Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Rail Network

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Colm Brophy, for coming in to take this Topical Issue matter. I am glad to raise it on behalf of my constituents.

The Barrow railway bridge is a historic structure connecting the counties of Wexford and Kilkenny along the currently disused Rosslare to Waterford railway line. It opened in 1906 and it closed to passenger traffic in 2010. The maintenance arrangement with Irish Rail was to maintain the line for ten years after closure. Last winter, I asked in a parliamentary question if the maintenance arrangement for the line could be extended until a decision had been made on its future. I am pleased to report that in 2021, a weed spraying train passed along the line from Rosslare to Waterford, across the Barrow bridge. I hope this maintenance will continue.

For the benefit of those who are not familiar with the bridge itself, it has a section in the centre that can turn 90 degrees to open the bridge to allow boats to pass through. There has been much debate, particularly in recent times, about the future of the line and what that will be. Some people would like to see a return to rail services linking the south east with the rest of Ireland and a proper service while others would like to see the line turned into a greenway to connect to Waterford and to the Dungarvan greenway. The third option is to develop a greenway alongside the rail line.

The result of the rail review will help inform the next steps in that regard, but regardless of which of the three options are chosen, it will be necessary for the Barrow bridge to be maintained and remain in operational condition. It cannot be allowed to deteriorate and it should not be left in the open position, if it is not designed as such and if that has the potential to damage the mechanism.

Given the fact there is an ongoing review, which is examining the potential to reopen the railway line, can the Minister of State commit to ensuring that the bridge is left in the closed position until the results of the rail review have been completed and a decision has been made on the rail line’s future?

I thank Deputy Murphy for giving me the opportunity to discuss this issue in the House today. As many Members will be aware, rail services on this particular line ceased operation in 2010 under an agreement between the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Iarnród Éireann. A number of improvements were made to bus services in the area at the time to ensure continued public transport connectivity. A number of parties have raised concerns that the decision to maintain the Barrow bridge in the current open position means that services may never again run on this line.

I do not wish to give false hope to anyone with regard to any imminent return of services but I would like to clarify that the decision to maintain the bridge in an open position is a pragmatic one, based on the fact that the line has now been closed for more than ten years. During this time, Iarnród Éireann has continued to maintain the Barrow bridge and has operated it for maritime activity related to the Port of New Ross. The open position of the bridge reflects the need to ensure easy navigational access to the port. In the absence of any rail services on the line, it is entirely appropriate that the right of way should be given to the marine traffic to pass through the bridge unencumbered.

Since the decision to close the line, a number of revised arrangements were agreed between the NTA and Iarnród Éireann relating to the line. These arrangements include obligations to review the level of crossing services each year, reviewing the boundary protection along the line each year, and conducting bridge inspections every two years, in line with Iarnród Éireann’s technical standards. In addition, the agreement between the NTA and Iarnród Éireann requires a general review of the line to be undertaken annually. The purpose of the review is to assess the overall condition of the line so as to be able to provide a current status assessment of the infrastructure each year. The revised arrangements also provide that the Barrow bridge be maintained in an open position.

I would like to reassure the Deputy that the planned securing of the bridge in the open position is a temporary measure and in no way removes the future functionality of the bridge for carrying rail traffic, should services on this line resume. Neither, I stress, does it in any way impede consideration of the line in the context of the strategic rail review. I understand larnród Éireann will ensure the continued functionality of the bridge through scheduled movements, which will allay any potential concerns that may exist as regards the permanency of train’s position.

Furthermore, the design of the mechanism is such that it can easily be reversed if rail services do resume at some point in the future. I look forward to the strategic rail review and its consideration of the strategic potential of the rail network the island of Ireland, including the Wexford to Waterford line. I trust this clarifies the position with regard to the Barrow bridge.

I thank the Minister of State. It goes some way. I had some verbal conversations with Irish Rail, in which I was told that anything it was doing was temporary and reversible. I am glad the Minister of State has been able to clarify to some degree where it is at. He might be able to let us know when he anticipates that the rail review will be complete. Only then can we estimate what damage may have occurred, if any. If the Minister of State is telling me that there will be none, and that Irish Rail and the NTA have an agreement, I would be pleased to pass that on to my constituents.

This is a rail line on which I travelled to work in my younger days, from Campile railway station to Waterford. It provided very easy access. We now have a new bridge in New Ross that has bypassed the town. It is a fantastic accolade. We have not seen the town suffer or a loss of traffic because if it. There is quite good accessibility.

The Minister of State will know the greenways have been phenomenal. They have given people a lift. In my area, we expect the New Ross to Waterford one will be completed sometime in the middle of 2022.

