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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Jan 2022

Vol. 1016 No. 6

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Road Projects

First, I must say I am extremely disappointed that I must raise this issue in the Dáil tonight. As a Government Member, I am disappointed with the Minister's decision to withdraw funding for the N24 from Waterford to Cahir. This is a massively important infrastructure project for the south of the country and, indeed, the west of Ireland. Its importance has grown even greater with Brexit and the importance of the Rosslare Europort for getting produce out of this country.

The selection of the route for the N24 has been ongoing for a number of years. The fact that the Minister has decided to cease giving funding at this time means that consultants that have been employed on the selection of the route will now have to have their contracts suspended. County council representatives and employees have told me that the money that has already been spent on surveys, traffic management and all the different aspects of the selection of this route could now be wasted because if this project is suspended for a number of years, it will be necessary to go back to basics and start from scratch as regards route selection again.

However, I wish to make a point about the families and the development along the three corridors that are proposed for this route. There are three wide corridors being sterilised. They have been in this situation for a number of years. Industrial infrastructure projects, agrifood infrastructure projects, farm development projects and young people who want to build houses in this area find that the land is sterilised and there is no possibility of getting planning permission. I am working with a number of constituents who have spent money trying to get planning permission. Money is spent on having various surveys done. One man who wants to develop a farming enterprise has spent a lot of money on getting surveys done to confirm that the site was suitable, getting noise and pollution surveys carried out and so forth. Now he is told it could be up to seven years before he will be in a position to apply for planning permission.

This is just not good enough. I urge the Minister to reverse his decision to withdraw the funding from the county councils in respect of the ongoing consultancy work that was being done in order to advance the route selection. Some €2 million in 2022 would allow this work to continue. It is absolutely imperative that the county councils are allowed to keep their consultants employed and get the route selection finalised once and for all. When the route is picked we can argue about getting the funding to get the road in place, which is obviously very necessary for the economic development of the southern and western parts of the country. However, tonight I wish to make the point for the families and for the people with land with industrial potential who are on the three corridors. Their land has been sterilised for a number of years. With this decision by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, it can continue to be sterilised for up to seven years. This is just not good enough. It is not right to put people in this position. I have raised this issue with the Taoiseach and I hope the Cabinet will revisit it. As I said, €2 million will allow the work to continue to get the route selected. It is imperative that there is a route selection in 2022 and that we can release land that is sterilised at present so it can be used for building houses or for whatever industrial or commercial development people want to take place on that land.

I thank Deputy Cahill for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to clarify and explain the situation on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. He sends his apologies that he could not be present tonight. First, I acknowledge the situation Deputy Cahill has represented with regard to landowners and families who want to progress their plans for building a house for their family, starting a local enterprise or developing a farm enterprise, as well as the job creation involved. Having been involved with a number of areas where roads have been developed, I know that the route selection and preferred route options can be a cumbersome process and can delay things a great deal. It has a knock-on effect on families. I will certainly bring that main message the Deputy has raised to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and to Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, with regard to trying to move it on this year and to bring it to a certain stage whereby it will affect fewer people in the context of the sterilisation of land. I know the Deputy's key priority is to see the road developed given all the benefits it will bring. On top of that, however, it is important that we do not put people's lives on hold unnecessarily for too long. That is the Deputy's key point.

To give the background of the project, the Minister for Transport has responsibility for overall policy and Exchequer funding for the national roads programme. Once funding arrangements have been put in place with Transport Infrastructure Ireland under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015 and in line with the national development plan, NDP, the planning, design, improvement and upgrading of individual national roads is a matter for TII, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. TII ultimately delivers the national roads programme in line with Project Ireland 2040, the national planning framework and the NDP.

In the new NDP launched in October 2021, approximately €5.1 billion is earmarked for new national roads projects to 2030. That is a positive that will enable many projects to progress. This funding will enable improved regional accessibility across the country as well as compact growth, which are key national strategic outcomes. The funding will provide for the development of numerous national road projects, including the completion of projects which are already at construction stage and those close to it, as well as the development of a number of others. The N24 project is included in the list of projects to be evaluated for progression and potential prioritisation during the period covered by the NDP. We know the importance of this as it will improve connectivity and accessibility between Limerick and Waterford. In addition, the project would provide improved access to international markets, as the N24 connects to the Port of Waterford and Rosslare Europort. The project could also improve the quality of life of commuters and local residents through improved journey times and the provision of new cycling and walking facilities. It is key that the N24 project could also enable connection to the Waterford greenway which will in turn connect to the south-east greenway running from Waterford city to New Ross.

