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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 8 Mar 2022

Vol. 283 No. 7

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Urban Development

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English. I congratulate him on the launch of the new Town Centre First policy, which is going to be transformative. Of course, I am here today as a Senator based in Dublin West and I want us to be part of that. Town Centre First, for anyone who does not know, is a policy where local communities and businesses will be supported in revitalising towns and villages through tools and supports. It is about revitalising our communities and, of course, we want to create stronger and safer communities. This ambitious and far-reaching policy contains a range of measures and funding supports aimed at making towns in the various counties more viable and attractive places in which to live, work and visit, while ensuring they are social, cultural and services hubs for the local community.

It is not just rural areas that can benefit from this. As I said, I represent Dublin 15 and Dublin West, which is a collection of various different villages. They are real villages, like Castleknock village, Blanchardstown village, Clonsilla village, Ongar village and Ashtown village. During Covid, we saw how people were closer to home. They were shopping and supporting local, and areas like Blanchardstown saw their greatest footfall ever in the Bank of Ireland and in Supervalu. We could see the effect this was having on the main street. The main streets in these areas often suffer because of their proximity to the city centre and they are not an entirely separate entity, as they might be in rural areas. I do not think we want to go back to a place where those main streets do not get an opportunity to revive as well. There is an opportunity around ensuring we get the benefit of the digital transformation that we saw in Covid, with people working remotely at home. We want more people be able to work remotely but, again, we are missing out on the opportunities in these areas.

I see the Town Centre First model working for areas like this but it is not open to them at the moment. If we look at the funding streams, there is the urban regional development fund, the rural regional development fund, the town and village renewal scheme and the towns fund for servicing sites for new homes and for the refurbishment of vacant homes. We do not get access to those. It is frustrating when we are meeting people from the Tidy Towns or from local groups who see money from these programmes going into other areas but not theirs.

They want their community co-working hub and to see community childcare. They want those things to see the transformation on the main street and to retain people who have been working in the area to keep them coming into their shops, whereby the traditional shops can benefit from it as well.

In conclusion, the model around town teams and the fact there is a regeneration officer and a health check could apply here. Mobilising different groups and organisations around this model would have a hugely beneficial effect on suburban areas too.

I thank Senator Currie for raising this issue, which I will answer on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, who could not make it today. He is glad the Senator raised this issue, however, because it is certainly something he would like to talk about to focus minds.

The whole idea behind the Town Centre First policy initiative and framework was to maximise the investment of State resources in our towns and villages right across the country, be they urban or rural. We would then have a process to maximise that investment and be able to see positive outcomes that benefit the whole town, village and community. Again, I thank Senator Currie for bringing the focus to the suburban town initiative. I also recognise her work in this area in making sure we provide our towns and villages with the option of remote working, working from home and in trying to do away with that commute. Bringing the heart back into our communities and lives is something she has been championing for years. This initiative should be able to assist with those plans.

The Town Centre First policy raised by Senator Currie today was launched on 4 February. It provides a co-ordinated, whole-of-government policy framework to address the decline in the heart of town centres, to provide support measures to regenerate and revitalise them, and, as I said earlier, to maximise the investment in our towns. The Senator mentioned Blanchardstown and villages like Clonsilla. All these different villages are part of the initiatives that could come through under this policy. A key feature of the policy is the preparation of a Town Centre First plan for a town, which will be developed by the local community, supported by the local authority and local business organisations, to identify and analyse the challenges facing the town and to propose initiatives and projects to address them.

The Town Centre First initiative, therefore, recognises that a solely top-down approach to the development of our towns is not appropriate to the challenges they face. This is about trying to bring the community together with a list of actions that will help develop our towns over a period and make them much more attractive places in which to live, invest, create jobs and grow a business, as well as in which to raise a family and to be able to naturally expand our community services. Instead, this document sets out an innovative approach whereby local communities and local businesses can be central to reimagining their own towns and planning their own futures.

With regard to suburban villages located within the five cities, as Senator Currie quite rightly referenced, these centres are recognised as being the heart of their local communities. They provide a focus for local activities, allowing sustainable urban living and facilitating people’s access to local shops, services, community services, information, healthcare, amenities and the ability to work locally. They are essential to the economic well-being and quality of life of the city.

