Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

EU Funding

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

66. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will provide a report on the national recovery and resilience plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55892/21]

I am hoping the Minister can give us an update on the implementation of the national recovery and resilience plan. We know the importance of the plan, given the hefty investment available for battling climate change and the digitisation of local economies. Will the Minister give the House a progress report?

I thank the Deputy. The European Union’s €800 billion NextGenerationEU recovery instrument, along with its €1.2 trillion seven-year budget, is central to the Union’s response to the global pandemic. The aim of NextGenerationEU is to help repair the immediate economic and social damage brought about by the pandemic and to prepare for a post-Covid Europe that is greener, more digital, more resilient and fit to face the future.

The recovery and resilience facility is the largest component of NextGenerationEU, making more than €700 billion available to member states in the form of grants and loans, with Ireland in line to receive almost €1 billion in grants over the lifetime of the facility.

In order to access this funding, Ireland has developed a national recovery and resilience plan, with a total value of €990 million, which sets out the reforms and investments to be supported by the facility. The overall aim of Ireland’s plan is to contribute to a sustainable, equitable, green and digital recovery in a manner that complements and supports the Government’s broader recovery effort. The plan is based on 16 investment projects and nine reform measures covering three priorities: advancing the green transition; accelerating and expanding digital reforms and transformation; and social and economic recovery and job creation.

Ireland submitted its draft plan to the European Commission on 28 May 2021. On 16 July 2021, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Dublin to present the Commission’s positive assessment and draft Council implementing decision to the Taoiseach. On 6 September 2021, I joined the Minister for Finance at the ECOFIN meeting at which Ireland’s draft plan was considered and the required Council implementing decision was then adopted by written procedure on 8 September 2021. Now that the decision has been adopted by the Council, the plan will be the subject of a financing agreement between the Commission and Ireland.

The next phase is the implementation of projects over the period 2021 to 2026, with milestones and targets to be achieved so that EU funding can be drawn down. An implementing body is being established in my Department to drive progress and delivery of the projects.

I thank the Minister for his response. As he said in response to an earlier question, we have a moment to talk about 16 investment projects and nine reform measures. What triggered my asking this question is that I noticed in recent days that the Spanish Government has made an application for disbursement. It has applied for an initial €10 billion of the €69 billion it has applied for. I am seeking a timeline for how we will go about the disbursement of our own moneys.

Do we have any timeline in mind? I have a particular interest in the electrification and upgrade of the Cork commuter railway line. Has the Minister any information pertinent to the €85 million digitalisation fund for the roll-out of broadband? We are aware that there are concerns over delays in broadband roll-out. Will these have a negative impact on the digitalisation programme?

There is €114 million for the SOLAS recovery skills response programme, which is about greening the economy and preparing the trades for that. If the Minister has any information on that, I would appreciate it.

I thank the Deputy and acknowledge his strong support for the Cork area commuter rail programme, which he has been advocating to the Government for some time. It is a very exciting programme. Its total cost is €185 million over the five-year period from 2021 to 2026. It involves significant enhancement and development of the rail network over approximately 62 km from Mallow through Cork to Cobh and on to Midleton. The main construction contract will be signed next year, as well as the contract on the electric train fleet. It is estimated that the key work in Kent Station in Cork will be completed by the end of 2024 and the full project will be finalised in 2026. As the Deputy knows, all this is with the ultimate aim of having ten-minute frequency all day on electrified rail services associated with the Cork commuter rail project. Therefore, it is a really exciting project. I welcome the Deputy's support for it and the fact that he has raised it. I have a detailed information note on it that I am happy to share with him.

I thank the Minister. As he mentioned, the project is one of the most exciting that will be carried out in my area of Cork over the coming years. I am delighted to see progress on it.

I have two more questions I would like the Minister to address. Do we have any indicative timeline for the disbursement of funds in Ireland? Will it extend into next year? I would appreciate information in this regard.

Has the Minister any information on future grants? The rounds of funding in question are the first of a couple. The next round might be in 2023. Could the Minister advise us on any preparations that are being made in that regard?

We are expected to receive €915 million in grants in 2021 and 2022, with a further set to be allocated in 2023 under the recovery and resilience facility. Since this is EU funding, there is a significant amount of compliance required and we have to ensure we act in a manner that is consistent with the regulations. The instrument is performance based. Ireland will make its first payment claim to the Commission in the second half of 2022 and in each subsequent year until 2026. Over the course of the programme period, 2021 to 2026, projects funded under the national recovery and resilience plan will be put in funds via the Estimates process. That is how we are going to deal with this. The funding will start to flow quite soon. The important thing for us is to ensure we have projects we can deliver and implement on the ground. Those that the Deputy has highlighted are exciting ones to which the Government is fully committed. We look forward to implementing them.

Brexit Issues

Neale Richmond

Question:

67. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the way in which the national development plan, NDP, will help to deal with the ongoing challenge of Brexit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55551/21]

My question is simply to ask the Minister about how the NDP will help to deal with the ongoing challenge of Brexit.

I thank the Deputy for his question and his ongoing interest in the Brexit issue. The full implications of the UK's departure from the EU remain to be seen but they will be significant. We need to remember that the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement does not replicate the status quo. Seamless trade no longer exists. This is why the Government has been working to prepare for Brexit for several years. Our total Brexit-related expenditure since the UK referendum on EU membership is now over €1 billion.

The Brexit adjustment reserve represents an important response by the EU to the challenges posed by the UK's departure from the EU and an important expression of solidarity with Ireland. The purpose of the reserve is to help counter the adverse economic and social consequences of Brexit in the sectors and member states that are worst affected.

