Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Site Acquisitions

I return to a familiar topic that I have raised in the Dáil a number of times. I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, is taking this debate. I wish to express my disappointment, but also my understanding, that the Minister, Deputy Foley, is not in a position to take it. She is familiar with this long-standing issue.

The opening of a new school in any community is an important milestone, particularly for younger generations. In Ballincollig, we have a fantastic network of education infrastructure, but we need new school buildings for Gaelscoil an Chaisleáin, which has been in temporary accommodation for four years. This September will see Le Chéile Secondary School opening its doors for the first time. I wish its principal, Ms Nicola Barrett, and staff every success.

We want permanent accommodation for these schools. On average, the Department's timeframe from the point of identifying a site to turning the key and moving into a new school is approximately five years. This means that the pupils who are now in second class in the Gaelscoil's current accommodation at the rugby club in Tanner Park will never see the new school. We need to get a move on. We have been at this for some time. I appreciate that site acquisition is not easy, particularly in a rapidly growing town such as Ballincollig where there is a great deal of pressure on the available land. I had hoped that the Minister would be in attendance so that I could urge her to take a hands-on approach and drive the conclusion of the acquisitions for these new schools in Ballincollig. I await with interest the Department's response to this matter.

I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to update the House on the site acquisition for Gaelscoil an Chaisleáin and Le Chéile Secondary School in Ballincollig, whose building projects are included in the Department's capital programme. Under the memorandum of understanding in place between the Department and local authorities, officials in my Department are working with Cork City Council on the identification and acquisition of suitable sites for the two schools.

Gaelscoil an Chaisleáin opened in September 2017 in temporary accommodation on Ballincollig Rugby Football Club's grounds. Additional temporary accommodation was provided to the school for the 2020-21 school year. A new 16-classroom school will be provided when a suitable site has been acquired. Following a recent patronage determination process, Le Chéile Secondary School was established and is due to open this September in temporary accommodation at Ballincollig GAA.

As the Deputy mentioned, the identification of suitable sites for schools in Cork has proven challenging for the Department and Cork City Council. In 2016, a potential site was identified as most suitable for Gaelscoil an Chaisleáin. However, it was not possible to progress the acquisition at the time because access to the site had to be established. Subsequently, the Department was advised that the land had since gone to probate and, therefore, the acquisition process could not proceed. In 2018, the need for a 1,000-pupil post-primary school for Ballincollig was identified and sites to accommodate the two schools were sought. In 2019, two further sites were identified, but one of them has been identified by the council as a future cemetery and the other proved unsuitable following technical assessment. Another site suitable for a campus was identified in 2020, but the landowner is proving an unwilling vendor. Further discussions were held in 2020 by the Department with Cork City Council regarding the urgent need for a site to accommodate the campus.

Two further sites have been identified this year, one for each school. The Deputy will be glad to hear that negotiations with the landowner of one of these sites recently commenced. The other site has just been valued and the next stage will be to commence negotiations with the landowner. A significant number of potential site options have been identified. Each of these has been technically assessed. This assessment required the consideration of complex technical issues in conjunction with Cork city and county councils. However, for reasons of suitability, availability or unwillingness on behalf of the vendor, the acquisition of a suitable site has proved difficult.

I have noted the Deputy's remarks, including about the five-year timeframe. I join him in wishing Ms Barrett, the principal of Le Chéile Secondary School, the best of luck for the future. I acknowledge his remarks that the acquisition of any site is not easy. The process of identifying a suitable site takes time. There are various ways of doing that. The site must go through a technical assessment, a valuation must be performed and negotiations need to proceed. Even when there is agreement, due diligence needs to take place. There are a number of necessary steps in acquiring a site.

I do not mean to sound ungrateful in any way, but this is the fourth time I have raised the issue in the House. I raised it on 21 April and 13 May 2020, and in October 2020. The script is by and large the same. I had hoped that the Minister would be in attendance so that I could urge her to take a hands-on approach. It is of the utmost importance that the issue be brought to a conclusion so that all of the next steps, which take an average of five years in total, can be progressed.

