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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Jun 2022

Vol. 286 No. 1

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Road Network

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this very important issue for the Commencement debate, and Senator Boyhan for chairing this session. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is very welcome. I hope he has some good news for us in terms of the new bridge for Newbridge, which is my new mantra. I will put it up on everything that I do.

Everyone in the House, in the Dáil and in the area around Newbridge will know I am practically blue in the face from raising this issue. I have repeatedly called for a second bridge in Newbridge. I am confident there has been some progress on it and Kildare County Council is working to put in place what is needed from its end to find a solution. The bridge we need over the River Liffey is not just a bridge in its own right as it is part of an outer distributor ring road. The bridge is one quarter of the solution. With Kildare County Council working proactively with developers and the industry, we are three quarters of the way there. At national level we need funding for the bridge itself.

The people of Newbridge and the surrounding areas can wait no longer. This has been in every development plan for Newbridge for the past 20 years. It is vital infrastructure and has to be delivered. I know the Minister of State is familiar with the part of Newbridge I am speaking about. There are five schools practically on the bridge itself. There is a church and a number of crèches and doctors' surgeries. There are more than 1,500 houses in the eight housing estates that access the town through the bridge. It is ridiculous that in 2022 we still rely on one bridge that leads right into the centre of the town. It causes pandemonium, particularly at rush hour and when schools are opening and closing. I have to add at least 30 minutes to my journey every morning when I drive to Leinster House. This is indicative of what people experience and that is on a good day.

I am very proud to see Newbridge continue to grow and develop as a commercial heart. We have seen major investment by Primark and Lidl. Pfizer continues to grow its operations and staff numbers increase year on year. We are also home to a large number of independent family-run businesses. This is very positive. It concerns me when I speak to people, particularly from outside Newbridge, for example, in Milltown, Athgarvan, Rathangan and the Curragh, who say the problem with the traffic in Newbridge, which is directly linked to the bridge, puts them off going into their main regional town. They prefer to go elsewhere to spend their money. There is no doubt the lack of a second bridge is not only causing problems now but it is also hindering the potential for growth in Newbridge. Traffic and congestion are a major issue for everybody. The system we have in Newbridge is not fit for purpose. We do not have a proper traffic management plan. This is mainly down to the bridge.

We should use our development levies. For example, there was €7 million for the Primark distribution centre. In Kildare we have an agreement that 71.8% of commercial development levies go to roads. We need co-operation at a national level. We want to see the Department working with Kildare County Council to provide this vital infrastructure. I have further questions but I look forward to hearing the initial response of the Minister of State.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I am very familiar with the beautiful town of Newbridge. As the Senator knows, my mother is from Morristown.

The outgoing Italian ambassador, Mr. Paolo Serpi, is in the Gallery and I wish him well. My city of Kilkenny is twinned with Formigine, a city in northern Italy. The ambassador has had a fantastic tenure here and I wish him well in his future appointments.

The urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, is one of four funds established under the National Development Plan 2018-2027, and was launched in 2018, primarily to support the national planning framework's growth enablers for the five cities and other large urban centres. The URDF provides part-funding for applicant-led projects that will support more compact and sustainable development and enable a greater proportion of residential and mixed-use development to be delivered within the existing built-up footprints of our cities and large towns, while also ensuring that more parts of our urban areas can become attractive and vibrant places in which people choose to live and work, as well as to invest and visit.

In keeping with the aims of the national planning framework and Project Ireland 2040, the URDF demonstrates a new and more tailored approach to the provision of Government support. Over its planned duration up to 2030, URDF support in excess of €2 billion will be targeted in an integrated, dynamic and responsive way to support the regeneration and rejuvenation of our towns and cities. Through the URDF, successful applicants receive targeted integrated support for innovative holistic solutions to the issues that have hindered the regeneration and rejuvenation of our large towns and cities.

To date, there have been two calls for proposals under the URDF, with a total of almost €312 million allocated so far in respect of the 87 projects approved under the first call, while in March 2021 URDF funding support of €1.3 billion was announced in respect of a countrywide programme of a further 45 proposals approved under the second call. To assist local authorities with the application process for the second call, the Department hosted a number of workshops to provide information on the purpose of the URDF programme and the types of proposals that would be considered for support.

In all, 75 proposals were considered, with every local authority submitting at least one application, and involving competing demands with a total combined value exceeding €2 billion. All applications were assessed in terms of their alignment with the intended purpose of the URDF programme and also their viability before being considered for approval. The 45 proposals approved in the second call in March 2021 build on the existing pipeline of URDF-supported projects launched under the first call. This URDF-supported programme of projects will ultimately contribute significantly to the transformative regeneration and development of our large towns and cities and to the achievement of the national planning framework and Project Ireland 2040 objectives.

