Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Local Government Reform

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, to the House and I thank for his time. He is familiar with Galway and I am hopeful that will help the case.

In Irish terms, Galway is a massive geographic county, inclusive of four offshore islands. It is the second largest county by land mass in the country. It takes two and a half hours to travel from west Connemara to the county border in Ballinasloe. It is too large an area to be served by one council. This will result in less connection with people of the county and diminish the importance of current electoral areas. The needs of Connemara and Galway city are very different and neither will be best served by a merger. My colleague, Senator Eugene Murphy, will elaborate further on that in his contribution.

International research of mergers of councils in other countries, primarily the UK and Australia, shows that bigger does not equal better. Irish local authorities are already large in size and they constitute some of the largest local councils in the OECD. Prior to the 2014 local government reforms, Ireland's average local authority size was approximately 40,000 residents. Now, with 31 local authorities, the average size is 150,000 residents, with the EU and OECD average less than 140,000. The population of County Galway is well in excess of 250,000 people. When combined with the geographic area already mentioned, it is clear both councils are required to serve the people of the county effectively.

The staffing and resources issue identified by the 2018 review, which found that both councils were significantly underfunded in comparison with other councils across the country, is a far more important issue to resolve. The advisory group stated that this funding shortfall must be addressed before any discussions regarding a merger could commence.

I remind Senator Crowe that as he is sharing time with Senator Eugene Murphy, his time is almost expired.

The Leas-Chathaoirleach is taking up my time. An allocation of €1 million was assigned to Galway County Council last September. In areas where synergies and savings can be made, for example, library services, fire services and salaries, this is already happening and this can continue in other areas, if justified, on a financial basis without the need for a merger. In the consultation process there was an almost united front on the part of elected representatives that this merger should not proceed. Aside from local representatives, the overwhelming majority of general submissions received did not support the proposed merger. Frankly, ignoring such widespread opposition to the proposal undermines the purpose of the consultation process and undermines the recommendation which ignored this opposition.

There are more than 275,000 people in the Galway city and county region. Senator Crowe and I spoke about this issue a couple of weeks ago, following which we decided to raise this matter jointly. I am concerned about the towns along the Roscommon-Galway border such as Ballinasloe, which I am convinced is suffering because its town council was removed, but we are hoping to have reinstated. Other towns such as Ballygar, Glenamaddy, Dunmore, Williamstown and Newbridge will suffer if this merger goes ahead. It is the wrong decision, although I acknowledge it is only at the consultation phase.

While we can share services, we must keep the two areas separate - the county council and the city council. We must remember Galway city has huge potential and is growing and, as Senator Crowe said, it has a big rural spread as well. I would be in favour of keeping the city council and county council in place.

I thank Senator Murphy for his exemplary timing.

I thank Senators Crowe and Murphy for putting down this Commencement matter.

First, I will give the historical context. In 2015, a Galway local government committee unanimously recommended the establishment of a new unified Galway authority on the basis that it would maximise the potential of the region to maintain, secure and grow a sustainable economic base into the future, by combining the respective strengths of the two existing authorities in terms of resources, staff and expertise. On foot of that recommendation, the Galway expert advisory group was established in December 2016 to carry out further detailed examination and planning. The group engaged extensively with key stakeholders in the course of its work, including elected members from both councils, the County and City Management Association, the Association of Irish Local Government, the Local Authority Members Association and also with members of the public.

The merger of Galway City Council and Galway County Council to create a single administrative area was recommended unanimously by the advisory group in April 2018. It was noted that the merger would allow Galway to maximise funding opportunities under the national planning framework. It noted that this was all the more urgent in order to capitalise on the funding opportunities under the national planning framework and drive the development of Galway in the context of its regional, national and international remit. This recommendation was endorsed by a Government decision in June 2018 and provisions to give effect to the policy decision were included in the Local Government Bill 2018. The provisions to create a new unified Galway authority passed all Stages in the Dáil but were defeated in the Seanad and withdrawn to allow the rest of the 2018 Bill to proceed.

While the logic underpinning the recommendations of the advisory group remains, a review of those recommendations should include fresh consultations to take account of, in particular, the local government administrative and governance developments since 2018. The track record of previous mergers, such as those in Limerick city and county and those in Waterford city and county, have been positive and this should inform the reviews of the advisory group's recommendations.

While the new review has not yet commenced, I would welcome input from Members of the Oireachtas and I am grateful to Senator Crowe and Senator Murphy for giving me the opportunity to update the Seanad on this important matter. With the next local elections not due to take place until 2024, there is an opportunity to revisit the matter, to engage in very careful consultation and to revert in due course with a clear recommendation. Should any colleagues in the Oireachtas have any specific observations to make in this regard, I would be grateful if they could contact my Department and we will in due course commence the review and take them into account.

I thank Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for his response. What I am asking for is that the Government would focus on addressing the funding issues which were identified previously. As my colleague Senator Murphy outlined, we want more people in our city and county involved in the political process. As the Minister of State knows, the census was deferred to this year, but one is talking about in the region of 250 to 275,000 people even though all councils have in the region of 150,000. As I have outlined, there is synergy and savings in a number of areas that are justified and welcome. However, when one looks at the broad range of the city and county of Galway, there is a vast geographical reason for this. I will leave it at that for now.

I welcome the Minister of State's statement. It is quite consolatory in terms of reviews and allowing for more points to be made if we need to make them.

The one region in Ireland that is underdeveloped, that needs to be developed and that would bring great hope to Ireland is the west. If we go through with a move like this in Galway, it will stifle proper community development centred in the county of Galway and Galway city.

