Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 19 Jan 2011

Vol. 727 No. 1

Adjournment Debate

Regional Road Network

I appreciate the response given to some of my colleagues by the Minister for Transport in the House yesterday, indicating that he would be flexible or allow discretion to local authorities in the use of their local and regional roads allocation. Notwithstanding this, I put the case again that the Minister should seriously consider an emergency allocation for roads which were badly damaged during the snow and ice conditions of December 2010. It is neither practical nor acceptable that local authorities should have to work from their general allocation to deal with what are exceptional circumstances.

My county of Wexford was badly affected by two separate and lengthy spells of severe weather conditions. The first snow fell in Wexford on 27 November and many roads were impassable for three weeks following that. The three weeks of compacted snow and ice had detrimental effects on road surfaces and structures. These conditions were compounded by a second severe spell of weather from 21 to 28 December. As a result, the roads in many parts of the county and throughout Wexford are now a disaster zone. I assure the Minister of State that I am not exaggerating the case.

Road safety is a significant issue as a result of the weather-inflicted damage to the roads. It is not simply a question of reducing speed to avoid the danger. At issue are substantial distances where the compete road surface has disintegrated to the point where potholes extend to several metres. As a result, drivers are trying to find a stretch of safe road on which they can drive, in some cases leaving the correct side of the road. This is not acceptable. In many cases drivers must drive at less than 20 km/h. These situations must not be allowed to continue. Parents and workers are forced to put in a great many extra miles onto their normal journey to avoid potholed roads and roads in bad condition.

Our local and regional road network serves an important economic role and provides valuable social and community functions. Some 94% of all our roads are regional or local roads, carrying 60% of all traffic and 43% of heavy goods vehicles. Rural businesses have suffered because of the bad road conditions. There is a need for emergency funding to Wexford County Council and, no doubt, many other local authorities throughout the country. Yesterday in this House, the Minister stated that he was not passing the buck and warned it was time for people to take responsibility. He further stated "It is the responsibility of the local authorities to look after their local roads." It is up to local authorities to look after local roads but they cannot look after local roads if they do not have adequate funding. Like many other local authorities throughout the country, Wexford County Council is starved of funding for the road network. I urge and plead with the Minister of State to give extra, emergency funding to Wexford County Council in the same way as the rainbow Government did in 1994 to repair the potholed roads throughout County Wexford. These are not isolated incidents, this is the case throughout the county. Wexford is a county and constituency with one of the largest rural road networks. It is not good enough for road users to have to pay motor tax while the roads are not kept to an acceptable standard, causing punctured wheels and damage to cars. Over the past two months in County Wexford, there have been accidents involving motorists who were forced to drive on the other side of the road to avoid potholes and then collided with oncoming traffic. As this is a road safety issue, questions arise for the Road Safety Authority to answer. To have safe roads, they must be in an acceptable condition.

The state of the roads in County Wexford is a scandal. I have reported the condition of many roads to the local authority's road engineers and the county manager but the word I get back is that the local authority is starved of funding and cannot afford to carry out remedial works. I hope the Minister's response will outline how these roads will be repaired. People in Wexford do not expect the roads to be repaired overnight; they accept repairs will have to be carried out over a certain time. However, it would be unacceptable to leave roads in County Wexford, and many other counties, in the conditions they are after the recent severe weather any longer.

I am taking this important matter for the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, and thank Deputy Kehoe for raising it.

The Minister for Transport appreciates the work done by the local authorities, the National Roads Authority and, particularly, the local authority front-line staff. He thanks them for the exceptional work which they undertook in sometimes appalling conditions to deal with the impact of the recent severe weather.

As well as the impact the severe weather had on the daily lives of citizens, it also has a serious impact on parts of the road network. Damage to road surfaces is an unfortunate consequence of the type of weather experienced before Christmas. Ireland has a uniquely extensive road network with over 96,000 km of road, two and a half times the EU average. The maintenance and improvement of this extensive network places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. Since 1997, over €6 billion has been provided to local authorities under the regional and local roads investment programme. The first priority, therefore, has to be to safeguard this investment, in so far as this is possible, taking account of the recent weather impacts and the current difficulties with the public finances.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities' resources supplemented by State road grants which are inclusive of the weather-risk factor.

