Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Questions (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Joan Burton


5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met; and when it will next meet. [25593/19]

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Mary Lou McDonald


6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [26555/19]

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Eamon Ryan


7. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met; and when it will next meet. [26620/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met. [26872/19]

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Brendan Howlin


9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met; and when it will next meet. [27635/19]

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Micheál Martin


10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of times Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, met in 2019. [28207/19]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 10, inclusive, together.

Cabinet committee D works to ensure a co-ordinated approach in the areas of infrastructure investment and delivery, including housing and climate action. The Cabinet committee last met on 27 May. The next meeting of the committee has yet to be scheduled. There is significant work under way across each of the areas covered by the committee through Government Departments, agencies and a range of interdepartmental groups such as the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. These matters are also regularly considered at meetings of Government and in bilateral meetings with the relevant Ministers.

Significant progress is being made on the implementation and delivery of Project Ireland 2040 and projects promised for many decades are now well under way. Through the national planning framework, it sets out our strategic 20-year vision for Ireland’s future, balancing rural and urban development and linking it with the national development plan, which encompasses €116 billion in investment in public infrastructure over the next ten years to meet the infrastructural needs of our growing population. In May last, the Government launched the first annual report for Project Ireland 2040 and it is clear it is already delivering better transport links, building new schools, facilitating better health and environmental outcomes and yielding more housing. For the first time in decades, for example, three new hospitals are under construction, while 11 primary care centres will open this year and another 26 are in development. By the end of the year, some 410 school projects will have been completed or will have started construction, providing 40,000 extra or replacement school places, 200 modern science laboratories, 48 new or upgraded physical education halls and the replacement of 600 prefabricated buildings. In addition, work is under way on several long promised projects, including the upgrade to the N4 in Sligo and the new north runway at Dublin Airport.

The four funds launched under Project Ireland 2040 have a total of €4 billion to invest across the areas of rural and urban regeneration and development, climate action and disruptive technologies. The first round of funding allocations under these funds, amounting to just over €300 million, has been announced. These funds will leverage further private sector investment in innovative and targeted projects that deliver on the aims of Project Ireland 2040.

The Land Development Agency, another cornerstone initiative of Project Ireland 2040, was established on an interim basis in September 2018 and is working to ensure the optimum management of State land through strategic development and regeneration, with an immediate focus on providing new homes, including social and affordable housing.

Housing continues to be a priority for the Government and we have seen strong growth in housing completions and leading indicators such as planning permissions, commencement notices and housing registration. Last year, more than 18,800 new homes were built, an increase of 25% on the previous year. More than 2,600 homes were brought out of long-term vacancy and almost 800 dwellings in unfinished estates were completed, meaning the number of new homes available for use increased by more than 22,000 last year. This does not include student accommodation.

There was also strong delivery of publicly funded social housing in 2018. We are aware of significant challenges in meeting housing demand and tackling the ongoing failures in the housing market. For this reason, budget 2019 provided an increase of 25% in the housing budget which, at €2.6 billion, is the biggest ever.

Delivering on our EU climate commitments for 2030 and transitioning to a competitive, low carbon, sustainable economy by 2050 are also priorities. We are investing €22 billion in climate action through the national development plan to ensure that our future growth is regionally balanced and environmentally sustainable.

On 17 June, the Government published the climate action plan, which aims to give Irish people a cleaner, safer and more sustainable future. This far-reaching plan sets out the actions across electricity, transport, heat, agriculture and other areas that we need to take to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, give us cleaner air and warmer homes, and create the jobs of the future. The plan has a strong focus on implementation, including actions with clear timelines and the steps needed to achieve each action, assigning clear lines of responsibility for delivery. Delivering on the plan will require a deep level of collaboration across Government, and the plan sets out governance arrangements, including the establishment of the climate action delivery board, overseen by my own Department, carbon-proofing of policies in general, the establishment of carbon budgets and a strengthened Climate Change Advisory Council, as well as greater accountability to the Oireachtas through the Joint Committee on Climate Action.

Can we have a detailed, published set of commitments in regard to capital spending for the rest of this year, next year and the year after? That is not a big ask. We are asking to see the capital plan in detail for the forthcoming period. Ironically, we are in a position, as a country, where, technically, we have a capital plan for 2040 but we do not have published capital commitments for the rest of this year and next year. How ridiculous a situation can we have?

I want to ask the Taoiseach about two specific areas in regard to our constituency. First, in general, for women in Dublin and the rest of Ireland, where stands the national maternity hospital? We know there have been dreadful cost overruns and planning failures in the execution of the national children's hospital, resulting in what any chief executive in any organisation would call a complete mess and a complete cost overrun. The Government has put its hands up and acknowledged that. What is the knock-on implication of the enormous cost overrun on the children's hospital for women in Ireland who expect to use the services of the national maternity hospital in a new hospital quite soon?

