I am pleased to be here with the members of the committee to present the 2021 Revised Estimate for the Office of Public Works. I am joined by my officials and, virtually, by the chairman of the OPW.
The 2021 Revised Estimate provides a gross allocation of €514.775 million to support the ongoing and widely respected work of the Office of Public Works in the provision of vital services to people in the areas of flood risk and estate management, including our much-valued heritage estate. Since being appointed to serve as Minister of State, I have been struck by the range of responsibilities and the diverse portfolio of services provided by the Office of Public Works. Today, I will give an indication of some of the funding priorities for the OPW in 2021.
The OPW will shortly publish its 2021 to 2024 statement of strategy. In it, the OPW has developed four themes with four principal objectives that outline the OPW's priorities for the next three years.
These themes will be reflected in the work programmes of staff at all levels of the organisation, providing direction and purpose. The OPW is committed to strengthening our client facing services; sustainability will be embedded into all OPW decision making; the OPW will continue to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change; and, through its people and processes, the OPW will further develop its organisational capability.
The Office of Public Works operates in a highly complex environment, providing a leadership role as an expert for a very diverse range of public services. It engages with a multiplicity of stakeholders, client organisations and customers across its heritage, flood management and estate portfolio remit. In this context, it is timely and appropriate to set out our vision of creating harmony between our built and natural environments.
In an overall context, the 2021 gross allocation represents a 2% increase on the 2020 allocation of €505.427 million. The staff right across the Office of Public Works has largely and successfully continued to implement the current strategy and programme of work during this most difficult of years. I am sure the Chairman and members will join me in paying tribute to the staff of the Office of Public Works, both indoor and outdoor, in what has been a very difficult year and a period of huge uncertainty. Within the heritage estate, many of the visitor sites have had to close for a period. However, our parks and outside areas have fulfilled a critical role in public society and have enjoyed an extraordinary increase in visitor numbers as the public has recognised the full value of these facilities over the past year.
The structure of Vote 13, the OPW Vote, remains unchanged in 2021. The two primary strategic programmes, flood risk management and estate management, are focused on two high-level goals. These are to minimise the extent of coastal and river flooding and its social, economic and environmental impacts and to deliver the management, design and sourcing services for the State property and heritage portfolios.
Under its flood risk management brief, the OPW continues to co-ordinate Ireland’s whole-of-government approach to flood risk. The OPW understands that flooding is a natural phenomenon, which can impose significant damage on people’s homes, businesses, and communities. I have seen the damage flooding can cause at first hand, as I am sure other members have. The cause, extent and impact of flooding are varied and complex and Ireland’s flooding problem cannot be fully eliminated, but it can be managed or mitigated to reduce its likelihood, severity and, ultimately, its impact. The OPW's core objective is to reduce, to the greatest extent possible, the level of flood risk for people across the country.
The OPW has undertaken assessments of the potential impacts of climate change, in line with the Flood Risk Management Climate Change Sectoral Adaptation Plan 2019-2024. All OPW flood relief schemes are now designed and built to take account of future climate change scenarios and can be adapted to manage that risk as needed. The OPW tripled the number of major flood relief schemes at design and construction stage by the end of 2020. Further investment in this area will continue in future years as schemes enter the construction phase. With approximately 300 communities at risk from flooding this investment will provide protection to thousands of homes and deliver extensive benefits to communities and businesses alike. An allocation of €127 million has being provided within the 2021 Revised Estimate to deliver this essential service.
The second major OPW programme, estate management, continues to fund the design, and extend and modernise, a significant number of properties within the State’s property portfolio. This includes Civil Service office accommodation for all Departments, An Garda Síochána and many of our State agencies. In all, the OPW manages in excess of 2,500 properties on behalf of the State, which includes some of Ireland’s most significant heritage properties, monuments, gardens and arboretum. This management role includes the curation and presentation of 30 major historical properties, as well as the State’s art collection, artefacts, plants and trees. This is work that makes a significant contribution to the health, enjoyment and well-being of the public and for which the OPW is widely recognised and is justifiably proud.
Having a modern, flexible, and energy efficient portfolio of office accommodation is now more important than ever to deliver work environments suitable for Civil Service employees to carry out their functions. The OPW is working with Departments to address these demands while also working to realise the benefits of blended working. The OPW is designing the workplace of the future for the Civil Service. It aims to deliver accommodation that allows more agile ways of working to meet our future needs. This work environment will be delivered within the 887,000 sq. m of office accommodation, currently managed by the Office of Public Works.
The issue of climate action is one of the highest priorities for the estate management within the OPW, where the design and provision of energy efficient buildings are required if we are to mitigate their carbon impact.
Essential programmes of work include upgrading the building fabric, eliminating the use of fossil fuel heating and increasing the energy efficiency of the OPW’s portfolio.
This will support the Government’s climate action targets. The OPW will be a major contributor to the delivery of Europe’s 2030 climate and energy objectives, including the public sector target of a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions and a 50% improvement in public sector energy efficiency. The OPW will be a key delivery agent for Project Ireland 2040 in this space.
I am pleased to be able to confirm the OPW will provide two new capital grants in 2021. The sum of €3 million has been included in the 2021 Revised Estimate, with Dublin Zoo getting €2 million and Fota Wildlife Park getting €1 million in 2021. It has been a challenging year for both Dublin Zoo and Fota Wildlife Park and this financial support is essential to allow them to recommence vital work on capital projects, including the construction of world-class habitats for some of the world’s most endangered species.
The OPW is a transformational contributor in the delivery of capital investment on behalf of Government. Its investment in heritage, both natural and cultural, plays a pivotal role in our tourism sector. Like many other business activities, this sector has been sorely affected by the current pandemic. In 2020, the OPW had the opportunity to engage new audiences and present our heritage sites to their best advantage when visitor charges were waived at the OPW-managed visitor sites. This was an incentive to maximise domestic tourism in late summer to encourage staycations for Irish citizens. I hope the OPW may be able to contribute to this effort again in 2021, especially across the widely dispersed regional network of heritage sites, where their economic role in attracting visitors is greatly valued.
I apologise for my voice; I do not know where it is gone. As the Chairman knows, it is unlike me. I miss it dearly, as I am sure he does.
A gross sum allocation of €387.412 million has being provided for estate management within the 2021 Revised Estimate. This is to ensure the OPW is well positioned to support the recovery of the tourism sector as well as the wider economy. It will allow us to maintain our efforts of contributing towards Europe’s 2030 climate and energy objectives.
I have only referred to a small section of the work of the OPW, but it goes without saying that the scale and complexity of our responsibilities in the delivery of two infrastructural programmes has considerable impact across the country. This work impacts on communities throughout Ireland and it plays a vital role in protecting, promoting and sustaining our rural communities.
In tandem with these programmes the OPW is also a major source and contributor of expertise to other public bodies, working in partnership and collaborating with about 80 such bodies. This multifaceted role of the OPW means it carries within it a diverse range of skills and expertise. This positions it as the go-to organisation for Government, providing assistance and advice on major capital works.
I can say with confidence that I am looking forward to supporting the further progression of the work of the OPW through the allocated sums in the Revised Estimate. I would be happy to take any questions the Deputies may have. If there are specific questions I cannot answer today, they can be answered by the officials who are present with me or by the OPW chairman, Maurice Buckley, who is appearing remotely. Alternatively, we can come back by correspondence to the committee later if that is acceptable.