Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Community Development Projects

I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue and I am very grateful to the Minster of State for taking this debate, which is extremely important for so many residents in the Dundrum area. Pretty much everyone in the Chamber will be familiar with the area and may think of it as a shopping destination, but those who know the city and county a little longer will know that it is very much an established community with an extremely large population. Not only is it large, it is set to increase by 44% by 2040, with the development of 4,500 new homes forecast, including 250 homes in Fernbank, 90 homes in Herbert Hill, the recently granted strategic housing development, SHD, in Dundrum Town Centre and, most important, the forthcoming development of the Central Mental Hospital site by the Land Development Agency, which will bring more than 1,200 social, affordable and private homes to the area.

The area requires more supports, amenities and services to support this growth and allow the town to become a true community. Funding has been applied for by the county council under the urban regeneration and development fund to improve the civic and cultural facilities in this area. The uses for the community hub would be flexible to suit the needs of the community but are proposed to include a family resource centre, a civic plaza, a café, a positive ageing space, offices, a performance space and more. It would be set within the civic centre and the existing Carnegie library, which is an extremely famous and much-cherished structure in the area for many of us.

The move towards apartment living to help increase our housing supply in an efficient manner will increase the demand for community, cultural and civic spaces. We absolutely welcome the new members of our community, and the diversity in age and background they bring is most welcome. However, we must ensure the community resources are in place to support these new neighbours and allow them to become fully immersed in our community. We must cater to the existing population of Dundrum as well as the new cohort of residents who will arrive and expand their families over the coming years. There has been a lack of intergenerational mixing in the area over recent years, which would be addressed by these services. This project is the ideal way to address that as well as to encourage community involvement in people who may not be able to afford private clubs or facilities, especially given the financial toll the pandemic has had on so many in our communities. Family centres, facilities for the elderly, and libraries will all work in tandem to facilitate all members of the community and draw all cohorts closer together.

The Dundrum civic offices have been in place for over five years and are simply not customer focused. As the Minister of State understands better than most, with the changing role of local government and the nature of engagement between citizens and local government, we must prioritise the accessibility of these services and ensure they are fit for purpose. By ensuring that these services are located in a focal point of the community, they will be in a position to serve the community for decades to come. The provision of libraries, community spaces for all ages and crucial council services is invaluable and cannot be overstated.

I urge the Minister of State to prioritise the funding for this project, one that will be so appreciated, not only by the community in Dundrum, but the wider communities going into Churchtown, Windy Arbour, Ballinteer, Kilmacud and Goatstown. It is very important that we remember back to 15 or 20 years ago when there was a roar of development across the country, but especially the south County Dublin constituency that I represent. For so many years, people were moving into new homes, apartments and houses, only to be completely robbed of those vital community facilities. It is not good enough to build those facilities after the homes: we need to pre-plan and ensure that the community and civic hubs are there. That is why I raise this with the Minister of State. I hope that he and the Government will look on this favourably.

I thank the Deputy for raising this and articulating a strong case. Project Ireland 2040, which was launched by the Government on 16 February 2018, is the overarching policy and planning framework for the social, economic and cultural development of Ireland. It includes a detailed capital investment plan for the period 2018 to 2027, the national development plan, NDP, 2018-27, and the 20-year national planning framework, NPF.

The principles of the NPF are underpinned by the NDP, a ten-year, €116 billion capital investment programme. The NDP established four new funds, with a combined allocation of €4 billion to 2027. The urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, has an allocation of €2 billion to 2027, primarily to support the NPF’s growth enablers for the five cities and other large urban centres.

The URDF, which was launched in 2018, is providing part-funding for local authority-led projects that will enable a greater proportion of residential and mixed-use development to be delivered within the existing built-up footprints of our cities and large towns, while also ensuring that more parts of our urban areas can become attractive and vibrant places in which people choose to live and work, as well as to invest and to visit.

Too many of our large towns and cities have been blighted by rundown and poorly utilised areas. Through URDF support local authorities now have the opportunity to embrace the challenge to harness the untapped potential of these areas so that they contribute positively to our urban communities.

