Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

RTÉ Revenue

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

38. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his views on whether public service broadcasting should and will include a dedicated station for culture; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42163/19]

Following the previous question on the financial crisis in RTÉ, my question is specifically about whether, in continuing to support public service broadcasting - as I believe we should - we recognise that public service broadcasting is not just news and sport, it is also about culture, music, etc. I ask this because in a recent edition of "Prime Time", an alarming suggestion was made that Lyric FM might be a victim of RTÉ's financial crisis. It would be an act of cultural vandalism if this were to prove the case.

I thank the Deputy for the question. Public service broadcasting is provided for in Part 7 of the Broadcasting Act 2009. The Act sets out the remit, obligations and principal objects of the public service broadcasting corporations, RTÉ and TG4, and their statutory obligations. As set out in sections 114 and 118 of the Act, both public service broadcasters are statutorily required to provide a comprehensive range of programmes that reflect the cultural diversity of the whole island of Ireland. As such, Irish culture is reflected across the full range of public service broadcasting channels and is not limited to a single service or station. The role of public service broadcasting is to provide a range of programming that entertains, informs and educates, provides coverage of sporting, religious and cultural activities and caters for the expectations of the community in general, as well as members of communities with special or minority interests. TG4 has a particular obligation to reflect the cultural diversity of the whole island of Ireland through the Irish language. This content is also made available to Irish communities outside of Ireland. Section 98 provides that RTÉ and TG4 shall be independent in the pursuit of these objectives. As such, the Minister has no function in RTÉ's or TG4’s management of their day-to-day affairs or editorial decisions about programming. However, under section 103 of the Act, where a public service broadcasting corporation wishes to increase or vary the number of television or sound broadcasting channels it operates, it requires the consent of the Minister. No such request is to hand at present.

The particular suggestion here is that Lyric FM might be cut as a result of the financial difficulties of RTÉ. The Minister has a role in that because, as the Minister of State said, public service broadcasting is about maintaining the diversity of Irish cultural experience. Lyric FM, which only accounts for a tiny 2% of RTÉ's budget, is the channel that has opened up a large, new audience to classical, experimental, world, jazz, blues and other music, including opera, as well as output from the National Concert Hall and so on. Young people and many sections of society would never get a chance to listen to these types of music otherwise. Lyric FM makes a significant contribution to developing music and culture in this country. It would be unacceptable and it would be a dereliction of the responsibility of public service broadcasting to allow Lyric FM to become the victim of the financial difficulties of RTÉ. The Minister and the Government should intervene to make sure that does not happen so that public service broadcasting discharges its cultural responsibility.

I agree with the Deputy. I often listen to Lyric FM on my way to Galway from Dublin, especially at nighttime, and it is a great channel. I repeat that where any change is proposed in the amount of content, the Minister must consent. The Act sets out that in such circumstances the Department must carry out a stakeholder consultation, followed by a sectorial impact analysis by the BAI. A formal business case setting out the rationale for change is also required. Any request made in the future will have to be evaluated to explore its impacts and what the alternatives might be within the Act. As I stated, we have not received a proposal from RTÉ to vary any of its services. The Minister has powers under the Act to consider any such proposal if one is made.

I am glad to hear that response and that the Minister of State is a fan of Lyric FM. He should keep an eye on this matter. It was mentioned on a "Prime Time" programme about the financial difficulties in RTÉ. As I said, it would be completely unacceptable for this to happen. Lyric FM is a Limerick-based station. It has a good relationship with the department of music, arts and culture in the University of Limerick and employs people in the city. The station has a major cultural impact across the country.

There are questions about the funding of public service broadcasting. We should be looking at imposing some taxes on the profits of companies such as Netflix, Now TV and Sky which are making a hell of a lot of money here. Why not tax their profits to invest in public service broadcasting and cultural output generally? It is worth noting that our levels of investment in arts and culture is pathetically low by European standards. Cutting Lyric FM would be unacceptable. The Minister of State must keep a close eye on this in case Lyric FM becomes a victim of these circumstances when we need more cultural output and not less.

Deputy Dooley wishes to contribute on the same issue.