Ireland will receive just over €1 billion in Brexit funding, the biggest single allocation for any member state, representing just over 20% of the total fund. It is appropriate that Ireland, as the member state most impacted by Brexit, would be the largest beneficiary.

On the NDP, I consider it prudent and more appropriate over the longer term to focus on core capital spending requirements, excluding the once-off spending that may be required to meet the emergency needs arising from Covid-19 and Brexit. These once-off costs can be considered as part of the annual budgetary process, and provision can be agreed upon for the upcoming year if required.

The substantial investment detailed in the NDP will more broadly support investment that is growth enhancing and will meet the challenges caused by Brexit. For example, there is a considerable investment to support the enterprise and agriculture sectors in innovating, with a particular focus on green and digital transition, to make both more sustainable in the longer term.

Under national strategic objective 6 of the NDP, which is to achieve the delivery of high-quality international connectivity, there is a commitment to continuing investment in our port and airport connections to the rest of the EU, the UK and the rest of the world. This is integral to underpinning international competitiveness and it is also central to responding to the challenges, as well as the opportunities, arising from Brexit.

I appreciate the insight the Minister has given. Could he elaborate on one or two of the points he made, particularly on the investment planned for our ports infrastructure to facilitate an increase in direct shipping to our largest market, continental Europe? We have seen over recent months a huge increase in the number of new shipping lanes from Dublin, Rosslare and Cork to countries such as France, Spain and the Netherlands, but we can agree that there is much more potential in this regard. The Minister pointed to the challenges of Brexit but also to the opportunities. When Ireland joined the EEC in 1973, 55% of our exports went to Great Britain. This proportion is now down to 9%. There is still great potential, not only within the Single Market but also through it and European trade deals, but we cannot realise that potential if we cannot get goods to market. I stress that our biggest market is continental Europe.

I acknowledge and welcome the Deputy's comments on this. When it comes to the selection of individual projects, it is a matter for the line Minister and line Department but, as part of the NDP, we have agreed to multi-annual capital ceilings. For example, the Department of Transport now knows what it will have by way of a capital budget for each year until 2025. Indeed, it has its total envelope to 2030 confirmed as part of the NDP. It will amount to €35 billion over the period. I will be working with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and all of our Government colleagues to ensure our ambitious plans are implemented. That will involve significant investment in our ports and airports. As the Deputy knows, there has been significant investment in our ports to date to be prepared for Brexit, but we acknowledge that there will be further development of more direct connections to mainland Europe from our ports. That will require continued investment by the Government.

When we bear that in mind, we must recall it is also a matter of access to our ports on our roads, whether they are going to Rosslare or Cork. We must also remember the myriad of approaches to Dublin Port.

Considering the investment needed to promote the level of trade and enterprise I desire, I very much welcome the funding allocated last week by the Tánaiste and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, through the Department of the Minister for Finance, to support our agrifood industry in diversifying after Brexit. Throughout the discussions and negotiations on Brexit, people said 86% of our cheddar cheese goes to one market, so we have to start producing different types of cheeses. How are we supporting enterprises to ensure transport connectivity to the Continent? How are we ensuring that individuals and the Enterprise Irelands and IDA Irelands of the world have the resources they need, not only in Ireland but also elsewhere, including the commercial offices in Lyon or Frankfurt, to promote the sale of our goods in the markets in question?

I thank the Deputy. He has made some important points. The deployment of the Brexit adjustment reserve will be so important for our country.

We are getting the lion's share among member states because we are undoubtedly the country that is most impacted by Brexit. What we have to do is match those resources with the sectors that require additional support to counter the adverse consequences associated with Brexit. We have defined those areas already. Some of them are very much consistent with what the Deputy has stated. The Brexit adjustment reserve fund will be used in the area of enterprise supports, measures to support fisheries and coastal communities, targeted supports for the agrifood sector, reskilling, retraining and checks and controls at ports and airports, for example.

Ireland's allocation of €1.165 billion is significant. As the Deputy is aware, the spending of that money must take place between now and the end of 2023. One can bring into the reference period expenditure since 1 January 2020. My Department is working through the detail of that. The funding is most welcome and will be used in the areas the Deputy has identified as being of priority.

Flood Risk Management

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

68. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the flood relief measures for County Louth; the progress to date; the additional staffing resources provided by the OPW to Louth County Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55833/21]

I ask the Minister to provide an update on the status of flood relief measures for County Louth, particularly the plans under the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme to deal with Dundalk, Blackrock, Ardee, Termonfeckin, Annagassan, Carlingford, Greenore, Drogheda and Baltray. I am seeking a complete update on as much of this as possible. I accept that consultants have been appointed and that an element of work has been done.

I thank the Deputy. Through the CFRAM, programme, detailed engineering analysis, assessment and extensive public consultation was undertaken for 300 communities throughout the country, including 90 coastal areas, that were identified as the most likely to be impacted by future coastal and fluvial flooding. One key output of the CFRAM programme is the flood risk management plans, FRMPs, that contain proposed flood relief measures informed by preliminary costs, benefits and environmental factors to address the flood risk in each community and nationwide.

The evidence provided by the CFRAM programme launched in May 2018 supports the Government’s €1 billion programme out to 2040. As part of this, Louth County Council, working with the Office of Public Works, OPW, has agreed to be the lead authority in the delivery of flood relief schemes at Dundalk, Blackrock south, Drogheda, Carlingford, Greenore, Baltray and Ardee. The OPW has agreed to provide funding for a senior executive engineer, two executive engineers, an administrative officer and a technician at grade 1 level. These appointments have taken place and all expenditure associated with the appointments listed have been recouped in full by Louth County Council, in accordance with procedures in line with the public spending code.

