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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 9 Dec 2020

Vol. 273 No. 6

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Hospital Waiting Lists

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House. Before I address my Commencement matter directly, I welcome the announcement from the HSE this morning that women will be able to have their partners present at anomaly scans. I have been one of those women who has received the worst news from one of those scans. It is coming up to the fourth anniversary and there is not a day when I do not think about that little person. It is great that women going through similar experiences, and who will get similar news today and in the future, will not be alone.

I submitted this Commencement matter issue mainly from frustration and impatience. From personal experience over many years, I have wondered if women are being listened to in the Irish healthcare system. In all the history of our public health system, we have not seen waiting lists like this before for gynaecology services. The latest figures from the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, show that there were 4,446 patients on inpatient day case waiting lists for gynaecology procedures at the end of October, and around 1,200 of the patients waiting nationally have been waiting for longer than a year. This number has increased by 200 in 2020, and by more than half in the last five years. The number of people waiting for more than a year to see a consultant almost doubled in 2020 and has increased by more than 1,000 in five years. These waiting lists are causing Irish women, young and old, to be exhausted.

I wish to highlight a specific illness called endometriosis. The lack of care, diagnosis and treatment for this illness is atrocious. Women can wait for up to nine years for a diagnosis, and that is if they persevere and do not give up and think that what they are experiencing is just normal. It is not normal to be in pain at any time of the month and endometriosis does not just cause difficulty during menstruation, it can cause difficulties and pain all month long. I suffer with this illness. I am standing here in absolute agony, as it happens, but many women around the country are in the same position as me and go through their daily lives in pain which is usually untreated.

There is not enough awareness and there is not enough training. I have heard horror stories from women who have been told that they have imagined this and to take painkillers or go for a run. That advice is all very well and good if one is fit to go for a run and not crippled in pain. Such advice is very insulting to say the least and something drastic must be done. Women are being ignored, women's chronic pain is being ignored, and illnesses are not being diagnosed so, therefore, are not treated.

I am very aware of the HSE's national women and infants health programme that seeks to help the majority of patients with endometriosis and other gynaecological problems by improving their access to gynaecological services. However, from the previous figures that I have stated, serious efforts must be made to meet the demand for gynaecological services. We cannot help diagnose patients if there is an outstanding demand for gynaecological services. I look forward to hearing the details and actions, hopefully, from the Minister of State about the Department of Health's plan to increase capacity, reduce waiting times for women awaiting gynaecological appointments, update us on phase 1 of the model of care and a timeline for the opening of new clinics.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Health so the answer I will articulate is directly from his Department.

The demand for gynaecological services consistently outstrips supply, with increased waiting lists being experienced across all service delivery areas. I am advised that in an effort to improve access and ensure a more sustainable gynaecology service, the HSE's national women and infants health programme has developed an ambulatory gynaecology model of care. It is envisaged that the implementation of the model of care will help to reduce the waiting times mentioned by the Senator for women awaiting general gynaecology, including patients with endometriosis. The new model of care involves the establishment of one-stop see and treat ambulatory gynaecology clinics. These clinics will help to ensure that gynaecology patients receive safe and appropriate treatment, reduce the need for multiple appointments, ensure a more effective use of public funds and improve clinical outcomes.

I understand that approximately 70% of general gynaecology referrals are suitable for management in this new setting. Moreover, redirecting appropriate cohorts of women for care in an ambulatory setting will bring direct downstream benefits by freeing up scarce resources in acute hospitals, such as gynaecology theatres that could then be used for more complex procedures. In addition, given the need for health services to continue to provide safe and appropriate care in the context of the ongoing pandemic, ambulatory gynaecology provides a real opportunity to move services into a community setting, thus avoiding the need to bring patients to a hospital where Covid-19 might be prevalent. It is welcome that we are starting to treat women in their communities and not looking on these issues, which have been raised this morning, as something special that necessitate a visit to hospital because we should deliver services in a community setting.

I am advised that the roll-out of phase 1 of the new model of care commenced this summer with the establishment of the first three clinics under the governance of the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, Cork University Maternity Hospital and University Hospital Galway. In addition, a more limited clinic is being developed in University Hospital Waterford. I am informed that the ambulatory gynaecology clinics in Cork and Galway are already providing services. It is anticipated that the Rotunda clinic will be operational in the new year once the necessary refurbishment works have been completed.