I add my voice to that of Deputy Boyd Barrett. While I addressed the overall issue of funding in my question, I too am hugely supportive of the work of Lyric FM. The kinds of proposals coming from RTÉ, which we hope to challenge in the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment when its representatives come before us, for example, dismantling some of the broadcaster's arts and culture services, would be an appalling vista. Lyric FM provides a fantastic service which has to be maintained. It is relatively cheap in overall terms.

On the idea of RTÉ selling off its crown jewels, I note it is selling some of its artwork, some of which could end up outside the State and lost to the State forever. It includes some fine pieces of work that have been put together over time. RTÉ is also talking about selling land in Cork and selling more land in Donnybrook. At some point, that carry-on has to stop. We either believe in public service journalism or we do not. If not, that is fine. Let us be beholden to Sky and the private sector and move on. However, if we believe in it, we should put together a proper plan that supports RTÉ as well as public service journalism in the print media and independent radio sectors.

The music on Lyric FM is soothing to many politicians, including the Minister of State.

We all know RTÉ has stated publicly it faces significant financial challenges and must maintain an emphasis on value for money across its services and technologies. As a result, it has initiated a review of all services with a view to restructuring. It has engaged with PricewaterhouseCoopers to validate strategy and financial modelling and it has also met the BAI. I repeat that no proposal has come to the Minister to vary anything. Until such time, the Broadcasting Act 2009 sets out specific objects RTÉ is obliged to meet and any variation in service is subject to the consent of the Minister under section 103 of the Act.

Broadband Service Provision

Pat the Cope Gallagher

Ceist:

39. Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his plans for households that are in near proximity to Eir fibre to the home or FTTH but still cannot avail of fibre at present; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that a number of households are in close proximity to FTTH but were not included in the original 300,000 commercial roll-out of fibre; if the possibility of having these numerous households connected to broadband will be investigated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42156/19]

What plans does the Minister have, or what he can do, to ensure broadband services are provided to businesses and homes that are within very close proximity of the service being provided by Eir?

I thank the Deputy for the question. I am one of the people who looks down the road at what my neighbours have because I cannot get a broadband service. I presume the premises the Deputy is referring to are in proximity to Eir’s deployment of high-speed broadband but are not of part of Eir's commercial roll-out to 300,000 predominantly rural premises in the commitment agreement signed with the Department in April. I understand the frustration of householders who cannot avail of a high-speed broadband service at present, while their close neighbours may have access to such a service.

Eir's investment in its high-speed broadband rural network is to be welcomed. It is a commercial investment, based on a commercial decision by the company and is not part of the State intervention under the national broadband plan. Although the deployment is monitored by my Department under the terms of the commitment agreement, it is not funded by the State and is not designed or directed by my Department in any capacity. The Department has no statutory role or function in such commercial decisions and cannot direct operators regarding infrastructure installation or delivery of services. I am acutely aware of the frustration for householders and businesses that do not have access to a high-speed broadband service and I assure the Deputy the Department is giving the highest priority to the finalisation of the national broadband plan contract. There are premises, such as those to which the Deputy refers, which may be close to but not part of the Eir roll-out. These will all be picked up by the national broadband plan.

A consultation on the high-speed broadband map has recently been concluded. This afforded any commercial company the opportunity to commit to deliver high-speed broadband services to premises within the intervention area to the standard set out in the national broadband plan process. Since the Government decision in May to appoint National Broadband Ireland as the preferred bidder for the national broadband plan contract, work has continued on the due diligence necessary to conclude the contract. This process is progressing towards contract award, which is expected before the end of this year. Deployment of this vital network will commence shortly after that.

I am disappointed by the response. It gives no comfort to the many thousands of people within close proximity, or within metres, of the services. This goes back to whoever took out a compass and drew a circle around rural areas, meaning that if a person was inside the circle, he or she was included, and if that person was not, he or she was not. It makes no sense.

While the Minister of State cannot direct operators, I would at least expect him to say he will request Eir to consider areas similar to those I outlined and those with which he is very familiar. I could cite many cases. One hotel is within 100 m of one side, because it is linked to one exchange, and within 100 m on the other. That is not sensible. The Minister of State, who understands this matter better than others because he comes from a rural area, has a responsibility to contact Eir and ask it whether it can do something about this. The operators are even prepared to make a contribution. What is happening makes no sense at all. All we want is pragmatism and a statement that the national broadband plan will pick up the slack. As the Minister of State said, the contract will not be signed until the end of the year, so action will be years down the road. When the work begins, the operators should start in the peripheral parts of the country and work inwards, rather than starting in the centre and working out.

