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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 8 Feb 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 5

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Planning Issues

Last week's decision by An Bord Pleanála to approve a wind farm at Derreendonee in Curraglass, along the southern rim of Cork's beauty spot, Gougane Barra, has really taken locals in Ballingeary by surprise. Cork County Council had refused planning permission, as had the board's inspector. The council's response was an adamant and definite refusal. The council's planner said that the plans would "materially contravene the stated Objectives of the Cork County development plan" and "provide for a highly intrusive visually domineering form of development that debases the integrity and the landscape character". The council was very adamant. These towers, whose tip height would reach 178 m, would dominate the landscape in the area. It is acknowledged that alternative energy sources are need and that wind energy is going to form part of that. A great many wind farms have already been built across County Cork, including seven locally, but this is a question of the suitability of the Gougane Barra area. You cannot make another Gougane Barra but you can find other locations for a wind farm.

When you think of Gougane Barra, you think of the secluded valley, the tiny oratory on the big tranquil island and the tall cliffs around it. It is an isolated lost valley. There is a real opportunity to develop the whole area, right the way down the Lee Valley from Gougane Barra, through the Gearagh and on to Blarney Castle, for tourism. An awful lot of people rediscovered the area during the pandemic but Gougane Barra had already established its identity, nationally and internationally, well before then. We want to see tourism developed in the area. When An Bord Pleanála examined this application, it would have looked at Fáilte Ireland studies from 2007 and 2012. Even with those, it was not satisfied. It would have had to supplement them with studies from Scotland because the others were from so far back. How much consideration was given to tourism when this decision was being arrived at?

The proposed development on the southern slopes of Derreendonee in Curraglass are right on the rim of Gougane Barra. If you imagine Gougane Barra like a horseshoe with the lake in the middle, these towers would be on the far side of the cliff, on the southern side as you approach from the Wild Atlantic Way from the Bantry direction. To put the 178 m height of these towers in context, the spire in Dublin is only 120 m tall. Liberty Hall is 59 m tall. These towers would be as tall as Liberty Hall with the spire on top of it. Towers of that height situated 300 m above sea level would be seen from a very long distance away. They would have a very significant impact.

The local community is very much against it. Coiste Forbartha Béal Átha'n Ghaorthaidh is now faced with having to put together funds to possibly take on a judicial review. The council has identified Gougane Barra and only a handful of other places in the county as tourist attractions of special quality. These include the likes of Garnish Island, Blarney Castle and Gougane Barra. This development would stand out like a sore thumb. What consideration was given to the tourism value of the area?

I thank Deputy Aindrias Moynihan for raising this matter, which is very important to his community. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage's role in relation to the planning system is primarily to provide a policy and legislative framework under which the planning authorities, An Bord Pleanála and the Office of the Planning Regulator perform their statutory planning functions. The legislative framework chiefly comprises the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, and the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, as amended. The Department has also issued planning guidelines under section 28 of the 2000 Act that planning authorities and the board are obliged to have regard to in the exercise of their planning functions. However, the day-to-day operation of the planning system is a matter for the planning authorities, and for the board where planning appeals or strategic infrastructure development are involved.

In making decisions on a planning application, a planning authority or the board, as appropriate, must consider the proper planning and sustainable development of the area having regard to the provisions of the development plan, any submissions or observations received from the public and the statutory consultees, and any relevant ministerial or Government policies, including any guidelines issued by the Department. Under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is specifically precluded from exercising power or control with regard to any particular case with which a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála is, or may be, concerned.

Consequently, it would not be appropriate for me to comment regarding any individual planning case or cases.

It is important to be aware, however, that Ireland has set an increased goal under our revised climate action plan for the generation of up to 80% of our electricity from renewable sources by the end of the decade. An electricity grid powered by renewable energy sources will contribute to Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets by substituting primarily wind and solar electricity generation for fossil fuel electricity generation, as well as displacing emissions in other sectors, for example, through the electrification of car transport and residential heating.

The renewable electricity support scheme, RESS, is Ireland's flagship policy to deliver on this up-to-80% target and to set a pathway to a net-zero economy. The first RESS auction for onshore wind and solar projects was held in 2020. The second RESS auction process has begun, with the qualification application window having closed in January. The auction is scheduled to take place in May and the final notice of award in June, which is three months ahead of our previous plans. It is anticipated that RESS 2 will deliver a major increase in renewable electricity generation by the end of 2024. The RESS programmes, including the launch of the second onshore auction and the forthcoming offshore auctions, are a major step forward in meeting the Government's ambition of reducing emissions by 51% by 2030 and delivering up to 80% renewable electricity by 2030.

