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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 11 Nov 2021

Vol. 1013 No. 7

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Planning Issues

Last Friday, a landmark judgment in the case of Cork County Council v. the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Attorney General and the Planning Regulator laid bare the rot that exists at the heart of the planning system. I preface my remarks by saying that this is not a criticism of the Office of the Planning Regulator as distinct from the manner in which the current officeholder has made recommendations to the Minister's office, which displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the relevant planning law. The action of the Minister to reverse the decision of Cork County Council on foot of the advice of the regulator was something that would offend a first-year law student.

Cork County Council had no alternative but to judicially review the decision of the Minister. The point to be decided was one that had been decided more times than most law students care to forget. This case should never have darkened the door of the courthouse. The judgment confirmed, as so many other judgments had confirmed previously, that local authorities must have regard to general ministerial guidelines. They are not required to follow them slavishly. It was implied by the regulator that these guidelines were mandatory. Knowing this was wrong was the equivalent of knowing that one plus one equals two. Mr. Justice Humphreys filleted the Office of the Planning Regulator and the Department. An eminent planning senior counsel has described this planning judgment as one of the most accurate and scathing he has seen. What is striking about the judgment is the frustration of the judge at the obvious fundamental lack of knowledge of the Planning Regulator of the basic principles of planning law.

Issues with the Department's planning policy department are not new. For example, I have put parliamentary questions to the Minister and a reply I received was intentionally, Jesuitically misleading. Subsequently, the Wexford county manager's report relied unlawfully on that reply to recommend an unlawful, inappropriate measure to the councillors in County Wexford. On the basis of this judgment, we can no longer trust the responses that Deputies receive from the planning section of the Department. We can no longer have confidence in the assistant secretary who is responsible for planning policy and who allowed the Minister to pursue an unlawful attempt to reverse the decision of the elected members of Cork County Council. We can no longer have confidence in the Planning Regulator. As Mr. Justice Humphreys pointed out in paragraph 70 of his judgment, the basic lack of legal knowledge displayed would have been sufficient grounds for the judicial review.

The Minister is now on notice that he has a significant problem in both the Office of the Planning Regulator and the planning policy section. It is clear that the head of the Office of the Planning Regulator has not got the legal planning knowledge or the skill set to maintain his position. He has had his homework corrected by the High Court and received no grade, NG. The defence offered by him is that this case was the equivalent of "the dog ate my homework". The regulator occupies a quasi legal position and his continuing in his current position undermines the Office of the Planning Regulator and the performance of its functions. It removes certainty from the planning system generally. I say, with regret, that the Planning Regulator is not fit for his position. The Minister must appoint somebody who has the skill set for the position. If he does not, I fear the contamination effect might reach his office. As a result of this landmark judgment the following question arises: who regulates the regulator? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? I ask the Minister of State to make a statement.

For the record, I would not normally allow some the statements that have been made to be made, but I am conscious that the Deputy is extrapolating from the decision of an eminent judge. That decision is already in the public domain.

I should point out that this is still potentially before the courts, so I am restricted in what I can say about the specifics of the case. I will reply with fact.

In the first instance, my role of Minister of State with regard to the planning system is primarily to provide a policy and legislative framework under which planning authorities, the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, and An Bord Pleanála perform their statutory functions. The legislative framework chiefly comprises the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, and the planning and development regulations 2001, as amended. Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas introduce and debate legislation which the OPR then enforces. As we are elected by our peers and the citizens of this State, the primacy of Members of the Dáil is appropriate.

Recommendation 10 of the final report of the Mahon tribunal recommended the establishment of an independent planning regulator, which led to the establishment of the Office of the Planning Regulator on 3 April 2019. The Deputy will be aware of the outcome of the report of the Mahon tribunal and the corruption, which we have now tackled, that existed in our planning system. Other recommendations included the introduction of a register of lobbyists, limitations on political donations and stronger whistleblower legislation. While I will not comment on the particular aspects of the judgment on which it is open to the State to appeal, I will emphasise the importance of the role of the OPR as part of ensuring the effective implementation of the plan-making process. Ultimately, where the OPR considers that aspects of a plan do not conform with national and regional policies or proper planning and sustainable development, the regulator issues a notice to the Minister recommending that powers of ministerial direction be engaged. The decision on whether to issue a direction is ultimately a matter for the Minister and there are safeguards in the legislation relating to the accountability of the Minister to the Oireachtas. This is a critically important underpinning of the plan-led approach which flowed from the Mahon tribunal.