The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the local authority. Some local authorities contribute as little as 5% to their total road expenditure from their own resources. Local authorities need to prioritise increased expenditure from their own resources on their own roads this year in view of the current difficult situation.

The Minister for Transport's role in addressing damage caused to the road network is in disbursing the €374.576 million provided in the 2011 Estimates for funding regional and local roads in the most equitable and targeted manner possible. It is anticipated the grant allocations which will be announced shortly will reflect an increased focus on repair works and maintenance. It is particularly important local authorities carefully reassess their planned road programmes for 2011 in the light of the impact of the recent bad weather on their road networks. Local authorities will also be provided with flexibility in terms of re-evaluating their three-year restoration programmes.

The Minister for Transport has responsibility for the overall policy and funding for the national roads programme element of Transport 21. The construction, improvement and maintenance of individual national roads are matters for the NRA under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2007 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Water Services

What funding will the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government provide to upgrade the water services infrastructure in the Cork area? The severe weather experienced during the past two winters highlighted the poor state of the water infrastructure across the State. Cork city experienced several particularly difficult weeks with its water supplies in December 2009 and December 2010. Following flooding of the Lee Road waterworks in November 2009, most of the city's north side and parts of the south side were without water supplies for a considerable period. While the local authority stepped up to the mark in providing alternative supplies, it was an emergency situation which highlighted several problems with the water supply infrastructure that need to be rectified.

A commitment must be made to the Lee Road waterworks improvement scheme to upgrade the waterworks and ensure the quality of its water supply is fully compliant with the EU drinking water directive and meets environmental requirements. Cork City Council has prepared a response to questions from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on this scheme and a report is already on the Minister's desk.

A connection between the city and county supplies is needed. When the supplies were cut off, it was discovered there was no interconnector between the two supplies even though they were just a short distance apart. Such a set-up is ridiculous in this day and age. A commitment to funding the building of such an interconnector needs to be made.

A site for a new storage reservoir has been identified. In the past several weeks we saw how the existing reservoir system does not have sufficient capacity. The water mains network is also in very poor repair with many leaking old pipes, exacerbated by the severe weather, losing up to 60% of supply. The old cast iron pipes also tend to discolour the water.

The infrastructure needed to upgrade the system was identified as far back as 1999, when I was first elected to Cork City Council, but nothing has been done yet. The Minister has made a commitment to the upgrade in the past year. When will it begin and how will it be achieved? If water metering is introduced and if people are charged in respect of the water they use, there will be riots unless proper water conservation measures are put in place. People will not be prepared to pay for water that is leaking away into the ground. Will the Minister of State indicate the level of progress that has been achieved in respect of the various projects in the Cork region which have been identified by the local authority as necessary in order to facilitate the provision of clean drinking or potable water there?

I thank Deputy Clune for the opportunity to outline the position in respect of the upgrading of water services infrastructure in the Cork area. An extensive range of water services projects is, with Exchequer funding support, being progressed in Cork county and city at present. Since entering Government, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has made water infrastructure a priority, and, as a result, he has ensured record investment in this area. Investment in water services infrastructure has averaged in the region of €500 million per year. A high level of investment has been maintained in 2011. In the case of Cork county and city, the Department spent almost €89 million on water services infrastructure in the period 2007 to 2009.

The water services investment programme 2010 to 2012 sets out the plans for investment in major water and wastewater projects. These plans were drawn up following a root and branch review of water services capital investment. This included a review of all projects which were contemplated within the previous programme but which had not advanced to a substantial degree in order to ensure that the contracts and schemes to proceed would be fully aligned with key programme economic and environmental priorities.

A key input to this review was an assessment of needs conducted by local authorities, which identified priority projects for advancement in line with the overall programme objectives set out by the Department. The resulting programme provides for investment of more than €231 million in Cork county and in excess of €40 million in Cork city on water and wastewater contracts where construction is either under way or due to commence in the period of the programme. The programme also includes some 37 schemes in the Cork area, the planning of which is still to be advanced. The contracts identified for commencement in the period include mains rehabilitation contracts to the value of some €12 million in the case of Cork city and €23 million in the case of Cork county. This reflects the particular priority accorded to the advancement of mains rehabilitation works under the programme.

