Commencement Matters

Road Projects Status

I thank the Minister for taking up my invitation to discuss these important road schemes along the N4. As the Minister knows, the N4 is a major carriageway to the north-west region. It is a national primary road running from Dublin to the north west and Sligo. It goes without saying that the N4 is a vital artery to this region. There are three major schemes currently planned along the route and it is imperative that we continue to upgrade this national route for a number of reasons. These upgrades will improve road safety for road users, alleviate traffic congestion and reduce journey time to allow people to plan their journeys more accurately. They will undoubtedly generate significant economic benefits for local economies along the route.

The planned Mullingar to Longford Rooskey road scheme comprises about 50 km of dual carriageway and has been in the pipeline for some time. Indeed, the preferred route corridor was announced in June 2010 and the plan is to upgrade the stretch between the N4 Dromod Rooskey bypass and the N4 Mullingar bypass. According to Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, it is in a category of pre-appraisal. The N4 Carrick-on-Shannon to Dromod upgrade involves an 11 km stretch an according to the TII website, it is also in the category of pre-appraisal. The Minister might shed some light on what exactly this means.

Earlier this year, I was glad to note that my colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, earmarked an extra €1.26 billion for spending on roads and other transport between 2018 and 2021. As part of that, funding approval was given to the N4 Collooney to Castlebaldwin road project in Sligo, news which has been welcomed by all of us. I understand that the 15 km road widening project involves an overall investment value of over €100 million and undoubtedly will improve safety on this stretch of road which has unfortunately seen so many fatalities over the last four decades. I thank the Minister, Deputy Ross, for helping to ensure funding for this project, which has been long awaited.

It is clear that more focus is being placed by the Government on improving our infrastructure and a blueprint for this is contained in Project 2040. As the Taoiseach said during his recent visit to Sligo, Project 2040 consists of a national spatial plan that is backed up with real money. The money follows the plan and, over the next ten years, all regions and urban centres, particularly the north west, will be linked to Dublin by a high-quality road network. It is clear that the Government's Project 2040 plan is being implemented. Next year alone, I understand we will have a 25% increase in infrastructure spending. I hope my region, the north west, will get a fair share of that funding. I commend the many public representatives, local authorities, chambers of commerce and community groups that continue to campaign hard to ensure that the N4 will benefit from significant investment.

I thank Senator Feighan for raising this very important matter. I must first emphasise that as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding in respect of the national roads programme. Under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, the planning, construction and improvement of individual road projects is a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

The national development plan, NDP, which has been developed by Government to underpin the successful implementation of the new national planning framework, NPF, provides the strategic and financial framework for TII's national roads programme for the period from 2018 to 2027. The proposed N4 Mullingar to Longford Rooskey and Carrick-on-Shannon to Dromod road improvement schemes are included in the NDP among a number of major national road schemes that were identified for progression through pre-appraisal and early planning during 2018. The N4 Mullingar to Longford Rooskey road scheme is approximately 52 km and is located on a trans-European network transport, TEN-T, route. This scheme will improve the regional connectivity to the north west, which is a strategic priority of the national planning framework. A project pre-appraisal plan was submitted to my Department and the plan has been found to be compliant with the public spending code and the common appraisal framework, thus allowing it to progress to the next stage in terms of planning and design. The tender process for the engagement of technical advisers to progress the planning and design is now under way.

The N4 Carrick-on-Shannon to Dromod road project is also on a TEN-T route and comprises the improvement of a 21 km section of the N4 national primary route between Drumharlow townland in County Roscommon, north of Carrick-on-Shannon, and Faulties townland south of Aghamore in County Leitrim. The proposed project involves the provision of a bypass of Carrick-on-Shannon including a new bridge crossing the River Shannon and an upgrade of the existing N4 between Tully and Faulties townlands, in County Leitrim. This scheme was previously progressed through phases 1 and 2 of TII's project management guidelines 2010. A preferred route corridor was selected and is included in Leitrim County Council’s county development plan 2015 to 2021.

