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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 16 Dec 2021

Vol. 1016 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Haulage Industry

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

1. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the way in which he will support transport workers and business, specifically taxis and hauliers, in view of Covid-19 restrictions and runaway fuel and operating costs; the detail of his engagement with the sectors and plans for the introduction of relief measures; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62647/21]

I want to ask the Minister of State the way in which she will support transport workers and business, specifically taxis and hauliers, in view of Covid-19 restrictions and runaway fuel and operating costs, the detail of her engagement with the sectors and plans for the introduction of relief measures.

The current spike in energy prices arises principally from the global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. It has implications across the economy. With regard to the impact on transport, the Government will continue to monitor impacts on trade and key supply chains as it has done through the challenges arising from Brexit and the pandemic.

Road hauliers are currently supported in the cost of diesel through the diesel rebate scheme, introduced in 2013. In budget 2020, in recognition of the challenging environment the haulage industry faced at that time with regard to the prospect of a disorderly Brexit, the scheme was enhanced to the extent that when the retail price of auto diesel is over €1.07, the marginal rate of compensation increases to 60% of the excise paid up to a maximum repayment rate of 7.5 cent per litre when the price of auto diesel is €1.16 or over. In recognition of the vital role the haulage sector plays in the economy, the 2020 enhancement has been maintained since. It is worth noting also that businesses registered for VAT may deduct the VAT charged to them on the purchase of business inputs, such as road diesel and other motoring costs.

The Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I met with representatives of the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA, on 10 December to discuss a range of issues, including fuel prices, decarbonisation of the heavy goods vehicle, HGV, sector and skills issues, including the HGV driver shortage. At the meeting with IRHA, the Minister and I agreed to consider a proposal to expand the relief available to hauliers under the diesel rebate scheme, but with a link to the phasing out of older, more polluting vehicles and an overall reduction in emissions from the sector. Details of that proposal are to be submitted by the IRHA to the Department. The meeting was constructive. We will meet the IRHA again in the new year.

On supports for taxi drivers, the vast majority of measures we have taken in support of the taxi industry from the start of the pandemic remain in place.

I will start with taxi drivers, if the Minister of State does not mind. She will be aware that taxi drivers are back to square one in relation to this pandemic. I raised this with the Taoiseach and he pointed towards a booming economy in quarter 3 as some sort of defence of the Government's position on support for taxi drivers and the industry generally. Taxi drivers have been put to the pin of their collar and beyond. The night-time economy is gone. The daytime economy is 50% or less. Taxi drivers who are on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, are having the PUP reduced. We are told by the Minister for Social Protection that taxi drivers can apply for the PUP again but that is not happening in practice. They are being refused access to the PUP time and again. They need the Minister of State's support.

The Minister of State may sit down if she wishes.

I am okay, thank you. I appreciate that, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

On the pandemic unemployment payment for small public service vehicle, SPSV, drivers, we all acknowledge how that industry has been hit during the pandemic. As many as 70% of them availed of the PUP at the height of the pandemic and, as the Deputy may be aware, the PUP has been reopened for a limited time to support people who lose their employment as a result of Covid. The self-employed SPSV operators can continue to claim the PUP and earn up to €960 in a given eight-week period. There is also an enterprise support grant of €1,000 for drivers coming off the PUP that can go towards the costs associated with returning to work, personal protective equipment, PPE, etc. There have been waivers of the licensing fee and a refund of motor tax for taxi drivers.

The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has met on a number of occasions with the Advisory Committee on Small Public Service Vehicles - that is a statutory committee established under the Taxi Regulation Act 2013 - and he has been discussing many of the issues affecting the industry at present. My time has run out. I will let the Deputy back in.

What I would say on that, to conclude on taxis, is that the Ministers - the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the Minister, Deputy Ryan - need to meet urgently with the taxi representative groups. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is outlining the supports there but she knows as well as I do that the real question here relates to the PUP, and that needs to be resolved. It is not working the way Government says it is and I would like them to meet.