In accordance with the code of practice for the governance of State bodies, the Department has an oversight agreement with the OPR, the purpose of which is to ensure clear service ownership, accountability, roles and responsibilities of both the Department and the OPR with a view to ensuring that the OPR is discharging its statutory functions in an efficient and effective manner and commensurate with the resources allocated to it to enable it to discharge those functions.

The agreement identifies the distinctive roles of both organisations, their mutual commitments and expectations, and provides the basis for ongoing engagement between them. I am satisfied that there are good arrangements in place for accountability to the Oireachtas and governance of the Office of the Planning Regulator. We continue to keep the legislative provisions under review, particularly in the context of the planning review currently being led by the Attorney General, which is due to report in September next year. It will provide a fitness test for the whole planning area. Any legislation required on foot of that review will be enacted before the end of the year, which is a very ambitious target, given the complexities of the planning system, which processes 27,000 applications per annum of which only 10% are appealed.

I wish to make two further points. The Planning Regulator has a job to implement and be guardian over a plan-led system that this Oireachtas has approved with a shared vision from a national planning framework right down to our local plans. The current occupant of the Office of the Planning Regulator is a highly professional individual who discharges his functions with considerable thought and merit on a daily basis. He does not take any decision lightly when recommending a direction ultimately to the Minister who decides in respect of the Oireachtas.

The assistant secretary with responsibility for planning in our Department is a highly respected individual who has done great work and given great service to the State. I had the privilege of being in County Wexford recently and saw the leadership that Tom Enright is giving there as chief executive. There are many innovative projects which I have not seen in other local authorities. They seek to future-proof employment. Key infrastructure is being delivered in County Wexford, bringing many jobs to the county. The work by the executive and the councillors in underpinning those policy decisions, including taking hard decisions on revenue-raising mechanisms, is exemplary.

One of the headlines when the Mahon tribunal was completed and the creation of the Office of the Planning Regulator was announced was, "New regulator will restore confidence in planning system". I prefaced my opening remarks by saying that this is not a criticism of the Office of the Planning Regulator, as distinct from the manner in which the current officeholder is discharging his duties. There was a basic failure by the Planning Regulator and the Minister of State's office to properly consider the established law in the area. The law is not the issue here; it is the lack of understanding of those who are supposed to understand it.

A second-year law student faced with a straightforward question about the established law and precedent regarding section 28 ministerial guidelines and section 31 ministerial directives would revert in 20 minutes with the unequivocal answer. Two High Court cases clearly established the following - in case the Minister of State is thinking of appealing. Ministerial guidelines are not prescriptive or mandatory, based on the decision in Brophy v. An Bord Pleanála in 2015. Section 31 of the 2000 Act does not entitle the Minister to impose by direction his own views on the proper planning and development of the area over those who are elected members of a planning authority based on a decision in Tristor Limited v. the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 2010.

I ask the Minister of State to explain the rationale and motivation for proceeding with the section 31 directive when both he and the Planning Regulator were aware of the case law? If they were not, they most certainly should have been. The question I asked originally was who regulates the regulator. The answer is that it is the Minister of State. I think he should do his job for the sake of the county development plans being prepared and save the rest of us from judicial review proceedings to no end because of the basic lack of knowledge by the current Planning Regulator in advising the Minister of State incorrectly.

The Minister of State is precluded from discussing any individual planning case. It is in order to discuss the generality of the issues.

We have heard a number of sound bites from the Deputy which should guarantee a few clips in social media and potentially some coverage on regional radio.