The project was suspended in 2012 due to the unprecedented economic downturn. The scheme was subject to pre-appraisal to establish compliance with the requirements of the public spending code and the common appraisal framework for transport projects and programmes and to determine the prioritisation of the projects to be developed during the period of the NDP. The tender process for the engagement of technical advisers to progress planning and design is under way.

The N4 Collooney to Castlebaldwin road scheme is one of the major national infrastructure projects included in the NDP for appraisal and delivery. It is required for regional connectivity and to support the ambition for development of the Border region and accessibility to the north west. It forms part of the N4 national primary route from Dublin to Silgo, which is identified as a strategic radial corridor, and also forms part of the TEN-T comprehensive network. This project involves the upgrading of a very substandard narrow section of the N4 to type 2 dual carriageway from the existing N41-N17 Toberbridge roundabout in Collooney, to Cloghoge Lower, south of Castlebaldwin village, a total length of 14.7 km, of which 11.2 km is offline. An Bord Pleanála approved the proposed development of the N4 Collooney to Castlebaldwin scheme in 2014. All advance works have been completed and land purchase is 90% complete. Sligo County Council has now received tenders for the main construction contract. Government approval is required prior to the award of the project as it will cost in excess of €100 million. It is expected that a contractor will be appointed early in the new year. There are many expected benefits from the proposed scheme. An improved level of safety will reduce the number of fatalities. Improved conditions for pedestrians and cyclists wishing to access local services will increase their safety on the road and lead to environmental benefits including reduced emissions and improved water quality.

The delivery of large-scale infrastructure projects is complex and costly and takes a lot of time. As Minister, I am, of course, keen to see the projects included in the NDP progressed as quickly as possible. However, I stress that any timeframe for the delivery of these projects is dependent on obtaining the necessary consents at various critical stages, including at the route selection, detailed design and tender stages. Meeting the requirements of the public spending code and planning consent from An Bord Pleanála and an adequate capital budget are also critical to delivering these projects.

There are a lot of projects that will contribute to this road, but we continue to look enviously at the motorways from Galway, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Belfast to Dublin. The area certainly needs better links with the capital city. I am delighted that certain projects are earmarked in the 2040 plan and I thank the Minister for taking the time to come to the House to answer my questions.

Rail Services

I thank the Minister for attending to discuss the very important matter of severe congestion on the northern commuter line which runs right through north County Dublin to bring commuters from Europe's fastest growing population area right into the city every day to work or access education and healthcare facilities. There are serious levels of congestion on the line now, in particular in and around Donabate where I live. By the time the train gets to Donabate during peak times, it is already at capacity and it is very difficult to even board. When people manage to get on, conditions on the trains are not acceptable.

Fingal is the fastest growing area in Europe and we are absorbing a lot of the housing need in north County Dublin. Planning is taking place to build thousands of houses in Donabate in particular as well as in every town and village in north County Dublin. People move to north County Dublin to access housing and a high quality of life. While that high quality of life can be had there, commuting conditions are a serious issue. People move to Donabate because there is a train station in the village which is very useful for commuting into the city. However, many people who move to the village do not realise that trains are at capacity. There has been a 5% increase in passenger numbers on the northern line year on year. People who have been living in Donabate for a long number of years are distressed at the capacity issues.

I ask the Minister to prioritise the northern line. Ring-fenced funding is required to provide extra carriages as an immediate solution but we also need more direct buses to provide for peak-time commuting to the city centre. People cannot access trains as it is and are getting up earlier and earlier just to squeeze on. It is having a severe impact on the quality of life of people in Donabate and right across north County Dublin, including Rush, Lusk, Skerries and Balbriggan, and it is not acceptable. The M1 is congested as it is and the road infrastructure around north County Dublin is at bursting point. We face a real crisis. I want the Minister to come to Donabate with me to see for himself the conditions people have to endure. People are at breaking point. I want him to see first-hand what is happening and to provide an immediate solution for the people of Donabate and north County Dublin more generally.