A cornerstone of the RESS is the provision of pathways for increased community ownership of, participation in and benefit from renewable electricity projects. To facilitate delivery of this objective, an enabling framework for community participation has been developed. This framework includes a preference category for community projects to ensure a route to market for communities; a community benefit fund for all projects to ensure that benefits are distributed to the local communities hosting these projects; and a suite of supports, such as information toolkits, trusted intermediary advisers and financial grants, to help communities to develop their own generation projects. Furthermore, a supportive spatial planning framework for onshore renewable electricity generation development is critical to ensure delivery of the electricity targets set out in the climate action plan.

Almost all the Minister of State's response focused on the need for energy and climate action requirements. There is widespread recognition of that aspect from locals and the planning authority in this case. There are, however, places that are more suitable for different uses. It must surely be recognised that tourism is to be considered in this context as well. Gougane Barra has to be regarded as a stand-out area for tourism. Just because a national policy is in place to approve wind farms, that does not mean that every application submitted, even in unsuitable locations, must be encouraged as sites for wind farms. Gougane Barra must surely be recognised as being more suitable for tourism. The county council was adamant about this point and even An Bord Pleanála's own inspector recognised this. It is not possible to make another Gougane Barra. It is not an option available. There are, though, many other sites for wind farms.

Chuir sé an-ionadh ar fad ar mhuintir na háite agus daoine go forleathan ar fud an domhain, dáiríre, gur cheadaigh An Bord Pleanála an t-iarratas i nGuagán Barra. Bhí an chomhairle contae glan ina aghaidh agus níor bhraith sí go raibh an áit oiriúnach in aon chor. Glacaimid leis go bhfuil gá le foinsí fuinnimh éagsúla agus le gaoth ach tá áiteanna nach bhfuil oiriúnach agus teastaíonn an ceantar atá mórthimpeall ar Ghuagán Barra a fhorbairt i gcomhair turasóireachta. Tá sí níos oiriúnaí i gcomhair turasóireachta ná mar atá sé i gcomhair gaoithe. Mar sin, ghoill sé go mór ar mhuintir na háite. Ní féidir Guagán Barra eile a dhéanamh ach tá roghanna ann maidir le fuinneamh gaoithe.

Alternatives are available. We already host many wind farms in our community and it is recognised that there is a place for doing so. Gougane Barra, though, should surely be recognised for what it is. The county council recognises that, Fáilte Ireland recognises that and surely An Bord Pleanála should recognise it as well. I do not feel that appropriate consideration was given to tourism in this regard.

I thank the Deputy again for articulating the concern of local residents in Gougane Barra. I am clear, however, about my role under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which means that I am unable to comment on specific cases. This is clearly enshrined in the legislation. I referred to the guidelines and energy targets earlier to try to set the context regarding where the Government is coming from and its direction of travel. Regarding this project, however, An Bord Pleanála has clearly set out in its report the reasons for granting the decision. Therefore, it is worth having a look at that, reviewing it and taking cognizance of the context of the decision. Unfortunately, I cannot get involved in operational issues or comment further in that regard.

Diaspora Issues

I am thankful for being facilitated in this short debate this evening. In the context of the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, after almost two difficult years, it is appropriate that we should focus on the issue of the Irish diaspora. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, to the House. I wish him a renewed vigour in the context of his work now, considering he probably was not engaged in the type of travel over the past two years that he might otherwise have been in his role. I wish him a successful and busy year in 2022.

Similarly, the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the USA brought a renewed focus on the special relationship between Ireland and America. The history between our two countries is rich and enduring. First and foremost, it is a people-to-people relationship. It is also complemented, however, by deep political ties and a vibrant political relationship from local authority level, here and in the US, right up to the White House. Over the years, millions of Irish people emigrated to the USA. They eked out livelihoods there and built homes. More than 10% of the population of the USA, almost 33 million people, claims to be of Irish descent. Pre-Covid-19, more than 1.5 million people visited Ireland annually from the United States for tourism and business or to visit relatives. The strong people-to-people contacts I mentioned are also accompanied by dynamic economic and social contacts. Some 800 US firms across Ireland directly employ 180,000 people. The American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, ACCI, states that another 140,000 are indirectly employed. Equally, more than €3 billion annually is added to the Irish Exchequer in this regard.

Therefore, what I want to discuss with the Minister of State and ask him to examine are the possible elements of an enhanced package of measures on immigration, which I trust he would examine in conjunction with his Government colleagues. I refer to a new programme, or an extension of existing programmes, to those who wish to live, perhaps work or even retire to Ireland. It would be targeted specifically at US citizens. I am calling for a package of measures for those demonstrating real and close ties to Ireland. They might be joined by a spouse or partner.

