My colleague, the Minister for Community and Rural Development, supports such important initiatives through, for example, the community enhancement programme, which provides small capital grants to community groups in this area. It is not a direct funding line from my Department.

Importantly, facilities where people gather need to be fire safe. That is probably the issue causing the difficulty in this community centre. I understand that issues in that regard have arisen in respect of the community centre in Hartstown and that Hartstown community centre is doing everything within its power to address these and work through those requirements.

Statutory responsibility for safety is assigned to the person having control of a building, who is required to take reasonable measures to guard against the outbreak of fire and to ensure the safety of persons in the event of fire. That would include ensuring that all necessary fire prevention measures are in place.

To meet their duties, operators of buildings, in general, should have arrangements in place to prevent fires occurring through control of ignition sources, such as electrical equipment, and regular removal of combustible waste. Additionally, early warning in the event of fire is important, along with arrangements to ensure safe evacuation of occupants, including those who may require assistance, such as the very young or elderly people.

Buildings need to be maintained in good condition, particularly in terms of fire protection equipment therein, such as fire detection and alarm systems, emergency lighting, fire-resisting doorsets, and the fabric of the building. Regular fire drills should be arranged to ensure that people know what to do in the event of fire.

Record keeping in respect of all of these matters assists those having control of premises in ensuring, and demonstrating, that they are meeting their statutory duties.

The provision of a fire service in its functional area is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under section 10 of the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003. A fire authority may give advice on fire safety to the owner or occupier of any premises or to any person having control over any premises. If it has not happened already, it may be useful to the community centre to engage with Dublin Fire Brigade on the issues that have arisen. We have found that the brigade engages on these issues with many individuals in dwellings, apartment blocks or community centres and is proactive in working with them on that in terms of solutions and what has to be done.

I am aware that the funding is an issue. Everyone says the State has to be involved in that. While our Department is responsible for local authorities in respect of fire safety, we do not have the funding mechanism to address this issue.

I will bring it to the attention of the Minister for Rural and Community Development to see if there is any way the State can help. I note the point that the community is willing to raise funds but it seems the costs involved will be high.

Now that we rightly have much more stringent fire safety regulations, surely this is an issue for other community facilities and public buildings? I expect this will arise elsewhere and it will be necessary to establish a grant system to allow providers of such services to access funds to help make these buildings safer. Many of these community centres were built with prison labour and some do not seem to have proper plans. Hartstown community centre is not the only building of this nature in the area.

While I fully agree that the owner of the building is ultimately responsible, many community buildings are owned and run by councils, the church or private companies so there cannot be a hard and fast rule on assisting them. These facilities provide public and community services. I ask that the Taoiseach or the Minister convene a meeting of officials from the relevant Departments to see how assistance could be provided. I also appeal to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to hand this facility over to the community in order that it can go forward with it.

The Minister of State referred to compliance with fire safety regulations and we all accept the need for such compliance. In this case, it is the reason for the crisis because the community centre must get funding or it will close its doors. Closure would have catastrophic consequences for the area in terms of childcare, sporting and community facilities. As Deputy Coppinger noted, the complicated ownership presents a difficulty. The board of the community centre was told that no financial assistance will be provided by the technical owner of the centre. This is, to all intents, a completely voluntary effort and there is no private gain. The State should provide a safety net for so many important services. I would appreciate if the Minister for Rural and Community Development would meet Deputy Coppinger, Deputy Burton and me, and perhaps also the Taoiseach, to find a funding mechanism that would avoid so many important services in our community falling off a cliff edge.

Hartstown community centre has been supported by years of voluntary community effort by a fantastic group of people. I want the Minister of State to declare that the Government will stand by the people of Hartstown and the area's community centre and provide it with the resources it desperately needs. The active crèche and preschool facility, as well as a separate Montessori school, serve more than 100 young children each day. I am mindful that the community centre is in the Taoiseach's constituency. Has the Minister of State spoken to the Taoiseach about this? We all agree with the Minister of State's comments about fire regulations but that does not solve the issue. We want him to tell us how we can access Government funding to help this community in its valiant efforts.

I raised this issue with the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, in a parliamentary question about a week and a half ago. I can make the answer he gave available to the Minister of State. I agree with the proposal that we meet the Minister and Minister of State. However, the Minister referred us to Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government because his funds come through the mechanism of the local authority committees on development. The Minister of State and the Government must help this community in its hour of need.