Having a greenway from Rosslare to Waterford, joining up with Dungarvan, would be phenomenal on the basis that it would bring tourism to the area. A EuroVelo route comes through my area. I appreciate that this enhances the country as a whole. Whether it runs along the side of the railway line or uses this bridge, it is paramount that the bridge is maintained and functional. I ask for a commitment on that and a possible timeline for when the review will be complete.

I thank the Deputy for her comments and will pass her remarks on to the Minister with regard to when the strategic railway review will conclude. It will commence shortly. The Deputy will be aware that a procurement process related to the review is under way. The review will examine the network across the island of Ireland with regard to improving sustainable connectivity between major cities, enhancing regional accessibility and supporting balanced regional development. It is obviously well worth making the comments the Deputy has made this morning about greenways, the impact that they have had and their benefit. I have no doubt that everything will be taken into consideration in the review.

Local Authorities

I see that Deputy Pat Buckley is here this morning. The two of us fought in the trenches when the boundary transition between Cork city and county was undertaken in 2017. Will any assessment be undertaken now or at some stage in the future to scrutinise the successes and failures of the expansion of the Cork City Council boundary? The purpose of the question is not to reignite the debate, which goes back to 2016, but is motivated by a genuine desire to undertake an analysis of how the boundary transition has worked or not worked. I live in the new city area. To be fair to Cork City Council, I contend that we have seen an improvement in services locally in Glanmire and other areas such as Blarney, Tower, and towards Donoughmore and Inniscarra.

Any process which involves essentially doubling the population of the city and increasing its size fivefold geographically is bound to pose challenges and I will speak about some of them. Before I give a few examples, I will first say that all citizens of Cork, especially those in transition areas, were told repeatedly that by transferring into a new jurisdiction, the level of service they received would not be affected or diminished in any way. This has not been the case. I have identified a few areas. There are more which we might discuss in future. I highlight development contributions. When the city initially took over large tracts of rural agricultural land in the former county area, there was no policy about planning contributions devised for agricultural buildings. Farmers who were building farm sheds, outhouses and so on were charged commercial rates as if they were building in the city centre. It took about 14 months for that process to be weaned out. That is an example of where the boundary transition did not proceed as smoothly as it could.

A second point relates to planning applications for one-off houses. Many of us speak about the national planning framework and its potential impact on rural housing. Aside from the national planning framework and its impacts, there is clearly a different interpretation of the existing development plan in Cork City Council. The council has a higher success rate in delivering one-off houses in those former rural areas. That is down to a different interpretation of the existing plan.

The third point relates to local improvement schemes, LIS, and community involvement schemes, CIS. There are many roads in rural areas which people pay a contribution towards. They typically pay a contribution of between 10% and 15% to have the roads done. Many of those projects were lined up but unfortunately when the boundary transitioned, the schemes all fell by the wayside. I asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, about the issue a number of times via parliamentary questions. She said that perhaps Cork County Council would give some of its budget for CIS and LIS to Cork City Council. That suggestion is not workable. We know that one jurisdiction will not give some of its roads budget away to another jurisdiction.

I will refer to planning enforcement, which is my main motivation for tabling this Topical Issue matter today, after the Minister of State replies. The agreement between the two local authorities was that Cork City Council would take on new planning enforcement files and Cork County Council would continue to engage with active planning enforcement files on its own system. Unfortunately, after the transition, Cork County Council received legal advice that I believe goes against the spirit of the agreement it entered into, that it would now not be the competent authority to prosecute any planning enforcement issues. That is a major cause for concern and goes against the spirit of the agreement.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and providing an opportunity to update the House. The Cork boundary alteration is the most significant of its kind undertaken in the State and represents a major reorganisation of local government in Cork. The main aim of the boundary extension was to allow the potential for further development within a new Cork City Council area, while also incentivising higher density development and reducing the risk of sprawl. The extended city area now includes Ballincollig, Carrigrohane, Blarney, Glanmire and Cork Airport and the population of the city increased by more than 85,000 people.

The Local Government Act 2019 was enacted on 31 January 2019 to provide for the transfer of part of the administrative area of Cork County Council to the administrative area of Cork City Council. This took place when the new councils took office after the local elections in May 2019. The Act also provided for the establishment of the statutory Cork boundary alteration implementation oversight committee to oversee arrangements for the alteration of the boundary in accordance with the statutory implementation plan. Responsibility for the detailed planning and implementation of the reorganisation process rests primarily with the two local authorities, subject to the guidance and supervision provided by the oversight committee to ensure compliance with the implementation plan. Work on finalising the transfer of functions was completed in late 2020 and both authorities have confirmed that all the actions contained in the statutory implementation plan have been discharged with new service delivery models now in place in both authorities.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is aware that a small number of outstanding practical issues are still being worked through by both authorities with support being provided by the Department. We are confident that these outstanding matters will be settled soon. These matters relate to sections 13(1)(a), 31 and 34 of the Local Government Act 2019 and they mostly relate to planning matters and responsibility for individual planning cases that were in train at the time of the boundary transfer day. The Department is working closely with the two local authorities to resolve these matters. Should the need arise, the Local Government Act 2019 also provides a mechanism for resolving outstanding issues up to and including a ministerial decision.