The individual development plans of the metropolitan local authorities include important policies related to regeneration of these areas, which also will tie into the Town Centre First initiative. Their importance and the need for the strategic regeneration of urban and suburban villages is also strongly reflected across the regional spatial and economic strategies, RSESs, and related metropolitan area strategic plans, MASPs, that have now been produced by the three regional assemblies.

A number of funding sources are available to support the development and regeneration of such suburban areas including the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, as well as funding for local sustainable transport infrastructure, community facilities, heritage and economic development among other areas available from various Departments and State agencies. To be clear, that urban regeneration funding should be available to those towns the Senator referenced today. It absolutely is about developing these plans in conjunction with local authorities to be able to draw down this competitive funding. Applications for these funds are primarily the responsibility of the relevant local authorities, which, as the planning authorities, are best placed to prioritise and integrate proposals in their operational areas, as advocated by the Town Centre First policy.

Funding has previously been provided through the urban regeneration and development fund to a number of regeneration projects in suburban village areas to date, including Inchicore in Dublin city and Stillorgan and Dundrum in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area, as well as a range of integrated regeneration projects in Tallaght, for example.

There will be a third call to the local authorities for project proposals for the URDF in the second half of 2022. This will include inviting projects specifically focused on implementation of the Town Centre First policy. In addition, the establishment of a national Town Centre First office will support the achievement of impactful regeneration nationwide through the development of a Town Centre First toolkit, bringing together all the best people and the vested agencies to work with local people to maximise their actions and approaches.

This toolkit of best practice will inform the local approaches to regeneration and will encompass specific strands targeting key factors such as urban development, economic enterprise development, community engagement, digitalisation, climate action and others.

As towns or suburban areas and communities develop their town action plans, different funding streams will feed into them. The focus through this framework is that we get all the agencies and stakeholders together on the one pitch and buying into the one plan for their town. It does not mean that the results will be seen in year 1 but over a couple of years, as one wins and secures funding from different Government initiatives and funds to feed into the plan to make it happen over a period. All the areas that the Senator mentioned earlier will be quite capable of being able to draw down that funding.

When I talk to local authorities about access to town and village and the urban regeneration development fund and even the regional enterprise funding that is available, they say they are not able to get support from those schemes. Will there be new schemes or will the schemes be tweaked so that areas such as Blanchardstown and Castleknock get access to them? I agree that bringing together the stakeholders of a village is great. There is a development plan. There will be an urban planning framework for those different areas and hopefully between the development plan and this work and connecting the two there could be some great proposals that we can apply for funding under.

As I am no longer the Minister of State with responsibility in this Department, I do not want to rewrite policy while I am here. I will certainly bring back the points raised by the Senator to the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. To be clear, the understanding when we set up the urban and rural regeneration funds was that they would achieve the same thing in different settings because they are funded by two different Departments. The majority of towns and villages, and certainly the ones mentioned by Senator Currie, are meant to be part of that. That was always my understanding when it was done and talking to the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, before today's debate, and based on the response to the Senator's question that I read, that is the aim.

We can engage with local authorities to see if there is misrepresentation or misunderstanding. In some cases, towns and villages are grouped together to ensure that they come under the different population numbers. However, Blanchardstown, Clonee and Castleknock are areas that would need intervention by the State in conjunction with local communities and businesses. The Senator is right to call them out here. She asked if we will see tweaks to the Town Centre First initiative. I would imagine that in the coming years different schemes and funding measures will be brought forward as well as tweaks. Even with existing schemes, there are mechanisms there to find the funding that is needed for towns and villages.

I will bring this back to the Minister of State who can probably talk to the Senator about this directly.

Food Industry

I thank the Minister of State for taking this question. Trade policy and import substitution is an area in which he has a strong interest. Today, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is meeting various farm organisations. One thing he will encourage is increasing grain production to help provide greater domestic food security. This is something that will be very welcome if it can be done and I am quite certain that our farmers and farm organisations can step up to the plate.

