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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 22 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Taxi Regulations

Darren O'Rourke


1. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport to set out the efforts he is making to ensure the sustainability and viability of the taxi sector; if he will abandon or extend by five years the ten-year rule; if he will relax constraints preventing the transfer of plates; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46549/22]

I want to ask the Minister about the efforts he is making to ensure the sustainability and viability of the taxi sector; if he will abandon or extend by five years the ten-year rule; if he will relax constraints preventing the transfer of plates; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I assure the Deputy that I as Minister, and the National Transport Authority, NTA, as the statutory taxi regulator, are committed to ensuring a sustainable and viable taxi sector. That commitment is evidenced by the supports introduced in recent years to assist the sector as it dealt with, and now recovers from, the Covid-19 pandemic. These supports include the electric small public service vehicles, eSPSV, grant scheme to which I allocated €15 million this year and which supports drivers in their transition to zero- or low-emission vehicles. The eSPSV business loan provided by Microfinance Ireland is also there to support those SPSV owners accessing the eSPSV grant scheme who are unable to secure finance from financial institutions. The Government's generally applicable reduction in fuel-related duties introduced this year has also helped.

The NTA's previous extensions of the maximum permissible age for vehicles ensured no operator exited the industry simply because of the need to replace a vehicle. The NTA launched a driver recruitment campaign this summer to promote the sector as a place of employment for people. The NTA recently announced new fares, which are weighted in favour of those drivers working at unsocial hours, late at night and on bank holidays. In addition, this week the NTA announced a public consultation on a further extension to the maximum permissible age of vehicles in recognition of the difficulties currently being experienced by operators in sourcing new vehicles.

Finally, the transfer of licences is currently prohibited under the legislation. However, there are exceptions provided in the case of the death of a licence holder and that licence holder has previously nominated another individual to operate the licence. I know the issue of transferability was a topic of discussion recently at the advisory committee on SPSVs and I understand the committee intends to consider the issue further.

There has been a welcome U-turn on the ten-year rule. We have discussed this on a number of occasions in the Chamber and in the committee. I believe there was intransigence on the part of the responsible authorities, which flew in the face of the obvious. I welcome that there has been a U-turn and that there is a consultation, which I hope will come to a successful conclusion. An extension of the ten-year rule will mean that up to 4,000 vehicles will not be off the road next year. Is the whole episode not proof-positive that the Taxi Advisory Committee does not work? It is not reflective of the taxi sector. It is not putting its hand up and saying we need these interventions from the NTA. The NTA told us yesterday that it was an executive decision. The Taxi Advisory Committee does not work. Will the Minister scrap it?

It is the job of the NTA to make executive decisions. It is the job of the advisory committee to give advice and to consider and inform what the NTA and the Department do. Far from it being a U-turn, it recognises the reality that it is very difficult to get the vehicles at the present time. Everyone knows this. There is a global supply shock in terms of the availability of vehicles. To be honest, having to do an extension is not ideal. We want a modern fleet. That is not to say anything against taxi drivers or the industry; it is a case of setting certain standards. In circumstances where the world is in a state of supply shock, it is correct to come to this alternative decision. The decision will go to public consultation for a number of weeks, but I expect it will be introduced. I am pleased the NTA took that decision.

I hope it is introduced but it is a U-turn. A number of months ago when I raised the issue with the Minister, he could not have been more categoric in his opposition to it, despite the fact that at the time taxi drivers right across the country were shouting from the rooftops about the impending crisis. The job of the Taxi Advisory Committee is to advise. The NTA told us yesterday that it did not advise on the impending crisis. At the transport committee last week, we heard from the four groups representing taxi drivers across the country. They are not part of the Taxi Advisory Committee because they see it as a talking shop that does nothing to serve the interests of the taxi industry. The fact that the advisory committee was not shouting from the rooftop that this impending crisis was on the way is proof-positive of that. It is not fit for purpose. It is provided for in legislation but I believe it needs to be scrapped. Will the Minister scrap it and replace it with a proper forum for taxi drivers?

