Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 15 May 2014

Vol. 841 No. 3

Topical Issue Debate

National Spatial Strategy

I thank the Minister of State for remaining in the House for this matter which will be of interest to her in her job in housing. I raise the matter because I am increasingly alarmed that we are launching into a period of construction with construction strategies, housing programmes and stimulus packages, and today there was an announcement of a strategic investment fund of nearly €7 billion, but that it is all happening in the absence of an overarching spatial strategy. We had a national spatial strategy from 2002, but it has largely been abandoned. The only one paying any attention to it now is An Bord Pleanála.

The national spatial strategy failed, not only because it was largely ignored by the previous Government and by the local authorities around the country, but also because it was fundamentally flawed. It tried to do too much. It promoted a scatter-gun approach. There were nine gateways and nine hubs. Effectively, one was talking about 18 growth areas around the country but the reality is we do not have the requisite population. Despite that fact there is a rapidly growing population, we will not have the kind of critical mass necessary in 18 different centres to bring about sustainable economic and social entities around the country.

The drift to capital cities is everywhere, but the drift to Dublin has been going on for centuries and seems inexorable. It is not desirable for Dublin and it is not desirable for the rest of the country and the only way to counteract it is to identify a limited number of cities and towns around the country that we can provide with the kind of facilities that will hold the young populations.

I saw a piece on the news during the week about a town - it probably is just as well I cannot remember which one - that was in danger of losing its post office. One of the residents was interviewed and stated that virtually everybody in the town is a pensioner. No post office will save that town. No advance factory will save it and no number of houses will save it. All that will save it is if it comes within the orbit of a strong growth centre that has all of the facilities that will keep young people in such towns. We need to identify these growth centres and funnel all the possible infrastructure we can into them. If they are to hold rural populations in their hinterland, those towns must have all of the physical education and social infrastructure that one will find in a city such as Dublin. I refer to the same range of facilities such as universities and hospitals, although perhaps not as big.

Otherwise it will not be an alternative attraction to Dublin for young people. The Government talks about the need for more houses, stimulus packages and construction strategies. We recognise that more is good, but where jobs and houses go is at least as important. I am not sure there is an acceptance, either politically or publicly, that we simply cannot spread housing, hospitals, post offices, jobs and Garda stations into every town and village in Ireland. If we try to do so, we will fail and will destroy rural Ireland as well as destroying Dublin.

During the Celtic years, one in three houses was a one-off rural house. I see no let-up in the historic attachment to that kind of planning. We are trying to stimulate building, both infrastructure and housing, private and public, in the absence of a national strategy. The Minister of State has done a scoping report on a future spatial strategy which is planned. I am raising this due to the seeming acceleration in investment and because we need to bring it forward now. Even if we bring forward the bones of it, we do not need to cross every "t" and dot every "i" at this stage. We do require a plan, however, in order that the State and private investors can take informed spatial planning decisions when making investments.

I thank Deputy Mitchell for raising this matter and I agree with her that it is very important.

The current national spatial strategy, NSS, was published in 2002 and was Ireland's first national strategic spatial planning framework. In essence, it introduced the concept of spatial development to the public policy agenda and set an overarching framework for the planned spatial development of the country. In this regard, it aimed to provide the spatial vision and principles to achieve a better balance of social, economic and physical development and population growth between regions through the co-ordinated development of the gateway cities and towns and hub towns together with complementary policies to activate the potential for lasting economic development in their hinterlands and wider regions. The NSS has since served as a strategic context for spatial planning in Ireland by regional authorities in their regional planning guidelines role, for planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála in their statutory planning functions, and by influencing investment priorities, particularly in transport, housing, water services, communications, energy, health and education infrastructure.

The current NSS was drawn up at a time of unprecedented economic growth and transformation in terms of economic output, population growth and their various interactions in generating demand for travel and other necessary infrastructure. The economic circumstances now facing the country are significantly different from those in which the first NSS was drawn up. The economic outlook from now to the end of this decade sees Ireland attempting to move from fragile recovery to sustained renewal, as it addresses the challenges of achieving sustainable long-term economic stability and growth. In this changed context, it is timely to consider the development of a new successor NSS to provide a spatial framework complementing wider efforts to support sustainable long-term national economic recovery.

Against this background, and while the existing NSS remains in place, I and my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, established in August 2013 a successor national spatial strategy scoping group comprising three experts with extensive experience of spatial planning and economic and social development, to prepare a short scoping report on the development of a new national planning framework to replace the current NSS. I received the experts' scoping report earlier this year and I intend to bring proposals to Government shortly on the roadmap to develop a new national planning framework. It would be my objective that this new national planning framework will be finalised and in place by the end of 2015.

