I am very glad to speak on this legislation. It is clear it is a technical measure, as we have been told by many speakers, including the Taoiseach, this morning. Be that as it may, it affords us an opportunity to relate experiences about roads and deal with such matters through the Minister.
The Bill is sensible but I have several issues to air. We know the NRA is responsible for major roads and, by and large, it does a very good job with the highways. I speak in particular about the ongoing work from Dublin to Athlone. That road has been completed up to Kilbeggan and we now await completion of the Kilbeggan to Athlone section and onwards to the west. I hope this will happen quickly.
The opening of the Kinnegad to Kilbeggan section of the route has brought about a significant difference in journeys from Dublin to Athlone. This does not necessarily relate to the time taken, as I find when travelling it still takes the same amount of time for the journey no matter how many roads are built, but there is a great sense of safety and security. It is much easier to drive on a major national road, although there are toll booths. Travelling at the required speed, it takes 35 minutes to get to Kilbeggan from the toll booths. The Moate to Athlone stretch remains the same.
Everybody in the land knows about the difficulties of going through Moate. I hope such difficulties will be eliminated from our travel arrangements within six months. Listening to traffic reports on the radio any evening, we are told there are 30 minutes or 35 minutes delays on the eastern side of Moate and 40 minutes or 45 minutes delays on the western side. It was never intended that the town of Moate would be highlighted in that respect but that has happened nonetheless. Traffic has built up on each side so the quicker Moate is bypassed, the better.
In areas where bypasses and relief roads assume such dominance, non-national and rural roads are overlooked but these are the roads most people travel on: they never see the major highways. All of us at our branch general meetings are asked about the conditions of these roads. We hear horrific stories about the run-down state of the roads and the potholes in them. We should be able to proceed with the road programme for the national and major roads in tandem with county and non-national road improvements that will enable people in rural areas to go about their daily lives, bringing children to school, shopping and visiting elderly relatives. Many of those things are done on roads of this nature. It is vital they are kept up to scratch and I am not satisfied sufficient funding is being provided for them, if the stories we are told and the experiences we gain are any proof.
When I was first elected to Westmeath County Council many years ago, the local improvement schemes were given out to councillors in the area and they could claim some of them — I claimed two schemes. Deputy Ferris mentioned that a local improvement scheme can be held up if one person refuses to co-operate. There might be seven dwellings on a road and six occupants are enthusiastic about the scheme but the seventh, while he is enthusiastic, is in a row with someone competing for the local improvement scheme and they cannot reach agreement. When it happens it causes major disappointment. They are marvellous schemes and were a great mainstay for local authorities, although there is not as much concentration on them now. Environmental improvement schemes are similar but the local improvement schemes were specific to particular roads and householders. I hope sufficient money is available in every local authority budget for the maintenance of rural and local roads. Once theyare done they are taken over with a programme of work laid out to deal with them in the years ahead.
Investment by overseas companies depends on the road network. We had a salutary experience 18 months ago in Athlone. At the time the bypass had not reached Kinnegad, and only the toll plaza was in place. By the time the industrialist had navigated Enfield, Kinnegad, Milltownpass, Rochfortbridge, Tyrrellspass and Kilbeggan, he was weary and he decided to go somewhere with much better access. In an economic and industrial sense, it is important to use our road network to good economic advantage. I notice the IDA in its literature mentions that Athlone is on the major road from Dublin to Galway, which will soon be complete.
There was a time when terror would grip the community in a town that was about to be bypassed because people felt no one would stop in the town. When we embarked on the Athlone bypass, we went to Naas to see how it had coped with its bypass. The traders were delighted with it and business had increased. In Athlone, despite the bypass that most major trucks take, there is always traffic in the streets and it is still difficult to do business.
Deputy Ferris mentioned town centres. We recently opened a magnificent inner-town shopping centre. It is based on 5.5 acres of back gardens in the main streets in Athlone. It is amazing to stand in the shopping centre when it was once someone's back garden. It is in the middle of the town, which is what shopping should be about. The British went daft for out of town shopping centres at one time, with people flocking to them. I never saw the sense of those. Shopping should be integral to the life of a town and inner-town shopping centres are more exciting and attractive to townspeople and visitors. People have stopped going to out of town shopping centres.