The implementation of this model of care directly reflects the Government's commitment to promoting and improving women's health, as highlighted in the programme for Government. Under budget 2021, funding of €12 million has been provided for maternity and gynaecology services. I am advised that a proportion of the funding will be used to develop up to five additional ambulatory gynaecology clinics next year. I am sure that the Senator will seek these services to be provided in her area with the assistance of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Subject to funding availability, and in accordance with the model of care, it is envisaged that up to a total of 19 ambulatory gynaecology clinics will be rolled out across the country on a phased basis in the coming years. As this House will appreciate, the development of these key services will help to alleviate the significant pressure and extensive waiting lists for this key women's health specialty.

I welcome the news today that partners of women can now attend 20-week scans. That is something that all Members of this House, both male and female, have articulated since we returned here last September. They pleaded for compassion to be shown at the special times of one's life whether it be for good or not so good news but such support had to be recognised.

It is great news. As the Minister of State has said, €12 million has been set aside in the budget for gynaecological services. She has also highlighted the good news about the provision of three new clinics and that 19 more clinics will be rolled out. However, I insist that we do not take the foot off the pedal.

I am going to read out the concluding statement of the Minister for Health. I would like to emphasise that developing the gynaecology clinics is integral to improving access to services and reducing waiting lists for the specialty. I can confirm that the roll-out of the new model of care is under way with a number of the clinics already up and running.

Finally, on behalf of the Minister, I wish to emphasise that developing and improving gynaecological services is just one aspect of this Government's broader commitment to promoting women's health. This includes supporting the work of the women's health task force, including the development of a women's health action plan to tackle a wide range of issues that impact on women's health outcomes in Ireland, including gynaecological health. The task force priority will be supported by the budget allocation of 2021 and an allocation of a dedicated €5 million to the women's health fund. This funding is in addition to the €12 million provided in the budget for maternity and gynaecological services development in 2021. I am sure that the Senators are glad that I read out the Minister's concluding statement.

I thank the Minister of State. I thank Senator McGreehan for raising the issue and bringing her own personal experience to the floor. I hope that all of that will bring impact and change for other women who are in a similar situation.

County Development Plans

The next matter concerns the inclusion of buildings and structures in the record of protected structures in the current Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown county development plan.

The Minister of State is very versatile. I presume she is representing the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage as she will now discuss protected structures. I will keep my comments sweet and short.

My Commencement matter concerns Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, which is one of 31 local authorities in the country, and the designation of structures in terms of the record of protected structures. Each local authority is obliged to keep an inventory or record of protected structures for councils and the designation of the record of protected structures is a reserved function.

There is some concern. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is in the process of developing a county development plan. The chief executive has prepared her draft and it was sent to the elected members for consideration. I understand that they have submitted a substantial number of motions that will be debated next week and will discuss, among other things, some proposed record of protected structures. There is conflicting advice around these local authorities and there is some concern by prescribed bodies like An Taisce and other heritage groups. There is concern among politicians and some citizens about when to interface or interplay with the local authority on proposals for additions to the record of protected structures. There is also an issue concerning deletions.

I am aware that the Minister of State's county of Galway is currently considering protected structures. I did not know beforehand that she would be here today but I can now tell her that I spoke to the chief executive of Galway County Council the other day and that the county council is considering the addition of protected structures not as part of its review of the county development plan but as part of its current plan. I believe, and I have always understood, that one can seek a variation of one's county development plan through a public consultation process that is advertised in newspapers suggesting that one would add something. The process includes consultation with the owners and the conservation office. The pros and cons are explained to the owners and they must be given a reasonable amount of time to consider the structural issues. The chief executive then supplies a report based on professional advice to the elected members and, ultimately, the elected members see and consider that advice before making a decision. So it is ultimately a reserved function.

I have outlined one way and I believe that Galway County Council is doing it the correct way. Other councils suggest that it is not and call it a county development process. What does that mean? A county development plan occurs every five or six years so it is rubbish to suggest that one can only add or delete structures every five years.