Kildare County Council submitted four applications under the second call, three of which were successful, attracting a combined total €15,642,624 in URDF support. This URDF funding in the second call is in addition to €5.5 million already approved for four projects under the first call, bringing total URDF support for projects in Kildare County Council area to €21.1 million over both URDF calls. Kildare County Council's fourth proposal in respect of a second bridge over the River Liffey at Newbridge was one of 30 unsuccessful proposals. A copy of the detailed assessment of this proposal has been provided to Kildare County Council, and a feedback meeting on the matter has taken place between officials of the council and the Department. The ball is back in the court of Kildare County Council in terms of advancing the project further. Certainly the Department will give all support it can. I await the Senator's supplementary questions.

With the greatest of respect to the Minister of State, I did not need a lecture on the URDF. While he correctly stated that Kildare County Council submitted four applications, this particular application was highlighted as the second most important of those four. It was bypassed for whatever reason. We were very disappointed to receive word that the project was not included. The Department cannot simply wash its hands of this. It needs to work with the Department of Transport and Kildare County Council to find an innovative response. Kildare County Council is working proactively to provide three quarters of the funding for the project. The Minister of State has said it is back in the court of Kildare County Council. When will we have the next round of the URDF? The Minister of State spoke about one feedback meeting between the Department and Kildare County Council. Is this the only engagement that has taken place? Has there been other engagement? What plans does the Department have to support the people of Kildare as well as Kildare County Council in securing sufficient funding to make progress on this vital infrastructure?

I acknowledge the disappointment of the Senator and the people of Newbridge that the second bridge over the River Liffey was not included in the second call of the URDF. Unfortunately, the project was deemed unsuccessful following a comprehensive assessment process that concluded it did not adequately meet the criteria for URDF support. I suggest that the local authority continue to engage with the Department and look at other mechanisms. There is significant funding available for active travel. It should look at a myriad of solutions. Road infrastructure is one part of the solution for a traffic problem but there is a wider set of solutions, particularly with regard to schools and active travel, such as cycling and walking, and trying to reduce car dependency in Newbridge town centre.

That type of added innovation will give an extra dimension to any new application the local authority submits to the URDF. I cannot give the Senator a definitive answer on when the next round of calls will be, but I urge local authorities to continue to engage with my Department and, in regard to active travel, with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.

Roads Projects

I thank the Acting Chairperson for his courtesy, as usual, in giving me the floor on this issue. I am delighted it is being taken by my friend, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. Coming from Mayo originally, I am sure she is familiar with the N5 route. We all know what has happened with that project. Unfortunately, the contractors who were to construct the bypass from Scramogue to Ballaghaderreen have run into difficulties. I have spoken about this on many occasions in the Seanad and previously in the Dáil. The contract is now off and that puts the focus back on the existing route. It is a very dangerous one on which there have been a large number of accidents and fatalities over many years. It is disappointing for the people living along the route that the new bypass is not going ahead. They have lived with the terrible experience of having to deal with horrific accidents on the road morning, noon and night over the past 40 years. It is not an exaggeration to say that when one looks back over those 40 years. In excess of 30 people have been killed on the road and 60 to 70 have been injured. It has been a nightmare for the people who live along the route.

We now have a hold-up on the construction of the bypass. I am very confident the Government is committed to the project and that the situation will sort itself out in time. However, it is important that we focus again on the issue of safety. In the time remaining to me, I will outline the problems along the route for the Minister of State. Scramogue Cross is a massive crossroads that requires further upgrading. In Strokestown, there is a Centra as one goes into the town, at the turn near the old football pitch. There have been numerous crashes there over the years. I acknowledge that Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, formerly the National Roads Authority, has carried out quite a lot of work there. There are also problems in Lisryan, which is on the far side of Strokestown. Tulsk village, which is a very elongated village with a school, community centre, church and some businesses, is also experiencing problems. Traffic goes through it at an enormous speed. The situation in Bellanagare may not be as dangerous but there are concerns about the volume of traffic going through it. In Frenchpark, there is an appalling scenario in terms of accidents. One occurred there recently involving a school bus. There has been a litany of accidents in that village.