Road safety and driving lessons should be on the curriculum at second level. There is no better environment in which to learn about road safety theory than school. Road safety could be part of the CPSE course at junior certificate level and at senior level driver theory could be studied. Rosemary Smith, the well known rally driver, is an advocate of this idea. Driving should be a subject the same as learning about banking, loans and other areas. I have seen young women with high marks in the leaving certificate who would not know how to get a home loan, a mortgage or planning permission. There is a need, therefore, for practicality at leaving certificate level.
Developmental levies were mentioned. County managers and executives have gone mad for these levies. Young couples who after much effort secure planning permission usually find it is conditional on the dreaded developmental levy.
I refer to the significant amounts being charged sometimes in rural Ireland. County managers and their colleagues are using this far too handy system of levies for their counties. I know they are not misusing the money, but my point is illustrated for example, by a case I came across recently where a development levy of €1,718.50 was charged to a man who lives on a rural road to which nothing much will be done. He is required to pay this amount in what is euphemistically entitled a developmental levy. This will come on top of whatever costs he has incurred on the plans, making a planning application, and going about getting his mortgage and starting his business.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and his deputy, the Minister of State, who is present today, should pay heed and speak to the county managers when they have their annual get-together or whenever they meet. They should tell them to ease off on development levies that were never meant to be of such a punitive nature that they would inhibit a man from building his house. I saw this happening recently.
This is equally true for industrial development. A small, good business in Athlone, which employs 140 people, wished to construct a silo on its factory premises. There was nothing wrong with the silo and the planning permission was coming. However, as an addition to the developmental levy, the applicant was informed in the planning permission that he would be obliged to install public lighting and footpaths on the entire road. The applicant has told me that he will be unable to comply. The company in question is a subsidiary of a German firm, the budget meetings of which are coming up. While he had no idea how much all this would cost, it would certainly be a hefty amount. I believe the county planner simply said to himself that these rich Germans could afford this easily and could be milked for as much as he wished. However, it is an Irish subsidiary that gives useful employment.
This is a heinous development in the wrong direction and will kill the cow that has been delivering some much-needed finance. If this continues, it certainly will put off people from applying for permission or from putting themselves forward as being eligible for various developments. When I protested to the town clerk and the county planner, I was brushed off to an extent by a response asking whether the person in question wanted the permission. The planning system was never meant to operate in that manner and I am dismayed by such a development and the manner in which this is taking place.
I revert to the Bill before the House and thank the Acting Chairman for her generosity in allowing me to continue in this vein. However one does not often get the chance to speak about roads in a general sense. My main point today is that this measure is logical and clearcut. However, I note with some trepidation that the financial arrangements for the transfer are to be completed by the end of November at which point the budgets will be reallocated, added to and taken from. Throughout my career in various Departments, I have often found that when this is done, a transfer does not mean that one achieves a full transfer or that one gets the full intended value. Often it is a chance to get a "schkelp" at the budget by suggesting that some money can be taken from one area that no one will notice in a transfer. I am sure the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, his staff and colleagues will look out for such a move and will ensure they are not diminished in any way and that half way between Merrion Street and Kildare Street there will not be a not a drop-off of a few million euro that would enable the budget to be cut and the value not to be maintained.
The local government fund is the most important mechanism we have to fund local life in villages, towns and rural districts. It is necessary to keep this in focus always. I refer to the massive road-building programme that is now under way and which is being implemented as the current mantra would say, on time and in budget. It is equally necessary to ensure it does not lead to a lack of emphasis on non-national roads and regional roads. They should be complementary because this is a small country. Everyone is pleased the land will be criss-crossed with a significant number of wonderful roads. I wish well all those who will drive on them. However this will be no good if the ideals of life at rural, local village or townland level are not equally nurtured and brought forward.
I wish to raise a point regarding the NRA as it performs its work. In my locality, Ascon are the main contractors for doing such work and I am sure it is a reputable firm. It bypassed Rochfortbridge, which was fine and the people there were very pleased because it is a small village that needed a bypass because the large trucks passing through were having a bad effect. However, while so doing, many smaller jobs arose that it was obliged to perform to get the bypass through. I refer to felling trees, attending to drains, dealing with a man who made his backyard available to the company and similar matters. Those concerned were assured that once clearance was given, such matters would be attended to. The people gave clearance and thereafter Ascon moved on to the next village in which there were more things to be done. The people of Rochfordbridge were left waiting and wondering what had happened to the various points of view they had put forward and that Ascon had promised to accommodate in its overall plan.
I wish this Bill well. The Minister for Transport should watch out to prevent the money being dropped half way over and attention should be paid to rural and county roads.