A building in Portumna could come to the attention of the Minister of State tomorrow which she might raise with councillors and they might consider. If there is a crisis, it may need protection. On the other hand, it could be necessary to make deletions. There are buildings that may not or should not be recorded as protected structures for various reasons. They have been listed because vexatious individuals want to block development. That is not right either. I want clarity on the process. I ask the Minister of State to bring back to the Minister the concern of elected members and the executive of the council and the need for strong guidelines in regard to each of their roles in regard to this process. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's reply.

I am taking this matter today on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke. As in the previous matter, I will read the script provided to me, following which I will offer my own opinion.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising the matter and providing me with an opportunity to clarify the position. The making or variation of the statutory development plan of a planning authority is set out in sections 9 to 13 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. The development plan preparation process provides for the identification and protection of structures for addition to or deletion from the record of protected structures, RPS. Section 11 of the Act provides the procedures and process for the preparation of the draft development plan, including any buildings or structures to be included in the RPS. Section 12 of the Act stipulates the public consultation exercise to be undertaken for the draft development plan, including a public display period of a minimum ten-week duration, during which time members of the public and others may make submissions to the planning authority. Section 12(2) provides that a notice under subsection (1) shall state that a copy of the draft may be inspected at a stated place or places and at stated times during a stated period of not less than ten weeks and that written submissions or observations with respect to the draft made to the planning authority within the stated period will be taken into consideration before the making of the plan.

Following consideration of submissions received by the planning authority, the elected members may subsequently propose that material alterations to the draft development plan be made under section 12(6) of the Planning and Development Act and a period of not less than four weeks' public consultation must be held for the receipt of submissions on same. The legislation governing the material alterations stage of the development plan preparation process does not explicitly specify that a planning authority may or may not add to or delete from the RPS at material alterations stage. However, this part of the legislation does not specify any type of proposed material amendment. It is understood that the scope of material alterations that may be made to the draft plan includes material alteration changes to the RPS. In this regard, it is significant to note that after public display of the proposed material alterations, when they are subject to final consideration by the elected members of the planning authority, the possibility for any further modifications to the RPS being introduced is specifically excluded at that stage under section 12(10)(c)(ii)(II) of the Planning and Development Act. It is of further note that the variation process under section 13 of the Act, which may include proposals to add to or delete from the RPS, is based on a public consultation period of not less than four weeks.

The Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning is aware that the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Development Plan 2022-2028 is currently in preparation by the county council, with the publication of a draft plan expected shortly.

I await the Senator's commentary on the reply which I will report to the Minister of State.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply but it has only caused more confusion. I was involved in putting through three county development plans. I refer the House to the expression "Don't teach your mother to suck eggs". The reality is that this reply has caused more confusion. I was hoping it would provide clarity in regard to this matter.

The reply confirms that there are two processes including the county development plan process of ten weeks after the draft is published. In the case of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, it has only eight weeks, not ten weeks. The legislation states ten weeks. If a county council has only eight weeks of public consultation, it falls short of the statutory process and, therefore, it cannot consider submissions. If it operates on the basis of a variation, as confirmed in the reply there is a statutory obligation of four weeks. There are two different strands of timeframe for the public consultation.

It is a difficult and complex issue. We need greater clarity on it. Following on from the Minister of State's reply I am none the wiser as to what is going to happen. People have contacted me. The elected members of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council have been told by the executive that there can be no further consideration of buildings under the record of protected structures during the lifetime of this plan and that it is a development plan process only. I am saying, and the Minister of State has confirmed - Galway County Council is doing this, which is good news for the Minister of State - that it can happen at any time subject to the proper processes in terms of a variation and, most important, the public consultation, which is two-way with the owners of the properties and the other people involved.

I thank the Minister of State for coming here to respond to this matter. As I said, it is a difficult one and I will follow up on it again with the Minister of State, Deputy Burke.

As identified by the Senator, there are two processes. Obviously, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council will not hit the bar in terms of the first one because it is a ten-week process, but my understanding is that if it engages in the material alterations stage, then if it needs to add or subtract, depending on the public representatives on the council, it is open to review on a continuous basis.