The URDF supported capital programme has been very well received, and already the URDF is providing assistance for this pipeline of major projects that will contribute to the regeneration and rejuvenation of Ireland’s five cities and other large towns. For the first time, the URDF provides planning authorities with the opportunity to coordinate their planned regeneration and rejuvenation of our large towns and cities with a stream of tailored significant Exchequer capital investment which will ensure that the right project is happening in the right place at the right time.

In 2019, approval in principle and provisional funding allocations issued in respect of the 87 major projects across the country, including a project for Dundrum, which was approved under call 1. Some €65,679 in URDF support was allocated to support the development of a community, cultural and civic action plan for Dundrum, to assess the current situation and make recommendations on future requirements. It is understood that the work has recently been completed on the action plan and my Department has requested a copy for review.

Under call 2 of the URDF, launched earlier this year, 76 proposals were received, with every local authority submitting at least one application, including a proposal from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for further support in respect of the Dundrum community, cultural and civic action hub. Many of the proposals received under call 2 are of significant scale and complexity and require careful evaluation and this process is in train.

I hear Deputy Richmond's very strong case for this specific project. I look forward to working with him on this. The URDF funding is very important for unlocking the potential of our areas and ensuring that they can be developed in a sustainable manner for the benefit of all. I assure him that his case will be taken on board both by myself and the departmental officials.

I thank the Minister of State for that very full and welcome response. I fully appreciate the initial response from his Department under call 1 and very much welcome consideration under call 2. It is important to stress how vital this funding is. Dundrum is not a small town, it is a very large town with a population of tens of thousands. Most people might associate it with a gleaming shopping centre which is wonderfully maintained by a very dedicated staff, but it is home to many. For two decades, there has been an issue where outside of the gleaming town centre so many other aspects of the town have been neglected. The main street is no longer a gleaming thoroughfare and an older shopping centre is still there. There is great concern about how run down are the residential and public spaces surrounding the new shopping centre. Dundrum is a populous town which is an economic driver in the area. It is the main source of rates for the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown local authority area which straddles two Dáil constituencies, with a sizeable population of commuters as well as those who work and are educated locally.

I acknowledge the work of Imagine Dundrum, a group of activists from across the town, some who have only lived there a couple of years and others whose family have been there for generations, because this is not a young town. It is important that there is joined up thinking so that the increased residential development is partnered with a civic, community plan such as this to ensure that the current residents do not simply live in empty houses close to a shopping centre but that they live in a community.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. It gives me an opportunity to commend all the local authorities such as Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for bringing forward such quality projects to bring life into these very important areas. Deputy Richmond clearly outlined Dundrum's scale and potential and how this project is key to unlocking its potential. I look forward to working with him in coming weeks, in conjunction with the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien. These projects are the life blood of our communities. This is an unprecedented opportunity to unlock that potential. I assure the Deputy that the merits of the project will be brought to the Department's attention as we finalise the assessment process.

Hospital Waiting Lists

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important matter. I have put it down for the lottery five or six times. Spina bifida affects about one in every 1,000 children born in Ireland. For reasons still unknown, Ireland has one of the world's highest rates of spina bifida. As a result, there are children who are waiting for complicated surgeries and procedures for some time. They are waiting for life-changing surgeries, often in pain. They often need surgery to ease their suffering and to make their daily life and that of their families and carers a little easier. We are very lucky to have excellent voluntary supports for those effected by the condition, with organisations such as the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association doing tremendous work for these families. It understands the complexities of the condition and provides support and advocacy for families. One such family who have found themselves at their wits end is the family of Oisín Halpenny. I want to raise his case with the Minister of State. Oisín is a six-year old boy from County Louth who has spina bifida. I know Oisín and his mother, who is related to my wife, Róisín. Oisín's mother, Kelly, has told me that he has been on a waiting list since March 2018, which is almost three years ago. This is for necessary surgery needed to help Oisín in his day-to-day life.

In November last year, Oisín's ankles had deteriorated and the family was told that the operation now needed was a Grice procedure and a Russian transfer. The family was informed that this might change as his ankles deteriorated even more. His parents were told time and again that the surgery was scheduled only for it to be rescheduled and pushed out.

My question is whether Oisín's family is going to have to wait until the next stage of his deterioration for the surgery to happen, which may be too late. At that point, the doctors may need to go back to the drawing board and recommend another type of surgery, which will cause an inevitable further delay. I have raised this matter through parliamentary questions to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, who said in his response that he would review the case. I was also told that Covid-19 had impacted on scheduled surgeries. The Government needs to look at how the scheduling of urgent surgeries is being handled and to rethink how those surgeries can be carried out safely and quickly, even in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.