Second, the master of the Rotunda Hospital, Professor Fergal Malone, wrote a heartbreaking article recently about the pressures under which staff in the Rotunda Hospital, in the centre of Dublin, are working to try to deliver the best services for mothers and babies. As the Taoiseach knows, the Rotunda is meant to move to Blanchardstown. What has happened? We have no idea. The Rotunda itself has no idea what is happening. Is the Blanchardstown move still on? It makes excellent sense but where is the capital plan that would show what is likely to happen? I understand the Rotunda has resources to commit but the State would also need to commit to this.

With regard to another of our maternity hospitals, the Coombe hospital also wishes to see additional investment and, in the context of the children's hospital, the Government has promised a new maternity hospital in respect of the Coombe. Where is that? We have a growing population, which is something to celebrate, but our maternity services are not keeping pace with what is happening in terms of the on-the-ground development of new maternity services for this century for the women of Ireland.

In his statement, the Taoiseach referred to climate change and the climate change actions that are taking place. I want to specifically ask in regard to clean energy, which is one of the core issues. When will we see an end to the use of coal and gas in power stations? Is there a target for when that will happen and how will it happen? At the moment, we are importing coal from Colombia to burn it in Moneypoint, which is a ridiculous situation, even if there was no climate change aspect.

With regard to transport, we need to see additional money being placed in the hands of local authorities to upgrade roads, particularly in rural Ireland, and that needs to happen as quickly as possible. We also need to see infrastructure being built around our rail network, given the many problems, particularly for people coming from the west on the Sligo to Dublin rail line. I was talking to a man the other day who had decided not to drive and to take the train, but he said it was the last time he would take the train because he had to stand the whole way from Leitrim to Dublin. That is a problem we hear all the time from students and other people in the north west, namely, there are not enough trains or carriages and there is no space for passengers.

With regard to the western rail corridor, an issue I have raised previously, it is clear a time is coming when we have to look at the idea of electric rail as one of the solutions from a climate change perspective. This would enable us to move people who commute, for example, from Galway and other areas in the west and north west. It is logical, particularly in regard to the movement of freight.

There is the old chestnut which comes up all the time and which needs to be re-emphasised, and that is the issue of broadband. Whatever company decides it wants to do it, or whatever bid it wants to put in, I keep hearing that it is always next year or the year after. We need to see action on this as quickly as possible.

There are many aspects to the scandal of the national children's hospital and the shocking financial mismanagement by this Government of this project, which is going to cost the people of this country €3 billion. As if that is not bad enough, I am not exaggerating when I say that when I tell people there is going to be a private section to the national children's hospital, they do not believe me - they do not actually believe it. They are absolutely scandalised by the thought that, having paid for this hospital, there will be two tiers of child healthcare. It is outrageous, especially from a Government that says it is against two-tier healthcare, that we are building a state-of-the-art hospital where two-tier healthcare for children is going to be institutionalised.

When I have asked about this, I have been told it is because the consultants' contracts are public-private contracts. I have a solution to this for the Taoiseach. Every paediatrician in the country is going to want to work in the national children's hospital. If they are not in there, to be honest, they are not at the races. Therefore, the Taoiseach has a simple opportunity to resolve this and to remove the two tiers in the hospital so it is single-tier, universal healthcare for our children. He should tell any paediatrician or consultant who wishes to work there that they will only work in that hospital on a public-only contract, which, by the way, is the only sort of contract the State should be giving out for consultants, in my opinion. Will the Taoiseach do that and at least eliminate this scandal in regard to the national children's hospital? It really is a shocker. There are still a lot of people who do not know this but when they hear it, they are utterly disgusted.

When the national development plan was launched early last year, it had already been the subject of the most sustained pre-publicity in our history. The work for the plan was completed about six months before the Taoiseach took up office and, indeed, its details formed a core part of his leadership campaign. Over the following six months, extra years were added to the plan in order to allow more claims to be made, and millions were provided for a marketing campaign.

At the core of the national development plan was a promise that everything was costed and would be delivered within budget, and there would be full transparency. This was going to be assured by actions such as the regular oversight of the Cabinet committee on infrastructure and the real-time updating of information on costs and timescales. That has not happened and there has not been real-time information on costs and timescales. It now turns out some costs in the plan were little better than thinking of a number and hoping to be right. Massive overspending and excessive costs compared to the original estimates are clearly evident and basic information is being withheld. The Cabinet committee last met one month ago and the real-time provision of information stopped as soon as any overspend materialised.

The simple fact is the Government wants to continue advertising its original claims and does not want to acknowledge the impact of major overspending. There is a complete and irreconcilable gap between the reality on the ground and what has been claimed. The children's hospital is now well on its way to hitting the €2 billion mark, which the Taoiseach told us was a conspiracy theory, and the broadband plan is tracking to a €3 billion figure, which was also dismissed until it was exposed. The national development plan is simply not credible until these extra costs have been factored in.

Last year, the Taoiseach was able to issue detailed tables of cost for projects on a regional and national basis. Why is he refusing to update these tables? There is a need for honesty with the public in terms of the impact of the billions of euro in overspend on the Government's plans and projects. Earlier, I asked the Taoiseach about the Dunkettle interchange. I appeal to him not to be petty, silly and idiotic in terms of his response by asking whether I am for or against the Dunkettle interchange. The procurement process is completed. This project was meant to be up and running in early 2018, in terms of construction, with works to run from 2018 to 2022. The indicative cost for this project of €100 million has increased to €115 million. According to the Taoiseach, it was meant to go to construction in early 2019. It is now June 2019. I am hearing rumours that the costs are way ahead of €115 million. Nothing is happening on the site and people are mystified as to what is going on.

