Adjournment Debate

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise the issue. The need to build a new primary school for St. Colmcille's in Knocklyon has been on the political agenda for at least 15 years. This is the largest primary school in the country; approximately 1,500 students attend it. For far too long a large portion of the classrooms have been prefabricated buildings, many of which have long passed their use-by date.

The school has gone through the various stages to facilitate construction and got to a point in October this year where the final documentation was furnished to the Department of Education and Skills. It is my understanding that it was indicated to the school board and the principals of the school that by 15 November, the final consideration would be given to the final document received relating to the project. Indications were given that the tendering process to construct the school would commence.

I ask the Minister of State to tell the House the current position. Was sanction given yesterday or will it be given this week to the tendering process? When will the construction of the school be advertised for tender? I am conscious that a substantial amount of money for the construction of schools during 2010 remains unspent and I am very anxious to be assured that not only will the tendering process be sanctioned and go ahead, but also that the funding is available to construct this school.

I am very conscious of the state of the public finances and the catastrophic difficulties confronting the State but in the context of tackling the major unemployment crisis we have, with in the region of 450,000 unemployed, there is great value to the State as well as to individual communities in the construction of school building projects going ahead. We can now build new schools at far less expense than was the case in the past. We have a huge body of construction workers currently unemployed in receipt of social welfare who are looking for employment. The construction of this school would not only be of substantial benefit to the local community in Knocklyon and to the students attending the school, but would provide badly needed employment.

In order for the school to be constructed, it has to move to a temporary site. I understand that it was the hope that if tendering proceeded or was sanctioned this week, the school would move to its temporary site next Easter and would be able to open after the Easter break at the temporary site so the project could be advanced and construction could start. I hope the timeframe that was indicated after literally 15 years battling to get this school built will be complied with and I hope the Minister will tell us on the record of the House this evening that the project is going ahead and the tendering process can start. If I am not going to be told that, I want the Minister to explain why that is the case.

This is a crucial moment for the construction of this school. Far too many pupils in this school are using prefabricated classrooms that are inadequate. The school lacks the type of library and play facilities it should have and the staff lack the basic facilities which should be available to teachers in a school of this size. I hope we will get some good news tonight and, if not, I hope the Minister will tell us why.

I am replying to this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Dáil the Government's strategy for capital investment in school building projects and also to outline the current position for St. Colmcille's senior and junior national school, Knocklyon, Dublin 16.

Modernising facilities in our existing building stock as well as the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth is a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of our school buildings and to ensure that the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum. The allocation of funding for school buildings in 2010 is almost €579 million and this represents a significant investment in the schools building and modernisation programme. This level of funding, at a time of great pressure on public finances, is a sign of the Government's commitment to investing in school infrastructure and it will permit the continuation of the Department's programme of sustained investment in primary and post-primary schools.

All applications for capital funding are assessed in the planning and building unit of the Department. The assessment process determines the extent and type of need presenting based on the demographics of an area, proposed housing developments, condition of buildings, site capacity, etc., leading to an appropriate accommodation solution. As part of this process, a project is assigned a band rating under published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects and these criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners.

Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. This is reflected in the band rating assigned to a project. In other words, a proposed building project moves through the system commensurate with the band rating assigned to it. There are four band ratings overall, of which band one is the highest and band four the lowest. Band one projects, for example, include the provision of buildings where none currently exists but there is a high demand for pupil places, while a band four project makes provision of desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential facilities, such as a library or new sports hall. The project for St. Colmcille's senior and junior national school has been assigned a band rating of 2.1 under the published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects. A band rating of 2.1 means that there is a deficit of mainstream accommodation in the school and the deficit constitutes a substantial and significant proportion of the school's overall accommodation needs.

All major projects on the Department's capital programme progress through the same structured process of architectural planning which is divided into clearly defined stages. There are five stages involved in the progression of major school building projects through architectural planning. These stages are set out in the Department's design team procedures and are necessary to comply with Department of Finance guidelines which require that capital projects be fully designed prior to going to tender. They also ensure proper cost management of capital projects and facilitate compliance with statutory and public procurement requirements.

