Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Questions (19, 20)

Richard Boyd Barrett


19. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure will next meet. [37374/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin


20. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure will next meet. [38480/19]

View answer

Oral answers (24 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 19 and 20 together.

The Cabinet committee on infrastructure met on 10 September 2019 and its next meeting is scheduled for 10 October 2019. The Cabinet committee works to ensure a co-ordinated approach in the areas of infrastructure investment and delivery, Project Ireland 2040 and Rebuilding Ireland. 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 and multilateral meetings with the relevant Ministers.

Significant progress is being made on the implementation of Project Ireland 2040. In May this year, the Government launched the first annual report for Project Ireland 2040 and it is evident the strategy is already delivering better transport links, facilitating better healthcare and environmental outcomes and yielding more housing. For example, the biggest single project completed this year was the M11 Gorey to Enniscorthy motorway in the south east, and I was pleased to be present at the official opening. Project Ireland is also set to deliver another 14 major projects by year end and a further 20 major projects over the course of next year. More than 25 further projects are also due to be commenced by the end of 2020.

More than 200 longer-term projects will be ongoing in 2020, including the national broadband plan, the north runway at Dublin Airport and the national train control centre to improve our rail services.

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 innovation. The first round of funding allocations under the funds amounted to slightly more than €150 million in 2019. Second round calls have been launched for the disruptive technologies innovation fund and the rural regeneration and development fund. A further call for the urban regeneration fund will be announced soon and work is continuing on legislation to underpin the climate action fund. The Government will also announce reforms to the oversight and governance of project selection, appraisal and delivery, including an update to the public spending code.

The Land Development Agency, which is another cornerstone initiative of Project Ireland 2040, was established on an interim basis in law in September 2018. It is working to ensure the optimum management of State land 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. More than 19,300 new dwellings were completed in the 12 months to June 2019, a 20% year-on-year increase. More than 2,500 homes were brought out of long-term vacancy and almost 750 dwellings in unfinished estates were completed, meaning the number of new homes available for use increased by more than 22,600 last year. This does not include student accommodation. There was also strong delivery of publicly-funded social housing in 2018, with more than 27,000 new households having their housing needs met. Good progress continues to be made during 2019 on social housing delivery and other aspects of Rebuilding Ireland.

I ask the Taoiseach simply to scrap the strategic housing development scheme as a complete failure. We discovered from a report published at the weekend that it is essentially a scheme dreamed up by property developers who gave the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and current Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, their recommendations. The Government took those recommendations lock, stock and barrel and stuck them into the housing Bill. Fast-track planning for property developers was supposed to deliver more housing, particularly affordable housing, to help deal with the housing crisis. However, work has not commenced on 10,000 of the 16,000 units that got such planning permission. There has been no effort by the developer to put in commencement notices for 41% of the units. In other words, as some Deputies have been saying to the Government all year, this was a licence for speculation, hoarding and driving up the value of particular sites. There are some such sites in the area I represent, such as the Bartra co-living site and a site where apartments were to be sold for €1 million each, which would do nothing to help the housing crisis. The scheme has been a licence to hoard, speculate and print money for private developers but has delivered almost nothing in terms of actual housing. I am suggesting that it should be scrapped.

Only a very small part of the Taoiseach's response related to Rebuilding Ireland, which is understandable, given that Rebuilding Ireland is a complete failure. The construction of social and affordable homes has been moving at a snail's pace, as has the construction of the private homes to which Deputy Boyd Barrett referred. This week, we found out that, once again, more than 10,000 people are homeless. There has been an increase of 70 in the number of homeless children in the past month. It is clear that the Government's housing policies are not working. We are not seeing the speed we need in the construction of social and affordable housing. Swathes of our working population cannot afford the extortionate rents being charged in the private sector, into which everybody seems to be getting squeezed, and cannot secure a mortgage either. What will the Government do to alter and completely refurbish its Rebuilding Ireland plans which are simply not delivering for Irish people?