I will make a further point. I appreciate the difficulty in acquiring a site in any circumstance, but in a rapidly growing town such as Ballincollig, which is in close proximity to Cork city, it is particularly difficult.

As important as acquiring a site is, acquiring the right site is critical. The right site will take account of the location of existing school infrastructure and where the growth in population is taking place in Ballincollig, particularly on its southern and western boundaries. I urge the Minister of State to be conscious of this and not to acquire a site for the sake of it but to acquire the right site. I ask that professionals are involved so that we have proper spatial planning of Ballincollig, in terms of educational infrastructure, and that we have sustainable transport models to the new school, including pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and that we get the right outcome. I urge the Minister of State to convey to her colleague the absolute urgency of a hands-on approach. Le Chéile will open for secondary school students in September. Gaelscoil an Chaisleáin has been open for four years. It is beyond time the Department brought this matter to a successful conclusion.

I thank the Deputy. I note what he is saying on the urgency of this matter. I also note it is his fourth time raising it in the Dáil. I will relay this information to the Minister, Deputy Foley. I have no doubt that she takes a hands-on approach in so far as possible with all of the building projects.

What the Deputy said about Ballincollig, and the fact it is a very busy area, goes to show how difficult and challenging it has been for the Department to acquire a site. I also agree with him that it cannot be just a matter of acquiring a site for the sake of it and that it needs to be a site that is right and for the right reasons. I note what the Deputy said in this regard about spatial planning and sustainable transport options. All of these matters need to be considered and taken seriously when we speak about building a school. It cannot be done in haste. Due diligence has to be done on the right location, apart from the technical aspect of acquiring a site. Of course, the best value for the Exchequer needs to be taken into account also. I note that Gaelscoil an Chaisleáin will be getting 16 new classrooms. This will be provided for in the interim. Le Chéile will get a 1,000-pupil post-primary school building in due course. It is fair to say the Minister, Deputy Foley, the Department and I would like this to be expedited as soon as practicable and as soon as possible. I will pass on the Deputy's comments because we want to ensure children have adequate accommodation when they are learning in school on a daily basis.

Housing Policy

I echo the sentiments of Deputy Creed as raised in the previous debate and I urge the Minister, Deputy Foley, to expedite sites for Le Chéile and Gaelscoil an Chaisleáin.

I appreciate the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. I am disappointed the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, is not here because this is a significant issue and it has slipped under the radar somewhat. It is having very real consequences for families. I will give the Minister of State the short version. Families who are under the income thresholds for social housing are being removed and excluded from applying for social housing. They are being taken off list because of a circular the Department issued. This is the long and the short of it. The Department has issued a circular that is now forcing local authorities to take a very blunt approach, not of their own volition but at the Department's behest. It means that people with eight, nine or ten years' credit are being removed even though their income falls below the threshold.

This came about in March when the new household means policy was introduced. It replaced the 2011 policy, which has some detail on what is accessible and what is not accessible. This is not the only problem with it but I will focus on this particular element today. It is high time the income thresholds were reconsidered and brought up because there are so many families for whom a private mortgage is impossible. Some of the affordable housing schemes are also out of reach but they do not qualify for social housing. This needs to be revisited.

Even for those who should be able to qualify, there is now a new complication because the main revisions to the household means policy issued on 26 March 2021 include that a number of payments are to be included in the disregards, such as income relating to pension-related deductions. The key issue is that according to the circular the determination of whether an applicant household meets the income criteria will now be based on a calculation of the preceding 12 months net average income prior to the date of receipt of application. It states this will ensure the most comprehensive picture of a household's current and previous income is available at the point of assessment. This is the new policy.