On haulage and truck drivers, will the Minister of State outline the engagements she has had? She will be aware of the frustration within the sector. The protests that have been happening are motivated by the substantial challenges in the sector in terms of the increasing price of fuel. Tinkering on the edge with the rebate scheme and the alternative fuel scheme will not address it. They need urgent action. How quickly can they expect to see measures that impact on their running costs and fuel costs?

On the Minister, Deputy Ryan's engagement with the taxi industry, he has met representatives on several occasions, including representatives of several taxi unions twice. Last month, the Minister met a representative of the taxi dispatch operators. Other members of Government, including the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, have also met with taxi driver representatives.

As I say, the self-employed operators can continue to claim the PUP and earn up to €960 in any given eight-week period, and the other supports that were in place throughout the pandemic continue. I refer to the motor tax rebate. Even the age of your vehicle now has been extended to the end of 2022. There are a number of supports there.

On the haulage sector, our meeting with the IRHA last week was very constructive. This is, I acknowledge, a sector that is very challenged in reducing emissions. There are no alternatives there - nothing, that is, in the short term. That is why we are waiting on the IRHA to come back to work with us in relation to a proposal around that. I have been engaging with association representatives over a number of months on a number of issues related to the driver shortage as well as skills and I have to say my meetings with them have been very constructive.

Transport Policy

Duncan Smith

Question:

2. Deputy Duncan Smith asked the Minister for Transport the specific policies he plans on implementing in 2022 to bring down the cost and accessibility of transport for persons with disabilities in view of the recent publication of the Cost of Disability in Ireland research report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62300/21]

In light of the publication of the Cost of Disability in Ireland research report last week, I would be interested in the Department's specific policies the Minister plans on implementing in response to this report.

It is a detailed report containing 202 pages. I do not expect the Minister of State to have read it yet, but it is something she and her senior officials should read over the Christmas break. I look forward to hearing what her plans will be.

The Minister for Transport has responsibility for policy and overall funding for public transport. The National Transport Authority, NTA, has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public passenger transport services nationally and for promoting the development of an integrated, accessible public transport network. The NTA works with the relevant public transport operators responsible for day-to-day operational issues to make public transport accessible. The Department of Transport and its agencies are progressively making public transport accessible for all, and especially for persons with disabilities, in both urban and rural areas. This is being done by ensuring new infrastructure and services are accessible from the start and by retrofitting older infrastructure and facilities to make them accessible for persons with disabilities, persons with reduced mobility and older people. The Department provides dedicated, ring-fenced funding to the NTA for its multi-annual public transport accessibility programme.

In addition, through the funding from the Department of Transport, the NTA provides a gamut of supports to assist persons with disabilities to travel independently on public transport. For example, the travel assistance scheme provides assistance for people who need it to use public transport or plan journeys on Dublin Bus, Luas, Go-Ahead and DART services. It is a free service run by Dublin Bus and is available within the greater Dublin area for people aged 18 and over.

In addition, the just a minute, JAM, card has been available for use on public transport services since 2019 and enables people with a communication barrier to tell others discreetly and easily that they need just a minute. Furthermore, disability awareness training is provided by all public transport operators to their staff to assist persons with disabilities to travel on public transport services.

I am aware of the concerns outlined in the report on the cost of transport for persons with disabilities, which are primarily related to more personalised or individualised transport requirements, which in many cases have an important role to play. Of course, specialised non-public door-to-door services do not form part of the public transport sector for which the Department of Transport has statutory responsibility.

The findings from this report are quite stark. It outlines extra costs annually of between €9,500 and €11,500 a year for a person with a disability, and transport costs are included in the amount. I accept that some of the costs are for the adaptation of cars, but they also include the use of taxis. There has been a 37% increase in the cost of taxis for people with a disability because of the lack of public transport accessibility.

I do not deny the strides that have been made, as the Minister of State outlined, but the report's findings detail current costs. I ask all Ministers and the Taoiseach for a response to the report from each Department and, similar to the approach with the climate action plan, that a clear plan will be put in place on how each Department will tackle any increased costs for people with disabilities in any area under its remit.

