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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 28 Apr 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 3

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Local Authorities

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Question:

81. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the steps he is taking to ensure that local authorities have adequate flexibility in the recruitment of the multidisciplinary competencies necessary for both active travel teams and town teams, as outlined in Government policy and funding initiatives. [20494/22]

What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that local authorities have adequate flexibility in the recruitment of the multidisciplinary competencies necessary for both active travel teams and town teams, as outlined in Government policy and recent funding initiatives?

As Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I have responsibility under the Public Service Management Acts for recruitment to the Civil Service. I have no responsibility for recruitment in various other branches of the wider public service, however, which are assigned to the relevant Minister. The Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Act 2004 sets out that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is responsible for all matters relating to recruitment to local authorities.

The Government is committed to ensuring that the local government sector remains vibrant and sustainable and is well equipped and properly resourced to deliver the key functions within its remit. I am informed by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage that the local government sector is embarking on a significant expansion of activities across a range of areas, including active travel and town centre first, both of which are programme for Government commitments and depend on a level of local authority input to deliver.

Where a new programme initiative is proposed that requires implementation at local authority level, the initiative will be brought by the relevant Department to the County and City Managers Association, CCMA, for discussion and agreement, particularly with regard to the number, grade and funding of staff required to deliver the programme.

In the case of active travel, which was brought before the CCMA, the National Transport Authority, NTA, developed a categorisation system with indicative staffing resource requirements across all local authorities as well as increases in dedicated active travel resources within the regional design offices. The NTA identified the appropriate analogous grades to deliver the significantly increased programme of active travel infrastructure and the local authorities are resourcing the programme as required.

The town centre first policy, which was launched in February, provides a co-ordinated, whole-of-government policy framework to proactively address the decline in the health of towns across Ireland and support measures to regenerate and revitalise them. Under the policy, it is proposed to appoint a town regeneration officer in local authorities to support the implementation of town centre first and work with local town teams drawn from the local community. The Department of Rural and Community Development, which is funding these posts, is currently in discussions with the CCMA to finalise the specifics of the role based on the programme of work to be delivered.

I thank the Minister for his answer. This question was originally sent to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage but it was referred to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who is obviously referring the issue back to the Minister with responsibility for housing.

I believe there is a role for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in this area, particularly with regard to the active travel allocation. The €1.8 billion over five years, €360 million per annum, is a key achievement of this Government and a key commitment in the programme for Government. We must ensure this money is spent well and I believe that responsibility falls to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The point about flexibility is that we get the right people into these roles. What we need fundamentally in the roles are multidisciplinary teams. There is a tendency in the Irish system to put in engineers. I am an engineer and I do not want to diminish the profession in any way. Many engineers are ably qualified, of course, but we need multidisciplinary teams representing transport planning, urban planning, urban design, landscape architecture, community engagement, public health and so on in our local authorities to drive the town centre first initiative and the active travel roll-out.

The Deputy is absolutely right to highlight the level of priority this Government affords to the issue of active travel. We have committed €1.8 billion towards its development over the five-year period to 2026.

On the specific issue of getting the correct mix of skills and experience to deliver these programmes, it is primarily a matter for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Section 160(1)(a) of the Local Government Act 2001 states: "The appropriate Minister may declare qualifications of such classes and descriptions as he or she thinks fit for a specified employment under a local authority or for such of the employments as belong to a specified class, description or grade."

It could, therefore, just be a case of rewriting the question and putting it before the Minister with responsibility for housing. I have direct responsibility in respect of recruitment to the Civil Service but public service recruitment falls to the line Minister and the Local Government Act 2001 provides a statutory basis. I agree with the Deputy's core point on the need for a balance of skills, one that is broader than those brought by civil engineers, to ensure a holistic approach is adopted to delivering the active travel programme. If there is anything my officials or I can do to support or facilitate the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and his team to achieve that, we are certainly willing to help.

I thank the Minister and appreciate his reply. I will revert to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. As I said, we need that diversity in these teams on our local authorities and there is a question as to how we should spend public money. This is a huge sum of public money and it will be transformative in this country.

We have an issue with how we fill those posts. A person can get a level 9 qualification in sustainable transport, for example, but if he or she does not have a level 8 qualification in engineering, the person will not get a role on one of these active travel teams. Somebody with that level 9 qualification would be certainly more qualified than I would be with my level 8 in mechanical engineering, so we should seek to ensure these people will fill these important roles that will transform our towns, villages and cities.

I agree we need multidisciplinary teams to deliver the full set of active travel projects, given the set of skills that is needed is certainly wider than that confined to the engineering profession. Nevertheless, there is adequate flexibility within the current statutory framework for the local government sector to recruit people with different qualifications, skills and experience. Currently, more than 30,000 people are employed in the local government sector. I reiterate that if I or my officials can be of any assistance to the line Minister and his Department in the implementation of the active travel programme, we will be more than happy to assist.

Cost of Living Issues

Jackie Cahill

Question:

82. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he expects that there will be Supplementary Estimates in view of recent measures to tackle the cost of living; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20569/22]

Does the Minister expect there will be Supplementary Estimates in view of the recent measures to tackle the cost of living, and will he make a statement on the matter?

The Government is aware of the challenges many households are facing due to increases in the cost of living, in particular those on lower incomes. The recent rise in inflation is a problem faced by almost every advanced economy in the world. We saw a fall in prices in 2020 as a result of the pandemic but, as the global economy recovers, we are faced with new challenges including rising energy prices and supply issues, which have been exacerbated by the terrible war in Ukraine. In this context, the Government has introduced measures focused on temporary supports that can quickly provide assistance to households.

