Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Schools Refurbishment

In the context of the pressing problems arising as a result of climate change, this matter relates to giving leadership within local communities. We need to get the message across that we all can contribute to reversing the damage caused by the burning of fossil fuels, etc. We can do so by retrofitting primary schools and installing solar panels in order that they can produce electricity, not only for their own consumption but also for that of the wider community. We need to work hard on this because retrofitting has not been incorporated into the planning permissions granted in respect of some new primary and secondary schools in the past two years. Doing what I suggest would show that leadership is being given at national level and in local communities.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue, which gives me the opportunity to outline to the House the Department's plans for upgrading older schools. As he is aware, the Department will be investing €8.4 billion in school buildings over the lifetime of Project Ireland 2040. The latter will give rise to a 70% increase in the school building budget and this will be targeted at delivering the twin objectives of catering for the continued increase in demographics and a greater focus on refurbishment and upgrade of existing school stock. The Governnent remains committed to delivering existing projects under the schools building programme as soon as possible.

Project Ireland 2040 provides the investment necessary to implement the commitments in the Action Plan for Education to reform and modernise the school curriculum by committing to a physical education, PE, hall build and modernisation programme, starting in the second half of the Project Ireland 2040 period, which will ensure that students in all post-primary schools will have access to state-of-the-art PE facilities. This will be particularly apt in the context of the roll-out of PE as a leaving certificate subject. The next phase of the summer works scheme, which is currently open for applications, will facilitate a school laboratory modernisation programme.

The Department of Education and Skills has been at the forefront of design with respect to sustainable energy in school buildings since the development of its energy research programme in 1997. Since 2017, it has partnered with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland in an energy-efficient retrofit pilot scheme for schools. This programme is focusing on medium to deep retrofit measures, including fabric, electrical and mechanical upgrades, to improve the energy efficiency of existing schools. The longer-term outcome of the pilot will be to create an accurate and scaleable model for energy-efficient retrofits of schools across Ireland.

In the national development plan, €2.5 billion is identified for the refurbishment and construction of schools. Part of this is an intention to undertake a deep energy retrofit of schools built prior to 2008.

This pilot scheme will pave the way for and inform a much larger national schools' energy retrofit programme based on the range of topical retrofit options that will have been tried and tested during the scheme. Some 16 schools have received energy retrofits under the programme to date. The total expenditure involved was approximately €7 million. For 2019, proposed works for 17 schools are being progressed through tender and contract award stage.

The Department's technical guidance documents, TGDs, set the benchmark for sustainable design in school buildings with a clear focus on energy efficiency. Schools that are designed and built in accordance with the TGDs must achieve an A3 building energy rating. Results show that new schools being built to the 2017 building regulations have A3 building energy ratings and are also - as has been assessed - up to 20% more efficient than required under the existing regulations. All new technologies and approaches are tested to ensure compatibility with school design and operational requirements. Successful and repeated results are then incorporated into the new school designs and refurbishments. In the interest of sustainability, it is critical that renewable applications are properly suited to schools' needs and are not just applied for the sake of attaching "renewable" tag to those schools. It is also critical that we minimise the demand for energy before we invest in renewable applications. That is reasonable. This has been assisted in previous years by means of the wall and attic insulation and the water conservation programmes.

The Department of Education and Skills has been using test schools to evaluate the suitability of renewable energy options for schools for the past 17 years. More than 40% of the research programme features renewable aspects. All new schools built in accordance with the current building regulations have a minimum of 10% of their energy supplied by photovoltaic, PV, panels and are future proofed to take advantage of developing technologies as they become available. While it is not a planning requirement, major refurbishment projects facilitate the provision of PV installations to meet a base-load requirement - this is the maximum electrical load of the school used outside school hours - to optimise the performance of the system. In the context of projects that will be carried out under the 2020 summer works scheme and that will involve electrical upgrades, PV panels will be provided in order that the base-load requirements can be met and the performance of the system optimised. The potential for the use of renewables in schools is under continued review by the research programmes of the Department's energy research programme through continued research and by monitoring improvements in technology and the marketplace.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. He referred to the past 17 years in the context of this programme. Should we not take a more aggressive approach to school renewal projects by using all available resources in order to ensure that there is energy saving, that value for money is secured and that oil and other fossil fuels will not be burned unnecessarily in order to provide heating. Have we adopted an approach that is sufficiently aggressive? The Government should be providing leadership in local communities by showing that this can be done with school premises. People would then learn that they can do it in their houses. We need to get that message across. We need to work far harder on this issue.