I assure the Deputy that my Department is actively engaging with the relevant agencies and Departments to strengthen the public transport offerings throughout the country by providing additional funding for increased public transport services. The Government has committed to using the research into the cost of disability to inform future policy direction, and the national disability inclusion strategy, NDIS, steering group, chaired by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will consider actions required by Departments on foot of this report. The Department of Transport and its agencies will continue to play their part in making public transport accessible and will, through our membership of the NDIS group, work with the other Departments that have responsibility for individualised, personalised transport support schemes. I could list the other initiatives on which we are currently working, but they are in the reply.

Key to where I and other Members of this House want to get to, and where I hope the Government wants to get to, is that every single policy is disability-proofed across the Government in the same way we are or should be focusing our climate policies. This report is another long overdue wake-up call on the challenges faced by persons with disabilities. The stark reality of the significant costs incurred involuntarily by them is quite staggering - an extra 25% annually on top of the average industrial wage. That cannot continue. It is something I will push in all Departments every time I have a Minister or the Taoiseach in front of me in the coming months and years.

I hear what the Deputy is saying. The NDIS steering group will be key in this area to ensure a whole-of-government approach. The NDIS sets out the overall framework for the equal participation of people with disabilities in society. It aims to improve the lives of people with disabilities and contains precise, measurable actions and timescales for delivery. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has overarching responsibility for the implementation of the NDIS. The strategy contains six public transport related actions for which the Department, the NTA and public operators have lead responsibility. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is leading the establishment of a working group under another action to consider the integration of disability transport and mobility support services. Monitoring of the implementation of the strategy is being overseen by the NDIS, which comprises key Departments. This will be an all-of-government approach.

Cycling Facilities

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

3. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the amount that has been spent in 2021 on active travel projects; the value of the 2021 underspend; the number of kilometres of cycle lanes, segregated and unsegregated, that were constructed in 2021; if he has considered designating one agency to spearhead the delivery of cycling and walking infrastructure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62648/21]

I ask the Minister of State the amount that has been spent in 2021 on active travel projects, the value of the 2021 underspend, the number of kilometres of cycle lanes, segregated and unsegregated, that were constructed in 2021, and if she has considered designating one agency to spearhead the delivery of cycling and walking infrastructure.

The programme for Government committed that €360 million in cross-Government funding will be spent on walking and cycling per annum over the lifetime of the Government. This investment will help support the delivery of almost 1,000 kilometres of improved walking and cycling infrastructure by 2025, as well as additional investment in greenways.

The total expenditure delivered on active travel through my Department in 2020 was €108 million, with €8.3 million also spent on greenways. This year, we have seen a significant increase in delivery and expenditure on active travel infrastructure, with the provisional spend for 2021 at €185 million. This is in addition to approximately €27 million spent on greenways in 2021.

Focusing on active travel, this year €281 million was available for active travel projects in the greater Dublin area, regional cities and rural areas. This provided for approximately 1,200 active travel projects to be developed across the country, in cities, towns and rural areas. Therefore, overall, there has been a large increase in the delivery and expenditure on active travel between 2020 and 2021, although it is also true there has been a significant underspend compared with available funds. The NTA is the main agency spearheading the delivery of cycling and walking infrastructure, with the local authorities. Factors constraining delivery of active travel infrastructure this year included the impact of Covid restrictions, planning issues and staffing constraints. However, the larger budgets and projects are now bedding in, new staff are being recruited by the local authorities, and the situation is improving. We expect a much higher drawdown on available funds next year and increased delivery.

The NTA is working with local authorities to ensure effective and efficient delivery of active travel funding. Details of the active travel projects to be funded and delivered next year are being developed by the NTA and can be made available to the Deputy when this is finalised in January. It is anticipated that approximately €290 million will be available next year to help roll out walking and cycling infrastructure throughout the country.

I am happy that 2021 has been a year of very significant delivery on cycling and walking infrastructure despite Covid and other challenges. It is apparent all around the country that progress is being made.