The proposed flood relief scheme at Dundalk and Blackrock south includes the Ardee flood relief scheme and will protect some 1,880 properties when completed, while the scheme at Drogheda and Baltray will protect some 450 and the scheme at Carlingford and Greenore will protect 409 properties.

Although the CFRAM process investigated possible structural flood relief measures for both Annagassan and Termonfeckin, economically viable schemes for these communities were not identified. As such, a review of the risk in these communities and the likely costs and benefits is to be undertaken. The OPW has put in place a process for undertaking such reviews and it is envisaged that the reviews, including those for Annagassan and Termonfeckin, will be completed within the next 12 months.

The contract for engineering consultancy services was awarded in 2020 to Binnies and Nicholas O'Dwyer as a joint venture for the Dundalk, Blackrock south and Ardee projects and they are being progressed simultaneously.,

I appreciate the comprehensive answer. In fairness, my first question was going to be in respect of the timeline for the reassessment of Termonfeckin and Annagassan but the Minister of State has indicated it should be completed within 12 months. All present accept the necessity of these mitigations. Louth is very much an exposed county. Where I live in Dundalk is reclaimed land. Given the circumstances in which we now find ourselves, on a personal basis, I, along with many of my neighbours, would benefit from having these works done. They are an absolute necessity. I am seeking as much information as possible on a general timeline for the works, specifically for Dundalk to Baltray in light of the indication by the Minister of State that the review of Termonfeckin and Annagassan will happen within the year.

I can provide a more comprehensive answer to the Deputy in writing. I was in County Louth last year, shortly after I was appointed, and met the Louth county manager. I fully appreciate the concerns that exist. The Deputy is correct. The counties of Louth, Meath, Dublin, Wexford, Wicklow and down into Waterford and east Cork are particularly exposed. The speed at which we are responding will have to increase significantly. As I have stated in this Chamber previously, as well as in that awful place down on the quays to which I hope we will not be going back any time soon, the response time to these communities is too slow. I have no difficulty saying that. This generation has seen the growth of massive urban conurbations in places such as Dundalk. These are significant population bases to which we have to respond. If the sea level continues to raise at the current rate, these urban communities will be facing massive difficulty. The Deputy is correct. I can respond to him in writing with a more comprehensive reply.

I appreciate that. If the Minister of State could provide me with a reply in writing, that would be brilliant. I am finding it difficult not to agree with him on the fact that the work that needs to be done is necessary and is all happening too slowly. I will try to avoid repeating myself.

Obviously, some of these projects will be substantial. I am aware the whole planning process is being reviewed at this point. We know there are significant issues in that regard. Consultation with the community is always a very important part of any work but there are definite difficulties in this regard. The Minister of State himself has spoken about those difficulties. Is any of that impacting on this issue? Is there a need for added resources or further work, particularly as regards the OPW or Louth County Council?

The short answer is "No". For instance, what we will require in Dundalk are hard defences, flood embankments, walls, rock armour, coastal protection, demountable barriers, road raising, sluice gates, tanking, channel conveyancing improvements and road changes. There is a massive amount of work to be done in Dundalk alone, not to mention Drogheda, Baltray and Greenore. These are massive civil engineering projects. It is not possible to just magic away the volume of water that is coming. That is before even getting into the issue of the people who will jump up and object to the schemes for these communities. This is happening all over the country. Can the Deputy help me? Absolutely, he can. If he could wish away all the objections, court injunctions and delays experienced by the OPW and Louth County Council, as well as every other local authority across the country, he would be doing me a significant favour. Those delays are the scourge of communities.

Flood Risk Management

Catherine Connolly

Question:

70. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the details of his Department’s overall strategy or master plan for countering the impact of rising sea levels and coastal flooding in County Galway; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55883/21]

My question is on a similar issue in the context of Galway. I am seeking clarification on the overall strategy or master plan for countering the rising sea levels. I say that in the context of several reports. I refer to the current status report for Ireland 2020, in which the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the Marine Institute point out that sea level has risen by approximately 2 mm to 3 mm per year since the early 1990s. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, working group notes that due to relative sea level rise, extreme level events that occurred once per century are now going to occur at least annually. I do not think I need to tell the Minister of State this. I am asking for clarification against the background.

I thank the Deputy for her question. I hope to visit Galway in the next couple of weeks. I know there is a significant amount of anxiety in respect of the situation there.

The OPW has developed a climate change sectoral adaptation plan for flood risk management that was approved by the Government in October 2019. The plan identifies on a national scale how climate change could impact on flooding, flood risk and flood risk management, and prioritises these impacts in terms of urgency of action and degree of impact.

The long-term goal adopted by the OPW on climate adaptation for flooding and flood risk management and set out in the plan is the promotion of sustainable communities and support of the environment through effective management of the potential impacts of climate change on flooding and flood risk. The OPW programme of flood relief schemes takes climate change into account. For example, the project brief for the detailed development of the Galway city flood relief scheme includes a requirement for a scheme adaptation plan that will set out how climate change has been taken into account during the design and construction, and what future adaptation measures might be needed - that is to what the Deputy is referring - and, more important, when.

The six-yearly reviews required under the EU floods directive will ensure that the current and future levels of flood risk to communities on our coast are kept under review, and plans put in place to manage that risk as it becomes significant.

