Health Services.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important matter. I apologise for my late arrival which was the result of a misapprehension that a division would be called at the conclusion of the debate on farming and the agrifood sector.

I have grave concern about the neglect of 2,500 schoolchildren in 24 national schools in the Loughrea and Portumna catchment area who have been without a dental service for almost two years. In addition, dental hours in the area have been reduced by half. This is due primarily to the early retirement from the dental service of a wonderful professional, which had a major impact on schoolchildren and their dental health. It is the second time such circumstances have arisen in the area in recent years.

It is an act of neglect of parents and children in south-east County Galway by the Health Service Executive in failing to provide the area with a locum until a permanent appointment is made. It strikes me that the organisation is trying to suppress the appointment of a dentist in the area and reallocate the money saved for use in other areas. There is no indication that the HSE has made a reasonable move to seek a replacement. Due to the illness and early retirement of the excellent dental surgeon in question, we feel once more neglected by the HSE locally. Given that similar vacancies in other areas have been filled almost immediately, why has the Loughrea-Portumna area been neglected again?

In the current economic climate, the service has come under great pressure as increasing numbers of children have become eligible to avail of it. While the service is important to national schoolchildren, it also serves children at second level up to 16 years and children with special needs, including those attending St. Dympna's day care centre in Portumna. There is also a gap up to the school leaving age of 16, and these people also have to go without.

There is no possibility of cover from the other areas adjoining this area, except in the case of emergencies, because the other dental surgeons in the adjoining areas are already stretched in dealing with waiting lists. I call for an immediate response from the HSE to fill this post and not to allow for this continued neglect. Nothing less is acceptable following this shameful neglect of the children, in particular those children with special needs. Whether the HSE neglect has taken place locally or at national level, this particular situation cannot be allowed to continue without an indication of a date for an appointment.

I am happy to have the opportunity to address the issue of the appointment of a dentist to the Loughrea and Portumna area of County Galway, as raised by Deputy Burke. The Health Service Executive has the responsibility to manage and deliver, or arrange to be delivered on its behalf, health and personal social services. This includes the delivery of dental and oral health services.

The vacancy in question has arisen from the retirement of a dental surgeon based in Loughrea. This has led to a gap in the dental screening service provided to schools in this and other areas. At the moment, a principal dental surgeon and another dentist are attending to priority groups in the Loughrea area and dental teams in surrounding clinics are accommodating emergencies from this area.

In order to implement savings measures on public service numbers, the Government introduced a moratorium on recruitment, promotion, or payment of an allowance for the performance of duties at a higher grade with effect from 27 March 2009 to the end of 2010. A HSE circular has issued which gives effect to the Government decision in the public health services and other specific aspects of the employment control framework for the health services. The Government decision has been modulated to ensure that key services are maintained so far as possible in the health services, particularly in respect of children at risk, older people and persons with a disability.

The employment control framework specifically exempts staff in the following front line grades in the health sector from the moratorium — medical consultants, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, clinical psychologists, behaviour therapists, counsellors, social workers, and emergency medical technicians. The framework actually allows for a growth in the number of those posts within the overall approved employment ceiling — 111,800 whole time equivalents — for the health sector. The framework also includes provision for the creation of 225 new development posts this year for cancer, mental health and disability services. In addition, special provisions apply to certain specialist grades under the national cancer control programme. The focus on these key grades is in line with existing Government policy on the prioritisation of certain development areas, for which significant funding has already been provided. The overall result will be to assist in the reorientation of health employment to services delivered in primary and community care.

The Department of Health and Children has not received an application from the HSE for a derogation from the moratorium to fill the general dental surgeon post in Loughrea.

In order to make such an application, savings would have to be made elsewhere. It is a matter for the HSE to identify where such savings can be made and to prioritise the delivery of health and social services to those with greatest needs.

So they are subsuming the money.

However, I do understand that the local area monitoring unit in the HSE is considering an application to fill this vacancy. The operation of the employment control framework, including the moratorium on recruitment, is kept under review by this Department, in consultation with the Department of Finance and the Health Service Executive.

The HSE will be focusing on the scope that exists within the health services for the reorganising and restructuring of work in order to minimise the impact on essential service delivery. The redeployment and reassignment of existing staff will also support the reorientation of care from hospitals to the community and to facilitate the development of integrated care. It is seeking a high level of flexibility from staff and unions to achieve this.

