Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 9 Feb 2010

Vol. 701 No. 3

Regeneration Projects.

It is ironic to talk of social deprivation in my constituency following the Second Stage debate on a finance Bill introduced by a Government that sees no problem in dedicating billions of euro to the broken Irish banking system which, at the same time, cannot give a single euro to a plan it has been committed to for over two and a half years.

The Limerick regeneration project has ground to a halt because there is no capital from the Government. The Minister of State is familiar with the project. It affects areas of Limerick that historically have been bedevilled by crime and social deprivation and which have a very poor housing stock. Morale was raised and confidence given to the 2,300 families that live in these areas when Mr. John Fitzgerald brought forward his report to regenerate these areas in the city for which he had cross-party support. All the Deputies contributing here tonight have supported the programme, and there was a sense of excitement throughout the city. New hope was given to families in these areas. Staff came in, led by Mr. Brendan Kenny, and things were moving along.

Obviously, the slump had an effect. The money which was supposed to come from private investors did not materialise but there was nothing new about that. However, the money which was supposed to come from the Government was expected, and the tap was suddenly turned off this year.

The Minister's Government and his colleagues in Cabinet have said that €25 million is being given to Limerick. In terms of the breakdown of that, approximately €7 million is for the wages and salaries of the staff of the regeneration agencies; some seed capital is being provided to support social programmes which are under way; and the other €17 million or so is being given to Limerick City Council for the purchase of houses in the city suburbs to be used for social housing purposes. That €17 million is in line with the kind of allocations every local authority is getting for their housing programme either to build or to purchase and has nothing to do with the regeneration of the city.

We are at the stage now where the position is worse than it was before the regeneration agencies commenced their work. Nearly 400 houses have been demolished and not a single brick will be laid or a single sod turned in 2010 to provide a house for a single family who have invested their futures in the commitment made by the local Minister, Deputy O'Dea, his Cabinet colleagues, and particularly by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley.

This is a disgraceful abandonment of families living in the most deprived areas of the city. These are decent families who are sending their children to school and doing their best but needing the strong hand of the Government to lift them back to the standard of housing and standard of living expected in this day and age.

I cannot understand how a Government could turn off the tap completely in terms of funding. It would be reasonable to say that in times of scarce resources the programmes should be done over 12 years rather than ten years or that the regeneration should be stretched to a 15 year period but to turn the tap off completely so that nothing is happening this year, and the regeneration staff effectively having no continuing work to occupy them in 2010, is appalling.

I have two suggestions. First, the Minister of State should ask the senior Minister to provide approximately €50 million this year to ensure that some of the housing projects that are ready to go can be given the go-ahead. If there was building activity with a prospect of houses in 15 months' time, confidence will be restored.

Second, the governance structure of the agencies is very poor. There are two agencies. They should be amalgamated, given a stronger legal base and the power to negotiate public private partnerships with the private sector, and allowed borrow money. If that is done the gap left by the Government could be filled by other means but it cannot be done currently because of the weak legal structure of the agencies. If the Minister examines that he would see it is a cost-free way of proceeding.

There is a deep sense of betrayal in the regeneration communities in Limerick since the quotations from the Minister, Deputy O'Dea, on the front of The Irish Times on Saturday became public knowledge. I have had an opportunity to talk to people in those areas and there is a huge sense of despair. People’s hopes were raised. Their hopes were raised previously in those areas but they were greatly raised in the context of the regeneration plans. Those of us who thought those plans looked a little too ambitious asked if it was wise to knock down all of the houses in Moyross and Carew Park. We raised a number of other concerns at the time but were basically told to shut up and that money was no object. We were told to stop raising questions because the plans would solve the problems of these areas, and people should go along with them.

Since the weekend I have spoken to one of the community leaders who had put her head above the parapet and given up her time to go to meeting after meeting. She was being told constantly that this regeneration would happen and that the Government said that money would not be a problem. Even though the people might think they could not change their areas to the extent they said they would change them, they were told it would happen. That woman has to go back to her neighbours and try to explain that she was not leading them by the nose but that it was the Government that led them astray.