We have seen some movement by TII in response to all the representations that have been made by a large number of politicians. In fairness to all my colleagues, whatever party they are in, there have been requests to upgrade the crossroads in Frenchpark village and the route on to Ballaghaderreen. We really need to focus now on advancing this project and money must be ring-fenced to ensure improvements are carried out. As a result of the hold-up, even at the greatest speed at which it can now be done, it will be four or five years before the bypass is completed. We must concentrate on safety issues. It would not take a huge amount of money to make improvements in that regard and it must be done. There are schools, churches and community centres along the route. Farmers have to do their business along the road, taking cattle to different lands and so on. They are really concerned about it because there is a threat every time they go out on the road. I know this issue is not part of the Minister of State's portfolio and I appreciate her taking it. I ask that she take the message back that TII needs to put extra effort into dealing with safety measures along this route.

I thank the Senator for his question. He is right that I am familiar with this stretch of road. As he is aware, the Minister for Transport has responsibility for overall policy and Exchequer funding in regard to the national roads programme. Once funding arrangements have been put in place with TII, under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015 and in line with the national development plan, NDP, the planning, design, improvement and upgrading of individual national roads is a matter for TII, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. TII ultimately delivers the national roads programme in line with Project Ireland 2040, which is the national planning framework, and the NDP.

Under the new NDP launched in October 2021, approximately €5.1 billion is earmarked for new national roads projects to 2030. This funding will enable improved regional accessibility across the country, as well as compact growth, both of which are key national strategic outcomes. The funding will provide for the development of numerous national roads projects, including the completion of those already at construction stage and those close to it, as well as the development of a number of others. Exchequer funding under the new NDP will also facilitate continued protection and renewal of our national roads infrastructure, including motorways, in line with Government policy.

A priority in the NDP, in line with the Department's typical investment hierarchy, is to maintain the quality and safety of the existing national road network, which includes the N5. This will serve to safeguard the significant investment that has taken place in our national roads over recent decades. The NDP foresees an Exchequer allocation of approximately €2.9 billion for the protection and renewal of existing national roads over the ten-year period to 2030, allocated fairly evenly across the decade.

The N5 is a national primary road connecting Longford town with Westport. The N5 Ballaghaderreen to Scramogue project consists of the construction of 33 km of new single-carriageway road between the Ballaghaderreen bypass and Scramogue, bypassing Frenchpark, Tulsk and Strokestown. When completed, the project will reduce journey times, improve safety and deliver an improved urban environment in towns and villages along the route. As the Senator outlined, construction on the project was due to start earlier this year. However, works were suspended on 11 March due to the contractor, Roadbridge, entering receivership. Roscommon County Council is currently engaged in the process of procuring the services of a new contractor to progress the construction of the project. The tender process is under way and expressions of interest have been received. Subject to the successful outcome of a tender process, it is intended that the award of the main contract will happen in the first quarter of 2023. It is currently anticipated that the construction of the main scheme will take three years.

In 2022, a pavement improvement scheme will be progressed on the existing N5 road between Moneylea and Carrowntoosan, with works expected to commence by early July. In addition, a feasibility and options report has been received for a safety scheme at the junction of the N5 and R361 in Frenchpark. This will proceed to the next phase and TIl will provide the necessary funding. Active travel improvements for towns and villages along this route are also being investigated.

The Minister of State has given quite a positive response, which we do not always receive. I am delighted to hear about the improvement scheme between Moneylea and Carrowntoosan. Improvements to Frenchpark junction are also really important. These are areas that have caused concern to the public for many years.

There is also very good news in regard to the retendering for the N5 project. I hope it will be up and running before too long. It is really good to hear that expressions of interest have been received. I am quite happy with the Minister of State's response and update. It is only fair that I pay tribute to all my Oireachtas colleagues, irrespective of who they represent, for their representations on this issue, as well as the local councillors who have highlighted the problems time after time, for many years, particularly in regard to Frenchpark and Tulsk.

On a related matter, I am calling for the installation of special traffic lights in Strokestown, where there is currently a major issue. I will take that up directly with TII.

It is good to be the bearer of some positive news, which is not always possible when there are particular difficulties. I am glad the Senator is happy with the response and that he recognises the positive and proactive measures that have been undertaken. Approximately €51.6 million has been allocated to the N5 upgrade. It is a significant project and it is important that it be completed as soon as possible. I hope to see the tender process completed and construction starting, as projected, in the first quarter of 2023.

The Senator highlights the value of effective public representation at all levels. We are supporting our communities through that.