In February, the Government announced a suite of measures with a value of over €500 million, including an uplift in the energy credit to €200 per domestic account, inclusive of VAT. Measures in respect of the fuel allowance, school transport, the drugs payment scheme, public transport and the working family payment were also prioritised. In light of the continued high fuel prices, further expenditure measures were subsequently introduced, with a temporary emergency support measure for licensed hauliers and an additional €100 lump sum payment to fuel allowance recipients to be paid in May.

Taking into account that the estimated cost of €400 million in respect of the energy credit was considerable relative to the original Estimate for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, a Supplementary Estimate for Vote 29, to provide for the additional funding needed for the energy credit, was brought before the Dáil in March. Further Supplementary Estimates may be required later this year to provide for the other measures, to the extent that the related costs cannot be met within the existing allocations.

These expenditure measures, along with the excise duty reduction on petrol, diesel and marked gas oil introduced by the Minister for Finance and now extended until budget day in October 2022, and the VAT reduction from 13.5% to 9% on gas and electricity bills until the end of October, amount to €1 billion in aggregate. These measures provide substantial assistance towards mitigating, although of course not fully offsetting, the impact of rising prices.

I thank the Minister. He mentioned the emergency support scheme for licensed hauliers. I have been contacted by hauliers who transport livestock and, therefore, are exempt from having to have a haulier's licence to operate their business. Accordingly, they are not able to access any of the supports they have been given by the Minister towards the daily expenses of running their business. Obviously, they have all the same expenses as other businesses, with the increased costs of fuel and of running their business. Two hauliers who have contacted me have a contract, coincidentally, with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for the collection of reactors. The scheme is very much warranted and has attempted to reduce costs for hauliers, but livestock hauliers operating within the State are excluded from this support. Will the Minister address this and examine whatever small print needs to be changed to allow these hauliers to qualify for the support?

I fully accept that anyone in the business of providing a transport or haulage service is under great pressure at the moment because of the importance of fuel costs for them, which is why the Government brought forward the scheme the Deputy mentioned. The scheme, which applies to licensed hauliers, was introduced by the Minister for Transport, so I will undertake to raise with him and the Minister of State at his Department, Deputy Naughton, the specific issue the Deputy raised. The scheme, as currently constructed, relates to licensed hauliers, as the Deputy pointed out, whereas the example he cited relates to hauliers who are not licensed. The matter is one directly for the Department of Transport, but I will convey it to that Minister and I thank the Deputy for raising it.

I appreciate that answer. Livestock hauliers are exempt from having to have a haulier's license, and I am sure the scheme was not designed to exclude them from the support, which is needed. I appreciate the Minister's indication that he will raise the matter with the Minister for Transport and I hope we can get it sorted as quickly as possible. These businesses are under extreme pressure travelling throughout the country and hauling livestock, an essential part of the infrastructure for our agri-food industry. I hope we can get this anomaly removed from the support scheme as quickly as possible.

I will discuss the matter with the Minister. I would imagine the reason the scheme has been constructed for licensed hauliers only relates to the existence of a defined list of them and also because they are regulated. We will need to examine the issue in some greater detail. I understand the point the Deputy makes, whereby people who are involved in the business of transporting livestock are certainly not immune to any extent from rising fuel prices and are carrying the burden of that in the same way as licensed hauliers. I will certainly raise the issue with the Minister and revert to the Deputy directly.

Question No. 83 replied to with Written Answers.

Cost of Living Issues

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

84. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if additional supports will be introduced to support families most impacted by the increases in the cost of living; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21373/22]

Will any additional supports be introduced to support families who are most impacted by the increases in the cost of living? It is opportune that this question follows that of Deputy Cahill, which skirted the same issue.

Budget 2022 included a number of measures to support citizens faced with increased costs of living. The Government is acutely aware, however, of the challenges still facing many households, in particular relating to energy bills and especially for those on lower incomes. In response to previous questions, I set out a number of measures the Government has brought forward. In February, there was a package of more than €500 million, which continues to be implemented, including the energy credit of €200 inclusive of VAT. The Government has also placed an emphasis on trying to reduce the costs individuals and families face, which is why, for example, the reduction in the drugs payment scheme threshold to €80, benefiting more than 70,000 families monthly, is a very important measure. In addition, there has been a reduction in the school transport fees families face, an important measure that was welcomed by many, and a reduction in public transport fares, benefiting about 800,000 people. That has been implemented in the Deputy's and my city and county of Cork and I think it is to be implemented in Dublin as well in May. That measure will certainly help and make a difference.

Of course, much of the focus in respect of the cost of living pressures has been on the area of fuel and we have done our best as a Government to make progress on that issue while having to comply with the constraints we are acting under, such as the energy tax directive, a European directive with which we must comply regarding minimum levels of taxation that must apply to diesel.

There are also constraints in respect of VAT. We have made changes in that regard but these must be consistent with EU law and the Government has gone as far as it can at this point with those measures. We have introduced a range of measures we believe will help, although we are not for a moment suggesting they go all the way or fully offset the costs people are facing. Unfortunately, the tragic war in Ukraine imposes a cost on all of us across society. The Government has done its best to respond but we accept we cannot fully offset the additional costs people are facing.