The Minister of State is despicable and his answer is despicable. He is spending the taxpayers' money frivolously.

The Minister of State without interruption, please.

For the past five minutes, I have listened to a Deputy blacken the names of highly respected public officials who have given great service to the State. I robustly defend their actions. I know how hard they work and how well they are doing in their roles. In his annual report, the Planning Regulator's detailed explanation of planning decisions taken throughout the country is exemplary. Safeguards are built into the system through the primacy of the Oireachtas. We hold the Planning Regulator to account with the Minister deciding whether to pursue a direction or recommendation issued to him. In any case we must take all the factors into consideration.

The county development plan process is working well. In general, local authorities are passing all their county development plans and meeting their obligations on them. Under the national planning framework, there is significant capacity for housing delivery across the 31 local authorities. Nine local authorities need to increase their housing delivery by 100% while another 13 need to increase by 250%. There is significant capacity for us to build on the opportunity provided by the Covid-19 crisis. At one stage we had a system that provided enough zoned land to cater for an additional 10 million people but without correct infrastructure to underpin that development. Through the plan-led system the Oireachtas has put in place, the Office of the Planning Regulator is a guardian into ensure we never go back to that day again and that the right development takes place in the right place. I am proud of the development of the OPR and the role of my Department in ensuring that. Nothing backs up assertion like the fact of 27,000 planning applications approved every year.

Housing Policy

I thank the Minister of State for attending this evening's debate. I have raised this matter previously. Ultimately, we need to build homes, but we also need to ensure the national density guidelines are in keeping with ensuring that we get sustainable development. The national density guidelines recommend between 35 and 50 units per hectare. In many cases they are well above that now. At above 35 units per hectare, only apartments can be accommodated, in many cases very high-rise apartments in mature areas. In many cases developers are submitting planning applications to local authorities and including as part of the mix five-storey or six-storey apartment blocks, which in many cases may not get built, in order that they can continue to build starter homes. The issue of traffic management and the impact it will have on an area does not appear to be factored into national guidelines in how particular planning applications are assessed.

I am based in Limerick city. I very much welcome the development under way in the building of homes. However, in many areas, homes are being built but are ending up being interspersed with five-storey or six-storey apartment blocks in order that developers can get the densities to get the planning applications approved to enable them to build starter homes. In many cases the cost of building apartments is 30% higher than the cost of building individual homes because the model means they need to build large apartments. This is becoming a feature in areas such as Castletroy, Monaleen, Caherdavin, Dooradoyle and Raheen on the outskirts of the city.

We need high densities in city centres and I want to see people living there. In many cases, the location is the issue. I have no particular issue with high densities along main thoroughfares but I do where there are existing or mature areas, including those with houses. For a developer to get planning permission, they must go for apartments to get the required densities.

We need to build starter homes and apartments in a sustainable way. I call on the Minister of State with responsibility for the local authorities and planning to give a commitment to look at reviewing urban density guidelines. I ask that he consider different measures as one size does not fit all. Densities suitable for Dublin, for example, may not fit down the country and what is suitable for city centres may not fit in suburbs or rural areas outside city centres. What might fit on a main thoroughfare in a suburb may not fit in a mature area. I ask the Minister of State to undertake a review of the urban planning guidelines and look at them on a specific basis.

Local area plans may have a density of 35 units per hectare and planners in the local authority in Limerick say this cannot be dealt with locally because national planning guidelines supersede the process. It is a contradiction. A local area plan may indicate what is sustainable but national policy appears to contradict it. I am looking for a commitment that the Minister of State will carry out a review of the national density guidelines for residential housing, taking into account different density requirements outside Dublin, including Limerick and the suburbs rather than city centres.

The Deputy makes a very valid point and we are trying to resolve the matter. Deputy Stanton and Councillor Anthony Barry, who works very closely with Deputy Stanton, have raised the issue consistently. Project Ireland 2040 is the overarching policy and planning framework for the social, economic and cultural development of Ireland. It includes the 20-year national planning framework, NPF, and the ten-year capital plan to 2030. The NPF and Project Ireland strategy includes very clear objectives to significantly grow the regions by focusing on Ireland's cities, including in particular the four cities other than Dublin and on regional growth drivers and other key towns.