The Government has established an interdepartmental group on managing coastal change to scope out an approach for the development of a national co-ordinated and integrated strategy to manage the projected impact of coastal change to our coastal communities. We cannot do this on our own. The interdepartmental group is jointly chaired by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the OPW, and will bring forward options and recommendations for the Government to consider shortly.

I have seen first-hand the work that the OPW and the local authority have done. I was there when the CFRAM timeline from 2011 to 2016 was announced. All of the work has been done and set out and all of the risks have been identified. There might well be some objections to the work, but my concern is over the delay. The steering committee that was set up was promised in March 2020. It met for the first time in September 2020. It was to produce a report within six months. It is now said that the report will be produced "in due course". That is of great concern to me.

My question concerns Galway city and county. Works are planned for the Spanish Arch and the completion date for the work is nine years from now. That is of great concern. Works are also needed in County Galway.

We know that almost 2 million people live within 5 km of the coast, and 40,000 live within 100 m of the coast. County Galway has a huge coastline. Therefore, we need specific answers in relation to timelines and works. We will certainly work with the OPW on the issue.

I do not disagree with the Deputy for one minute. While this issue has not fallen on the OPW, the OPW is gladly taking on this responsibility because it is our bread and butter. We require the input of other Departments to ensure that everybody plays a responsible role in this, because the issue of how our coast will change is a societal problem. As the Deputy quite rightly said, our coast will change. It will require all Departments to come to the table. We must ensure we put forward a cohesive plan that takes into consideration how every Department will bring its views to the table. The plan that we are going to bring forward ultimately will have to be a holistic one, and one that reflects the views of all Departments.

It is not for the lack of energy on behalf of the OPW, and we are trying to ensure that it is expedited as much as possible. I have spoken to the Deputy about the issue both within and outside the House. It is a priority for me. I hope to visit Galway in the next few weeks in response to the issue. I have visited other coastal communities. It is an issue that the OPW takes really seriously.

I do not doubt the bone fides of the Minister of State on this issue. I am on record as praising the OPW. My difficulty is the delay in delivery. The timeline for the CFRAM finished in 2016, which was the date of implementation and review. In Galway the completion date for the work to be done on the Spanish Arch and the surrounding areas, with over 940 properties to be protected, is in nine years' time. That is my difficulty. I also have a difficulty with the lack of knowledge in relation to the county. I can quote many of the figures, but what is the point? If there is an interdepartmental group, surely there must be a specific brief for when it is to report? To say, in response to questions, that a report will be available in due course is unacceptable, given the threat that we are living with and given the floods we have seen in Galway and elsewhere in the country. It is one of the most urgent issues that we must deal with so that we can trust and work with the OPW.

I do not think it is one of the most urgent issues; it is the most urgent issue, in my book, because of the number of people who live on our coast. Our largest urban centres, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford are all coastal. We also have a relationship with Northern Ireland, and Belfast and Derry are coastal. We are an island and the sea is rising around us. If we are threatened by anything, we are threatened by the sea in this country. The sea is our greatest risk at the moment.

What about the interdepartmental group and the interim report?

The only commitment that I can give the Deputy is that from my perspective, for the last year this is the issue that has preoccupied me most in the OPW, in terms of exercising my Government colleagues to ensure that it is raised. While a lot of air, hot and cold, was spewed at COP23, COP24, COP25 and COP26, the issue of how Ireland is going to deal with its coastal defences and the communities of the Spanish Arch, King's Island and every other island community around the coast is going to be absolutely critical for this generation and for subsequent generations. From my perspective, and that of the OPW, I assure the Deputy that it is our number one priority currently.

Aviation Industry

Cathal Crowe

Question:

69. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will provide an overview of NSO 6 of the National Development Plan 2021-2030; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55877/21]

I wish to ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will provide an overview of NSO 6 of the new National Development Plan, NDP, 2021-2030; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. At the outset, it should be noted that my Department, in carrying out its role in co-ordinating the NDP review, does not consider the merit of individual projects or sectoral policy strategies, as this is primarily a matter for individual Departments and agencies.

With that point noted, I would be glad to give the Deputy an overview of the NSO 6, which is the delivery of high quality international connectivity. As an island, continued investment in our port and airport connections to the UK, the EU and the rest of the world is integral to underpinning international competitiveness. It is also central to responding to the challenges as well as the opportunities arising from Brexit. The relevant sectoral strategies here are the national aviation policy, the national ports policy and the telecommunications chapter of the National Marine Planning Framework which relates to international telecommunications connectivity. These strategies play a critical role in identifying the goals and priorities for the sector and are therefore critical in informing the investment projects set out in the NDP.

In terms of our airports a range of investment are planned and under way. A new €50 million control tower has been completed at Dublin Airport and the new north runway will be completed next year. Cork and Shannon Airports will continue to be supported in their roles as key tourism and business gateways for their regions. Continued Exchequer support for smaller regional airports, including Donegal, Kerry and Knock, is planned under the regional airports programme.

Three major capital infrastructure programmes are currently ongoing in tier 1 ports, namely, Dublin, Cork and Shannon Foynes. For example, the Port of Cork is investing to redevelop the port’s existing facilities at Ringaskiddy and is due to be fully operation in the coming months. The masterplan for Rosslare Europort was granted planning permission in quarter 4 of 2020 and has identified a number of key infrastructure investments to make better use of available capacity, improve efficiencies and target specific sectors, while promoting the benefits of congestion-free access to European and UK markets.

These are just some of the many investments which will be delivered under this NSO in the coming years to support Project Ireland 2040. Further details on projects by NSO, can be found on the investment tracker on gov.ie/2040.