Public Transport.

A Cheann Comhairle, this is the first time I have had an opportunity to congratulate you on your appointment, and I am grateful for the opportunity you have given me to speak on the issue of public transport, with particular reference to the needs of my constituents in Stamullen, Gormanston, Greenanstown and surrounding areas.

The rural transport service in Meath has recently set up a shuttle service between the townland of Greenanstown, the village of Stamullen and the village of Gormanston, which is designed to enable commuters from Stamullen to connect with Bus Éireann and Irish Rail services at Gormanston. To establish this project on a long-term basis, the Meath Accessible Transport Project, also known as Flexibus, has submitted an application seeking funding from the Government's smarter travel fund. Flexibus is the rural transport group operating in Meath and it has shown itself to be committed to serving the needs of communities in Meath that do not have access to any other kind of public transport, such as Stamullen.

Stamullen is a fast growing town populated mainly by young families, but it has no full-time public transport system. In fact, the population of Stamullen village is about 2,500, while the population of the Stamullen electoral division is about 6,500. In 2007, The Irish Times reported that three quarters of all houses in Stamullen had been built in the five years to 2006. Stamullen is probably the largest town in Ireland without a scheduled Bus Éireann service. With a large population explosion in the area, there was clearly a great need for public transport in Stamullen and its environs. The rural transport service in Meath has responded to this, and in October 2009, it began operating services on a trial basis from Greenanstown through Stamullen village every morning and evening that connects directly with Bus Éireann and Irish Rail services at Gormanston, approximately two miles from the village. The Bus Éireann service travels to Balbriggan and onto Dublin city centre via the airport and the port tunnel.

I worked very closely with Bus Éireann and Flexibus to get this shuttle bus off the ground, and both companies are fully supportive of it as a pilot project. The innovative aspect of the arrangement is that there is integrated ticketing with the Bus Éireann service. When a person buys a ticket on the Flexibus shuttle in Stamullen, the ticket is valid with Bus Éireann, while ten journey tickets are also sold.

In my opinion, the service has been an overwhelming success to date. The pilot will end very shortly, but I have received many requests from constituents to retain the route, which has proven to be a speedy and efficient mode of transport for Stamullen commuters. Flexibus has submitted an application under Transport 21 and the smarter travel programme, and this should be supported at Government level because it is succeeding in reducing the amount of traffic leaving Stamullen and giving people the opportunity to complete their journey to work in Dublin purely public transport means. I support the application for the funding of this project, and I understand that the Minister is considering it. I would be very grateful if the Minister approved it to allow the project to continue on a full-time basis.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The provision of public transport services in rural areas is being developed under the Department of Transport's rural transport programme. The Government's commitment to rural transport is clearly stated in Towards 2016 and in the national development plan. The development of rural transport is also a key objective in the Government's sustainable travel and transport plan, known as "Smarter Travel- A Sustainable Transport Future" and in the Department's sectoral plan under the Disability Act 2005.

The renewed Government programme also contains a commitment to explore the provision of a full-scale transport system in rural areas using the network expertise of Bus Éireann and the resources of the school and health transport systems. The rural transport programme was launched in February 2007 and mainstreamed the former pilot rural transport Initiative, which ran from 2002 to 2006. Its principal objective is to help to address social exclusion related to unmet public transport needs in rural areas. Thirty-six rural community transport groups are being funded under the rural transport programme, which is now operational in every county. These groups are working towards maximising coverage in their operational areas, having regard to local public transport service needs and the availability of resources.

Pobal administers the programme on behalf of the Department of Transport and neither the Minister nor his Department has any role in the day-to-day management of the programme, including allocating specific funds to particular groups or for services. Arrangements for the provision of services funded under the programme are matters for individual rural community transport groups. Local communities know best where the transport needs are in their rural areas and how best to address those needs. The Department of Transport's role is one of facilitator through financial and administrative support, but communities themselves have the lead role in developing the transport services to fulfil these needs.