I thank the three Deputies for raising this issue. I sense its importance. Deputies have noted, probably with some frustration, that my answer focused specifically on fire safety but, as the issue that falls within my remit, I was asked to address it. It is a serious issue. I am conscious that other centres and buildings may face the same issues.

I must be clear on the ownership and control of the building. Somebody has to be responsible for it and this must be established and clear for fire purposes or otherwise. Many community centres are owned by the State and I understand that in this case ownership is complicated. For the fire authority to undertake its work, there must be a clear line in respect of who owns the building and who is responsible. Otherwise, further difficulties will arise.

My Department does not fund the provision or renovation of community centres. Deputy Burton knows, having been a Minister, that I cannot just rock up in the House with a chequebook. While I wish I could do so, that is not how it works. I do not know whether any of the Deputies has engaged with the local authority or any other agency on applications or if the centre itself has done as this would not have gone through my Department. I do not have a chequebook and I cannot announce funding. However, I will be happy to raise the matter with other Ministers to see if we can help.

The Department for Rural and Community Development has a scheme called the community enhancement programme which was established in 2018 to replace the recast RAPID programme. Funding is also provided under the community facilities scheme. Last year, the scheme provided €18 million for projects. The community enhancement programme is administered by the local community development committee but is funded through the Department of Rural and Community Development. Each local authority is involved, which is why I asked the Deputies whether they had engaged with the local authority on the matter. I understand the closing date for applications to the scheme has passed for this year but there may be some way that, with the involvement of that community development committee, we could find a way to have an application submitted. I will try to help and I will raise the matter with the appropriate persons.

Urban Renewal Schemes

I have raised the north quays project in Waterford numerous times and I know the Minister of State is familiar with it. The north quays in Waterford is the site of a proposed €350 million regeneration project that will be a game-changer for the city. This opportunity has presented itself through the hard work and efforts of Waterford City and County Council under the leadership of its CEO, Mr. Michael Walsh. The proposed investment in Waterford city by the Alhokair Group from Saudi Arabia has provided a much-needed confidence boost for the city and the whole south east.

The south east needs a regional city of consequence and that must be Waterford. The city must be enabled for propulsive growth. For regions to be strong, they need a strong city. However, this project is so much more, with an impact on additional permanent services such as healthcare, education and transport. It would also have significant economic benefits. The development is planned on approximately 17 acres of substantial and spectacular river frontage. The proposal includes development of a total of 60,000 sq. m to include retail units, leisure and office space, 200 apartments and a relocated train station, which will result in an integrated transport hub. This will provide a sustainable transport corridor and improve access from north to south by creating a pedestrian bridge linking the north quays to the south quays and the remainder of the city centre. The north quays development will increase Waterford’s retail offering by 50%. It is envisaged that 2,300 direct jobs will be created on completion of the project.

The planning application for the project is extensive. The scale of the documentation is enormous and the application is cognisant of all regulatory guidelines. The cost alone of printing the documents is around €120,000, which gives an idea of the work that has already gone into this project. I understand the planning application will be lodged in coming weeks.

Waterford can and must act as a release valve for the pressure that is building in the capital. The city and county council has done an amazing job in getting the project to the current stage with the support of politicians, Waterford Chamber of Commerce, the Alhokair Group and other stakeholders. Under the national planning framework, on which the Minister of State has worked hard, Waterford metropolitan area has been designated for population growth of up to 30,000. If Waterford is to realise this aspiration, the development of the north quays is crucial.

In 2017, Waterford City and County Council applied for funding of €20.1 million from the urban regeneration and development fund for the first phase of this development.

It received €6 million, which is well short of what is required. We need to see how seriously the Government views promoting regional economic development. What we need from the Government today is certainty, commitment and clarity. We need certainty that the Government fully supports this vital project, commitment to the finance required over the next three to four years and clarity as to when and how the finance will be allocated to progress this vital project. When will the 2019 tranche of funding be allocated?

I thank Deputy Butler for raising this important matter and for giving me another opportunity to discuss and clarify it. It is a project with which I am very familiar. I am also familiar with the site. It is a project of which we are very supportive and rightly so. It is very important if we are to achieve our ambition in Project Ireland 2040 and the national planning framework. It is very important that we follow up national plans through local implementation. I compliment all involved in the north quays project in Waterford and, in particular, Waterford City and County Council’s efforts in leading on it, along with the support of the chambers, many others and politicians, as Deputy Butler rightly said. Along the way it was important that everyone was able to play their part in helping.

