Adjournment Matters. - Co-funding of Public Works.

I welcome the Minister of State and would like to explain to him from where this concept came. I was in Singapore at the beginning of last week and noticed how well it was run and the amount of work going on. I was told that if public works had to be undertaken, they were done at such a speed so as not to disrupt the community. People worked nights, afternoons and weekends to get work done on time.

I travelled to Naas last Saturday and on my way back at 5 o'clock in the afternoon I realised that no work was being done on the Naas dual carriageway and that it was unlikely work would be done until Monday. There does not seem to be an urgency about getting work done quickly. That is the reason I raise this matter on the Adjournment. I do not have an answer to this problem and am asking questions and sowing seeds. I am grateful to the Minister for his attendance and would like to sow the seeds of an idea.

I am concerned about the way we, as a community, approach projects which impinge on society. These projects are very often paid for from the public purse and almost always involve some disruption to the everyday life of the community. They may be road or drainage projects or, perhaps, light rail projects in the future — there is a huge list of potential candidates.

Let us consider how public works projects are tendered for at present. The aim, quite rightly, is to get a project or job done at the lowest cost. I fully subscribe to that aim, as I am sure does everyone else but I am concerned about how we define the word "cost". We operate the principle of tender by open competition, which is right. I do not want to change that but the issue which exercises me is the basis of the tender and for what is being tendered.

The centre of the town of Swords, County Dublin, is being disrupted because the main street is being dug up to lay pipes, which is worthy and necessary. I have an interest to declare because my company operates a business in that town and that is the reason I am aware of this disruption. I use Swords as an example because I have first hand experience of the implications. Work on one side of the street will finish in about a month's time but it will take three months to work on the other side. The town is devastated while that worthwhile work takes place. I am not here to make a special case for Swords but I offer it as an example of what is a problem nationwide.

A project goes out to tender and, in the fullness of time, the contractor who offers the lowest price gets the job; this is right. However, there is an element in the overall cost which is not taken into account under the tender process — the cost of disruption to the community while the work is being carried out. There is a cost to local business which lose custom during the period of the project. Sometimes that loss is irrevocable because business goes elsewhere and there is always a chance people may change their buying patterns and not change back.

It is not only businesses which suffer. People lose time as a result of traffic congestion and incur the cost of extra petrol. Health problems and accidents may result and the environment is damaged for the duration of the works. Other businesses apart from those in a town face added costs because of delays during that work.

There is a cost to the community which is not taken into account when we plan such projects. If we took it into account we might organise projects differently which is what I would like us to do. Specifically, we should aim to complete projects in a shorter time. If we reckoned in the overall cost to the community we would immediately see the benefit of putting a premium on quick completion and would encourage contractors to find ways to do the job which would reduce to a minimum the amount of disruption caused to the community. Obviously, a contractor trying to put in the lowest price will avoid like the plague the cost which will shorten the period of disruption. If he is driven to deliver the lowest price, he will avoid night and weekend work and the costly aspects which would shorten the period of disruption. That makes perfect sense in narrow accounting terms but it makes no sense in terms of the interests of the wider community.

We are spoiling the ship for a hap'orth of tar and are not looking at the big picture. We are saving on the budget of whoever is carrying out the immediate cost but our approach means we inevitably add to the overall community costs rather than aim to mitigate them. I hope to start a change in that attitude which will not be easy. It would, however, be a start to acknowledge that there is a problem.

Our tendering process should be flexible enough to encourage contractors to propose ways of doing jobs which will reduce the cost to the community of all that disruption. Contractors should be able to say a job will cost £0.5 million more but we will save more in the reduced cost to the community as a whole. I would like to open up our approach to tendering so that contractors compete in a different way. The question is, how do we find the money to make such an approach work. Individual players will only be concerned with their own costs. It would obviously be quite unrealistic to tell a local authority it could spend an additional 20 per cent on a particular project as long as it saved on cost to the community. The money must come from somewhere. I mention the issue of co-funding to acknowledge my awareness that at the end of the day, somebody must pay the community costs if they are to be factored into public works projects.

I think it would be reasonable to ask businesses to pay part of the extra cost as I believe they would consider that to be the lesser of two evils but they could not be expected to make up all of the difference. It would be necessary to look more widely at how the shortfall would be overcome. Perhaps it would be necessary to raid the budgets of Departments other than the Department of the Environment and Local Government.

I am aware my proposal is untidy in bureaucratic terms but we must ultimately ask ourselves how best our communities and citizens can be served. There is no simple solution. The first step involves admitting a problem exists and then we can begin to work towards solving it. Public works projects are being carried out in a very wasteful way because we are shackled by our perceptions of what makes economic sense and are being driven by the accountants. Let us acknowledge a problem exists and explore whether there is some way in which the matter can be approached in order to reduce the overall cost to the community. We must consider how it would be possible to elicit better value from these projects for the overall community.

I do not expect the Minister to make a considered response at this stage; I am merely floating an idea. However, I would like to think I have sown the seeds of an idea in the Minister's mind and that this issue would be given careful consideration. I believe a solution exists to this issue if we begin to alter our perspective on it. Thousands of people are currently stuck in traffic jams over a three year period but it might be possible to reduce that to one year by speeding up work projects. I thank the Minister for his attention.

I thank Senator Quinn for raising this matter. My colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, is unable to be in the House this evening to respond to this item and has asked me to do so on his behalf.

Major infrastructural investment projects generally bring substantial long-term benefits to the areas they serve. These benefits may take the form of a higher quality drinking water supply, a more environmentally friendly sewage disposal system or a better road network. In addition, infrastructure projects frequently facilitate the construction of additional houses, factories, offices and shops, thereby generating additional business opportunities and jobs in the locality.

The downside of major infrastructural projects is that they can cause significant disruption, in the short or medium term, for local residents and businesses in the vicinity of these works. It is, therefore, essential that local authorities, together with any private contractors involved, co-operate to ensure that projects are carried out as quickly as possible. At the same time there is a statutory duty on local authorities and contractors to ensure the construction period is adequate to ensure the safe construction of the project.

Annual guidelines issued by the Department of the Environment and Local Government and the National Roads Authority, remind local authorities to pay special attention to minimising the frequency and duration of road openings and to minimise traffic disruption and hazards to road users. Authorities are also asked to ensure road openings are permanently reinstated as quickly as possible after the completion of the work. The concerns expressed in the House today will be fully considered when the guidelines are next being updated. In the meantime, any major or persistent failure to respect these guidelines should be brought to the attention of the elected members or manager of the relevant local authority.

While owners and operators of businesses would prefer if work was executed outside shopping hours, local residents have legitimate objections to drilling and hammering going on in the early hours of the morning or at night. Another option is for construction work to continue over weekends, but this involves unsocial working hours which may have to be negotiated with the trade unions involved and for which a premium wage rate would have to be paid. I also understand there are statutory restrictions on night time and weekend working designed to protect worker health and safety. In any event, many businesses now operate on both Saturday and Sunday and, like local residents, probably welcome a weekend break from the noise and nuisance caused by the construction work.

Major infrastructure works are generally 100 per cent funded by the Department, often with the aid of EU Structural or Cohesion Funds. Repair and renewal work is funded wholly or partly from local revenue. Irrespective of the method of funding, the work should be executed with optimum speed and efficiency. Civil engineering projects are not awarded on the basis of the lowest suitable tender but on the basis of the most economically advantageous one, taking all relevant factors into account. I am advised it would be difficult to accurately estimate and take into account the indirect costs of a project including the cost of disruption of local business and inconvenience for local residents.

I assure Senator Quinn that the points raised by him in regard to this matter will be carefully considered.