The Minister of State knows that families and households have peaks and troughs in their income. It will not be a uniform picture all the time, especially in the context of the pandemic but not only in this context. People get periods of overtime, people get laid off, people are given reduced hours and people's hours are increased. This changes all the time. A person's income might be at four or five different places within one year. Previously, under the 2011 policy, local authorities were asked to assess the income. Of course, 12 month's worth of financial details needed to be submitted and appraised but income at the point of application, review or offer was key to the decision and it was on this that ineligibility was based.

I have come across an example of a family that has been removed after eight and a half years on the housing list. It has now lost all of this time. The family is now under the income limit, having briefly exceeded it if it is averaged out, but it is now under the income limit and it has lost all that time. Members of the family are going to their respective parents in two different locations in order to save. Another family on the list for seven years suffered a major drop in income and was made an offer which was refused on the basis of this circular. This is denying families. I do not know whether it always percolates to here that credit time is money in the bank for people and if it is taken off them they cannot just regain it.

I thank the Deputy for tabling this matter, although the response may not exactly be on topic in terms of the specific issue he has raised.

Applications for social housing supports are assessed by the relevant local authority, in accordance with the eligibility and need criteria set down in section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011, as amended. The 2011 regulations prescribe maximum net income limits for each local authority in three different bands according to the area concerned. The income bands are expressed in terms of a maximum net income threshold for a single-person household, with an allowance of 5% for each additional adult household member, subject to a maximum allowance under this category of 10%, and, separately, an additional allowance of 2.5% for each child.

It is important to note that the limits introduced also reflected a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation, in order to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn, both promoting sustainable communities and also providing a degree of future-proofing. Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. The current income eligibility requirements generally achieve this, providing for a fair and equitable system of identifying those households facing the greatest challenge in meeting their accommodation needs from their own resources.

As part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of income eligibility for social housing supports in each local authority area has commenced. The review will have regard to initiatives being brought forward in terms of affordable housing for purchase and for cost rental. The programme for Government commits to putting affordability at the heart of the housing system. Delivery on this commitment is evidenced in the measures contained in the Affordable Housing Bill 2021, which is before the Oireachtas. It provides for three schemes that will increase the supply of affordable homes, through affordable homes on local authority lands, the introduction of a new form of tenure in cost rental, and the new affordable purchase shared equity scheme.

I would appreciate it if the Minister of State addressed my point rather than just use a script. It is not going to be a complete solution by any manner or means but he can help if he can tell me that local authorities have discretion to take account of a change of circumstances in income, that they can take account of where the household income is at the point at which people are offered accommodation, the point where people are being assessed for an initial application or whether there is a review happening.

In general, we must be much more realistic and flexible with respect to the income thresholds. Credit time for housing is like money in the bank for people. If a person qualifies for eight out of nine years and for one year he or she does not, we should be looking for a freeze for that single year. It is not that a person would be getting offers if he or she exceeds it but that he or she keeps his or her credit time because a person could well return to it. A person could have one good year out of ten. However, that is an aside. We must be much more realistic and pragmatic and the income thresholds must be revised. What I really want to know from the Minister of State is whether local authorities can be realistic. Can they assess a person on the basis of his or her current income? The last 52 weeks matter and must be taken into account but have the authorities discretion where a person's circumstances have changed significantly? I know there is a PUP disregard but far wider changes to circumstances are possible. These could include overtime that disappears, redundancy, changes in hours and all of these kinds of things which used to be taken into account. This is now denying houses to people in my constituency and in many others too.

This circular probably needs to be revised but the Minister of State can help in the meantime. He could tell me local authorities can have flexibility to decide a change in income circumstances is to be taken into account.

The Deputy has raised a significant issue. The review of income thresholds is under way. Within the frame of that it is important the issues raised this morning be given consideration. I apologise again to the Deputy; perhaps the question did not frame exactly the response he sought but there could be a follow-up with the Department. I urge him to make this representation through the review of income thresholds which is under way. It is probably the best place to try to give consideration to the flexibility the Deputy is seeking on behalf of his constituents. It is an important matter. The credit that people on the housing waiting list build up over a number of years is significant. I again stress that the review process is probably the best place to try to give consideration to that.