All the providers have an opportunity to connect the affected houses, but they have not taken it up. This points to the necessity to put in place the broadband plan. Some 25% of the population does not have broadband. If a provider deems it commercial to connect a house if it is not in the relevant area, that is fine, but if it does not do so, the national broadband plan has to connect it. I agree with the Deputy that we need to get on with it, but we must ensure that when we sign the contract, we can hit the road running.

On the rolling out of the services after the contract is signed, all 31 local authority areas will be subject to action at the one time. Therefore, it is not a case of starting in one corner and working towards the other. Deployment will occur in every local authority area.

If the Deputy encounters an issue in a peripheral area, he should contact the broadband officer in the county. That officer could determine the private operators that might be able to provide a service in the area.

It is not true to say it is confined to 300,000. That figure was increased substantially. If it could be done then, why can it not be done now? The Minister of State is from rural Ireland. I ask him to consult Eir at least to determine what it would cost to deal with the blackspots, which could be linked up quite easily? Those who want to avail themselves of the service, for business purposes and others, could make a contribution. What is happening does not make sense. If the private sector operated in the way the Government is now operating, it would not survive. There are opportunities. The Minister of State should at least take it upon himself to speak to representatives of Eir. I have done so and believe they are anxious to assist, but they would have to get the political direction from the Department and Minister. I hope the briefing the Minister of State is getting from the Minister will be helpful. I acknowledge that while the Minister is from Dublin, he understands rural Ireland. Now is the time to take action. It will not happen unless the Minister of State or Minister takes the initiative.

To clarify, there is an opportunity for Eir or any other private operator to apply to provide a service in any part of this country. If operators did so, that would be fine, but they are not. They have made applications, but they also have to provide a service that is of a high speed and of a speed that will remain high, going up to 100 Mbps for the next 35 years. Eir is in the private sector. We sold Eircom a long time ago, so we cannot dictate to the company. The closing date for submissions is 30 September. The submission, which we invited it to make, is being assessed right now. If the Deputy is saying Eir says it needs political influence, he should note it is a private company and has to make its own decisions. It is so important to get the national broadband plan going because the private sector has failed to provide broadband of the required quality to 1.1 million people in this country, including those the Deputy and I know about. That is why we need to get on with the national broadband plan.

The Minister of State knows they cannot do that because they will be paying twice.

Tá daoine óga speisialta anseo inniu. Cuirim céad míle fáilte roimh na daoine as Scoil Cluain Catha, Béal Átha na mBuillí, Contae Ros Comáin.

Warmer Homes Scheme

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

40. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if the retrofitting of social housing and houses at risk of energy poverty under the expanded warmer homes scheme will be prioritised; and his plans to ensure that the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, will be in a position to assess applications and co-ordinate delivery in a timely manner. [42298/19]

Budget 2020 will direct €13 million in carbon tax revenue through the warmer homes scheme to retrofit homes for those living in or at risk of energy poverty. A new retrofitting model will upgrade groups of houses, with a programme targeting social houses in the midlands. The Oireachtas joint committee highlighted in March that the requirement for retrofitting is of the order of at least 1.5 million houses, including 130,000 social housing units that are the responsibility of housing authorities. Will the Minister outline the specific steps being taken to ensure the delivery of retrofitting for those in social housing and those at risk of energy poverty in the first instance?

I thank the Deputy for the question. A just transition and protecting the most vulnerable are at the heart of the climate action plan, and measures announced as part of budget 2020 will support those most affected.

The better energy warmer homes scheme provides free energy efficiency upgrades to the homes of those living in or at risk of energy poverty. The scheme is administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, on behalf of my Department. As part of budget 2020, the Government has allocated a total of €52.8 million to the scheme for next year. This represents the largest ever allocation for the warmer homes scheme, more than double the initial allocation for 2019. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, €13 million of this funding is ring-fenced revenue arising from the increase in the carbon tax.