With regard to progressing it this year and the funding allocated for this year, the fact that the greater portion of NDP funding for road projects becomes available in the second half of the decade means there is a constraint on the funding available for new projects or to bring projects such as the N24 forward this year. However, most national road projects in the NDP will continue to be progressed in 2022 and across 2023. Projects such as the N24 from Cahir to Waterford, which do not have the required funding to progress this year, remain part of projects for consideration in the NDP and will be considered for funding next year. Kilkenny County Council, as the lead authority in partnership with Tipperary County Council, has appointed Arup Engineering Consultants as technical advisers to progress the appraisal and early planning and design of this project. The route options selection stage has commenced, as the Deputy said.

A virtual public consultation dealing with constraints was held in May and June 2021.

Given funding constraints for 2022, as referred to earlier, TII is unable to provide an allocation for this project in 2022. The delivery programme for this project will be kept under review for next year and considered in terms of the overall funding envelope available to TII. Again, I will bring back the Deputy's main point to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, which is that if the project is delayed at this stage, it will affect people's livelihoods and plans for their land, farms and enterprises. It is the key part of what the Deputy is asking. I will ask the Minister to have that discussion with TII on the Deputy's behalf to see if we can get through this stage and on to the next.

I appreciate the Minister of State's reply but the bottom line is that for 2022, funding is not available for this route selection. The whole road from Limerick Junction to Waterford is of major economic importance for my county. On the section from Waterford to Cahir, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir urgently need the bypasses this road would provide.

As I stated, this concerns the people who have been affected by the delay in route selection. Their land has been sterilised for a long number of years at this stage and it is just not acceptable that they would have to wait at least another 12 months. The Minister of State has held out the olive branch of it being in the national development plan, with funding to be provided in 2023. That is not much good to me when a person comes into my constituency clinic who has been working hard on getting planning permission for the past number of years but has been told to wait again to see what happens with route selection.

A sum of €2 million would keep the consultancy process on the route going. That is not a huge request. As I said, I raised this matter with an Taoiseach. I urge the Minister of State to revert to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. For the sake of €2 million and in the interest of fairness, he should let the selection of the route proceed. That is a fair and reasonable request. If we spoke about commencing the road project, we would be talking about far greater sums. This is about route selection and it has been an ongoing process for a long number of years. I urge the Minister of State to revert to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and say that the area has been sterilised for a long period. It is in a very strategically important part of the country. This delay is sterilising the potential of the towns along the route, including Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir. I urge the Minister of State to go back to the Minister and get the €2 million fund required for the consultancy process to proceed and allow selection of the route to happen in 2022.

I thank Deputy Cahill for raising this matter and firmly putting across the main concern he has for this year. Again, I will bring this back to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I am at pains to indicate on his behalf that he is not personally involved with every decision on each project being brought forward. His main aim was to increase the budget allocation to the national development plan for road projects like the one mentioned here, the N24. He wants to ensure that through the work of the national development plan, such projects are completed. I will ask him to raise the matter outlined by the Deputy, which is that stopping the process now will cause undue delays and hassle for families that want to get on with plans for their livelihoods. I will make that point to him very clearly. Perhaps he could use his influence with TII on this project but I should be clear that he does not make a personal decision on each individual road project. He must allocate the money and ensure we are making progress overall as well.

The Deputy has made the case well and I am very familiar with it. When land is sterilised this way, it can really affect individual families. As communities, we all want to see projects and bypasses happening because of their associated benefits but it can be a difficult time as the route selection process is gone through. I undertake to bring the Deputy's concerns back to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I will ask him to correspond directly with the Deputy. It is important to point out that this N24 project is still included in the overall plan and its progression is paused for this year. The €616 million in capital funds is required for other projects that are near completion and so on. It is important to realise that this project is continuing, although I hear the Deputy's argument that he wants to ensure this decision on route selection can be completed in 2022. I will bring it back to the Minister to see if there is any way it can be done with the available funds.

Emergency Services

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for including this Topical Issue. Emergency services response times are a constant concern in rural areas and County Cork is one of the areas seriously affected by significant ambulance delays. Despite the best efforts of paramedics and other staff, over a third of calls had response times in excess of an hour in the first half of 2021. The distances involved have been cited by the National Ambulance Service as one of the reasons for delays. This is a massive source of worry for rural residents, particularly households on the peninsulas in Cork South-West.