I thank the Minister for his response. All Members of the House are aware that aviation and tourism have been the two sectors most decimated by the Covid pandemic. Experts in the sector estimate that the pathway to recovery will take four to five years. That, in itself, is devastating for all those who depend on it. In the mid-west, we very much see Shannon Airport as being a catalyst for virtually all economic activity. We live and die on that. Its recovery will be crucial to our regional recovery.

I read with interest chapter 11 of the NDP, which deals with a whole realm of international connectivity. We are going to be at a very low starting base coming out of Covid, but within that there are opportunities. There are a number of issues I wish to raise in the Chamber today. Chapter 11 references the existing 2015 national aviation policy for Ireland. I believe that is now defunct. It only exists in name because aviation does not resemble anything referred to in that policy. The NDP alludes to a new national policy for aviation. I would be very keen to hear the Minister's thoughts on that.

I thank the Deputy. I fully agree with his sentiment on the importance of Shannon Airport to the mid-west region. I acknowledge his continued support for, and his regular advocacy in respect of, the continued development of Shannon Airport. As the Deputy is aware, on budget day we announced a €126 million aviation funding package, of which €90 million will be made available in a very short period to time to the State airports, namely, Dublin, Shannon and Cork airports.

The same methodology was used in respect of the €20 million already provided to State airports this year. In addition, funding of €36 million will be provided next year to support regional airports and public service obligation air services through the regional airports programme. It is significant that due to reduced passenger numbers and as a direct result of Covid, Shannon Airport and Cork Airport are eligible for supports under this programme. I agree with the Deputy that the recovery will be gradual and the Government will be there to support Shannon Airport and the other airports on that journey in the period ahead.

I thank the Minister. I am delighted to hear that Shannon Airport and Cork Airport can continue to avail of supports under the regional airports programme. For too long they were excluded or found it difficult to come under it given the annual passenger thresholds. There will need to be multi-annual investment. The Minister mentioned public service obligation routes. We have to think in a different realm so far as they are involved. It cannot be all about small aircraft going out to the Aran Islands or aircraft going to Kerry to provide rural regional connectivity. As we come out of Covid, there will be merit to also having European hub connectivity on a public service obligation basis until we get to a point of recovery. We will get transatlantic routes back to Shannon in the spring. We are slowly improving the Heathrow service but we need connectivity to places such as Amsterdam, Charles de Gaulle or Frankfurt. They are where onward connectivity to the eastern markets is. Public service obligation also needs to be looked at through this lens as we come out of Covid.

I thank the Deputy. It is ultimately about services and routes for us, as an island nation, as we continue to grapple with Covid and as we seek to rebuild our international connectivity. It will be very important that we continue to provide extensive support to our airports. This is why we have made an intervention of the magnitude we have in the context of the budget for 2022. As the Deputy knows, some of this funding can be made available immediately. We recognise this is a significant challenge.

The Deputy touched on the impact of Covid on the tourism sector. We all know the role that aviation must play in bringing tourists to our country and for continued industrial development and the attractiveness of the mid-west region . It is vital that Shannon Airport secures once again its status as an important hub and a gateway to the mid-west region. I look forward to working with the Deputy, other colleagues and the Minister Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, as we continue to support Shannon.

National Development Plan

Michael Moynihan

Question:

71. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the way the revised national development plan will strengthen rural economies and communities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55850/21]

Michael Moynihan

Question:

110. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will provide an overview of national strategic outcome No. 3 of the National Development Plan 2021-2030; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55849/21]

How will the revised national development plan strengthen rural communities and rural economies? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter to the House?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 71 and 110 together.

My role as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has involved setting the allocations for capital expenditure across a number of Department's relevant to this national strategic outcome. National strategic outcome No. 3 seeks to strengthen rural economies and communities. This applies in terms of the traditional pillars of the rural economy as well as those emerging from such developments as improved transport connectivity, national broadband delivery, climate action and rural economic development.

The sectoral strategies here include Our Rural Future, the town centre first policy, Food Vision 2030 in agriculture, the investing in our culture, language and heritage strategy, the Linking People and Places tourism strategy and the national sports policy. An extensive number of projects are already being rolled out through the €1 billion rural regeneration and development fund. Applications for funding have already been approved for 139 projects across rural Ireland with a total cost of €239 million. Examples include the Cahersiveen town centre regeneration project in Kerry and the Cahir town regeneration project in Tipperary.

In addition to maintaining the regional and local road network in good repair, it is a priority to carry out targeted improvements to sections of the network. The Carrigaline western relief road and the Coonagh to Knockalisheen project are under construction, while other projects where the main construction work is due to commence shortly include the Tralee northern relief road, the Shannon crossing-Killaloe bypass R494 upgrade and the Athy southern distributor road.

Under the national broadband plan, which commenced roll-out in 2020, 1.1 million people living and working in more than 544,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms along with almost 700 schools, will receive access to high-speed broadband. The on-farm capital investment scheme under Ireland's 2023-27 CAP strategic plan will provide significant support to farmers looking to invest in capital projects on their farms to increase environmental efficiency and develop their farm enterprises. Major capital investment projects of up to €180 million are under way and planned in fishery harbour centres around the country.

Investment in our international tourism marketing infrastructure also helps to stimulate business from overseas markets. This is critical when every 1,000 additional overseas tourists support 20 jobs in the domestic tourism industry, many of which are in rural Ireland. These are just some of the many investments across rural Ireland that are being scaled up under this new national development plan.