It is very important that we realise it is a very underdeveloped area. In my view - I disagree with the learned people on the advisory committee on this - having spoken to people on the ground, it would stifle the future development of Galway county and Galway city.

I thank both Senators for putting down the Commencement matter and their outline of the financial circumstances that pertain in both local authorities.

Before the budgetary process, I met the city manager and their team as well as the county manager and their team in respect of the pressures on discretionary funding from our parking, swimming pools and leisure facilities. Both are very progressive and we look forward to working with them in the future and working with both Senators. The context and the discussions about mergers are controversial. There is no doubt in that. Hopefully, if we all work together through this review, we will be able to get an outcome that can meet the needs of the citizens of Galway, because there is huge potential in Galway. I spent probably the best three years of my life in the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG. It was very enjoyable. The city has huge potential as does the county.

Planning Issues

A chara, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur romhat go dtí an Teach seo ar maidin. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to make it here.

The Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way we look at how we live and how we work. Remote working has become commonplace out of necessity. The future of working is now seen in a different context with regard to location. Rural Ireland is seeing the arrival of new families, which is great to see, who are seeking a better quality of life while working for major, global companies. I am reminded of the advertisement on television with a guy sitting in a house on Arranmore Island while conducting business all over the world. This is great to see.

This can be a win-win for rural Ireland - for our services, schools, sports clubs, whether GAA or soccer clubs, and local shops. Rural Ireland has the potential to be rejuvenated with new people arriving because it is the people who are the heartbeat of any community.

Where are these people going to find a home to live in or a site to build their house on? The current position seems to be that the funding required for necessary infrastructural development to allow building to take place, whether sewerage, water or roads, is directed, understandably so in one context, to large cities and towns. Throughout the country, it seems to be targeted in one or two major towns within a county at the expense of smaller towns and villages. It is stymieing development and the choices people have about where to live.

Trying to obtain planning permission to live in rural Ireland, even for those families born and bred there, is becoming increasingly difficult. I am sure the Minister will be aware of that as he comes from a rural county himself. This issue is being debated throughout the length and breadth of local authorities through their development plans. The concept of local needs only planning continues to be problematic for rural Ireland.

This brings me the Flemish decree, which dates back to 2009 in Belgium. It then made its way to the European Court of Justice in 2013 where the court made its deliberation and stated that the local needs rule with regard to planning was neither fair nor just in the eyes of the EU. The Department has been sitting on that judgment since 2013, which was almost eight years ago. It is past time that guidance was given to local authorities on this issue so they can adopt their development plans to take into consideration this new world based on that European Court of Justice judgment.

Rural Ireland, as I said, needs people if it is going to have a future. Incentives, not barriers, are needed for those who wish to live in rural Ireland.

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this important issue. The national planning framework, NPF, published in 2018, sets out the Government's overarching strategic planning approach underpinning the sustainable development of urban and rural areas in Ireland to the period 2040. To articulate the broad context of the NPF in clear and understandable terms, the framework contains the national planning objectives, NPO, to guide and inform the planning process.

National planning objective 15 of the NPF fully commits to the concept of sustainable development in rural areas. It seeks to encourage growth, arrest decline in areas that have experienced low population growth or decline in recent decades, while also highlighting the need to manage certain areas around cities and towns that are under strong urban influence and under pressure from unco-ordinated and ribbon-type development in order to avoid over-development in those areas.

This is supplemented by national policy objective 19 which points to the need to ensure that providing rural communities meet housing requirements, a policy distinction should be made between areas experiencing significant over-spill development pressures from urban areas, particularly within the commuter catchment of cities, towns and centres of employment, and other remoter and weaker rural areas where population levels may be low or declining. Regarding weaker rural areas, objective 19 provides that determination of planning applications for single houses in the countryside should be based on general siting and design-based criteria for rural housing in statutory guidelines and plans, having regard to the viability of smaller towns and rural settlements. These criteria include matters such as landscape, vehicular access and wastewater disposal.

On the other hand, where development pressures and the risk of haphazard development in the vicinity of cities, towns and centres of employment as designated in the local authority development plans are evident, objective 19 advises that it is reasonable that the determination of applications for housing in such rural areas should be informed by considerations beyond the siting and design criteria for rural housing contained in statutory guidelines and plans which I just referred to. In particular, account should be taken of whether or not there is demonstrable functional requirement for such housing in social, economic or occupational terms and whether or not such development, of itself or in combination with existing permitted development, would lead to detrimental, haphazard and unco-ordinated development.

I consider that these objectives represent a balanced approach, consistent with long-standing Government policies on sustainable development and previous planning guidelines issued in 2005 under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act. Planning authorities are required to have regard to these guidelines on sustainable rural housing in framing of the planning policies in their development plans and in the assessment of individual planning applications for rural housing. Under the 2005 guidelines, planning authorities are required to adopt a balanced approach that ensures the housing needs of rural communities are met, while avoiding excessive urban-generated housing and haphazard development particularly in those areas near cities and towns that are under pressure from urban-generated development. Accordingly, the NPF provides an important strategic basis for interpreting the 2005 guidelines as its objectives are aligned with the approach already expected of planning authorities under the current guidelines.