There would, of course, be conditions. The people concerned would have to be of good character. There would also be certain income criteria to be met. Equally, there would be a pathway to citizenship after several years. Let us look at the success, for example, of the various schemes which run for a shorter time, such as the Fulbright programme. What I would like to see is a bespoke residency scheme for US nationals. The programme would be US-specific and not available for the nationals of any other country.

It would of course have to comply with EU law. It would require amendments to our employment work permit schemes. We are going to be doing that in any event having regard to the shortage. I ask the Minister of State to give this appropriate consideration. Perhaps between now and the summer we can see how best we can enhance and develop that really important relationship.

I thank the Deputy for raising this topic and I pay tribute to the work which he undertook, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and as Minister for Justice and Equality, in regard to facilitating a whole-of-government response to issues affecting the Irish abroad, whether in the context of recent emigrants or the broader diaspora issues he is raising this evening, particularly with regard to those seeking to return to Ireland.

The Government's new five-year diaspora strategy, which I had the honour to launch in November 2020, owes much to the vision and strategic thinking underlying his work. A key pillar of that strategy is our people. This includes our goal to "empower vibrant Diaspora communities that are connected to each other and to Ireland" and the related commitment to be a voice for Irish citizens who wish to find pathways to legal migration, especially the undocumented in the US. The proposal which the Deputy has raised this evening touches on both of those areas. Under the existing scheme, which was developed by the Department of Justice under the Deputy's direction, the financial threshold for American citizens looking to take up residency in Ireland was set at €50,000 per person per annum, in addition to proof that they would have access to sufficient funds to cover any unforeseen major expenses. To a large extent, this adjustment of the threshold has meant that the majority of Irish Americans without Irish citizenship who are looking to retire to Ireland are in a much better position to do so.

The reciprocal agreements that we have with the US in regard to taxation and social security are another important aspect that needs to be borne in mind. As Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, I am supportive of looking at how that scheme has operated to see whether additional modifications could appropriately be made to improve it further. I agree with the Deputy that there is particular scope to look at how we improve the provision of relevant information and communication in countries such as the US that are home to significant Irish diaspora communities about these opportunities, whether this relates to retiring to Ireland, returning here to set up a business, which is a programme for which we have doubled the funding this year - it is a very successful programme and we are hoping for even more success out of it this year - or to students travelling under the working holiday authorisation.

Irish America - comprising those who are Irish born, those who claim Irish ancestry and those with a strong affinity for Ireland - is of tremendous importance to Ireland. As the Deputy knows, we work closely with grassroots organisations and community groups right across America in support of Irish citizens. In 2021, my Department provided more than €4.22 million from the Government's emigrant support fund to support diaspora organisations in the US. This represents one third of our total expenditure on emigrant support. I had the opportunity to be in New York to announce some of that funding. Our relationship with our diaspora and emigrants in the US, as the Deputy said, is greatly important. The Deputy mentioned Covid. A dedicated Covid response fund was also set up to help these organisations meet the needs of those who are most vulnerable, including the undocumented.

In recent years, we have also expanded and reinforced our network of diplomatic missions across the US, including opening a new consulate general in Los Angeles in 2018. We will be opening a new consulate general in Miami this summer. We have established Ireland House operations in New York, Austin and San Francisco to provide for a team Ireland footprint. This includes not just our diplomatic but our economic State agencies. We have also worked closely with Culture Ireland to deepen our cultural ties by appointing dedicated cultural officers in the consulates in New York and Los Angeles.

Returning Irish emigrants or those of Irish heritage bring with them skills and knowledge gained abroad that help develop both the national and local economies. They help maintain and strengthen bonds between the Irish at home and abroad. Thankfully, as we move away from the restrictions, we will have a greater opportunity to engage with our diaspora.

I thank the Minister of State for the very positive nature of his reply. I look forward to sitting down with him over the coming weeks to see how best we can fine-tune a new and enhanced scheme. I ask him to engage in discussions with his colleagues, the Minister for Justice, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Taoiseach, who will embark on what I trust will be a very positive visit to the US on St. Patrick's Day.

Tomorrow ambassador-designate Claire Cronin arrives from the US to our shores. She arrives here as a friend of Ireland. She arrives here with a very active and engaging programme of work. I wish her well in that regard. I also acknowledge the announcement over the past few days of the reintroduction of the very successful J1 visa scheme, which has facilitated in excess of 150,000 Irish students and young professionals who undertake summer work on an annual basis, and travel programme. I acknowledge the Fulbright Commission scheme supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs under the auspices of the Minister.

