Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3)

Joan Burton

Question:

1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure last met. [42284/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure last met. [43183/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure last met. [45217/19]

View answer

Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on infrastructure met yesterday, 4 November. It works to ensure a co-ordinated approach in the areas of infrastructure, investment and delivery, Project Ireland 2040 and Rebuilding Ireland. Significant work is under way across each of these areas covered by the committee through 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 the Government and in bilateral meetings with the relevant Ministers.

Significant progress is being made on the implementation of Project Ireland 2040. 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, facilitating better health and environmental outcomes and yielding more housing. Project Ireland 2040 is set to deliver 14 major projects by year-end and a further 20 major projects in 2020. More than 25 more projects are due to be commenced by the end of 2020. On longer-term projects, more than 200 of these will be ongoing in 2020, including the national broadband plan, the north runway at Dublin Airport and the national train control centre.

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 these funds, amounting to just over €150 million in 2019, have been announced. 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 is also considering some reforms to the oversight and governance of project selection, appraisal and delivery, including updating the public spending code.

It was reported at the weekend that the Government plans to finally sign off on the national broadband plan next week after much delay and at six times the original cost. In response to a recent question in this House, the Taoiseach stated that the delay was due to a challenge by another broadband provider which has apparently contested the maps. The company in question, Imagine, recently denied this accusation, however, and stated that it merely made the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment aware of the availability of its existing investment and its plans for further expansion. What exactly is the state of play? The named company warned as early as February this year, before the Government signed off on the controversial €3 billion plan, that proceeding with the current plan was an unnecessary State intervention and could lead to difficulties with state aid approval in the European Union. Despite this warning and much fanfare before the May elections, the Cabinet endorsed the €3 billion plan. Now it is reported that Imagine's existing services cover potentially 234,000 of the 540,000 premises that the new intervention was scheduled to cover. This raises two serious questions, on which I ask the Taoiseach for clarification. Has the Department revised the proposed intervention area and, if so, will the State subsidised plan headed by Granahan McCourt's private investment fund be entitled to yet more compensation? If no intervention is made and the area provided for in the plan is successfully challenged by a private operator, what are the financial implications for the Government breaching state aid rules? Reports suggest the figure could be up to €500 million. What is the Taoiseach's understanding of the matter?

Has the Cabinet committee on infrastructure discussed the ongoing issues with the national children's hospital? Responding to a parliamentary question, the Minister of State highlighted another cost overrun estimated to be €73 million. The State's chief procurement officer has resigned from the development board. If we are to believe reports, this is in no small part due to the spiralling cost overruns. Questioned on the resignation, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform stated that the chief procurement officer sat on the board in a personal capacity and not as a representative of the Department. The Minister has effectively washed his hands of the issue. Has the Cabinet committee on infrastructure followed his lead? Is the committee not concerned that the Minister does not believe the Office of Government Procurement should have a role on the board of a flagship project, the costs of which have tripled since the first budget allocation? The Minister and the Office of Government Procurement appear to have washed their hands of the project. If the Minister of Health cannot contain the costs and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform believes he has no role in cost containment, surely the Cabinet committee must take a different view. People incur a real cost as a consequence of the perpetual overspend and overrun, not just in money terms but also in terms of vital services.

As I am sure the Taoiseach understands, these overruns are not victimless. Has the committee addressed the cost overruns of the hospital and the resignation of the Government's chief procurement officer from the board?

The housing crisis has reached absolutely dire proportions and, to be frank, in my part of Dublin it is getting worse every day. There are many reasons for this but one is the failure to put in place the necessary infrastructure in order to develop public lands for social and affordable housing. Our representatives on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council have discovered something that I suspect is the case right across the country. Of seven major sites in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown that were identified in 2016 and zoned for public and affordable housing, only one has been progressed in any way, although no bricks have been laid. Nothing has been built. Six of those sites, or the overwhelming majority, have problems arising from infrastructure, with much of these down to Irish Water not putting in the required water infrastructure. Nothing has moved, houses have not been built and the housing crisis gets worse.

Perhaps the Government is hoping the private sector will come in to save the day but it was also reported in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown that the amount from planning fees coming from the private sector has reduced in 2019. That means the private sector is doing less building and the expectation is the amount gained from these fees will reduce further in 2020. The private sector is slowing down in terms of housing delivery in a key part of Dublin that is affected by the housing crisis. It is very likely that this is also happening in many other parts of Dublin and elsewhere. Public land zoned for housing development is not seeing any activity because of a lack of infrastructure. Is the Taoiseach concerned about that or does he have an explanation? Is this indicative of a failure in the Government's policy for delivering the necessary infrastructure for housing and the affordable housing we so desperately need to address the housing crisis?

With regard to the cabinet committee dealing with infrastructure, the cost of many projects is now significantly ahead of what was stated when the current national development plan was prepared. For example, today's newspapers report that a review of water projects indicates that costs are running, on average, 15% ahead of what was previously stated. Some projects are below budget but the significant majority are well ahead of estimates. Adding this to the other well-established overruns, such as those in the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan, the obvious question arises of when we will see a full review of timings and projects in the national development plan. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach could give an answer to that specific question.

We have not received a satisfactory reply on the resignation of the Government's chief procurement officer from the hospital board. What is his role and his views on the children's hospital? Surely the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has ascertained those views on the specific project.

The overall point is that nobody can stand over a position where public money is being spent making claims about all the projects that will be delivered for a set amount of money while at the same time the Government knows the indicated funding is not there at all for these projects. When the national development plan was launched, we were promised regular updates and full transparency but in recent days all we are getting is more repeated announcements of already promised projects. When will the promised review of national development plan costs and timing be published?