During the course of 2010, the Minister gave approval for the advancement of a number of contracts in the Cork County Council area. This included the allocation of funding to allow for the acceptance of tenders for contracts in respect of the upgrade of the water supply infrastructure in Mallow and Ballyvinter and the construction of new wastewater treatment plants at Skibbereen, Baltimore, Schull and Dunmanway. In addition, the Minister allocated over €3 million to Cork County Council in 2010 under the rural water programme. Submissions have been sought from county councils for funding under this programme in 2011 and allocations will be made in the near future. The Department will continue to work with both Cork City Council and Cork County Council in order to advance projects under these programmes as speedily as practicable.

Grant Payments

When I originally submitted this matter for consideration to be raised on the Adjournment, it related to the reason for the delay in the payment of REPs and payments — namely, the payment of the ewe premium of €10 per head to sheep farmers, disadvantaged areas scheme payments and single farm payments — relating to other schemes to farmers in County Kerry. Yet again, Kerry has emerged at the top of the list as the county which has experienced the most delays when it comes to farmers receiving their payments. Unfortunately, farmers in Kerry are suffering because, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, they have not received their payments. I do not know what is the reason for this but perhaps the Minister of State is in a position to shed light on the matter.

I recently quizzed the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in respect of the premium of €10 that was to be paid in respect of each ewe in the country. Press releases were issued by the Minister and his Department to the effect that this premium was to be paid prior to Christmas. However, it has not been paid and to the best of my knowledge — having discussed the matter with the Minister — will not be paid in the near future. I understand there is a problem with Europe in respect of this matter and payment has been delayed. This is despite the fact that the Minister issued press releases heralding the premium's imminent payment.

The most popular reason provided in respect of the non-payment of disadvantaged areas scheme payments to farmers in my area is that there was a need to digitise the maps. Most farmers have discovered that while they may own 50 hectares, when the maps were digitised this no longer proved to be the case and they are now listed as possessing fewer than 50 hectares. I do not know how this happened but it is also the case when it comes to forestry.

In the context of the single farm payment, I am aware of a case where a farm was let to a nephew who is a minor and whose mother is looking after the property. The boy's father is also a farmer and neither has received a payment because only one single farm payment could be issued. This is despite the fact that the family in question has two herd numbers.

What is happening is quite frustrating. I have been obliged to inform farmers in Kerry that it is obvious that the Government and the Department are holding back money and that there will be a big slush fund from which moneys can be disbursed a couple of weeks prior to the general election. That is not much good to farmers who have bills to pay. Having been in business, I am aware that if one promises to pay a creditor on Monday one should do so and one should not delay payment until the following Monday. When farmers are informed that they will be paid on a certain date and then the money does not arrive, matters are thrown into complete confusion. Creameries and suppliers require payment. However, if farmers do not receive their payments, the circle cannot be completed.

In recent times I have received communications from the Department in respect of the representations I make on behalf of constituents to the effect that it will contact these constituents directly. This is a new departure. Perhaps the Department has decided to contact applicants directly in the run-up to the election. In many cases, however, it has not followed through on its promise to contact people. Why is the Department dealing directly with the farmers on whose behalf I am making representations? I am doing my best to represent these individuals but I am being removed from the equation.

It is disappointing that Kerry is top of the list when it comes to delayed payments. I hope that the position in this regard will be rectified as soon as possible.

I have been asked by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, to clarify the position regarding payments to farmers in County Kerry under the rural environment protection scheme, REPS. I thank Deputy Tom Sheahan for raising this matter on the Adjournment.

As the Deputy is no doubt aware, REPS is an agri-environment measure under the rural development programme 2007 to 2013. It is designed to encourage farmers to go beyond basic good farming practice and to farm in a way that benefits the landscape, biodiversity and water quality. Every member state must have an agri-environment measure and REPS is co-funded by the EU at the rate of 55%. The scheme has proven to be very popular with Irish farmers and confirms their commitment to farming to the highest environmental standards. This commitment fits very comfortably with the vision of smart green growth as set out in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's Food Harvest 2020 strategy statement. It is worth noting that, at its height, the scheme included some 60,000 farmers. This represents approximately half the active farmers in the country.