I thank Senator Clifford-Lee for raising this problem which is one I am familiar with in my own constituency and a lot of other areas. Transport is crowded in certain areas. In some ways, it is a problem we should welcome in that it means there are far more people going to work and there is greater demand for public transport. However, I agree that there are difficulties about capacity and that there are too many passengers for too few carriages in certain areas. It is something we are addressing, as is the National Transport Authority, or NTA, with growing energy and as quickly as possible.

The NTA has statutory responsibility for the planning and delivery of transport infrastructure and services in the greater Dublin area, including in consultation with larnród Éireann for the provision of rail fleet. The NTA's transport strategy for the greater Dublin area for 2016 to 2035 provides the overarching framework for the planning and delivery of transport infrastructure and services in the greater Dublin area over the next two decades. The National Development Plan, or NDP, provides a national level framework for the delivery of transport infrastructure over the next ten years. Both the NTA's statutory transport strategy and the NDP provide for the DART expansion programme, with the NDP committing €2 billion in Exchequer funding to the programme and prioritising the delivery of the non-tunnel elements for delivery by 2027. As part of that programme, the northern line will be electrified. Electrification as far as Balbriggan is expected to be delivered by 2022. The proposed enhancements to the heavy rail system will create an integrated rail network which will deliver a very substantial increase in peak-hour capacity on all commuter lines in the greater Dublin area, including the northern line.

Public transport passenger number have increased in recent years, reflecting broader economic and employment growth. Rail passenger numbers have similarly increased across the network and in particular on the commuter network in the greater Dublin area. While these increases are welcome, they clearly place pressure on the capacity of the network. The NTA and larnród Éireann have made and are continuing to make service and infrastructure improvements to address these pressures. In September this year, the DART moved toward a ten-minute service during the core operating day. Since the introduction of the new services, the NTA and Iarnród Éireann have monitored the impact on the broader commuter network and made adjustments as necessary in response to any issues identified. A number of additional services in the morning peak period on the northern side of the network have recently been approved and these will provide additional capacity. All peak-time DART services are now operated using six or eight car train sets which will provide a moderate increase in capacity. In addition, the revised timetable launched at the start of the month means additional off-peak capacity has been added to the northern line to provide passengers with additional travel options throughout the day.

These are all immediate measures which will enhance overall capacity but, obviously, other medium and long-term measures are required.

Key to all of this is the provision of additional rail fleet. In the medium term, it had been hoped to refurbish a number of older trains with a view to their reintroduction to service. However, following a tender process, the overall cost of the refurbishment tripled as compared with initial estimates. The refurbishment proposal simply does not represent value for money. However, the need for additional rail fleet remains and the NTA and larnród Éireann have begun a process of identifying the potential of acquiring second-hand rail fleet by means of either lease or purchase. The Senator may be aware that this is complicated by the fact that the Irish rail network operates to a different gauge than that of the UK and most other European countries and that any second-hand vehicles would require modification for Irish use. A decision on the viability of the second-hand vehicle option will be made shortly, following market availability and procurement options analysis.

In the longer term, and as part of the DART expansion programme, there is a need to increase the fleet significantly in any event. Work on developing tender documentation and train specifications for the proposed bi-mode fleet of rail vehicles is progressing. The formal procurement notice seeking interested train manufacturers is expected to issue before year end, and a formal contract for the new fleet is expected to be signed in 2019.

As can be seen, a number of measures are either already in place or planned. These measures are designed to deal with the increased numbers of passengers availing of services on our rail network. I am confident that the improvements planned in the short, medium and long term will enhance services along this important commuter line.

Most of what the Minister stated relates to the DART line. This is of no use to people living in Donabate, Rusk, Lusk, Skerries or Balbriggan because they are not on the DART line. The Minister indicated that he expects the DART to be expanded as far as Balbriggan by 2022, but we have been hearing that for many years. The date keeps getting pushed out further. As a result, I do not believe anyone will get any comfort from the answer in that regard. The other commuter lines will be electrified before the northern line. Is there any capacity to use the fleet on the other lines and move it onto the northern line just to add some extra carriages to the trains already operating on it? The Minister also indicated that "A formal contract for the new fleet is expected to be signed in 2019." When will this fleet actually be operational?