No. I very much respect the various taxi associations in Dublin and I engaged with them over the years. They have a vital role, but there are also organisations right across the country and a whole variety of different interests when it comes to licensed vehicles. The advisory body must be a national one. I hope it can include some taxi organisations in Dublin and I would very much encourage that. My approach is not to scrap it. The make-up may change over time, as it should, and it will continue to do so but I do not think it would help anyone in any way to scrap it and set up a very similar national organisation to do the same thing.

I will skip the next priority question for the moment.

Question No. 2 taken after Question No. 5.

Bus Services

Darren O'Rourke


3. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the way in which he intends to address poor service standards, including no-shows and poor punctuality, on many bus routes operated by an organisation (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46550/22]

How does the Minister intend to address poor service standards, including no-shows and poor punctuality, on many bus routes operated by Go-Ahead Ireland? Will he make a statement on the matter?

The Deputy is aware that the performance of all public transport operators is monitored by the NTA as part of the contractual arrangements in place between it and the operators. Many operators in the sector are experiencing difficulties with staffing, both as a result of Covid-19-related absences and difficulties in recruiting new drivers. These issues are found across all types of operators - public and private - including the company mentioned by the Deputy, Go-Ahead Ireland. I expect I can mention the company without any difficulty, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, as it is referred to in my response anyway. Go-Ahead Ireland is the company to which Deputy O'Rourke specifically refers. It is experiencing higher than normal levels of Covid-related staff absences at present, resulting in a knock-on effect on service delivery with some services not operating as scheduled.

The NTA is working with operators to try to mitigate the impacts, first through recruitment campaigns in recent months with significant numbers of additional drivers expected once required training and tests are completed and licences are issued by the Road Safety Authority, RSA.

Second, there is NTA engagement with the RSA to try to expedite the testing and licence process for new bus drivers. Third, the NTA is working with operators to minimise service cancellations, ensure first- and last-service buses operate and, on low-frequency routes, avoid, where possible, the cancellation of consecutive low-frequency services. As part of the NTA's contractual performance-monitoring system with operators, issues of poor reliability and punctuality performance can result in financial penalties for those operators, such as Go-Ahead Ireland.

The NTA has asked me to convey its apologies to passengers for the major inconvenience the current poor service performance is causing. Operators forecast significant improvements in reliability in the coming months, dependent on the successful recruitment and retention of critical staff, in particular drivers. It is hoped this will resolve the reliability issues being experienced.

Go-Ahead Ireland has a limited number of services, yet I hear about many of them from colleagues throughout the country, largely in the commuter belt area and Dublin, such as the 184, the 185, the 45A, the 238, the 270, the L52, the 115, the 120 - I could go on. I raised this with representatives of the NTA who appeared in committee yesterday. There are problems in the sector generally, but they are particular and pronounced with Go-Ahead Ireland. The services provided are having a significant impact on families getting kids to school. They have lost out on school bus transport and Go-Ahead Ireland services are failing them. Time and again, it fails to deliver a standard of service. Will the Minister confirm how much Go-Ahead Ireland has been fined this year and how its service standards compare with those of other operators?

I share the Deputy's concern and, as I said earlier, the NTA apologises to the travelling public, who are not getting the service they deserve. I am informed the NTA is formally meeting the company weekly to review performance, associated customer feedback and driver recovery plans, and there is continuous monitoring and engagement with the operator to improve the situation. As the Deputy noted, there have been payment reductions for poor operating performance in the last quarter last year and the first quarter this year, of more than €200,000 on each occasion. The company, as I understand, is taking driver applications from categories B and D licence holders. Go-Ahead Ireland is training applicants to drive a bus and putting them through the test, which is urgently required, but there can be no complacency here. Every company operates under different circumstances but it has to deliver for the travelling public, and the NTA is very much pursuing that matter.

In light of those fines and the recognised poor standard of service, there are questions to be asked as to why it is worse with Go-Ahead Ireland than it is with State providers and as to its terms and conditions of employment and so on. Was it a mistake to privatise those routes? Should they have been maintained within the State service? Plenty of private providers do an excellent job where the State has failed to provide services throughout the country, particularly in rural areas, but in this case they are largely urban routes. Was it a mistake to privatise them, as I believe it was? Will consideration be given to service performance when contracts are up for renewal?