The project referred to by the Deputy provides for the removal of all existing prefabricated buildings and demolition of the existing St. Colmcille's junior and senior school buildings in a phased development programme and their replacement with a new three storey 58 classroom school. The total floor area will be 9,847 sq. m. with ancillary accommodation which will include general purpose rooms, libraries, meeting rooms, special educational rooms, three atriums, junior and senior administration offices, car parking and play areas.

To facilitate the construction of the new schools in a phased approach, planning permission has been secured to relocate St. Colmcille's senior school to a temporary prefabricated structure at the nearby Ballyboden Saint Enda's GAA grounds. For the duration of the building project, St. Colmcille's junior school will remain on the existing site. The project for St Colmcille's senior and junior school was authorised earlier this year to progress to tender and construction. Following a third party appeal to An Bord Pleanála, the final grant of planning permission was upheld. The fire certificate and disability access certificates have also been secured.

In October, the design team submitted the stage 2b report, which has been reviewed by the Department. Following this, a letter recently issued to the school authority requesting confirmation from all design team members that a final review would be undertaken and that a complete and co-ordinated package of tender documents would be prepared for issue to tenderers. The Department intends to publish an advert later this week in the EU journal and on the Government's etenders website seeking suitably qualified contractors. This is the first phase in a two-stage tender process and will result in a shortlist of ten main contractors who will then be invited to tender for the works.

I thank the Deputy again for giving me the opportunity to outline to the Dáil the current position regarding the school building project for St. Colmcille's senior and junior school.

Flood Relief

I raise this issue given the severe flooding in the Cork area on 19 November 2009, the first anniversary of which is approaching this week. There are a number of issues surrounding the aftermath of this severe flooding and I want to concentrate on the plight of residents and business owners in the area who are not being given insurance or must pay severe excess charges.

As the Minister of State is probably aware, the flooding resulted from severe rainfall in the month of October which built up in November. The ESB has two dams on the upper Lee catchment area, the Carrigadrohid dam and the Inniscarra dam. There was a wind, rain and tidal alert on the night of 19 November but this was not a tidal flood but one which came from the upper catchment of the River Lee. The area flooded was not prone to the type of flooding that happens in Cork city, which is caused by a combination of high tides, easterly winds and high levels of rainfall. It was a different type of flood which has been described as a once-off, flash flood. Residents who have been living in the area for years, and whose ancestors lived there for centuries, know the area does not have a history of flooding.

This is the crux of the matter. These residents now find themselves in a situation where they cannot insure their homes or business premises. A report published in July 2010 by the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government recommended that there would be an independent investigation into the flooding and that a co-ordinated attempt would be made by the city council, county council and the ESB to address the issue. What can be done to put in place management structures for the dams in consultation with the ESB and the local authorities to make sure the insurance companies can get to a position where they will insure residential households and business premises?

It is important to repeat that this area is not normally prone to flooding. A severe flood occurred last November but nobody has stepped up to the plate and outlined what could have prevented it. We need an independent investigation to establish what exactly went wrong so we can put in place structures and lines of communication to ensure it does not happen again. Meanwhile, residents in areas that have never been flooded find themselves victims. They are powerless and are being stonewalled by the insurance companies. There is an opportunity for the Government and the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, who has visited the area, to step in and speak to the insurance companies to find what they are doing to alleviate the difficulties. If the Minister of State, Deputy Connick, visited the area today, he would see the locations where the quay walls were broken by the force of the river and have not yet been replaced.

We are facing into the winter and there have been flood alerts in recent weeks. The residents are extremely vulnerable and feel the State is not stepping in to protect them and ensure they can continue to live in the relative security they had before 19 November 2009.