The resourcing of the National Ambulance Service remains a crucial matter, as is the inadequate number of ambulances and paramedics. However, recent changes in Kerry and Donegal are working on allowing fire and rescue personnel to act as first responders in health emergencies. This is a very practical and potentially life-saving measure that should be adopted in all counties as soon as possible. We have excellent fire and rescue services in Cork staffed with personnel trained as first responders. It makes sense they would be deployed in cases where ambulances are delayed or immediate attention is required, such as instances of cardiac arrest.

Towns and villages in Cork South-West, including Schull, Castletownbere, Bantry and Dunmanway have fire stations with staff who, by the nature of the work, are in the area and available to respond. This matter has been brought to my attention by such staff, who are eager to assist those in need in their locality. They are motivated to save lives and the Government should respond accordingly. I am seeking that the Government pursues this as a national policy. I appreciate it is a complicated matter across Departments, local authorities and public and voluntary bodies. However, given the potential benefit of this policy, it should be rolled out in every county. Furthermore, it is a common-sense approach that effectively uses resources that are already available.

This move would not only potentially save lives but it would also provide comfort to the people of west Cork and other rural areas. It is not about replacing the ambulance service but rather supplementing it with trained professionals already in the area. These people may provide backup when it becomes clear an ambulance will be delayed. This is about getting first responders to people in need while an ambulance is on its way.

The Ministers for Health and Housing, Local Government and Heritage should take leadership on this matter. Kerry and Donegal are ahead of the curve on this and have shown it is possible. Similar changes are also being proposed in Northern Ireland after a pilot scheme in 2016. Instead of the National Ambulance Service having to engage with all relevant bodies and local authorities on an individual basis, could the Government not step in here, with the line Ministers providing a forum or mechanism for a co-ordinated approach? In doing so, they could bring all the stakeholders together and make this happen.

The Deputy has certainly put forward a very strong case for this type of co-operation. It is important, particularly as we have come through the Covid-19 crisis, which has highlighted significant challenges in rural areas. I am very familiar with that part of the country.

To begin, I should clarify that the provision of a fire service in its functional area, including the establishment and maintenance of a fire brigade, the assessment of fire cover needs and the provision of fire station premises, is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003. My Department supports fire authorities by establishing policy, setting national standards for fire safety and fire service provision, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other related matters and providing capital funding for priority infrastructural projects.

Fire services are provided in Ireland by local authorities in accordance with the provisions of the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003. Under this legislation, there are 31 local authorities that provide fire prevention and fire protection services for communities through 27 service delivery structures. Local authority fire services are delivered by approximately 3,300 local authority staff engaged at 217 fire stations nationwide, with 16 of these stations being staffed by full-time firefighters. A further four are mixed full-time and retained and 197 are staffed by retained firefighters.

Responsibility for the provision of emergency medical services, including pre-hospital emergency care, rests with the HSE, which operates the National Ambulance Service and emergency departments in hospitals in accordance with health sector legislation and national policy. Fire authorities created under section 10 of the Fire Services Act 1981 and 2003 are empowered under section 25 of that legislation to carry out or assist in any operation of an emergency nature.

As the Minister of State with policy and legislative responsibility for fire safety and the provision of fire services by local authorities, a primary concern must remain, in accordance with the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003, that local authority-provided fire services are meeting their statutory obligations in respect of their primary role in the provision of fire services and fire safety. These responsibilities include the important activity of community and other fire safety initiatives as well as response to fire and emergency calls such as road traffic accidents, river rescues, chemical or hazardous spills for example. Fire services generally respond to calls for assistance from external bodies in accordance with protocols operated within the three fire services regional communications centres.

The feasibility of fire services, outside the Dublin Fire Brigade area of operations, being commissioned by the HSE to provide a response service in support of the NAS in responding to life-threatening emergency calls was discussed at national level at the fire services national oversight and implementation group, which consists of fire services management and staff representatives, and it produced a discussion document as the basis to underpin discussions with the health sector. The document was discussed at the management board of the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management in July 2018 where a number of issues including the transfer of risk and mechanisms for funding were raised, and these remain as items of discussion with the Department of Health.