This is a two-way relationship that benefits both our countries, the US and Ireland. It is time that we should look at all of the schemes. I understand there are about nine different schemes for people travelling from the US to Ireland. It is important that we put together an enhanced scheme which would facilitate a more long-term arrangement, a long-term residency for people who are currently citizens of the US and who want to settle here in Ireland. The least we should provide them is a form of long-term residency and security.

I thank the Deputy for those remarks. I would agree very much with what he is saying. The thrust of my work since I became a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora has been to strengthen and deepen the ties with our diaspora. There is a need for that recognition that the Deputy talked about that it is very much a two-way street. We must deepen and strengthen ties with our diaspora but we must also be willing and open to bringing our diaspora back and to recognising that there is a large percentage of people who want to come to Ireland for many reasons, to study, work or live, who are part of that diaspora. We have benefited greatly from our diaspora. I do not think there is another country in the world with a comparable diaspora to that which we have and that has enjoyed the benefits of its diaspora in the way we have.

It is very welcome that the changing situation in respect of Covid-19 and the pandemic will ensure that we will have an opportunity for a really strong engagement starting with St. Patrick's Day and the engagement right across that day not just with the US authorities but with the diaspora and with civil society in the US. We are going to be building on that. I will be in the US on a number of occasions throughout the year to strengthen and deepen those ties with our diaspora group. It is critical for that in terms of the new diaspora strategy that I mentioned earlier in my opening remarks, that is all about recognising the deepening of our ties, reaching out to elements of the diaspora that we have not engaged with in the past and particularly that facilitation of people, be they Irish born or part of our greater affinity diaspora, who want to engage with Ireland in terms of being able to come here and experience what Ireland is all about. We will very much be working in that area. I thank the Deputy again for raising this matter.

Land Issues

I thank the Minister, Deputy Foley, for making an extra effort to be here today. I understand that she had an earlier engagement. It is genuinely appreciated by all of us.

The question in front of us is very simple. It relates to land ultimately in the control of her Department that was to be transferred to the HSE for the purposes of a primary care centre. I have been active in this constituency for over a decade. This issue has been going on longer than my time there. We are very keen to see how the Minister can assist us and the HSE in releasing that land so that the community in north Clondalkin gets the primary care centre it deserves.

It is a strong and vibrant community, but also one that experiences significant socioeconomic disadvantage. Therefore, the delay in this facility has all sorts of additional consequences. I urge the Minister to work with the cross-party delegation of Deputies to get this matter resolved as quickly as possible and allow the HSE to proceed with the primary care centre that the local community so desperately needs.

I thank the Minister for taking the time to address this matter. A state-of-the-art primary healthcare centre is badly needed in north Clondalkin. As Deputy Ó Broin mentioned, this situation has been ongoing for a long time. In 2015, there was an agreement between the Department of Education and the HSE on the transfer of lands at Collinstown Park Community College. Planning permission was granted in 2018 for the construction of a two-storey primary care centre. We are now in 2022 and not a sod of earth has been turned despite planning permission, fire safety certificates and disability access certificates having been granted. All of the groundwork has been done, so the delay is unacceptable. Two arms of the State seem to be delaying the process. The centre is much needed by the people of north Clondalkin. What is the delay and can the Minister do anything to ensure that the project is not delayed any further and people can get this much-needed service?

My constituency colleagues have outlined the problem and we are all united in our desire for action on it. The centre has been planned for years and the local community is desperate to have it delivered. The centre will offer speech and language therapy, occupational and physical therapy, a dental suite, a paediatric suite, GP suites and a mental health suite. These are much-needed services in the local community. Having no location for them is becoming an obstacle because it is a barrier to hiring and assigning healthcare professionals to the area. The sooner the transfer of land can happen, the sooner we can get the ball rolling on delivering this much-needed facility, which will have a major impact on the ground in north Clondalkin.

I thank the Minister for taking this important matter. The primary care centre in question was earmarked ten years ago, and probably longer. Deputy Ward and I have lived in that area. The current health centre in Rowlagh is antiquated for north Clondalkin's population of nearly 20,000. More than five years ago, 35 primary care centres around the State were earmarked and meant to be completed. At this moment, however, nothing has been done as regards the Collinstown site.

Judging from the response to a parliamentary question, there is obviously an issue with the transfer of land from the Department of Education to the HSE. That may be the case, but the people who are being disadvantaged are those who live in the area. They need this healthcare centre as soon as possible. I hope the Minister will clarify the matter.