Ports Facilities

I thank the Minister of State for being here. Cork is the capital city of the south. The Port of Cork is the second largest natural harbour and a key international gateway for trade. I ask that Cork Port become a designated port for the importation of non-EU fresh produce and that it would receive clearance personnel from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for these products. To illustrate the point I will describe the procedure for importation of non-EU fresh produce. The containers arrive at Cork Port and must be transported by road to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine inspection area in Dublin before receiving clearance to return by road all the way back to Cork for ultimate delivery. That places a cost of about €1,200 for each container. It is bad for the environment at a time when we are conscious of climate change. For example, three containers recently arrived in Cork and went all the way to Dublin and back down again. As we speak, more containers are being rerouted to Dublin. Deputy Colm Burke and I have been talking with the Port of Cork, as well as with members of the affected companies. The Port of Cork has no Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine clearance personnel for fresh produce. The only ports that currently have such personnel in place are Dublin and Rosslare. I ask the Minister of State to change this to reflect the growth of Cork Port and the importance of what Deputy Colm Burke and I are speaking about both in this House and in the Dáil. The increased costs, the administrative burden, the slowing down of goods in reaching the businesses that require them, are all adding to delays and frustration. It is particularly problematic for those importing fresh produce. There are inconsistencies in the system. I hope the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Transport can work together to ensure that we do not discommode people but make it easier for them to bring in goods and produce without having a situation in which goods are travelling to Dublin and back to Cork.

I thank Senator Buttimer for his Commencement matter. The Port of Cork is currently a designated border control post, BCP, approved for container shipments of wood and wood products. Inspections take place at the Tivoli container terminal near Cork city where there is a leased Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine office and inspection room, where unloading bays have been shared with the Revenue Commissioners. The Port of Cork is currently developing new facilities approximately 20 km from Tivoli at Ringaskiddy, which will accommodate both lo-lo and ro-ro trade.

Between 2015 and 2018, a number of meetings took place between officials from the Department and representatives of the Port of Cork on the establishment of a border control post for goods of both plant and animal origin. As part of these discussions the Department outlined the regulatory requirements for a border control post and considered the options put forward by the Port of Cork for the infrastructure required. In December 2018, the port advised that it did not intend to pursue the building of a border control post at that time and it would leave such considerations until phase 2 of its development. In recent years the focus in the Department has been on ensuring that sufficient border control post inspection infrastructure was available to deal with sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, checks. These are the import controls that apply on agrifood trade coming into the EU Single Market from third countries, including Britain following the Brexit referendum. This work has involved considerable collaboration with the Revenue Commissioners, the Health Service Executive and the Office of Public Works and has resulted in a very substantial expansion of border control post infrastructure at Dublin Port, as well as the building of an interim facility in Kilrane close to Rosslare Europort. Work on plans for the building of a permanent facility in Rosslare Europort was completed towards the end of last year and planning permission has been sought and approved. The Irish Maritime Development Office's report indicates there is sufficient capacity on existing services in the roll-on roll-off network between Ireland and mainland Europe to satisfy demand. The Port of Cork has since submitted a case for the building of a border control post capable of handling food products at the Ringaskiddy terminal. It argues that Munster is the heart of the Irish agricultural sector and it believes the Port of Cork is the natural hub for imports and exports. Many of the products that require inspection are routed through Dublin Port for inspection and it believes, as does the Senator, that a border control post in the Port of Cork could reduce costs to local business and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport contributing to Ireland's climate targets. It also makes the point that the Port of Cork could be used as an alternative, contingency and overflow facility, should difficulties and congestion arise at the Dublin Port and Rosslare Europort border control posts. The issue of whether a border control posts might be required in the Port of Cork remains under consideration.

While the Department already handles wood products in Cork, it should be noted that the physical infrastructure required for handling bulk wood products and that required for handling food products are very different. Such a border control post would still have to comply with the official control regulation, be approved by the European Commission and be resourced by Department inspection staff. In addition, the location of the physical inspection premises as a border control post may only be located in a customs-controlled area. Officials from the Department are continuing to analyse the requirements for this facility.

I thank the Minister of State. I support the call and the submission from the Port of Cork for the building of a border control post. I appreciate the Minister of State's response and thank her. A border control post must be established in Cork and in tandem with that is the need for border control personnel from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to be located in Cork. I note the last paragraph of the Minister of State's reply refers to compliance with the European Commission and the issue of health and safety. These issues can be addressed and overcome. The important point is we need a border control post in Cork.

I thank the Senator and can see the passion he has for this issue. I am sure the Port of Cork welcomes his support for its submission. The issue is still under consideration. I cannot say whether it is ruled in or out. It is still open and the submission from the Port of Cork seems justifiable. The Senator's pleas for it to happen are justified. We are continuing to analyse the requirements of the facility and there is a valid case for it.