It must be acknowledged that there have been a number of interventions. As the Minister has said, they can never go far enough to address fully the real crisis that is out there at the moment, but a number of targeted measures have been undertaken, including the VAT cut on gas and electricity, excise reductions and the additional lump sum for a certain cohort of fuel allowance recipients. I will follow up on that. I am probably straying into the territory of the Department of Social Protection or even the Department of Finance, but is there something we could do in respect of the household benefits package? Every year, a certain proportion of benefits across society are not claimed. These amount to something like £15 billion in the UK. I imagine there are also a number of people here who do not fully avail of their social welfare entitlements and additional supports. Perhaps some kind of campaign could be launched to advise people as to their entitlements.

We had a very significant social welfare package in the previous budget, totalling well in excess of €500 million. As the Deputy will know, this involved increases in core weekly rates and improvements in the living alone allowance, the carer's allowance, parent's benefit, the working family payment, the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, the qualified child increase, and a number of other programmes administered by the Department of Social Protection including, for example, a pilot programme of hot school meals. A range of measures were introduced by the Department.

It will always be the case there will be people across society who are not aware of their entitlements and the supports they can avail of. We do our best as a Government. The Department of Social Protection has a very easy to use website. The Citizens Information Board has offices throughout the country providing information to people. There is also the advocacy work that we, as public representatives, do on an ongoing basis. The voluntary sector and all of the bodies that support people who are at risk of poverty are also constantly highlighting different schemes. However, we have been somewhat surprised by the fact there has not really been an increase in the number of people applying for supplementary welfare in the form of the exceptional needs payment. We expected a greater uptake given fuel prices. Public representatives could perhaps highlight that service, which is there to support people who are in genuine need and who are facing very difficult choices at this time.

That is a point I was going to mention. I do not believe many people are aware of the discretion their local welfare officer may be able to show them. There is a role for us and a role for Government. As the Minister said, the Citizens Information Board is always very good, helpful and informative. However, some kind of campaign is warranted. People are feeling the pinch and now would be a good time for such a campaign.

If I may again stray across the water to the UK, a similar debate is ongoing with regard to addressing the cost-of-living crisis there. I do not agree with the idea but I know that privatising the UK's passport office is being looked at. There is also discussion of deferring Ministry of Transport tests, the MOT, for a year or two. Again, I obviously do not advocate such a measure but the UK is looking at all interactions the state has with the taxpayer and the citizen. It may be worth scrutinising such interactions here, such as those relating to the haulage sector that Deputy Cahill mentioned, to see if there is anything that we, as a Government, can do with regard to reducing costs, waiving fees or streamlining processes to make things easier for people and businesses.

I agree with the Deputy's point regarding the exceptional needs payment. It is there to support people who genuinely need assistance. Nobody should be afraid to reach out to his or her local community welfare officer. As a Government, we will do the best we can to promote and highlight the fact this service is there because, at a time when many people are undoubtedly under significant cost-of-living pressures, we are not seeing an increase in the number of applications coming in, which is a surprise.

We are very anxious to reduce the costs families face. I highlight the improvements to the national childcare scheme. We have extended the universal subsidy, which will kick in for older children in the autumn. As the Deputy will know, we have provided very significant additional core funding of more than €200 million in a full year, which is the largest injection of funding into the childcare sector for many a year. That will greatly assist in ensuring those working in the sector are paid an appropriate wage and have good career opportunities and will also assist parents in dealing with the bills they are facing. That is one area that is a key priority for Government and one in which we can help people to reduce the costs they face.

Before we move onto the next question, I welcome the members of the Longford branch of the Irish Wheelchair Association to the Gallery.

Heritage Sites

David Stanton

Question:

85. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform further to Question No. 9 of 23 September 2021, the further progress that has been made on works to repair a property (details supplied) in Carrigtwohill, County Cork; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21400/22]

Will the Minister of State outline the progress made in the refurbishment of Barryscourt Castle near Carrigtwohill? The Minister, Deputy McGrath, is probably aware of this castle although I am not sure whether he has ever visited it. It is an amazing building that was built around 1550. The Office of Public Works, OPW, is doing amazing work and recently opened up Annes Grove House and Gardens in the area, which is fabulous. What progress is being made and when might we see Barryscourt Castle reopened to the public?

I will answer this question on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, this morning as he is attending a funeral.

The works plan for 2022 is to complete grouting the external walls on the south and east of Barryscourt Castle. It is envisaged there will still be masonry repairs to the towers and wall walks at a high level, but it is thought these works will not interfere with progressing necessary internal works. The next phase of works includes the design of new mechanical and electrical systems. This phase has commenced but will need to be tendered and executed.

The Office of Public Works is very conscious that Barryscourt Castle has been unavailable to visitors and the local community for the past number of years. The Minister of State has asked his officials in the national monuments division to work on a reopening plan for the site. I hope progress will be made on this matter over the coming months. However, sadly, it is not possible to give a definitive date for reopening at this stage due to the complexity of the ongoing conservation works.

I thank the Minister of State for his response and for indicating that work is ongoing. I understand it is complicated. It is a very old building and the conservation rules are quite demanding. I would be grateful if the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to whom I have spoken about this, could impress upon those involved the importance of this particular building to local tourism. It very much links in with Fota House, Fota Island Resort and the town of Cobh. I know the Minister, Deputy McGrath, will be visiting Cobh tomorrow morning. These all link together and it is a shame this particular castle has not been available for quite some time. There is also an extensive garden, an orchard and so forth. It is a real gem. Perhaps the Ministers could visit it when they are on their summer vacations and have a look. It is hidden away and I really want to see it reopening as soon as possible, as does the local community.

