Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Covid-19 Pandemic

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for coming to the House. He will take three Commencement matters.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House, although I am disappointed it is not the Minister for Tourism. If I had a planning matter, I would be delighted to see the Minister of State here, but that is not the case today.

This Commencement matter relates to the equality of treatment for the hospitality sector. I call on the Minister of State to set out the evidence that clearly shows that the hospitality sector is causing an increase in the rate of transmission over and above that of any other economic sector. As the Minister of State will be aware, 36 hours ago the country went into level 3 lockdown, but the hospitality sector went into level 5. Some 900 hotels, 2,500 restaurants, 7,000 pubs, some of which have never reopened, and another 2,000 accommodation providers closed their doors on Tuesday night.

We were the last sector to reopen on the 29 August and we were the first to be shut down again. We were asked at that time to hold firm and not to push reopening, which we did. The emphasis was on stopping the shutdown-open, shutdown-open pattern. Clearly, that policy has pay failed. Three counties, Laois, Offaly and Kildare, are now in a third lockdown. Dublin and Donegal are in an extended second lockdown. The remainder of the country has now gone into a second lockdown. I can only express to the House the strain this is placing on the hundreds of thousands of employees in the sector and on the tens of thousands of business owners and their families, including mine. It is also placing a strain on people's mental health.

The industry is calling for clarity as to why we were shut down. It is justified in seeking that information. We did what was asked of us, provided a safe environment for our customers and our staff, who went through rigorous training in order to allow us to reopen on 29 June. We opened on that date and after the first six weeks, which is three full double-week cycles of the 14 days to which we keep referring. The transmission rate had dropped significantly. Before we reopened, we were looking at 1,418 cases a day, there were 155 patients in ICU and 850 patients overall in hospitals. After our six weeks of trading, there were 28 cases daily, six people in ICU and only 12 patients overall in hospitals. Where is the evidence that the hotel sector is the exponential factor that is causing the increased rate of transmission? Dublin went into further lockdown on 21 August. At that time, the 14-day transmission rate was 118. Three weeks later, when the hotels, pubs and restaurants had not even opened so they cannot be blamed, it has gone up to 163. Where is the evidence? At the same time, our industry is looking at social media all of the time and seeing house parties, with marquees and pubs being hired in. We are told that the key factor the health services are worried about is how human behaviour is affected by alcohol. What the Government is promoting is social interaction in a home environment that the Garda Commissioner said yesterday his force cannot control. All its officers can do is stand outside people's houses.

The Government has closed down sectors which were providing a safe environment for people to socialise in, where the gardaí could come in, inspect and even had powers to consider the licence of the pub owners in their applications. Where is the transparency? Where is the evidence? Publish the evidence. If this does not happen and I am wrong, I will accept that. If, however, the Government is asking the sector to take a hit over and above any other, it should admit that and recognise it in the budget next week.

I thank the Minister of State for attending. As Senator Casey has outlined, the strain placed on the hospitality sector has been enormous in recent weeks and months. I will outline a number of specifics for the attention of the Minister of State. The hospitality sector contributes €4.5 billion in wages, salaries and employment taxes every year. More than 330,000 people are employed or are supported directly by demand from the sector. Tens of thousands of their jobs are located outside cities in places where jobs will be especially difficult to replace. The Government has acted and, it must be acknowledged, has put in place considerable supports. Following the latest blow of being essentially shut down, as Senator Casey just outlined, however, we are at level 3 but the hospitality sector is at level 5. We have now been informed that we will be closed for another three weeks. It is clear that these supports must be enhanced in next week’s budget. Some 8% of the entire population is employed in what the Central Statistics Office defines as the accommodation and food service sector, which includes local pubs, restaurants and hotels. This is one of the most important sectors in the economy.

This is the time to act and to place confidence in the ability of this sector to rebound quickly when we begin to emerge from Covid-19. Our sector can and will, with sufficient supports, come back and create a huge improvement, similar to the effect it had on the economy in recent years. We need to consider a range of measures, including a reduction in VAT and an exemption from 2021 commercial rates - this is essential - which will be a considerable portion of the commercial rates for the entirety of next year. Of course, as the Minister of State is aware, this will result in additional expense in the short-term but I firmly believe that it will be a case of short-term pain for long-term gain whereby we can ensure the future viability of businesses in the hospitality sector.

Behind every business, whether it is a hotel, a bar or a restaurant, there is a family. In Galway's inner city where I come from, the situation is particularly frightening and this is having huge implications on the mental health and well-being of people. As alluded to by Senator Casey, hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake here. The uncertainty of that is taking its toll. I have already told the Taoiseach that I fail to understand how 12 hours’ notice or, as was the case last week, 36 hours’ notice are acceptable in the context of shutting down the entire industry. I can inform the House about my first-hand knowledge of the wastage in restaurants, bars and hotels. Three days’ or five days’ notice could have been given. It was the same in Dublin, where 12 hours’ notice was given. I do not think the Government realises the impact this is having. I ask, as Senator Casey did, that if the evidence is there, can it be published in order that we might have some certainty? We do not know whether we will be able to reopen in three weeks' time or whether we will remain closed. This is having an enormous effect in the cities but also, I am sure, in rural areas. I await the Minister of State’s response.