Will the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, review Oisín's case and work to ensure he gets his surgery scheduled as soon as possible? On the wider issue, will they undertake to review the waiting lists for children with spina bifida, who are waiting on surgeries in Temple Street hospital and other hospitals? I am told by Spina Bifida Hydrocephalus Ireland, SBHI, that the main issues for children requiring essential services such as orthopaedics and urology is that there simply are not enough resources within the health system to look after them properly. This means that children like Oisín are left to live with unnecessary pain and disfigurement, a dynamic that affects their physical and mental well-being in a key phase of their development. We need enough consultants and we need those consultants to have the theatre time required to operate. We need a system to co-ordinate services in order that children with complex needs are not treated by each healthcare professional in isolation but are cared for by a multidisciplinary team which gives every child with spina bifida the best chance of reaching his or her full potential. Will the Minister of State work to ensure that consultants, theatres and slots are prioritised for children with spina bifida-related surgeries, treatments and other supports?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to provide an update to the House on waiting times for paediatric operations, including those for children with spina bifida. The Minister and I sincerely regret that children can experience a long waiting time for appointments and treatment. I am conscious of the burden this places on them and their families. The Government's priority is to improve waiting times for all patients accessing hospital treatment across all specialties, including children with a diagnosis of spina bifida.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Children's Health Ireland, CHI, had to take measures to defer most scheduled care activity between March and May this year. That decision was in line with the advice issued by the National Public Health Emergency Team, in accordance with the advice of the World Health Organization. Since June, CHI has continued to re-establish services, following HSE clinical guidelines and protocols to ensure they are provided in a safe, clinically assigned and prioritised way. CHI has advised my Department that orthopaedic surgery, and spinal surgery in particular, continues to be identified as a service priority. It is of note that key social distancing measures and infection prevention and control requirements, such as the 2 m distancing rule, have a material impact on the available physical space to deliver all hospital services, including scoliosis procedures. This has had a significant impact on both available capacity and operational activity levels.

In terms of support for children with spina bifida and their families, under section 39 of the Health Act 2004 the HSE has provided funding of €781,469 to SBHI this year. In addition, also under section 39, the HSE has provided funding of €127,000 to the Mid-West Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association this year. A service level agreement between the HSE and SBHI is in place. The role of the HSE is to provide a multidisciplinary team approach which includes provision of health and personal supports required by people with spina bifida and incorporates hospital, primary care and community services. My Department recognises the great work done by SBHI in providing information, support and advice to people with spina bifida and-or hydrocephalus and their parents and carers, and in promoting social inclusion and equality for people with spina bifida and-or hydrocephalus in Irish society. The SBHI represents more than 8,000 people nationwide, consisting of those with spina bifida and their parents, siblings, friends and carers.

In regard to accessing scheduled care, officials in my Department remain in regular contact with both the HSE and CHI on waiting times for appointments and procedures across a wide range of specialties. The boy in question, Oisín, has been waiting for surgery since March 2018, as the Deputy outlined, and it has been scheduled and rescheduled. I hope we will be able to get a review into his case and those of people in similar situations. I will follow that up in the Department today. The Minister is committed to ensuring transparency around the waiting times that children experience. To that end, we welcome the work being undertaken by the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, to publish paediatric waiting lists for the first time. The NTPF has advised my Department that it plans to have that information publicly available in the first quarter of 2021.

I welcome the Minister of State's commitment to take a personal interest in Oisín's case and to review the issues I have raised within his Department. In a reply to me in November, the Minister acknowledged that waiting times are often unacceptably long and that this places a burden on parents and families. It is a huge burden and people are at their wits' end. It is not just Oisín's family but many others as well. The Minister told me in his response to my parliamentary question that he had asked the HSE to investigate this case and issue a reply to me. I still have not received that reply from the HSE and nor has Oisín's family. I am asking the Minister of State, as part of his commitment to take a personal interest in this case and to review it, to follow up on that and ensure a reply is issued by the HSE as soon as possible.