It must be stated at the outset that the decision to provide new cover or renew existing cover in any insurance situation is a commercial matter for insurance companies, as it allows insurance companies to properly assess the risk they are accepting. These are often considered on a case-by-case basis and, as such, the Government does not have any influence over this matter. That being said, the Government is fully aware of the difficulties currently being experienced by householders in certain areas in accessing flood insurance. The Minister for Finance is completing a memorandum for the Government which is expected to go to Government very shortly on the options available to address these difficulties. Care has to be taken that the State responds in an appropriate and cost-effective manner and in a way that allows it to provide flood relief measures which allow the insurance companies to continue providing cover in those areas.

While it must be acknowledged that there have been instances where insurance companies have refused to cover some property owners who made claims on their policies in the aftermath of last year's flooding, the Irish Insurance Federation, IIF, has informed the Department of Finance that the insurance industry is very reluctant to discontinue flood cover for existing policyholders, and would generally only do so in exceptional cases, such as where there have been repeated flooding claims. The IIF has also indicated that approximately 98% of householders who have household insurance currently have flood cover. It points out that insurers look at the claims history of the individual risk when deciding what underwriting action to take. They also look at any flood protection measures implemented by the local authority or OPW in the area. It states that where the flood risk is higher than normal, people will generally pay a higher premium or have a higher flood excess on their policy.

It is clear that the structured engagement between the IIF and the OPW is critical if progress is to be made on this issue so that underwriters are aware of what is being done in different parts of the country to address flooding problems. Such an arrangement would also help the OPW prioritise its remedial works which in turn would provide greater reassurance to the industry that the problem areas were being addressed in a structured way and this should lead to a greater willingness to offer cover in marginal areas.

Work has already begun on this and as part of this structured engagement the OPW has provided the IIF with a list of its capital projects and their current status. It has also provided it with another list of other flood mitigation works and studies on a county-by county basis. Furthermore, the OPW met industry underwriters at the end of October in order to give them a greater understanding of how they are addressing the flooding problems in different parts of the country. This type and level of engagement between the agency having the lead role in flood prevention measures and those providing insurance is part of the Government's response to this issue in flood prevention measures.

Another key part of the response I wish to draw to the attention of the House is the fact that the Government allocated €50 million for flood risk management activities for 2010, which is administered by the Office of Public Works. This increased allocation allows for delivery of a range of capital works schemes throughout the country. A concerted effort to roll out schemes, taking account of the seriousness of the underlying flooding problem in the different localities, is currently underway.

In February of this year, the Minister of State responsible for the OPW, Deputy Mansergh, launched the River Lee flood risk management plan, which is the result of three years work by the OPW and its partners, Cork city and county councils. This sets out a range of measures to manage effectively and efficiently the flood risk for the whole Lee catchment, which, when implemented, should significantly reduce the likelihood of the severe flooding witnessed in Cork city and elsewhere in the catchment of last year.

The OPW, in association with the city and county councils, is currently progressing the lower Lee flood risk management scheme, one of the key recommendations in the Lee catchment flood risk management plan. This scheme seeks to manage the flood risk from the River Lee and has been developed to protect against river and tidal flooding in and around Cork city. The scheme will involve works downstream of Inniscarra and through Cork city, permitting greater discharges to be made from the ESB reservoirs without causing flooding of properties and will provide protection against flooding from the river and during periods of high tide or storm surge. Based on extensive analysis, undertaken between 2006 and 2009, of river flows and tidal-surge levels, this scheme is considered the most cost effective means of managing these flood risks in Cork city.

While it is likely be some time into 2012 before construction works begin on the scheme, should interim measures be identified to reduce the existing level of risk in the course of the consultant's work, these will be considered by the OPW and its partners on the steering group. Furthermore, the OPW has sanctioned €0.9 million for Cork City Council to undertake the repair of quay walls breached last November and contract works for this are currently at tender stage by Cork City Council. I can confirm that the cost of undertaking the development work and the eventual construction works has been included in the OPW's budget profiles for flood relief activities for the coming years. The Minister of State is confident that the scheme to be developed will lead to a significant reduction in the risk of flooding as experienced last November.