As the Deputy recognised, a further €20 million of the carbon tax revenue is being made available to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to deliver grouped upgrades as promised in the climate action plan. Targeted at the midlands, the scheme will be built around core work on some of the social housing stock in the region but also designed to allow other homeowners to opt in to the aggregation model, which will streamline services on an area basis. It will also support an estimated 400 jobs directly and indirectly. The specific design of the project will be led by the retrofit task force that was established in recent weeks and that is chaired by my Department. The significantly increased investment represents an important step towards realising the Government's climate action plan targets in the area of building retrofitting while prioritising the most vulnerable householders.

We have been informed that the waiting time from the date of application to the SEAI under the warmer homes scheme to the date of final approval is over one year. We are dealing, therefore, with a process that is already under considerable strain. I ask the Minister to set out how the SEAI will be supported to co-ordinate and deliver a significantly expanded scheme. The Minister must also be aware that vulnerable individuals living in or at risk of fuel poverty may not be in a position to engage in a lengthy application and approval process. Naturally, not all householders may be familiar with the SEAI and its responsibilities. Therefore, it goes without saying that there must be a targeted and tailored process. There will be a challenge to facilitate and support engagement in hard to reach areas. I ask the Minister to address how an expanded scheme will be responded to effectively.

I thank the Deputy for those questions. The most practical way in which we will be assisting the SEAI is by doubling the budget of last year. It is also worth pointing out that there are about 35 community-based organisations that actively promote the scheme. They are embedded in their communities and have very good reach. The Deputy rightly points to the sorts of people who might not be familiar with the advantages of the scheme but, with the double budget, we will obviously be in a position to reach more. The information will be spread as effectively as possible. There are 300 sustainable energy communities today, and they are building steadily.

The second element is, of course, the area-based scheme, which is related to innovation. The idea is to consolidate the delivery of both advice and the work, so there will be much more of a turnkey arrangement and an area-based scheme in which both those in social homes and those who are not could participate.

We hope that the area-based scheme will make it easier for people to engage and be a more efficient way to deliver the work.

When does the Minister expect to have an announcement about a move on the area-based scheme? I would also like to draw his attention to the recent recommendations of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in this area. It has highlighted the importance of retrofitting the social housing stock in the coming years such that resources are available for local authorities to reach a BER of B2 or higher by 2030. It has also noted the need for new community energy advisers who would work in partnership with the SEAI to reach those households. That could benefit most from the energy efficiency schemes. Support for local authorities will be essential in any new initiatives to be introduced to reach the most at-risk households. There needs to be greater engagement with local authorities. A recommendation from the Joint Committee on Climate Action was the establishment of a one-stop shop in each local authority to engage in outreach and to act as a repository for information for local communities.

I think the aggregation model will be the best way. It will be piloted in the midlands next year. The committee is working across Government as we speak. It is a priority for us to design that scheme. The advantages are those that the Deputy recognises himself. If we designate an area, we can identify all the homes in that area that we seek to reach, and we can deliver both the advice and the retrofitting in a more efficient manner to trigger more people's engagement, because they can opt into a scheme that is at their doorstep and with a turnkey opportunity to participate. That aggregated model is the way forward in the long term. It would move away from the individual grants that are currently a feature of the scheme. Since it is built around social homes, the success of that will meet the twin objectives that the Deputy raised of looking to the social housing stock and bringing in many others.

Question No. 41 replied to with Written Answers.

Prospecting Licences

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

42. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the number of applications active in the Connemara electoral areas for either new prospecting licences or for the extension of existing licences; when it is expected a decision will be made on the applications; the areas covered in each licence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42278/19]

There has been great concern in Connemara regarding the proposal to award new prospecting licences and to renew old ones. We need clarity about the process, the date that these decisions will be made on, how far the Minister has gone in evaluating the applications, and the number of applications.

The Department has no applications for new prospecting licences in the Connemara electoral area. In March 2019, Gold Note Minerals requested an extension of three existing prospecting licences that it has held since 21 June 2013. My intention to renew these licences was published in The Connacht Tribune on 26 July 2019 and was open for consultation for 30 days. These licences cover the following townlands in Galway: Breenaun, Carrowgarriff, Claggan, Cornamona, Cur, Derreen, Dooghta, Dooros, Drumsnauv, Farnaght, Glenlusk, Griggins, Kilmeelickin, Lee, Maum West, Moneenmore, Munterowen East, Munterowen Middle, Raigh, Teernakill North, and Teernakill South. Details, including a map of the licence areas, were available for inspection at Clifden and Maum Garda stations, Galway County Council offices, and at the Geological Survey Ireland office in Dublin. The notice was also published on my Department's website. The application remains under consideration by my Department and a decision is expected in the coming weeks.