The average person in Ireland eats 54 kg of flour per year, that is quite a bit of bread and bread products, yet over 80% of the flour we use in Ireland is imported. The bulk of this comes from the UK. Something that the special committee on Brexit explored in detail is that much of the flour that we import from the UK is made with imported wheat, a lot of it coming from Canada. Under the EU rules of origin that flour is subject to tariffs and if the non-EU content is more than 15% it is subject to the full tariffs.

This is already contributing to some of the cost pressures that are in place.

When it was before the Seanad Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU, Enterprise Ireland highlighted the need to look at import substitution for those that use flour in Ireland to change supply chains. This is a view that was shared by Food Drink Ireland. On top of that we see the pressure that Russia's disgraceful invasion of Ukraine will put on global food security. About one quarter of the world's wheat exports come from that region and even though we do not import much wheat from there directly, there will be a knock-on impact if wheat from that region is not contributing towards the world supply.

There are food security issues in parts of the Middle East, which I have spoken about in this House before and there will be knock-on implications on the supply coming in here. I was looking at the Chicago commodities futures market and wheat prices are 70% higher now than at the start of the year. Last week, wheat futures contracts had their largest price increase since 1959. We will see a major problem around wheat supply and as we are importing a lot of flour produced from imported wheat we should be certain that this will impact here.

If we produce all that additional grain how can we ensure that we will have commercial mills in Ireland again? There are a number of small mills here but supports should be put in place for the flour we use in our bread. A pair of brothers in County Wexford, Andrew and Raymond Kavanagh, have planning permission for a full commercial mill. They have yet to receive much support from Enterprise Ireland, in spite of some of the discussions around the Brexit adjustment reserve fund. If we look at import substitution we have to be in a position where we support those brothers or others who may wish to develop commercial mills around Ireland. We are inviting the farmers to grow more wheat so for the purposes of food security what guarantees can we put in place to ensure that we will have sufficient access to flour and ideally that we will have import substitution such that we can produce it here? I ask the Minister of State to meet those brothers or to arrange through his office for Enterprise Ireland to meet them. Food security, on a global and domestic level, is important and it is particularly important given the importance of flour to our diet. I look forward to the Minister of State’s answer.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. We have had to have an important conversation on import substitution and food security. In recent years our supply chains were tested by Brexit, then Covid and now the terrible events and atrocities in Ukraine. There is an urgency around looking at food security issues, and import substitution is something that is close to my heart and which we have discussed in this House before. Covid and Brexit have taught us that we need to look at that again and seek out any opportunity we can to produce at home on our shores. That in turn creates jobs and gives us added security and opportunities. I would be happy to explore these options with the Senator.

The events of the last two weeks in Ukraine have brought about a different conversation and they have brought much more urgency to that issue. The Government is monitoring the impacts of this crisis closely. We have been working closely with our EU partners and fellow member states on the adoption of sanctions in response to Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Ireland is fully committed to the comprehensive implementation of the four EU sanctions packages adopted to date, which will have an impact on our economy and industries. We have to plot a course through that to assist businesses and domestic customers through those difficult times.

While the effects of the series of sanctions being implemented may not be directly significant for Ireland, the Irish economy remains exposed to the indirect spillover effects resulting from the sanctions and the general geopolitical instability. We can see the price increases in many sectors already. Sanctions will not be cost-free for Ireland or for other EU member states, as evidenced now by the sharp increase in flour prices and in the price of other commodities but we were left with little choice due to Russia’s behaviour. We all agree that this is important but we also have to find ways to manage this for our economy. Russia and Ukraine account for one third of global grain production, while the EU imports more than two fifths of its gas demand from Russia. It goes without saying that Russia’s systemic role in energy supply will have significant impacts on prices because some the costs of flour production are down to both the price of grain and the price of energy.

The implications for inflation and production costs are also significant because of those energy costs. Unfortunately, pass-through price effects are expected in other sectors apart from flour production, such as fertilisers, fuel and transport costs. The knock-on effect will be quite serious. I am aware that representations have been made by the bakery sector on the implications of flour and gas costs on the price of bread and other products. My Department is working with our enterprise agencies and other Departments, including the establishment by the Taoiseach of a new group at Secretary General level, to update, advise and co-ordinate all aspects of our response to the conflict, to assess the full impacts of the sanctions and to develop mitigations and contingency plans to support enterprise and traders.