Sports Funding

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important issue. The International Children's Games and Cultural Festival, ICG, is an annual sports event that has evolved since its inception in 1968 in Celje, Slovenia into the largest multi-sport youth event in the world. More than 30,000 children have taken part in the games since 1968 with, on average, between 1,500 and 2,000 athletes aged between 12 and 15 years participating at the annual event in selected host cities and towns throughout the world. Upwards of between 80 and 90 cities from all five continents participate annually. Athletics and swimming are the core sports involved and the host city is also required to offer participating cities between six and eight other sporting disciplines in accordance with international governing body rules. In addition to the athletes, approximately 2,500 overseas visitors attend the games as part of the extended visiting city delegations, team coaches and family members.

Tralee has been participating in the ICG since 2005 when it received an invite to attend the games hosted in Coventry. Subsequently, teams from Tralee have participated annually in venues as diverse as Bangkok, Reykjavik, San Francisco, Athens and Bahrain. The experience of attending the games has led to strong support locally to put forward the case to host the 2015 games in Kerry. As part of the initial campaign for Kerry to host the games, the executive committee of the ICG was invited to undertake a fact-finding visit to Tralee in April 2008. Letters of intent to host the games were issued by Kerry County Council and Tralee Town Council following the visit. A feasibility study was commissioned in 2010 to determine the financial implications of hosting the games in Kerry in addition to assessing the existing facilities. The study has shown that Kerry has the capacity to host the international event in 2015 and has indicated that a total cash cost of €2 million would be required to successfully bid for and host the event. The support of the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport is seen as critical to the process and the local organising committee is seeking up to €1 million from the Department and Government, while undertaking to raise the other €1 million through the corporate sector and other means.

Kerry has a long established reputation of hosting major international sports events. Its reputation as an international tourism destination highlights its capacity to organise and host international events. Kerry has the largest accommodation stock outside of Dublin while possessing a rich cultural and heritage tourism product range that will facilitate the cultural element of the games.

Recent announcements concerning the new sports complex development at the Institute of Technology, Tralee will provide the county with a top-class sports hub to centralise the planning, organisation and hosting of international sports events. The proposed sports complex for the Institute of Technology, Tralee would provide a modern sporting hub to host the 2015 games. A decision to invest in the hosting of the 2015 International Children's Games in Kerry, with Tralee as the central hub, would provide a means of creating and generating considerable economic impact for the region and should be strongly supported. The Kerry ICG games of 2015 would have the capacity to generate an overall economic impact for Kerry of between €5.6 million and €7.8 million against an expenditure on games preparation and hosting of approximately €2 million, based on 100 teams taking part as outlined in the feasibility study. The event has the scope to attract more than 6,000 attendees, resulting in approximately 20,000 bed nights for the region during the course of the games, which is usually between five and six days. Potential returns to the Exchequer, based on participation rates ranging from 80 to 100 cities, would amount to €1.68 million rising to €2.326 million.

In conclusion, bringing the International Children's Games to Kerry would be a sound investment in the short term and the long term, generating considerable Exchequer returns, providing a platform for tourism development in the region and the country, and leaving a lasting legacy for sports participation and the hosting of international sports events in the country. It may not be the Olympics as we know it, but for the children of the world it is understood as a mini-Olympics. It would provide the opportunity for those in many other Irish cities and towns to join their international brothers and sisters and participate in a truly worldwide sporting and cultural event in Ireland in 2015. The Government should support the overall project and the bid to host the 2015 games wholeheartedly as a project with the potential to bring considerable benefits to Tralee, the county of Kerry and Ireland. I call on the Minister of State to look favourably on the project.

I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Support, Deputy Mary Hanafin. I thank Deputy McEllistrim for raising the matter. The Minister is supportive of the efforts of the tourism state agencies and the national governing bodies of sport to attract international events here, subject to an assessment of the costs and benefits involved in any State financial support. Since taking up office, the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, has been involved in several meetings and discussions relating to such sports events.