Go raibh míle maith agat.

Will the Minister of State clarify, because it is the main thing, whether local authorities have the flexibility-----

Deputy, there is no provision to come in again.

I ask the Minister of State to answer the specific question about flexibility for changes to circumstances.

There are a few seconds left if the Minister of State wishes to respond but if he is finished, he is finished.

The best place to deal with this is through the review process. Go raibh maith agat.

Go raibh maith agat.

Dental Services

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to bring this issue to the attention of the House and the Minister of State. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for stepping in on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, whose area this is. The dental treatment services scheme, DTSS, provides access to dental treatment for adult medical card holders aged 16 years or older. Medical card holders are entitled to a free dental examination in each calendar year as well as any extractions required, along with a number of other services. Last November it was reported the number of private dentists participating in this scheme had dropped by 16%, from 16,054 to 13,093 in the ten months between January and October 2020. That is a large percentage reduction. It is estimated around 200,000 medical card holders are facing delays for treatment as result. On foot of these alarming reports I have submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister seeking a breakdown of the number of dentists per local electoral area in County Wexford. The response said there were ten dentists in Wexford and four in New Ross. Unfortunately, based on the following correspondence, it seems the situation may have worsened since those figures from last November. I quote an email from a constituent:

Dear Verona,

My dentist informed me that they have stopped treating medical card users and to contact Grogans road for further information. They told me that 4 dentists in Wexford and none in New Ross were still in the scheme. However when contacted they all told me they had left the scheme.

I am a pensioner in me 70s taking Warfarin which needs regular dental checks free under the scheme and now face heavy fees.

Is there any hope that there will be a dental medical scheme any time in the future.

It appears, therefore, that in the space of the eight months since last November, the number of dentists in the scheme from just two local electoral areas in County Wexford has reduced from 14 to 4. That is pretty alarming. I hope the Minister of State can confirm whether these figures are correct and what steps will be taken to address the issue of why so many dentists are now finding it unfeasible to continue in the scheme. I understand the Irish Dental Association, IDA, has met with Department of Health officials to discuss its concerns. I ask the Minister of State to outline in her response whether anything has happened as a result of those discussions and what solutions have been proposed.

I thank the Deputy very much for raising this very important issue. I welcome the opportunity to address the issue of the current difficulties in the dental treatment services scheme. The DTSS provides dental care, free of charge, to people with medical cards aged 16 years and over. These services are provided by independent dental practitioners who have a contract with the HSE. Patients may choose to have their treatment undertaken by any dentist who participates in the scheme.

I am aware that there has been a reduction in the numbers of dentists participating in the DTSS since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. HSE figures indicate that up to the end of April 2021 approximately 213 dentists had left the scheme or had notified the HSE of their intent to leave the scheme. Of those, approximately 27 had left or had notified the HSE of their intent to leave between January and the end of April 2021, with 112 applications for new contracts being processed. To answer the Deputy's question directly, there are approximately 1,200 contracted dentists at present, with approximately 700 claiming per month.

Some people have been experiencing problems in accessing dental services close to their home as a result of dentists leaving the DTSS and there is probably not a Deputy in the House who is not aware of it. However, the HSE has assured the Department of Health that its local services on the ground will assist any individuals who are experiencing problems in accessing a service. Officials in the Department of Health have been engaging with the Irish Dental Association since the start of the pandemic. My colleague, the Minister for Health, met with IDA representatives in November 2020 to discuss their concerns and he addressed their annual conference last month. The Minister has asked officials in the Department to work with the HSE and the IDA to develop solutions that will ensure the sustainability and viability of the DTSS. The Minister is committed to ensuring all eligible persons should continue to receive the services that they deserve from their local dentist of choice.

