Commencement Matters

Greenways Development

I thank the Minister for coming to the Seanad to discuss the very important matter of the Broadmeadow greenway, which links Donabate with Malahide. The greenway is a cycleway and a pathway for cyclists and pedestrians linking the two towns and Newbridge Demesne, which a fantastic amenity in Donabate owned by Fingal County Council, with Malahide and Malahide Castle. The population of Donabate is approximately 8,000 and that of Malahide 16,000. I believe the application to An Bord Pleanála is imminent so I call on the Minister to work closely with Fingal County Council to ensure there is adequate funding for the development of this greenway as soon as planning permission is granted.

I believe the council has a fund of €10 million which is earmarked specifically for the development of eight greenways in Fingal over the next two years. That would mean an average of €1.25 million per greenway. The construction of the Portmarnock to Baldoyle greenway is under way and is estimated to cost €2.5 million so it does not take a genius to work out that these council funds could fall well short. I ask the Minister to commit his Department to giving the money to Fingal County Council to develop this vital piece of infrastructure between Donabate and Malahide.

I note from his recent budget speech that the Minister for Finance referred to the development of greenways and spoke about €1.26 billion in capital expenditure for the Department for the period 2018 to 2020. He also made reference to the design, planning and implementation of cycling and walking projects from the fund. I ask the Minister for a very small amount to be allocated to the development of the Donabate and Malahide greenway.

I live in Donabate, which it is a beautiful part of north County Dublin. A lot of construction is under way on the peninsula and in the town. The construction of 1,200 new homes is planned for the area in the near future and the greenway should be constructed alongside those houses. Public amenities and transport links, such as a greenway, are absolutely essential as one cannot put in houses without the essential infrastructure around them. Not only would the greenway be a massive boost from the point of view of tourism, with a knock-on effect on the economic development of the two towns, it would also benefit the people living in Donabate and Malahide. Fingal is the fastest growing area in Ireland and we are trying to promote a healthy lifestyle among our children. We are trying to get people out of their cars and off the sofa so that they can enjoy a vigorous and healthy outdoor lifestyle. We need to ensure our children are safe as they cycle in the area and this greenway is a massive opportunity for us to do that, and to address growing childhood obesity and other issues.

The tourism aspect of the development is important. We live very close to Dublin Airport but millions of tourists come into the airport only to leave it very quickly. We want to capture some of them and get them to stay in Fingal to enjoy the fabulous coastline and wonderful public amenities we have. Primarily, though, the people of Donabate and Malahide deserve it. It is a small amount of money for the Department to absorb and would only cost around €2.5 million. I want the Minister to guarantee that the funding will be made available to Fingal County Council so that the project can be delivered without delay.

I thank Senator Clifford-Lee for raising a subject about which she is very passionate. I also thank her for the good case she made for this greenway.

I am pleased to inform her that I launched the strategy for the future development of the national and regional greenways in Moate, County Westmeath, on 20 July. This strategy provides a framework for the development of Ireland's greenways and will determine the type of project to be funded by my Department over the coming decade, as can be seen from the fact that both Commencement matters originally allocated to me today related to greenways. It is a very popular and important topic.

The strategy is long-term in nature, with the aim of increasing the number, length and regional spread of greenways throughout the country. It sets out guidance for project promoters on matters including strategic nature, length, design standards, accommodation works and early consultation with communities and landowners along proposed routes. The strategy also sets out the general high-level criteria regarding what we believe makes for a good greenway - one that is scenic, provides access to things to see and do, is sustainable, is substantially segregated, involves shared use and-or is strategic. This is based on both Fáilte Ireland research and experience on the ground of what has and has not worked with regard to previous investment.

I was happy to secure €53 million in funding for greenways projects to be constructed in the period 2019 to 2021. In addition to the strategy, a funding criteria document that outlines what we are looking for in projects to be funded under this scheme has been published. It is vital that local authorities and State agencies study the document and the application form in detail. There is an information session planned for 24 October that will provide assistance to applicants in understanding the process and requirements.

The funding call for the €53 million is currently open. The application form is available on my Department’s website, along with the strategy and other relevant documents. Following the closure of the application process for the funding call on 30 November 2018, we will assess all applications received and, based on the criteria laid out in the application form and strategy, award funding to the projects we believe meet the criteria. It is also important to note that this is the first funding call. The fact that funding may not be obtained on this occasion does not mean it will not be obtained in the future. It will be important for project promoters to continue working with communities and landowners to achieve agreement on routes that will work for users and landowners.