Any proposal for formalising this assistance would need to be subject to appropriate governance and cost reimbursement arrangements and to be set in the context of a service agreement with the HSE and the National Ambulance Service, which would not impact on or adversely affect fire services' primary roles.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and for his overview of the situation. This is a sensible policy with the potential to save lives and make a real difference in dispersed communities in rural areas. The National Ambulance Service is pursuing this approach and many fire and rescue personnel support this idea. Also, the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council priority dispatch standard allows for the use of appropriately trained fire and rescue staff to respond to certain categories of emergencies as first responders. We now need the Government to fit the pieces together and make it happen, and to bring together all the stakeholders at national and local levels with the common goal of deploying all available resources to save lives. This is about the practical and responsible use of available personnel and resources. I absolutely realise that it would require negotiation and new agreements, but given the prospect of saving lives and offering assurances to vulnerable groups in rural areas, I believe it will be worth it.

It is important to note that the ongoing issues with the ambulance service remain. We require more ambulances based around the country and staff who work reasonable hours to be able to respond safely and effectively to emergencies. We must also have a service that reaches all communities in a timely manner. This policy is about fire and rescue service staff serving as first responders, which is a stopgap measure until an ambulance arrives. We still need more ambulances and we still need more paramedics.

I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to bring this matter up with the relevant Ministers at Cabinet and to please push this policy as a very practical intervention for rural communities, and surely all communities.

I absolutely will. It is very important that we do. Another important point is related to Covid-19. The pandemic has presented challenges to the fire services in the delivery of services. Our Department has monitored regular reports from the fire services on the impact of the pandemic on staffing levels and business continuity. In recent weeks, in line with trends among the general population, fire services have experienced heightened disruptions due to the transmissibility of Covid-19, the Omicron variant, and close contact-related staff absences. This will be temporary of course. The fire services' management have employed a range of tools to limit the disruption to the service. Following a Government mandate in late December 2021 authorising the use of voluntary derogation exemption, exempting fire services staff from Covid-19 close contact isolation requirements under strict conditions, our Department built the derogation into a broader suite of updated guidance and contingency measures for fire service management. This was to ensure the ongoing provision of fire services amid the highest rates of pandemic infection since the onset of the pandemic.

Fire services would also look to assist other emergency services when called upon. However, there currently exists no formal arrangements between the fire services, the HSE, and the National Ambulance Service to provide a first response served nationally, and fire services under no statutory responsibility to provide those services on behalf of another service.

Deputy Cairns has, nonetheless, raised an important issue. As the Deputy has outlined, the examples in Kerry and Donegal should be given consideration. The HSE and the National Ambulance Service were in correspondence with the Chief Fire Officers Association to explore the willingness and the ability of the retained firefighters service to offer support to the National Ambulance Service during November 2021, so there is a precedent there. The Deputy has raised an important issue that I will take back to the relevant Ministers.

Animal Culls

I am very grateful to the office of the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this very important issue to be aired in the Chamber tonight. I am grateful to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan for taking the debate.

The issue is that the deer population in County Kerry has exploded beyond what we can put up with. That is the way I will put it. I will let the House know what is happening on a daily basis. If one was to leave Killarney and head out on the Killarney-Cork road from Poulagower down to Kilgarvan and into Sneem, with people going to Glencar, all emanating from the Killarney National Park and from all over, the most common sight one will see on the road is deer. Previously, this used to be very late at night or during the middle of the night when it is quiet but now we can actually have them at any time. We have had young people crashing, and I am sure we have had deaths where people's cars have left the road. The evidence of the deer is not there because it might not have been struck. We have had tragedies over the years that could have been put down to deer coming out onto the road. There is an amount of damage and a monetary cost to people. I will give an example. A fine respectable person was going to work very early in the morning and crashed his car into a deer. The following morning, his fine hard-working son hit a deer. They are neighbours of my own. These are people who were going about their work and who lost two cars out of the one house in two days. It is a daily occurrence now if one is going over Moll's Gap or on any of these roads I have just mentioned. The people in Glencar are haunted with deer. Only last weekend a lady was attacked by a stag and was airlifted to hospital. This is no longer tolerable. This is no longer something we can put up with.

In the past, we had an excellent forester, who I very much compliment because he was a desperately hard-working man. Mr. P.J. Bruton was our forester-in-charge in the Killarney area for many years. When he was in charge, every week he culled 200 deer out of the Killarney National Park. There was an export arrangement for them, they were not being wasted and they were put to good use. This kept our deer figures in check. What happened, however, when he was retired and gone and not in that role anymore? Nobody was doing this. Nobody was organising it. Since then, we have got to the stage where it is not popular to say that we should have a deer cull. If I was looking to be popular I would not be saying what I am telling the Minister of State now. I am saying now that it has gone beyond a cull; at this stage we require an eradication programme because the deer population has increased so much.