I thank the Minister of State. This is not an attempt to rehash the boundary argument that we had four or five years ago. I welcome the Minister of State's comment that responsibility for settling outstanding issues resides with the two local authorities. At the same time, it is subject to the guidance and supervision of the oversight committee to ensure compliance with the implementation plan. The Minister of State has identified a number of problems, although they are described as a small number of outstanding practical issues. How many times has the oversight committee met subsequent to the boundary agreement? What was the outcome of those meetings? What advice was given to both local authorities? These issues have continued for a couple of years. As a representative in the area, I do not see any resolution to the outstanding problems. If it is open to the oversight committee to ensure compliance with the implementation plan, I ask the Minister of State to go back to the Minister to ensure the oversight committee reconvenes to resolve the outstanding issues. This is unfair for people.

The real motivation for me raising this is planning enforcement issues. People who lawfully carry out developments within the confines of planning legislation often live beside people who do not. Those people see the failure of Cork City Council and Cork County Council to deal with active, outstanding planning enforcement issues. That needs to be met head-on.

I do not care which authority is to resolve those outstanding planning enforcement issues. I just want them resolved. That is the least people in those areas can expect.

I hear the Deputy very clearly on that. The Minister is hopeful that the outstanding matters can be resolved between the two authorities in the coming weeks. Therefore, while a review to determine the overall success of the boundary extension may be considered in the future, at this stage of the implementation it would be premature to look at that. It is considered beneficial to wait until both authorities have had time to settle into their new jurisdictions and there is sufficient data to do a review, as outlined.

I also consider it important to allow the local authority a sufficient period of operation, taking account of the additional stresses and strains Covid has put on the implementation period. As I indicated, the Minister is hopeful the outstanding matters Deputy O'Sullivan has raised can be resolved in the coming weeks.

Mental Health Services

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for being here. I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue.

I will provide a brief background. It was the wording in the previous Mental Health Commission report in 2018 that got me. It said the Owenacurra centre "was" a 24-bed unit situated in the middle of the town. It "was" a single-storey prefab building centred around an internal courtyard. There were 16 single bedrooms and four twin bedrooms. We learned as recently as last Monday that the centre would be closed on the basis of a number of reports. I thank the Minister of State for letting me know that it was coming, but it was still a shock.

The centre had 19 long-term residents, but it also has a day-care centre, long-stay facilities and respite care. It served a lot of the east Cork area as people travelled from Youghal, Cobh and other places to use the centre. I spoke to a number of staff in the centre. We know the patients are the priority at the moment and getting suitable accommodation or services for them.

The location of the centre in Midleton is a very valuable site and having spoken to people they are fearful about what will happen given that the building has been condemned as not being fit for purpose. In this day and age, it is strange to have prefab units. I know from previous reports of the Mental Health Commission that the same phrases came up all the time: "not fit for purpose" and "falling apart", and there were references to ceilings coming down. I got so angry when I heard they were just going to shut it between now and the end of October, which is very soon. Why did the HSE not put resources into the building to maintain it in the way people maintain their house or garden?

We in Midleton and in east Cork do not want this centre to be a big white elephant after October and then listen to bickering from all sides saying it is a valuable site and we do not know what we are going to do with it. We need all those services in Midleton. We need them in that centre on that site. The staff there want some kind of commitment from either the Minister or the HSE, preferably both, that we will not have a derelict building in October, which will draw anti-social behaviour and in the worst-case scenario end up going on fire. What we need is a commitment that something will be replaced on the site to guarantee the same or even better services than we had before.

Most of the staff there seem happy enough to be redeployed and there is good engagement with them. I always give credit where it is due, but I do not trust the HSE. It stated that a plan for the future of the site would be considered in due course. Basically, it does not have a plan for the site yet and that makes me fearful. We should have something similar back on the site as soon as possible because it is a necessity. The Minister of State is aware of the situation given her current and recent portfolios that people are not getting any younger. Mental health issues are increasing, and they will probably increase further. I seek a commitment that a fit-for-purpose building will be put back on the site that can benefit east Cork.