I lay much of the blame squarely on the back of the Minister, Deputy O'Dea. There is always somewhere over the rainbow whenever we get bad news from the Minister. When the Dell job losses were announced we heard approximately 700 jobs would be coming from some fictional company that never materialised.

Even when the Minister announced on Saturday that the State could not deliver the €1.7 billion for Limerick regeneration, he talked about some builders investing a couple of hundred million euro. I do not know who they are or from where they are getting the couple of hundred million euro. In the context of the budget, the refinancing of the banks and the financial fiasco in this country I do not know who will lend them the couple of hundred million euro but the Minister cannot resist presenting these guys riding in on horses on the brow of the hill ready to jump in and solve the problem when what we need is Government commitment to building. We do not want a commitment to knock down buildings or buy houses in the county or wherever but to rebuild these communities. They are worse off now than they were before all this started because of the anti-social problems and the rats associated with empty houses.

We must be honest about this. We have got to see a practical response from Government. We must see houses built in these areas. A number of senior citizens projects are planned. I would like to hear from the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, and receive a guarantee that funding will be made available for those projects this year.

There are other infrastructural projects, such as a railway station in Moyross and a link road to Limerick Institute of Technology. There are similar projects in other areas, including an all-weather pitch in the St. Mary's Park area. These are the kind of projects that will make life better for people. It is most unfair to people who hoped they would be able to raise their kids or see out their elderly years in a better environment to hear on the national airwaves and read in the national newspapers that the money is not forthcoming. We need honesty and for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to visit Limerick to explain what can be feasibly delivered in the affected areas.

If people are going to get the information filtered through the Minister for Defence, Deputy Willie O'Dea, they are not going to get the truth because he cannot resist fiction. I apologise for attacking the Minister in such a way but one must appreciate that he will present any picture if he believes it will deliver votes. That is not what the communities affected need. They need all parties working together to bring about the regeneration project. All Members from Limerick, including the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, are willing to work together on these issues. We do not need some guy riding out pretending he is doing the whole thing himself.

I feel very strongly that the people in these estates have been let down. We need a proper and complete Government response led by the Taoiseach and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, and the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Michael Finneran, not fiction.

Apart from unemployment, the Limerick regeneration project is the single most important issue for the city. When the regeneration project was launched by the Government more than two years ago, it was such a priority and of such importance that it came under Cabinet responsibility. Now confusion reigns in the media. Last week, we were told the €25 million allocated for next year was provisional and more would follow. On Saturday, the Minister for Defence, Deputy Willie O'Dea, the only Cabinet member in Limerick and the mid-west, said in the national newspapers the project would be stalled unless non-State funding outside of the €25 million could be secured. This compounded the lack of morale among the people living in the regeneration areas, Moyross, Southill, St. Mary's Park and Ballinacurra Weston. They have lost faith in the project believing it lacks credibility and is being repeatedly stalled. Action and a firm commitment from the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran, is needed. As the Cabinet has responsibility for this project, the Taoiseach and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, need to visit the regeneration areas where up to 400 houses have been knocked but not one replaced.

When the project was originally launched with much fanfare by the President, Mary McAleese, on behalf of the Government, those living in the areas had high hopes. The Government must live up to its commitment and provide the funding. No one expected the project to happen overnight as it was set down as a ten-year project. The Government's claim, therefore, that it cannot afford the €1.7 billion required does not ring true. Projects need to be started in each of the regeneration areas. Many elderly people in the regeneration areas, for example, have put their life savings into buying out their houses. Now, they do not know where they stand. One week they are told their houses will be purchased and the next week they are told the houses beside them will be knocked.