I am familiar with Fota, although probably not as familiar as Deputy McGrath beside me. Barryscourt Castle has been extensively restored. A lot of work has been done. The main hall and the great hall have been completed and fittings and furnishings have been reinstated. As the Deputy has said, within the castle grounds there is a herb garden, a knot garden and an orchard. These have been restored according to the original 16th century design. The castle is extremely old and dates back to somewhere between 1392 and 1420. It has an outer bawn wall and corner towers that are largely intact. It is one of the finest examples of a restored Irish tower house. The ground floor of the tower house contains a dungeon into which prisoners were dropped via a drop hole located on the second floor. The Barrys supported the Fitzgeralds of Desmond during the Irish rebellions of the late 16th century. To prevent it being captured by Sir Walter Raleigh and his army, the Barrys had partially to destroy the castle. That is some of the history.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, his interest and his comprehensive narrative with respect to the castle's history in which he mentioned the murder hole and other things that are in there.

It is an amazing building. Obviously, it is imperative. I know the OPW is doing its best. It is doing great work around the country. I just want to emphasise the importance of this particular building and to get it open as soon as possible. I thank the Minister of State for his response.

I will impress upon the Minister of State, Deputy O’Donovan, the importance of this building for local tourism. I will convey the Deputy’s sentiments to him.

Departmental Funding

Thomas Gould

Question:

86. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if his Department takes a macro view of the funding allocation across Departments to ensure fair distribution geographically. [21482/22]

Is the Minister's Department taking a macro view of the funding allocation across Departments to ensure fair distribution geographically? I am particularly thinking of the funding streams announced for projects across one local authority. Where money is being invested, it is not being done evenly. I am sure the Minister is aware of the area I wish to discuss and is cognisant of the neglect of the northside of Cork city.

As part of the budgetary process each year, my Department sets overall expenditure ceilings for each ministerial Vote group. These are laid out at budget time in the expenditure report with further detail then provided in the Revised Estimates for public services.

Following allocation of each ministerial expenditure ceiling, it is a matter for each Minister to assign funding as appropriate at programme and subhead level for his or her Department and the agencies under its remit, taking into account the demands for services in different areas and regions and having regard to demographics and other relevant factors.

Regarding capital expenditure, the national development plan, NDP, out to 2030 is underpinned by ten national strategic outcomes. National strategic outcome No. 2, enhanced regional connectivity, seeks to enhance intraregional accessibility through improved transport links between key urban centres of population and their respective regions, as well as improving transport links between the regions themselves.

The Department of Transport launched the national investment framework for transport in Ireland, NIFTI, in late 2021, which sets out the prioritisation for future investment in the land transport network to support the delivery of the national planning framework, NPF. Investment in the regional and commuter bus fleet will continue with the purchase of up to 400 new vehicles. A strategic rail review was launched late last year, which will examine all aspects of the interurban and interregional rail network, including decarbonising the railway and the feasibility of higher speeds and increased capacity.

Under the NDP, the national roads programme will continue to provide for improved connectivity across the years out to 2030. Accordingly, there will be significant investment in the national road network across the next decade. A total of 31 specific national road projects were identified as priorities in the NDP. This is not an exhaustive list and these projects will progress through the relevant approval processes at different speeds, depending on the particular nature of the projects. Funding from within the available budget will then be provided as necessary.

In my further responses we can discuss the more local issues.

I am very proud to come from Knocknaheeny. The northside of Cork city is one of the best places in the world. We have brilliant communities with brilliant people, amazing history and huge potential. When I was elected to the Dáil, I gave a commitment to the people who elected me that I would fight to end the neglect of the northside. Part of this is making sure that when Government allocates funding, it is given out evenly and fairly. However, that is not what is happening. I have spoken to people in Departments, and when they have looked at the maps of the funding, they openly admit there is unfair distribution. My real concern is that we are now seeing patterns across Departments that the northside is not getting proper or equal funding. This is being allowed to happen and, as a result, the northside will not reach its potential. Does the Minister’s Department monitor this? What are the Minister and the Department doing to combat it? There is a duty on the Minister and this Government to ensure there is equal and fair distribution of funding.

If the Deputy examines the facts, this Government is delivering for the northside of Cork city. Indeed, it is delivering for all of Cork and there is a fair allocation of resources. looking at the investment from this Government that is now going into the northside across a range of areas, such as a number of housing schemes with which the Deputy will be very familiar, including in Knocknaheeny, investment in road infrastructure, investments we have announced in terms of public transport corridors and BusConnects, the additional investment in education we have put into the northside of Cork, such as the expansion of DEIS, for example, the investment that has taken place in St. Mary’s campus, and the investment in our sports clubs, with many of which the Deputy will be very familiar.

However, of course, we have to take a broader view of the northside. People do not just live in a silo. They avail of all of the services and facilities across our city. Take, for example, the docklands in Cork city. There is more than €400 million being invested in urban regeneration funding, some of which will be on the north side of the quays. Of course, we have the Cork-Limerick motorway project now, where an identified corridor has been published. That is just to give a very small flavour. There is the commuter rail project, which we prioritised as a Government, which will be of major benefit to the northside of Cork, including new train stations planned at Blarney, Blackpool and Tivoli. More than €180 million of European funding has been secured, and the northside of Cork city will be a key beneficiary of that. All of the evidence points to this Government’s record as being a strong one in delivering for the northside of the city.

I will give the Minister a couple of facts. On the regeneration announcement for Cork, of €405 million, not one penny is going to the northside. On sustainable transport funding, there are 66 projects; 31 in the southside and 12 in the northside. Nearly €16 million is being spent on the southside and less than €6 million on the northside. These are the Government’s figures. These are the facts I am talking about. On Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, grants, there is €2 million for Cork City Council, only €300,000 of which will go towards a look at the northern ring road.