I take Deputy Mitchell's point that we need to engage in a national conversation about this. We intend to have public consultations with various bodies and individuals. We will seek to have a balanced development in the country, as well as examining the strengths of various regions and population centres to build on those strengths. The scoping document has been received and we will shortly bring proposals to Government. We will then go out to public consultation. I hope there will be a genuine national debate on this matter because it is about what kind of country we are going to create. Spatial planning is very important in that regard.

I am pleased to think we will have a full strategy by 2015. In the meantime, investment decisions are being made so perhaps it will be possible to publish the broad outlines at the beginning of next year. That would be very welcome.

It is hard to believe, but we have the fastest growing population in Europe and it will continue to be the fastest growing until 2060. The population was forecast to reach 4.5 million by 2020 but we had already exceeded that by 2011. We are well on our way to 5 million and by 2060 it will apparently be over 6.5 million. It is a good thing to have a growing population because it offers the potential to obtain the kind of critical mass necessary for sustainability in a number of growth centres, rather than having fragmented development as in the past. We can get it fundamentally right or wrong, so it is important to grasp this window of opportunity as investment growth continues. It would be an absolute travesty if we made the same mistakes as in the Celtic tiger years when we were putting 500 houses into villages that had 50 houses. We somehow expected that it would be sustainable, but that played no small part in the economic collapse. We do not want to go down that road again.

I absolutely agree with Deputy Mitchell. We have a lot of data now, including information on likely population growth as well as the need for schools, transport and other infrastructure. We must ensure the hierarchy of planning, from the NSS downwards, will all fit into what is actually required. We have started work on reducing zoning for housing in areas where there is clearly not a demand for it. That is the kind of planning we require. We need to get the top of the pyramid right, which is the national spatial strategy, and ensure everything down the line fits into that. Whether decisions are made by local or national government, they must be made within the parameters of population growth and with the potential of various regions. I would like to have a debate on it in the House when we reach the next stage in the process.

Water and Sewerage Schemes Provision

I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for selecting this matter which is of importance to the people of Kildare town as well as many residents in the mid-Kildare area. Having listened to Deputy Mitchell, I was struck by the correlation that exists between this matter and the planning issue she raised. Together with Monasterevin, Kildare town was identified as a secondary growth centre in the last regional planning guidelines. The reality for local residents, however, was that we had no growth at all. Thankfully, we have no derelict sites or boarded-up houses.

We got no new houses during the Celtic tiger period, however, because our sewerage system was inadequate. It took considerable effort by politicians, including myself, and the local community to convince the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government that such a sewage treatment system should be provided. It was provided, however, and something in the order of €18 million was spent on a sewage treatment plant. We now have a state-of-the-art plant but we need a network of pipes to deliver the effluent to the treatment plant. Effectively, one will not work without the other.

The treatment plant has been built and the network was at tender stage prior to the establishment of Irish Water. In fact, I believe a tender had been accepted and approved and that a preferred contractor had been identified. Therefore, I read with great interest this week about Irish Water's proposed capital investment plan. I went through it and found the Kildare sewerage scheme network with the comment "Continued planning and business case review".

The project is essential for the development of this area, which young people in need of housing are forced to leave because this network of pipes has not been put in place.

Much controversy surrounded the establishment of Irish Water. It is seen as a super quango, has cost an inordinate amount to establish and has spent an inordinate amount of public money on consultancies. In the first test of how it will perform we find that it will spend no more than the Department and local authorities were spending on capital projects in recent years. One of the most significant capital projects in the pipeline, for which a tender was approved, must go back for further planning and a case review.

I ask the Minister to intervene and have common sense prevail. Having spent €18 million of public money on a treatment plan, it makes no sense to abandon the commitment to provide the pipes to get the effluent to the plant in order that it can work.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan. The Department has no responsibility for, or role in, the delivery of water services infrastructure or in the management, maintenance or operation of that infrastructure. This is a matter in the first instance for Irish Water, the water services authority which is responsible under statute, for the provision, operation, maintenance and management of water infrastructure, under the general supervision of the Environmental Protection Agency. Local authorities continue to provide some elements of waste water services on behalf of Irish Water through service level agreements that have been put in place between Irish Water and the local authorities.

From 1 January 2014 Irish Water has responsibility for the delivery of water services capital infrastructure. On Tuesday last, 13 May, Irish Water published its proposed capital investment plan for 2014 to 2016, outlining the indicative investment priorities in water and waste water services infrastructure over the next three years. The capital investment plan consists of a targeted programme of more than 386 individual projects, as well as a range of sub-programmes, for delivery over the next three years. On publication of the plan, Irish Water indicated that its priorities for delivery under the plan include elimination of boil water notices in Roscommon; providing more water and, in particular, reducing disruption to supply in the Dublin area; improving water quality; investing for economic development; tackling leakage; increasing waste water treatment capacity and improving environmental compliance; improving existing plants; and better control and monitoring of infrastructure and service provision.