The future provision of oral healthcare services will be informed by the national oral health policy, Smile agus Sláinte, which was published in 2019. It includes proposals for the introduction of packages of oral healthcare for adults with medical cards at different intervals during their life course. The packages will focus on preventive dental services. Routine care, including additional fillings and complex care, will continue to be available in addition to the preventive packages of care. The Minister is committed to ensuring the sustainability and viability of the DTSS. It will need to be revised to align with up-to-date best practice and evidence. This will mean - and this is the really important part - moving away from symptom-led attendance and an emergency focus, to encouraging attendance for preventive care and the provision of evidence-based oral health care tailored to each individual's needs.

There was an intention to commence a review of the contract between dental practitioners and the HSE last year. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic this was not possible. However, the Minister has asked officials in the Department to engage with the Irish Dental Association to commence this process. A meeting between the Department, the HSE and the Irish Dental Association is being organised for next week and the Minister is confident that progress will be made in resolving the current difficulties.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I am heartened to hear what she said because this is an urgent matter. She will have noted from the email I received from one of my constituents, which I read into the record, that this man is in his 70s and had been working. He received his over 70s medical card but it is of no benefit if he is unable to get an appointment. I heard what the Minister of State said with respect to the Irish Dental Association and the Minister. Apart from him asking his officials to engage, the number of dentists leaving the scheme is astounding. The Minister should engage directly to make sure the scheme is not eroded further or we will have a very serious crisis on our hands.

The same issue arises when it comes to doctors, although not with medical card patients. Many of my constituents email me complaining they cannot access the doctor as a private patient, for example, when they have moved into an area. One man told me recently he lives in my area but has to return to Navan for a standard GP visit.

The gentleman whose email I read into the record takes Warfarin and he does not make an appointment at the last minute. He needs regular dental check-ups. Equally, many people attending for medical or operational procedures in our hospital healthcare system have to visit the dentist before they will be given an anaesthetic. Those people cannot always pay for the service. They may be under the medical card scheme and the dental treatment services scheme. I know the Minister of State will report to the Minister the urgency of the matter and the detrimental effect it will have if the numbers leaving the scheme continue to be eroded in this vein.

If the Leas Cheann Comhairle will permit me, I would like to briefly ask the Minister of State to consider speaking with the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, NIAC, on the roll-out of the second vaccine for those in the 60 to 69 age cohort. That second vaccine is primary for the protection of those in a vulnerable age category against the Delta variant and it is important it is rolled out as soon as possible.

To answer the second query the Deputy raised, that is ongoing and something of which I am very much aware.

As I said, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, met the Irish Dental Association last November, he spoke at its conference last month and is acutely aware of the challenges. We have discussed it. The reason some dentists say they are leaving the scheme is that they have been seeking a review, including increases in fees, for a number of years. There have been significant changes in dental practice since the current contract was agreed, particularly during the past decade, including new radiographic standards, new technology and higher standards in infection prevention and control, which has added to the cost of running a practice. Dentists also claim the costs associated with the current Covid-19 pandemic, including the additional cost of the personal protective equipment, social distancing of patients and staff being less available, have placed an additional burden on dental practices.

There is no doubt Smile agus Sláinte, the national oral health policy, provides the guiding principles to transform our current oral healthcare service over the next eight years. I look forward to the pending meeting next week between the HSE, the Department and the Irish Dental Association because it is imperative people can get that care when they need it. As we all know, the worst pain one can ever have is toothache. I look forward to reaching a stage to which we aspire, namely, that we move away from symptom-led attendance and an emergency focus to encouraging attendance for preventative care. I will be happy to update the Deputy when we have more information.

Just Transition Fund

The Minister will be very aware the midlands region is set to shoulder the bulk of responsibility as we aim to reach zero carbon emissions by 2030. We have seen the closure of Bord na Móna and ESB operations and we were sold the specifications of an €11 million just transition programme as the catalyst for revitalising the region. Unfortunately, people in the region are currently disillusioned and worried the just transition process is simply coming apart at the seams.