Although the scheme closed to new applicants on 9 July 2009, payments will continue to issue to REPS farmers up to the end of 2015. By then, the total payments made to farmers since the scheme was first introduced in 1994 will have come to over €3 billion. The Government remains committed to supporting farmers who choose to farm to environmentally friendly practices and to ensure these farmers are rewarded for their efforts. Indeed, the Minister, Deputy Smith, has already confirmed his intention of re-opening the successor to REPS, the agri-environment options scheme, in 2011. It will involve a maximum of 10,000 farmers with payment levels capped at €5,000 per farmer.

The Government is pleased there was such interest and uptake in the agri-environment options scheme in 2010, with over 9,000 applicants. This level of application confirms my long-held belief that Irish farmers are more than willing to play their part in protecting our environment. While the scheme has been an undoubted success, it is important to learn from our experience of 2010 by reviewing the operation of the scheme and incorporating, where possible, adjustments in 2011. This process has already commenced and will ensure the continued emphasis on the delivery of public goods by farmers in a way that suits Irish agriculture.

However, the rural environment scheme is subject to stringent EU regulations. These require that detailed administrative checks, including plan checks, be completed on all applications before any payment can issue for the year in question. This year, the work involves checks on approximately 30,000 files. Payments issue in two phases of 75% and 25% respectively, and the second phase can issue only when the field inspections have concluded.

Detailed checks were carried out late last year and in 2010 farmers in REPS 4 received some €170 million in payments. Payments to over 23,500 REPS 3 farmers also continued in 2010, with approximately €154 million also paid under this scheme. One can see from these figures that the Department has made significant payments to REPS farmers in 2010, paying out some €324 million by the year end. Already in 2011, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has paid out some €12 million to REPS farmers.

Of the 2,117 farmers due a REPS 4 payment in Kerry, over half have been paid to date, receiving an amount in excess of €7 million. As well as that, we have made payments of €11.5 million to REPS 3 farmers in Kerry in 2010. The reason some farmers have not yet received their REPS 4 payment is that they have not yet cleared all of the necessary checks. As I mentioned earlier, in order to meet the requirements of EU regulations, applications for REPS payments have to go through an exhaustive series of administrative checks, including a cross-check against the area declared by scheme participants in their single payment scheme application, before payment can be released. In a significant number of cases, those checks raised issues and queries which required further detailed examination. The Department's staff are working to resolve these as quickly as possible. There have been some delays due to re-digitisation of land parcels and these cases are being prioritised.

The Department's objective remains to ensure that all outstanding claims are processed to payment stage as quickly as possible. Payments are being and will continue to be made on an ongoing basis. I am confident there will be no undue delay in issuing further payments to REPS farmers, including those in the Kerry region. I will bring to the Minister's attention the matter raised by Deputy Sheahan regarding the lack of direct response to representations.

Water and Sewerage Schemes

The Fethard and Burncourt water schemes have been on the political agenda since 1979. In the case of Burncourt, substantial funding was approved in 1988 and funding has also been approved for the Fethard scheme. I represent the people of south Tipperary, who are sick, sore and tired of promises from me and other politicians that these schemes are at an advanced stage. Some years ago, the Department, in its wisdom and with the agreement of South Tipperary County Council, decided to bundle both schemes together. They are not big enough at €9 million apiece so they were made into a €18 million scheme. Since then, I have been frustrated, as are most of my fellow politicians in south Tipperary, with the disastrously slow pace of progress on these schemes. Every issue has been thrown at us, including announcements of approvals.

While I do not blame the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, or any Minister, I blame the system. The people are tired of this. There were huge problems with water in my own area of Burncourt and Sceichin A Rince throughout the summer and there was e-coli in the water during the winter which required a "boil water" notice. In the Fethard area, there have been outages, breakages and a lack of service, mainly at weekends. It is beyond a joke at this stage. I cannot understand why the system is so bureaucratic. I have the height of respect for the officials I deal with in South Tipperary County Council and the officials I have dealt with in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. However, consultants reports go to the Department and the council and then, six months later, there is another report or an independent appraisal — it is all about pushing paper and keeping people in jobs and positions. To be fair, those officials do their job but, nonetheless, local people are sick and tired of this.