Irish Water has confirmed that the Kildare Town waste water network is one of the projects listed in the capital investment plan and that it plans to proceed with its construction. It has indicated that the project will be advanced subject to full planning - the Deputy might clarify whether or not that has been achieved - and environmental assessment of the project, having regard to all regulatory requirements and specific legal obligations. The capital investment plan is available to download from the Irish Water website, www.water.ie. The Deputy is probably aware that there is an Oireachtas Members' e-mail address, oireachtasmembers@water.ie, and a dedicated telephone number.

I am grateful to the Minister of State, although she has come here to do the Pontius Pilate for the Minister, Deputy Hogan.

I gave the information the Minister provided.

I can read as well as she. We have already read that the project will be subject to further planning and a business case review. All the planning was done before the €18 million was spent on the treatment plan, before tenders were invited for the network and before the Department accepted the tender of the preferred contractor. Irish Water appears to want to re-evaluate the whole process. Clearly it is merely a time-wasting exercise and a means of avoiding spending in an area where there has been no significant development in recent times. Were this area akin to the areas to which Deputy Olivia Mitchell referred, where there was outrageous development of 400 to 500 houses in small villages that could not be sustained, it would be one thing. However this is in a town with a population over 8,000 where local people are being forced to go elsewhere to access housing, which we cannot build because we do not have the basic, essential services to which we are entitled and which the Department had approved before this super quango, Irish Water, came into existence.

I will convey the Deputy's strong views to the Minister, Deputy Hogan. I also suggest the Deputy directly contact Irish Water regarding this particular proposal. I am not clear on whether it has full planning permission and the environmental impact assessment and has satisfied all the legal obligations. If it has, there seems to be no reason why it cannot proceed.

Teacher Recruitment

I thank the Minister for taking this Topical Issues matter. Last year I was contacted by a school in my constituency in the Gaeltacht of An Rinn, Scoil Náisiúnta na Rinne. The principal, Aodh Mac Craith, outlined to me that he had difficulty filling a vacancy in the school. Given that permanent teaching jobs in good schools are hard to come by and the numbers on the teaching panel, one would think there would be no difficulty in filling the position, especially in a place as lovely as County Waterford. The principal told me teachers were contacting him saying they were afraid of getting the job because their Irish was not good enough to teach in a Gaeltacht school.

It is nonsense to expect teachers who are not comfortable teaching entirely through Irish to be engaged in such circumstances, particularly to children who were born into families where Irish is their first language in Gaeltacht communities. Scoil Náisiúnta na Rinne teaches such children, many of whom are more comfortable speaking Irish than English. The principal said he had received at least 16 e-mails from worried teachers. These candidates said they would love the job but did not have the level of Irish required. This was a major dilemma for the school and for those on the panel who feared they would lose their teaching rights if they refused a job which they felt unable to do. It was a catch-22 for everybody.

The school principal brought the case to local politicians and on to the Department of Education and Skills. When it was first highlighted with me there was not even a box that candidates could tick on their panel forms to indicate whether or not they could speak Irish. Through interventions from the school in Rinn and others such a box has been added, however there is no provision for candidates to indicate whether they are sásta to carry out their duties in Irish. Being willing to teach in Irish does not always mean a person would be good at it. The Gaelscoileanna, like all schools, deserve the best teachers who can teach to the best of their abilities. Would the Minister be happy for an English-speaking school to endure teachers whose first language was not English and who were not proficient in it?

We have a duty to ensure, particularly in Gaeltacht areas, that children have teachers who have the ability to teach in the language of the school and are comfortable doing so.

The case of Scoil Náisiúnta na Rinne was brought to An Coimisinéir Teanga last year and he agreed with its case and even highlighted it in his retirement speech last year, stating it was a classic example of the language being undermined. Yesterday, there was a similar example with a Gaelscoil in Sligo, which had to turn away an entire class of 30 pupils because of a teacher issue. This is not fair to schools or teachers and it does not show respect to our Irish language. The panel must make allowances for teachers with the best Irish and not just those who are willing to teach in Irish.

I thank Deputy Conway for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the position of the redeployment process. At the outset I should clarify that teacher qualifications, including those relating to Irish, are designed to equip teachers to teach in all publicly funded schools. The criteria used for the allocation of teachers to primary schools, including redeployment arrangements, are published annually. The staffing and redeployment arrangements for the 2014 and 2015 school year are available on the Department website.