I thank Senator Crowe. It is a particular pleasure for me to call the Minister of State to speak, to welcome him to the Seanad and to congratulate him on his appointment. He is doing an immense job and there is a great sense of anticipation among my electorate that he will even do more.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and I thank both Senators Casey and Crowe for this Commencement debate.

I know that both Senators have considerable experience in the hospitality sector. I can leave them in no doubt that I am very acutely aware of the pressures that are faced by the hospitality sector. In my town of Mullingar, I have seen what staff and businesses have endured over the past six months due to the very uncertain path of this virus. It is very sad to see businesses which have made such an effort to make their premises safe for the public, and what they have had to go through as a result of a very quick decision which has impacted greatly upon them.

On 5 October, the Government decided that from midnight on Tuesday, 6 October, all counties would be placed on level 3 under the plan for living with Covid-19. The Government is acutely aware of the impact that the move to level 3 has for society generally and, in particular, for the tourism and hospitality businesses around the country. The current restrictions effectively require many tourism and hospitality businesses to close their doors for a second time this year. The nationwide move to level 3 is based on a review of the current public health advice and is in response to the deteriorating situation with the virus across the country.

All counties will be at level 3 for a period of three weeks until midnight on 27 October, at which point the situation will be reviewed by the Government based on the status of the virus and the public health advice. In recognition of the impact of the level 3 restrictions, a 30% top-up to the restart plus grant will be provided to help support those affected through the three-week period. The restart plus grant is a contribution towards the cost of reopening or keeping a business operational and reconnecting with employees and customers. The grant can be used to defray ongoing fixed costs during closure, for example, utilities, insurance and refurbishment, or for measures to ensure employee and customer safety. In addition, in recognising that level 3 is being extended in Dublin and Donegal beyond their initial three-week period, businesses in these counties will be eligible for a further 20% and 10% top-up, respectively.

Prior to these most recent developments, the Government took a number of steps to help the tourism and hospitality sector. The July stimulus package introduced significant measures to help support businesses to recover following the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 crisis. Some of the key measures for tourism and hospitality include the stay and spend initiative, the €26 million adaptation grant, the €10 million grant for coach tourism and the revised restart grant, which now includes bed and breakfast accommodation. Tourism enterprises also benefit from wider horizontal supports, such as the employment wage support scheme, liquidity and enterprise investment measures, warehousing of tax liabilities and the extension for a further three months of the waiver of commercial rates. This is a key area for which the Department has responsibility and we sanctioned €600 million up to September. The case is being reviewed in the context of budgetary negotiations.

As part of its response to Covid-19, and to drive bookings for short breaks and holidays in Ireland in 2020, Fáilte Ireland has invested in a number of domestic holiday campaigns since June. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, has seen first hand that these campaigns have been successful in getting Irish people to holiday at home.

All of these measures have helped the sector. The Minister appreciates, however, that severe challenges remain and we must continue to examine ways to ensure that businesses survive and recover. Earlier this week, she welcomed the publication of the tourism recovery plan by the tourism recovery task force. The task force makes a number of recommendations to help ensure the survival of tourism businesses and jobs and to help the sector to stabilise and recover in the years to come. Within this, it has identified a number of priority recommendations aimed at ensuring the survival of tourism businesses and jobs. The recovery plan will be hugely beneficial to the Minister and her colleagues in Government as we work towards the budget and the national economic plan.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. The Minister and I are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge and the many competing priorities facing the Government. However, she will be pushing hard for further support for the sector following on from the measures introduced as part of the July stimulus.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. My comments are not directed at him. The response refers to level 3 so it does not even admit that the sector is at level 5. That is where we are. It would be something for the Government to acknowledge that in reality the hospitality sector is at level 5. Being asked to survive with 15 customers outside and for people to stay in a hotel in their own county is absolutely ridiculous. It raises questions about the stay and spend initiative, to which I was looking forward. It is being deferred. I appreciate that the Minister of State has said that €600 million has already been given to the commercial rates waiver scheme. I do not want to be told by the local authority when I go to look for a waiver that technically I am not closed down because I can open for 15 customers outside and for people living in Wicklow having a staycation. That will not run with me. If I am told this by my local authority it will be treating the industry with a disrespect that it does not deserve because it has done its best. Where is the information that clearly outlines we are an exponential factor in the spread of Covid-19? Nobody is prepared to publish that information because I do not believe it exists. We are not being treated in the same way as other economic activities in this country.

I suggest that if Senator Crowe makes his final comment after the Minister of State it will be very fair to everyone.