A key outcome of both the NPF and national development plan is the compact growth of cities and towns of all sizes to add value and create more attractive places in which people can live and work. The preferred approach is to focus on greater reuse of previously developed brownfield land, consolidating infill sites, which may not have been built on before, and the development of sites in locations that are better serviced by existing facilities and public transport. However, the NPF also acknowledges that there is a need for more proportionate and tailored approach to residential development, especially in the context of the growth of regional cities and towns. This means it is necessary to adapt the scale, design and layout of housing according to the size and type of settlement in which it is located and its proximity to centres and public transport services.

Statutory "section 28" ministerial guidelines for planning authorities on sustainable residential development in urban areas were last issued in 2009, having been first introduced in 1999. A preliminary draft of sustainable and compact settlement guidelines, SCSG, is currently being prepared for the purposes of screening to determine if a strategic environmental assessment, SEA, is required. Following the completion of the SEA process, the draft SCSG will be placed on display for a focused period of public consultation. Although there is no statutory requirement for public consultation, it is considered best practice to seek the views of planning authorities, practitioners, industry representatives and other interested parties. Submissions can be made in due course.

As the Deputy mentioned, my Department is undertaking a targeted review on the update of the sustainable residential guidelines. In the meantime I have issued a circular that the Deputy will be aware of. It states: "It is necessary for An Bord Pleanála and planning authorities to exercise discretion in the application and assessment of residential density at the periphery of large towns, particularly to the edges of towns with a rural context."

We must be clear that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach and there are communities and towns that should not be required to have a very high density level when it is not suitable for the area. On the other hand, in very large city areas like the centre of Dublin, we must take into account the land values that underpin cities and make the most of that in terms of compact growth and carbon footprint. A targeted review is under way and we will work through that. I am happy to take into account Deputy O'Donnell's views on that. I share his opinion and understand exactly where he is coming from. The last thing we want is any policy putting out development that is not viable and will not be delivered. We want to try to have sustainable communities across all tenures. That is very important.

I welcome the commitment from the Minister of State and that the review is under way. When will the review be complete? The Minister of State must write to local authorities, as from my perspective in Limerick, local authorities seem to be taking the view that if they give planning permissions in line with local area plans of the order of 35 units per hectare or less, it will be overturned by An Bord Pleanála. There is a need for real clarity around the matter.

I invite the Minister of State to come to Limerick to see what I am speaking about. There is an area in Castletroy where there could be over 700 houses going in and there are two roads leading to a traffic management bottleneck. It does not seem to be taken into account by local authorities in the granting of planning permission.

We want sustainable development. I want to see apartment blocks but I want to see them in specific and sustainable locations. Laws are being interpreted at a local authority level and for whatever reason there may not be a full appreciation of what the Minister of State has indicated this evening. I ask him to write to the local authorities and tell them they have discretion and must consider the qualities of areas. We need high densities in cities, for example, but that is not the case in mature areas where young families may make their home. Putting blocks of five or six storeys in their back yards is not sustainable. The same is true when we put in large numbers of houses and apartments in an area with serious traffic problems.

We want people to use public transport but if a bus cannot get around a corner and an apartment block is put on that corner, it is not sustainable development. There is a lack of understanding of how plans are processed. The problem is that when planning permission is granted and the units are built, they will be there forever. We are only on this Earth for a short period and people want to buy homes in which to rear children or just for themselves. They put hard-earned money into buying them. Through no fault of their own they can be in a position where a block of five or six storeys is in their back garden and that is not sustainable.

I ask the Minister of State for information on the timing of the review. I also ask him to write to local authorities to reaffirm this position. I look forward to him coming to Limerick city.

I thank the Deputy for his response and I am absolutely delighted to take up his invitation. The review is expected to be concluded midway through 2022. We should expect a number of submissions and they may be complex but the target is to have it completed by mid-2022.