In accordance with the provisions of section 8(1) of the National Tourism Development Authority Act 2003, consideration of possible support towards such events is a day-to-day matter for Fáilte Ireland. Fáilte Ireland administers the Government's international sports tourism initiative, which has been in operation for ten years. The key objectives in sponsoring events through this initiative are to secure significant worldwide media coverage and tourism marketing opportunities for Ireland and secure significant bed nights and economic benefits for the region in which the event is taking place.

Under the initiative, Fáilte Ireland has provided sponsorship to several significant events including the Irish Open Golf Championship and the World Rally Championship. The initiative was also a key factor in the hosting of the 2006 Ryder Cup in Ireland. Fáilte Ireland also supported the very successful stopover of the Volvo Ocean Race in Galway during 2009. This event exceeded all expectations in terms of visitor numbers and economic benefits, to the extent that Galway has been selected as the finishing venue for the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012. We greatly look forward to welcoming the Solheim Cup at Killeen Castle next year. It will be a great honour for Ireland to host one of the most prestigious golf tournaments in the world.

With regard to a bid to host the International Children's Games in 2015, the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, met with Deputy McEllistrim in July along with representatives of Tralee International Children's Games Limited, the body seeking to place the bid to host the games in Tralee in 2015.

The Minister, Deputy Hanafin, suggested that the organisers should meet with the Department and Fáilte Ireland to discuss the matter further. A subsequent meeting was arranged by the Department, which took place on Monday, 8 November. The meeting was attended by a representative of Tralee International Children's Games Limited, the operations manager for Fáilte Ireland south west and an official from the Department. At the meeting, Fáilte Ireland provided details of the basis on which it assesses the tourism potential of proposed sporting events. Fáilte Ireland is currently examining what supports may be available towards assisting with the bid process and will advise Tralee International Children's Games Limited in this regard. A further meeting will take place later this week directly between Fáilte Ireland and Tralee International Children's Games Limited to progress the matter.

Grant Payments

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important issue. I have been trying to discuss this matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, for two years. As a result of the failure of those discussions I have been obliged to bring the matter to the House tonight.

I thank the Minister for the fact that some money has been made available to the person who represents the third example I will provide. The man in question is still being withheld 10% of what he is entitled to simply because of the failure of personnel within the system to pass on correspondence from the farmer which was submitted as requested. The farmer in question built his own shed. He built identical buildings with the same finish for two other farmers, both of whom have been paid in full. However, he has been waiting since April 2009 for news of progress. Last Friday he received a portion of the grant. This happened simply because of the attitudes of different inspectors and the failure to use common sense.

The first case on my list involves a structure built totally on the advice and guidance of the then Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food official, that is, the grant inspector. This man used the same cladding as his neighbours, whose shed was passed and paid for two years ago. This farmer has received no payment although the then Department official visited and measured the building on three occasions and assured him that everything was correct and was put through for payment. However, when the inspector retired, the farmer found the application had not actually been put through.

A different inspector took a different attitude, and this man now finds himself under severe financial pressure, paying high interest on money borrowed. This case has been with the Minister since April 2009, and I ask for it to be fully resolved urgently.

In case 4, the person concerned has a similar problem to that I outlined in case 1. His cladding is the same as that of his neighbours, who have been paid, yet he has not. It was accepted by the grant personnel in Monaghan that properly perforated cladding would ensure clear air in the building but prevent the chicken litter from becoming wet, which is the whole purpose of such housing. In cases 5 and 6, structures were built with advice from the same Department official who gave the instruction in case 1. Case 5 has been partially rectified through the appeals system, but there is still significant money outstanding. In case 6, although the building was built to much stronger specifications than were required, as demanded by the Department official, the cost of this was never taken into account when the grant, amounting to around 40% of the total rather than the 70% the farmer was originally promised, was paid. In case 2, a structure was built with the clear involvement and advice of a Department official but unfortunately, once again, a different official dealt with the case on completion, and there was a shortfall in the grant of at least €10,000.

