I am very pleased at having the opportunity of initiating this Bill in the Seanad and I look forward to a thoughtful and well considered debate on the issues embraced by the Bill. This is about the fourth or fifth Bill that I myself have actually initiated in the Seanad and, considering the fact that I have not initiated many Bills anywhere, that, I suppose, is a reflection of the esteem that I have for the Upper House and the result as far as the Bills are concerned has been a very mature, thoughtful and well considered debate. It may be purely coincidental with your presence in the Chair, a Leas-Chathaoirligh but I notice that many of the Bills also have to deal with Shannonside or generally that area of the country.
The principal purpose of the Bill is to provide for the setting up of a unified harbour authority, to be known as the Shannon Ports Authority, which will take over, manage and operate the existing harbours at Limerick and Kilrush together with publicly-owned piers at Tarbert, Saleen, Kilteery and Clarecastle in the Shannon Estuary. The proposed new authority will exercise jurisdiction over all the waters of the Shannon Estuary from Sarsfield Bridge in Limerick to a line drawn from Kerry Head to Loop Head excluding Foynes Harbour. The Bill provides enabling powers for the future amalgamation of Foynes with the new authority.
The Bill also proposes to provide powers to enable the Minister for Communications to dissolve, reconstitute or amalgamate any of the harbour authorities specified in the First Schedule to the Harbours Act, 1946.
The principal provisions of the Bill are to be found in the following sections:
—section 3, which provides for the establishment of the proposed Shannon Ports Authority and defines its jurisdiction;
—sections 4 to 7 which set out the membership of the authority and frequency of authority meetings and provide for the establishment of a board of management to carry out, with certain exceptions, the functions and duties of the authority;
—sections 8 to 10 which provide for the transfer of staff from the present authorities to the new authority; preservation of their terms and conditions of service and pension rights;
—section 13, which enables the future amalgamation of Foynes Harbour Trustees with the new authority; and
—section 15, which enables the Minister to reorganise the various harbour authorities scheduled to the Harbours Act, 1946.
The concept of a single authority for the Shannon Estuary is one which has been the subject of debate for many years. It may be of assistance to Senators if I outline briefly the background to the present Bill.
The question of amalgamating the various harbour authorities in the Shannon Estuary has been raised periodically from 1958 onwards and in 1977 a Bill designed to establish the authority was introduced but lapsed on the dissolution of the Dáil that year. Since then successive Ministers have entered into consultation with the various interests concerned with a view to trying to reach agreement on the composition and establishment of a Shannon Ports Authority. Development over the last few years have confirmed the enormous potential of the Shannon Estuary for heavy industry. These include the ESB coal burning power station at Moneypoint; the Alumina project at Aughinish and the oil jetty at Shannon Airport. These developments have given a great impetus to the establishment of a Shannon Ports Authority.
Since assuming Ministerial responsibility in this area, the Minister for Communications has had many detailed discussions with the various interests concerned in the region and, with some notable exceptions, a broad consensus has emerged among interested parties in favour of a single ports authority which, it is generally believed, would lead to a more economical development of port facilities and facilitate the further development of the already recognised advantages of the Shannon Estuary. These advantages include its geographic location, its width and its natural sheltered deep water which can at present cater for vessels of up to 200,000 tonnes deadweight and, with dredging, could cater for vessels of up to 400,000 tonnes deadweight.
This, then, is the background to the present Bill. It is essentially a Bill to enable us, the legislators, to meet the wishes of local interests in the estuary region in regard to the management of what is probably their most valuable natural amenity and, as such, I am sure it will be welcomed by the House.
The main advantages that can be expected to flow from the establishment of a unified ports authority for the Shannon Estuary are that it will bring about a more cohesive approach to the future planning, development and promotion of the estuary. It will also help to eliminate the possibility of undesirable dissension between different harbour authorities in the estuary, particularly in relation to questions of jurisdiction and entitlement to harbour dues. Unnecessary and costly duplication of facilities and services can be more easily avoided, leading to a better overall deployment of financial resources. I also believe that the existence of a unified ports authority will have a crucial role in helping to attract further industrial development to the estuary.