The maintenance and development of rural passenger transport services is one of the principal objectives of the Department of Transport. It is, therefore, vitally important that the resources available for rural transport are utilised as cost-effectively as possible and that best possible service is achieved from these resources. In that regard, earlier this year, the Minister for Transport asked Bus Éireann to work with Pobal to explore the potential for achieving better rural transport service delivery through closer working and better resource utilisation between the various service providers. Arising from this, a number of pilot initiatives have been instigated to explore how the various transport services in rural areas might be jointly developed so as to enhance their coverage and take-up.

In addition to Bus Éireann, the initiatives involve the Health Service Executive, in its capacity for providing transport to access health services; the Department of Education and Science, in respect of school transport services; Pobal, in respect of rural transport services; and voluntary bodies, such as the Irish Wheelchair Association. Pilot projects are being developed in the north west and north east to explore how existing transport providers might make more effective use of their individual resources by working in closer co-operation with each other. The types of pilots envisaged for collaborative action include "collect and connect" type services; hospital feeder services; co-ordination of disability services; ticketing integration; co-ordinated information provision and journey planning; and increased synchronisation of partner systems and processes. The Minister for Transport is hopeful that these pilots will prove successful and so provide the paradigm for rural transport in the future. The Minister looks forward with interest to hearing of the outcomes to these pilots in due course.

As part of the north east pilot projects, a commuter "connect and collect" service serving the Stamullen area is being trialled. The pilot service is operated by Flexibus, the community transport group which operates rural transport programme-funded services in County Meath, and it involves morning and evening bus services which link with the Bus Éireann service between Drogheda and Dublin. The pilot projects do not have an identified budget line as they are primarily about utilising existing financial and operational resources in the best manner possible in order to meet their objectives. However, a small amount of additional rural transport programme funding was made available to Flexibus to pilot the Stamullen commuter "connect and collect" service to the end of 2009. The project partners recognised the very considerable potential this service could offer in providing public transport to a community of some 4,000 persons and considered it was important that the pilot should be supported.

It is not possible at this stage to make any commitments in relation to funding for the rural transport programme for 2010. As Deputies are aware, the Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes recommends the termination of the rural transport programme. The Government is considering all the recommendations in the special group's report and decisions will be made by the Government in the context of the budget for 2010 and later years. The Department of Transport has received an application from Flexibus for funding under the Department's Smarter Travel project fund in respect of a proposal to provide an integrated commuter service with Bus Éireann and Irish Rail. The proposal involves a service that links commuters in Stamullen, Greenanstown area, to the mainline service to Dublin operated by Bus Éireann and Irish Rail.

The Smarter Travel project fund was established in June 2009 and the closing date for submitting an application was on 9 September. The Flexibus application is one of 121 applications received by the Department. The assessment process for the applications is nearing completion, as Deputy Byrne pointed out, and successful projects will be announced in the next few weeks.

Health and Safety Regulations.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue concerning Carrickmines, where a new but fully inhabited apartment block had its roof blown off this morning. The Minster of State will be familiar with it because it was formerly in his constituency and is now in mine. I am sure, like myself, he must wonder what it is like to have the roof of one's home blown off.

It is too early at this stage to know how the unfortunate homeowners' problems will be addressed in the longer term but, for the present, I know that those who need it are accommodated in a local hotel. I contacted the builder who assured me he is putting procedures in place to replace the roof. I intend to keep an eye on that.

I want to raise with the Minister of State the wider problem of safety and standards and the ability of modern high-rise apartment blocks, particularly in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, to withstand high winds. I live very close to this area and know it was windy this morning but it was not what one would call an extreme weather event — it was not a 200-year event or even a ten-year event, and we have had similar weather in recent weeks and months.

High winds are a feature of elevated areas and building standards reflect the need to design to accommodate wind loading at different locations because wind speeds vary due to location, geography, varying elevations and topographical conditions. For example, it is much windier and higher standards are required in the west than in the east. However, the height of the building has an impact. All of this information is available from wind speed maps which are published by Met Éireann. The building regulations therefore require designs to accommodate the expected wind speeds for the area and then to apply a factor of safety on top of that, as per the British guidelines and codes of practice.

Today, I am not interesting in apportioning blame. A whole variety of factors could be responsible for this, including design failure, construction failure, materials failure or an extreme event, for example, a particularly high gust of wind that was well beyond what might have been expected in the 50-year cycle. It is a miracle that a roof came off a huge building yet nobody was killed. I want to ensure there are no more such incidents because we could not be as lucky again with a similar incident. The frightening aspect is that it is not the first incident in the area. This is the second roof to be blown off an apartment block in the general area as a similar incident took place on the Blackglen Road in October of last year. It is not normal to have roofs blowing off buildings so it has to be more than a coincidence when it happens twice.