We are over the time allocated. I ask the Minister to be brief.

Those are all operational matters. I will refer them to the NTA.

Short and sweet. That concludes the Minister's work.

Services for People with Disabilities

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly.

I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House to discuss this matter. Áras Attracta is a residential respite day service for adults with intellectual disabilities in Mayo. The HSE directly manages Áras Attracta, which, as the Minister of State knows, works in partnership with other statutory and voluntary organisations to deliver intellectual disability services to the population of County Mayo. I will not go over the challenges that residents of Áras Attracta, their families and many of the staff have faced. I know there is a change plan in process. What I want to ascertain is the level of consultation that has taken place with residents, users of the day services and the families. I want to ensure that the services and supports that these users need are there now and guaranteed into the long term. I also want to ensure that the centre is kept within the remit of the HSE and that parts of it are not privatised out to organisations whose priority is profit maximisation. Furthermore, I want to ensure that the staff are protected within the system in order that their terms and conditions are also protected. As for the day users specifically, I want to ensure that the people and their families who have made life decisions to be near Áras Attracta - that is, buying their homes and settling there - will not now find that the service users will be moved to Ballina or other locations throughout the county. These are the assurances I seek from the Minister of State.

I thank Senator Conway-Walsh for raising this important matter, which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, Deputy Finian McGrath.

This is a time of major change in the delivery of social care in this country, and the HSE has embarked on a transformation programme, Transforming Lives, which aims to put the citizen at the heart of everything we do. One of the central aims of this programme is to strive to ensure that every one of our citizens has an effective right, free from discrimination, to contribute to the economic, social and cultural life of our country and, in doing so, to achieve the best outcomes possible for themselves and their families. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has been very encouraged in recent years to see the number of organisations nationwide that are immersing themselves wholeheartedly in the transformation programme.

Traditional adult day services have, for the most part, been organised as segregated services, separate from local communities and offering limited options, experiences and choices. New Directions is one of the key policy documents contained in the HSE's Transforming Lives programme. It sets out an approach to day services that envisages all the supports available in communities that will be mobilised in order that people with disabilities have the widest choice and options as to how to live their lives and spend their time. New Directions sets out 12 supports that should be available to people with disabilities using day services. It proposes that day services should take the form of individualised outcome-focused supports to allow adults using those services to live lives of their choosing and in accordance with their own wishes, needs and aspirations. New Directions highlights three underlying principles which should underpin services - namely, person-centredness, community inclusion and active citizenship - in order to provide the best outcomes for individuals with a disability.

Áras Attracta day services are transitioning in line with New Directions policy. The HSE currently provides day services on site at Áras Attracta. However, this is not in keeping with the requirements of New Directions policy because it is located within a congregated setting. Day services at Áras Attracta will close at the end of 2018 and a service provider called Praxis has been appointed to provide the new day service under the New Directions policy from January 2019, based in Ballina. Provision has been made to accommodate all current service users attending Áras Attracta day services in this new day service or, if more appropriate to their needs, to another service model. Staff will be reassigned to other areas of service within Áras Attracta or Mayo Community Living.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. The crux of the matter is that the geography of Mayo means that it is not acceptable to expect people to travel from one end of the county to the other to access day services. Furthermore, we do not know anything about the service provider, Praxis. Is this a privatising of the services? Will Praxis be based in Ballina? Will someone from Kiltimagh with special needs and intellectual challenges be expected to travel from Kiltimagh to, say, Ballina each day? I ask the Ministers of State, Deputies Jim Daly and Finian McGrath, to look at this situation, visit the area and get to know its geography to know that some of the challenges and barriers being put before service users and their families are not acceptable.

Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, could ask the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to make direct contract with the Senator.

The geography of Mayo is a little like that of west Cork: it is sprawling and there are long distances involved.