The Minister of State with responsibility for mental health and older people, Deputy Butler, sends her sincere apologies for not being here to address this very important issue herself. She is before the Select Committee on Health this morning, to bring forward legislation, and so it could not be avoided.

From the outset, I reassure the Deputy that the current and future care needs of the residents of the Owenacurra Centre have been paramount in all decisions and actions taken by the HSE. Owenacurra is a continuing care unit located in Midleton, Cork and currently has 19 residents. It is a single-storey building constructed in the early 1970s and is very much a building of its time. Following its most recent inspection in February this year, the Mental Health Commission raised concerns about persistent non-compliance with regulations on the premises. I note for context that the commission inspects all approved centres at least once a year and plays a vital role in assisting us in improving our mental health services for all. The premises at Owenacurra were highlighted and risk rated as critical. I note here for context that the report noted overall compliance at 83%, up from 80% in 2020.

On foot of this latest inspection, HSE mental health services commissioned the HSE estates department to review the current condition of the premises. I understand that following a number of detailed assessments, it formed the opinion that the building is in an unacceptably poor condition with major defects and that the layout is unsuitable for adequate infection prevention and control. Following this, Cork-Kerry Mental Health Services determined that a refurbishment could not bring the building to the standards required. Therefore, on 23 June, they notified the Mental Health Commission that the Owenacurra Centre would close on a phased basis between now and 31 October.

The immediate priority of the HSE is to consult with residents and their families individually and to agree an appropriate alternative placement based on their assessed needs. Cork-Kerry Mental Health Services have a plan for this, and management will also engage with staff and their representative bodies.

A mental health day service is also located within the building. Work is under way to identify an alternative location for this service, as close as possible to the current location. The future of the entire site will be considered at a later stage.

I note that the HSE is committed to improving its infrastructure, including new or improved community-based facilities and services for people with more severe and enduring mental health difficulties. Of the additional €50 million Exchequer funding provided in 2021, €7 million will fund reconfiguration of mental health facilities, in line with Mental Health Commission Covid risk assessment recommendations. This, plus the recurring €6 million in new development funding, means there is €13 million for minor works and refurbishments in 2021.

In 2020, the HSE drew down almost €4 million in once-off new development funding to improve the physical infrastructure of 16 mental health community and inpatient units, in line with Sharing the Vision recommendations and commission regulations. The Government is committed to the improvement and development of all aspects of mental health services through implementation of Sharing the Vision. The policy aims to enhance the provision of mental health services and supports across a broad continuum from mental health promotion, prevention and early intervention to acute and specialist mental health service delivery during the period 2020-30.

In terms of premises, I also highlight that the new 170-bed National Forensic Mental Health Service Hospital complex in Portrane will replace the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum this year. This new state-of-the-art facility will include a 130-bed adult unit, a ten-bed forensic child and adolescent unit and a 30-bed intensive care rehabilitation unit.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply, but while it is welcome, the Central Mental Hospital is in Dundrum not Midleton. We are talking about getting local services.

Local knowledge is local expertise. When any service is run in the community, people get to know each other and more trust is built up. I would not say there is a more laid-back working relationship but there is more understanding and there is harmony and more empathy and respect. As I said at the start, however, our biggest fear concerns what will happen once the service is gone. Surprisingly, what has happened has taken only a couple of months. There has been a very fast step-down and shut-down of the unit, which is worrying, bearing in mind the state in which the building has been. Despite that, I need somebody to commit that once the building is decommissioned and closed, something will replace it in the area. Reference was made in the reply to which I referred to moving the day-care services but the authorities have not identified anything yet. I acknowledge the new 55-bed extension being done across the road, in a very old hospital. It is community led and run, which is fabulous. There should be more of this but the biggest fear concerns the fact that we cannot afford to lose the service in Midleton. We cannot let the building rot or be sold for something else. It was put there for a reason and we need to keep it there. Many use it. Irrespective of the position on long-term care, it is imperative that the day-care and respite services be retained in east Cork. Could the Minister of State commit to finding out as soon as possible what will happen to the building and site?

I thank Deputy Buckley again. I will relay everything he has brought up to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. I am aware they had a conversation earlier in the week. Based on the original response the Minister of State gave me this morning, the priority concerned the need for infection control and management going into the winter period. I hear what the Deputy is saying about day services and respite care and also about not having an idle building or, more important, a vacant site with nothing planned for it. I will take on board what he has asked about and I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to liaise with him and all his Oireachtas colleagues on the plans for the location and take on board their input.

That concludes the Topical Issue Debate. We are in the unusual position of having a little time to spare so beidh sos againn go dtí 10 a.m.

Sitting suspended at 9.43 a.m. and resumed at 10 a.m.