It is important to clarify that the Flemish decree was a March 2009 decree of the Flemish region, a federal region within Belgium, on land and real estate policy that made the purchase of long-term lease of all immovable property, for example, all land and buildings, in certain Flemish communes, which are local authority areas, conditional upon there being a sufficient connection between the prospective buyer or tenant and the relevant purchaser. The Flemish decree case refers to the successful challenge against the Flemish decree in the European Court of Justice which ruled that it was disproportionate and also deemed by the ECJ to be in breach of Article 43 of the EU treaty on the freedom of movement of citizens.

The principles of the judgment are being considered in the context of the review of the 2005 guidelines and given the superseding of the NSS by the NPF in 2018, together with the need to address any relevant aspects of the 2013 European Court of Justice ruling, a review is ongoing within my Department.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am somewhat disappointed to learn that the review is still ongoing, almost eight years since the European Court of Justice made its judgment.

I am disappointed to learn that the review is still ongoing almost eight years since the European Court of Justice gave its judgment. I plead with the Minister of State to expedite this matter. The world as we know it has changed since the Covid-19 pandemic started. People are looking at living in rural Ireland as an option. It is important that we have the necessary infrastructure in place and that we remove any barriers currently preventing those who wish to live in a rural area in a sustainable manner from doing so. I would welcome a commitment from the Minister of State, insofar as he can give one, to the effect that the Flemish decree judgment will be implemented in Irish planning law as a matter of urgency.

I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this Commencement matter. The review has commenced. Coming from a rural constituency, I am very keen to protect the integrity of rural planning and to ensure that it is sustainable. That is key. We must think about the response to the judgment and what it will mean. The national planning framework provides great scope for rural communities, with plans for 50% of growth to take place outside the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly, EMRA, region and for regional areas to grow twice as fast as Dublin. There is significant potential within the plan, and we must consider how we manage that. We need to grow and regenerate towns and villages and ensure we have policies that do not compromise them. We must also ensure that those who need to live in more rural areas can be facilitated to do that. What is key is that this must be done in a sustainable way. I am from a rural constituency and I understand the pressures relating to once-off rural planning and the need for it, but it must be done in a sustainable way.

Planning Issues

With the permission of the House, I will share time with Senator Sherlock.

This Commencement matter is in the name of all the Labour Party Senators – Senators Hoey, Sherlock, Moynihan, Wall and me. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to the House and thank him for taking this important issue.

In late November, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, announced an eagerly awaited ban on the development of co-living schemes. His announcement was welcomed by all of us. The Minister was quoted as having expressed concern at the volume of co-living developments in the pipeline, their potential to put upward pressure on land prices and the standard of living involved. However, UCD's Orla Hegarty has estimated that, between developments already approved and those for which permission is currently being sought, there may be 3,000 co-living units in Dublin city by the time the ban is implemented. We are simply calling on the Minister to implement the ban with immediate effect, especially in respect of those developments where construction has not yet commenced.

In my area of Dublin Bay South two co-living applications are currently making the news, one in Merrion Road and one in Donnybrook in Dublin 4. The two applications are live. Submissions are going in to An Bord Pleanála. There have been quite a number of objections to both applications, including 115 objections to the Donnybrook Road development, and there are real concerns about standards of living. The Donnybrook Road development is more usually known as the Kiely's Pub development. In their report, Dublin City Council planners expressed serious concern about the bedroom size. Notwithstanding that, the council granted permission on 19 January for 91 co-living units, what one might call bedsits, but with communal kitchens and shared facilities. In addition to the small size of the bedrooms, shared facilities are not appropriate in a pandemic or to create sustainable communities. I will hand over to my colleague, Senator Sherlock.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today and taking our Commencement matter. What was implemented on 23 December was not a ban on co-living in this city or indeed in the country. It is not a ban for the communities that I live among and represent. There are two specific reasons for that. The first is the failure to retrospectively apply the ban. I will outline what that means for the communities I live among in Phibsboro, Stoneybatter and Dublin's north inner city. Over the next 12 months, 1,096 co-living beds may secure planning permission to be built within an area 1.6 km in radius. That is an incredibly small area for such a large number of co-living units. What makes it all the worse is that the Department sat on a report from September and then waited until November for the ban to be announced and until December to actually give it effect.

The great irony of all this is that the Government made a song and dance about retrospectively applying income tax to pandemic unemployment payment recipients last year, and yet there is a failure to apply retrospectively a ban on co-living to the developments already in the planning system.

The second key reason that this is not a ban is because it allows a large exemption, which is if there was a proven need for this type of accommodation, then it will be permitted. The reality is that 55% of those on the social housing waiting list with Dublin City Council are individuals. These are single persons. It is not beyond the bounds of probability that at some stage co-living will be deemed appropriate for these individuals, such is the scale of the housing crisis in this city.

I make a particular appeal for the Government to revise this ban. I believe that a failure to do so will cast a real question over the Government's commitment to sustainable housing for communities in Dublin and throughout the country.

I thank the Senator and Senators Moynihan and Bacik for giving me the opportunity to address this matter in the House. On his appointment, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, undertook a review of co-living development. This work was prioritised among many other important matters. Further to that review it was indicated in a letter dated 23 November 2020 to all local authorities, An Bord Pleanála and the Office of the Planning Regulator that the preferred approach was to restrict the future development of commercial co-living development in Ireland. On completion of the necessary environmental assessment processes in the minimum time possible to ensure compliance with EU directive regulations, the Minister issued a subsequent letter to the planning authorities on 23 December 2020 giving notice that the updated Sustainable Urban Housing: Design Standards for New Apartments, Guidelines for Planning Authorities 2020 had been published as ministerial guidance under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended.