I agree with the Senator. With the TGDs as a benchmark and with the energy efficiency retrofit pilot scheme already well under way, the Department has demonstrated its commitment to achieving greater energy efficiency. The pilot scheme has already cleared a path for the wider retrofit programme, funded under the national development plan, to follow.

That, in itself, has sent out a message to other schools and the wider public that the Department is determined to do what we set out to do in the 2040 programme. Schools currently being built to the 2017 building regulations have already an A3 energy rating. It is good to see that they are 20% more efficient than required. That is a clear message that is being sent out, including to the Government and future Governments, that it works. The pilot scheme is very effective and is being noticed by other schools and the general public.

School Accommodation Provision

The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, is very welcome to the Seanad Chamber. I thank him for responding to this very important item. Newtownwhite national school is a rural school situated between Killala and Ballina and was in decline until September 2012 when under the patronage divestment process the patronage transferred from the Church of Ireland to Educate Together. It is safe to say that since then the school has gone from strength to strength. Next September the school will increase from 54 pupils this year to 60, which will allow it to have a third teacher. I commend the Church of Ireland authorities, the local bishop, the school community and in particular the staff and board of management for their great work. All of that is in spite of the fact that the school accommodation is poor. The school is old and its accommodation is substandard to the modern day needs we envisage pupils should enjoy. One can imagine their joy when they got the news six weeks ago that they will get new accommodation comprising two mainstream classrooms and a special education room. That will enhance their offering and free up existing classrooms which can be put to other use such as for storage and a PE hall.

That is good news. However, there is a problem which has been ongoing for years. At the time of the divestment the property was in the name of the Church of Ireland and, as I understand it, a lease must be drawn up between the Church of Ireland and the Department of Education and Skills to regularise the situation. The school cannot act on foot of the notification from the Department to provide additional accommodation. The Church of Ireland authorities have been waiting for years to get the lease sorted out and they are not happy for the project to continue without the lease being sorted. That is only as a last resort and I hope we will make progress and get some answers today.

I have been communicating with the office of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, and his predecessors for some time, inquiring about the reason the lease, which is a basic thing, has not been drawn up. What are the delays and obstacles? The school has no clear answers. I should also add that the school is on a constrained site but is has an offer of land immediately adjoining the school to expand it. The school community is not going to buy land when the title of the land it is on is not even sorted out. We all understand that is a basic requirement for the school to be able to continue and to grow. I would like some answers today and beyond that it would be a welcome relief to the staff, school community and parents if we could see some progress as they want their new accommodation to be built.

Senator Mulherin may be happy with the answer I will give her today. I thank her for raising the matter. As she may be aware, the Newtownwhite Educate Together national school opened in September 2014 under the patronage divestment process. The process is one of a number of steps taken by the Department of Education and Skills to provide a more diverse range of primary schools to cater for children of all religions.

Under this process, following surveys undertaken in 2012 and 2013, it was envisaged that existing school patrons would make buildings surplus to requirement available for greater diversity if sufficient demand for a school under different patronage could be demonstrated. Some 11 new multi-denominational schools have been established under the process, with another due to be established in September.

As the Senator will be aware, the patronage of schools often involves ownership of schools and school properties. The ownership and control of school property can be a complex issue, both constitutionally and in respect of property law and rights. The ownership of the vast majority of school property by religious orders and trusts is an historical legacy of how Ireland's education system developed. Typically, ownerships involve religious trusts; trustees; religious orders; bishops, both as landowners and school patrons; and the State. The divesting of the school in Newtownwhite to Educate Together was facilitated by transfer from the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland Trustees, which owns the property, and Educate Together engaged directly with each other in respect of the leasing arrangements for the property. A draft lease was drawn up but was not finalised and executed between the parties. The school authorities submitted an application to the Department for additional accommodation in September 2019 because an additional teacher had been sanctioned for the school. The Department recently approved funding for additional accommodation for the school to construct two mainstream classrooms, one special education teacher room and one toilet for assisted users. Given the timeframe for the planning permission process and the construction period, the school is working on interim solutions for September 2019.

On foot of a request from one of the parties, given that the school has been located in the property since 2014 and in recognition of the additional accommodation to be made available for the property, the Department recently agreed to engage with the representatives of the landowners with a view to regularising the position on the lease, which is good news for the Senator. I have been told by the Department to inform the Senator that the case is being actively progressed. As the engagement is ongoing, however, it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment on it, although the Department is committed to finishing the process. Perhaps in a few weeks I will be able to provide further information but I am not currently at liberty to comment on the progress of the engagement.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, from which I take some hope and positivity. Nevertheless, I am sure he will agree the issue of the lease, which has been ongoing since 2014, has taken an inordinate length of time to be resolved. It must be resolved, however, because as I have described, a further delay will hold the school back in respect of the provision of additional accommodation and the acquiring of adjoining land, which the school cannot do.