I thank the Minister. One of the small silver linings of Covid - and, let us be frank, there have very have been very few of them - has been people returning to rural Ireland and the vibrancy we are once again seeing in our villages. To take as an example Kilkee in County Clare, my party colleague, Councillor Cillian Murphy, has often bemoaned the fact that only one in three people in Kilkee are permanent residents. People go during heatwaves in the nine or ten days we typically get in an Irish summer and they are gone again. People are back living in Kilkee. They are job hunting and house hunting. This is leading to other problems but for tonight we can say the national development plan is injecting huge amounts of money and hope into rural Ireland. I want to briefly reference a number of issues. The progressing of the Killaloe bypass in Clare is good. The light rail system proposed from Limerick city to Shannon and Bunratty is very welcome. Are there timeframes for these projects? I worry somewhat that while they are backed and contained in the national development plan, some of the planning logistics could make them a little bit further down the line than we would like. We need some streamlining of the process.

I thank Deputy Crowe. I join with him in acknowledging the good work of Councillor Murphy and others in Kilkee. I agree with his point that one of the fall-outs from Covid has been that it has opened up opportunities for rural towns and villages throughout Ireland because remote working is here to stay to some extent. We will see a blended form of working in future. This means more people spending more time in their local communities. This will enrich these communities and allow people to spend more of their money locally, volunteer their time and become more active in community life. If we look at the national development plan and the overall Project Ireland 2040, the target is that 75% of the growth in population of Ireland to 2040 will be outside Dublin. This underlines the level of opportunity and ambition there is for rural communities. Time does not allow me to go into individual projects. Perhaps we can engage on a bilateral basis. I will seek to get whatever information I can on timelines for individual projects. I thank the Deputy for raising them.

I thank the Minister for his positive remarks. I want to reference a project about which I have spoken privately to the Minister many times. It is the Limerick northern distributor road. He referenced it in his contribution. Phase 1 is well under construction and, hopefully, in a matter of months vehicles will be travelling on it alleviating traffic congestion in the north suburbs of Limerick city and making it possible for Clare people to get to and from work. Phase 2 stands somewhat in a state of flux. There is a roundabout at Knockalisheen in Meelick where phase 1 ends. We do not know what will happen with phase 2. It is not referenced in the national development plan but there are a lot of statutory phases ahead of it. We would like to know whether it will progress in some form over the coming years. The key aspects to note are that it will alleviate traffic, provide connectivity across south Clare and provide a knowledge corridor from Limerick Institute of Technology, which is now part of a technological university, and the University of Limerick. There are teething problems along the route line; I will not say there are not. Many of them relate to some of the routing through Parteen and Cloonlara. This needs to progress through consultation with the community. We would really like to know whether this is dead in the water or is something that can still progress over the coming years.

I thank the Deputy. It is important to underline the point that the national development plan is not a comprehensive list of every project that will happen over the coming ten years. It is fundamentally a high-level document that sets out the overall strategic priorities for the Government and the financial framework available to support capital investment over the period. The fact an individual project is not explicitly referenced does not preclude it from being progressed or from being fully delivered over the course of the national development plan.

I am familiar with the Limerick northern distributor road and I know Clare County Council is the lead authority on the project under a section 85 agreement with Limerick City and County Council. This project was raised with the National Transport Authority and Transport Infrastructure Ireland when they appeared before the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications in early November to discuss the NDP. They confirmed their intention to go to a second round of public consultation in January and that the northern distributor road, with public transport provision on it, was included in their first document. They also propose to include it in their second document. I will work with the Deputy, other colleagues in the region and the Minister for Transport on this important local road project.

Public Procurement Contracts

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

72. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of the work of the interim procurement reform board; his plans to strengthen the procurement process in the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55832/21]

What is the status of the work of the interim procurement reform board and what are his plans to strengthen the procurement process in the State? I also ask for some detail on a timeline for that. We all accept that there have been significant and costly mistakes in procurement over the years. We could talk about the national children’s hospital until the end of time but mistakes were obviously made. Questions about the contract for the national broadband plan have been raised in newspapers in the past while. We need to ensure we can cut out as many of these problems as possible.

The interim procurement reform board was appointed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in May 2017 to provide oversight to the delivery of the procurement reform programme, advise the Government on national public procurement strategy and advise on the objectives and business plans of the Office of Government Procurement, OGP. The board meets quarterly and presents an annual report to me, as the Minister of State with special responsibility for public procurement. The most recent report, for 2020, was published in August and is available on the OGP’s website.

The board comprises 11 members. Two are independent members recruited from outside the public sector, eight are senior public servants drawn from across a wide variety of Departments and the chair is a former Secretary General of Department of Defence, now retired.

The terms of reference include that the board shall oversee the implementation of the public procurement reform programme which has had considerable success to date. Governance arrangements have been established to foster collaboration and co-operation across the OGP and the main sectors of health, local government, education and defence. Through the development of a suite of centralised commercial arrangements, the Government’s purchasing power has been leveraged by speaking to the market with one voice. Procurement reform has delivered a programme of policy supports for SMEs and has built an awareness in industry regarding the opportunities arising from public procurement.

The OGP has been developing proposals on the refinement of public procurement following consultation with our colleagues across government and industry. These will further enhance public procurement, building on the progress to date, with a greater focus and emphasis on sustainability, social responsibility, SME access, innovation, digitalisation and professionalisation.

The Government has set out a number of commitments in the programme for Government in relation to public procurement, including evaluating and managing the environmental, economic and social impacts of procurement strategies within the State, developing and implementing a sustainable procurement policy and tasking the Office of Government Procurement to update all procurement frameworks in line with green procurement practice. These commitments enhance work already under way by the OGP to promote wider policy considerations in their work.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I do not think anybody would have a major difficulty with having enhanced processes on social and environmental responsibility taken into account. One such important process is to have a greater element of due diligence, particularly for large infrastructural projects, in respect of the ability of those tendering to deliver the project and that they have a skill set to do so. I ask the Minister of State to be a bit more definitive on what actions he is referring to or to give a timeframe for doing so.