Covid-19 Pandemic

The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. As we all know, during the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the one group of people in the front line were nurses and healthcare staff in both the public and private healthcare sectors. The tax-free €1,000 that has been granted by the Government to these front-line workers is very welcome. It is not the money but the appreciation, the respect and the acknowledgement from the people of Ireland to nurses, healthcare providers and those who supported and cared for us during the pandemic, in particular those who cared for the many thousands of people who ended up in hospital very sick with Covid-19.

There were also those who helped to prevent many more people from getting sick and passing away.

The €1,000 was a very good gesture but I am most disappointed in the haphazard way its payment has happened. I raised this matter today because I want a clear timeline as to when all the people who are being given the €1,000 will get it. What arrangements are in place to ensure they will get it? I am hearing that staff in hospitals around the country have not gotten it yet. I am hearing that nurses in nursing homes, carers and so on, people who are entitled to receive it, are still waiting for it and do not even know when they will get the payment. I sincerely hope that as a result of me raising this Commencement matter, we will get a clear and definite timeline for the payment of the €1,000.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue today. On 19 January, the Government announced a Covid-19 recognition payment for front-line public sector healthcare workers, to recognise the unique role they played during the pandemic. The payment will not be subject to income tax, USC or PRSI. The measure will be ring-fenced to staff who worked ordinarily on-site in Covid-19 exposed healthcare environments for at least four weeks within the period between 1 March 2020 and 30 June 2021. Among those staff, the payment amount is €1,000 for those whose work pattern is at least 60% whole-time equivalent, or €600 for those below that threshold. This payment is being made to those eligible public sector front-line healthcare staff, inclusive of agency staff working for the HSE, who worked in clinical settings. While not an exhaustive list, and subject to eligibility criteria, public sector employees will include doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants, porters, cleaners and other eligible staff who work in clinical settings.

The Department and the HSE have consulted extensively with health sector trade unions on this matter. The eligibility guidelines for this payment that apply in HSE and section 38 organisations were published online by the HSE on 19 April. Since then, local HSE sites and section 38 organisations have been assessing employees’ eligibility and arranging payments. All services are in the process of actioning the payment to those staff who have been deemed eligible to receive it. I have been assured that this is receiving priority attention across services. Figures for payments to HSE staff are reported centrally every week. Section 38 staff are excluded from these figures. The latest available figures show that by 27 May last, 12,831 payments had been processed, to a value of over €12 million. Separately, I can confirm that payments have been made to staff in Beaumont Hospital and the Rotunda.

The measure also extends to equivalent healthcare workers in certain other specific types of healthcare organisation. Arrangements for the sectors encompassed by this measure are currently being progressed by officials in the Department of Health. When it is available, officials will provide information for those other certain healthcare employees that are covered by the Government decision and the process available to their employers to implement this measure for their eligible staff. This will cover eligible staff in private sector nursing homes and hospices; eligible staff working on-site in section 39 long-term residential care facilities for people with disabilities; agency roles working in the HSE; healthcare support assistants, also known as home help, home care or home support contracted to the HSE; members of the Department of Defence redeployed to work in HSE Covid-19 exposed environments; and paramedics employed by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. Everyone in the country acknowledges that the critical and vital role everyone in the hospitals, from nurses down to the porters, played on the front line during the healthcare emergency. This measure was announced in January. It is now 2 June. It seems it is a case of big wheels moving way too slowly. People are trying to plan holidays. They have already decided what they are going to do with this money. One healthcare worker asked me if they were ever going to get it. It is great that 12,000 people have received the payment but there are many tens of thousands still waiting. It should not take six months to pay 12,000 people and another six months to pay the rest. While the Minister of State said this matter is receiving priority attention, it needs even more of it.

I share the Senator's frustrations. I assure him that all those eligible will receive their payments, though I accept that it has not been very quickly delivered. Department of Health officials are working hard to roll this payment out as soon as possible and the Minister looks forward to this progressing very shortly.

Getting back to the original point about recognising that so many people put their lives at risk to support our nation and our citizens through the Covid pandemic, it is worth remembering that from February of next year a new permanent public holiday will be established to mark Imbolc, or St. Brigid's Day. This new bank holiday will serve as recognition and a permanent reminder to us of all those people's efforts and sacrifices during the last few difficult years.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.17 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 12.02 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.17 a.m. and resumed at 12.02 p.m.