I absolutely accept the points being made but I am very clear about the rates waiver. If a business was closed it was eligible for the waiver. Those businesses that were partially closed were also allowed to apply for it and did so successfully. The Senators are aware that very few businesses were precluded from the scheme. It is very important as we go forward. I see in my town of Mullingar that the Greville Arms Hotel has closed its doors. It is an institution in Mullingar. As I walk the streets I see the businesses under significant pressure and the hospitality sector is chief among them. I have no doubt we have to approach the budget on a sector-by-sector basis because one thing I learned during the last recession was that when the construction sector suffered so much and we had a huge demand for capital expenditure in the country, it was not adequately resourced to pick up the demand. Equally, we have a huge amount of viable but vulnerable businesses in our tourism sector and when we get rid of Covid-19 we need to have capacity to absorb the demand that will come into the country. We will need a strong hospitality sector to do this. The Government will respond to this through the budget and it is at the forefront of the negotiations.

Will the Minister of State give a commitment in the House this morning that at the very latest he will inform the hospitality sector by Thursday, 22 October, which gives only four or five days notice, whether they will be allowed to reopen? I ask the Minister of State to bring this to the attention of the Minister. It is absolutely vital that we get notice for rosters, orders and chefs across the board. The stay and spend initiative, with the greatest respect, is too complicated and now that it is meant to come into place the whole industry has been shut down. It needs to be rejigged at the very least.

Senator Casey alluded to this, and it is not personal with regard to the Minister of State, but we must get the message across that the Government is treating the hospitality sector with contempt. Coming up with the initiative that places can open for 15 people means they are damned if they do and damned if they do not. If a business opens it will lose all of the supports but if it does not open it will get boxed in. Someone running an operation for a maximum of 15 people at the very minimum will need a chef and front of house staff. The operation will need seven or eight staff. It is sending out the wrong message. Will the Minister of State give a commitment that on Thursday, 22 October, the hospitality sector will be informed?

Just to clarify, I am very clear that I am not treating the hospitality sector or the tourism sector with contempt. I am not aware of the grants that businesses are precluded from getting if they are closed. The temporary wage subsidy scheme can be received as can the restart plus grant. They can also get the rates waiver if they were open or partially open. They are not excluded from getting the rates waiver. I want to be very clear that the Government is supporting the hospitality sector and it will not be found wanting in the budget.

This is a very important matter and it has been very well thrashed out.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. To get to the nub of the point I want to make, teachers and parents have made huge sacrifices in the classroom and at home in dealing with the new reality and the new era of Covid.

I want to speak about what happens in the event of a level 5 situation. I accept that there is a firm commitment for schools to remain open, even in a level 5 situation. The continuation of education is important no matter the cost.

The purpose of this Commencement matter is to ascertain the Department's contingency plans in two scenarios. The first scenario is a severe outbreak, for example, a Covid hotspot in a school. The second scenario, God forbid, is our surpassing a level 5 situation. How does primary school education continue in that situation? I want to know what the Department has been doing in terms of contingency planning for such scenarios, including its engagement with teachers and the various stakeholders. In a worst case scenario, where education in a school cannot continue due to a Covid outbreak, we may have to consider the use of technology, as is happening in the third level sector and is working extremely well. I accept that it is difficult to compare university students to primary school students. I accept that there are broadband and child protection issues and that not every family has access to ICT devices.

I am seeking information today on how the Department plans to facilitate the continuation of education in a worst case scenario and for reassurance in that regard from Government for teachers and, in particular, parents who are fearful of a more severe outbreak. We have no any idea what the future holds. We need a national protocol, which would provide that teachers would have to check in with students once a day online for, say, an hour or two hours. I know that the Department has provided substantial extra funding in terms of ICT for families and schools. I accept that online learning is nowhere near as beneficial as classroom learning. I spoke to a teacher this morning who told me that one hour in a classroom setting is worth a week of online learning. I agree with that. My colleague, Senator Buttimer, with his vast experience in this area, will be a testament to that.

We need to put in place additional measures to make sure that teachers are teaching in a safe and secure environment and to reassure parents that they are sending their children into a safe and secure environment. We do this in three ways. First, we prioritise testing in schools at all cost. Second, we prioritise contact tracing and, third, we put in place a dedicated helpline for school principals through which they can access advice on the standard HSE guidelines. If we can do that, we can make schools a safer place for students and staff alike. The purpose of this is to ensure we do not reach the situation we reached in March which resulted in children at home for months on end, receiving varying levels of education because of different types of teaching or school curriculums. We need a national protocol that will provide clarity for teachers and parents around how the education of children will continue in a worst case scenario.

I thank Senator McGahon for raising this important issue. It has been a collective effort across the system that has enabled schools to reopen at the start of the school year. I acknowledge the leadership shown by principals, deputy principals and management of schools and the degree to which teachers have prepared for and adapted their practice. In addition, I acknowledge the efforts of the wider school community in supporting the reopening of schools, including those of special needs assistants, secretaries, caretakers, parents and, of course, the pupils and students.