Will the Minister of State clarify whether the Department is party to the lease? My understanding is that a lease will be drawn up between the Department and the Church of Ireland, while a sublease will be provided to Educate Together. While the Minister of State's has not indicated that, it is indicated in the information provided to the school. It is a significant issue because the Minister of State seemed to indicate there is an issue between Educate Together and the Church of Ireland Trustees, whereas my information suggests that the issue is with the Department. The school community needs to identify the parties in question, the people who must agree on the lease and the parties to the lease. I do not know if the Minister of State has the information to hand but it is critical to what I have asked. Is the Department party to the lease?

I do not have that information to hand but I will revert with it to the Senator in the next couple of days. Having briefly spoken to the Department earlier, I know that it is confident the negotiations will produce a result.

I agree with the Senator that dealing with this issue since 2014 is a long time. Given the timeframe of all that has happened, the planning permission process, the construction period and so forth, September 2019 is the date for the work to be put in place. I am not familiar with the question the Senator asked. I will find that answer for her and ensure that the relevant information associated with the question is given to her within several days.

State Airports

I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to attend this critical debate on Shannon Airport, the entire western region and, particularly, my city, Limerick. The Minister is well aware of my interest in this area. I first raised the matter of Shannon Airport getting major European hub connectivity with him in the House on 6 December. Shannon Airport is the only international airport in Ireland which does not have major European hub connectivity on a year-on basis. While it has great connectivity through Heathrow, Dublin Airport has umpteen hub connections. I accept it serves the capital city and that is important. Cork Airport has good European hub connectivity through Amsterdam with two daily flights and Paris with one daily flight. Shannon Airport, however, has no direct European hub connectivity.

I raised the matter with the Minister on 6 December. I followed it up with a meeting on Wednesday, 6 February, with the Shannon Airport management group and the Minister at which I put forward the argument that a Brexit strategic route development fund should be established. It was a constructive meeting and, on foot of it, the Minister requested and encouraged Shannon Airport management group to make a submission to his Department on a route development strategy into a main European hub. I understand this submission was made to the Minister and the Department by the group on 21 March.

The context of this is straightforward. Shannon is a key economic driver for the entire mid-west region, the western region and Limerick city. The airport is doing well but it has major excess capacity. Last year it served 1.86 million passengers but it has a capacity for 4.5 million passengers. Accordingly, it is operating at just over 40% of its capacity and could accommodate 2.6 million extra passengers. Dublin Airport is under severe pressure and the percentage of passengers its deals with is increasing. In 2005, it accounted for 72% of all air passengers. In the first quarter of 2019, however, Dublin Airport accounted for 87% while Shannon accounted for just under 4% and Cork over 6% of passenger numbers.

We are looking to drive economic growth outside Dublin exponentially under Project Ireland 2040. Shannon Airport must be a key element of this. The Minister's national aviation policy, the latest update of which appeared in February this year, talks about maximising the contribution of the aviation sector to Ireland's economic growth and development. In terms of individual airports, the Government is looking to attract new business and sustainable development to drive local economies.

I am asking for an update regarding a submission from Shannon Group to the Minister and Department on 21 March on foot of a meeting I organised with the management of Shannon Group on Wednesday, 6 February. Where is that proposal? We have very good connectivity through Heathrow Airport involving daily flights. In light of Brexit, We need to complement that with major European hub connectivity. Establishing a route out of Shannon Airport to a major European hub is critical in terms of Project Ireland 2040, Shannon Airport and, more particularly, the western region and my home city of Limerick.

I thank the Senator for once again raising this very important issue. He has certainly been leading the field in addressing this issue and his concern for Shannon Airport is second to none. In whatever form it takes, Brexit will have a significant impact on Ireland and requires planning by Government, business and citizens as well as at European Union level. Brexit will have negative consequences in all scenarios but we are determined to be as ready as possible.

On 8 May, Ireland and the UK signed an important memorandum of understanding on the common travel area, CTA, reaffirming the commitment of the UK and Irish Governments to maintaining the CTA in all circumstances. Irish citizens will, therefore, continue to be able to move freely to live, work and study in the UK while British citizens can do the same in Ireland. Similarly, the European Commission's regulation aimed at ensuring basic air connectivity in a no-deal scenario has been finalised and the UK has confirmed its intention to reciprocate the proposed measures. While this cannot mitigate the overall impact of a no-deal scenario or the assurances contained in the negotiated withdrawal agreement, the fears that aircraft might not be able to fly in the event of a no-deal Brexit are being addressed and the risks to air travel between Ireland and the UK and the UK and the rest of Europe have been significantly mitigated.