The Minister of State outlined many figures, but I did not hear a figure for the underspend. How many millions of euro were involved? She indicated that €290 million will be available next year. Why does that fall short of the commitment of €360 million?

I am conscious that last week's annual report by the Climate Change Advisory Council, CCAC, stated there is a significant discrepancy between the ambition and policy and the implementation.

That is what I see in regard to cycling and walking infrastructure. It is very concerning because communities want to see this infrastructure delivered.

What is the position in terms of staffing, given the Minister of State mentioned that staffing was an issue? How many of those active travel teams have been recruited?

The reason for the underspend is that it was the first year and staffing was an issue. I will give the statistics. As per the quarter 3 report from the NTA supplied to my Department, 92 new positions have been filled across local authorities out of a total of about 250 allowed. This includes staff in local authorities outside of the greater Dublin area and regional cities, where, until this year, there were no NTA-funded active travel staff in place. In the coming weeks, the NTA will provide its quarter 4 report on the resourcing plan where we expect a significant increase in the number of positions filled. There will be a lot of pressure on local authorities next year. Now that they have increased resources in-house, we expect them to be able to roll out these active travel projects across the country. I will get the Deputy the exact figures in regard to his earlier question and I will provide them to him separately.

I want to raise the point of the lead agency. The Minister of State referred to the NTA. To go back to the CCAC’s annual report and that implementation gap, the policy and ambition are not translating into action. One of the pieces that came through very strongly in that regard was the fractured nature of existing service delivery and project implementation. I see the annex of actions for the climate plan as they relate to transport, and I see the Department of Transport, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the County and City Management Association, CCMA, local authorities and other relevant stakeholders. To me, that seems a business as usual approach and there is no lead agency focused on the delivery of these projects. I know the greenways have been given to TII. Will the Government specifically task the NTA to give it absolute authority in terms of delivering these and to give it oversight of the implementation?

It is important to bear in mind the challenges this year in regard to Covid. The level 5 restrictions had an impact on the roll-out of greenways because those projects were not seen as essential projects during the level 5 restrictions, which meant any non-essential construction could not occur during those months. That has impacted on the roll-out of a number of those projects.

All local authorities spent much of this year recruiting new staff after that formal authorisation was given to them in March to recruit NTA-funded staff. The NTA will be driving that. Obviously, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I have allocated a lot of funding for active travel throughout the country. It is imperative that agencies working with local authorities and the local authorities, which will be over the roll-out of many of these projects, prioritise these projects over the next 12 months. Now that the allocation of resources is there, the excuses are not there for any kind of slowdown or delays for many of these projects to be rolled out.

Public Transport

Catherine Murphy

Question:

4. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Transport if he will establish a forum for feedback or consultation for members of the public and stakeholders relating to BusConnects as the project is rolled out; and if he, his officials or both will engage and or consult the NTA in respect of same. [62112/21]

This question relates to requiring adequate feedback options. Two BusConnects spines have been rolled out to date and one of them is in my area. If we are going to anticipate the problems that are emerging, we have to pick up the feedback from people where this is being rolled out. I do not believe what is being done at the moment is enough. A Dublin Bus telephone number has been given but it is a general number, and there is then a BusConnects number that is permanently engaged. It is part of the public feedback but it is not adequate.

I am delighted to see the new BusConnects Dublin network being rolled-out. I agree with the Deputy that it is important that people have an opportunity to give feedback and their thoughts on its roll-out. It is great to see improvements happening on the ground with this year’s launch of the H spine and the C spine. Next year will see further phases of the new network rolled out, while planning applications for the core bus corridors will also be lodged with An Bord Pleanála.

I am sure all of us who campaign for improved public transport welcome these developments. I would also like to acknowledge that consultation with the public and stakeholders has been an integral part of the BusConnects programme and has positively influenced its development so far. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the breadth and depth of public engagement on BusConnects Dublin is certainly unique in a transport context and quite possibly in any public policy context.

In terms of the new services that have been rolled out already, the National Transport Authority and the bus operators are keeping all aspects of the new network under scrutiny and are closely monitoring the new services following their introduction.