It baffles me that the Minister of State would even consider issuing mining licences in an area such as the Maam Valley and Cornamona area. It is contiguous with Lough Corrib. Much of the land around, including the full lake, comprises special areas of conservation, SACs. Reading the literature, it is hard to see how mining is compatible with the preservation of the incredibly sensitive ecology of the area. Why is there not a policy similar to ones the Government has for the national parks and for Croagh Patrick, which state that in areas designated as SACs, special protection areas, SPAs, or natural heritage areas, NHAs, no new mining will be allowed in the future? Would that not be a much more honest way of dealing with the issue, not only for mining companies, which would not waste their money searching for minerals that they could never mine, but also for local communities, which have had the burden of these designations and should at least be sure, having lived and preserved the designations in the area, that they would be the beneficiaries of nothing being allowed that would damage these very important ecological areas?

A prospecting licence is for prospecting only and does not give the licenceholder permission to mine. It is the prerogative of mining or prospecting companies to apply for the licences. We have to deal with the applications and a public consultation process is involved in that. A number of submissions were received during the consultation process. There were also a number of representations and queries from local people and politicians, in addition to an online petition that gathered more than 5,000 signatures. The submissions are being reviewed and a decision about whether to renew these licences is under consideration. Many of the issues raised included how prospecting will damage the environment, the threat to tourism, and the threat to farming. These will be considered in the evaluation process. This is being done in an open way and nothing is hidden. These are licences for prospecting only.

The State decided that it would not even look for or bid for prospecting licences in national parks and Croagh Patrick for the very reason that it would never issue a mining licence there anyway. Why does the same principle not apply to areas designated as SACs or SPAs? It would be utterly rational for these areas to be protected and it is not possible that mining would be compatible with the preservation of the status of these areas. On the other hand, and with no disrespect to the Minister of State, it is stupid to say to me that they are only prospecting licences. Why would a company look for a prospecting licence if there was no chance, because of the designations of the areas, that it would ever be granted a mining licence? The presumption is that the companies must believe that they will get a mining licence. These are powerful entities and why otherwise would they bother wasting their money looking for the prospecting licence and then prospecting?

It is the policy of the Department not to issue any prospecting licences in national parks, as published by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. In certain exceptional circumstances, the National Parks and Wildlife Service may agree to the issuing of a prospecting licence for an area that contains part of a national park and that will enhance the knowledge and be of interest to the national park. Exploration activity in close proximity to a special area of conservation or special protection area requires prior permission from the Department. This involves submitting a screening for appropriate assessment report specific to the proposed activities. A stage 1 screening for appropriate assessment will then be carried out, specific to the exact location and conservation objectives of the SAC and SPA. Any proposed drilling or trenching, regardless of its location within the prospective licence area, requires screening for appropriate assessment by the competent authority, the exploration and mining division of the Department.

Drilling submissions are also required to be assessed to determine whether screening under the EIA directive is necessary. There is a good suite of hurdles to be jumped before a prospecting licence is granted.

National Broadband Plan Implementation

Bobby Aylward

Ceist:

43. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the timeline for the commencement of works on the ground under the national broadband plan; the measures contained within same to ensure rapid roll-out of broadband services for rural areas, rural communities and regional towns; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42304/19]

I would like to ask the Minister, as I have on many occasions, the timeline for the commencement of works on the ground under the national broadband plan, and the measures contained within same to ensure rapid roll-out of broadband services for rural areas, rural communities and regional towns.