The Minister of State had an interaction with Deputy Mairéad Farrell earlier. She indicated that Sinn Féin would like the Office of Government Procurement to have more data feeds and information, and referred to legislation in that regard which would allow for a greater element of due diligence in respect of firms being actually able to deliver upon the promises of the tender.

One of the best ways in which procurement can be strengthened is through training. The Office of Government Procurement has a skills academy where it trains and teaches staff responsible for purchasing across government how to procure successfully. It is important that we have a good e-tenders platform. The platform is being replaced and a new tender has been placed to get a new software system for bidding for contracts.

The Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General has an important role in making procurement stronger. The office investigates when exceptional circumstances with procurement arise or procurement has fallen short and it rings reports on such matters before the Committee of Public Accounts. The relevant Accounting Officer can be cross-examined at the committee and we can discover where changes need to be made. I assure the Deputy that this process is always taken very seriously and lessons are learned from it.

I accept the Minister of State's point on a skills academy, which is needed. I ask him to provide more detail on the new system for e-tendering, the reason for it and the weaknesses of the previous system. It makes complete sense that any learnings from investigations by the Comptroller and Auditor General be built into whatever our modus operandi will be in the future.

I ask for some leeway in respect of the Minister of State's other area of expertise and responsibility. We are dealing with a story about the national broadband plan and a crossover between areas where Eir will deliver its own service and areas where the NBP will be delivered. Were there weaknesses in the contract or are there allowances there? Will this result in dual building and will we have to pay National Broadband Ireland?

The e-tenders system has been in place for a long time and requires to be updated. We asked bidders and suppliers what they would like the tendering system to do differently and we have determined that we need a new tendering system. It will be the best we can get. We are being careful and this is not being tendered for on the existing e-tenders system so there is no advantage to the incumbent.

On the NBP, the Deputy asked about encroachment. There is an intervention area where the national broadband plan applies. It is not, however, an exclusion zone in which no commercial company can operate. If any of the major three commercial companies in the market which put in fibre to the home wants to deliver broadband or any other technology of broadband, they can do so. That has happened. I note a recent report that 45,000 homes in rural Ireland had been given extremely high-speed broadband by a commercial provider. That is great as it means these households now have a choice between different suppliers, whether it is the subvented supplier or a commercial supplier. That is an advantage which was foreseen in the contract and accords with what was in the tender and contract.

Public Private Partnerships

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

73. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the reason for using public private partnerships, PPPs, to deliver capital projects, particularly in relation to the technological higher education sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55903/21]

The technological universities have the ability to deliver high-quality third level education for many people, including in Mayo and the west, and to be a real driver for regional development. They are one of the most important developments in third level education for decades. Why, with almost no public debate, is the Government using controversial public private partnership contracts for the development of our public education system? Will the Minister outline the reason for this drastic change of approach that will see public private partnership contracts used for all building projects in technological universities?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My Department's role in public private partnerships is to maintain and develop the general policy framework, including, where necessary, the legal framework, within which PPPs operate. It also provides central guidance to other Departments and State authorities in that context. My Department has no direct involvement in the procurement or delivery of individual PPP projects. Therefore, the delivery of the technological higher education sector projects, through the use of PPPs is, in the first instance, a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

PPPs are partnerships between the public and private sectors for the purpose of delivering a project or service and it is an internationally recognised model to design, build, finance, operate and maintain public infrastructure. Some of the advantages associated with PPPs are that they allow the public sector to avail of private sector expertise and innovation, and the private partner assumes responsibility for a considerable portion of the risk. The contracts tend to be long-term arrangements, typically spanning 25 years or more, with the private provider required to maintain the asset at a suitable standard over that period. At the end of the contract the PPP company must return the asset in year 1 condition.

PPPs continue to provide benefits to the State as a procurement method and, as such, enable the public sector to harness the innovation, commercial and management expertise and efficiencies of the private sector to design, build, finance, operate and maintain State facilities. PPPs will continue to be a procurement method available to the State for appropriately structured projects where they demonstrate value for money over a traditional procurement option. In ensuring Departments obtain the best value for money from public capital investment, PPPs are subject to the same robust and rigorous project appraisal process as traditionally procured projects. It is essential that projects are judged on their merits and in cases where PPPs can be demonstrated to give better value for money than traditional procurement, it is appropriate that they should be selected on that basis.

This Government is spearheading a substantial shift in how the State delivers building projects in third level education. Essentially, PPP is a misleading name for an agreement where a developer delivers a project and the Government agrees to pay every year for 25 years for the right to use the building. It is essentially build to rent for the Government. It is good for the developer, but bad for the public.

We have not seen their use in third level education since the last time Fianna Fáil was in government. Now all new buildings of technological universities and institutes of technology are planned to be delivered exclusively through PPP contracts. Significant questions remain for citizens about value for money, accountability and the long-term impact on public finances. It also relates to the privatisation of public services. These contracts give rights to provide the related services which include building maintenance, cleaning, security, ground maintenance and IT support.

I thank the Deputy. It is important to say that the PPP method should only be used where value for money can be demonstrated. It is one option in terms of the possible financing of a range of projects. There are currently 11 higher education projects in the pipeline for delivery by way of PPP. They are split into two bundles. The Deputy probably has all the details, but I am happy to provide them separately to her if necessary.