Teaching vacancies are filled in the first instance through the redeployment of surplus permanent teachers. Thereafter, schools are required under the panel arrangements to fill permanent vacancies from supplementary panels comprised of eligible fixed-term temporary or substitute and part-time teachers. Redeployment panels are drawn up on a diocesan basis for Catholic panels, diocesan and united diocesan basis for Church of Ireland panels and on a national basis for other patron bodies. The Department reviews the redeployment process with the education partners each year to ensure the process is operating effectively. One of the outcomes of the review of the 2013 redeployment arrangements was that the redeployment process for the 2014 to 2015 school year would, on a pilot basis, give an opportunity to teachers being placed on main panels and supplementary panels to indicate if they were particularly interested in being redeployed to a school that operates through the medium of Irish. This pilot approach will be reviewed in the autumn of 2014. The purpose of this is to assist the school-led redeployment process for schools that operate through the medium of Irish.

When the redeployment panels are published, a period is given for schools with vacancies to fill their teaching posts from the list of teachers on the relevant panel. During this period there are informal and formal contacts between schools and teachers on the panels. This pilot scheme will make it easier for Gaelscoileanna and schools in the Gaeltacht to identify and contact those teachers who are particularly interested in being redeployed to a school that operates through the medium of Irish. The redeployment arrangements include provision for a panel officer to be appointed in the event that all the teachers on a panel have not been redeployed during the school-led redeployment process. The redeployment of all surplus teachers is key to the Department's ability to manage within its payroll budget and employment control framework on teacher numbers. Given our budgetary position, we need to have sufficient flexibility in the redeployment arrangements to ensure surplus teachers in all schools, regardless of patronage type, can be readily redeployed to vacancies wherever they exist.

The panel officer process commences with the school of the same patronage that is located nearest the school with the surplus teacher. The panel officer engages with the panel operator and with the school in his or her decision-making process. As part of this process the school is given an opportunity to provide any relevant information to the panel officer. This will now include information on whether a teacher on the panel has ticked the box expressing a particular interest in being redeployed to a school that operates through the medium of Irish. The panel officer, having considered the matter, will determine if the surplus teacher should be redeployed to the nearest school. The panel officer has discretion on this matter so as to facilitate, as best as possible, an appropriate match of a surplus teacher to a school. If the panel officer determines there are valid reasons for not redeploying the teacher to the nearest school, the above process commences with the next nearest school etc. until the panel officer has identified the school for the redeployment of the teacher.

It is important to note that the panel redeployment arrangements apply in the same manner for all schools, including those that operate through the medium of Irish. Specifically, all teachers on a redeployment panel may receive offers of appointment from Irish medium schools, irrespective of whether they have ticked the box to indicate a particular interest in same.

I thank the Minister, although I am a little unclear about his answer. He indicated the Department has a pilot scheme in place which will be reviewed in the autumn of 2014 but continued that if the process does not really suit, a teacher may have to be redeployed to a certain area anyway. How has the process worked and is there any indication of it working efficiently? I have just highlighted two cases, including the example at An Rinn outside Dungarvan in Waterford and the Sligo example, where a school could not fill a vacancy.

As our teachers go through the same qualification process, one would hope they could be comfortable in having the ability to teach through Irish. That is not the case. It is important to natives of a Gaeltacht area like An Rinn and An Seanphobal in Waterford that they have the right to be educated through the medium of Irish by people who are proficient, professional and comfortable doing so.

That is the intention and it is the policy of the Department to be able to provide teachers who are comfortable teaching through the medium of Irish, even at a Gaeltacht school with native Irish speakers. The issue arises with regard to cost constraints imposed on us and the employment control framework. If a school loses a teacher because enrolment numbers drop, the teacher would go to a redeployment panel while the salary is guaranteed. The teacher must be redeployed into the classroom to ensure we get value for money and the contract is maintained.

The new process is happening this year for the first time and I suspect last year's experience may have informed this approach. It has been suggested that the process would be reviewed in due course. Rather than having teachers such as those described in the Deputy's opening remarks, who indicate privately to a school principal that although they are on a redeployment panel they would not be up to teaching suitably as Ghaeilge in a Gaeltacht school, we should try to avoid such occurrences by having a box to tick which indicates that a teacher would be comfortable teaching through the medium of Irish.

In theory the requirement is that applicants for initial teacher education must have done honours Irish in the leaving certificate but there are emerging difficulties in that regard. I will listen to people from An Foras Pátrúnachta and others in seeking to address this problem.

The next topic has been raised by Deputy Clare Daly and I understand the relevant Minister is unable to attend. Has an alternative date been agreed?

Yes, we have agreed that on Wednesday, 28 May the Minister will be available for the debate.

It will be the first issue in the slot.