Unfortunately, there will be no easy solutions to addressing the indirect consequences of imposing these sanctions on Russia and Belarus. The question of implementing measures on a sectoral basis would require careful consideration and should be balanced by consideration of other potential mechanisms in addressing the impact on the most vulnerable consumers and sectors. On flour production and flour milling in general, we need to look into the feasibility of doing further processing in Ireland. It is something we should look at, exactly as the Senator said. Since Brexit, the rules of origin impact on flour have resulted in unintended consequences because we import most of our flour from the UK, and through Canada, although recently imports from Northern Ireland have surged, thus avoiding potential tariffs and cross-border delays. I agree with the Senator that it is probably opportune to look specifically at the issue of supporting companies and the feasibility of doing further processing and flour milling in Ireland to secure our supply of this vital ingredient.

I certainly have an interest in organising that meeting with Enterprise Ireland and will join it I can. If there are guys like Andrew Kavanagh and Raymond Kavanagh, who are seeking support to make this happen and already have planning permission, I would be very interested in seeing how we can progress that for them and for others. While the Government will intervene in different ways to deal with the current pressure right now, the Deputy is suggesting it deals with the long-term solution, which is something we should certainly be looking at. I am happy to work with the Senator on it. I will talk to our guys in Enterprise Ireland to see if we can organise a meeting to make that happen.

I thank the Minister of State for agreeing to that meeting. Most people in this country strongly support the sanctions we need to stand up to Russia. As the Minister of State said, it has consequences. One of the issues is the price of a loaf of bread. We all know the implications that will have, especially for those on low fixed incomes. It is important, therefore, that we give certainty of supply to any of our bakers in this country and we also look at import substitution. Brexit highlighted some of the problems but this conflict indicates there is an urgency to the matter. I greatly appreciate the offer of a meeting and I will work with the Minister of State to set that up, but apart from providing support to the Cabinet, the general issue of import substitution, especially for those products and commodities where we are vulnerable, needs to be a real priority on the Government's table.

I again thank the Senator for raising this issue. We are at one on the need to focus on import substitution in the short and long term to deal with crises such as the current one, but also from the perspective of job security and security for various parts of the market. We should look at this for different reasons. It is an area we probably need to focus more on, which I have been saying for a number of years. From this point of view, certainly when it comes to flour and milling, if there is an opportunity there we should develop it.

On the sanctions and what is happening with Russia, the ultimate and most ideal solution to the crisis is for Russia to withdraw its forces and uphold international humanitarian and human rights law. That is something we all agree with in this House. The use of such military aggression has no place in the modern world and is wholly unacceptable in the 21st century. Unfortunately, the longer this crisis continues the greater the adverse economic impacts will be, particularly on energy costs, which will carry through to consumers and businesses. The Senator referenced the price of a loaf of bread. That will impact on everybody but, specifically, it will hurt low-income families harder.

There is no doubt that low-margin industries, especially food producers and food processors, will be put under severe pressure in the coming weeks and possibly months. The Government may have to consider options that are targeted to provide relief in critical sectors. That work is ongoing at present. All these issues are being considered and co-ordinated at the highest levels of the Government and interdepartmentally. I re-emphasise, and I agreed with the Senator on this, that there is now an opportunity to have another look at the domestic capacity for flour production and flour milling. We will ask our enterprise agencies to examine this and to continue to assess business proposals for the setting up of commercial flour mills in Ireland, similar to those of the Kavanaghs and others.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, for coming to the House today for Commencement matters. It is appreciated. I call on Senator Hoey who has a Commencement matter on the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival 2022.