It remains the Government's key objective for schools to remain open and to continue to operate as normally as possible. However, I recognise that despite the best efforts of all stakeholders, there will be situations where individual pupils or groups of pupils, teachers, or possibly entire school communities are requested by public health-HSE to self-isolate or restrict their movements because of a case or cases of Covid-19. There is an absolute necessity for schools to be prepared for these situations, for them to continue to support their pupils, and to provide for continuity of teaching and learning. This is particularly important in the context of pupils at risk of early school leaving, pupils with special educational needs and pupils at risk of educational disadvantage. Schools need to be agile in providing for continuity of schooling in the future. Contingency planning is required for supporting the continuity of pupils' learning with the use of digital technology where possible. It is important that these plans should be based on a whole-school approach and that the plans should be reviewed and adapted over the coming weeks and months as the situation evolves and as the experience of schools increases in these matters.

Extensive guidance and supports have been and continue to be made available by the Department of Education and Skills and its support services to support schools to plan for the transition to online and remote learning, and this guidance is available at www.gov.ie. The guidance includes links to a range of materials and supports developed by the digital technologies team of the Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, such as learning platforms and online tools which can be used to support remote or distance teaching and learning. Those resources continue to be available to schools. In addition, the Department has issued ICT grant funding to schools to address ICT needs, including digital devices, communication learning platforms, software and other ICT solutions to support the provision of remote learning. I confirm to Senator McGahon that additional grant aid will issue during the current school year subject to the availability of Exchequer funding.

The Department's inspectorate is supporting school communities to provide effectively for the learning and progression of all learners during the first term of the 2020-2021 school year. The situation we find ourselves in is evolving all the time. The Department, working with the whole of government, will keep the situation under review and update any advices to schools as required. It is with the work of all our stakeholders together that we will continue to provide the best education for all our pupils. Guidance has already issued from the Department that provides advice to assist schools in planning for contingency situations where teaching and learning can be delivered remotely for pupils who cannot attend schools for reasons related to Covid-19. The Department has also provided extensive guidance to support the well-being of pupils. To support schools further, I can confirm that the Department is planning to publish in the coming days a set of guidelines on how schools should plan for and support the learning of individual pupils or groups of pupils who may have to self-isolate or restrict their movements during the 2020-2021 school year.

I thank the Minister of State for the very substantial response. The most important part of it is the last couple of sentences in which he confirmed guidelines will be published in the next couple of days or within the next week on how the continuation of education will happen. It is important that that guidance is published as soon as possible.

We acknowledge that schools need to be agile in an ever-evolving situation. We allow schools to be agile by providing them with as much information as soon as possible so they can make informed decisions about what may or may not happen down the line.

I thank the Senator for his comments. He is correct that the school authorities, teachers, pupils and all of the staff have done great work in the context of Covid-19 and getting 1 million pupils back into school. It is a great achievement. As the Senator said, we are in an evolving situation and we have to continue to issue guidance.

School Staff

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, on his appointment. This Commencement matter relates to the promise of additional substitute teachers in the primary school system. I am seeking details with regard to the number of additional substitute teachers provided, their location and the ratio of substitutes to schools and the teachers in those schools. I am conscious that the Government has made a clear and welcome commitment to keeping schools open, where possible, even if we have to go to level 5.

I am conscious that the Government has made a clear and welcome commitment to keeping schools open, where possible, even if we have to go to level 5. I am conscious also that there was a commitment by the Department to get the Teaching Council to contact 6,000 teachers in August, that is, 6,000 teachers who are currently registered, but are not deployed to any one school at this point in time. The reason I am asking this question is that a number of schools have contacted me, particularly in my constituency of Dublin Central, and have said that the scheme of panel substitute teachers is not working at the moment. One school in particular is operating in a panel of 15 schools, with just three substitute teachers. Therefore, when a teacher is ill, the school does not know, when it logs into the app, whether it will be able to get a substitute teacher for that particular day. The system of a substitute panel of teachers is not working at the moment. We are six weeks into the school term and it is not reasonable to wait any longer for the roll out of proper substitute panels across the country. This is simply too urgent a situation.

We are saying to teachers that if they develop any symptoms or feel ill, they should not go into school, as they would have done in the past. The fact they must absent themselves from school means we need a much more robust system of substitution, and proper provision of same.

This has been a long-standing call from the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO. A panel was put in place in 2019. However, to be frank, the information to date is that there is not sufficient scale in the panel of substitute teachers across the country.

I thank the Senator for her kind comments. In respect of difficulties in filling teaching positions, the teacher supply steering group was established in March 2018 and the group is chaired by the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills. The steering group leads on the identification of issues, the development of a programme of actions on teacher supply and oversees its implementation. An implementation group supports the work of the steering group. The group is also supported in its work by a number of working groups which consider and report on particular issues. The working groups report to the implementation group.