The positive economic impact greenways can have on their local communities is significant. The Waterford greenway has provided very beneficial to towns along the route. It is likely there will be a number of high-quality applications for funding received.

I understand that the Broadmeadow Way is quite short, measuring only 6 km in length. In the strategy and associated funding call, however, we are focusing on national and regional greenways of scale. The minimum length is 20 km, with a preference for a greenways in the order of 40 km because it is these longer greenways that will generally necessitate overnight stays and thus generate greater economic return on investment in the localities in which they are based. There is also the possibility of strategic sections of greenway being funded. These are sections that extend current greenways or that link to current greenways. The Broadmeadow Way forms part of the greater plans for greenways and cycling infrastructure generally in north County Dublin. It is part of the NTA's greater Dublin area cycle network plan. Another potential avenue for funding this greenway is though the NTA, which is responsible for urban greenways.

I take this opportunity to wish all those applying for funding the best of luck. I look forward to the very difficult facing my Department and me in determining where the funding will be awarded.

I thank the Minister for that information. I wish to make sure I am clear on it. Since the link between Donabate and Malahide is shorter, it will not be prioritised for funding unless it is part of the overall greenways strategy. Is that correct? If so, it must be pointed out that there is a strategy to have a greenway running the entire length of the coast of north County Dublin and linking to the city. The Broadmeadow Way would actually form part of a larger strategy. This is a very strategic link to the Baldoyle-Portmarnock link. There is already a link from Portmarnock to Malahide, and this would form a very strategic link to Donabate. I ask the Minister to consider that, even though the length in question is shorter than he envisaged.

I repeat what I already stated, namely, that the minimum length for consideration is 20 km, with a preference for greenways in the order of 40 km because it is these longer greenways that will generally necessitate overnight stays.

We are trying to get people to stay overnight, particularly in this first round. That may not be great news for the Senator but, in view of the case she has made, I undertake to look at any avenues open to me to help her out and see if there is any direction in which I can point.

Construction Contracts

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I raised this issue because of the delay and difficulties in which MDY Construction has found itself, and I seek clarification. In April, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, attended, as did I, the turning of the sod at Dolphin Park, which would provide senior citizens with new, modernised units. The present accommodation there is unfit for habitation and, therefore, we were providing senior citizens with fit-for-purpose accommodation. Everyone was excited and delighted to be there, and the elderly people, in particular, were looking forward to it. They were looking out their window at the site, watching the progress when, all of a sudden, the subcontractors went in at the beginning of September and pulled out all their equipment, saying that they had not been paid and could not stand over not being paid, having their equipment used or remaining at the site.

There is also a half-built primary care centre in Rialto, Dublin 8. The walls have been put up, in any case. It is under the same construction firm, as are the social housing units in Cherrywood, which is also in Dublin South-Central. The houses were due to be handed out approximately two or three weeks ago, people had been told that this or that house would be theirs, and they had managed to negotiate with their landlords to continue their tenancy in rented accommodation because there were some delays. They had put their children into local schools and were delighted that this social housing had come to fruition, as some 95% of it has, yet many of the units still have to be allocated and keys must be handed over.

I accept that the Minister was working towards a solution and trying to ensure these social housing buildings, the primary care centre and the senior housing units would be completed as soon as possible given the overall homelessness and housing situation. Will the Minister of State update the House on the difficulties that MDY Construction faces, and how, with his assistance and support, these units will be delivered?

I am taking this issue on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I must clarify that the Minister and the Department are not party to any contract with MDY Construction, nor does the Minister have any responsibility for the development of the primary care centre, which forms part of the Senator's query.

Delivery of social housing is achieved, however, using a range of different delivery programmes and financing arrangements. This includes supporting both local authorities and approved housing bodies to engage with contractors for the construction of new social housing homes. I understand from departmental officials that MDY Construction is experiencing serious financial difficulties and that the High Court appointed an interim examiner last month, with the case due to be heard again on a date later this month. This represents an opportunity for the company to restructure its finances and seek new investment, if required.

On the 43-home scheme for older people at Dolphin Park, Rialto, FOLD Ireland is the contracting body responsible for the project, delivering on land that was transferred to them by Dublin City Council.