I thank the Deputy for raising the question. We did have some discussion of this earlier in the session. Essentially, the timeline for the national broadband plan is to complete all processes before the end of the year. As I outlined to Deputy Dooley, as part of that process we have had a new mapping exercise whereby anyone who wanted to provide a service on a commercial basis within the intervention area could put forward proposals. The closing date was extended by five weeks to 30 September and a significant number of applications and submissions were made. They are now being assessed within the Department. At the same time, I am proceeding with due diligence to complete the various elements of contract signing. The final piece will be combining those mapping assessments and submitting for state aid approval. Considerable work has also been done to deliver that. After the contract is signed, a deployment plan will be made available by the bidder immediately. In the first year of roll-out, the bidder will deploy approximately 300 broadband connection points across all counties. It is anticipated that between seven and 23 broadband connection points will be deployed in each county, each of which will provide a community-based high-speed broadband service, enhancing online participation and allowing for the establishment of digital work hubs in these locations. The full roll-out will take seven years to complete, passing 133,000 premises by the end of the second year and with between 70,000 and 100,000 premises passed each year thereafter.

I heard this before, with the timescale set out. I am glad to hear the Minister's response but seven years is a long time. I come from rural Ireland and I am asked daily by constituents when they will get broadband and when it will be rolled out. Businesses depend on broadband. People want to move back from Dublin and other cities into their own rural areas. They could do that if broadband was available. We have a colour coded map and people in areas marked amber are asking when they will have broadband. They need speed. Modern society needs this and we must get something up and running soon. It is hard for me to tell my constituents broadband may be available in certain areas seven years from now. That is too long to wait. We have been talking about rolling out rural broadband for years now and it is time to get it done. We have done a lot of scrutinising but it is still not happening. I take the Minister's assurance that it is going to happen but can it be fast-tracked?

I can understand the Deputy's concern that this has taken considerable time. The truth is that without the intervention we have proposed, the constituents the Deputy represents would never be reached. We know the commercial system would not deliver reliable high-speed, future-proofed broadband to almost a quarter of the country. That is the reason we have this scheme in place. Unlike the Deputy, some people have cast doubt on whether this is an important or necessary investment. I believe it is absolutely important. I cannot envisage any prosperous future for rural Ireland that did not have at its heart access to high-speed broadband. I am fully committed to delivering this as quickly as possible but I think the Deputy will understand that I also have to be careful to conduct due diligence to make sure that every i is dotted and every t is crossed to protect both the State and the future users of the service.

Imagine has said that it can service up to 45% of the national broadband map. The Taoiseach stated last week that Imagine's challenge to the Government's map had caused a delay in respect of the plans relating to broadband. If a national communications company is telling the Minister that it can service half of the map, can we not utilise that to speed up the delivery of services to rural Ireland? We need to start thinking outside the box in order to get this moving. Surely if there are fast-track pathways such as this, they should be explored. Broadband is not a luxury for schools, families, businesses or farmers. It is an absolute necessity. If it is not delivered soon, the benefits may be lost forever as investment will not flow to rural and regional areas. We will never open the boarded up shops, create jobs or sustain enterprise in our regional towns and villages if we do not have an equal platform of broadband service to compete with the larger cities. The current digital divide has completely undermined the economic viability of rural Ireland. SMEs are walking out of rural areas because they do not have reliable broadband services. They are going back to towns and we are at the loss of that. I ask the Minister to look at that as well.

Up to 30 September, any company had an opportunity to apply to extend the area and to commit to delivering high-speed broadband that would be future-proofed. Approximately 30 companies have made submissions which are now being evaluated. As I said to Deputy Dooley earlier, they have to be evaluated against the bar that was set in the broadband plan, which is 30 Mbps. They have to be future-proofed so that the service would not be diluted or diminished by more people coming on board. Another requirement is that companies be in a financial position to deliver the commitments they are making. There are criteria that have to be met by anyone who makes a submission to provide service in the intervention area. Those who have made submissions are being evaluated and that will form part of the completion of this process to evaluate those applications.

Electricity Generation

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

44. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the engagement he has had with the CEOs of Bord na Móna and the ESB on the future of West Offaly and Lough Ree power stations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41798/19]

We are facing an economic catastrophe across the midlands in 53 days when the public service obligation runs out. We need a clear, unambiguous statement from the Government reiterating its support for the co-firing of the two peat-fired power stations in Lanesborough and Shannonbridge with both peat and biomass. The Minister must immediately call in the chief executives of Bord na Móna and the ESB to get absolute clarity on the intention to submit a new planning application for West Offaly power station and to deal with the 3 million tonnes of milled peat that is currently on our bogs.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important question. I have met the chief executives of both companies since the decision of An Bord Pleanála. I am in regular contact with them and their boards with regard to West Offaly power station. I have met public representatives, worker directors of Bord na Móna, the midlands regional transition team and the regional skills forum. I have also met representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Bord na Móna group of unions and the European Commission. All of this is being done with a view to planning the best outcome that we can.