A number of specific measures have been taken to increase the pool of available substitute teachers, including the establishment, in the 2019-2020 school year, of a substitute teacher supply panel scheme on a pilot basis. The pilot scheme has six base schools employing teachers on a fixed-term basis so as to provide substitute cover to up to 90 schools. These supply panels were set up to work alongside the existing methods of sourcing substitute teachers, whether through a school's own panel of regular substitutes or the national substitution portal service.

In July, the Department of Education and Skills published the report, Reopening Our Schools: The Roadmap for the Full Return to School, and announced a funding package of more than €370 million for schools to supports its implementation. Among the package of supports is the extension of the substitute teacher supply panel. Additional teachers are being provided to support the safe and sustainable reopening of primary schools in order to provide enhanced substitution and eliminate the need to mix classes when a teacher is absent.

The scheme has been expanded from the pilot scheme of six base schools to more than 100 base schools, providing substitute cover to approximately 2,300 schools across the country. More than 300 additional teaching posts have been allocated to this scheme. The Department has worked closely with our partners on expanding teacher supply panels. The base schools were first identified in collaboration with the INTO and primary management bodies. The INTO and primary management bodies made contact with these schools with a view to being a base for that location. In forming the supply panel clusters, the Department's geographical information system, GIS, identified the receiving schools based on distance from the base school.

The supply panel teaching posts were allocated to each supply panel based on the number of schools in the cluster and the number of permanent teaching positions to be serviced by the scheme. Currently, there are 115 substitute teacher supply panels nationwide and these panels operate in accordance with the terms and conditions as outlined in Circular 59/2019, which is available on the Department of Education and Skills website.

I will bring the particular issues raised by the Senator to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills in the context of her own particular area. I met with a deputation of teachers from my own area of Mullingar, in the context of the budgetary negotiations, and they were impressed by how the system is working in their locality. If there are teething problems or issues with the scheme, we can thrash them out, and I will gladly bring the Senator's comments to the Minister's attention.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and for his commitment to relay my concerns directly to the Minister. The response provided did not answer my question with regard to the precise locations and the ratio of substitutes to teachers in the schools. Having 100 base schools covering 2,300 schools does not seem in any way adequate to deal with that is facing schools over the coming months. I ask the Minister of State to relay back to the Minister for Education and Skills that we need to see a much broader expansion of the panel substitute scheme if we are to provide a proper and sufficient teaching service within schools.

I thank the Senator for her concern and for raising this important issue. I will bring back her concerns to the Minister for Education and Skills and will ask her to circulate the briefing material in terms of the bases that are already in place and the concerns the Senator has raised in her particular area.

Flood Relief Schemes

I welcome Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, to the House and congratulate him on his appointment.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for taking this matter, which is a very important one. I wish to commend him on his work so far as Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works. As the Minister of State is aware, the Lower Lee flood release scheme is a very important one for Cork city, and I want to thank him for his proactivity, not just around Cork city, but around the flooding in west Cork, his availability, interest and activity.

The backdrop to the request for this debate today is the Minister of State's recent visit to Cork to discuss the flood defence scheme, which all of us acknowledge is required. I would like to put on the record my thanks for the work of the Office of Public Works, Cork City Council, and those who may have a different viewpoint. We all want to protect Cork city and to see it as a liveable and working city, free from flooding. This is about the future of Cork city. As the Minister of State is aware, his predecessor, the former Minister of State, Kevin Boxer Moran, visited Cork and made strident remarks that the money could be gone and there is a fear among many of us that the money allocated for this Cork flood defence scheme could evaporate.

It is important that we commence the physical work. The Lower Lee flood relief scheme is pivotal to the development of Cork from an economic point of view in terms of jobs and investment. I have been in the shops and restaurants that have been flooded and in businesses that have been closed. I have been in the homes of flood victims. This is about making Cork a liveable city.

As we all know, Cork is vulnerable to both fluvial and tidal flooding, and that is what makes it unique.

Cork, in Project Ireland 2040, is seen as a city complementary to Dublin and of strategic importance. It is important that the investment by the Government in the OPW and the Cork flood relief scheme continue. I am not here to throw stones at anybody, but rather to ensure we receive an update from the Minister of State and proceed so that we can protect businesses and make our city more liveable. It is important to acknowledge the work of the OPW and the officials in the Department. The scheme that is presented to us now is different from how it began 14 years ago. It is a better scheme today because of the public consultation and the willingness to be open. The CFRAM study has done our city a power of good. It is now time, having reflected on the public consultation and having had much dialogue, with changes having taken place, to commence the work to alleviate the risk of flooding, which has happened on many occasions on the island of the city, Morrison's Island, Lower Oliver Plunkett Street, South Mall, Grand Parade, Middle Parish - I could keep going.

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. It is time to proceed. Our city and our people deserve to be free from the threat and worry of flooding.

I thank the Minister of State for raising this important matter, which I feel strongly about. I studied at University College Cork, so I know the city very well and the geography of most of the areas affected. Major flood events have affected the country in the past few months but particularly in counties Cork, Kerry, Galway and Limerick.