The Minister and I live in Cork. I advise him to drive around Cork city with me and look at the road infrastructure on the southside. We have the Jack Lynch Tunnel connecting to the southern link road, and then you come to the northside. You come through that tunnel, you go up Silversprings to Tivoli and you are in the heart of the residential area of Mayfield.

I have loads of figures that prove my point. The northside is not getting adequate distribution. My final point is that if this Government is being fair to the northside, where is the funding for the northern ring road?

That is a case that perhaps could have been made in the past. I do not believe it is a case that stands up to scrutiny at this time.

These are the figures-----

It might suit the Deputy to adopt a narrow, divisive approach. It might suit him politically on the ground, but it is not accurate. He is not being fair to the people of the northside of Cork city in the way he has presented that area and community today, either in the south-----

The southern link road was built 20 years ago.

-----because the evidence-----

When will the northern link road be built?

If I can conclude without being interrupted, the evidence is this Government is prioritising investment in the northside of Cork city and across the whole area of the constituency, not just the city. The Deputy can look at Glanmire and the Glashaboy flood relief scheme, which was many years in the pipeline and is being delivered by this Government. We have included the northern ring road in the national development plan-----

Only €300,000.

-----and the Government is committed to advancing it. It has to go through a statutory process. As it goes through the process, the funding issue can then be met and funding can be made available. When the Deputy looks at the full range of housing, healthcare, road infrastructure, public transport, education, sports capital and community facilities, this is a Government that has been very good to the northside and will continue to be.

Question No. 87 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Funding

Brendan Griffin

Question:

88. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the proposals relating to financial assistance packages for first-time buyers or renovators that have been brought to his Department for costing and consideration; if he is giving consideration to any such packages; if so, when they will be available for drawdown; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21470/22]

What proposals around financial assistance packages for first-time buyers or renovators are being looked at and costed by the Minister's Department? Is consideration being given to packages that may be looked at in the near future to be drawn down by first-time buyers?

As the Deputy is aware, my Department is responsible for policy on allocating public funds across each area of Government spending and ensuring expenditure is managed in line with these allocations by Departments. In this way, officials from my Department engage with their counterparts on proposals on a variety of expenditure measures, including in relation to housing. However, queries relating to housing policy are in the first instance a matter for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, who has policy responsibility in this area.

There are a number of schemes in place aimed to support first-time buyers, in particular, under the Affordable Housing Act 2021, which has legislated for two new affordable housing schemes. The local authority affordable purchase scheme will make homes available at a reduced price for first-time buyers.

The scheme will be supported by the newly created affordable housing fund. It is currently operational and I have made €60 million available to the fund this year. Additionally, the first home shared equity scheme will be available nationwide to first-time buyers seeking to purchase a newly built home in a private development anywhere in the country. The scheme is expected to be available for drawdown later this year and €44 million is available for that in the current year. Finally, the local authority home loan is a Government-backed mortgage for first-time buyers or other eligible applicants through local authorities. The sum of €250 million is available to the scheme in the current year.

For renovators, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has a number of schemes, including the repair and leasing scheme and the forthcoming Croí Cónaithe towns initiative, which will renovate vacant homes in towns and villages. The Government is committed to supporting housing. Under the national development plan, €12 billion in direct Exchequer funding is being made available for Housing for All out to 2025.

Bridging the affordability gap and boosting supply for the provision of homes is ultimately our shared goal and it has to be our priority. I am pleased that it has such a high priority when it comes to the Housing for All plan. Many young couples at the moment are paying €1,500 to €2,000 to rent a two-bedroom apartment in places in my constituency like Clondalkin and Lucan when they would much prefer to be paying €1,000 in a mortgage for a place they would own some day. The problem is that they cannot afford to do that because they either cannot get a mortgage while saving for a deposit or they cannot find a home locally that is within their price range. The nub of the problem is affordability, and I guess that issue is fixed by supply. At the moment, demand outstrips supply. While I am pleased that the Housing for All plan aims to bridge the affordability gap and boost supply, a frustration often raised with me by constituents is that many first-time buyer initiatives only apply to new builds and we need to consider extending that to renovated homes. The Minister mentioned the local authority home loan scheme. It is positive that it now applies to second-hand homes but we need more of that to deliver change for young couples who need affordability in the housing market.

I believe there will be great interest in the Croí Cónaithe towns fund, because it will essentially involve providing grants to renovate derelict vacant properties. We all know that there are too many of them in our towns and villages around Ireland. They are located in communities where services are already in place. Many of them are in the centre of towns and villages. It seems to me that it makes great sense to invest some public money to bring them back into stock. It will also help to breathe new life into towns and villages throughout Ireland.

We are very anxious now to get the first home shared equity scheme up and running as quickly as possible. I know there is a lot of interest in it and people are looking to it as a way of bridging the affordability gap that unfortunately is there at this point in time. We are investing €4 billion a year now in direct Exchequer capital. It is the single greatest intervention of any Government ever to bring about a greater supply of social homes, affordable purchase and cost rental as well. We will continue to work with the private sector which has a very significant role to play in meeting the needs of first-time buyers and others who want to purchase a home in this country.

I welcome the shared equity scheme for first-time buyers. It is going to be of crucial importance to people. We all await the launch of further details around Croí Cónaithe. With more people now working from home, something we should also consider is that there is a lot of commercial space in cities such as in Dublin city centre which large employers might not necessarily be utilising for their workers. There is an opportunity for us to amend the legislation to make it easier for those buildings to be transformed into residential use. We need to be innovative about this. We need more homes for young people, and we need them at affordable rates. We must examine the planning legislation and grant schemes and budgets in terms of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that could support such an innovative approach both for those young people who are seeking to purchase but also for the Government to lead the way on this.