I have not even touched yet on what this means for our farming community. I will now give an example of a farmer, who came to me in recent days. I know the Minister of State will appreciate the story. The farmer went into his field in the morning and what was inside in the field? It was 26 deer. That is the same as a herd of cattle from your neighbour being on your grass in the morning and eating all that you had. The Minister of State is aware of the cost of fertiliser, and we have all heard what the cost of fertiliser will be this year. People will be growing grass but could have 60% of it being eaten, in many cases, by roaming deer.

Whatever else a farmer can afford to do, he cannot afford to feed the deer in the national park. I have not even touched on what that means for our fences. The fences farmers are putting up are very expensive. The Minister of State knows how difficult it is to string and put tension on wire surrounding grounds. When deer jump they hit, break, get caught in and destroy fences.

Like the Deputy, I wholeheartedly support the sustainable management of the deer population in this country. It is critically important and we have made significant strides in that regard in recent years with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, in terms of resources and approving the licensing regime for the hunting of deer.

I assume the Deputy's Topical Issue was prompted by the unfortunate incident in Kerry over the weekend where a woman was injured by a stag. I want to extend my sincere sympathy to the woman and wish her a speedy recovery. Attempts have been made to domesticate and hand feed the deer involved in this case. I want to remind people that these are wild animals and should remain as such. With deer, it is important that people stay alert and maintain a reasonable distance of at least 50 m between themselves and a deer. It is also inadvisable to attempt to domesticate or feed a deer or any other wild animal. This practice is not only dangerous, but may be damaging to the ability of the animal to survive and thrive in the wild.

Culling is already a regular and ongoing management operation within our national parks. The NPWS and my Department is committed to the active management of deer species within the State, our State-owned national parks and our nature reserves. As part of its regular ongoing management operations, the NPWS carries out regular census reports on deer on our sites.

Where appropriate, and depending on annual counts or whether it is evident that damage has been caused by deer to habitats, especially woodland, culls may need to be carried out to ensure that deer populations do not reach levels that would be negative to the ecology of the park. Since 2016, more than 2,000 deer have been culled in our national parks, with culls in Killarney National Park accounting for almost 900 of this number. During the 2021 season, 436 deer we culled in Wicklow, 44 in Glenveagh and 234 in Killarney National Park. All of this happened during Covid.

It should be noted that while the NPWS actively manages deer on its properties, it does not own the deer population and is not responsible for the control of deer on private lands. Similarly, it is not responsible for cordoning them off to any specific areas of land. Deer populations are, by their nature, mobile and have a home range that is not constrained by land ownership boundaries. These home ranges are normally defined by physical landscape features such as mountains, lakes, rivers, built-up areas and the availability of a suitable habitat within their home range.

The control of deer on private property is a matter for the relevant landowner. Landowners may apply to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage for permission under section 42 of the Wildlife Acts to cull deer, where necessary, outside of the annual open season. These permissions offer a facility whereby a person can obtain a permit on a case-by-case basis in order to prevent serious damage caused by individual deer on specific lands, something the Deputy highlighted regarding damage to farmlands and forestry. These permissions are only issued where there is evidence of such damage. I will come back with a final response.

I thank the Minister of State. I want to thank the people in County Kerry who are in charge of section 42 licences for always being proactive and diligent about issuing licences. They are not failing in their duty. In his response the Minister of State let the genie out of the bottle because he identified the problem. We should look at the statistics. I am not being critical of the Minister of State, but he boasted that there were 234 deer taken out of Killarney National Park during the season. We were doing that every week in the 1980s. Does the Minister of State understand the problem?

Some 2,000 deer have been culled in national parks throughout the country since 2016. At one time, 200 deer a week were culled when the population was not half of what it is now. The cull is tokenism; it is not a real cull. We need to reduce the number of deer in this country by 70%. That would mean that the remaining deer will go to where they want to be, that is, up in the mountains away from roads and people.

I want to be clear. I have not raised this issue because of the incident to which the Minister of State referred, where a lady was injured by a stag, which I am sorry about. I have called for this cull for the past ten years. The record of the Dáil will show that I have called for this. The only reason there is a token cull is that I have been calling for it so strongly and over such a sustained period of time.