MDY Construction Limited was contracted directly by FOLD Ireland to undertake the construction following a tender process that concluded earlier this year. My colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, formally turned the first sod on the site when construction began in April of this year. As the contracting party, FOLD Ireland is dealing directly with the issues arising from MDY's current position.

I am informed that construction work ceased on the Rialto site several weeks ago when MDY personnel left the site. Since then, and following on from the appointment of the interim examiner, FOLD Ireland has met the examiner and its law agents to discuss the options available to it, as well as the next steps to facilitate the earliest possible recommencement and completion of this project.

There is no doubt that this turn of events will delay the delivery of these much-needed new social housing homes but FOLD Ireland is doing all in its power to progress the project. It has a proven track record in providing housing specifically designed for older people. The necessary steps have been taken by FOLD Ireland to secure the site, the legal and financial issues are being addressed and FOLD Ireland is taking steps to support the earliest possible completion of the projects. The Department has been and will continue to keep in close contact with FOLD Ireland and Dublin City Council on this scheme.

The provision of the funding and support necessary to complete this project and the other social housing projects currently affected will not be an issue. Local authorities and approved housing bodies know that. They are taking the necessary steps to handle the issues involved as a matter of urgency and to move the projects forward.

These social housing homes will be completed and they will be made available to the people who need them, fully complete and built to the usual high quality in social housing developments being completed each month in many locations around the country.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. There is a difficulty that most people would not understand. While FOLD Ireland is responsible for the development, I am sure the Government can get updates and influence to some degree a solution to this. If FOLD Ireland is to meet soon with the construction firm in question, does the Minister of State believe a solution will emerge which can fast-track the finishing off of some of the units and the half-built ones, which need to be completed as soon as possible? The senior citizens involved were looking forward to moving into the development in Dolphin Park by January. These units would provide them with modern housing and prevent illness. While FOLD Ireland is a great organisation, which looks after our senior citizens very well, will the Minister of State get in contact with the body to find out what is happening and apply a little pressure?

The issue will technically be before the courts again in several weeks' time and the Department is not directly involved in this issue. FOLD Ireland is a housing body and has a good record on delivery. The issue is that the construction firm, MDY, has that month-long period to indicate to the High Court judge that it has the facility to turn its financial situation around and to take the necessary measures for refinancing or extra investment. This examinership procedure was introduced in the late 1980s or early 1990s after it had operated for years in Britain and other countries. It has been successful, by and large, because it gives the protection of the courts to companies that are in some difficulty. It ensures they cannot be foreclosed upon while this structure is there. It gives a breathing space to see if they can work their way out the issues. We will know more when it goes before the High Court again.

I accept that is not a hugely satisfactory answer, other than to say the first priority for central government, local government and FOLD Ireland is that contractors will see out their contract and finish the job. We will have to cross the other bridge if that is not the case. However, for now, we are pursuing the first option.

Local Authority Members' Remuneration

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. I thank the Minister of State for taking time out of his busy schedule for coming to the House.

I have raised the issue of councillors' terms and conditions on many occasions, as have other Senators. There is a great deal of frustration regarding the pace of progress - or, indeed, the lack of progress - on this issue. I acknowledge the great and tireless work carried out on behalf of local elected members by their two representative bodies, the Association of Local Government and the Local Authority Members Association, on this issue. I acknowledge the Minister of State's contribution in respect of this issue to date. He has appointed Sara Moorhead, SC, to examine this matter and make recommendations in respect of the remuneration and role of elected members. I understand Ms Moorhead is due to make her recommendations known later next month. Perhaps the Minister of State might be able to tie down that timeframe in more detail. I sincerely hope, as do many others, including him, that the report will be positive with regard to local authority members.

The Minister of State comes from a local authority background and he no doubt appreciates that the role of local authority members has changed beyond recognition. It has effectively become a full-time role that attracts part-time remuneration. It is vital that we try, where possible, to attract the best people to represent our communities. We are very fortunate to have such dedicated and hard-working local authority members across all parties and none who work tirelessly on behalf of their communities. Their workload has grown to such an extent that many local authority members are finding it difficult to continue in the role because, financially, it is not possible for them to do so. That is a shame. As councillors look towards the local elections due to be held next May, many are considering their position because they do not believe they will be able to support themselves and their families on the small amount of remuneration they receive. We have reached to a crossroads regarding local authority members. I do not think I am overstating that point. It is important that we address this issue and bring clarity to it before the local elections next May in order that those who might seek re-election will know exactly what will be their terms, conditions and role into the future. It is also important that those who may be contemplating representing the communities from which they come are afforded clarity before the local elections.