I agree that great work is done by a wide variety of bus companies throughout the State, and this is not to denigrate one type versus another. Moreover, we have had problems in some of the public transport routes elsewhere. Nevertheless, one of the mechanisms here involves review, monitoring and consequences if companies are not able to meet the standards set. If that proved to be a more enduring problem, the NTA would have to review how it contracts and provides a service. It is not the case that we just leave it all to the private market; we have a regulated system and standards have to be met. If they are not, there are consequences.

Bus Services

Michael Collins


4. Deputy Michael Collins asked the Minister for Transport the number of new routes that have been connected in south-west County Cork since Connecting Ireland was first announced; and the location of these routes. [46555/22]

Since Connecting Ireland was first announced, how many new routes have been connected in south-west Cork and where exactly are they?

As Minister for Transport, I am conscious of the need to connect our people and places throughout Ireland. It is important to provide access opportunities for all citizens to employment, education, healthcare and shops, and this is especially true in rural areas such as south-west Cork. One of the key plans for enhancing the existing transport network is under my Department and the NTA's Connecting Ireland rural mobility plan. The overarching aim of Connecting Ireland is to develop an integrated, accessible and sustainable network of public transport offerings.

At the moment, routes identified through the Connecting Ireland consultation process are being prioritised to provide emergency public transport services to areas where the population and transport demand has increased due to the requirement to house Ukrainian refugees in rural locations. This is being achieved by accelerating network improvements, including additional stops, route modifications and more services to increase connectivity. Following extensive consultation, stakeholder engagement and detailed planning, nine new and enhanced services have been launched as part of the Connecting Ireland programme to date this year. A further 28 are at procurement stage, while a further 12 are at detailed planning stage. It is envisaged these 40 new and enhanced services will be implemented this year, subject to procurement and the availability of drivers and buses.

The Deputy will be pleased to know that in south-west Cork, the NTA plans to implement two service enhancements this year. The first is the 2A, from Skibbereen to Killarney, via Bantry, Glengarriff, Kenmare and Kilgarvan, which is planned to be implemented in November this year. Enhancements to the 236A, from Dursey Sound to Kilcrohane, via Castletownbere and connecting with the 2A at Bantry, are also planned before the end of the year. Further services are in planning for south-west Cork under Connecting Ireland as we develop the programme in the coming years.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but this is all kicking the can down the road. It is not delivery. West Cork remains disconnected in regard to transport. The Minister has been in office for almost two and a half years and I have seen no additional service, as he proved when he stated this is another exercise that will happen in a year's time or whenever. Areas in west Cork are not connected, while others, such as my parish of Goleen, have a bus that leaves at 7.30 a.m. and does not come back until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. These people have every right to survive as much as any community, whether that is in Dublin, Kildare or anywhere else. Why are these people being totally disconnected? In other areas, such as from Dunmanway to Clonakilty, there is no proper service or no service at all. In Coppeen, Dunmanway or Bandon, there is nothing, and the same is true of Drimoleague to Skibbereen, or Goleen and Durrus to Bantry.

These areas have to be looked at. It was lovely to hear the Minister talk about the route from Skibbereen to Killarney, which is fine for the person who wants to go for a day's spin-out, but for the working person who needs transport, it is not being delivered.

That service, first and foremost, is for the people of Skibbereen, Bantry and Glengarriff, as well as the people in Kerry and beyond. It will start in two months and it is a new service. It is a good news story for the people of Bantry, I would suggest. Similarly, for the people of the Beara Peninsula, it is a significant development. Let us go further, however, if we can get the money. I will be perfectly honest, given we have a €70 billion demand in transport but only €35 billion in the pot, but I think Connecting Ireland should be one of our top priorities because we need good rural transport.

Further services are planned, such as the 01, from Cork to Tralee, and the 02, from Cork to Skibbereen, which will connect into the service to Killarney that I mentioned. Furthermore, the 237A, from Mizen Head to Castletownshend, will be welcome, I am sure the Deputy will agree. It will go through Lowertown, I would imagine, and all the places in between. There will also be the 237B, from Baltimore to Union Hall, the 253, from Dunmanway to Kinsale, and the 257, the extension of the route to Kinsale, although they are kind of in the horizon of what we want to do next. We will have to show that it works and we will have to get passengers up and revenue in, but I do not foresee us stopping with these routes. We are only at the start of this.