I ask the Minister of State to ensure there is a realistic cull. In County Kerry alone, we have to take out 500 deer per week for the foreseeable future if we are to make any attempt at sending these animals back to the habitat where they should live and want to be. They are being driven down to greener grass because of the numbers. As I said, they are breaking the farmers and putting people's lives in danger. I ask the Minister of State to treat this matter seriously. We are not talking about Bambi; we are talking about people's lives and their property.

For clarity, district conservation officers make a call in terms of the management of numbers in national parks. The Deputy is talking about deer populations outside of our nature reserves and national parks. Last year, we managed to significantly improve the provision of section 42 deer hunting licences. I have met the Irish Deer Commission. We need good training for people who are hunting deer so that they can get a clear kill of an animal in the most humane manner possible.

In 2020, 35,134 deer were shot under section 42 licences. Under serious damage licences, 4,684 deer were shot. The Irish Deer Commission had figures for Kerry, where 8,000 deer were culled over a five-year period. The numbers are quite significant when one considers them in conjunction with what we are managing in our national parks and nature reserves, coupled with our licensing regime which has been significantly improved. We aim to move that online in order to further streamline the process.

I have met the Irish Deer Commission and others involved in the hunting fraternity about this. We are aware that it is a problem and it has been highlighted to us in other parts of the country. We are making significant strides in dealing with that. I note the points the Deputy has made. Landowners, farmers and those in forestry are frustrated. Road safety is also an issue. As I said, we will continue to improve the licensing element and ensure we have a sustainable deer population in this country.

Schools Building Projects

I welcome the opportunity to speak. I thank the Minister for being here at this ungodly hour. She is well aware of the issue with the Carrigtohill Community College campus. I will always give credit where credit is due. The issues were not the fault of the Department. There were many issues with the planning and mistakes were made. I also want to acknowledge that a temporary campus was set up in Fota Park. In early December, children from Carrigtohill village were trying to walk and cycle to the temporary campus. Some paths were very dangerous and overgrown, and I thank Cork County Council for moving very swiftly on that. It made the area very safe.

I suspect other Deputies in east Cork have also been in contact with many worried parents and children. I ask for clarity on when the work in the community college will be finished and when students can return to it. This is not just an issue that affects east Cork, but we have struggled for the past ten years with school places and transport, disability services and SNAs. I pass the site twice a week. I have watched progress from afar and have visited it. The roads have been built and the lighting has been installed.

I have been involved in construction for 22 years so I know water and sewerage services etc., need to go in first.

I am here as a representative of the people of east Cork, particularly the families in Carrigtohill, Midleton and surrounding areas who are hoping to get their children into the schools. They have asked me to ask the Minister to provide a step-by-step plan. We were promised that the tender would be awarded in quarter 1 of this year. Can I get definitive dates to give to the people of Carrigtohill and the surrounding areas for when it will start and when it is intended to be finished. That is all I need to know because this is putting so much stress on families.

I have had it for the last two years in particular in the summer months because we do not take a break in the summer months when we need to deal with school places, school transport, disability services and obviously special needs assistants in schools in east Cork. It is very difficult. Parents have been extremely stressed and they feel like they are pitting principals against other principals. I have spoken to principals in schools in east Cork who have been challenged in supermarkets on their day off. This should not be happening. I am not pointing the finger. It is not the Minister's fault; it is just the system.

Can we get clarity on when the whole system will be set up? When will it start? What is the definitive date when children in the east Cork area can move into the community college on Station Road? I am not here to bash people all the time. We are on the Topical Issue Debate and the purpose is to try to get answers. People sometimes forget the effort that people make. We have the temporary campus, but people are in fear that this temporary campus could be in use for ten years. I am trying to get clarity from the Minister.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it allows me to provide an update on the current position on the planned development of the new three-school campus at Carrigtohill. I know of the Deputy's ongoing interest and I also know the interest of Deputies Stanton and O'Connor, who have consistently raised the matter with me also.

Carrigtwohill Community College is a co-educational post-primary school under the patronage of Cork Education and Training Board and the Diocese of Cloyne. The school first opened its doors in August 2016 and is located in interim accommodation at Unit 2A, Fota Business Park, Carrigtohill. The brief for the project is to provide a new 1,000-pupil post-primary school with a three-classroom special educational needs unit.