I compliment the Minister on his responses so far. Could a means be found to safeguard the interests of first-time buyers and young buyers by way of ring-fencing the assistance that might be available? For example, a person rang me this morning who was outbid by €100,000 for a one-bedroom apartment in the greater Dublin area. Could we somehow devise a means to ensure that the assistance available would go directly to those who are most deserving?

I thank the Deputies very much for raising those points. In regard to planning, they will be aware of the major initiative that is currently under way, which is led by the Attorney General. We are expecting new consolidated planning legislation later this year, which is a very significant step that we believe will help to ease some of the blockages that currently exist in the system and reduce the legal risk of successful judicial review applications being made.

On why schemes focus on new properties as opposed to second-hand ones, the logic is that they are designed to try to stimulate supply as well. We are seeing signs that it is working with the number of commencements increasing significantly. It is of the order of 33,000 to 34,000 on a rolling basis over the past 12 months. Supply is coming through, but that does not necessarily mean that the affordability gap is bridged, because we are seeing significant construction inflation and that feeds into the cost of delivering homes at this point as well. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is particularly keen that people who are not first-time buyers, but people who need a fresh start, for example those who have gone through a legal separation or people who have come home to Ireland, are also given an opportunity to avail of the schemes that are being brought forward. That is an important reform too.

Capital Expenditure Programme

Jackie Cahill

Question:

89. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the details of the new external assurance process for major capital investment projects; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20568/22]

Willie O'Dea

Question:

93. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will report on the work of the major projects advisory group, MPAG; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20338/22]

Barry Cowen

Question:

98. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the way that he is strengthening scrutiny of major public investment proposals; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20518/22]

Paul McAuliffe

Question:

133. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the way that he is restructuring the oversight and implementation of capital projects; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20351/22]

I ask the Minister to give details of the new external assurance process for major capital investment projects, and to make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 89, 93, 98 and 133 together.

The Government has committed €165 billion in capital investment through the national development plan, NDP. As a percentage of national income, annual capital investment is now among the largest in the European Union. In the current year, almost €12 billion will fund vital infrastructure in areas such as housing, transport, education, enterprise, sport and climate action. There are at least 50 proposals in the Exchequer-funded element of the NDP that are considered major public capital projects, that is, those with an estimated cost in excess of €100 million.

My Department is responsible for the public spending code, which sets the value for money requirements and guidance for evaluating, planning and managing Exchequer-funded capital projects. The management and delivery of investment projects and public services within allocation and within the national frameworks is a key responsibility of every Department and Minister. The majority of public investment projects are delivered on budget and on time and there is a high level of professionalism across the sectors. However, noting the higher risk profile of larger projects, it was recognised that new procedures were required in order to improve project outturns, avoid cost overruns and avoid delays to project delivery. Responding to this need, my Department put in place an external assurance process to provide independent scrutiny for major public capital projects, which cost in excess of €100 million. This will involve independent expert reviews at two key stages in the project life cycle under the public spending code, that is, at the approval-in-principle stage and prior to tendering. The purpose of the new process is to improve value for money and to support funding Departments and the Government with expert insight relating to project risks, delivery feasibility, and robustness of costings, governance and procurement, among other issues.

The major projects advisory group has also been established by my Department. It will support my Department in assimilating the outputs from the external reviews, and aid Departments and agencies in improving the quality of project proposals. I look forward to seeing all of these measures being implemented, which is now taking place. These new processes are up and running and I need to make sure they help us to deliver on our public capital programme in an efficient and timely manner and to do so within budget.

The Minister has the responsibility to ensure the Exchequer gets value for money. I fully appreciate and understand that he must do that.

I want to raise one major infrastructural project that is in my constituency, the Ballina to Killaloe river crossing. This project has been long in the offing. There have been a number of false dawns for this bridge, which is vital for this major tourism area. One has to go into Ballina to cross the historic bridge because it is the only crossing for miles. There could be an hour-and-a-half delay to get across from Ballina to Killaloe. It is really hindering the development of the area. We have heard that the project will be delayed because of the assurance process. Will the Minister provide a timeframe for that major infrastructural project? Is it on target for delivery? What work has started and where does it stand as regards a completion date? Is the project still on target?

I will come back to the Deputy with the specific details of the project concerned, the Ballina to Killaloe river crossing. I wish to reassure him that the strengthening of the external assurance process is not designed, in any way, to slow down or delay the delivery of projects. All the evidence, in this regard, indicates that the single most effective way to address scheduled delay, and indeed avoid cost overruns, is to carry out external, independent scrutiny of project proposals at the planning and appraisal stage. Mistakes made in the past can be traced back to weakness in that area, where the work was not done properly in advance. This will help to ensure we can deliver the programme on time and, in so far as is possible, on budget.

The new arrangements only apply to very large capital projects with a value of more than €100 million. There are, of course, public spending code requirements for all public expenditure decisions and the roll-out of public capital projects worth less than €100 million, but they are less onerous than those of a major nature, which is what one would expect.

I would appreciate if the Minister could come back to me with an update on the Ballina-Killaloe river crossing. As I said, it is an essential piece of infrastructure for that part of my county. I appreciate he does not have that information at his fingertips now, nor would I expect him to. I appreciate he will come back to me with an answer on this. As I said, I respect that the Minister has to ensure the Exchequer receives value for money, but we want those major infrastructural projects to proceed as quickly as possible, because they are essential to the welfare of our economy.