The main purpose of issuing the updated apartment guidelines was to give effect to the conclusion of the co-living review process and to introduce a specific planning policy requirement for a presumption against the granting of planning permission for co-living development. The reasons informing this decision included: the inappropriate scale and location of co-living developments permitted and proposed at the time of the review; the need for a local authority-led evidence-based approach to guide the provision of this type of accommodation, which may be informed by the housing need and demand assessment process and which is being developed with local government sector; potential impact on land values if the number of proposals at the time of review were to continue to increase in current housing market conditions; new Government policy and priorities as set out in the new Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, with a strong emphasis on expanded social and affordable rented housing sectors; and the fact that at the time of review there was sufficient quantum of co-living units either permitted or subject to planning consideration to prove the co-living concept.

Accordingly, specific planning policy requirement No. 9 of the updated guidelines as published in December 2020 provides that there will be a presumption against granting planning permission for shared accommodation or co-living development unless the proposed development is either required to meet the specific demand identified by a local planning authority further to a housing need and development assessment process or is, on the date of publication of these updated guidelines, a valid planning application to a planning authority, an appeal to An Bord Pleanála, or a strategic housing development planning application to An Bord Pleanála, in which case the application or appeal may be determined on its merits. As such, specific planning policy requirement No. 9 includes provision to preclude consideration of new proposals for co-living development, and was a proportionate, measured and swift response, in accordance with the Minister's powers under the Planning and Development Act.

The crucial point is that the Planning and Development Act 2000 includes explicit provision under section 30 of the Act to ensure the Minister shall not exercise any power or control relating to any particular case with which a planning authority or the board - An Bord Pleanála - is or may be concerned, notwithstanding section 28 relating to guidelines. This is to protect the independence and integrity of the planning system. It was not, therefore, within the powers of the Minister or the Government under the Planning and Development Act simply to ban the construction of co-living schemes in cases where applicants had already entered the planning process prior to issuing updated guidelines. Furthermore, it is not is within the powers of the Minister or the Government under the Planning and Development Act simply to ban the construction of co-living schemes where construction has not commenced and there is a valid planning permission in place.

Planning permission is granted in accordance with the policy and legislation in place at the time of the decision. A policy change after permission has been granted does not affect the legitimacy of that permission. Where planning permission has already been granted for a particular development, such as shared accommodation, the applicant generally has five years to implement that permission. It is noted, however, that there is a provision in the Planning and Development Act to revoke or modify a permission under section 44 of that Act, but this is not a ministerial function. Rather, it is a function of the planning authority.

I thank the Minister of State for setting out the legal position. Of course, all present respect the independence and integrity of the planning process. However, as my colleague, Senator Sherlock, stated, the unfortunate net effect is that the ban announced by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, really does not amount to a ban. As Senator Sherlock and I have outlined, there is immense dissatisfaction and discontent in communities across Dublin about the manner in which these applications continue to be live and the manner in which permission has been granted subsequent to the announcement of the ban because applications were made before the announcement by the Minister on 23 December. We have heard just how many schemes, therefore, are going to proceed despite construction not having commenced and permission not having been granted prior to 23 December. That is the real concern. All present know why it is the real concern. It is clear that co-living schemes maximise profits for developers. Such schemes are not subject to the same minimum standard as other types of residential development are and they raise serious concerns about their potential to create sustainable communities. We all know there is significant need for housing and housing construction, but co-living schemes are not the way to build sustainable communities across Dublin.

I thank the Senators for giving us the opportunity to clarify the matter. Within six months of coming into office, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has acted within the full powers available to him. I think this is key here. The law is the law. The law is very robust in the context of the planning authorities. The Minister has acted as best he can under the powers available to him but also having regard to the integrity of An Bord Pleanála and the planning system. Obviously, retrospective treatment of the planning law is not appropriate. It is very different from Revenue law. It is like chalk and cheese.

Primary Care Centres

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for being here to take this Commencement Matter. The Dáil constituency of Dublin South Central is my home constituency. It has a population of nearly 136,000 people, according to the most recent census. When those constituents were asked their views regarding their state of health, fewer than the national average reported being in good health and more than the national average reported their health as being only "fair". The usual categories synonymous with increased hardship and financial challenge are shown across the board in Dublin South Central, whether that is one-parent families, renters in local authority properties or the private rental sector and lower-paid employment categories. The constituency repeatedly shows figures below average in categories that tend to imply financial advantage, such as the numbers of professionals employed. As a consequence, there is a greater likelihood of reliance on public health in the area and, as such, it is essential that primary care centres are working to their optimal capacity.

The former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and his predecessors built primary care centres in the heart of this community. There are such centres in Ballyfermot, Crumlin and Inchicore and at the old Meath hospital in Rialto. These were put in place both through good and bad financial economic times and it is acknowledged that they have been a vital resource to the community in terms of promoting healthcare, quick access to diagnosis and care in the community. There should be a sixth primary care centre in the constituency, that being the Drimnagh primary care centre. It was announced by the predecessor of the Minister of State, former Deputy Catherine Byrne, and the former Minister, Deputy Harris, in November 2019, with a view, albeit in a pre-Covid world, to there being sufficient movement and delivery of that in 2020 and 2021. It should be ongoing at present. I take this opportunity to press on the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, the importance of delivering that primary care centre for the people of Drimnagh who have been waiting for it for a long time.

I ask the Minister of State to make that a priority in the post-Covid actions.

