I concur with Senator White that it is good to highlight a success story such as that whereby a public private partnership was sorted out within 18 months. Fine Gael believes the public private partnership system is the way forward. The Senator referred to a figure of €51 million but the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, beat that record by spending €50 million in less than 18 months. That is a story for another day, however.
In the past six or seven years, a combination of buzz words has been used in the debate on public private partnerships. Before that, the letters PPP would have been understood to stand for parish pump politics. Public private partnerships have provided the way forward in recent years and have proved that this manageable system can work within a shorter time period than heretofore. If we were to separate public expenditure from public private partnership expenditure and ask taxpayers if they were getting value for money from the expenditure of their taxes, the answer would be a resounding "No". The public does not have confidence in the way the Government spends its money. Value for money is not obtained from public expenditure.
Taking private investment in isolation, people have confidence in the private sector, including builders and designers, and generally believe the sector does a good job. Where there is a strong demand for housing, there can be murmurings of discontent over problems with snag lists but, in general, people are happy with the private sector. It is, therefore, an ambitious project to amalgamate the public and private sectors in PPP projects. Fine Gael believes PPPs are the way forward and the unions do not have a problem with them. Senator O'Toole mentioned that this was in deference to the rest of Europe.
Since the initiation of the public private partnerships there has been a creation of wealth within a significant breadth of sectors, including accountancy and legal firms, all of which have done well. Through creating wealth, PPPs have sustained businesses in various industrial sectors. The ultimate ethos behind public private partnerships is that of the common good. It is not to help companies or private individuals through a fundamentally profit-driven partnership, rather it is community focused for the common good. It is about efficiency, competence and timing.
There have been problems with the design and build operations for the Westlink and Eastlink projects. Members of the public are having difficulty with certain aspects of these public private partnerships, including user charges. A thorough evaluation and examination is required for all such projects but that is not being undertaken currently.
An interest rate of 2% provides a great incentive for private companies to become involved in the public sector. It is cheap money but that should not be the focus for such companies. The common good and value for money are the aspects that matter.
Transparency issues have arisen as regards obtaining information, feedback, reviews and evaluation. In principle, the National Development Finance Agency is a good idea but the capacity is not there to evaluate PPP projects that have been delivered to date. Perhaps a rethink is required on having one umbrella group as a conduit for feeding information back to the public. Perhaps also there should be a singular focus whereby each Department is responsible, rather than having an umbrella group.
The Minister of State referred to success stories behind public private partnerships for schools. That is a great idea but there are also problems. Issues have arisen concerning private involvement in some of these schools, including the operation of soft drinks machines. These issues need to be teased out so the Minister of State should reflect on the common good. The common good principle applies to serious issues, such as obesity among schoolchildren, which have often been highlighted in the House.
For the past two or three years, design, build and operate, or DBO, plans have been the buzz words flying around the desks of local authority service directors. DBO projects can be leased back to local councils and, in principle, they are a good idea but it is theoretical at present. Simple solutions are being proposed for simple problems in many rural areas, including waste water treatment or pumping water supplies for rural communities. Private companies can play a part in providing such solutions.
A few very successful affordable housing schemes have been built by private developers in County Donegal but the preparations should be made in the beginning. It should not be about developers building houses and the local authority purchasing them. There would be more transparency if the homework was done in the beginning, as it should be. That principle should underpin any public private partnership.
Senators O'Toole and Scanlan referred to school building projects. That area needs to be addressed. The review should consider the tendering, bidding, bonding, design and specification, and financing. We have serious problems with the building of new schools and extensions to schools. Senator Fitzgerald, who is his party's spokesperson on education, knows of the problems to which I refer.
The building work at St. Eunan's College is deemed necessary, as opposed to urgent, and has been stuck at stage 1 since 1999. This is a problem for Letterkenny, which has been designated as a town that should receive priority status in facilitating children in primary and post-primary school. The post-primary school is not receiving priority status. The morale among the teaching staff, board of management and parents is low and their frustration is palpable. Stating that a project is necessary rather than urgent is the language of procrastination to keep a project at a stage nowhere near completion.
Ballyraine national school in Letterkenny is being asked to redesign a comprehensive brief for a school extension, which was originally accepted by the Department of Education and Science in 2000. This again shows procrastination. It is a case where a PPP programme could be operated. The proposal for the extension to Ballyraine national school was first submitted in 1984, when I was in my first year in secondary school. While I am not saying I am that old, I am getting there. One can understand the frustration if an extension first proposed in 1984 has yet to start, when simple solutions could be implemented.
In June 1999, Mr. Cheevers asked the Ballyraine national school to submit requirements to the Department of Education and Science and to refer to the Celtic tiger. Prefabs were offered, but were declined as money could be invested in a proper building. In 2000 the inspector visited and made a list of requests and recommendations etc. The application and inspector's report is with the planners. Jonathan Bliss, the Department of Education and Science architect, visited, making an urgent case. Now, in 2004, the school is being asked to review and offer a comprehensive reappraisal of its application. It is not good enough for schools to experience such frustration and bottlenecks.
It is time for the Department of Education and Science to seriously consider public private partnerships for the schools building programme at primary and post-primary level. Public private partnerships have worked in other areas and for the general welfare of future generations of students this process should be expedited. We need to build an economy around trust and the public is part of the trust process. No member of the community in Donegal believes taxpayers are getting value for the money they pay. We have no train service and it takes us six hours on a Friday evening to get from Dublin to Letterkenny. Considering it is only possible to drive at an average speed of 40 mph, including on the A5 through the North, which is only a donkey track, Donegal taxpayers are not getting value for money.