Scoil Chliodhna Community National School is a co-educational primary school which opened in September 2015 and is currently in interim accommodation at Carrigtwohill GAA sports complex. The brief for the project is to provide a new 24-classroom primary school with a three-classroom special educational needs unit.

Scoil Mhuire Naofa National School is a co-educational primary school and is under the patronage of the Catholic Bishop of Cloyne. The school is currently located on a parish-owned site consisting of ten permanent classrooms with seven classes in temporary accommodation on site. The brief for the project is to provide a new 24-classroom school with a three-classroom special educational needs unit.

It is an impressive testament to the ambitious plans that this campus will be the largest single-school building project ever undertaken by the Department and will serve a school community of 2,400 pupils. As the Deputy has outlined, there have been difficulties with planning. A planning application for the permanent accommodation for the three schools was lodged in March 2019. A request for further information was received in August 2019. A final grant of planning permission was received on 6 July 2020. In 2021, my Department engaged with a third-party contractor regarding the road network which is required to be constructed by that party to facilitate the schools building projects. The construction of the roads is now approaching completion, which is very positive.

In 2021, the Department established a design and build contractors framework to which design and build projects are tendered. The project for the Carrigtohill campus was tendered to this framework on 14 June 2021. Since the commencement of the tender process, the Department has explicitly required potential tenderers to prioritise the completion of the community college first within the campus.

The tenders were returned on 27 October 2021 and the tender assessment report from my Department's project manager has been recently received by my Department and is currently under review. It is anticipated that the letter of intent to appoint the building contractor will issue in the coming weeks in quarter 1.

Once the successful contractor is appointed, the Department's technical team will immediately liaise with the contractor to ensure that the delivery of the community college is prioritised within the contractor's programme of works. Throughout construction, the Department's technical team will ensure that a sharp focus is maintained on delivering the finished community college as early as possible within the campus construction programme.

I welcome the Minister's reply. That this is the largest single school building project ever undertaken by the Department shows that the population of east Cork is absolutely ballooning and is also set to balloon in the next ten years. I wanted to raise the matter because we are at maximum capacity in other areas. In Midleton, St. Mary's High School has major capacity issues. There is a necessity for all of this. As I said at the outset, this is about getting clarity. I welcome the urgency on this. Despite the hiccups at the start, things are moving forward.

I would like to liaise with the Minister. We do not need to do it through Topical issues and parliamentary questions. I would like to liaise with her to keep the people of Carrigtohill and east Cork updated on it. I have seen progress. The foundations and the services are in. However, we are now at the end of January and people are getting concerned that it might be another year. It is a massive undertaking with a capacity of nearly 2,500 pupils. Demand is there and it will grow.

I would appreciate even a bimonthly statement from the Department or perhaps the Minister and I could work here in the House to outline progress, including meetings with the developers or the design team and beyond that. It is all about education - pardon the pun - and keeping the community informed of the progress. At least we are not seeing a regression. We have seen the progress of the site. We have seen the roads go in. The lamp posts have gone up. If we can be the liaison officers for the people that we represent in east Cork, I would greatly appreciate that. I again thank the Minister for her reply.

I appreciate the Deputy's interest in this project. There is great unanimity among the public representatives on the matter. At the request of Deputy O'Connor, I met a number of the school leaders in the area. Deputy Buckley specifically referenced the wider area of east Cork. I am personally very familiar with the area because I spent time teaching there. I am very conscious of its needs and demands given that it is a growing area. I appreciate the high priority that is being placed on the future of this three-school campus. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

It will be a significant achievement for Carrigtwohill Community College, Scoil Chliodhna Community National School and Scoil Mhuire Naofa National School. It is a very ambitious project and undertaking by the Department of Education, and will be the largest campus we have ever delivered. The Department is acutely aware of the need to provide modern permanent new school buildings for these three schools and we are acting proactively to do all that we can to deliver this as a matter of priority.

As the Deputy has indicated, it is very heartening for people to see, for example, the roads, which are very important for the delivery of the project, now nearing completion. The Deputy also highlighted the other aspects. I assure him that every possible priority is being given to the project. As I indicated, we are looking at the letter of intent being issued in quarter 1. It is progressing and I know there is great interest from everybody who will benefit from it in the locality and the wider community. We will continue to give it the priority it deserves.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ag 10.10 p.m. go dtí 9.12 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 26 Eanáir 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.10 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 26 January 2022.