I look forward to the Minister of State's response. I do not doubt his sincerity for one minute in respect of this issue. I am heartened that he seems to have grasped the nettle and I hope he might be in a position to outline what the future may look like for local authority members.

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this issue. I am pleased to provide an update on the position concerning the review of the role and remuneration of elected members of local authorities. The issue of supports for councillors is one to which I have devoted considerable time and attention, including in this House, since taking up office as Minister of State with responsibility for local government and electoral reform in June 2017. Since that date, I have made a range of improvements to the supports provided to councillors. In November 2017, the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and I co-signed amending regulations under section 142 of the Local Government Act 2001. The regulations provided for a new allowance for councillors worth €1,000 per annum, backdated to 1 July 2017, in recognition of the additional workload following the 2014 reforms. They also gave effect to a new optional vouched expenses allowance worth up to a maximum of €5,000 per annum, which councillors may choose to opt for in place of an existing un-vouched allowance worth approximately €2,500 per annum. This is in addition to the composite annual expenses allowance paid to councillors, which is designed to defray, in a structured way, reasonable expenses incurred by them in attending council meetings. I would also point out that the representational payment paid to councillors, which is currently linked to a Senator's salary, was recently increased to €17,060 per annum in line with adjustments arising from the public service stability agreement.

Notwithstanding the current situation, I am strongly of the view that it is important to support councillors appropriately, with due regard for transparency and accountability to ensure that they can effectively carry out their role as elected local representatives. Fully aware of concerns expressed by councillors themselves and in these Houses about their current remuneration regime, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and I agreed to the commissioning of a review of the role and remuneration of councillors. On 21 June, I appointed Ms Sara Moorhead, senior counsel, to conduct this review.

Based on the agreed terms of reference, the review will involve an in-depth examination of the role performed by councillor including: their statutory reserved functions; the political and community leadership role they perform; the governance responsibilities of council members; and their representational role within communities. The outcome of this review will be to more fully elaborate on the role of the councillor and it is intended that this will inform an examination of the current system of remuneration of councillors, with a view to proposals for a remuneration package that is representative of and commensurate with the role.

The review will be informed by input from my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. While it would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt the findings of Ms Moorhead's review, I can confirm that her work is well under way, and a number of meetings with different groups have taken place and submissions have been sought.

I set out in the terms of reference for the review that she consult with local authority elected members and their representative organisations, political parties, local authority chief executives and other appropriate stakeholders. It is intended that a survey of individual councillors will begin shortly. The review will produce an interim report. I note what Senator Gallagher said earlier about the frustration at the rate of progress. The commitment I gave in my statement at the time was that following Hallowe'en we would have an interim report. I have received no indication of any deviation from this, although I note in the script that I have been given by the Department that it states before the end of the year. It is still very much my intention that the interim report will be published in November. The reason for this, as has been pointed out, is that people are making decisions about whether they are going to contest local elections and that report, while not being the full finished product, should be able to give people some help in reaching those decisions. The timing for the final report will be considered thereafter and will be published in full in the spring of the year. Many people will be making those crucial decisions well before then which is why an interim report is vital.

When the review is complete the findings will be subject to discussion between the two Departments and will be submitted thereafter for the consideration of the Government. Let me conclude again by thanking Senator Gallagher and other Senators for their initiative in placing and keeping this item on the political agenda.

I thank the Minister of State. Does the Senator wish to come back in?

I thank the Minister of State for his very comprehensive outline of the timetable involved in this issue. Like the Minister of State, I look forward to the interim report being published hopefully in the next few weeks. As the Minister of State said, it is important as this report will help to bring clarity to those who are contemplating seeking re-election and those who wish to put their name forward for the first time. I am heartened by the Minister of State's contribution and look forward to a successful outcome to this long-running saga.

I spoke to Ms Sara Moorhead when I asked her to do this but have not spoken to her directly since as it would be inappropriate of me to do so. Officials within the Department have indicated to me that there is no deviation. The timeframe was that following Hallowe'en, there would be an interim report and that the full report would be published in the spring. As far as I am concerned, and from the Department's point of view, those deadlines will be met.

I thank the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 3.05 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.