I am glad to have an opportunity to discuss Waterford City and County Council's bid for funding for the north quays under the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, which is part of Project Ireland 2040. In 2016, the north quays area in Waterford was the subject of a strategic development zone, SDZ, order made by the Government, recognising the social and economic importance of the site to the State, and designating the Waterford north quays for mixed use development, subject to preparation of an SDZ planning scheme, which has since been completed.

The national planning framework launched in February 2018 as part of Project Ireland 2040 includes objectives to achieve more compact urban growth in Ireland’s cities, including the significant further development of Waterford city and to move development away from the east coast to all of our other cities. Further to the national planning framework, the ten year URDF, worth €2 billion to 2027, was established, with €550 million of committed Exchequer grant funding available to 2022.

In 2018, bids were invited from public bodies for funding support from the URDF. On 26 November 2018, the Minister, Deputy Murphy, announced initial support of €100 million in provisional allocations to a total of 88 projects throughout the country. As part of this first tranche of approvals, the Waterford north quays project was allocated support of €6 million. A large and complex integrated urban project, the Waterford north quays proposal, includes significant high-cost capital elements. Under the first URDF call for proposals, the council submitted a bid for URDF funding, which included four significant elements. These were relocation of the city's railway station to the east to form a new public transport interchange; a new pedestrian, cyclist and public transport bridge and associated urban greenway; site access roads and road realignment; and off-site roads in the wider north bank of the Suir area in Waterford and Kilkenny. It is intended that the infrastructural works involved will open up the north quays site, making it more accessible and supporting the achievement of the objectives of the SDZ planning scheme more generally.

The overall project is one of the more complex URDF proposals and it is essential that careful consideration be given to the proper advancement of its design, planning, procurement and construction. I recognise that all of the promoters involved have big plans with a lot of detail and they are very committed to the project. The initial URDF support to Waterford, as with all other successful bid proposals, is approved in principle and is subject to a finalised agreement between the Department and Waterford City and County Council. I have said before, and I say again, that it has to be seen as a starting point in a programme of ongoing support for a significant city centre urban renewal project. This is a very clear commitment from the Government. We stress that it is a starting point. There is an initial tranche and we will need to continue with the work. Deputy Butler should recognise this as support and backing up our plans, commitments and recognition of projects of significant value to the region and Waterford city. In this regard, the Department is continuing to engage with Waterford City and County Council on advancement of the overall project to agree project composition and sequencing and establish project cost certainty to inform current and future URDF funding support and allocations.

I thank the Minister of State for his commitment to this project and I welcome the fact he has said the initial URDF support to Waterford as well as other successful bid proposals is approved in principle and is subject to a finalised agreement between the Department and Waterford City and County Council. I acknowledge what he said about it being a starting point but I need to reiterate that it is very important to state it is extremely unlikely that the project will get over the line without State funding. A total of €13 million is required in 2019 to start the process and a commitment of €90 million is needed over the next three to four years. Much of the infrastructure development involved in the project would have had to come in future anyway. What this project is doing is accelerating this hugely important infrastructure and increasing connectivity between the north and the south of the city.

Sustainable transport infrastructure is the essence of this project and development of this site can and will act as a catalyst for the city and county of Waterford and the entire south east. The employment opportunities, housing opportunities and health opportunities cannot be underestimated. The north quays development will act as a catalyst for all these things because it will lead to population growth and to Waterford and the south east acting as a release valve for the overcrowding in Dublin.

I reiterate that what is needed in the project to drive it forward at this stage is certainty, commitment and clarity. As the project goes to planning in the next couple of weeks, Waterford City and County Council and the developers need clarity on funding and a timeframe for the funding because this is such an important opportunity for the people of Waterford city and county and we have to make sure it happens.

I thank Deputy Butler for raising this issue. The URDF is focused on supporting projects that will assist regeneration and rejuvenation of Ireland's five cities and other large towns and enable a greater proportion of residential and mixed use development to deliver within the existing built-up footprints of our cities and towns. I reiterate that we are very supportive of the project. It will ensure that more parts of rural urban areas can become attractive and vibrant places in which people can choose to live and work as well as enabling them to win greater investment and make it more attractive to visit.