As outlined previously, the ESB is continuing to consider the An Bord Pleanála decision that has been issued. It is no secret that it was a very strong decision in the way it was framed. Nonetheless, it has been Government strategy to have co-firing until 2028. We now must be in a position to plan for contingencies whereby that might not occur. That is the backdrop to the considerable work that has been done since July with the formation of a group within the Taoiseach's office to develop a just transition approach. The work that was announced by my colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in the budget last week includes measures such as the just transition fund, the bog restoration and rehabilitation fund and the new model to group housing upgrades. These measures will be concentrated in the midlands and will support alternative employment, retraining and reskilling of workers and will support local communities and businesses in the midlands to adjust to the low carbon transition. We are continuing to consult and, as I have indicated, I will appoint a just transition commissioner to assist me in the work so that we can liaise with the various bodies at local level to ensure that this work is done in the most effective way possible.

I thank the Minister for his response. I acknowledge the announcement in the budget last week and the work being done on the just transition, which is very welcome. On 26 July, the Taoiseach stated with regard to Bord na Móna workers that there would be no job losses until the end of 2020. I want an answer from the Minister regarding seasonal workers in Bord na Móna. No work will be available for them next year so they need assurances now. The only people who can provide those assurances are the chief executives of the ESB and Bord na Móna. The Minister needs to bring both individuals before him.

On 2 October, the Minister and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, announced that 15,000 ha of cutaway bug will be planted. This is very welcome. Will the Minister confirm that Bord na Móna staff will carry out the planting and that contractors will not be brought in?

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this issue. Notwithstanding the announcement last week on the provision of revenue from the carbon tax to the just transition fund, which will be for the regions, localities and communities affected by the loss of jobs in the area for years, the nub of the issue is that the public service obligation, PSO, payment will expire in the coming weeks. We do not believe a price has been set between the ESB and Bord na Móna in the absence of the PSO. The carbon credits and the costs associated with them have multiplied by four, since the ESB belatedly only hedged funds up to six months in advance. Next year is the last year it can burn peat alone. The Minister stated it is Government policy to co-fuel but it has not insisted on the ESB seeking a judicial review of the decision. I do not believe it is fair, appropriate or right just to state it is still being considered. The day for considering has come to an end and it is time for decisions to be taken and for people to be straight. It is time for the Minister, the Department, the ESB and Bord na Móna to be straight with me as a representative of the companies and the workforce to ensure progress is made and the prospects of those involved are seen to and that they are engaged with on where we go from here.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. I have attempted to be as straight as possible with everyone. I have met all of the bodies involved. I have also been straight on the question of judicial review. It would require a failure of procedure. It is different from considering whether a fresh planning application could succeed. The issue being evaluated by the ESB is whether a fresh application could succeed and not the issue of judicial review.

With regard to Bord na Móna managing the transition, we are looking at accelerated rehabilitation of the bogs owned by Bord na Móna as a way of providing additional work opportunities. As we announced in the budget, we are also looking at additional restoration of bogs that are not owned by Bord na Móna, which would provide work opportunities well-suited to the skills of workers in Bord na Móna. In addition, we will deliver the midlands aggregated scheme for retrofitting. We are seeking to make sure we work with the companies involved, namely, the ESB and Bord na Móna, to ensure that between their efforts at diversification and developing new outlets, and the efforts we are putting in, we will secure a just transition for the workers involved.

I ask for answers to the two questions on surety of work next year for the seasonal workers and on who will carry out the planting of the forestry, as announced in the joint venture between Bord na Móna and the ESB.

My understanding is that Bord na Móna is now borrowing on a day-to-day basis to pay salaries. If this is the case, where will it get money to carry out the rehabilitation that is required on the bogs? Will the State and Government provide financial assistance to it, as the State did in the past to An Post?