Arts Council

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House for this. I do not know whether he is aware of this or what awareness his Department has on this issue. We know that Covid has not been the only challenge that festivals and artists have faced. I will talk about the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. Its funding had been increased by 50% in 2019, just ahead of Covid hitting. Obviously, we then had Covid and all sorts of things. My understanding, from my engagement with the team at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, is that the funding has now been cut by 100%. It has gone from an increase, pre-Covid, to absolutely and utterly no funding. Having done some research, I cannot see any other festival that has lost 100% of its funding from the Arts Council.

Obviously, this is very concerning, not just based on the fact that this is an internationally renowned festival. It is extremely popular and is held in very high regard. The Taoiseach and the Minister have attended it previously. It is considered one of the key LGBTQ playwright and theatre festivals in the world. It brings LGBT tourism into the city and creates an opportunity to give credence and voice to LGBTQ playwrights and productions that may not get that same opportunity in other countries.

Dublin Gay Theatre Festival has appealed on a number of grounds as to why its funding has been cut. It has sought answers and remedy to the situation. As far as it and I can tell, answers or information have not been forthcoming. There does not seem to be a reason to have cut this funding. It seems quite unusual to have just cut funding for no reason whatsoever, especially on something as crucial as LGBTQ issues.

I hope it is not due to the assumption that because we have marriage equality, we do not need to protect, support or enhance LGBTQ issues and voices in Ireland. I hope that is not the case. I know that some people, when we talk about LGBTQ issues, say that we have marriage equality and everything is grand.

Even if all was well, good and dandy for the LGBTQ community in Ireland, of which I am member, we could not agree that it was the same for LGBTQ communities the world over. This is an international theatre festival. It brings voices, productions and playwrights, globally, to Ireland. It is not just us gays who go to it. International LGBTQ people come to it. We could not, in good faith, say that the situation is the same the world over.

This theatre festival gives voice, credence and space to productions that would otherwise not have been produced, as far as we are aware. Certainly, a number of the people who have come to the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival previously have said they would not have had an opportunity to produce or bring forward these plays beforehand.

The festival is brilliant for tourism and bringing people to Dublin. As someone who used to work in theater, I know it is a great stomping ground. That stomping ground as a place to stretch one's play-writing experience and imagination and get international recognition is very important.

It is devastating that this funding has been lost. The people at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival do not really understand why it has been lost. No answer has been forthcoming. Is the Minister or the Department aware of this? Do they have any plans to support this vital international gay theatre festival? It is running on no money and it is not good enough that LGBTQ productions and theatre are pushed to the side again.

I will take this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.

I thank Senator Hoey for the opportunity to discuss this matter. The Arts Council is the statutory body charged with supporting developing arts in Ireland. When it comes to funding the arts in any democratic state, the arms length principle is a fundamental tenet in Government funding of arts. The arms length principle recognises that it would not be appropriate for Ministers and politicians to be in a position to decide which artistic endeavours should be funded and which should not. For this reason, the legislation under which the Arts Council is constituted, the Arts Act 2003, includes a provision, at section 24(2), that ensures the council is independent in its funding decisions. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, therefore, is statutorily precluded from intervening in how and to whom the Arts Council commits its funding.

I recognise and understand the sentiments behind requests to a Minister to intervene with the Arts Council on behalf of organisations that have been refused funding by the council, but I would defend the law in this case by saying that artistic freedom would suffer if Ministers could direct the council on who it should fund. The maintenance of this approach between the Arts Council and the role of the Minister also ensures that all funding decisions are above reproach. I understand that the Arts Council provides detailed feedback on unsuccessful applications and has an appeals process in place. I recommend that the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival adopt this approach.

Across its various funding schemes, the Arts Council supports more than 160 festivals annually. Through its festival investment scheme, the council makes significant investment in festivals nationwide. The addition of festivals supported under the arts grant and strategic funding schemes ensures that there is a flexible and comprehensive support for festivals in Ireland. The council recognises the distinctive role arts festivals play in sustaining a vibrant and sustainable arts profile at local level. Festivals provide opportunities for artists and audiences to experience new work and ways of making work.