In keeping with the aim of the national planning framework and Project Ireland 2040 more widely, the URDF represents a more enlightened approach to the provision of Government support and a movement away from silo policies, thinking and funding of the past, which has held back many of our cities and towns. Through the fund we offer targeted integrated support for innovative holistic solutions to the issues that for too long have prevented the regeneration and rejuvenation of our cities and towns. It is anticipated that the continuation of the URDF in 2020 and beyond will facilitate a greater focus on integrated urban projects such as the north quays in Waterford, as these proposals require sufficient time for design, planning, procurement and construction to be advanced properly. The Government is only one of the stakeholders and Deputy Butler mentioned some of the others. It is important that we are seen as part of the funding mechanism. The taxpayer cannot facilitate all of it. The fund is about making it happen and giving the Government's stamp of approval. It is all about releasing other matched funding.

As I indicated earlier, the Department has already engaged with Waterford City and County Council and will continue to do so to discuss the progression of the proposal in 2019 and onwards, with the intention of agreeing the project composition with regard to URDF support and future funding allocations. We do see the importance of this for the city, the south-east region and the regions beyond it and for achieving our aims in Project Ireland 2040.

I am conscious that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is sitting beside me. We can look back over the past seven or eight years at the support we have given to and the focus we have put on the south-east area and the city of Waterford, starting with the Action Plan for Jobs and the south-east plan for jobs. The employment situation in that area has been transformed. We recognise there is still more work to do to complete this journey and to future-proof the area so it can continue to win investment and jobs. People have to see there has been a strong commitment to the south-east region over the past seven or eight years from the Government because we are committed to it. I want to say on the record that we are committed to it through this funding model in the years ahead.

Another example of this is the recent announcement of support for the regional airport. I am surprised by a lot of the commentary around it. To me it was a very wise decision. Regional airports transform an area. Kerry is a prime example and we can also look at Knock. The local commentary was positive but did not take on the national commentary questioning the logic behind it. It makes total and utter sense, certainly when it releases other supportive funding from other stakeholders and brings in private capital. We get best value for taxpayers' money through using it to match private money. We have always said a mixture of public and private enterprise coming together to drive an area is key but people seem to knock it. The Deputy should be making it very clear so people see the commitment to Waterford city and county and the surrounding region.

Postal Services

I express my solidarity with the more than 200 workers who find themselves in a position where they are going to lose their jobs. There are some 240 jobs, 161 part time and 79 full time, on the line at the Cork mails centre. I anticipate that the Minister will tell us he has no operational involvement in decisions of this nature. It is important, however, that we have an opportunity to raise our concerns about this decision. Those concerns are based on the fact that it is difficult to see the justification for the closure of this mails centre. An Post is telling us that its operating profit last year was €41 million and that there was a 7% rise in revenue as well as a 40% rise in parcels volumes. The company's justification for the closure of the Cork plant is that the centre is operating 25% below capacity due to the decline in traditional mails volumes. It is difficult for me, and the workers, to reconcile that fact with the 40% rise in the parcels delivery volume last year. That surely represents an opportunity. If that business is growing, An Post should ensure that all of its sorting and mails centres are included within the mix.

The people of Cork are disgusted by An Post's decision to cull, in a very political way, the Cork mails centre because they see no justification for this decision. The excuse that there is a decline in traditional mails when the evidence shows an increase in revenue from the rise in parcels volumes does not stand up to scrutiny. The decision is made and I note that the narrative has now moved on to trying to get the best deal possible for the workers. Let us remember that there are 161 part-time workers and 79 full-time workers. I raise this issue because we have to understand, at a time when parcel volumes are increasing across various business sectors, why An Post is excising one of its key centres and sacrificing one of its mail centres. To my mind, that does not stand up to scrutiny. I am raising this with the Minister because it is important that there is a political response from the Government regarding this issue.

There is no doubt that this is a difficult day for the workers directly affected by this decision. I assure the Deputy that not only will good terms and conditions be offered to the workers but every support will also be made available by the company and, indeed, by the State to support them at this difficult time. The company has outlined some of the supports that will be provided. These include efforts to redeploy staff as well as offers of support for training and education. The centre will be phased out and continuing support will be offered.