I fully acknowledge that we are in the midst of the most difficult crisis for our country. Throughout the crisis we have seen extraordinary work on the part of our healthcare professionals and the administrative staff within the HSE. We know that the administrative staff have been redeployed to carry out contact tracing. Some nursing staff were redeployed for swabbing and testing. Others have been part of what is colloquially termed the nursing hit squad. They have been redeployed into private nursing home facilities where severe staff shortages are exhibited. They do that repeatedly, moving from crisis to crisis, to support the care of patients. They are extraordinary workers and, as a nation, we are extraordinarily indebted to them.

We know that our population is experiencing hesitancy in coming forward when they have symptoms, fearful of getting Covid, and that the delays in the identification of illnesses may be fatal where an opportunity for early detection in diseases such as cancer may be lost. I am also conscious that the schools vaccination programme has been moved into the GP primary care setting due to its obvious inability to be delivered within the schools when the children are not there. This has a knock-on effect of children not accessing the vaccination programme for various reasons, including Covid fears when going out, lack of knowledge or information and delays due to redeployments. I am hearing complaints of a lack of access to physiotherapy and delays in speech and occupational therapy referrals and services. Of very serious concern to me are reports of delays in accessing the mental health teams.

I am concerned to know how the primary care centres are operating in Dublin South-Central in particular, how they are impacted by the redeployments and what mitigating factors are being put in place to ensure healthcare services for the population and those who so rely on them. I am mindful that next week we will see the commencement of the over-70s vaccination programme. That will be a great boost to the population at large. There are nearly 16,500 people over the age of 70 in Dublin South-Central, so I am anxious to ensure that that will be a smooth roll-out and will not be affected by any redeployments. I thank the Minister of State for his time and I look forward to his reply.

I welcome the opportunity to provide an update to the House on this matter. Covid-19, as the Senator will be aware, has had a significant impact on the primary care sector, including the redeployment of staff from their core roles to aid in direct response to the pandemic. Those staff who have been redeployed have taken on essential duties, including Covid tracking and testing and providing additional support to long-term residential facilities for older persons, disability services and mental health services. Significant progress was made in returning staff from Covid services to their core roles between June and October, reflected at least in part in the HSE's recruitment of a dedicated workforce for community swabbing and contact tracing. Figures from the latest staff census available show that the number of redeployed staff has fallen from a peak of 3,555 in April 2020 to 815 at the end of November, a reduction of approximately 77%. Regrettably, the surge in positive Covid cases in recent months has increased pressure on our health service and has meant that we have again needed to turn to primary care staff to support the wider response to Covid.

Turning to the specific question the Senator raised, I can inform her that as of 4 February 2021 the number of whole-time equivalent staff redeployed in the primary care centres she has identified is as follows: Ballyfermot primary care centre, 8.5 staff members redeployed; Crumlin primary care centre, three dental staff redeployed; Inchicore primary care centre, one dental staff redeployed; Meath primary care centre, five staff members redeployed; and, Rialto primary care centre, 0.5 staff redeployed. I stress that the HSE has advised that this level of redeployment is associated for the most part with only a small reduction in services. Further, I can assure the Senator that a number of actions are being taken to mitigate any negative impact of the redeployment. This includes the prioritisation of service delivery based on need as well as the use of tele-health and video calls to maximise service provision. In addition, to enable cross-cover of cases, staff have been relocated to assist in areas where staff have been redeployed.

Where services are curtailed or reduced, this is being done in line with clinical advice, a shared national position with appropriate risk assessment and communication with providers, service users and families.

The global pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted our primary care services. I know the distress this can cause to those who need to access these services and supports. I assure the Senator that staff will return to their substantive posts as soon as it is possible for them to do so and that the focus will continue to be on ensuring those with the greatest need can continue to access services.

My thanks to the Minister of State for the accuracy of the numbers. I really appreciate the investigation that went into that.

From next Monday we are going to see a major uplift throughout the country. People, including the likes of my father, would be queueing up already if they could with their deckchairs. My father is hoping for and looking forward to his vaccination. As we see people like that getting the vaccinations, there will be a good lift, belief and hope for the future, because we will see vaccination in the community as opposed to behind the closed door of healthcare or residential settings.

My concern is that the minute that starts rolling out, the focus will turn to the other health issues. It will be important that we have the plan of getting back to full health. I appreciate that there are mitigating measures in place and I am thankful for that, but I believe we need to focus on getting everything back on track. Once vaccinations are rolling out, then we will need to get the appropriate focus back on all the rest of healthcare.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. The health service has faced an unprecedented challenge in the past 11 months. In some ways, redeployment of primary care staff can be thought of as the community sector turning to its own surge capacity to respond to the needs for testing and tracing services and, crucially, to provide additional supports to the residents of nursing homes and other long-term residential facilities, whether private or public.

The focus in the months ahead will be on the following: continuing to deliver Covid-19 and non-Covid care side by side safely; maximising the volume of non-covid care and catching up, where possible, on any shortfalls; and bedding in reform of the delivery of services. This will be supported by the significant investment in the health service in 2021, including €150 million in new development funding to deliver an enhanced community care programme.

The Department of Health and the HSE are working closely together to ensure continued access to services to our most vulnerable people and those with the greatest need. As part of these efforts, staff who have been redeployed will return to their core roles as soon as it is possible and safe to do so.

Institutes of Technology

I welcome the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to the House and thank him for taking this Commencement matter in person. I wish to acknowledge the interest and determination of the Minister in ensuring that Waterford and the south-east region finally achieve the long-held ambition to have a university of international standing.