What is the status of the broadband contract? Has it been signed? When will it be signed? We were led to believe some months ago that it would be signed in September, but it is now October. Are there state aid issues, as was recently reported, in terms of other providers claiming they can operate within the area that was out for tender? What is the position with the broadband contract? What is the likely timeline for signing the contract? It was the Government's decision to pursue this course. Fianna Fáil does not agree with that decision, but I wish to know whether the timeline is on track with what was outlined some months ago by the Taoiseach.

On the national children's hospital, it was recently reported that it will cost more than the high cost to which we were alerted earlier in the year and that there will be time delays. I ask the Taoiseach to provide clarity in that regard. As the Cabinet committee on infrastructure met on 10 September, it must be fairly clear what are the likely increases that have been documented. Surely, the Cabinet committee discussed these and the Taoiseach is aware of the cost increases. What are the delays in terms of the timeline for the completion of the hospital and the implications for other paediatric hospitals?

Will funding for the A5 be provided for in the budget next week? There has been much discussion of Brexit in the House and its effect on the island as a whole. All Members are aware of the impact Brexit will have on the north west of Ireland. Derry is Ireland's fourth-largest city but there is no rail or other proper transport infrastructure between it and Dublin. Partition has been devastating for that part of Ireland and Brexit looms large and threatens it further. Will funding for the A5 be made available in the budget?

Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about the strategic housing development scheme. I sometimes get the housing schemes mixed up because there are so many of them, but I think that is the scheme which allows a developer building 100 units or more to go straight to An Bord Pleanála rather than the two-step process involving going to a local authority first and then, if necessary, An Bord Pleanála. The scheme was logically designed to speed up the planning process such that homes could be built more quickly. As the Deputy mentioned, permission for 16,000 units has been granted under the scheme. Construction has commenced on 6,000 of the units. Construction has not commenced on 10,000 of them, but we do not know on how many of those work will commence in the coming months or years. We need to see that develop in the period ahead. We also need to consider the counterfactual question of whether homes that went through the old process are being commenced or built more quickly.

What is the point in having fast-track planning if nothing is fast-tracked?

The scheme was introduced in order to fast-track planning.

That has not happened.

It is not happening.

Instead of a two-step process, there is a one-step process. The logic behind the scheme is that it allows houses to be built more quickly. It makes sense to look back three or four years after any policy change is made or new scheme brought in and consider whether it worked. Deputy Boyd Barrett is assuming that there would be a different result in respect 10,000 units that have not been commenced under the scheme had they gone through the old process. One would have to compare schemes that went through the old process to see whether that is the case. That analysis will be carried out. It was always the intention to review the scheme after some years to see if it had worked.

I do not agree with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's contention. At long last, the social housing programme is really catching up. During the crash, almost no social housing was built for six or seven years.

That was Fine Gael's decision.

Approximately 10,000 social houses are now being added to the social housing stock every year. Between two thirds and three quarters of those are new builds by local authorities rather than purchases or leases from developers.

On the national broadband plan, the contract has not been signed but we have appointed a preferred bidder. Imagine has challenged the maps and that has caused a delay. Deputies will be aware that Imagine provides a service in many parts of rural Ireland and has challenged the intervention area. We anticipate being able to-----

To whom was the intervention area challenged? Was it challenged to Europe?

The challenge was initially made to the Department. The Department was then required to consult the European Commission for reasons relating to state aid rules. We anticipate that the contract will be signed by the end of the year, which will allow the first homes across rural Ireland to be connected to high-speed broadband next year.

September becomes the end of the year.

The Government is absolutely committed to the A5 project.

It is one I strongly support linking, not just Derry to Dublin and the rest of the country, but it is also really important for Donegal. The money will be there when the project starts but currently it is stuck in a Northern Ireland process. Once the money is there, the project will start.

What about the new children's hospital?

What about it?

Will it involve a higher cost than that to which we were alerted last year?

The Taoiseach can answer that if he is in a position to do so.

I do not have any new information on that. I have no doubt the developer-----

Could the Taoiseach check that for me?