If we get the revenue and the passengers in, I see this expanding continually.

Obviously, I would be very happy if a new service was operating right now between Skibbereen and Killarney; it would be perfect. However, the ordinary everyday working person finds it difficult to pick up public transport in west Cork. People are not finding it easy. It is non-existent in quite a lot of places. The funny thing is that there are commercial operators out there. West Cork Connect has made several proposals but the NTA keeps refusing them. These are proposals that will not cost the State one brown cent. The Minister is asking for money. The people of west Cork are forking out tens of thousands of euro on carbon tax so we can make sure there are beautiful transport services in and around our capital. That carbon tax should be delivering for the people of rural Ireland, however, and it is not happening. The Minister said maybe down the road, but that is kicking the can down the road.

I would like to thank Local Link Cork under Mr. David O'Brien, which delivers an excellent service with the funds it has. There are certainly areas with no service whatsoever that need to be looked at. They may now be looking at this not happening for the next 12 months or two years - we do not know. The Minister said he is looking for money; I am saying he has the carbon tax, which he should spend on rural Ireland and public transport. In my view, the NTA is disconnecting Ireland if it continues to refuse the proposals of a commercial operator to carry out some of these routes from Goleen to Skibbereen or Goleen to Bantry.

I will spend the money on public transport all right; the Deputy need not worry about that. I absolutely agree with him. This must be key for the ordinary Joe and Josephine on the side of the road. We only started this last year so we are learning. The first two were in counties Leitrim and Kerry, down on the Dingle Peninsula, where really good lessons were learned. In Leitrim we learned that we can integrate Local Link and other public transport services with the health transport needs we have. As I said in the Dáil yesterday, I would argue that in the review of school bus services, we should link that in to see whether we can design systems in a way that ensures we get a better school transport system, a better health transport system and a better public transport system. That is where I think we are. Let us test and learn to see as we go forward how we can improve and expand. Integrating a variety of different services is one of the ways of doing it.

Local Link plays a vital role and provides a really important service. We need to promote it better. There are many services that people do not know about. We need to work on the bus stops, which is not hugely expensive. Money is tight, but we can have a small sign attached to a wall so people know it is the Local Link stop. We can create stops in a creative way. That is where we need to go here. We need to evolve services in new ways and do things differently so we can provide public transport around the country.

Bus Services

Thomas Pringle


5. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Transport his plans in relation to the expansion of the rural transport scheme operated by Local Link; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47160/22]

This question relates to the Local Link service in County Donegal. What are the plans to develop that in the future and where will that lead? Key to this is integration with Bus Éireann and other services. We need an integrated rural transport system.

It is a timely question following on from the previous one. I thank the Deputy for this chance to further discuss the rural transport programme funded by my Department and managed by the NTA, under the Transport for Ireland, TFI, Local Link brand. My Department is strongly committed to improving public transport services in rural areas and to piloting new transport initiatives for people of all ages and abilities living there. Our ambitious vision for rural Ireland, which involves reduced car dependency and a more integrated transport network, is a key motivator for my Department as it prepares the work programme for 2023. The Department and the NTA are supporting this by providing increased funding for enhanced TFI Local Link services for both regular timetabled services and door-to-door demand responsive services. Additionally, we are looking to explore alternative options to boost coverage by non-conventional options such as demand responsive transport, community cars and local hackney areas. Importantly, the ethos of community-led transport will also be maintained. We are looking to expand the highly successful community car scheme. We have also committed to reviewing the extensive learnings coming out of the pilot study in County Leitrim that I mentioned earlier. This involved the positive integration of non-emergency health transport with public transport offerings.

One of the key plans for enhancing the existing transport network across Ireland falls under the previously discussed Connecting Ireland rural mobility plan, which aims to develop an integrated, accessible and sustainable network of public transport offerings across Ireland. Currently, routes identified through the Connecting Ireland consultation process are being prioritised to provide emergency public transport services to areas where the population and transport demands have increased due to the requirement to house Ukrainian refugees in rural locations. Having outlined some of the initiatives under way to expand rural transport offerings across Ireland, I am confident that together we will leave a legacy of a more efficient framework for the provision of rural transport.