With the greatest of respect, people are fed up hearing about 2030 and 2040 and that the Government is going to do this and that. Many projects have been announced for the Cork region. The joke around town is, "Sure, we can't get past the Dunkettle roundabout". That project was to happen years ago. There is need for a reality check in terms of the national development plan, NDP. The Taoiseach mentioned the new children's hospital. The national paediatric model references three regional paediatric facilities at Cork University Hospital, CUH, University Hospital Limerick, UHL, and University Hospital Galway, UHG. These projects are at preplanning stage but we cannot get any information in regard to how much money has been or will be provided for them. The language we are getting from the Department is obfuscation after obfuscation. I am seeking clarity from the Taoiseach on the specific projects I have mentioned. Also, will he commit to update the detailed tables of cost on projects under the NDP for the next four years?

I am always amused and bemused that Deputy Micheál Martin likes to accuse me of being partisan and personal yet, as evidenced by his name-calling today, he is very capable of being partisan and personal himself. The Deputy reminds me of one of those parish priests who preaches from the altar telling us to avoid sin while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself.

In terms of capital spending, the budget for health is €10 billion for the next ten years, running from 2018 to 2028. This means the budget for health is double what it was for the previous ten years. Less than 20% of that budget is for the national children's hospital, allowing more than 80% of it to be spent on other healthcare projects in Dublin and throughout the country.

As Deputies will have noted, the summer economic statement provides an extra €200 million in a capital reserve for 2020. This is an increase in the capital ceilings for next year of €200 million. It is being provided to meet the increased cost of the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan. Other projects will not now be affected because the overspend is covered in the €200 million capital reserve that is being provided for next year. What might affect other projects are issues related to those individual projects, be that planning permission, a judicial review or tendering coming in over budget. We are all aware that construction inflation has driven up the cost of building just about everything in the State at the moment. That is not unique to the public sector. It is a feature of the private sector as well.

The capital plan is set out in the national development plan. Deputies will be aware that in 2018 no annual plan was published yet lots of projects were constructed, including primary care centres throughout the country, hospital developments such as the new wings at Clonmel and Limerick hospitals and the Dunmore ring road in Waterford.

On the national maternity hospital, Ireland's first national maternity strategy, Creating a Better Future Together - National Maternity Strategy 2016-2026, was published in January 2016. It represents a significant development in the delivery of national maternity policy that will fundamentally change how maternity care is delivered. This is coupled with the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, national standards for safer, better maternity services and the first ever bereavement care standards. On the development of the national maternity hospital, the Department of Health continues to engage with the national maternity hospital and St. Vincent's Healthcare Group to develop a legal framework to protect the State's significant investment in the new hospital on the campus at St. Vincent's in Elm Park. St. Vincent's Healthcare Group has agreed in principle to provide the State with a 99 year lease of the land upon which the new maternity hospital will be built. This will allow the State to retain ownership of the new facility. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has sought and received the agreement of both the national maternity hospital and St. Vincent's Healthcare Group that the board of the new NMH Dac will be competency based and will include a public interest representative. The Religious Sisters of Charity have resigned from the board of St. Vincent's Healthcare Group and their shareholding is to be transferred to the new company, St. Vincent's Holdings, CLG.

In terms of progress on the relocation project, work has already commenced on the new pharmacy and the extension to the car park. This work commenced in February and is required to clear the site where the new hospital will be built. It is anticipated that the main project will go to tender in the next few months.

On the Rotunda, it is a longer term project. As everyone will know, the Rotunda hospital is moving to the Connolly hospital campus. We are seeking development funding to allow the planning and design phases to begin within the next few months as well.

On the use of coal and gas, it is planned to take coal off the grid in 2025. We would like to do it sooner but at the moment the ESB cannot assure us that it can be done safely sooner because of the risks of brown-outs and blackouts. I do not think anybody wants the type of climate actions that results in brown-outs and blackouts. If it can be done sooner, it will be done sooner but the target that I have is 2025. It is taken offline from time to time already. It was offline for several weeks last year but the ESB is not able to assure us that it is safe to take it offline entirely now. We are not going to impose brown-outs on people. We are going to do this right. Peat 2027-2028 is the plan to take peat out the system.

On natural gas, it is impossible to say. As I said before in this House, it is likely that we will use natural gas as part of our energy mix for the foreseeable future, certainly into the next few decades. When it comes to renewables, we can get to about 70% by 2030 in terms of electricity generation but as things stand there are times when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine strongly enough. The storage technologies do not exist yet to allow us to store power in the way that we need to. We will need to continue to use natural gas. Absent going nuclear, which we are not going to do, we need to continue to use natural gas as part our energy mix for the foreseeable future.

I did not get a response to my questions, again.

The Taoiseach did not respond to my question regarding the Dunkettle interchange either.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.