Almost a year on, just €116,000 in funding has been paid out to community groups and business ventures. One example would be the Lough Ree Access For All project, which seeks to employ and train former Bord na Móna workers and involve them in an exciting new project that will provide access to the River Shannon and Lough Ree for the disability community. The group was awarded €472,000 under strand two of the just transition programme, but drawing down this funding has proved challenging in the extreme. This and many other entities approved for funding are also facing the potential of a 30% increase in construction costs following on from their applications. There is a real risk that up to 30 of the original job creation projects deemed eligible for just transition funding at the end of last year are now unlikely to go ahead because they simply cannot meet the matching funding demands of 50%, they cannot satisfy EU state aid rules in some areas or they will struggle to finance escalating construction costs.

We have not yet seen a single job created as a direct result of the just transition programme. With momentum now gathering behind the climate action Bill, there is a real fear our region is set to carry the greatest burden, pay the greatest price and suffer most in this process. The expected support package is unfolding at a snail's pace and there are genuine fears and concerns locally as to whether the funding will ever flow while escalating construction costs are punching holes in the €11 million fund.

There is frustration too that the midlands regional transitional theme lacks any real clout. That is something we need to examine as a matter of urgency. At this stage it should be reasonable to expect we would be seeing the genesis of new job creation opportunities for the region but this simply is not the case. There is a growing fear and concern the ESB, in particular, has been let off the hook at this stage. I would ask the Department, Bord na Móna and the ESB to assess the just transition programme in tandem with the midlands regional theme as a matter of urgency. We urgently need to streamline the drawdown process for approved groups while the ESB must return to the table with additional funding to revise this flagging programme.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the question posed in the Deputy’s Topical Issue matter and to acknowledge the genuine concerns of people in the midlands about the transition, the major changes in the economy and the funding that is there for it. In the programme for Government we copper-fastened support targeted towards the midlands to support a just transition. There is a major amount of money involved in funding that, but as in any project which involves hundreds of millions in funding over a decade there is a ramp-up period, a period of time when projects have to be examined and approved before the funding starts to flow. I acknowledge the frustration with that, but I want to say it is there and it is coming.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the actions which are being taken by the Government in response to the announcement of the closure of the peat-fuelled power stations and the end of peat harvesting by Bord na Móna. The Government is committed to a just transition in the midlands region and has dedicated significant funding to supporting workers, companies and communities affected by the closure of the two power stations at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. The Government appointed Kieran Mulvey as Just Transition Commissioner in November 2019 to assist the midlands region in the transition process. The commissioner has made a series of recommendations to Government on taking forward the Government’s just transition response in the midlands.

A significant package of supports worth €177 million has been put in place in the midlands to ensure the transition away from peat-fuelled power is indeed just. This includes €20 million for the midlands retrofitting project; €108 million for the Bord na Móna peatlands restoration project; the just transition fund, with up to €30 million available for approved projects; and €19 million for the National Parks and Wildlife Service peatlands restoration scheme. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications approved €108 million for Bord na Móna’s large-scale peatlands restoration project on 24 November 2020. The plan will protect the storage of 100 million tonnes of carbon, sequester 3.2 million tonnes of carbon out to 2050, enhance biodiversity and deliver significant benefits and contribute to Ireland’s target of being carbon-neutral by 2050.

The scheme will encompass 33,000 ha of Bord na Móna peatlands previously harvested for peat extraction for electricity generation. The Government funding, which will come from the climate action fund, will be bolstered by an €18 million investment from Bord na Móna, which is committed to a brown to green transition.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service peatlands scheme received funding of €5 million in 2020, supported from the carbon tax fund, which enabled the commencement of peatland restoration measures on almost 1,900 ha of raised bog on up to nine raised bog designated sites in the midlands region, along with the development of drainage management plans and other peatland management and conservation measures. Bord na Móna has been contracted to manage this programme. Work has commenced on this project and an additional €14 million in 2021 has been allocated to the programme for the restoration of a further 2,500 ha of protected raised bog, together with other peatlands conservation measures. These projects will support a just transition by avoiding job losses based in the Offaly works and across the midlands and by creating opportunities for skilled employment in these areas into the future.