Change always brings about challenges but also opportunities. I suggest that the Senator engage with HSE management locally, which is overseeing the minute detail of this and the individual issues the Senator raises. The local management would be quite happy to engage with her on the specific circumstances.

I only wish to ensure that no one will be left behind.

That is understandable, especially at this time of the year.

An Bord Pleanála Applications

I would like to lay bare before the House the frustration, incredulity and anger of people in north and east Mayo regarding An Bord Pleanála's delay in making a planning decision for the N26 and a new bridge at Cloongullane, Swinford. It will be two years in March since an oral hearing on the building of a new bridge was held. The current bridge is on the national primary network, and is not fit even for the 20th century; it was built in the 19th century. It is a hazard and a danger, and is not in keeping with the objectives for national primary routes. Two years have almost past. An Bord Pleanála had been issuing queries on account of environmental concerns until last July due to the presence of freshwater pearl mussels and alluvial woodland. All of those queries were answered at the end of July and a decision was expected on 30 November, which was an indicative date provided by An Bord Pleanála. Since then, the date has been pushed back. The lands are located in a special area of conservation, SAC, and there are populations living there, including those in Swinford, Foxford and Ballina. There is a road in the area; it is not a wilderness. It is a place where human beings have legitimate objectives. The Mayo industries group and the chamber of commerce recognise that this is long overdue. This delay comes after the refusal by An Bord Pleanála of a new scheme for the N26, which would have provided for transport between Ballina and Bohola, in 2010 on environmental grounds because of overdesign of a road in a SAC and because of the presence of whooper swans.

Fisheries have no objection to this, and neither does the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, yet we still do not have a decision. This also applies to a new bridge at Glenisland on the R312, which has been delayed, even though there is funding in place for it, because of the presence of freshwater pearl mussels. In Galway, the road project on the N59 between Oughterard and Maam Cross has, after many years, received permission, with many conditions, including that there must be a negotiation with the NPWS at every stage. This is unprecedented, and it is unclear how it will proceed. Permission has been refused for the N59 road project between Maam Cross and Clifden. The ring road around Galway has been refused because it falls within an SAC; the new proposition involves tunnelling around Menlo underneath an SAC. The frustration stems from the fact that everybody is passing us out. Money cannot be spent because planning permission cannot be secured. Does the Minister of State believe this is acceptable? How will we achieve our objective, under Project Ireland 2040, of building up rural areas when planning permission cannot be secured to develop basic strategic infrastructure? What is being done to address this?

Is this a resources issue within An Bord Pleanála? Is it a reflection of the quality of the planning applications coming before it or is it, as I would contend, that we have failed to get a handle on developing areas that are designated as SACs? What is happening in respect of streamlined procedures under strategic infrastructure development legislation? A few years ago a review of the operation of An Bord Pleanála was ordered and recommendations were made to improve it. What is the status of that, particularly in light of the delays in the Apple decision? Is our planning system fit for purpose? Is An Bord Pleanála properly resourced? People in north Mayo are ready to march because of this bridge. What is the Government going to do to respond to these reasonable people who are asking reasonable questions but who are angry?

I thank the Mulherin for raising this important matter and for making clear the anger and frustration locally with various planning decisions. I get the sense of how important it is both to her, as a Senator and a local representative, but also to the people in the area.

With regard to the operation of An Bord Pleanála, under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, I am precluded from discussing any individual planning cases, which as the Senator will be aware, are matters for the appropriate planning authority or, in this case, An Bord Pleanála. My comments will be general and will discuss what we are doing to ensure-----

There is plenty of material there.