The circular was sent to all the chief executives in the country and the chair of An Bord Pleanála for its attention. As the review is ongoing, we must monitor what results on foot of the issuing of the circular and what way decisions have taken account of it. The sustainable settlement guidelines for communities are important and the new iteration must take into account a range of factors responding to the more effectively defined settlement hierarchies, as the Deputy outlined, of cities, towns and villages, as well as the different types of neighbourhoods. In particular there are the outer suburbs, which are critical, as the Deputy mentions. We must look at that.

In addition, we should consider linking development criteria and standards to different settlement hierarchies, with greater utilisation of urban design frameworks and master plans to promote quality-led designs to ensure we have sustainable communities. I take on board everything the Deputy has said and look forward to his submission in due course when the consultation process opens.

Disability Services

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for accepting this Topical Issue matter this evening and the Minister of State for being here. This is a challenging area and I congratulate the Minister of State and her team on the work they have been doing since she took up office. I am quite impressed.

When children leave special schools, they often go into adult services. The transport arrangements to special schools are good. They have escorts and services and so forth, even though sometimes the special schools are too far away from the young person's home and he or she must travel long distances. When children become young adults, they may still be vulnerable and it may still not safe for them or they may not have the ability to travel on their own, but they must attend an adult disability service or training centre which quite often are also located a long distance from their home, and no dedicated transport service is provided for that. This can cause serious stress to parents. If both parents are working, they cannot bring their child, who is now a young adult, to the centre.

I have asked a number of parliamentary questions on this and the Minister of State has responded saying, "Some transport supports are provided by the HSE or funded agencies on a discretionary basis, and a variety of transport solutions are pursued in different CHO areas", including travel training, local transport, and some service providers provide transport, where capacity exists. It is very much an ad hoc, take-it-or-leave-it system. It is the luck of the draw in some instances. I have one particular case, and the Minister of State knows of it, which we have been working on since last September. It is only yesterday they finally got a service, thankfully. It took a lot of work and effort, and that should not be the case.

Will the Minister of State have a look at this whole area and see if we can put a service in place so that when these young people become adults, have to strike out on their own, and have to go to a service which is very often very far away from their home, they would have that transport service provided? Even better would be if she could ensure the training centres were closer to the homes of these young people. Many parts of the country, including my area in east Cork, do not have a training centre. Will the Minister of State carry out a national audit of these centres, if it has not already been done? There should be a training centre within 4, 5 or 6 miles of a young person's home or in the nearest large town where he or she can go and with which he or she is familiar.

When a young person turns 18 and becomes a young adult and goes to a training centre, his or her vulnerabilities still exist and he or she will still need the support to travel. That young person cannot navigate public transport safely and parents worry about this. To get back in the evening, maybe in the dark, is the other challenge. I know of some parents who have actually given up their jobs. I spoke to a parent today who took leave from her job, which has cost her a lot of money, to bring her child to a special school. I know this is a different area, but this is something they should not have to do. God knows they have enough pressure and worry about who will mind their young adult children when they get older.

We have made a significant amount of progress in this area, but there is still a lot to do. This particular piece could be fixed and needs attention. I know the Minister of State is doing her best in this regard and I want to support her in that work, as we all do. There should be a seamless transition from second level to adult level services in regard to transport. I look forward to what the Minister of State has to say.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I like how he said he wishes to discuss this issue, and that is exactly how he laid it out this evening. The response I have is totally different from the answer needed to how the Deputy has presented this topic. He is right: we do not do enough transition planning for where young people transition from second level education, whether it be in a special class, special school or special unit, to adult day services. They are coming from a space where they are well supported, well minded and really well protected to a space where, although we have brought in annual funding since 2015 for young people to be able to access adult day services under the school-leaver programme, and this year we have €34 million left aside for the school-leaver programme, regrettably, transport is not considered a core part of the HSE response to the school-leaver programme under the Department of Health. That speaks exactly to the point about parents being stressed and worried about that transition planning piece. It is unfortunate that sometimes a young adult has to give up a day attending a training centre or a day service to ensure the cost of his or her transport is protected. Saying it is not a core health piece sometimes leaves me astounded. We spend in excess of €50 million annually providing transport for people to attend day services. Since 2015, however, we do not provide any funding to support people in regard to this issue under discussion. I totally understand why families are anxious.