These are just some examples in which farmers — exceptionally good farmers, not fly-by-night types — who worked closely with officials, having found no reason in the past not to trust them, now find themselves under severe financial pressures through no fault of their own. It is important that the Minister of State understand that those who used high-quality perforated cladding rather than open mesh in order to provide sufficient air flow in their chicken houses while ensuring that the chicken litter was not damaged or destroyed by rain were not asking for the cost of the cladding in their requests for grant aid. They simply included it because of their knowledge of the typical weather conditions that would force rain through mesh structures. It is plain to any person who stands in one of these structures that they meet all the necessary criteria and are in the best interests of everyone concerned. As I said, I welcome the news that there has been at least one partial breakthrough. I hope the Minister of State's reply will give me some hope for the remainder.

As someone who spent seven years involved in the sale of structural steel and farm buildings, overseeing and inspecting the finished structures — none of which has fallen in almost 40 years — I have some understanding of what is necessary and what is justified. I would certainly recommend any of the buildings I have mentioned for inspection by any person and I assure the Minister of State that they will meet the necessary specifications. These farmers are under extraordinary pressure. The situation, which resulted from no fault of theirs, has continued for two years now and is extremely unfair.

I thank Deputy Crawford for raising these matters with me. I am pleased to have this opportunity to clarify the position on the farm waste management and farm improvement schemes, which are at issue in the cases referred to by the Deputy.

A revised farm waste management scheme was introduced by the Department in March 2006 to assist farmers in meeting the additional requirements of the nitrates directive. The amendments to the scheme included an increase in the standard grant rate from 40% to 60%, with 70% being available in the four zone C counties of Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim and Monaghan. In addition, the new scheme provided for an increase in the maximum eligible investment ceiling from €75,000 to €120,000 and removed any minimum income requirements from farming from the scheme so that all small farmers could participate. As the Deputy has mentioned, all work had to be completed by farmers by 31 December 2008 and the application of this date was a strict requirement of the EU Commission state aid approval for the scheme.

The immense success of the scheme is demonstrated by the fact that almost 43,000 approvals to commence work issued to farmers while the scheme was in place. However, due to the budgetary constraints placed on the Department at the beginning of 2009, it was decided to make the remaining payments under the scheme on a phased basis, with 40% being paid in that year as claims were approved, a further instalment of 40% in 2010, and the remaining instalment of 20% in 2011. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, also announced at that time that a special ex gratia payment would be made to farmers whose grants were deferred in this manner. It is also intended to make this payment in early 2011. The financial commitment of this Government to the scheme is substantial, particularly during these challenging economic times. It is estimated that when all payments have been made under the scheme in early 2011, the total expenditure under the scheme since its introduction in 2001 will be of the order of €1.2 billion.

The farm improvement scheme was introduced on 12 July 2007 following receipt of EU approval for the Rural Development Programme 2007-2013, and closed for applications on 31 October 2007. The scheme replaced the previous farm waste management, dairy hygiene and alternative enterprises schemes, which had closed for new applications at the end of 2006. Under the 2007-2013 programme, a sum of €85 million was allocated for modernisation of agricultural holdings, including the farm improvement scheme. Of this amount, €6 million was subsequently earmarked for the introduction of the 2007 pig welfare — sow housing — scheme, thereby leaving an allocation of €79 million for the farm improvement scheme. It was clearly stated at the time of the launch of the scheme and in its terms and conditions that the scheme would be suspended when the financial allocation for the scheme had been reached.

A total 12,675 applications were received from farmers under the farm improvement scheme by the closing date of 31 October 2007. However, the funding of €79 million permitted approvals to issue to farmers only for the 7,347 applications received up to 21 October 2007, and these approvals have now issued to the farmers concerned. Under both schemes, however, it is clear that all work must be completed in full in accordance with the Department's technical specifications. This is clearly set out in the terms and conditions of both schemes. The existence of these Department specifications is widely known in the sector, and they reflect the highest construction, health and safety and animal welfare standards.

With regard to the specific cases raised by the Deputy, the circumstances of each case are different, and the time available does not permit me to enter into the individual details of each case. I propose therefore to write to the Deputy to advise him of the up-to-date position in each case.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 17 November 2010.