Maternity Leave

I welcome the Minister of State and I wish her continued success in her portfolio. I urge her to continue all of the good work she is going in that regard. This matter relates to maternity leave for county councillors. I raised this matter in the previous Seanad. If my memory is correct, Fianna Fáil backed a motion on this issue in a previous Seanad. It is an issue that has been kicked around for some time and it came to light again recently in regard to a Minister.

A lot can be said about politicians. The people they represent worst in many ways are themselves. I firmly believe that. I am sure Senator Boyhan and other Senators will agree with me that the people councillors and others represent worst are themselves. This is a case in point in terms of a county councillor who might fall due for maternity leave. Following on from the recent announcement by a Minister, it is to be hoped we will hear more joyous news in the Dáil and the Seanad as well in our lifetime. It would be great to hear the patter of new feet. Currently, female councillors and politicians are told to take sick leave. What sort of society are we living in? Politicians need to take a look at themselves. There is nobody to blame for this but us. We are misrepresenting our own people. We should be ashamed of ourselves and the work we have not done for councillors, Deputies and Senators in regard to this matter. This would not be acceptable in any other sector and it needs to be rectified immediately.

Ireland is at the back of the queue in terms of looking after councillors and other political interests. It would not be accepted anywhere else. I am of the view that this is illegal. I hope the Minister of State will be able to clarify if legislation on this matter will come before the Houses soon.

I am looking forward to the Minister of State's reply.

As I said in regard to the previous matters, I am representing the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, today. I will read the script provided but I have a personal opinion which I will happily deliver when I have finished the script.

I thank Senator Davitt for raising the important matter of maternity leave for local authority elected members. In the programme for Government, Our Shared Future, the Government has clearly set out the commitment to address the need for greater diversity and gender equality in local government, especially where there are too few women involved in elected politics.

My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning, Deputy Peter Burke, is determined to act on this commitment and, since his appointment, has already approved a number of important initiatives, working with key partners, to encourage greater participation of women in local politics. This work will continue through the current local electoral cycle and beyond.

It is clear that the issue of maternity leave is an important consideration for women entering political life at a local level. The matter is also the subject of ongoing debate within these Houses. However, as the Oireachtas debate has shown, the matter is not straightforward.

As the Senator will be aware, local authority elected members are officeholders rather than employees and, as such, are not covered under the statutory framework for employee protection on issues relating to leaves of absence, including maternity or paternity leave.

As matters stand, however, it is appropriate to point out that the Local Government Act 2001, as amended, already makes important provision for councillors' absence. Under section 18(4) of the Act, a councillor may be absent from meetings for six consecutive months while continuing to hold his or her seat - depending on who the chair is, I might add. This period may be extended for a further six months by way of a resolution passed by the other members of the council where the absence is "due to illness" or "in good faith for another reason". This can be extended again for another six-month period on foot of a further resolution, allowing for a maximum of 18 months' consecutive absence - I must add, depending on which county council one is a member of.

A councillor who has been absent from meetings for six months will continue to receive the full amount of his or her representational payment, worth €17,000 per annum. Thereafter the payment will be reduced by 50% for absences of six to 12 months' duration. No further payments may be made after 12 months' consecutive absence. Maternity leave is not an absence. I need to add that because it seems to be missing from the script.

The Minister of State could do without reading the rest of it.

I have to deliver it.

Separately, with effect from January 2017, the Social Welfare Acts were amended such that most councillors gained access to similar benefits as self-employed contributors. As a consequence, councillors under the age of 66 are now reckonable for the purposes of accessing class S benefits, including maternity benefit.

Any change to the provisions allowing for councillor absences would require an amendment to the Local Government Act 2001 by the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has previously examined the possibility of introducing amending provisions specifically to allow for maternity leave absences of longer than six months without the requirement for the other elected members to pass a supporting resolution. This was not advanced due to the possible implications for the status of councillors as officeholders.

I am aware that when this issue was debated in the Houses, important legal matters were also raised. It is important, therefore, that proposals relating to maternity leave for councillors are considered in the context of arrangements for all officeholders in the State.

The Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning is willing and interested in inputting constructively to wider consideration on the matter, which is important in ensuring that elected councils are fully representative of the constituents they serve.