I have already indicated that the view that a unified ports authority for the region is the best solution is not unanimous. Foynes has been historically opposed to inclusion in the proposed Shannon Ports Authority and they are supported by Limerick County Council and by the Foynes and District Community Council. They are anxious to maintain their independence and believe that their present set-up with a "small competent board" is the best arrangement for their purposes.
In approving the establishment of the Shannon Ports Authority in August, 1985 the Government had decided that Foynes should be included in its scope from the outset. However, following intensive consultation with local interests the Minister came to the conclusion that, however desirable the inclusion of Foynes at this stage, their forced inclusion could prove counter-productive and the Government subsequently decided to establish the authority excluding Foynes at this point in time but making provision in the legislation for their inclusion at a later date. The Minister recently performed the official opening of the east jetty expansion in Foynes and was most impressed with the drive and determination of the Foynes Harbour Trustees to see their port thrive and expand. However, he still remains convinced that it is in the best interest of the Shannon region as a whole that Foynes should be part of the Shannon Ports Authority. I hope that the Foynes Harbour Trustees will soon come to see the new authority not as a threat but as an opportunity and that they will take steps to join the authority in the very near future.
In the course of the Minister's consultation with various local interests about the Bill, it is safe to say that no issue has aroused more comment and I might add, controversy, than the question of the size and membership of the proposed authority. Many people have advanced cogent reasons as to why one area should have greater representation than another and so on. It must be accepted ultimately however, that a successful ports authority for the entire Shannon Estuary can only be built on compromise and in today's competitive environment must act commercially. There is no end to the possible number of permutations of representation and size of the proposed authority. Ideally the Minister would wish to have an authority of 10 members or less which seems to be the maximum size for the most efficient conduct of its affairs. However, it must be borne in mind that Limerick Harbour Commissioners alone, as at present constituted, is a 27 member body with wide representation, including local authority interests.
The legitimate desire for representation of a wide variety of interests along the estuary makes it all the more difficult to contain the size of the new authority. Bearing in mind these factors, the Minister has decided that the proposed authority should have 21 members and that the composition should be on the basis of eight local authority members, divided equally between the counties of Clare, Kerry and Limerick as well as Limerick Corporation, two chamber of commerce members, two members from the Confederation of Irish Industry, two elected shipping representatives, two representatives of labour interests and five Ministerial nominees. This is provided for in section 4. It is the area that aroused more comments than any of the other provisions of the Bill.
I am also taking the opportunity of the establishment of the Shannon Ports Authority to make provision to change from the traditional structure under harbours legislation of a single harbour authority comprising, as in the case of Limerick Harbour Commissioners as at present constituted, 27 members, appointed mainly to present sectoral interests, which has full responsibility for the management and operation of the particular port or harbour. This structure originally emanated from a recommendation in the report of the Ports and Harbours Tribunal, 1930, which considered that the management of a port was primarily a matter for the local bodies and that the citizens of the locality should be responsible for its operation, subject always to the supervision of the State in the public interest.
It is the Minister's view that present day commercial considerations and the competitive requirements of a modern port require a less unwieldy and more dynamic structure than that enshrined in existing harbours legislation which has now operated for 40 years. He has decided, accordingly, that, while responsibility for overall policy and future planning and development of the Shannon Estuary will rest with the proposed new Shannon Ports Authority, responsibility for the day to day administration of the estuary will be delegated by the authority to a smaller board of management. Section 5 of the Bill provides for the establishment of a board of management comprising the chairman and vice chairman of the authority, three members of the authority, the chief executive and another officer of the authority.
The Minister believes that the proposed two-tier structure will be more in keeping with the modern-day requirements of a major harbour and that the new arrangements will have the effect of facilitating efficient operation and administration. They should enable the Ports Authority to divorce itself from the execution of settled policy in most areas, thus allowing it more time to concentrate on policy formulation and overall direction and control of the Shannon Estuary. The Minister believes that the smaller board of management will be able to deal more effectively with the various pressures and problems which will undoubtedly arise in the early years of the new authority and that it will be less subject to potential conflict of interests which can so easily arise in a large representative body such as the proposed Ports Authority.