That sounds like a lot of nice fluffy language but in reality, it does not reflect the day-to-day running of the service. Local Link in County Donegal is probably one of the most highly developed services around the country. There are still gaps, however, in terms of how it actually facilitates people living in rural Ireland. Those gaps need to be addressed. For example, a person living in Donegal town who wants to work in Killybegs cannot rely on public transport to do so because there is not an integrated service. That needs to happen. The routes need to facilitate people to get to where they are travelling. We see the number of cars that are travelling from Donegal to Killybegs every morning. Some of those people could be accommodated on buses if the buses were actually responsive to the needs people have. That is what needs to be looked at to ensure it works. We must also have an integrated ticketing system that actually works with Bus Éireann and Local Link so that they all work together rather than what we seem to have, which is disparate systems of transport around the area. That is important.

I absolutely agree with the Deputy. Part of Connecting Ireland must be integration so that all the transport services connect both in ticketing and in timetabling. As I said earlier, we might also have the integration of different services such as health, like we did in County Leitrim where we integrated the health public transport need with the wider public transport need. That is important to recognise. I also agree with the Deputy about the real benefit and strength of Local Link and the strong roots it has going back with community organisations and working with other State organisations. The funding has gone from €12 million in 2016 to €29 million this year. There has, therefore, been recognition of that.

As I said, I am very keen to support further innovation. As part of the process in which we are engaged at the moment, and in which I am sure Deputy Pringle must have been engaged in his own county, we are looking at what routes might be the best to develop. That consultation process is appropriate so people identify the issues. I can well imagine the traffic from Donegal town to Killybegs in the morning. We are being open and flexible in looking at new Connecting Ireland routes to try to identify where there is unmet demand and whether we can change the routes to meet it. There is also a need for us to be innovative to design new demand-responsive transport options. That is one of the options at which I am looking.

It needs developed quickly, particularly in a county like Donegal where buses are the only form of public transport available. There will not be a railway in the foreseeable future, unfortunately, although we will be pushing for that as well. The bus service can and should respond to the needs of the people. It is a case of putting on the service and giving it time to build so it can meet the needs of communities rather than waiting for the needs to be there and then providing a service. That will not happen and it will not work in that way. What that will do is foster car dependency, which is what we have in County Donegal. One must be car dependent because one cannot rely on anything else. If a person is relying on Bus Éireann to get to work in Killybegs, he or she must leave Donegal town at 7.30 a.m. and will not get back again until 7.30 p.m. or later. That is not practical for people; it needs to be more responsive.

I will say one last thing, speaking from personal experience. This goes back to what we were saying earlier about the roles for different transport companies. John McGinley Coaches and all the private operators in County Donegal also do a really good job. I have had personal experience-----

Many of them are being shut down by Bus Éireann.

Yes, but they play a vital role. They often provide really good flexible services where a person is picked up by a smaller minibus when he or she gets off the larger bus. In my experience, there is a key role for the hackney system. I will mention the Roartys in Dunlewey and others who can provide a really good service. Our definition of public transport must include a whole variety of different operators including Local Link but also the private bus companies, minibuses and all those other drivers. There is a lot of that and we should not ignore it. We should try to help to integrate it. It is not one fighting against the other.

We need a pricing system for that as well.

I agree. I would ask the NTA to look to plan this in a way that ensures it all joins up.

We will go back to Question No. 2 in the name of Deputy Tóibín.

Rail Network

Peadar Tóibín


2. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Transport if his Department has conducted an assessment of the benefits of a rail line from Navan to Dublin. [46130/22]

I was one of 40,000 people who left County Meath today to go to work.

No other county in the country sees a majority of its workers leave that county to go to work. It took two hours to travel from Navan to the centre of Dublin today and that is not unusual. Many people from other parts of the county are travelling two and a half hours for one journey. That comes to a five-hour commute for one day of work in a county with the second-fastest growing population in the country, with a town in the centre of it that is the largest town without a rail line. I am looking to see what progress has been made on the development of the rail line.