As the House will know, I visited many parts of the country in the aftermath of these awful events in August and saw at first hand the impact on residents and businesses in the communities. I express my thanks to the outdoor staff of the Office of Public Works, such as our engineering staff, the staff of the councils, the fire services, volunteers and others who assisted people throughout the affected communities. I took the opportunity of visiting Cork city a fortnight ago to meet the Lord Mayor and the Cork City Council chief executive, as well as representatives of the chamber of commerce and the Cork Business Association. At the meetings, I expressed my support for the city council's public realm project on Morrison's Island, which contains significant flood defences designed to protect that part of the city from some of the worst effects of tidal flooding. It has not gone unnoticed that the city had a lucky escape in late August, when a wind change saved several streets in the city from what could have been a major event with extensive flooding of property and businesses, rather than what actually occurred. I acknowledge my staff at the Office of Public Works for monitoring that event on the night to see whether emergency measures needed to be put in place. It was a matter of luck that the wind changed direction.

I also took the time to inform all the parties concerned of the commitment of the Office of Public Works, me and the Government as a whole to the implementation of the Lower Lee flood relief scheme, which covers the whole city of Cork, up to and including areas such as Inniscarra. During my visit I was struck by the growing frustration over delays to the commencement of the Morrison's Island project following a legal challenge to An Bord Pleanála's approval for the project. This has been well documented in many media outlets, social and otherwise. While I fully respect everyone's fundamental right to object, further delays to the Morrison's Island project would increase not only the risk to both homeowners and business people living and working in the city of Cork but also the risk of people losing their lives in a major flood event. My primary concern is the possible loss of life in Cork city if there is a repeat of the major event in 2009, which is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

I am sure the House will be aware that examination of the flooding problems in Cork city has been ongoing since the Lee CFRAM study, to which the Senator referred, commenced in 2006, and since 2013, this has gathered pace, with the appointment of consultants to develop and design a scheme that will eventually be brought to construction. This has led to frustration. When I mention 2006 to the people of Cork, eyes begin to roll. A great deal of public consultation has been carried out and, as the Senator rightly noted, the scheme has improved as a result. The outline design proposals were formally placed on public exhibition in December 2016, with submissions accepted until 2017. Since that exhibition there has been further comprehensive consultation through engagement with many groups, resulting in many positive changes to the original design.

The OPW is not above criticism; we are not one bit precious. If matters can be made better by engagement, we are all for that. The OPW has addressed every substantive issue raised in submissions received during the consultation phase. One of the most contentious issues raised during the development of the scheme concerned whether a tidal barrier was the solution to the problem for Cork city. One of the many options considered in the project was a tidal barrier and a detailed report was prepared as one of the many reports prepared for the scheme. The conclusion was that while a correctly sited and designed tidal barrier may resolve the tidal problem, it would not solve the more destructive fluvial, or river, flooding problem in Cork. Having lived there for a period, I know that is one of the greatest concerns, as all the traders will agree. Four locations were considered in the report and were ruled out for varying reasons, including environmental impacts, technical difficulties, impacts on the navigation in the harbour, which is one of the busiest in the country, limited upstream storage capacity for flows coming down the river, or inadequacy in terms of climate adaptability.

The Senator's Commencement matter is timely because this matter was addressed on television last night on "Eco Eye", which I am sure he watched. Estimated costs of between €1 billion and €2 billion - massive variations - would be prohibitive at this point and any such project would not be cost beneficial when all the financial benefits are taken into account. The report concluded that a tidal barrier is not currently viable for the city and will not become viable for at least 50 years. I do not believe that the people of Cork city are prepared to wait that long. I am pleased to say the detailed development of the Lower Lee flood relief scheme has continued and the public has been made quite aware of the latest information through the publication of various documents, including an updated design for the scheme. A key point of the scheme is that more than €20 million will be invested in the repair of the quay walls, many of which are currently at risk of falling into the river. Approximately 1 km of new riverside walkways will be provided through the scheme as an amenity and the majority of the quayside defences will be just 2 ft or less, with appropriate railings on top. Judging by some of the criticism, and criticism is warranted, one would swear we were building 10 ft or 12 ft walls, which is not the case in most of the areas I referred to.

I am pleased to say the intention of the Office of Public Works is that the scheme will be resubmitted to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in the first half of next year for formal consent under the provisions of the Arterial Drainage Acts. I sincerely hope the scheme will be formally approved once the Minister has considered all related matters, including an independent review of the environmental impact assessment of the scheme, which we are obliged to carry out. It is anticipated that if the scheme is approved, it will be implemented on a phased basis to minimise disruption to the city's dwellers and businesses, which there is concern about. I reiterate my commitment, and that of the Government, to seeing this much-needed scheme for Cork city and the Lower Lee as a whole implemented to minimise the constant worry for homeowners and business people alike in Cork city.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. I am delighted that he is committed to the scheme. I again thank the city manager, the city council and the staff of the OPW. As the Minister of State rightly noted, the office was not immune from engagement or from changing the plan. It is now critical that we put a timeline in place and proceed with the scheme. This is about lives, livelihoods and getting it right. We have a good scheme now. I thank the Minister of State for his commitment and commend him on his reply.