In formulating these proposals for the establishment of the Shannon Ports Authority, one of the Minister's main concerns has been to ensure that the interests of staff being transferred will be fully and totally protected. Section 8 of the Bill provides for the transfer of staff from the existing Limerick Harbour Commissioners and any staff in the service of Kerry County Council and Kilrush Urban District Council at any pier or harbour to be covered by the proposed authority to the new authority on terms or conditions not less favourable than those which they at present enjoy. Sections 9 and 10 provide for the interim continuation of existing superannuation schemes and the introduction of new schemes.
The Minister would now like to deal with those provisions in the Bill which will enable the Minister by order to dissolve, reconstitute or amalgamate a number or any of the harbour authorities specified in the first column of the First Schedule to the Harbours Act, 1946, as amended. Section 15 of the Bill deals with this.
In the Green Paper on Transport Policy, published in November, 1985 reference was made to the need for the rationalisation of the organisation of ports. It was stated that rationalisation of the structure of harbour authorities to prevent unnecessary competition for scarce Exchequer resources is desirable and that the overall concern must be to ensure that there are sufficient and adequate portal facilities nationally and for each of the regions. The Green Paper went on to state that local loyalties, however, sometimes cloud commercial judgment and rivalry between neighbouring ports sometimes acts as the main spur to unnecessary and costly portal development.
In recent years many comments and criticisms have been made with regard to the structure and membership of the scheduled harbours. The Dublin Docks Review Group, for example, in its report of October, 1984 stated that the structure of the Dublin Port and Docks Board was no longer attuned to the competitive requirements of a modern port and that a new Dublin Port Authority should replace the existing board. The Green Paper also pointed out that some ports are clearly dominated by user interests, which, particularly in the case of increases in rates, have an inhibiting effect on the harbour authorities. The Minister is convinced that large representative authorities are not the most efficient way of managing ports and harbours. He indicated in the Green Paper that he proposed to introduce amendments to harbours legislation which would provide for the disbandment of existing boards or authorities and their replacement by smaller boards some of whose members would be appointed by the Minister, that the Government had decided that legislation should be prepared for the reconstitution of the Dublin Port and Docks Board and that the management structure for the new Dublin Port Authority, as well as for Cork, Waterford and the new Shannon Ports Authority would be a two-tier structure, modelled on the lines of the division of responsibilities in local authorities between executive and reserved functions. Accordingly, the opportunity presented by the current Harbours Bill is being availed of to provide the necessary enabling statutory provisions in relation to these matters.
In the case of Dublin, the Minister has already indicated publicly that he envisages early reconstitution of the Dublin Port and Docks Board. This is in line with a previous Government decision in the context of the financial restructuring of the Dublin Ports and Docks Board.
One final point in relation to the restructuring of harbour authorities should be mentioned. The Government have already decided in the context of devolution to local authorities that harbours, which now cater for little or no commercial traffic, would be handed over to local authorities. It is intended that this decision be catered for in the present Bill and section 15 makes enabling provision accordingly.
The remainder of the Bill before the House is concerned with tidying up minor matters and standard provisions which are in the main self-explanatory. In particular, section 16 of the Bill implements standard provisions in relation to the remuneration of officers and servants of harbour authorities in accordance with Government policy. Section 17 deletes the Limerick Harbour Commissioners and Kilrush Urban District Council as harbour authorities and inserts the Shannon Ports Authority in the First Schedule of Harbours in the 1946 Act. Section 18 rectifies a technical drafting defect in the Harbours Act, 1976, which established the Bantry Bay Harbour Commissioners. Section 19 provides for the repeal of the Clare Castle Pier Act, 1933 on the establishment of the Shannon Ports Authority. Section 20 provides that every regulation made under the proposed legislation will be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas and will be subject to annulment and section 21 contains the short title and collective citation.
The Bill, as I have stated, is primarily designed to give statutory effect to the wishes of local interests in the Shannon Estuary region to establish a unified harbour authority for the geographical unit of the estuary and to enable the structure of harbour authorities generally to be made more appropriate to the needs of the closing years of this century. I have confidence that, as such, it will command the full support of the House and I have no doubt also that, now that the local interests in the Shannon region are about to achieve their long-sought objective, they will unite in their efforts to ensure that the new authority becomes the dynamic force it is expected to be in meeting the needs for a developed portal infrastructure in an expanding local economy.