I want to ask the Minister, in the context of this vital proposed expenditure, whether the M4-N4 road west of Mullingar will be included. That road is heavily trafficked. It is a dangerous road. Many international carriers use the road regularly. This expenditure is absolutely necessary in order to spread development into that region and relieve the infrastructural congestion east of that area.

I thank both Deputies for raising these issues. On the question of delays, I want to provide reassurance again that these new strengthened procedures are not there to delay projects, nor do I believe that they are delaying projects. One of the key elements for Departments when bringing forward major projects is that they must engage with the panel of external experts that my Department has set up. That process takes approximately six weeks and can be done in parallel with other project inputs. If Departments prepare adequately, the review does not lead to a delay in project delivery. When one considers how long it can take to deliver major public-capital investment projects, that is a very short period of time. That is time well-spent to ensure the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed, that we have our homework fully done before we press the start button on major projects.

On the matter raised by Deputy Durkan, I suggest he raises it with the Minister for Transport.

Flood Risk Management

Catherine Connolly

Question:

90. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform further to Parliamentary Question No. 91 of 1 March 2022, the status of the Coirib go Cósta flood relief works; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20080/22]

My question is specific. I am asking for the status of the flood relief works that have huge significance and importance for Galway city generally and particularly for the residential and business areas such as in the Claddagh, where I live, Salthill, the Long Walk, Spanish Arch, Eglinton Canal and Merchants Road. Those areas have experienced serious flooding. I am asking for an update on the status of the works because this is significantly important for Galway and we need to ensure there are no delays.

I will answer this question on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Donovan. I am advised that further to the Deputy’s previous questions on this matter, Galway City Council, as project sponsor and contracting authority, is leading the development of the Coirib go Cósta – Galway city flood relief scheme, with technical advice and funding being provided by the Office of Public Works.

The objective of the Coirib go Cósta project is to assess, design and deliver a viable, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable flood relief scheme, which has a preliminary total project budget estimate of €9.5 million and when complete will protect more than 940 properties in the Long Walk, Spanish Arch, Eglinton Canal, Merchants Quay, Raven Terrace, Salthill and Claddagh areas of Galway city from tidal and river flooding.

The scheme is in stage 1 and the preliminary draft options for the scheme are programmed to be presented to the general public towards the end of this year. It is programmed that stage 2 will begin towards the end of 2023, with the scheme expected to be submitted for planning approval to An Bord Pleanála in the third quarter of 2024, following the completion of all environmental assessments.

The scheme represents a significant investment for Galway city, which will be undertaken with due consideration for regulatory, planning, environmental and social constraints, while achieving the goal of delivering a viable, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable flood relief scheme for Galway city.

I have tabled previous questions and I will continue to do so because this is of such vital importance to the city. I do not disagree that this is to process, design and deliver a viable, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable flood relief scheme. Nobody would argue with that. However, my difficulty with this is in terms of some of the comments that have been made, including by the Minister of State, who is not here, in regard to the term "objectors". In my experience of local politics, I have no difficulty with people making submissions under the planning laws. I do not call them objectors. On various occasions the courts have highlighted that without lay people taking part in the planning process, the situation would be much worse. There is a public consultation process. Unfortunately, because of Covid, the first meeting was held online and had poor attendance. Has any analysis been done into that? Second, will the Minister of State provide an assurance that the next consultation will be held face-to-face?

The Deputy's first question is whether there has been an analysis of the public consultation to date, which she believes was poorly attended as a result of it being carried out during the pandemic. I will seek an answer from the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, for her about that. The other question is whether there will be further consultations and whether those consultations will be held face-to-face rather than online. I know there will be further consultations as part of the process. Some of those are statutory and others are non-statutory in nature. All the legal and required procedures will, of course, be carried out. I will come back to the Deputy with a detailed response on when the next round of consultation will be held and what form it will be.

It is not me noting this; it was reported on the website that the consultation had low numbers. If we have learned anything about residents' concerns, it is to take them seriously and to have a forum where they are heard and to work with them. We cannot have delays with this.

On the other hand, there has to be balance with what we are dealing with, which is the Eglinton Canal and the Claddagh basin that have been there since 1852 when the canal was opened by Lord Eglinton. It is of particular heritage significance, not to mention for other reasons. I am appealing that, from day one, we stop the misuse of the word "objectors" and that we look on this as a project that is vital to Galway, done in a sustainable way, bringing people on board. How do we do that? How do we learn and bring people on board, inform and empower them? I am one of those people. I am a resident of the Claddagh that is affected. I have seen the place flooded. Fortunately, my house was not flooded but many others were. People want something done, but they want it done in a way that is - you know the lovely words we have used - "sustainable" and "environmentally friendly". That has to be done in consultation with the people at every step of the way.

During a public consultation, objections are not made. Submissions and observations are made.

They are called objections.

There can be positive and negative elements to them. There can be suggestions for how a scheme can be improved. It is a positive process. It is legally required but even if it were not, it improves schemes in a number of different ways. It is not only about bringing people with us and it is not just about persuading people that this is a good scheme; it is about going out to people who live in that local area or to people who have specific knowledge, whether that is technical knowledge, expertise and professional knowledge, or just local knowledge from those living there who know the areas that flood and so on. It is getting that included, with the engineers, so that we get a better scheme that actually lasts. When we talk about sustainability, that is just a word for something that will last a long time. If we are doing a flood scheme that will take the better part of a decade to complete, we certainly want it to last for many decades into the future. It is a stronger scheme with public consultation and that is why we have such consultation.

Question No. 91 replied to with Written Answers.