There is no funding or revenue stream in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media that provides funding to organisations which have been refused funding by the Arts Council and there are no plans to introduce one. However, the Department does operate a small-scale local festivals and summer schools funding scheme. The scheme is designed to support local cultural festivals and summer schools which are not in receipt of other essential Government moneys and which may not be eligible under funding criteria for larger scale events supported by Fáilte Ireland, the Arts Council or similar bodies. This scheme is currently open for applications on the Department's website. In addition, Senator Hoey may be interested to note that a number of local authorities support small-scale festivals, in some cases, under the all-of-Government Creative Ireland Programme 2017-2022, led by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.

I thank the Minister of State for his response but I am not asking that anyone directs the Arts Council to fund this festival or to change its funding system. The issue I am raising is that there seems to be no other revenue stream or way to fund this festival. The festival has gone through the appeals process and the issue is that process. The appeal is about the process, not about the decision. There is no way, as far as I can tell, for the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival to even find out why the funding has been cut. It is concerning that funding can be cut without any reason being given. That is very worrying. This festival has been running for 19 years, with 48 plays published, but now, after two decades of success, it is going to be left with nothing. This theatre festival was incredibly important, not just for Irish but for international LGBTQ theatre. It was good for queer voices and it is really important that it is supported and not left to collapse. I am just devastated to see that this is going to happen to such a brilliant festival.

I thank Senator Hoey for her remarks and reiterate, as I said earlier, that the council does provide detailed feedback on unsuccessful applications and that there is an appeals process. Obviously, there is a channel available to try to get information. I thank the Senator for raising the issue and I will convey her concerns to the Minister.

An Garda Síochána

This is an issue with which the Acting Chairman is very familiar. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to deal with this matter.

He will be aware that in 2012 An Garda Síochána undertook a rationalisation programme, which meant that it looked at whether it needed all its stations throughout the country. As a result of that review, a decision was made to close a number of them, some more controversially than others. Specifically in my area, the Garda station at Kill of the Grange, 300 m away from where I grew up, was one of the ones that was closed. The second one was in Dalkey. Those two buildings have lain idle since they were closed in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Dalkey was closed in June 2012 and Kill of the Grange in April 2013. They are two significant buildings. In the case of Dalkey, it is part of the heritage town. The building itself is an old structure full of character and heritage. The Garda station in Kill of the Grange is slightly more modern but it is still a significant landmark at the bottom of Rochestown Avenue.

These are two buildings that could definitely be put to use, but which have been empty or idle since they closed. I know that people have been living in the buildings in a caretaker capacity. That is something the Office of Public Works, OPW, has done and does with other buildings. I understand that it takes time to repurpose buildings such as these and that there is a process that must be gone through whereby an alternative State function is sought, a building is put on sale or a community function is also considered. That is the order in which the alternatives are considered. I do not have a difficulty with any of that, what I have a difficulty with is that the Garda stations have been closed for ten and nine years, respectively. The communities in those areas have no use of those buildings and the people in those areas have to look at them, essentially derelict or unused. Even though people may be living in them, they are not buildings that are interacting with the community around them, which is a real shame because both buildings are significant landmarks. The Garda station in Dalkey is on Tubbermore Road, a residential road, right in the centre of the village. People live adjacent to it. It is such a beautiful building, and it is a crying shame for it to go unused for so long.

In the case of Kill of the Grange, I understand that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has indicated a preference to purchase the building and that a purchase price has been agreed. I also understand that it was done in 2019 and yet here we are in 2022 and there has been no movement regarding the sale of the property. My understanding of the way these things work is that the Valuation Office sets the purchase price, and the council agrees to it. As far as I know, that has been done, yet Kill of the Grange Garda station is essentially empty and derelict. It is a not insubstantial plot. I do not understand why the council has not bought it yet.

What I am looking for today is some kind of commitment that we will move on with these buildings; that we will recognise that they have a role in the streetscape and the community in which they are based. They can be very easily repurposed and they have a value and we should move on with giving them that value within the community.

I am responding to this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Finance with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy O'Donovan. I thank Senator Ward for raising the issue, which is rather ironic, allowing for the fact that I also grew up at the opposite end of Rochestown Avenue. I must make that declaration of interest. I well know the two buildings to which the Senator refers. He makes some very valid points in his contribution about them and their role within the community.