The positive piece that has happened recently is there has been a Cabinet subcommittee established to shine a light on this exact topic. I am fortunate the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the Minister, Deputy Foley, with the support of the Taoiseach, are prepared to shine that light on it, with the acknowledgement that we need to do better transition planning. We need to start planning in transition year as to what the needs and wants of individuals are. We also need to be ambitious for young people as opposed to just saying they need to go to a day service. We need to see what their needs and abilities are and support them to have that independent piece in the community. The most important piece is you need to give them that support to access the community as opposed to saying there is a train nearby or a local bus they can use to go to a training service, without ever perhaps teaching or supporting them to understand the basics of accessing transport - going in the morning and returning in the evening. We need to front-load the supports to build confidence into the young people. It is something I would like to ensure we get funding for going forward.

This year, I introduced a deferral programme to ensure it was not just a case that there was no choice for young people other than going to adult services. I gave a deferral to allow young people to have the choice to go into further education, maybe something to do with literacy and numeracy through the further education and training, FET, system or a social work scheme. It was to give young people choices. I have seen the wonderful work done in respect of apprenticeships. We need to show parents there are choices and options available. The most important piece in this conversation, however, is that we need to be able to fund that delivery and continuum of services, so that you do not fall off the cliff edge, as it were, the minute you leave the leaving certificate year or turn 18 years of age.

I am happy to work with the Deputy on this and have him part of other conversations that are taking place to ensure it happens and to bring confidence to parents that, as it were, you do not fall off that cliff edge.

I thank the Minister of State for her positive response and encourage her to keep working on this. Disability and intellectual disability are a continuum, as the Minister of State well knows. Some children and young people, as the Minister suggested, can be trained and taught how to use public transport and navigate the system and so on. There are others on the other end of the spectrum, however, who cannot and will never be able to do that and who will need to be guided and brought from the door of their home to the door of their training centre and back again. If that is in a remote rural area, it is very difficult.

What I want to see happening from next September on is that parents know who to contact. Quite often, if they contact the service provider, the school or the training centre, it seems to fall on those to provide the service. They are at a loss and say they do not have the resources or the know-how, that they cannot do and it is not their role anyway. We need to have a situation where, every September, when these young people transition from second level to the training centres and workshops, to go to work like any other young adult who goes to work or further training does, that it is seamless, clear and painless for their parents, in particular, and that they know who to contact to get support. The Minister of State could consider a one-stop-shop or a hotline that parents could ring up and explain their situation, that they are living in one place and their child has a training place in another location 30 miles away, where they could find out how to get their child from A to B safely, and explain that the child cannot navigate public transport safely even though he or she free travel on public transport, and that the parents would be very worried about putting him or her on a bus, especially if he or she had to change buses or services, as can happen in some cases.

I am glad the Minister of State is taking this seriously. I will support her, as would all of us here, in solving this problem. I am sure it is not rocket science to do so. There just needs to be a focus on it. It is really great to see young adults like these, who face the challenges they face, being able to leave their homes and go out into the world, to a training centre with their friends or to other education and training. In the past, young adults like these stayed at home and never got anywhere. We need to do more to support them in getting there and in reaching their full potential.

I again thank the Deputy. Under the national disability inclusion strategy, issues facing people with disabilities such as transport issues must be addressed on a cross-Government basis. These issues do not, and should not, fit into the Department of Health alone. There should also be conversations with the Department of Transport to ensure that, when a national transport policy is being rolled out, inclusion is part of it. It should criss-cross right across the country to ensure that people can use it.