The Denis Brosnan taskforce established for the mid-west stated one headline project it wanted to see fast-tracked was the regeneration project. Not only has it a social dimension, it has enormous employment potential for up to 4,000 people. Limerick has a higher unemployment rate than the national average; the regeneration areas' rate is five times higher at 70%. Plans are to be submitted at the end of March and many feel the Government is just putting off this. A firm commitment that the Government will provide funding for the project in 2010 and its subsequent years must be made. When the Cabinet took responsibility for the regeneration project, it was assumed the Minister for Defence, Deputy Willie O'Dea, would have a major influence in advancing the project. I accept there is a need for private investment but it cannot be expected to be made unless there is a commitment from the State. The Government is reneging on the project and we will not allow this to happen. We want positive news from the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran, tonight that capital funding for the project will be provided for it to get under way.

I thank the Deputies for raising this item and their ongoing interest in this important issue. Limerick regeneration is an issue with which I am intimately acquainted, not just because of my office, but because of the extent to which my colleagues, the Minister for Defence, Deputy Willie O'Dea, and the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, have acted as powerful advocates for the programme since its inception. In their engagements with me and the Government, both Ministers have provided strong voices for the communities in the regeneration areas and have ensured the regeneration programme remains a top priority for the Government.

Many families in Limerick city are working to build better lives for themselves, to overcome the disadvantages of social segregation and barriers to education and other services. These are the people that I, as Minister of State with responsibility for housing and local services, am committed to helping through the Limerick regeneration programme. I am glad to have the opportunity tonight to reiterate the Government's commitment to those families and the communities of Moyross, Southill, St. Mary's Park and Ballinacurra Weston. The Government has maintained the impetus around this regeneration project over the past three years despite the challenges of the changing economic environment.

With the active support of both Ministers, Deputies Willie O'Dea and Peter Power, the Government commissioned the Fitzgerald report to examine how the lives of people living in these severely disadvantaged communities could be improved. The Government took that report and drove the implementation of its recommendations, not least through the establishment of dedicated agencies to lead the delivery on the regeneration project. As recently as last December the Government also endorsed the vision for that ten-year regeneration and requested the detailed, costed plans for the first phase of the project's implementation by the end of the first quarter of this year.

Delivering a successful regeneration project that aims to remedy a long legacy of neglect and decline is not easy and not achievable overnight. It is not about placing a Band-Aid solution on the problem by simply providing new housing to communities in crisis. We already know that such an approach does not build sustainable regenerated communities. Rather, a successful regeneration requires an holistic approach that seeks to address the underlying causes of the social, economic and educational disadvantage that characterises these communities. It means we must take a whole of Government approach to the regeneration in Limerick to ensure the social and educational supports are available, while at the same time improving the built environment of the areas. It means that private sector investment must be secured to break the cycle of social isolation and encourage a mix of housing tenures in these areas. Mobilising private sector involvement is also essential in creating employment opportunities for these communities.

This whole of Government approach is at the centre of our work on the regeneration project, with relevant Departments, State agencies and local authorities represented on the boards of the Limerick regeneration agencies. My Department has also taken the lead on a high-level initiative involving the Secretaries General of key Departments and agencies involved in the social regeneration of the areas to ensure necessary decisions can be taken quickly, with the outcomes channelled into the overall implementation plans for the project. In addition, the Cabinet committee on social inclusion is regularly updated with progress on these cross-sectoral issues.

Since their establishment, the regeneration agencies have developed the strategic framework and vision for the regeneration while simultaneously delivering on an ambitious programme for the stabilisation of the areas. Despite the significant constraints on public finances in recent years, the Government provided in excess of €50 million for that stabilisation programme in the two and a half years to the end of 2009. Working with Limerick City Council, this funding has supported a planned programme of demolitions to address anti-social behaviour and to facilitate site clearances for future construction. It has provided for a programme of appropriate relocation of households, in accordance with locally agreed housing protocols, and it has seen a considerable improvement in the community infrastructure through closed circuit television installations, estate clean-ups, and new community supports and facilities.