-----that An Bord Pleanála can make quicker decision and better quality planning decisions, which is most important. Under section 126 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, the board has a statutory objective to determine planning appeals and other relevant cases within 18 weeks. Where the board does not consider it possible or appropriate to reach a decision within 18 weeks, for example because of the particular complexities of a case, such as environmental or habitat related complexities, the impacts of a proposed development on environmentally designated lands requiring careful consideration, or the requirement to hold an oral hearing, it will inform the parties of the reasons for this, and will indicate when it intends to make its decision. It is acknowledged that there has been a reduction generally in the board’s compliance rate in determining cases within the statutory objective period over the past year which can be attributed to a number of factors, including a general increase in cases received by the board. For example, there was an increase of almost 12% in the number of normal planning appeals received in 2017 compared to 2016. This caseload intake has continued to further increase in 2018. At end-November 2018, the compliance rate for determining normal planning appeals within the 18-week statutory objective period stood at 35%, and at 41% for all planning cases the board has to deal with. This is admittedly down on previous years. However, a range of measures have been taken to address this, including the appointment of additional board members and a number of internal measures within the organisation. Both the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and I are satisfied that these will enable the board to significantly improve its compliance rate in the near term. In the 11 months to end November 2018, the number of cases decided by the board was 2,564, a 29% increase on the same period last year. The board's output is now averaging in excess of 250 cases per month and, in November alone, the board decided more than 290 cases, or 30% more cases than the caseload intake it received that month.

On large housing developments, it is important to note that new streamlined arrangements have been introduced to enable planning applications for strategic housing developments, SHDs, to be made directly to the board. People often ask us if this is the reason other applications take longer.

It is not the case because additional staff have been employed for that. At the end of November 2018, 47 strategic housing development planning applications had been made with the board issuing decisions in 36 cases, all of which were made within the prescribed 16 week timeframe, delivering a 100% compliance rate in these cases and giving permission for a total of 6,761 houses and apartments and 4,479 student accommodation bed spaces. It is important to mention the students because we have many future third-level college students here in the Gallery. It is important that they know there will be student bed spaces in the years to come and that is why it is important that we put that planning in place today.

In addition, planning appeals in respect of housing developments of 30 units or more are prioritised, reflecting the priority attached to housing developments by the board. With regard to resourcing, the board currently has a complement of 11 members, including an extra board member engaged in June 2018 and a new chairperson who took up duty on 30 October 2018, and employs over 150 staff members. Taking this and the increased Exchequer grant of €18.5 million for the board in 2019, a 7% increase on the 2018 budget, into account, I am satisfied that the board has sufficient and necessary resources to perform its statutory functions. My Department will continue to monitor and liaise closely with the board to ensure that it has the appropriate resources to support it in the performance of its functions and so that decisions are made in an efficient and timely manner. I cannot comment specifically on the Senator's case in Mayo but the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and I believe that the resources are now in place for the board to be able to improve the timeline. Hopefully that will lead to a decision very soon on that very worthy project that the Senator has highlighted.

This response does not recognise particular challenges that face lands designated under the birds and habitats directive. There is no cognisance of that. I amended my Commencement matter-----

It was refused by the Minister's office.

I amended it, following consultation, to highlight that specific issue. I beg the indulgence of the Cathaoirleach on a slightly off-topic issue.

We are well over the limit now.

We are finishing up before Christmas and I want to ask the Minister of State for an update, though he does not have to give it here, on critical information about the pyrite remediation scheme for Mayo which we understood was to be in place before the end of December.

The Senator is testing my indulgence.

I know. The Cathaoirleach is very generous.

The Minister of State will communicate with the Senator on that.

With regard to the main matter raised, I cannot deal with one specific case, but the resources are there and some planning applications are very detailed and complicated with regard to environmental legislation. The board has access to the resources it needs to bring in the required personnel to make those decisions and advise it. In our view, the board is now in a position to make a judgment soon on that case and others.

With regard to the mica and pyrite schemes for Mayo and Donegal, in the budget in October, the Government committed to having a scheme and in the past couple of months, our Department has been working on schemes that we think would suit. That has to happen both in Mayo and Donegal. Those schemes will go to Cabinet soon, hopefully in January. That is the next phase of this. The Government has committed to putting a scheme in place and bringing it through. We are committed to helping people who are in a very difficult situation with regard to houses and homes in Mayo and Donegal.