As the Deputy is aware, on the proposal for a rail line from Navan to Dublin, an assessment report was undertaken by the NTA, which has responsibility for the development and implementation of public transport in the greater Dublin area, GDA. The assessment report undertaken by the NTA was published as a background paper to the draft transport strategy for the GDA at the end of 2021. It considered the strategic rationale for such a rail link, assessed rail and bus options, examined potential alignments of a rail link, and provided a high-level assessment of cost and demand. The wider appraisal, which examined the qualitative and quantitative benefits of the Navan rail line, has shown that the scheme has the potential to deliver significant economic, environmental and social benefits along the Dublin-Navan corridor. On the basis of the assessment, the provision of a rail line extension to Navan is included within the draft long-term strategy for transport in the GDA, for delivery and opening at a point after 2030. The strategy is in draft form and it is therefore premature to comment on precise delivery timelines, costs and benefits at this stage. The strategy is subject to a formal statutory approval process and a final version is expected to be submitted from the NTA for my approval in the coming weeks. If included in the final strategy, this project will require significant assessment, planning and design before construction can commence.

I urge the Minister to make sure this project is given a concrete timeline and concrete investment. We have a system in Meath where if you stand still somebody will build a house on top of you, such is the level of development that is happening in the county. It is incredible that at a time when fuel prices are rising so much, and while the Government is increasing carbon taxes, so many people in Meath do not have a public transport that is feasible for their lives. It is having a massive cost financially, environmentally and on people's lives. When people get back to Meath they do not have the energy or time to get involved in football teams, community organisations or community efforts and they are only seeing their children as they put them to bed. This is having an enormous societal cost and I urge the Minister, because this has been promised for nearly 25 years in our county, to leave a legacy of a specific date for development and funding that will make it happen.

It has not been promised for 25 years. It has only come back into the frame as being formally subject to the greater Dublin area transport strategy.

Former Minister Noel Dempsey promised it would be built by 2004.

I know but it was never on the formal strategic list of projects that would be invested in.

It was in formal infrastructure plans of previous Governments.

It was before my time.

That was over 20 years ago. Now the assessment has been done and it has been decided that this is the correct strategic investment for us to make. We have to be honest with the people of Navan though. As I said earlier, we have €70 billion worth of projects and we have a €35 billion budget in this decade. It will probably be a similar budget in the next decade but we have to start planning now. As soon as the greater Dublin area transport strategy is signed off and approved we can start looking at timelines, costing and putting it into the project pipeline. In the meantime, there is a greater priority. I accept that on a wet day like today traffic snarls up for up to two hours; I hear the Deputy on that. We also need to invest in the BusConnects projects in Dublin so that in the interim, while we are waiting for the Navan rail line to be built, we get a high-quality bus service in and out because that is the only interim solution.

I understand that it is important to have a proper BusConnects system. There is no doubt about that but the truth of the matter is that Navan is the largest town by far in the State without access to a rail line. Meath is the biggest dormitory and commuter county and Meath people are living in Meath without the facility to commute. No other county has the same level of outward working as the people in Meath do. It is having an enormous cost and the rail line has been promised for decades. I remember Noel Dempsey, as the then Minister for Transport, delivering leaflets to say it would be built by 2004. Then the target was 2009 and then it was 2015. People bought houses in Meath 20 years ago and the prospectuses for the houses said the rail line would service it. It is excruciating on people's lives to have to commute five hours per day to work and it is having an environmental cost as well.

I agree with the Deputy and we need to build as quickly as we can. What would also complement this, as well as the greater Dublin area transport strategy, is the strategic rail review we are completing at the moment. It is important that it also indicates that the likes of this line make sense in where our investment priorities lie. We have a lot of priorities and we have a real challenge. We have to build rail in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford as well as Dublin because we have an imbalanced system. As the Deputy says, all of the development is happening in Meath, Kildare, Louth and Wicklow; it is all happening in this ring around Dublin. That is not fair to anyone because it is overdeveloping the east coast and under-developing the west and south west.

Not the infrastructure. The infrastructure is not being built in Meath at all.

No. It is not.

It is the population and that is the danger.

The Deputy is right. We have an immediate issue in Meath and Kildare, where all this population growth is happening, and we must provide public transport solutions there. We also have to invest in the other parts of the country, as we discussed earlier, including in rural Ireland and elsewhere.