It is also important to say that the Act in question has not been changed since 1870. That is not in the script.

To be fair, we have a very proactive Minister of State with responsibility for local government and he has some cutting-edge legislation on councillors coming very soon, I hope. We are all very hopeful. This needs to be addressed, and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, has shown he has the ability to deal with it. I ask him to be brave and grasp this nettle and deal with the matter because somebody has to deal with it. We have only ourselves to blame and we should hang our heads in shame as politicians with this going on. I thank the Minister of State.

It is also important to say that during the term of the previous Government, under confidence and supply, I brought forward legislation to address this. An amendment to the statutory instrument is what is required. I can speak ad nauseam about this. If we are to be really serious about increasing the number of women taking up roles in politics, we should ensure they do not need to use a sick certificate for maternity leave. We need to be very serious about this. It is important. I have no doubt but that the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, will shine a light on this. I will work constructively with all elected representatives to ensure we have the mechanisms in place for women who wish to enter politics at council or national level. This means the very basic maternity leave, not a sick certificate.

I must add my penny's worth. I know of many female councillors who are very joyously expecting at the moment and they will not get maternity leave. Our colleagues in Europe are absolutely shocked that this is the case. They do not believe me when I say it.

Urban Regeneration and Development Fund

The Minister, Deputy Foley, is very welcome to the House.

The Minister is very welcome. I wish to speak about the upcoming urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, funding for Longford. An application was submitted under category B in 2018 for a specific area of Longford town, addressing the infrastructural deficits on open lands from the Camlin river northwards for residential development. The application did not receive approval which allowed for subsequent detailed analysis of the area under the Camlin quarter urban framework. This study advocated a co-ordinated approach integrating strategic assets such as the considerable council-owned land bank in the area and using the Camlin river as a spine to increase the reach of the successful mall park. This project will co-ordinate the development of the northern area of Longford town, utilising its key assets and connected function area in a strategic way that maximises past, ongoing and future investment. The six elements contain and connect major residential, educational, recreational, amenity and public services and economic functions centred on major tourism events at the old Connolly Barracks site, Little Water Street, Bridge Street, the Albert Reynolds Peace Park, Abbeycarton and Great Water Street. In addition, the Providers innovation hub provides supporting connections and services as per the master plan. This plan incorporates an area of more than 55 acres, taking in the 18 acre barracks site, with renewed focus on the river. The project is designed to improve sustainable mobility and physical connection between the major functional areas in the northern section of the town core, enhance environmental quality and liveability and provide an environment that attracts and encourages inward investment into Longford, which is badly needed. Longford has a high ratio of jobs to resident population, indicating the need to provide suitable and attractive residential development in proximity to these jobs and to develop sustainable travel patterns and ensure the town derives economic benefits from these jobs. Longford town can then provide an enhanced range of services and facilities to the surrounding rural community and associated economies, including its function as a cultural and amenity hub, to act as a gateway for surrounding amenities, including the canal, the River Shannon, the associated blueways, greenways and peatways being developed and Center Parcs, as envisaged in section 4 of the regional spatial and economic strategy, RSES. There has been substantial investment from Fáilte Ireland, the outdoor recreation infrastructure fund, the URDF and the town and village schemes. There has been direct investment from the local authority, which is working towards achieving these aims. This project will represent a consolidation of this investment. Improvement to the western end of Great Water Street would incorporate the large council land bank in this area and will refocus on amenity, biodiversity and urban liveability, bringing the influence of the existing successful mall development to the town core, effectively providing a backyard for residents in the area. Children frequently play on the streets and in the back lands of this area at present. The provision of this additional space is essential in order to encourage town core residential uptake and compact, sustainable development into the future.

This project has been a priority for me over recent years and since being elected to Seanad Éireann I have worked to ensure continued support from the Government.

In December 2018, an Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, visited this area as Taoiseach and met with members of the council and local businesspeople who described in detail how the lower part of Longford town had been ravaged in recent years, with the closure of many businesses. I ask that this project be prioritised in the upcoming announcements. I ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to look at the Longford model in respect of local property tax, LPT. This model has been adopted by many local authorities. Under this model, an increase in the LPT is used to service loans which are used as matched funding to develop numerous projects, some of which I have already mentioned. We led the way with that. We need our county town to be supported. When it is supported, Longford County Council will deliver these projects not only for the people of Longford town, but the people of the county.