The OPW has responsibility on behalf of the State for managing and maintaining a substantial and complex estate, comprising approximately 2,500 properties valued at €3.3 billion in total. This extensive and diverse portfolio of State properties includes office accommodation for all Departments, the property estate for An Garda Síochána and numerous properties for State agencies. The portfolio also encompasses specialised spaces such as public offices, laboratories and cultural institutions, in addition to warehouses, heritage properties, visitor centres and sites. In any major portfolio, there will always be a certain level of vacant properties. It is normal to have an amount of space vacant, or vacant properties, at any given time, as the portfolio could not function without the flexibility that it provides. Not all vacant properties will be deemed surplus to the State's requirements or deemed suitable for disposal.

The OPW has actively pursued its disposal policy in recent years. From 2014 to 2021, the OPW has disposed of 128 surplus properties, generating an income in excess of €22 million. The disposal programme will continue throughout 2022 and 2023 for 99 currently surplus properties, with three auctions already planned. The OPW, by default, consults with local authorities, the HSE, Departments, the Land Development Agency, LDA, and other State bodies in relation to any vacant building or site that is surplus to its requirements.

The purpose of the consultation with other State bodies is to ascertain a State use or public interest in advance of a decision to sell on the open market. Over the past number of years, the OPW has facilitated a number of property disposals to other public bodies to help meet challenges in the housing area in particular. If no State use is identified, the OPW considers if open market disposal is an option, depending on prevailing market conditions. Alternatively, the OPW may consider community involvement, subject to a detailed submission that demonstrates that the community or voluntary group seeking to use the property has the means to insure, maintain and manage it in order to reduce costs to the Exchequer. As part of An Garda Síochána's 2012 rationalisation programme, the former Garda station at Dalkey closed on 30 June 2012. From 2014 to 2018, the OPW entered into a pilot guardianship project with Camelot Properties for both the Dalkey and Kill of the Grange properties. In 2019 Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council expressed an interest in acquiring the former Garda station property, a protected structure, for social housing. The council carried out an inspection in late 2019 and subsequently advised the OPW that the property did not meet its requirements, taking account of the substantial costs required to repurpose the property. The OPW received a request in October 2020 to facilitate the housing of Syrian refugees in the property. As the property had already been assessed for housing by the local authority and deemed unsuitable, the OPW was unable to accede to this request. As no alternative State requirement has been identified, the OPW plans to dispose of the property. The registration process is currently being progressed with a view to placing the property on the open market for disposal.

I thank the Minister of State for that very comprehensive reply.

I am not sure I agree on how comprehensive the reply is, to be honest. Obviously the Department has set out the basis on which these buildings are repurposed and disposed of. It does not account for the glacial pace at which it is done. The people who live in Dalkey and Kill of the Grange are entitled to expect that these significant buildings in their areas, in the case of Dalkey an historic building, are properly repurposed. It should not take a decade to do that. It should not be the case that I ask this question and now we are told that the Chief State Solicitor's Office, CSSO, is preparing contracts. This is something that should happen as a matter of course. In the course of the Minister of State's response, the suggestion that the OPW has done this for 128 properties over the course of seven years is not something to trumpet as progress. It takes far too long. These are valuable, beautiful buildings in the centre of suburban areas that could absolutely be used tomorrow if the Department was willing to move and to facilitate their sale or whatever it might be. However, the people who live in these areas should not have to live next to vacant, essentially derelict, buildings, when they have perfectly good purposes available to them. I thank the Minister of State for attending. I appreciate the clarity of his answer on one level, but I also feel it is slightly frustrating for people living in the areas.

I thank the Senator. I hear the points he makes and I fully understand that question of frustration for people living in an area wondering what is happening. As I indicated in my reply, it is the process that when it comes to the former Garda station in Dalkey, the OPW will now prepare the property for sale by public auction for disposal of it in the third quarter of 2022. As I already indicated, Kill of the Grange and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council have identified it as a property they can use and that completed contracts and the transfer of the property should be completed by the second quarter of 2022.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 3.19 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.34 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 3.19 p.m. and resumed at 3.34 p.m.