The Deputy also brought up the idea of a national audit. In 2022, I plan to do a national mapping exercise to see where we have day services, rehabilitative training services and residential and respite services so that we can see where the gaps are. This will enable us to ensure we can meet the needs of individuals.

We do not have a one-stop shop for issues relating to disability nor do we have a one-stop website in that regard. I would like to break down the barriers between community healthcare organisations. If one lives in Cork but near Waterford, one might not get funding because of X and Y. We need to break down those barriers because parents do not know how to navigate them, although they probably do by the time their children have reached 18 years because they have been battling for 18 years. We need a one-stop shop that is accessible and that allows for integration. Regardless of people's location, they should be assured that they can attend a training centre and can have access to transport. We should support people who want to progress and who can be assisted. We also need to support young people for whom day services are the best option. I acknowledge the work the providers do in trying to cut what is already very thin cloth even more thinly. They do this incredibly well but, since 2015, the funding has not been there to support them.

Harbours and Piers

The fourth important matter comes from Deputy Cullinane, who wishes to discuss funding for pre-dredging works at Helvick Pier to allow safe passage for the locally-stationed Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI, lifeboat. Which Minister is in charge of dredging?

I am not in charge of it but I will endeavour to respond.

The Minister of State should not be so modest.

There is no better man than the Minister of State to dredge.

He can start in his own constituency.

Helvick is a working sea fisheries harbour in the west Waterford Gaeltacht. It also hosts an RNLI lifeboat station that serves the bay of Dungarvan and the surrounding coastal zone. A build-up of sand and silt in the harbour has resulted in it becoming inaccessible and unnavigable at low tide. Fishing boats can neither enter nor leave the harbour, except at high tide, and the lifeboat is on restricted service. This means it cannot launch for 90 minutes each side of low tide, which equates to approximately three hours out of every six and a half hours. Necessary dredging has not occurred because of the prohibitive costs on the local authority to self-fund preliminary surveys and environmental assessments. Until dredging is carried out, lifeboat services will continue to be restricted. In the words of one RNLI worker, it is only by pure luck that the lifeboat has not been tasked to an emergency by the Coast Guard during these restricted service times up to now. Not only is the situation affecting the ability of fishers to earn a living and to carry out their work safely, but it is actively putting lives at risk at sea. I do not want to have to raise this matter with the Minister of State again in the wake of a tragedy at sea where lives have been lost due to the inability of a lifeboat to launch.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine can provide funding for dredging. This is important and necessary funding. I welcome the funding that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine made available for a number of different harbours in County Waterford over recent months. All of that funding is necessary. However, funding for dredging does not cover the preliminary work, that is, the surveys and the environmental impact assessments that are required to be carried out before dredging can commence. The cost of this work can often be as high as the cost of the dredging itself. This is placing local authorities in a catch-22 position. The Government will fund them to dredge harbours but will not fund the preliminary works it requires them to undertake to be allowed to dredge.

I am sure, because I have been here before, that the Minister of State will say that local authority funding is a matter for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and that funding for day-to-day activities such as surveying and assessment is also a matter for that Minister. I have heard that before. However, when I talk to the chief executives of local authorities, they say they do not have the funding. As the Minister of State will know, they have very tight resources when it comes to their core funding. They simply do not have the ability to fund the necessary preliminary works. All of this ignores that those surveys and assessments are not budgeted for anywhere and must come out of the local authorities' overall budget. I am sure Members of this House who were councillors before arriving here will know that, if the local authority in Waterford was to provide funding for these preliminary works without that funding coming from some other source, other very necessary services in Waterford would have to be curtailed to make way for funding for these surveys and assessments to be made available. In other words, the funding would have to come out of the local authority's budget.

Will the Minister amend the regulations and expand the funding stream to cover the pre-dredging surveys and assessments to allow local authorities such as Waterford City and County Council to carry out the dredging works that are so urgently required?