All households in the areas served by the H spine and C spine received information booklets as the services were introduced and those booklets provide information on how to provide feedback and comment, whether by telephone, email or online. If there are issues in regard to the phone lines being engaged, I will raise that with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, as well as any other barriers for people in trying to submit their comments. Those feedback channels are in addition to the three rounds of public consultation that informed the development of the new network and the 72,000 submissions received as part of those consultation processes. Therefore, while I agree with the Deputy that feedback is important, I think the channels already established would seem to be appropriate at this stage. If, as the Deputy said, they cannot get through for whatever reason on the telephone line, there is an email and online method as well. Nonetheless, if there are challenges around that, I will certainly raise that with the Minister, Deputy Ryan.

I am an advocate for public transport and improved services and I have been for as long as I have been involved in politics. There is no doubt some of the new services are working well. I can only look at the spine that I can see directly. There is no doubt some of it is working well but some of it is not working well at all. Some of the buses do not connect in terms of timetables. I can see double-decker feeder buses with practically nobody on them from 4:30 a.m. and every half an hour until 11:30 p.m. It looks like there are loads of services but, at the same time, for the past month or six weeks, my office has almost become a complaints department. To be honest, I am fed up with it at this stage. People are saying this is clearly not working and they are getting back in their cars where these services are not working and where services are not direct anymore. The chaos around some of the schools is very obvious. It is very frustrating.

The Minister of State referred to consultation. Thousands of submissions went in from my area but people do not feel they were listened to.

I will forward the Deputy’s comments to the Minister, Deputy Ryan. The information I have is there are channels and clear information for people to make their complaints and give their comments around existing services. I know the NTA is liaising closely with the transport operators in reviewing the introduction of these new services and it will take appropriate action, where necessary, to mitigate the impact of these services. I will certainly relay the Deputy’s comments back to the Minister, Deputy Ryan.

With regard to the core bus corridors, the NTA intends to re-engage with the community fora established during earlier consultation phases on the core bus corridors as the various schemes proceed to construction. The NTA is also establishing a transport users advisory group. The purpose of that group will be to provide advice and recommendations to the NTA from the perspective of both the transport users and those engaged in active travel. That advisory group will provide the NTA with the viewpoints that can feed into future policy and programmes as they are implemented.

All of those are very important initiatives. I welcome that there will be an ongoing look at this and possibilities for feedback. I also received the brochure the Minister of State talked about. I rang the numbers on many occasions, I have left feedback and I have left my mobile number. I asked for a phone call back to me last week and have not got it yet. If we do not pick up the complaints or the problems at this stage, how are we going to address them? I heard there were very few complaints about the first spine that was rolled out. I wonder is that because it rolled out very well or because there was inadequate feedback. It is very important that complaints are picked up.

People will not ring in if it is going well. They will ring in if something is not working for them and they need to be encouraged to do that or to provide feedback in whatever way they possibly can. It is all over the local Facebook pages but that is no use. People are complaining to each other and there has to be a better way of dealing with this.

On the advisory group which will be providing the NTA with the viewpoints to feed back into the policies and programmes, an independent facilitator will be appointed to run its meetings. Some 15 places will be available on that transport users advisory group and that will be made up of representation from various modes of public transport such as cyclists, pedestrians, people with disabilities, older persons, business tourism, students, small public service vehicles, and a Local Link expert. I will relay the Deputy’s concerns about being able to relay her feedback and getting through to the phone line to the Minister. The NTA establishing that transport users advisory group will be a key part of people being able to give their feedback as well.

Ports Policy

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

5. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport when he intends to update the national ports policy; when he will designate ports on the east, south and west coasts for the construction and development of offshore wind projects and allocate investment for the upgrades required; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [62649/21]

When does the Minister of State intend to update the national ports policy? When will she designate ports on the east, south and west coasts for the construction and development of offshore wind projects and allocate investment for the upgrades required?