I wish to put some statistics on the record of the House to assist me in making my case. According to the latest data available from the Higher Education Authority, Waterford Institute of Technology has 6,634 full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students, while Institute of Technology Carlow has 4,454. The budgets and full-time staff at WIT are essentially double that of IT Carlow owing to the relative size of both institutes. WIT is part of six Science Foundation Ireland networks and recent EU Commission data shows that WIT has attracted more research funding from the EU in the area of information and communications technology than all other institutes of technology combined, and more than many Irish universities under Horizon 2020.

I mention these statistics not in any way to discredit the fantastic work that the staff at IT Carlow do but to emphasise that the headquarters of the new university should be located in the area that has the critical mass of full-time students and, more important, in one of the four areas which the national planning framework has identified for targeted ambitious growth of at least 50% out to 2040.

In fact, the national planning framework specifically says that failure to address the economic underperformance of the south east and accelerated growth of Waterford city would have negative consequences that would further add to growth pressures within the Dublin region.

As the Minister knows from the several meetings we have had in recent weeks, there has been a lot of rumour and speculation circulating regarding the headquarters issue, the source and purpose of which I am unsure of. However, the assertion by some that the headquarters for the new TU will be in Kilkenny has been unhelpful to the process, and I ask the Minister to clarify that this will not be the case. I ask for this clarity not as a parochial request. This is a regional issue and anyone who looks at my record since my time as chairman of the regional authority in 2010 will see that I have always been a regional advocate and I firmly believe that any investment in the region greatly adds to our attractiveness and our offer. That option needs to be taken off the table because it has caused a great deal of anxiety among staff at WIT and I am acutely aware, as the Minister will be also, that they will be voting on a revised memorandum of understanding soon.

It is important to state that the vast majority of Oireachtas Members in the south east have the desire and ambition to deliver a multi-campus university of international standing in our region, and I know the Minister is also firmly committed to that goal. However, I am sure he will also agree that to get there and to grow student numbers, not just in Waterford but across the region, it will require significant capital investment. As the Minister knows, I have been engaged with stakeholders over recent months regarding the very exciting prospect of an expanded Waterford campus on the Cork Road. I would like some assurances from him regarding the commitment of his Department to the purchase and development of this site and its inclusion in the capital plan as well as his willingness to use innovative solutions to see work carried out in the short term.

Regarding the appointment process for the new president, chairperson and governing body of the proposed new university, I would appreciate it if the Minister could outline at what point this new board will come into play, should the application proceed as planned, and what process will be used to determine the individuals who will sit on the governing body and who will appoint same.

I again thank the Minister for his attendance here this morning. I would appreciate clarifications and reassurance from him on this very important issue for Waterford and the south east.

I thank the Senator for raising these matters with me and indeed for doing so consistently over recent weeks and months. Certainly, a week has not gone by when we have not engaged on this at least two or three times and I thank him for his commitment. We have a shared desire to rectify a wrong whereby the south east is the only region in our country not to have a university. The lack of that university presence has had real impact on foreign direct investment and the ability to access in the region every part of the national framework of qualifications. I join the Senator in praising Waterford Institute of Technology and IT Carlow. The figures relating to WIT which he put on the record speak for themselves. It is an incredible institution and one I am very proud of. While we are moving to a new era and it is one of excitement, we do that out of respect for and a desire to build on the success of WIT.

The establishment of a technological university for the south east is an urgent priority of the programme for Government. Indeed, it is the only technological university named in the programme for Government, such is the importance we attach to it. It will address the significant and glaring gap in the south-east region which I referred to. I really believe a technological university will bring considerable opportunities to Waterford city and county and to the entire south east to increase foreign direct investment, capital investment, research funding and international recognition. Even more than that, it can be a catalyst for regeneration, innovation and regional development.

I was somewhat bemused to see people mocking my geography recently when I talked about how it would be brilliant if students from counties Wicklow, Laois or others, instead of having always to look to Dublin, could decide to go to Waterford and spend their euro there, invest there and set up a family there. This is what we want for Waterford and the south east. We need to get rid of the silly mentality that all roads must lead to Dublin, which is exactly what I was trying to talk about, though some people decided purposely to misunderstand.

Students, staff, enterprise and the wider community are going to be able, for the very first time, to avail of the opportunity provided by a university within their own region.

A lot of progress has been made by the technological university for the south east, TUSE, consortium of Waterford Institute of Technology and IT Carlow. My understanding is that the consortium aims to submit an application for technological university, TU, designation under the prescribed legislation by 28 April, which is soon. It is important to appreciate that we cannot count our chickens before they have hatched because the application will have to be evaluated by an independent international panel with a view to recommending whether to confer technological university status. Should that application lead to TU designation, there is a prescribed process under section 55 of the Technological Universities Act 2018 for the establishment of its first governing body, about which the Senator asked me. In addition to a TU president, this body comprises a chairperson, two external members and one member appointed by the relevant education and training boards in accordance with their own processes. Further appointments will be made within six months, following elections and an additional appointment process for external members.

I will turn to recent speculation about the location of a headquarters for the new TU. I stress that it is nothing more than idle speculation. The factual position is that no decision has been made on a headquarters and anyone stating otherwise or claiming it will be in one location is doing so baselessly. This speculation is uninformed and lacks a proper understanding of how a regional technological university with a strong multi-campus footprint will operate. The TU will have a distributed leadership led by the incoming president. There will be strong, hands-on and practical leadership. Universities are places of engagement between students, researchers, staff, enterprise and the wider community. Commentary regarding Kilkenny in recent weeks is misleading. I am not aware of any such plans for a headquarters in Kilkenny. Such conjecture, at this critical stage in the development process or, indeed, at any stage, is divisive and counterproductive. TUs can only come into being in the first place and prosper thereafter if all parties come together and work together. At this critical time, our concentration must be on getting the application in and over the line.