This is a very serious case and it is unconscionable to leave wee Oisín waiting any longer for surgery. Every month that goes past, his situation gets worse. I am asking the Minister of State, taking all the necessary Covid-19 precautions into consideration, to work with the HSE to ensure that he is given an urgent date for surgery and that the surgery is carried out. In addition, as I have said, this is not just about Oisín. His situation is an example of what is happening. Will the Minister of State ask his Department officials to work with the HSE to ensure the waiting times for spina bifida supports and treatments are reduced in order that children like Oisín - little boys and girls - never have to suffer like this, when all they need is treatment and support? Unfortunately, the system does not have the capacity to deliver that treatment in a timely and supportive way at this point in time.

The Minister and I are acutely aware of the distress and inconvenience caused to patients and their families when urgent care is delayed. Improving waiting times for hospital appointments and procedures remains a key commitment for the Government. However, it is acknowledged that the challenges faced by the health system in 2020 are unlike anything we have ever faced before. We are very aware of the impact the Covid-19 crisis has had on our health service and the delivery of scheduled care. CHI's commitment to prioritise spinal surgery and find new ways to deliver care exemplifies the work undertaken by the HSE to provide care in a challenging Covid-19 environment.

The Minister is committed to ensuring that access for children, including children with spina bifida, is improved. CHI has advised the Department that its current level of activity is running at approximately 85% of pre-Covid levels. CHI has increased the number of virtual clinics taking place to address outpatient waiting lists.  CHI is also maximising opportunities to use facilities, such as at Connolly hospital and HSE's Citywest facility, as alternative settings for clinics in order that timely appointments may be provided to patients.  Officials from my Department continue to engage on an ongoing basis with representatives from CHI and the HSE to monitor access to services, waiting lists and activity levels.

The Department also welcomes the work undertaken by the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, to publish paediatric waiting lists and looks forward to seeing that project coming to fruition early next week. I will follow up on the case of Oisín and many other children and I hope to get back to the Deputy in the coming days.

The Minister's assistance is appreciated.

Hospital Waiting Lists

I am glad to have four minutes to address this matter. I will speak slowly to let the figures sink in. The outpatient waiting list for orthopaedic services at University Hospital Galway includes 6,487 patients. Some 80 of those have been waiting for more than four years. Some 292 patients have been waiting for between three and four years. The inpatient waiting list has 1,390 patients. In a letter dated 11 December I made representations for a specific patient and raised some general points. The specific individual was put on the waiting list on 24 January this year. They were categorised as "urgent" and told there was an 18-month waiting list. Given those figures, I would say that is the very best estimate.

The reasons for this are where we really need the Minister of State's help. First, the service has developed a significant backlog of patients due to demand for the service outweighing capacity. Unfortunately, more people have become sick than the service is capable of helping. Imagine that. The second reason is that operating capacity has been significantly reduced since September 2017 when the hospital roofs began to leak and water came in. I will take the Minister of State on a quick tour of the four years since then. We have been told that the HSE plans to replace the theatre by the end of next year. This operating theatre was leaking in 2017. In 2017, all of the TDs in the area met with the then Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris. Following that, we were told on 29 November 2017 that a tendering process was progressing for the procurement of a temporary theatre facility. We were told this was being pursued as a matter of urgency. The word "urgency" seems to have taken on a new meaning. This is the 21st century. Waiting lists are at this level just before Christmas. I am only mentioning a selection of the events surrounding this issue.

We were going to facilitate some of the patients in the hospital facilities outside of Merlin Park. Some were to be accommodated in private hospitals. We then learned that very few were cared for in University Hospital Galway facilities and none was facilitated in private hospitals. We were told that Saolta University Health Care Group was working to have a modular theatre open in mid-2019 and enabling works were being carried out. Putting it as benignly as I can, the Minister subsequently had to clarify that he was given contradictory information. He was told that there was an enabling contract. In a letter on 5 March, he stated that he was subsequently told it was actually a letter of intent. That letter of intent was then withdrawn. We were then told there would be a rapid build, which has not happened.

I conclude by referring to a letter I read out previously, in which a surgeon stated that there were 2,000 people on the waiting list. That is half the current number. He stated that this was too big for management to address and that it was a regional crisis. He stated that it was unbearable for the patients, who were clinically deteriorating.

I ask the Minister of State to take a hands-on approach to this matter. At the very least, I ask him to agree that this is unacceptable and to give me a date on which the theatre will be open.