In terms of our whole of Government approach to the regeneration, the past two years have seen significant additional investment from other Departments and agencies. As part of the broader stabilisation initiatives and to garner community support for the regeneration, 80 additional Garda personnel have been assigned to the city and a range of specialist supporting Garda resources have been deployed. Co-ordinated education programmes and special education initiatives have been developed for the regeneration areas. New targeted community-based initiatives are being provided in the areas of health, children, youth and family support, sport, employment and training to combat the effects of social exclusion. Many of these have been developed and supported with co-funded investment from the relevant Departments, local authorities, the HSE, FÁS and other key stakeholders. For 2010, I have increased my Department's annual provision for Limerick regeneration to €25 million to maintain the impetus around the regeneration programme and to continue to support these important initiatives.

While much attention to date has been focused on demolition and other essential works associated with the preparation of the areas for physical regeneration, the agencies and Limerick City Council acknowledge the importance of progressing new-build projects at this stage in the process. In that context, I want to confirm to the House the Government's commitment to facilitating such new build projects within the overall resources available for 2010. In fact, work has been progressing over the past year on the detailed planning and design of two housing projects which will provide up to 100 new homes, primarily for older people living in the Moyross and Ballinacurra Weston areas, with a view to advancing the projects to tender stage in 2010. Design work will also progress this year on two further projects for Southill and St. Mary's Park. All these projects provide tangible evidence that work is well under way to move the programme forward and to start building on the solid foundations that have been laid by the essential demolition and other preparatory works undertaken over the past two years.

Once again, I emphasise the importance of an holistic whole of Government approach in delivering successfully on regeneration. Regeneration is all about balancing the social and educational needs of communities with employment opportunities, all in a high quality built environment. New houses for socially disadvantaged families do not, on their own, build sustainable communities, any more than delivering community supports with no employment opportunities will do. Our challenge for the regeneration in Limerick city is to deliver an enduring, sustainable, high-quality outcome incorporating the crucial social, physical and economic ingredients. That is why we have spent the time building a strong foundation for the regeneration in Limerick. We have invested in clearing sites that will be ready for public and private sector construction projects. We have invested in social, community and educational supports to empower and support the communities of these areas. We have mobilised a public sector network that is committed to supporting the next steps. With this foundation in place, we are now ready to start building these new regenerated communities.

As I mentioned earlier, the Government has requested that the Limerick regeneration agencies prepare detailed fully costed plans for the first phase of the implementation of the regeneration project in Limerick by the end of the first quarter of this year. The agencies, with expert advice from the National Building Agency and in consultation with the relevant stakeholders, are working intensively to arrive at a prioritised plan that will provide us with a roadmap for the social, physical, and economic regeneration of these communities for the next three to five years. To do this, the agencies have been charged with determining the intended mix of refurbishment and new build and the projected costs having regard to the better values now available in the economy generally. In doing this, they will be informed by the wider strategic planning environment and a full consideration of potential private sector funding mechanisms.

Notwithstanding the current limitations on the availability of public funds, I extend a guarantee to the House that the Government will once again step up to the mark for the regeneration project in Limerick in a full review of how Government resources can best be deployed to deliver this crucial first phase. Across Government, there is a wide range of investment programmes from which funding can be channelled to meet specific actions under the first phase plans. We are committed to establishing the appropriate mechanisms for doing this and to ensuring the necessary support is available to invest in Limerick.

Once again, I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. The need to regenerate these areas goes beyond party divides and local differences. We must work together to ensure this regeneration project is a success, but to do that our approach must be both considered and ambitious. We have spent two and a half years building a strong foundation for the regeneration of these communities. We have provided the investment necessary to do this, and a further €25 million has been set aside this year from my Department alone. I look forward to again visiting the regeneration areas shortly to see the work under way and to discuss the programme for the year ahead. The Government is determined to break the cycle of disadvantage in Moyross, Southill, St. Mary's Park and Ballinacurra Weston. It is only then that we will be able to look back on the regeneration programme and say we used the opportunity it presented to make a real and lasting difference. I am very committed and I hope to visit Limerick shortly to meet the different stakeholders in this matter.