I will also speak about capital investment. The Senator has talked to me about a site on the Cork road. I want to see the footprint in Waterford expanded and capital will be forthcoming to facilitate that. Normal business plans and appraisal processes need to be gone through. This is an opportunity to significantly expand the footprint in Waterford. That will include more students and investment, and a wider availability of courses. That is what I want to see for Waterford and the new technological university for the south east.

I thank the Minister and appreciate his comments about wanting to expand the footprint of the campus in Waterford. That is an important commitment that he has put on the record of the House. I look forward to engaging further with him on that process.

The Minister mentioned distributed leadership in the context of the headquarters and the new university, which is important. While I appreciate that, he will appreciate that there is considerable anxiety in Waterford about this issue. It would be helpful if he could at least say that the only logical location for a headquarters of the new university will be an area that has students. I ask the Minister to take that on board and perhaps he can clarify the matter in his comments.

What the Senator has suggested sounds entirely logical to me. This decision, obviously, will be made by the TU governing authority but as I have said clearly, the speculation around Kilkenny is baseless and idle. It is misinformed, unhelpful and potentially divisive at a crucial moment for this project.

There have been many false dawns for this university in the south east. I am refusing to allow us to be sidetracked. The first part of the process has to be to get the application in, appoint the independent panel and get it over the line, and then have a technological university for the south east that will open its doors on 1 January next year. I have been clear about the speculation over a headquarters in Kilkenny.

There is absolutely no question about the centrality of Waterford to this undertaking. The project would not be possible without the centrality of Waterford. Equally, it would not be possible to do it alone. We need to work together and IT Carlow is playing a major role in this, as is all of the south east. It is my clear intention to use the establishment of this university to expand the imprint of higher education in Waterford. The Taoiseach also said that in the Dáil last week. We are going to make Waterford bigger and better for higher education. I will keep in touch with the Senator on this matter.

Apprenticeship Programmes

I thank the Minister for coming here this morning to reply to this matter. Last year, I addressed him in this House on the matter of apprenticeship schemes. In particular, I proposed that he provide funding to revive and reinvigorate local authority apprenticeship schemes. I was very encouraged at the time by the Minister's favourable response to this proposal. What progress has been made in implementing policy in this regard? With unemployment soaring again on account of the economic impact of lockdown, measures to breathe life back into the ailing economy are needed now more than ever. People need more than just politicians giving trite pep talks on social media. They need learning and employment opportunities. They need supports and purpose in the present moment and they need real cause for hope for their futures.

Investing in real people by offering funded apprenticeship schemes is a tangible means of achieving these objectives. Lest it has escaped anyone's attention, the most recent Central Statistics Office, CSO, data demonstrate the gravity of the economic decline. The CSO website states:

The COVID-19 crisis has continued to have a significant impact on the labour market in Ireland in January 2021. While the standard measure of Monthly Unemployment was 5.8% in January 2021, the COVID-19 Adjusted Measure of Unemployment could indicate a rate as high as 25.0% if all claimants of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) were classified as unemployed.

[...]

Breaking the results down by broad age group, the traditional Monthly Unemployment Rate for those aged 15 to 24 years was 15.7% in January 2021, while it was 4.6% for those aged 25 to 74 years.

[...]

If all claimants of the PUP were classified as unemployed, the upper bound, or COVID-19 Adjusted Measure of Unemployment indicates a rate of 25.9% for males and 24.1% for females in January 2021. Breaking the results down by broad age group, the new COVID-19 Adjusted Measure of Unemployment is 56.4% for those aged 15 to 24 years and 21.4% for those aged 25 to 74 years.

These are truly sobering statistics for every age group, but they are most notable and worrying for young people. Youth unemployment can have a dreadful long-term effect on the lives of young people and, indeed, on society. As this economic morass has been caused by a Government policy, the Government should introduce urgent policy measures to reverse it.

A Local Government Management Agency paper from 2013 highlights the need for funding support for local governments to provide apprenticeships. It states:

The current economic constraints being experienced by local authorities mean that the requirement that apprentices are paid by the local authority employing the individual is a barrier to many local authorities providing standard apprenticeship placements. Local authorities, as evidenced by their support of the Redundant Apprenticeship Placement Scheme, are supportive in principle of providing work training placement but at present the majority of the local authorities would not be able to pay apprentices whilst they complete their workplace training.

This report also advocated that a broader range of occupations be catered for. It also states:

Consideration should be given to expanding the range of occupations to cover areas such as

- Laboratory and Science Technicians

- Inspection services

- Water Services and wastewater service operations

- ICT

Broadening the range of skills available can be of real benefit and would modernise and add expertise to local government while also filling the gaps within the private sector labour market. One thing that stands out is the list of water services. Given the need to build 33,000 houses annually to cater for demand, we will surely need more skilled plumbers to expand and maintain our already inadequate water and waste water service infrastructure. I suggest working in association with Irish Water to deliver those much-needed services.

I ask the Minister to provide the House with a comprehensive update on the status of all apprenticeship schemes. How have they been affected over the course of the past year? What progress has been made in broadening the range of skills covered? What action has the Minister taken to revive the apprenticeship schemes delivered by local authorities? Has funding been allocated in the budget to this end?