I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and thank Deputy Cullinane for raising this issue. Responsibility for the development and maintenance of local authority-owned piers, harbours and slipways rests with each local authority. The relevant local authority in the case of Helvick Harbour is Waterford City and County Council. However, as part of its annual fishery harbour and coastal infrastructure development programme, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has, in previous years, provided funding to assist coastal local authorities in carrying out small-scale projects for the development and repair of piers, harbours and slipways in their ownership.

Under this year's programme, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, approved funding of €4.2 million to assist coastal local authorities to undertake and complete 79 development and repair projects on local authority-owned harbours and slipways. The package provides funding for maintenance and repair works in addition to supporting the ongoing development and enhancement of harbour facilities, including some marine leisure developments.

Waterford City and County Council secured funding of €510,000 under this year's programme to undertake five harbour development projects. I am pleased to advise that a project to undertake upgrades to the pier in Helvick Harbour was approved for the maximum available funding for an individual project under the programme of €150,000. This follows on from previous funding of up to €530,000 having been granted for projects in Helvick Harbour since 2010. The Department's scheme remains focused on supporting actual works. It is a matter for Waterford City and County Council to progress any preparatory studies, permitting and design reports.

The Minister, Deputy McConaIogue, recently received the final report of the seafood sector task force, which was set up earlier this year to examine the impacts on the fishing sector and coastal communities of the trade and co-operation agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom. The task force has recommended an initiative for the development of publicly owned marine infrastructure, with an emphasis on providing stimulus for economic diversification in view of the impact of the loss of fishing opportunities on coastal communities dependent on the fishing industry. I understand that the Minister has asked Department officials to urgently examine the report.

Should any application be made for funding by Waterford City and County Council under any future funding programme for actual dredging works or other eligible capital works at Helvick Harbour, it will be given due consideration, taking into account the terms and conditions of the scheme, the priority attached to the project by the council, available funding and overall national priorities.

I will raise with the Minister the issues the Deputy outlined regarding the works in advance of the capital allocation being completed. As Minister of State with responsibility for local government, I assure him we are working constructively with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to finalise a Supplementary Estimate for loss of income in that sector to ensure it will have the capital and the funding to carry out its services in the ten months ahead.

I do not think the RNLI lifeboat station, the people who work in that area or the fishers really care where the money comes from. Whether it comes from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not the issue for them. The problem relates to when Departments operate in silos and there is not a joined-up approach. On the one hand, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has indicated that it will fund the dredging or at least receive and process an application while, on the other, the local authority has stated that it does not have the funding to carry out the preliminary works, which can cost as much as the dredging. When the funding from the former Department is not there, we end up with a chicken-and-egg situation whereby the lifeboat cannot be used at certain times of the day and fishers cannot use the harbour at certain times because of the build-up of sand and silt. It is a matter of knocking heads together between different Departments or, as I suggested earlier, amending the regulations to allow the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to fund all the works, including the preliminary works, which are necessary for the dredging.

I have raised this matter previously, as have other Deputies, but the dredging remains necessary at the harbour and the build-up is getting worse. I visited the harbour recently with my colleague Deputy Mac Lochlainn, our party's spokesperson in this area, and we met fishers and others. They are getting very frustrated and want a resolution. Will the Minister of State convey this matter to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine? I do not care where the money comes from, as long as it comes and the work can be done in order that the lifeboat can do what it needs to do and fishers can do what they need to do.

I undertake to raise the matter with the Minister. Between 2010 and 2020, 15 coastal local authorities benefited from grants under the scheme. Over that period, the Department provided €31 million in grants for investment in local authorities and infrastructure. Approximately 14 piers in Waterford have benefited from one or more project approvals, to the tune of almost €3.15 million over that time. As for capital finance from the Department, we have increased the allocation, as I said earlier, from €150,000 to €200,000 in respect of the maximum funding for a project that can be undertaken. Furthermore, in 2020, €2.4 million was allocated to local authorities, with €345,000 for projects in Waterford city and county.

I hear what the Deputy said about vulnerable users and the lifeboat. The Government takes such remarks seriously. I will convey them to the Minister and ask him to respond directly to the Deputy on the case.