Budget Targets

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

92. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the expected growth in Government expenditure in 2022 compared to 2021; if this is in line with the budget day forecast; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20987/22]

There have been many announcements about quite significant expenditure. I have to give the Minister great credit for that because lots of things have happened that many of us would have liked to happen in the past, but he will know better than I do that we cannot keep writing the cheques forever. In view of the war in Ukraine, what will the likely outcome be in respect of expenditure at the end of the year? Significant extra costs are being borne and we are told the economy and growth this year will not be as robust as we had hoped. Will the Minister give me an outline, at this stage of the year with four months gone, of how we are going ahead?

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. The draft stability programme update, SPU, 2022, published on 13 April, outlines the latest fiscal and economic projections for 2022. The SPU outlines core expenditure of €80.1 billion for 2022. With non-core expenditure of €7.5 billion, including in respect of Covid funding and the Brexit adjustment reserve, this gives an overall Government expenditure ceiling of €87.6 billion. This compares to overall gross voted expenditure of almost €87.5 billion in 2021, inclusive of capital carried over. While in year-on-year terms expenditure is broadly flat, there is a significant reduction in Covid expenditure that is offset by an increase in core expenditure. As outlined in the SPU, there is an increase of €2 billion in capital spending this year compared to last year.

The Government expenditure ceiling set out in the SPU is in line with that set out in the Revised Estimates 2022. The overall gross expenditure amount in the Revised Estimates was inclusive of an unallocated Covid-19 contingency reserve of €3.9 billion. At this stage, taking into account the increased supports introduced in response to the December wave of the virus, and additional funding required for the one-off cost-of-living measures introduced in recent months, about €1.5 billion of this reserve is now committed. In addition, there will be additional Covid-related expenditure that will need to be met from this reserve later in the year, in particular, as we enter the winter period. This reserve funding will also need to be utilised for the provision of supports to refugees arriving from Ukraine. The costs relating to refugees will continue to be assessed by my Department, including in the context of the summer economic statement, to ascertain the extent to which these costs can be met within existing departmental and overall allocations taking into account any emerging underspends.

The answer is very comprehensive. There has been an extraordinary response to the Covid pandemic over the past few years. As free money was available from Europe, we were able to spend our way out of it, which was very positive. I have no difficulty with that, but it entailed borrowing large amounts of money. That was fine when that money was coming at virtually zero cost but we know that due to high inflation central banks worldwide and the European Central Bank are now talking about putting interest rates up. It would appear that particular period is coming to an end, which means that we all have to be a little more careful about balancing the books.

I will separate capital expenditure from current expenditure because, as far as I am concerned, the former is investment while the latter is gone in the year it happens. Part of the reason for good results on the expenditure front in previous years was an underspend in capital. I do not think we should rely on that. If we look at the current spend, taking all the contingencies we now know about into account, such as Covid, as the Minister outlined in detail, and the Ukrainian crisis, how near to projection will the current spend come in at the end of the year based on what we know at present?

In the current year, we provided for a reserve of almost €4 billion, €1.5 billion of which has now been spent or accounted for. That €4 billion was, in effect, earmarked for Covid-related expenditure. It is anticipated it will not all be needed for that, although some of it certainly will. We have said that the cost of looking after Ukrainian refugees who come here will also be met from that reserve. We have an overall Government expenditure ceiling of €87.6 billion. It is my expectation that expenditure in overall terms will be managed within that ceiling, which was agreed on budget day and brought forward in the Revised Estimates volume in December of last year.

The Deputy is correct to point to elevated debt levels. Our debt now stands at approximately €236 billion. We spent €30 billion in direct expenditure measures across 2020 and 2021 related to Covid and made an overall provision in the current year of approximately €7 billion. We are seeing Covid spending fall but core spending is increasing. As the Deputy knows, we now have a medium-term fiscal framework that anchors growth in core expenditure to the underlying trend growth rate in the economy, which is about 5%. That is built into our framework. Although there are always pressures, I am determined to ensure that we manage our public expenditure in a sustainable and responsible way. That involves being very careful with taxpayers' money.

I welcome that. We talk about sustainability on so many fronts but this is about financial sustainability. The Minister has been doing an extraordinary job because, as I said, the Government has been making money available, aside from Covid and the crisis issues, for other things that needed to be done in our economy, especially in respect of capital expenditure because we have a massive deficit in that regard.

I take it a big factor in budgeting for 2023 - as Covid, please God, becomes less and less of a feature - will be its replacement by the full-year cost of the Ukrainian crisis, if refugees continue to come. The Minister stated expenditure will increase by 5%. That includes all the expenditure on the Ukrainian crisis. I take it that will be a big factor in budget arithmetic coming into the autumn. Will he briefly outline the effect this will have on a full-year basis?

As the Deputy knows, in the stability programme update we have made provision of up to €3 billion for the cost of looking after refugees across a full year next year. It is a high-level estimate. In truth, we simply do not know what the real cost will be. So much depends on the number of people who come here, how many of them stay, and to what extent they will join the labour force and work. It is a high-level estimate but we have made provision for it.

We have the largest budget ever in the history of the State for capital expenditure at €12 billion. The challenges we face are delivery, or getting projects done, and ensuring we achieve value for money. We are seeing, as the Deputy will be well aware, significant increases in construction inflation. That is now manifesting itself in new tender prices that are coming in for projects. There are significant challenges in that space. During parliamentary questions, we discussed what might need to be done to address that. I need to make sure on the one hand that signing up to public works contracts is a viable proposition for contractors, while on the other I also need to make sure we get value for money for taxpayers.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie .
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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