What is required is an audit by the Health and Safety Authority of all the high-rise buildings in the area. This area around Stepaside, Leopardstown and Carrickmines is elevated and exposed, being in the foothills of the mountains, and there is no room for error or for the assumption that all of the other buildings will somehow be okay. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should ensure this happens and I ask the Minister of State who is present to communicate this to the Minister.

There is a further issue in this general area of south County Dublin, which I am sure applies elsewhere, namely, the safety of the half-completed and unoccupied high-rise buildings, many of which are in this general area, as the Minister of State will be aware. All of these buildings are victims of the property market collapse. In at least some cases, the building companies are now in receivership and others are or will shortly be on the books of NAMA, and nobody knows what the ultimate fate of all of these buildings will be. Meanwhile, they are lying idle, half finished with building equipment lying around, and they are completely uninhabited. If these uncompleted buildings lose a roof, who knows what kind of hazard they pose not just to their neighbours but to passers by. The Sandyford industrial estate is full of such abandoned buildings. Wind damage by hoardings, scaffolding and by the buildings themselves present obvious dangers. If there are accidents, we have no idea who will is responsible, who is maintaining the buildings and who, ultimately, is monitoring their safety.

If these buildings are not completed, their planning permissions will die and the owners will be in breach of the planning Acts because they have not completed the buildings according to their planning permissions. Clearly, for financial reasons, they are not in a position to do so. This is a planning issue that will apply throughout the country. We have had a graphic demonstration today of what can happen but this could happen to many of the high-rise buildings throughout the country, particularly in the Dublin area and in my constituency and that of the Minister of State. It is a planning issue that has to be addressed and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government must take the lead.

Today, however, it is the immediate safety issue that cannot be ignored. Two examples of roof loss in high-rise buildings in the same general area must ring alarm bells for all such buildings in the area.

I thank Deputy Olivia Mitchell for raising this important issue, which affects both of our constituencies. At the outset, I place clearly on the record of the House my sympathy for those homeowners in the Carrickmines Manor complex whose properties were damaged by this morning's roof collapse. We have seen very clearly over the past week the destruction that can be caused by the powerful forces of nature, be they in the form of wind or rain, and the upset and difficulties that can be caused for families having to move out of their homes as a result.

The legal requirements regarding the construction of new buildings, including houses and extensions to, and material alterations of, existing buildings, are set out in the building control code. A comprehensive suite of related technical guidance documents provide detailed guidance on how to comply with the regulations. Under the provisions of the Building Control Act 1990, responsibility for compliance with the building regulations rests with the builder and the owner of a building. Enforcement is a matter for the local building control authority, which is empowered to carry out inspections and initiate enforcement proceedings when considered necessary.

With regard to the Carrickmines Manor incident, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been in contact with Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, in whose administrative area the development is located. I understand that in response to a request from the fire service this morning, officials from the council's dangerous buildings section went to the scene of the event, where they met with representatives from the developer and their consultant engineers. I understand also that in addition to the fire service, the Garda, the council's housing department and representatives of the managing agent engaged to manage the apartment complex were also in attendance.

In total, three apartment blocks and a number of houses were evacuated. The immediate housing needs of the evacuated residents are being looked after by the developer and the property management agent. In terms of dealing with the physical issue on-site, the council has indicated that measures are being taken to remove the debris of the fallen roof. In addition, steps are being taken to secure the roof of the remainder of that block and of the two adjacent apartment blocks as a precautionary measure.

As the House will appreciate, the response to this incident is at an early stage. It would not be appropriate to become involved in matters that may ultimately have to be resolved between the developer, the residents and their insurers, but the council has been asked to keep the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government apprised of developments in its response to the incident.

In conclusion, I thank everyone, particularly those in the emergency services and the county council, who attended the scene at Carrickmines Manor this morning and assisted the residents in responding to the difficult position in which they find themselves. I hope the parties involved can work quickly towards finding a resolution and ensure that the residents do not have to remain out of their homes for any longer than is absolutely necessary.

The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 26 November 2009.