I thank Deputy Connolly for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to update the House on waiting times for orthopaedic services in University Hospital Galway on behalf of Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

I sincerely regret that patients can experience a long waiting time for hospital appointments and procedures and I am conscious of the burden this places on them and their families. I also recognise that waiting times for scheduled appointments and procedures have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the HSE has had to take measures to defer most scheduled care activity in March, April and May of this year. This was done to ensure patient safety was maintained and all appropriate resources were made available for Covid-19-related activity and time-critical essential work. This decision was in line with the advice issued by the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, in accordance with the advice of the World Health Organization.

As a result of the significant disruption in scheduled care, hospital waiting lists peaked in May. However, the resumption of services from June onwards has allowed for increased activity. The number of patients awaiting an inpatient or day case procedure dropped by 16% from May to November and the rate of growth of the outpatient waiting list has slowed in recent months. Regarding University Hospital Galway's orthopaedic waiting list, I note that while the number of patients waiting for an outpatient appointment has increased this year, the number of patients waiting for an inpatient or day case procedure has fallen by 7% compared to the same time last year.

Patient safety remains at the centre of all hospital activity and elective care scheduling. Hospitals are following HSE clinical guidelines and protocols to ensure services are provided in a safe, clinically aligned and prioritised way. The HSE continues to optimise productivity through alternative work practices such the use of alternative settings, including private hospitals, community facilities and alternative outpatient settings. For example, University Hospital Galway has advised my Department that a very successful physiotherapist-led musculoskeletal triage process is in place there. Under this process, patients are first seen by a physiotherapist and are then directed to the most appropriate care pathway. This pathway reduces the number of patients being added to the consultant waiting lists and allows quicker access to services for many patients. University Hospital Galway is examining ways to provide additional access to theatres, including setting up Sunday lists for surgical procedures.

University Hospital Galway has also advised my Department that it has tendered for the construction of a modular theatre facility which will provide two orthopaedic theatres at Merlin Park. The enabling works and the construction tender for this project have been completed and the contractor is to commence construction in January 2021. It is expected that the works will be completed in late 2021. The National Treatment Purchase Fund continues to work with hospital groups, including Saolta University Health Care Group, to support additional activity through insourcing and outsourcing initiatives for inpatient and day case procedures and outpatient appointments. I heard the number the Deputy quoted. Some 6,487 persons on the outpatient waiting list is a huge number. We hope to address it in the coming months.

I will take the two paragraphs at the end of the Minister of State's statement, because that is the only part of his reply that addresses the question. I accept his bona fides. Covid-19 has nothing to do with this. How the replacement of two modular theatres has taken from September 2017 until the end of 2021 should be the subject of an inquiry. A brand new hospital could have been built in that time. There is something seriously wrong.

The Minister of State mentioned the NTPF. Not a single patient on these waiting lists has been referred through the National Treatment Purchase Fund. I have my own difficulties with the NTPF, but it is there as a matter of Government policy. I have asked why none of these patients has been referred through the NTPF, despite waiting times of more than four years. I have received no answer.

Language fails me.

I will go back to using the surgeon's language. As the Minister of State will be aware, surgeons are not known for their radical nature or for writing letters. I refer again to the letter from the consultant surgeon in March 2019, addressed to all Deputies and many more people besides. It describes the problem as "too big for management to address" and "a growing regional crisis". The surgeon states: "This situation is becoming unbearable for the patients who are on the waiting list and are clinically worsening as they wait to be admitted for surgery." I can give the Minister of State a copy of the letter. It is dated. The situation is now worse. It is now 2020; the letter was written in 2019. I absolutely despair of the reply, notwithstanding the Minister of State's bona fides, because it gives me only two paragraphs that relate to the question. How could it take this long? Where is the sense of outrage in the Department that two modular theatres could not go up and, in the meantime, alternative provisions be made?

The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and I are acutely aware of the distress and inconvenience caused to patients and their families when urgent care is delayed. Improving waiting times for hospital appointments and procedures remains a key commitment of the Government. It is acknowledged, however, that the challenges faced by the health system in 2020 are unlike anything we have faced before. We are very aware of the impact Covid-19 has had on our health service and the delivery of scheduled care. The Minister and I welcome the progression of University Hospital Galway's modular theatre facility, which will provide important additional capacity for the hospital's orthopaedic service. We also recognise the work that has been done not only by Galway but by the wider HSE to identify alternative pathways to facilitate patient appointments and procedures.

