Wednesday, 20 October 2004

Questions (45)

Jimmy Deenihan


147 Mr. Deenihan asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism when a decision will be made on the successful tender for the proposed national conference centre. [25747/04]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism)

The Government decision to proceed with a national conference centre provided that it should be pursued under a public private partnership arrangement. This is a necessarily complex procedure and one that is required to be undertaken in accordance with the Department of Finance's interim guidelines for the provision of infrastructure and capital investments through public private partnerships.

As part of the procedural requirements of the PPP process, a public sector benchmark exercise and a benefit assessment must be undertaken before the next detailed proposals stage can be initiated. These exercises are being carried out and are close to finalisation. Every effort is beingmade by the Office of Public Works and its advisers to complete as soon as possible the detailed project contract documentation required. As I explained to the House on 1 July, the preparation of this documentation is demanding and time-consuming, with details requiring careful scrutiny and consideration. At that time, I expressed the hope that the procurement process would be sufficiently advanced to facilitate a Government decision before the end of the year. This has not proved possible and the firm objective now is to ensure that invitations to tender are issued to the three pre-qualified candidates before Christmas.

On the assumption that tender invitations will be ready for issue in December and allowing several months for engagement with the selected tenders, current indications are that a preferred bidder could be selected by late summer 2005. While I am reluctant to be categorical given the complexity of the process, my personal priority and that of the Government is to have this project brought to a conclusion at the earliest possible date, while ensuring that the relevant procedures and guidelines pertaining to the process are closely observed and that nothing is done that might jeopardise its successful conclusion.

International business tourism is worth about €40 billion and Fáilte Ireland has set up a business tourism unit to attract business tourism to this country. Every capital city in Europe now has a dedicated conference centre and I believe Barcelona has about four conference centres. As a country, we are losing at least €60 million because we have no conference centre. Surely the Minister would agree that this should be considered as a matter of urgency. It certainly seems to be taking a long time to go through the various procedures. Will the Minister give a guarantee to the House that this project will command his total commitment and attention for the next six months? This is to ensure that it will be provided in time. In the past, we have been promised certain deadlines and they have not been met, although that may not be the fault of this Minister. I know he gave an outline on possible deadlines. Will he be more precise on key dates by which we can expect progress to be made over the next six months?

Four submissions were received by the closing date of 21 January 2004. What followed was a detailed evaluation of an assessment panel, which was representative of my Department, the Office of Public Works and its advisers, the Department of Finance, Fáilte Ireland and the National Development Finance Agency. Following that a separate panel evaluated the site proposals which candidates were required to bring forward. The outcome of the evaluations was that three of the four candidates were deemed to have pre-qualified on the basis of their financial and economic standing and technical capacity and to have proposed an acceptable sized site. As I announced in July, the three candidates shortlisted were Anna Livia Consortium, Michael McNamara and the Leopardstown Club Consortium and Spencer Dock International Conference Centre Consortium. I had hoped that we would be in a position to move along from there by the end of this year. Unfortunately, that has not proved possible and now it is hoped that we will have the tenders ready in December. If we can do that, I am hopeful that a preferred bidder can be selected by late summer of 2005.

I agree with the Deputy on the issue of the delay. The reason is the PPP process. As far as my experience goes, it is tortuous in the extreme. It is tortuous for the officials involved, the Minister and those who are interested in becoming involved in construction. I hope that one of these days someone will see sense and change the guidelines governing this process. I have rarely come across as much red tape or bureaucracy in all my days travelling.

Will the Minister confirm that there is no concern within the Department of Finance about this project? It is very important that there are no reservations about this project. Does the fact that the Spencer Dock site has planning permission give it an advantage over the other proposals?

I will leave the selection of the proposal to others and will not get involved in that. That is for the panel of experts and it is not for me to decide which site is to be selected, nor to indicate a preference. It would be wrong of me to do so. The Minister for Finance is very committed to this project, as was his predecessor. There is no difficulty as far as they are concerned.

I am talking about official level.

I am not aware that the officials would seek to block a project which has been given the go-ahead by the Government.