I thank the Senator. I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Project Ireland 2040, which was launched by the Government on 16 February 2018, is the overarching policy and planning framework for the social, economic and cultural development of Ireland. It includes a detailed capital investment plan for the period 2018 to 2027, the national development plan, NDP, for the same period and the 20-year national planning framework, NPF.

The principles of the NPF are underpinned by the NDP, a ten-year €116 billion capital investment programme. The National Development Plan 2018-2027 established four new funds, with a combined allocation of €4 billion to 2027. The urban regeneration development fund, URDF, has an allocation of €2 billion to 2027, primarily to support the NPF's growth enablers for the five cities and other large urban centres. The URDF, which was launched in 2018, is providing part-funding for local authority-led projects that will enable a greater proportion of residential and mixed-use development to be delivered within the existing built-up footprints of our cities and large towns while also ensuring that more parts of our urban areas become attractive and vibrant places people can choose to live and work in as well as to invest in and visit.

In 2019, approval in principle and provisional funding allocations issued in respect of the 87 major projects across the country approved under the first call. The URDF-supported capital programme has been very well received and already the URDF is providing assistance for this pipeline of major projects that will continue to regenerate and rejuvenate Ireland's five cities and other large towns.

Under the second call for the URDF, which was launched earlier this year, 76 proposals were received, with every local authority submitting at least one application. These included a proposal from Longford County Council in respect of the Camlin quarter project. Many of these proposals are of significant scale and complexity and require careful assessment. This assessment process is in train and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage intends to soon announce a new tranche of approved projects, which will augment the existing pipeline of projects from the first call and contribute to the achievement of commitments under the programme for Government and the objectives of the national planning framework and Project Ireland 2040.

I thank the Minister. I note that she said that 76 proposals are under consideration, which include one from Longford County Council. If the Government is looking for balanced regional development, we need to balance where funding is given and at least one application from each local authority should be successful. As I have said, Longford County Council has only submitted one application. It relates to a major project for our county town. Anyone who knows the town will know that lower Main Street has been ravaged by closures. A lot of work has been done by the local authority. I compliment the authority and the regeneration team on the excellent work they have done so far.

I will refer back to the comments I made earlier. Longford County Council was the first local authority brave enough to increase the local property tax by 15%. The Fianna Fáil leader on the council at the time, Councillor Seamus Butler, and I did this together for the betterment of Longford, in which respect it has proved successful. Other local authorities have since followed. We took a lead where others were not prepared to do so. The council and the people of Longford need to be supported. I look forward to success when the announcement is made shortly.

I appreciate the points the Senator makes and the sincerity with which he makes the case for his home town. I will communicate his points to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

School Accommodation

I welcome the Minister and thank her for attending in person. It is very important that senior Ministers attend debates here in the Seanad. It is also important for my constituents. On 7 October 2015, a delegation from Scoil Mhuire, Maigh Cuilinn, travelled to Leinster House to meet the then Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O'Sullivan, to deliver a petition. The former Deputy, Derek Nolan, and I met the delegation. There were 4,500 signatures from parents and children in the Moycullen area on this petition. This is my school, which I attended until 1987. This project is, therefore, a very personal issue for me.

The hard work of the community paid off and, on 17 November 2015, Scoil Mhuire was included in a new five-year school-building programme to run from 2016 to 2021. Since then, there has been engagement between the Department and the board of management of Scoil Mhuire, which has done Trojan work over recent years. There was a meeting between the Department's technical team and the senior planner for Galway County Council on 29 September 2016. There has been engagement between the Moycullen Community Development Association and the board of management regarding an alternative site for the new building. The board of management raised funds to purchase this site in Killarainey woods.

The project was in limbo for a number of years while a decision from the Department of Education as to the most appropriate site was awaited. In December 2018, I arranged a meeting with the then Minister, Deputy McHugh, followed by another meeting on 27 March 2019 in Galway. The Department came back to us with concerns regarding the costings related to the alternative site. It then made the decision to build on the existing site of Scoile Mhuire.