As for broader service planning for the year ahead, my Department continues to engage with the HSE and the National Treatment Purchase Fund on the development of the access to care plan 2021 which will set out measures to improve care for patients waiting for scheduled care in 2021. As the Deputy will be aware, an additional €240 million has been provided in budget 2021 for the access to care fund, €210 million of which will be allocated as required to the HSE and €30 million to the National Treatment Purchase Fund for the provision of treatment in both private and public hospitals to address capacity issues in acute hospitals and waiting lists. Officials from my Department continue to engage with representatives from the HSE to monitor access to services, waiting lists and activity levels.

The Deputy is right that from September 2017 to today is a long time. I have seen this before. Projects in the public sector can sometimes take far too long. I appreciate her concern in that regard. If she has a copy of the letter to which she referred, I would be only too delighted to take it and follow it up within the Department.

National Broadband Plan

Thanks in part to the hard work of our local authority, Longford County Council, and keen, civic-minded community groups, County Longford is awash with top-quality regeneration projects. One of these I wish to discuss with the Minister of State is the Yard Hub in Abbeyshrule, on the banks of the canal. It involves the redevelopment of a derelict site in the hope of creating a new village hub, creating a space for economic and enterprise development and enhancing the first impressions of visitors to the village as they make their way along the Royal Canal greenway. The Yard Hub seeks to provide local people currently commuting with an opportunity to work remotely and to bring activity to the village. The recent pandemic has emphasised more than ever the need to create the space, opportunity and means to work closer to home. It is a measure of the project and perhaps the ambition of its promoters that successful young local entrepreneur Garret Flower, CEO of ParkOffice, is enthusiastically supporting this project. This young tech entrepreneur, who pioneered the world's first parking software, believes the project will foster a creative community of collaboration and self-improvement, focusing on IT learning.

To date, almost €1 million in funding has been set aside for the project. I think the Minister of State will agree that that sounds fantastic, but it now transpires that Eir is unwilling to provide a dedicated fibre connection for this project. The promoters asked the broadband officer with Longford County Council, Christine Collins, who is doing Herculean work, to seek out the connection and now the project promoters have been told that the only connection available to the premises and the project is digital subscriber line, DSL, and that the premises is not passing for fibre of any sort, be it efibre, fibre to the home, FTTH, or even fibre to the cabinet, FTTC. The promoters have also been made aware that the local exchange needs to be upgraded to next generation network, NGN, in order for the hub to be in a position to order a dedicated fibre connection.

We have invested a lot of hope and an awful lot of expectation in Eir and its ability to roll out broadband, and the early indications are certainly not good. I think everybody in the House will agree that this is the type of landmark project that the company should embrace and promote if it is serious about its role in the most ambitious national roll-out plan since electrification. I ask the Minister of State and the Department to engage immediately with the company to ensure that the necessary infrastructure to facilitate a €1 million State investment gets the support it needs and that this hard-working community in rural Ireland deserves.

I thank Deputy Flaherty for raising this issue. The provision of telecommunication services is a matter for the relevant service providers operating in a fully liberalised market regulated by the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, as independent regulator. Unfortunately, there is no provision for the Minister or Department to instruct a commercial operator to do anything in this context. Decisions on the location of fibre roll-out are a commercial matter for operators. In April 2017, the then Minister signed a commitment agreement with Eir regarding its plans to provide high-speed broadband to 300,000 premises in rural areas on a commercial basis. This was later extended to a further 40,000 premises. While deployment is monitored under the terms of the agreement signed between the company and the Department, it is not funded by the State and is not planned, designed or directed by the Department in any capacity. A copy of the terms of the commitment agreement is available on the Department's website, where quarterly updates on Eir's rural deployment are also published. Information on Eir's planned rural deployment is available on the Open Eir website.