The just transition fund was established to respond to the closures and to support the transition away from employment in peat harvesting in the affected communities in the region. Eight of the most affected counties in the region were eligible to submit funding applications to the just transition fund. The Government has announced provisional funding offers totalling almost €30 million to some 60 projects throughout the region for projects from the private sector, local authorities and communities to create a strong, green and sustainable economy. These projects will contribute to making the midlands a more attractive and sustainable place to work. Of these, 16 projects are already up and running in the midlands with support from the just transition fund since last September. These projects have created 28 full-time jobs and will also support a further 175 indirect jobs. A further 13 projects, with funding of €6.5 million to be provided by the just transition fund and additional funding of almost €1 million, have now entered into a grant agreement with the Department and further projects will conclude grant agreements in the coming weeks. The Department has worked directly with projects, particularly smaller-scale projects and those from community groups, that received provisional offers to support them in the process of finalising grant agreements, while ensuring all projects are able to meet the fund rules.

I thank the Minister of State. Is there a copy of the reply available?

I thank the Minister of State. I believe that the Minister of State will agree it is critical that we get just transition right for the midlands region. It is also critically important that the ESB is not allowed off the hook. It was extremely disappointing to hear the ESB's announcement last week that it plans to proceed with the demolition of the two power stations. There was a genuine expectation in both communities that the buildings could be retained and repurposed for alternative energy uses. A glib ESB statement said that "having considered commercial and climate action realities in particular, no viable solution was found to repurpose the plants." The region is growing sceptical about the ESB's role in this process. The company has made much out of its €5 million contribution to the just transition programme and yet we are hearing that it is already seeking this money back via a refund from the energy regulator. There is a real fear that the ESB never properly scoped alternative uses for the power stations and that it is in fact more financially beneficial for the ESB to proceed with the demolition plans for the two stations, and to seek compensation afterwards through the regulator.

As the just transition process flounders, we are seeing an increase in imports of replacement peat and fuel products, while the horticultural peat production sector faces termination in Ireland. It is now critically important that the ESB liaises with the midlands transition groups and the local groups to explain properly the rationale for the demolition of these two buildings, and to also scope adequately any local proposals for alternative uses for the facilities.

The company must return to the table with a compensation package, commensurate with the midlands' massive role in energy production over the past 60 years: €800,000 per decade, or just €1,600 per week, is derisory, and the ESB must be held to account. I encourage the Minister of State and the team in the Department to go back to the ESB once again and engage. The ESB simply cannot be left off the hook with this derisory compensation.

The Deputy is right that the ESB has a key role, and it is important that my Department engages and continues to engage with the ESB on the future of the midlands.

I will address specifically the Shannonbridge and Lanesborough power plants and what their future is. The just transition commissioner made a recommendation in the first progress report in May 2020 that a study be undertaken on the future potential of ESB power stations at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge for the establishment of a dedicated energy hub in the midlands. This is a commitment in the programme for Government and we take that seriously. The ESB has been deeply engaged with my Department, the result of which is a planning application to be lodged shortly to develop additional energy services at these two sites. These will include synchronous condensers and energy storage capabilities at both locations. This type of energy infrastructure is key for the success of renewable energy projects in the area. Offaly has always been a centre in Ireland for energy, whether it was Bord na Móna or ESB. Now it is wind power and solar power, both of which need that balancing technology to allow stable power to be given to the grid or into energy storage and so on. I believe there will be a bright and hopeful future for the midlands, and especially in areas like Offaly where there have been worrying closures of plants. It is a difficult time to go through a transition. The Government is absolutely committed to making sure there is a just transition, sufficient funding and investment, retraining, bog restoration, retrofitting, support for community projects and State strategic support to allow this region to transition from its successful past to a successful future.

That concludes Topical Issue matters. We are a little ahead of schedule, so we will take a sos beag until 10 a.m.

Sitting suspended at 9.56 a.m. and resumed at 10 a.m.