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to address the Seanad today, and also for her comments on this matter a number of months ago. They did have an impact and I acknowledge her leadership in recognising this untapped potential.

There has been too much of the public sector talking the talk and expecting the private sector to walk the walk. We need to step up here. Apprenticeships are a hugely valuable route to both skills development and supporting economic recovery. There is much low-hanging fruit in our own country in this regard and there has been perhaps an elitist view on higher education for far too long. There is a great deal more we can do on apprenticeships. We have committed in the programme for Government to reach 10,000 newly registered apprentices each year by 2025. That is a massive increase which is up from approximately 6,000 apprentices a year at the moment. This will only happen if the private and public sector step up.

As of December 2020 there were 313 apprentices employed across 48 Departments, agencies and State bodies, 55 of whom were employed by local authorities in areas such as accounting technicians, plumbing, carpentry, cyber security and software development. While I thank each of those local authorities and Government Departments, the scale of that ambition is absolutely nowhere near adequate. Apprenticeships are employer-led offerings, are based on a contract of employment between the apprentice and the respective employer, and each local authority has its own human resources department which looks after local recruitment, supported by the Local Government Management Agency. As part of our consultation in developing our new action plan on apprentices, which I am due to bring the Cabinet next month, we have received much feedback from public sector organisations on what they believe will be required in order to be able to take on more apprentices. They have outlined things like relevant support and procedures that would need to be in place and the availability of mentor staff is also seen as critical particularly in the challenging Covid-19 environment.

When we publish our action plan on apprentices which is, as I say, due to go to Cabinet next month, the Senator can take it from me that there are going to be very clear commitments as to what every Government Department, State agency and local authority is required to do, to include what the baseline is for number of apprentices that each local authority and Government Department could take on and what extra packages of supports we need to put in place to make that happen. Without getting ahead of myself I can give the Senator an insight that this will be a core component, along with some of the gender equality issues on apprentices.

The Senator asked more broadly about apprenticeships. There are now 59 existing apprenticeship programmes ranging in duration from two years to four years. They range in qualifications from level 5 to level 10 and there are also a further 19 programmes being developed at the moment. Where there is an identified need for a new apprenticeship programme, it is then developed by an employer-led consortium of employers together with education and training providers under a structured framework.

The action plan for apprenticeships for the coming five-year period is under development. We have already seen some considerable success with the financial incentive for the first time ever now being offered to employers to take on an apprentice. In addition to the programme for Government commitment the role of the public sector in apprenticeship recruitment was raised by a number of stakeholders during our consultation process. The Senator can expect also to see formal commitments in this area in the Government’s new action plan.

I should mention that this following item ties together the gender equality issue, which is a big issue in apprentices, and the public sector issue in that I met Zoe Fitzgerald recently on Zoom. She is the 1,000th female apprentice registered in Ireland. We had 26 female apprentices in 2015, which is a shocking figure. We now have 1,000, which is still very low but is 1,000 up from 26 in 2015. The reason I mention that is that Zoe has taken up an apprenticeship in one of the local authorities in Cork. This is an example of how this State can do some real good here in policy development in giving young people a chance. We are very ambitious in this area and I am very eager to work with and benefit from Senator Keogan’s insight and to keep in touch with her on this matter.

I thank the Minister. I fully welcome the work that the Minister has done to date in making my suggestion a real, live project throughout this country within local authorities. It is an untapped source. We have 31 local authorities in the country. Even if each of them was to create 100 apprenticeships over the next five years, that would be 3,100 apprenticeships created by his Department alone. Most people say that Governments do not create jobs but will create the environment. We can create the environment but this is something that the Government can actually do.

I also bring to the attention of the Minister, which he may not know about, that people under the age of 18 on apprenticeships could not access any payment whatsoever when it came to the closing down of their industry last March.

They could not get the PUP because they were under 18. Those in Youthreach get a payment of €40 a week. They do not want to get the same as the PUP. Rather, they want something to acknowledge their value and worth to society. They are doing a full day's work on an apprenticeship and get no money. I do not know how long it will continue but there should be some money for those people who are unemployed as a result of the Covid pandemic.

The gender issue is significant. In the summer months, I run an apprenticeship programme in my town. Last year, for the time year ever, I found it extremely difficult to get employers to take on people. I found it very hard to get electricians, plumbers and carpenters to take on people because they did not have confidence in the market. The Minister can say things are going to get better, but it would help for him to lead the way on this. I find it very difficult to get girls to come in.

I thank the Minister. I will keep an eye on what he is doing and hopefully I will not see him back in here during my time in here.

I hope the Senator and I have many chances to engage. She made a point about how we attract young people, be they male, female or even not-so-young individuals. One of the projects I am working relates to reform of the Central Applications Office. In this country, we narrow the discussion about the full range of options far too early. In my home town, the conversation is often whether someone is going to UCD or Trinity College rather than about what the person actually wants to do and how we can help him or her to get there, with an apprenticeship being seen as a viable route in this regard.

We need many more people in the craft space, but not just in that space. When I was a Minister of State, we worked at introducing an apprenticeship relating to financial services, which is going very well now. There has always been considerable untapped potential and this is even more important now in the context of the Covid pandemic. My sense is that the financial incentive we introduced for employers has helped stabilise the situation during the pandemic.

I will follow up with SOLAS on apprenticeships for people under the age of 18. Education has always been a priority area under the living with Covid plan. Without getting ahead of ourselves again, I would hope that as the community transmission goes down, we can see those apprenticeships resume quickly.

Sitting suspended at 11.47 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.