I thank Deputies Ó Broin, Ward, Gino Kenny and Higgins for providing me the opportunity to update the House on the transfer of lands and the provision of a primary healthcare facility at Collinstown Park Community College in Clondalkin. I acknowledge that there is unanimity among the Deputies and I appreciate the passion with which they speak and the necessity for their constituents.

The HSE has been seeking to acquire a site for a primary care centre at Collinstown Park Community College. This school site is in the ownership of the Minister for Education. Discussions have taken place with the HSE regarding the disposal of part of the site to the HSE for the development of the primary care centre. Discussions between the HSE and Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education Training Board, DDLETB, have been ongoing for a number of years and, more recently, with my Department. The initial proposal developed from an engagement between DDLETB, the school and the HSE was that the HSE would construct a facility adjoining the primary care centre for the use of the school. The site for this development is separated from the main school building by an internal access road. Initially, this facility was intended to be a library, but it then evolved into a multifunctional space that could be subdivided, if required.

Following a review of the proposal by my Department in consultation with the HSE and ETB, it was determined that the provision of additional facilities for the school that adjoined the main school building would be more effective and provide a value-for-money solution. The Department of Education has engaged with the HSE and the ETB concerning the delivery of the facilities at their revised location adjoining the school as part of the disposal agreement.

Following further engagement with the HSE and ETB, I am pleased that it has now been decided that the disposal of the site for the primary care centre will proceed separate from delivery of the facilities to the school. This is a significant positive. My Department will proceed to progress the disposal of the site to the HSE in line with the protocols for the disposal of sites between State bodies and subject to the sanction of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The Department of Education is in discussions with the ETB regarding the provision of additional facilities for the school. The ETB will be submitting an application for the proposed additional facilities shortly and this application will be processed promptly upon receipt. It is anticipated that the Department will be in a position to advise the school and HSE of the outcome of this engagement with the ETB soon.

I thank the Minister. It is always good to get positive news, even if it is only half of the way. That the transfer to the HSE will proceed is welcome. I invite the Minister to go a step further and try to give the four Deputies present an indicative timeline for the transfer and indicate whether she anticipates a speedy approval by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Crucially, if we had a notional timeline for when the transfer would take place, that would keep all of us content this evening.

I welcome that the disposal of the site for the development of a primary care centre in Collinstown will proceed. To echo Deputy Ó Broin, having the timeline would be very welcome. People have been in touch with me left, right and centre about this service. Occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, psychology services and so on, which are not available in the north Clondalkin area current, could be available in this centre.

I thank the Minister for her reply and for her acknowledgement of how significant an issue this is locally. It is great to hear that a decision on the disposal of the site has been reached. I ask the Minister to ensure that the disposal is seen through as urgently as possible.

I welcome confirmation of the additional facilities for Collinstown Park Community College. I urge the Minister to ensure, as she has committed to, there is an adjudication on the funding and planning as soon as possible so that the services are delivered in tandem.

I welcome the response but it was slightly ambiguous. It still does not give clarity as to when this will happen. We could have been discussing this matter five years ago and the same answer might have been given. I am slightly concerned about the ambiguous nature of the Minister's response. At the end of the day, the people who will benefit are the people of north Clondalkin, who badly need this centre. I suspect that, if this were to happen in a more affluent area of Dublin, there would be a different response.

I wish to be clear, as there is no ambiguity in this. To be fair, I have had a short amount of time to move this project along. It is a progressive and positive step, and should be acknowledged as such, that the disposal of the site for the development of the primary care centre will proceed separately from the delivery of facilities to the school. This means that there is now the impetus for that project to move ahead.

I appreciate how the timeline is an issue for the Deputies' constituents. The Department will proceed to finalise the head of terms with the HSE for the disposal of the site. The Department will also obtain the necessary sanction from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for the disposal of the property. As with all property disposals, due diligence is required, which the Deputies will appreciate. This can give rise to added complexities. Therefore, it is not possible to give a definitive timeframe. However, the Department can provide the HSE with the necessary licences to enable it to commence development work on the site pending completion of the sale. That is fair progress. In tandem with that, my Department will process the application from the ETB for additional facilities for the school.

I can confirm to the Deputies that officials in my Department will endeavour to progress and expedite both matters as quickly as possible. This is significant progress for both projects, which are of particular significance to the Deputies' constituents.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ag 8.20 p.m. go dtí 9.12 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 2 Feabhra 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 8.20 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 February 2022.