Deputy Sherlock raised the question of why a company undergoing difficult structural change should make a decision like this. I am conscious that some years ago An Post's survival was on the line. That was the reality given the long-term decline of its mails operation. The company needed to dramatically diversify its business. It entered into negotiations with its workforce to try to devise a strategy to make a successful transition. A modest pay agreement was part of that strategy but there was also a structural plan which involved the closure of one of its mail centres. The difficulty is that there is a long-term structural decline in mails volume, as the Deputy recognises. An Post had too much capacity in that area but not enough capacity in the areas where it sought to grow, including in new services, such as financial services through the post office network and online services as well as parcel delivery services. An Post has successfully done that following the changes which were negotiated.

The company's announcement makes it clear that while it was forced to make this decision, which was part of the original negotiated deal, it is also making a significant investment in the Cork region. It is doing that to put the company in a position to build out the opportunity in parcels delivery. An Post is making a conscious decision to expand its capacity in that area and it has listed some of the investments it will be making. These include parcels lockers, a major parcels delivery centre, and a new electric, zero-emissions, delivery fleet. The company is, therefore, upgrading and changing its business model to meet the new opportunity. There is no doubt that this is a painful decision. It is being taken, however, in the best interests of making sure that the company can continue to deliver a quality service to its customers, ensure it is attuned to changing needs and can secure the future for its workers by making the plans and changes necessary to support An Post's prosperity into the future.

Deputy Sherlock is, of course, right that, under legislation, we do entrust day-to-day decision-making on these matters not to Ministers but to the company. The Deputy will have been here last week when the case was being made for another of the centres that it was felt was under threat. It would be very invidious if these decisions were taken on a political basis. They had to be taken by the company, based on its assessment of the best interests of the company, its customers and its workers. This is a disappointing day for those people who have been adversely affected but the closure has nothing to do with the very high quality of workmanship that was being delivered in Cork. This decision is being taken in the long-term interests of the company's capacity to sustain employment and service its customer base.

Is that not the point? We do not know which of the centres was the most efficient. We have not had sight of the McKinsey report so we do not know for sure which of the centres was the least efficient. This was a political decision. I believe An Post went for the political path of least resistance. The Cork mails centre was sacrificed on the altar on that basis. I was hoping that in Government circles there would have been a greater degree of resistance by those at Cabinet and that there would have been some fight for Cork. That has not been the case, as it transpires.

I will make a prediction. I forecast that this is the beginning of the end of the universal service obligation and the five-day delivery service. We are starting to get rid of mails centres and post offices and that is clothed in the pretence of investment in the General Post Office, GPO, on Oliver Plunkett Street and a new delivery unit being opened in Skibbereen. Those are all welcome changes but they are piecemeal. The structural long-term objective of An Post is to go down to a three, a two or even a one-day delivery service in certain parts of the country. That is where we are heading and that has to be called out. If we do not stand up for jobs in Cork and for what could be a viable business, which could operate at capacity, on the basis of the argument that An Post itself makes regarding a significant rise in parcels volumes, then I think that is a bad day for the postal service in this country.

I have to disagree with the Deputy. He is advocating that this decision should have been politicised. He is suggesting that this decision should have been taken around the Cabinet table, with people muscling one another as to whether this should have been in favour of one part of the community or another.

That vision of how decisions should be made is not one to which I subscribe. The decision must be based on a fair assessment of the long-term interests of the company, its customers and workers and-----

With all due respect to the Minister, we have not had sight of the McKinsey report. The decision was not based on the efficiency model.

The Deputy can, of course, express scepticism about how the company reached its decision-----

It is more than scepticism.

-----but that is not what he advocated. He said it should be a question of muscling at the Cabinet table-----

I am advocating a more rigorous political examination of decisions.

-----to make a decision about State companies that we rightly say should be run independently for the benefit of the public, their workers and the customers they serve.

The Government does not in any way countenance a reduction of services from five-day delivery, on which this and previous Governments have insisted. That is the obligation of An Post. The Deputy has to recognise that any company that wants to survive must accept that what customers want is changing. A company that continues to do what it has always done and refuses to look at what would copperfasten its future will not survive for very long. At one stage An Post was looking down the barrel of this reality and restructured. I agree absolutely that this is a very disappointing day for the workers in Cork who have been exemplary in their service. Nonetheless, it is an important part of a process by which the company will become strong for the future. The 1,000 people who work for the company in Cork can know that the company will sustain their livelihoods based on a sound business model. That is the other side of it; the company is doing what is in the long-term interests of its workers and customers.