As I have said, the debate as to the most appropriate site for a new school has raged on. My own view is that the school should move to a new site and that the existing building should be used as a secondary school for the community. The Department, however, has settled on using the existing site. In May of this year, the school was granted funding for a design team to progress the project, which is very welcome. Over the summer, a new state-of-the-art temporary structure was installed. I acknowledge that and thank the Department for providing that funding. That new structure has been in place since the start of this school term in Autumn. These are huge improvements on the prefabs that have been in place for too long.

Tá frustrachas ann sa pharóiste maidir leis an easpa dul chun cinn ar an togra seo. Tá an scoil ar an liosta le haghaidh foirgneamh nua le cúig bliana anuas. Bhí go leor plé ann maidir leis an suíomh is feiliúnaí. Tá muintir Mhaigh Chuilinn ag lorg cinnteachta maidir leis an togra seo. Mar a dúirt mé, táim ag caint anseo faoi mo sheanscoil ar a bhfreastal mé mar ghasúr óg suas go 1987. Tá brú mór ar an scoil faoi láthair. Tá beagnach 400 páiste ag freastal uirthi. Tá siad ag lorg fhoirgneamh scoile nua, rud atá ag teastáil agus atá tábhachtach do na múinteoirí agus do pháistí an pharóiste. I know progress has been made but it has been painfully slow. The Department has settled on the existing site. Will the Minister confirm that is the case and that the school is to progress towards the design stage and a planning application soon? Is that still the intention of the Department regarding this very important project for the Moycullen community?

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht na ceiste agus as ucht deis a thabhairt dom freagra a thabhairt air. I thank Senator Kyne for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Seanad the current position regarding the major building project for Scoil Mhuire. The brief for this project is to provide a new school with accommodation for the principal plus 16 mainstream classrooms, a two-classroom special educational needs base and ancillary accommodation on the existing site. The brief also allows for the demolition of the existing school building and the removal of all temporary accommodation on site.

In May 2020, the design team was appointed and this project entered architectural planning stage 1, preliminary design, which includes site investigations, the assessment of site suitability and the provision of design options. A briefing meeting was held in July 2020 with representatives from the board of management, the design team, the project manager and Department officials in attendance. Site options and site access were discussed during this briefing meeting and in subsequent interim pre-stage 1 meetings held between the design team, the project manager and Department officials.

The board of management and its design team are exploring the best options and will present their preferred option to the Department at the stage 1 stakeholder meeting scheduled for Friday, 18 December 2020. Following the stage 1 meeting, the Department will revert to the board of management of Scoil Mhuire with regard to the future progression of the project.

I thank the Minister for the update. I acknowledge the work of her Department's officials and the board of management over many years. As I said, there is frustration in the community regarding the pace of this project. I acknowledge the funding that was allocated to the design team in May of this year, the new temporary structures provided in September and the further progress that has been made, including the stakeholder meeting scheduled for Friday, 18 December.

However, there is concern that 16 classrooms will provide for a very limited increase in attendance at this school. The Department may be looking for another school very soon. This concern has been expressed to me regarding the choice of site. I do not want to go back over old ground, as the Department has settled on this site and I know the rationale behind that decision. I ask the Minister to engage with her officials to ensure they have plans to cater for an anticipated increase in the community's population. Many will wish to attend this school in the middle of the parish.

I thank the Senator. I appreciate his personal involvement in this project. It is a positive development. From 18 December, we will know a lot more about the preferred option. I will certainly communicate the specific issues the Senator has raised with my officials.

School Accommodation

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for appearing in person to address this Commencement matter. It calls for an update on the status of a school's application for the construction of a permanent building and a timeline for the commencement of construction. The school, details of which I have supplied, is the new Harold's Cross Educate Together Secondary School, ETSS, which opened in August 2020 with a view to eventually teaching 1,000 secondary school pupils. It will be a big school. It is currently housed in temporary buildings and awaits the granting of permission to construct permanent accommodation. Staff, parents and students alike are eager for construction of the permanent buildings to begin.