Government Departments, including mine, as well as key agencies, have been preparing for Brexit for three years now and notwithstanding any comfort we can take from commitments on the CTA and agreements on basic air connectivity, we continue to prepare through contingency planning and stakeholder engagement. Brexit is being managed on a whole-of-Government basis and my Department is represented on all relevant cross-departmental co-ordination structures. Additionally, an internal Brexit departmental committee meets monthly to oversee the Department's analyses and planning in the areas of aviation, maritime transport and tourism. Officials have regular, often daily, contact with stakeholders on Brexit planning.

Stakeholder engagement is important to the Government's domestic response to Brexit preparedness. As well as support provided by the Government, businesses and other affected sectors also need to respond and be prepared. Regardless of the impact of Brexit, there are some preparations that are purely good general business practice. For example, my officials and I have continually stressed the importance of all stakeholders, including Shannon Airport, taking necessary steps within their control to prepare for

Brexit. This includes diversification of markets. The Senator will be aware that establishing air transport connections is the result of commercial agreements between airlines and airports. As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have no function in these commercial decisions. However, I support all endeavours of Shannon Airport to ensure its prosperity in line with Government policy and taking account of national and EU law.

The Senator referred to the fact that earlier this year, I met the chair and CEO of Shannon Group. During this meeting, Brexit was raised, particularly with regard to EU hub connectivity. I am aware that the company is endeavouring to secure alternative European hub connectivity post Brexit and is in discussions with several airline operators. The company has submitted a document, to which the Senator referred, to me on this matter. My officials are engaging with Shannon Group to explore what options are available to procure such air services, including supports from our tourism agency for co-operative marketing activity.

The Government supports the development of air connectivity and the expansion of air services through funding from Tourism Ireland for co-operative marketing activity. Co-operative campaigns with partners facilitate increased marketing effort and help promote the destination. An increased Tourism Ireland budget for 2019 will continue to support both seasonal and regional growth and will be underscored by commitments to focus co-operative partnership activities on the January-April and October-December periods for Great Britain, North American and European markets. I continue to encourage all airports to avail of this funding to optimise air services, including Shannon Airport regarding alternative European hub connections.

Project Ireland 2040 supports investment to promote high-quality international connectivity between Ireland the rest of the world. This is vital in underpinning international competitiveness and to responding to challenges and opportunities arising from Brexit. In line with the 2015 national aviation policy for Ireland, the role of Shannon Airport as a key tourism and business gateway will continue to be Government-supported. I welcome that Shannon Group is exploring ways of availing of funding under Project Ireland 2040, such as the urban regeneration and development fund and the rural regeneration and development fund. My Department is engaging with Shannon Group to ensure all opportunities are maximised for the benefit of it and the region.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. In respect of the submission made by Shannon Group to him and his officials on 21 March last, he indicated that his officials and the Shannon Group are exploring what options are available to procure air services to other hubs, including support from the tourism agency and co-operative marketing activity. Time is of the essence. Brexit is on the horizon. From the point of view of Brexit readiness and Project Ireland 2040, which aims to achieve regional growth to complement Dublin, when does the Minister expect a decision to be made on the various options for progressing major hub connectivity between Shannon Group and other European airports such Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris? The key issue is to secure major European hub connectivity so that we are Brexit-proof and we can drive passenger numbers into Ireland and alleviate pressure on Dublin Airport. This would allow more people to fly into Shannon Airport where significant capacity is available. The airport would be able to deal with well in excess of 2 million extra passengers. As with Dublin Airport, Shannon has US pre-clearance. The airport has a great deal to offer. Will the Minister give a timeline by which his Department's formal consideration of the various options will conclude in order that Shannon Group can proceed with speed to get European route hub connectivity in place?

I am afraid I have learned the hard way that giving timelines is foolish in these circumstances. It is not good for the Senator and it would not be good for me to do so. We will try to expedite this process and conclude as soon as we possibly can. If I were to give the Senator a timeline for achieving what he wants, it would assume that we would be able to achieve it. We will support the objective he has set out, as will Tourism Ireland and other agencies. However, to give the Senator a date would be speculative and might raise false hopes that something will happen sooner. My Department and I realise the urgency of this matter. I will ask my officials to accelerate the talks in response to what the Senator has said and to continue to pursue the objective that he and my officials and I believe is important.

Sitting suspended at 3.10 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.