In addition to the primary function of our commercial State ports to facilitate maritime transport, the national ports policy 2013 also recognises the role ports can also play in servicing the offshore renewable energy, ORE, sector and the need for further port capacity in this area. The programme for Government has set a target for 70% of electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2030 and for 5 GW of offshore wind by 2030. The climate action plan, published on 4 November 2021, has since increased the target to 80% renewable electricity by 2030. Both plans also set out how Ireland will take advantage of the potential of at least 30 GW of floating offshore wind power in our deeper waters in the Atlantic.

Given Ireland’s increased ambition in ORE and pending a review of the overall national ports policy in 2022, my Department, in conjunction with the Irish Maritime Development Office, conducted an assessment of the options for Irish State ports to facilitate the ORE sector and assist in Ireland achieving its emission reduction targets. Taking account of the conclusions and recommendations of that assessment, I have decided that a multi-port approach will be required to address the needs of the ORE industry and a policy statement will be issued in the near future setting out this approach. ORE will develop in phases on the east, south, south-west and west coasts, and a multiple of ports will be required to provide facilities for the different activities at several locations around the country and at different times for the various phases of the fixed and floating ORE developments. This multi-port approach will help maximise the economic benefits at regional as well as national level in terms of the creation of jobs and new SME enterprise that can support the development of the ORE industry. Funding for ORE-related port infrastructure is available under the connecting Europe funding, CEF, facility which is the funding instrument for the EU's trans-European transport network, TEN-T. My Department is assisting, as appropriate, the eligible TEN-T ports.

The Minister of State said there would be a policy statement in the near future. What sort of timeframe is involved and how soon can we expect to see that? She will know that Carbon Trust and Wind Energy Ireland identified more than 12 months ago that no Irish port was ready to support the construction of offshore wind farms. They indicated that in the region of €50 to €100 million would need to be invested in one port and the Minister of State is talking about multiple ports. When will the policy statement be ready? The Minister of State also mentioned the CEF. What scale of funding will be required, where will it come from and how soon will it be available?

A policy statement signalling the multi-port approach was prepared in consultation with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. That was presented to the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change on 8 December and went to Government on 14 December. The policy statement is in line with the existing national ports policy, which recognises the role of commercial State ports in servicing offshore renewable energy. The policy statement reiterates that position and signals the Government’s commitment to ORE developers on the provision of port facilities in Ireland. On the opportunities around this, a multi-port approach will help to maximise the economic benefits at a regional and national level. The Department is assisting, as appropriate, the eligible TEN-T ports to put forward applications for studies or works related to the provision of offshore renewable energy infrastructure at their ports.

I will go back to the CCAC report about the intention, ambition and policy and the gap between those and implementation. We hear from the sector itself that the window of opportunity is narrow and that we need to act urgently to grasp the opportunity to reach our targets for 2030. We hear from the offshore wind sector, particularly the floating offshore wind sector, that they are concerned with the scale of ambition and the stated ambition in that area. We should act quickly on this, designate those ports and invest in them to harness the opportunity. What is the scale of funding that will be required and how will it be delivered?

The objective of achieving that 5 GW of installed offshore wind by 2030 will be met primarily through the deployment of fixed pile turbines off the east and south-east coasts. This is because of more favourable sea areas with significant water available at depths of under 60 m, combined with proximity to an existing and relatively strong onshore transmission system. It is intended the 5 GW target will be facilitated through two phases of offshore wind deployment with two specific auctions to take place under the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, 1 and RESS 2. A consultation to inform the approach to the second phase will include the option of including some floating offshore wind as a special category in RESS 2. The significant potential for offshore renewable energy in the Atlantic is not envisaged until later in the decade.

On port timelines, Wicklow Port and Arklow Harbour have entered into arrangements with individual offshore renewable energy project developers to serve as operation and maintenance spaces. Plans are also under way for the deployment of facilities at Rosslare Europort and Cork Dockyard. Drogheda Port is proposing to develop large-scale deepwater port facilities on the east coast, and Shannon Foynes Port Company and the ESB are planning a large-scale redevelopment in the Shannon Estuary at Foynes.

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