My question concerned climate change but United States President Donald Trump would have been proud of the Taoiseach's recent comments on climate change. President Trump comes out saying things like we should not worry about climate change because we will have warmer winters and fewer people will die as a result. Perhaps the Taoiseach did not intend his comments as such but that is almost in the denial category. We could have far worse and more frequent storms, and this has already cost lives. Perhaps it could cost much more in future winters. I do not know what is going on in the Taoiseach's press office but apparently sources have said that Fine Gael Deputies will "roast" the Greens slowly on the barbecue. That nonsensical sort of behaviour must stop.

I asked about electric cars last week and I read a recent editorial in The Irish Times making a similar point. Nobody believes the target set by the Government on take-up of electric cars as we would already need to see dramatically more electric vehicles being sold than we are to have a chance of reaching that target. We lack the basic infrastructure to achieve anything close to that target. Has the Taoiseach reviewed the target, taking in the new information that has emerged around the lack of credibility in the numbers announced earlier this year? Nobody, and not even those in the Department, is standing over that figure it seems. The information coming from the Department is such that nobody attaches credibility to the figure.

What does the Taoiseach have to say to the 600,000 people in north and west Dublin who are again being told they are subject to a boil water notice, having seen the last one less than two weeks ago? On this occasion, people are unlikely to get a lifting of the notice before Thursday. Does the Taoiseach understand how difficult this is for families, particularly those with small babies or elderly people who may be ill? There was worry two weeks ago about what was happening with a boil water notice.

Irish Water has set out a series of programmes on capital investments to improve water facilities. It has stated that part of the Leixlip plant is 40 years old and, ideally, it would be closed for six to 12 months in order to carry out repairs. Irish Water cannot do this because it supplies 20% of households, mainly in north and west Dublin, and satisfies water needs and drinking water. The Government seems to be totally indifferent about this and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government seems to be adrift in his role of providing housing infrastructure. We now understand that water infrastructure is also down the river and far away as far as people who pay tax are concerned. These people have an entitlement at least to expect that the Government could function so that potable water can come from the taps.

I am also concerned as north and west Dublin is a considerable area of investment for companies coming to Ireland and the repeated breakdowns in water services, combined with the way they have been handled, will cause enormous reputational damage to investment in the area. The Government seems to be entirely adrift on this. Has it called for a detailed investigation into what happened in Irish Water and has it heard the story of the bosses in Irish Water? Has the Taoiseach been to Leixlip to look at the creaking waterworks and see why this is happening? It is only down the road for him. The Taoiseach has mentioned all the money the Government will have for infrastructure up to 2040 but if this keeps going until 2040, Dublin and its water supply will be wrecked because the Government has not put in the investment.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. The word "challenge" was not the correct term for me to use with respect to the national broadband plan. Imagine sought an extension and this caused a delay at that point. It wanted to use the extension to submit additional maps and so on. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no revision to the State intervention area. The national broadband plan is now with the European Commission, a required process in order to get state aid clearance. We look forward to a positive outcome and if we get that it will enable us to sign the contract before the end of the year and start connecting homes, businesses and farms to high-speed broadband next year all over rural Ireland. It is our objective.

There has been no change to the budget allocated in December 2018 for the national children's hospital. The contractor, however, has submitted claims and these have yet to be adjudicated on. It is not unusual in a major construction project for a contractor to submit claims if it believes it had to carry out work beyond the contract.

The good news is the scaffolding is now at roof level. I would invite anyone who has an interest in the children's hospital to go and visit the site. It really is shooting up as a building.

It is highly impressive that we are at this point now. The first element of the children's hospital, the urgent care centre at Connolly Hospital, has already opened. It is not fully commissioned but it is already open. The outpatient department is operating fully. The urgent care centre is operating from Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is already making a difference. The number of children waiting to see a general paediatrician has fallen by 30% already. It is already having a significant impact on waiting lists because those children who were waiting a long time to see a general paediatrician can now be seen in the dedicated outpatient department at the Blanchardstown urgent care centre. It is a new service for people living in west Dublin and Meath and so on. They no longer have to take their children to Temple Street Hospital and can take them to the modern facilities at Connolly Hospital instead. Tallaght will open next year.

This project has been promised for as long as I can remember. I think it was first mooted when I was a medical student. I am very proud of the fact that we are now getting it done and delivering on it when other Governments failed to do so.

That is not true.

Other Governments failed to do so. There was an abortive attempt to build a national children's hospital at the Mater Hospital that failed. Other Governments failed to deliver this project.

We have run out of time.

The Taoiseach should not be so partisan in his comments. That was a planning issue.

This Government is delivering it. I appreciate that sometimes when Governments fail, it is not necessarily their fault, but I am unsure whether Deputy Martin acknowledges that too often.

The target for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles is ambitious. It is no secret that many people at official level thought it too ambitious, but often we are criticised for not having targets that are ambitious enough. This is one occasion when we have gone for an ambitious target. We believe it is deliverable. Over the course of the next ten years, roughly 1 million people will change their car or buy a new car. It is not inconceivable that we will get to a point where the majority of those will opt for an electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle instead. We need to invest in the charging points to make that possible. That is happening. There are grants available to encourage people to do so. Moreover, the cost of these vehicles is coming down all the time. That is when we will start to see the big change, with people opting for them instead.

I was asked about the issue of housing on public land. My view is that we should use public land for housing, and that is being done. We should use public land for all of the public, including those requiring social housing, people who want to buy their own homes and those seeking affordable and cost rental property. I welcome the fact that Dublin City Council decided to vote to go ahead with the O'Devaney Gardens project last night, because this will allow 800 new homes to be built on a site near the city centre. These will include homes that people can buy, social housing for those on the social housing list and homes that people can rent. It is a good step forward. It is regrettable that the council has delayed it for so long up until now but I am glad to see that it is finally now going ahead.