There are two sources of very good water which have supplied the area since the 1880s but we now have these grandiose schemes which have been designed and redesigned. I am told by an official of South Tipperary County Council, Mr. Aidan Finn, that the schemes will hopefully go to tender in the second quarter or perhaps the end of the first quarter of 2011. Frankly, to be fair to Mr. Finn, I do not believe this because some other consultant will decide another report is needed regarding extraction orders of the lack of them, or how much water will be taken.

It is the people's water. The water comes from underground springs and rainfall and it belongs to the people — it is from God, if one likes. I want to know why we need extraction orders when we never had them in the past. The laws are antiquated where they are in place at all. They are being put in place to circumvent progress. We must have progress because I cannot have credibility in going back to the doors of local people, nor can my colleagues, while we wait for this work to start, never mind be completed.

There are charges for business people on the basis of "water in, water out" and charges are now being suggested for private domestic use. I believe we cannot have treated water without there being some charge as it costs a lot of money. However, we should cut out the red tape, cut out the bunkum, cut to the chase and get these schemes designed. Consultants have been recruited and appointed and they have published reports but nothing has yet been approved. It is beyond a joke. The Fethard and Burncourt schemes serve huge areas — at least a third, if not more, of south Tipperary. The public deserves a decent service and deserves treated water on tap. If we have to consider payment for it, that is fine, and I accept there will have to be a charge. Nonetheless, we cannot ask people to pay any charge towards water that is literally putrid.

I compliment the maintenance staff, supervisors and caretakers, who do a good job with the system they have, but that system is antiquated and outdated. Given it is 2011, it is time, from the point of view of staff, officials and the public, that we have a proper, decent water supply. I do not want any more reports stating that the schemes have gone to tender but that the tender is too expensive and must be reconsidered, with all kinds of conditionalities imposed by officials. New terminology is used every day, which is not acceptable. We need to cut to the chase and get the works under way.

We will get good value at this time. Contractors are available and the work can be done for at least one third less than it would have cost two or three years ago. There are many competent contractors and their workers who could submit a final design and carry out the building work. Public private partnerships could be operated in respect of some of the new schemes. Contractors are ready and willing to do the work. Without disrespect to any particular official, we must take this out of the hands of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government because it has frustrated and delayed these projects.

We are beyond the point of no return. The work must be done now. Water is a natural resource at both locations, abstraction order or not. We must get on with building the treatment plants and installing decent water mains that will hold the water without any leakages. That can be done while ensuring value for money for taxpayers.

I thank Deputy McGrath for the opportunity to clarify the position in regard to the Burncourt and Fethard regional water supply scheme water treatment plants. The contract for the scheme is included in my Department's Water Services Investment Programme 2010-2012 as a contract to commence during the period of the programme. Further network elements of the scheme are also included to advance through planning in the lifetime of the programme. The proposed Burncourt and Fethard scheme is intended to boost the water supply in the south east and west of the county and resolve the water quality issues with the present supply.

My Department approved South Tipperary County Council's design proposals for the scheme in December 2008 and the council is proceeding with the detailed planning of the scheme. As part of this process the council required a new abstraction order which has now been obtained. I understand the site investigation process is ongoing and that the council proposes to commence the tender process for the contract for the water treatment plants in mid-2011. It is expected that this contract could be completed in early 2013, subject to obtaining the necessary departmental approvals as the process advances.

At a national level the continued high levels of funding in recent years for the water services investment programme and rural water programme demonstrate the Government's ongoing commitment to the sector. Investment in the period 2000-09 has seen an increase in water treatment capacity equivalent to the needs of a population of 1.1 million and an increase in storage capacity equivalent to 1.6 million.

My Department's Water Services Investment Programme 2010-2012, a copy of which is available in the Oireachtas Library, sets out the plans for investment in major water supply projects. In the case of water supply infrastructure the programme includes provision for increased treatment and storage capacity, where appropriate, in order to meet key environmental and economic objectives over that period. Including water conservation works, the programme's water supply component comprises more than 180 contracts to be progressed to construction over the period 2010-12, with a value of over €800 million, and some 100 schemes on which planning work will continue.

A comprehensive range of new water services infrastructure has been approved for South Tipperary County Council — the total value of contracts under way and those proposed for commencement in south Tipperary during the period of the programme is just over €41 million. It is desirable that the Burncourt and Fethard scheme should commence construction and be completed as quickly as possible. My Department is doing everything it can to ensure this happens.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 20 January 2011.