The OPW also wants to save Cork city. No one has a monopoly on concern for saving Cork city. I have a deep concern and reiterate that now publicly. If there is a high tide with south westerlies, with severe rain, sodden ground and Cork city inside a bowl, we will be back to a 2009 scenario. We know that the process for delivering major flood relief schemes is moving more slowly than the rate at which our climate is changing. We cannot continue in this vein of delivering schemes at the snail's pace of 2006. The people of Cork are frustrated, as is the Office of Public Works. We are leaving vulnerable communities throughout the country to severe flood damage.

This is not for want of money. The Government has money, which has been set aside. Some €1 billion has been allocated over ten years. This House and the other could be very helpful if we had an honest discussion of the processes currently in place for the delivery of major, capital flood relief schemes. We will not be able to protect small, medium and large-scale communities in the country, not to mention address the coastal problem, if we do not have an honest discussion about our sea levels rising.

If they rise by 1 m, that might be fortunate. If they rise by 2 m, whole communities will be affected. If we continue on the current trajectory in the context of Cork city, the Government and the OPW will not be able to save it, which is what we want to do. If the Senators want to be helpful to the OPW, as I know they want to be, they should note I would welcome the opportunity to have a debate in this House on the issues that the OPW, as an agency, must address. Perhaps I could articulate some of the problems that we have faced, including in respect of habitats. There is one habitat that was never referred to in much of the discourse, that is, the human habitat. It is about time we had a discussion on it.

Living City Initiative

I thank the Minister of State for attending. This is my first time to speak in the Seanad Chamber. It is a great honour. Before the Minister of State came in, my colleagues very passionately articulated the stress and strain experienced by the hospitality and other sectors owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. I want to use my time to propose what might be part of a solution to a crisis faced by inner-city areas and rural towns. One element of that crisis that the Minister of State and anybody coming to Leinster House this morning will have noticed is the devastating impact of Covid-19 on footfall in Dublin city. The streets of the city and other cities around the country are devoid of human activity. Rural towns such as Strokestown, Ballinrobe and Youghal have far too many vacant commercial properties. Despite our having a new Minister responsible for housing who, to be fair to him, is moving heaven and earth to address the housing crisis, it will take time to make up for the ten years of home building that we have lost.

Covid-19 has had a very damaging impact on housing construction. The housing crisis has not gone away. Our SMEs, independent traders and hospitality sector are suffering greatly. I would like the Government to consider a creative solution to create footfall in inner cities and rural towns, create employment and sustainably redevelop vacant commercial properties. In a nutshell, it is a matter of expanding on the Living City initiative, which was launched in 2015 and applies only to the inner city. The initiative is based on a tax credit that has largely failed to stimulate regeneration and renovation so I would like the Government to consider amending it to turn it into a living city and rural town initiative. Instead of offering a tax credit, there should be a grant payment to property owners to allow them to renovate, regenerate or re-let vacant commercial properties, or to live again in residential properties. It will bring people back into our inner cities and rural towns to live. It will create immediate employment in the construction sector, generate footfall and, as a consequence, support independent SMEs and small traders. It will be a sustainable response.

To be fair to previous Governments, they have invested in this, including through the tax credit. Dublin City Council has a dedicated one-stop shop to provide planning advice, guidance on regulatory conformance and conservation matters. It relaunched the existing Living City initiative in 2018. However, despite the relaunch and further promotion, there have been only 59 applications processed for the entire city. Therefore, the numbers are far too small and the initiative has had too little an impact. When the city council consulted Irish property owners in respect of the initiative prior to their experiencing the negative financial impact of Covid, the feedback it received was that a grant initiative to support property owners to develop properties would be a greater stimulation. The property owners cited the experience in Amsterdam, where there was a grant of €25,000. This led to the conversion of 850 new homes. The Minister of State might ask how we can pay for what I propose. I ask him to examine the allocation of funds in the serviced sites fund. The Government has allocated over €300 million to provide a €50,000 subvention for the building of new affordable homes. The Government should be ambitious about this and create, with some of the funds that will not be used this year because of Covid-19, a grant of €25,000 that could be used for the renovation and reuse of any vacant property for residential purposes in an inner city area or rural town.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. As a representative of the north inner city, she has first-hand experience. She probably does not have to walk too far from her own front door to see areas that might benefit from what she proposes. I appreciate and understand that she has first-hand knowledge because she was a representative at local level. She mentioned Dublin City Council. She has a lot of knowledge and experience of this area and that is why she is saying that the existing scheme, while good, is very narrow and restrictive and needs to be broadened.