Notwithstanding rehabilitation, which, of course, will follow in the event of no excavation taking place beyond next year, is the Minister aware of a post-PSO scenario on the pricing of peat between Bord na Móna and the ESB? Is he aware of the costs associated with carbon credits to be paid for by Bord na Móna? If so, will he give a commitment to the Dáil that after resubmission, if permission is forthcoming, within the formula there will still be the potential to harvest, burn and co-fuel beyond next year and beyond the licence it currently holds? It is incumbent on the Minister to reiterate vocally the commitment that is Government policy, contrary to what An Taisce might say, and that others should follow, rather than the likes of An Taisce leading and the Government following.

I am very conscious that these are independent commercial bodies and I do not direct them to do various things. They have responsibilities to their workers and stakeholders and to financial soundness. Of course, they continue to work with one another to secure a strong commercial relationship. In addition, I recognise that for seasonal workers we need to anticipate accelerated work on the bogs. This is why we are looking to work with Bord na Móna to see how the work will be funded. Accelerated work on the restoration of bogs would provide very useful opportunities.

On the issue the Deputy raised regarding planting trees, I have already brought it to the attention of the companies involved to see whether there are opportunities. I am working with the companies, which face commercial and other constraints. I seek to ensure on all fronts, including working with the European Commission, which has recognised peat as part of the coal transition network, that we can provide the necessary supports to deliver a just transition. I do not underestimate in any way the challenge but I seek to work with all of those involved to try to deliver the best possible outcome.

Question No. 45 replied to with Written Answers.

Better Energy Homes Scheme Eligibility

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

46. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if persons who had works carried out under the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, better energy warmer homes scheme that was deemed incomplete will be eligible to reapply under the scheme to get those works completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42300/19]

Householders at risk of fuel poverty must be prioritised in any grant scheme coming through from the SEAI because they are the most vulnerable. Previous schemes delivered for some householders but unless the contractor providing the scheme offered the full range of services, including dry lining and insulating cavities, houses have part of the work done but it is not complete. Can these householders now come back and have an opportunity to achieve the B2 target set out for everybody else in the better energy homes scheme?

The better energy homes scheme is funded by the Department and administered by the SEAI. The scheme delivers a range of energy efficiency measures free of charge to low-income households vulnerable to energy poverty. In budget 2020, the funding for the warmer homes scheme was increased to €52.8 million for 2020, which represents a record level of funding for the scheme and almost double what was provided in the 2019 Estimates. The aim of the scheme is to deliver a range of energy efficiency measures in a way that represents the best possible use of Exchequer funding. The rules of the scheme stipulate that repeat upgrade visits are not provided. This rule is in place to ensure the available Exchequer funding provides upgrades to as many eligible homes as possible and to prioritise eligible homes that have never had any work done under the scheme.

In 2018, the measures available under the scheme were expanded. Previously, households whose homes were not suitable for cavity wall insulation could not get their walls insulated under the scheme. Since the expansion of measures, the scheme can now, in certain circumstances, provide internal or external wall insulation. This is permitting the upgrade of a wider range of property types, such as homes with solid walls, and also increases the energy savings and emissions reductions that the scheme can achieve. In addition, it will enable future fuel switching. While this change creates a demand for homes already treated to come in again, it also has to be borne in mind that more than 140,000 homes have benefited in the past and this number could squeeze the opportunity for those who have never been included.

The climate action plan commits to a review of the scheme being completed by the end of this year. This will include a decision on repeat upgrade visits as well as reviewing eligibility, approaches to compliance with new building regulations and how to best target those most in need.

The households that were part of the scheme at the beginning consisted of the more vulnerable householders who had the fuel allowance back as far as 2000 or 2005 in the boom time. If those houses had their attics insulated and possibly had the extension cavity pumped, it still meant that the original cottage or house was exposed and not insulated. It is very important those householders have the opportunity to have that part of their house insulated so that the overall building is brought up to standard. The Minister of State is setting a target of B2 for everybody going forward. Many of the householders who were part of the scheme early on would not have achieved that rating. Does the Minister of State recognise this and will he set out to bring those other houses up to that standard?

I repeat that the scheme has been very successful and there has been a significant uptake over the years by those in fuel poverty. The Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action committed to a review of the scheme, which is being undertaken. We are looking at repeat upgrade visits as well as reviewing eligibility and approaches to compliance with the new building regulations and how best to target those. That review will take some of the issues raised by the Deputy into account.