It is important to make the point that if one is comparing the cost of a PPP with the Exchequer funded option of delivering a capital project, one has to take account of the fact that the payments made by the Exchequer over the life of the PPP contract include not just the construction costs but also the cost of finance, operations and maintenance and, indeed, the overall lifecycle. It is one option, but it should only be used where value for money can clearly be demonstrated and the interests of taxpayers are protected. There are many examples of pieces of infrastructure that would probably not exist today if we did not choose the PPP option.

The Minister will remember that we discussed in the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform the Carillion example and what it cost people. This has major implications for finances for the State for the next 25 years. One contract signed in 2020 was valued at almost €600 million. These contracts typically mean that the public pays a lot for very little control.

We cannot even have a real debate due to the complete lack of transparency and accountability. I cannot access the estimate of the cost of any of the 11 projects due to the commercial sensitivity involved. The value of the contract is only made public after it is concluded. Even then, the Government refuses to provide an estimate of how much it would cost to build under a normal contract. That information is withheld for five years, long enough for any Government to avoid real accountability. Accountability, transparency and value for money are at the core of all of this. We have seen what has happened in the case of Carillion and in other cases. We are not getting value for money with many of these projects and we do not have the transparency that is required.

I want to assure the Deputy that the appraisal process is rigorous. It is worth putting the figures in context. The annual cost of the unitary payment charges in respect of operational PPPs was approximately €320 million in 2020, at a time when the State's public capital investment programme was in the order of €10 billion. The contracted capital value of all PPPs in operation or under construction is over €5 billion. We have now committed to a public capital investment programme out to 2030 of €165 billion.

I agree with the Deputy on the need for accountability and transparency about the metrics, methodology and criteria used to assess what the best channel open to public bodies is to deliver important pieces of infrastructure. As she knows, technological universities have now been given the power to borrow for the first time for capital investment purposes. That is important progress.

Flood Risk Management

Alan Dillon

Question:

74. Deputy Alan Dillon asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the status of final approval for a project (details supplied) in County Mayo; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [55884/21]

A date that will live long in the memory of the people living and working in Crossmolina is 5 December 2015. For the second time in three weeks, the town centre of Crossmolina was devastated by a floodwater sweeping through by the River Deel. It is coming up to the sixth anniversary of this event. I want to know when the scheme will be granted final approval to give certainty to the people of Crossmolina.

The OPW submitted Crossmolina flood relief scheme documentation to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for statutory confirmation under the Arterial Drainage Acts 1945 and 1995 on 28 September 2020. As part of this process, stakeholders were afforded a formal opportunity to provide comments on the environmental element of the proposed works. Following this consultation, independent consultants appointed by Department of Public Expenditure and Reform carried out a review of the scheme documentation. Following this review, supplementary information was requested by the Department in May 2021 and provided by the OPW in July 2021. The scheme is currently awaiting confirmation from the Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform.

The Department has advised that it has received final technical reports from its environmental consultants on the proposed flood relief scheme, following clarifications they sought from the OPW on further information recently provided on the proposed works. The Department is now finalising its review.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. What I say is not a criticism, but local residents are seriously frustrated with the situation that they find themselves in six years on. I take on board what the Minister of State said around the confirmation process, but this community will have to endure another winter of high water levels. Unfortunately, residents are extremely concerned and stressed out every winter because the necessary works have not yet been completed. What can we expect to unfold in the weeks ahead? Will the Minister of State clarify, subject to the confirmation process and judicial review, that a local OPW construction crew will be able to commence advance construction works on the scheme. In parallel with the confirmation process and the judicial review, can some tendering works for small projects under the OPW commence?

As was the case when another Deputy asked a question, I will respond in the same light. The OPW is at the mercy of a planning process and we have to adhere to it. We are the same as anybody who is applying for permission. In this case, we are applying for permission under the Arterial Drainage Acts and we have to go through a consent process. If we do not go through that process and have due regard to it, there can be objections, judicial reviews can be taken against us and we may end up in court. In this case, Mayo County Council could wind up in court. I have to be very conscious of what I say in the context of what I hope will happen. Obviously, I am very conscious of the fact that Crossmolina, Enniscorthy and towns all over the country are waiting inordinate amounts of time for these schemes. I hope the work will be done as soon as possible.

I appreciate the Minister of State's visit to Crossmolina last May to meet the members of the Crossmolina flood relief scheme, staff of the local OPW and members of Mayo County Council. The people of Crossmolina need progress on this scheme. We have to get the ball rolling on the construction. This is a €13.5 million project to protect 116 properties. The Crossmolina community has waited patiently following the initial delays due to design and environmental challenges and I ask that the Minister of State and the Department work efficiently to get this confirmation process approved.

As is the case with confirmation processes we have recently been through, for example, in Blackpool in Cork, a small urban village in an old part of Cork city, which my colleague, the Minister, will be familiar with, just when we thought everything was ready to go, we were taken into a judicial review process at the last minute. None of us knows the length of time it will take to get through it. That is very frustrating, particularly for old people living in old communities. Many of these towns, villages and urban centres are particularly old, vulnerable places, and Crossmolina is no different, that have been scourged for years by the plague of flooding. I have put it on the record of the House previously, in the presence of both the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Ceann Comhairle, that the current system for the delivery of these schemes is just not fit for purpose. There has been a great deal of toing and froing in COP26, but if these Houses are going to respond to the scourge of climate change, they might do me and the Office of Public Works a favour and tackle the system in respect of planning for the delivery of climate mitigation measures. They would be doing all the communities they serve a huge favour.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.