I will first refer to the existing scheme and then revert to the Senator on the idea of an alternative. It might not fall within the remit of the Department of Finance because we deal only with tax. A grant system would be a different issue. The Senator's point has been made in many areas.

The Living City Initiative is a very specific tax incentive that has been cleared by the Department of Finance. It is so specific that it is not a suitable vehicle for broader application beyond its original goal. When it was being established, the local authorities were asked to exclude areas where there was no dereliction. The idea was really to develop older buildings in city centre areas with quite a bit of dereliction and where occupancy rates were very low, both commercially and residentially. Both homeowners and renters are eligible. The scheme covers specific areas in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Kilkenny. It was introduced in 2015 and reviewed in 2016. There were amendments to the Finance Act to account for some of the issues that arose.

The special regeneration areas for the Living City initiative were designated following consultation with the relevant city councils and an independent review by a third-party adviser before being submitted to the Department. Specific criteria were required to be taken into account by the relevant city councils when putting forward the proposed special regeneration areas for each city. It is important to state the initiative mainly covered dwellings built before 1915, or over 100 years old. These are the types of properties we are talking about.

The scheme offers relief from income or corporation tax for qualifying expenditure incurred on the refurbishment or conversion of qualifying buildings located within the special regeneration areas designated by the local authorities in the cities I have mentioned. There are three types of reliefs: owner-occupier relief; rented residential relief; and commercial relief. The rented residential and commercial elements provide for tax relief over a seven-year period. A person living in a property can get tax relief over a ten-year period. The maximum relief that a taxpayer can obtain through the scheme is €200,000, which is quite substantial. The scheme is still open for applications. It is one way of addressing the issue. The use of grants probably comprises a broader approach.

A grant scheme through the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage might be a better proposal because most owners of a derelict building need cash flow to do the renovation. They cannot be asked to wait for seven years to get the cost back in tax relief, and they might not have a big taxable income to start with. The idea is that when they have the work done they can be sure of getting a grant. They can go to the bank with their letter of grant approval before the works begin and the banks know that when the works are completed there is a grant on its way. That does help the cash flow. Anybody who has spoken to me about this issue highlighted the need for a grant to get the job done rather than being told they have to finance the work themselves and claim tax back over the following seven years. There is a big issue in that regard. This is the kernel of the scheme. The Senator had mentioned that a grant scheme might be more effective than a tax incentive scheme or could complement the existing scheme, which remains open. In my second reply I will give some financial information as to the cost of the scheme to date.

I thank the Minister of State for his response and I appreciate that his remit is on the financial and the tax side. However, the Government needs to recognise and accept that as well as dealing with Covid-19 we have a massive housing crisis. It has not gone away. We need to respond to that housing crisis and to the crisis faced by our independent small traders and inner city and rural town commercial operators. The Minister of State said the issue is the cash flow and having the money to undertake the work. I have spoken to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about a grant scheme. He is a pragmatic man who is ambitious and energetic about solving our housing crisis. I am hopeful that he will see merit in using half of the serviced site fund money, which is currently giving €50,000 to subvent new builds, to support the renovation of existing builds. The serviced site fund is for sites where there are no roads, sewerage or electricity. I am talking about roads and streets in the heart of our cities such as Dorset Street, here in Dublin, and the main streets of the small towns I mentioned such as Strokestown, Youghal and the like, which already have sewerage, electricity and roads. What is needed is a bit of cash to help the owners turn those properties into viable properties that people can live in to allow them live in those communities, shop in the local shops and regenerate those local economies. I welcome the Minister of State's response and if he can use his offices to impress upon the rest of the Government the need to support a grant I would appreciate it.

I thank the Senator. The essence of her point is well made and I will come back to it when concluding. I want to put some information on the public record. This is information based on the revenue at the end of last year. Of the number of applications received up to last year, only 92 were from Dublin. Cork had 71, Limerick had 19, Waterford had 32, Kilkenny had 11 and Galway city had three, making a total of 228. However, during the years 2016 to 2018, inclusive, only 65 of those applicants received tax benefit. It might mean that many people made applications and were not able to proceed. We have not-----

It has not worked.

I would have said the 228 figure was low to start with but in terms of the number that successfully came out the far end and got some tax back, it was only 65. The scheme is generous in that those 65 applicants will get tax relief, on average, of approximately €7,500 for the next seven years. They get back approximately €50,000. That is not the way the scheme was designed but that is the average amount those who have come through the scheme have got. It is an average of €50,000 for those who have been approved but that is over a seven-year period, and most people cannot wait that long. I am giving the Senator that information but would it not be great if that €50,000 was front-loaded?

People could do miraculous work. Ultimately, it will not cost the Exchequer much more. If all those 228 applications did go into the system, although not all of them came out of it, the cost would be €10 million or €12 million; I am only extrapolating the potential figure. I support the call for the grant system and I will speak directly with the Minister involved in that.

Go raibh maith agat.

Sitting suspended at 11.45 a.m. and resumed at 12.23 p.m.