The planning application is currently at stage 2a. The principal contacted me in October to express his concern that the planning application has not yet been lodged and to ask me to contact the Department. I wrote to the Department and received an acknowledgment. The school community is conscious of the urgency of the matter, as am I. The school is located at 151 Harold's Cross Road, just beside Harold's Cross Park, south of the canal in Dublin 6W. As I have noted, it is a new secondary school. It opened in August 2020 following a concerted campaign for the opening of a new Educate Together secondary school in the area. It is my own area and I campaigned for it alongside many other parents. We were disappointed that the catchment did not include Dublin 8 and Dublin 12. It encompasses Dublin 6-Clonskeagh and Dublin 6W.

The school has four mainstream classrooms and two specialist rooms. This is a complex matter because, as the Minister will be aware, the school is on temporary accommodation which is shared with two primary schools, Harold's Cross Educate Together National School and Harcourt Terrace Educate Together National School. There are three schools in temporary accommodation on the premises. All are due to be moved to permanent accommodation. The secondary school will have permanent school accommodation which will ultimately cater for 1,000 students. There will also eventually be a national school for 400 students on a shared campus.

Five-year planning permission for temporary accommodation for all three schools was granted in August 2018 and is due to expire in 2023. The school community feels very strongly that while the students of 2020-21, this year's first years, have commenced their second level education in temporary accommodation, they should not have to finish it there when they complete their leaving certificate in 2026.

Looking ahead, the school is very concerned that the planning application will need to be submitted in early 2021, which is almost upon us. This expectation arises from the likelihood that planning permission will be appealed to An Bord Pleanála if it is granted by Dublin City Council. The school is working backwards from the decision process and is planning practically, as it should. The principal, Mr. Pádraig Conaty, has asked me to raise this matter with the Minister on behalf of the school community, parents and teachers and to seek a timeline.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and allowing me to provide the House with an update on the current position regarding the provision of a permanent school building for Harold's Cross Educate Together Secondary School. Harold's Cross ETSS is a co-educational second level school which will provide 1,000 post-primary school places and a four-classroom special educational needs unit to serve the two school planning areas of Dublin 6-Clonskeagh and Dublin 6W.

As the Senator has outlined, the school opened its doors to its first intake of pupils in September 2020. Students have been accommodated in interim accommodation on the site of the former greyhound racing stadium at Harold's Cross. This will be the permanent location of the school. The site will also form the campus for Harold's Cross Educate Together National School, which is also currently in interim accommodation on the site.

The joint building project for both schools is undergoing advanced architectural planning. An initial design for the campus was previously presented to Dublin City Council in a pre-planning meeting in August 2019. Various changes to the design were subsequently required and a further pre-planning meeting with Dublin City Council is now being sought. Provided Dublin City Council is receptive to the revised design, it is intended that the planning application will be lodged by the middle of the first quarter of 2021. A previous planning permission for interim accommodation on the site was appealed to An Bord Pleanála, as the Senator will be aware. There is a strong possibility that once secured, planning permission for the permanent build could also be appealed to An Bord Pleanála. However, once planning permission is secured, the project for both schools will be progressed to tender and construction stages. Until planning permission is secured, it would be premature to estimate the timeframe for tender and construction of the two schools. However, the management authorities of the two schools will be kept fully informed as the process progresses.

I thank the Minister for the update. It is good to hear some clarity on the date on which the planning application is expected to be lodged. I will certainly keep in touch with the Minister on this issue on behalf of the school, if requested to do so. I am very conscious that there will be significant demand for places in the school in the coming years. The authorities are particularly anxious to expedite matters because no space is available in the current temporary accommodation for any incoming students in September 2022. That is the board of management's projection, which makes the matter urgent.

I should have said that while three schools are currently housed in temporary accommodation, there will ultimately be one primary school on the site, Harold's Cross Educate Together National School, along with the secondary school. The Harcourt Terrace Educate Together National School will be moving to its own permanent accommodation on the site of the old Garda station on Harcourt Terrace. There are currently three schools at the Harold's Cross site, however, so the situation is particularly complex and there is a pressing need.

I thank the Minister for the update. I will keep in contact with her and the Department on this matter.

I thank the Senator. I note her personal interest and the work she has done to date. As I have said, we will keep both schools informed.

Sitting suspended at 11.28 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.