The footprint of the Yard enterprise hub in Abbeyshrule is within the area covered by this commitment agreement, and I understand that it will be served from the Colehill exchange in County Longford. According to roll-out information available to the Department, the Yard enterprise hub should be able to access a broadband connection from retail service providers offering services on the new Eir network. I am advised that the building being used by the enterprise hub is currently designated as a derelict building and that, as a result, there is no valid GeoDirectory building ID or Eircode postcode available for the building. The location will, therefore, be treated like a new build premises and can be indexed by Eir to the appropriate optical distribution point. Should the owners of the Yard enterprise hub in Abbeyshrule, County Longford, experience difficulties ordering a connection to Eir's new network from any of the retail service providers that are offering services over it, I would encourage them to email the Department at broadband@decc.gov.ie with specific details and officials will look into the matter further.

The Government's national broadband plan will ensure that citizens throughout the entire country have access to high-speed broadband services and that nobody is left without this vital service. The NBP has been a catalyst in encouraging investment by the telecoms sector. Of the 2.4 million premises across Ireland, 77% already have access to high-speed broadband of more than 30 Mbps. Investment in fibre networks provided by commercial operators and the national broadband plan will see 90% of premises across the State served with speeds in excess of 100 Mbps by 2024.

This is being achieved via a combination of commercial investment and State-led intervention.

It is encouraging to note that several industry players have announced further investment plans in high-speed broadband, including Eir, which has stated it will roll out fibre to a further 1.4 million premises, bringing its fibre deployment to some 1.8 million premises. SIRO is currently completing the first phase of its fibre deployment, which will see 375,000 premises passed with gigabit services. It is actively considering the scope of phase 2 of this project. Virgin Media is offering 250 Mbps as part of a standard offering, with 500 Mbps and 1 Gbps available to many of its customers across the more than 1 million premises it covers. It too is continuing to invest in upgrading its network. Many other network operators and telecom service providers across the State also continue to invest in their networks.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response but, needless to say, it will not fill these project promoters with enthusiasm. I accept that there are other retail players operating in the market, but the view is that Eir fibre is the gold standard. When one works on a project and develops it to the scale of €1 million of State investment, there is a reasonable expectation that the standard of broadband available to it will be the gold standard.

Abbeyshrule is an idyllic village. It is a recent winner in the national Tidy Towns awards. It is a centre for creativity and there are several specialist aviation businesses on its doorstep, operating from the nearby airfield. Enterprise and innovation are eager bedfellows in that part of the country. I pay tribute to the local committee which has worked so hard on this issue, as well as Councillor Mick Cahill, a local county councillor who has helped to advance this project thus far. Their frustration at this turn of events is palpable. It is inconceivable that a company blessed with such a large and lucrative national contract could be so dismissive and unco-operative.

The House will be well aware that this is not the first time we have heard criticism of Eir in recent months. It has been challenged on billing issues and customer service and, increasingly, it is being challenged on its ability to deliver the roll-out of broadband. This latest saga certainly does not bode well. If my premises was flagged amber or worse in terms of the roll-out plan for County Longford, I would be seriously concerned about the ability and eagerness of Eir to ever deliver fibre to my home. We need to hear that Eir will provide whatever infrastructure is required to make this project work as, otherwise, it is a credibility issue for the company and its willingness and eagerness to deliver broadband to rural Ireland.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of good and reliable broadband to ensure that citizens across Ireland can avail of remote working, education and other essential online facilities. This is reflected in the commitments in the programme for Government for delivery of the national broadband plan, which will be a key enabler to many of the policies envisaged, particularly around increased levels of remote working. However, ensuring that all premises across the State have access to quality and high-speed broadband can only be achieved through a combination of commercial investment and a State-led intervention under the national broadband plan. As I mentioned, the level of planned commercial investment in the sector is very encouraging. Eir's rural investment in high-speed broadband is an entirely commercial undertaking. However, the terms of an agreement between the Department and Eir with regard to its plans to provide high-speed broadband to more than 340,000 premises in rural areas on a commercial basis means that the Department should be provided with roll-out information on a regular basis.

I can confirm that new-build properties or properties such as the Yard enterprise hub in Abbeyshrule, County Longford can be indexed by Eir to the appropriate optical distribution point which will enable a service to be provided by the retail provider. Should the owners experience difficulties gaining connection Eir's new network via one of the retail service providers offering services over it, I request that they email the Department. If the Deputy wishes to send me an email on the matter, I will bring it to the Minister and see if we can get this issue resolved. I thank the Deputy for rasing this very important issue.