Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 16 Sep 2021

Vol. 1011 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Aviation Industry

Darren O'Rourke


64. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the status of the implementation of the recommendations of the aviation task force report and the aviation restart plan; his plans to sustain the aviation sector and aviation jobs over the upcoming winter period; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44104/21]

Will the Minister of State provide an update on the implementation of the recommendations of the aviation task force report and the aviation restart plan and what plans there are to sustain the aviation sector and aviation jobs over the coming winter period?

The Irish aviation sector is critical to Ireland's economic development by being a key enabler of international trade and business, including foreign direct investment and tourism. However, the impact of Covid-19 on travel is the most challenging crisis in its history. Many analysts are predicting that it will take several years for the sector to return to 2019 levels of activity. While air traffic data for Europe show some recovery, the pace of recovery is still slow in the Irish market, with traffic currently at approximately 50% of 2019 levels.

The Government has put in place a range of supports for businesses, including those in the aviation sector. These supports include: the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS; waiving of commercial rates; deferral of tax liabilities; the Covid restrictions support scheme; the credit guarantee scheme; and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, working capital scheme, with some of these now extended to the end of the year. My Department has estimated that Irish airlines and airports have availed of over €300 million through a number of these supports to date. Furthermore, liquidity funding has been provided through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund, bringing funding to almost €500 million.

As regards supports specifically targeted at the protection of employment, the EWSS has been a key component of the Government's response to Covid-19 and has been extended to the end of the year. In November 2020, in recognition of the difficult circumstances facing the aviation sector, the Government agreed a revised funding package of €80 million specifically for Irish aviation. The European Commission has approved, under state aid rules, a €26 million Irish state aid scheme to compensate airport operators for the losses caused by Covid-19.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I have continued to engage with all aviation stakeholders throughout the Covid crisis, including through the National Civil Aviation Development Forum, NCADF. Separately, the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, brings together representatives of employers and trade unions with Ministers to discuss economic, employment and labour market issues. The LEEF has played an important role during the crisis. In March, a LEEF aviation subgroup was established to consider the needs of the sector. I chair this subgroup and it has held five meetings since March, most recently on 14 September.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Government's economic recovery plan, published on 1 June, recognised that further targeted supports may be required later in 2021 to assist the restoration of Ireland's air links and to protect jobs in the sector, and my officials are currently considering options in this area.

Most of the recommendations from the aviation recovery task force's final report of July 2020 and the NCADF aviation restart plan of April 2021 have been progressed insofar as practicably possible. For example, non-essential international travel was permitted to resume on 19 July. The EU digital Covid certification system has been successfully introduced in Ireland, wage subsidies have been extended, other targeted financial supports have been made available, slot alleviation measures for airlines have been implemented, and EU Aviation Safety Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control protocols for safe air travel have been fully implemented. My Department will forward a report to the Deputy, in tabular format, on the status of the implementation of each of the recommendations from both reports.

Ultimately, I believe the continued successful roll-out of the vaccination programme and reduced risk of transmission of the virus will provide the basis for the return of consumer confidence and an increase in forward bookings. With continued support from the Government during the coming months, the sector will be well placed for strong recovery next year.

I thank the Minister of State for that update. She outlined well the challenges facing the sector. Covid has had a major impact everywhere. Now it is a question of how we recover. While I appreciate the extension of the EWSS until the end of the year, the Minister of State and I know that the season is over and will only pick up again around St. Patrick's Day of next year. That is what the industry tells us.

Is consideration being given to extending the EWSS beyond the end of the year? I understand that there were proposals from unions at the LEEF regarding an aviation-specific EWSS, a German-type model or however it might be termed. I am asking about wage subsidy supports for workers in the sector.

We are having constructive conversations with trade unions and employer groups as part of the LEEF subgroup, which is helping this engagement on the needs of the sector. In the Government's economic recovery plan, which was published on 1 June, we were clear that aviation was one of the sectors that would take longer to recover. Officials in my Department are considering further supports for the sector in order to protect jobs and ensure that we can restore much of our key connectivity at international level. Our airports know their business best. These supports would enable the airports to ensure such a restoration.

The number one call from the aviation industry was to reopen international travel, which we did on 19 July. Regarding further extensions of the EWSS, that will be a matter for the Minister for Finance and other Government colleagues, but I assure the House that all of these matters are under consideration.

I wish to make a couple of follow-up points. A number of recommendations in the aviation task force report specifically targeted the aviation environment. Recommendations Nos. 5 and 6 related to rebates and a common fixed sum per passenger. Have these measures been considered? Will they be included in the budget or among upcoming supports for the sector?

The issue of transatlantic travel is of major concern for the sector. It is a large part of the market. To what extent has there been engagement to try to reopen it?

As the Deputy knows, the European Commission gave us approval under EU state aid rules for €26 million to compensate airports for the damages caused by Covid-19. My objective was to enable commercial business within airports and allow them to deal directly with airlines in terms of route incentives and the issues the Deputy raised. That is the business of our airports, and the Government has enabled them by providing funding. This forms part of our Department's deliberations with the aviation sector.

The Deputy is correct regarding transatlantic flights. They are critical for us - I do not need to explain why. There is considerable engagement happening at EU level as well as at Irish level within the Departments of Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach. As the Deputy knows, the US Administration has put in place severe entry restrictions, but there is ongoing engagement around opening those lines of connectivity up again.

Road Projects

Peter Fitzpatrick


65. Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick asked the Minister for Transport the status of the Ardee bypass project (details supplied). [44462/21]

I wish to ask for an update on this project. It should be noted that the N52 Ardee bypass scheme received planning approval in 2006. I have been informed that delays have occurred due to issues with routes and junction preferences and that a revised planning application process is expected. In 2020, and with the support of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, Louth County Council conducted a detailed review of the scheme and considered alternative junction strategies.

As Minister for Transport, I have responsibility for overall policy and securing Exchequer funding for the national roads programme. Under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, and in line with the national development plan, the planning, design and construction of individual national roads is a matter for TII in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

The proposed bypass scheme to the west of Ardee is 4.5 km in length from Mandistown crossroads on the N52 west of Ardee, just inside the Meath county boundary, to Glebe townland on the N2 just north of Ardee. It is designed as a single carriageway road and comprises six junctions, including a proposed roundabout on the N2. The scheme includes two river crossings at the River Dee and the River Garra. Construction may commence in quarter 3 of 2023, with completion in quarter 4 of 2025, though it should be noted that this is subject to planning issues, approval under the public spending code and sufficient funding availability.

The N52 is important for enhancing regional accessibility and improving connectivity to Border counties. The bypass of Ardee would provide greater capacity for passenger and freight traffic on the route, which would support economic expansion of the region. In addition, the project supports improved road safety, reduced vehicular traffic in the town, better air quality and more active travel opportunities in the town, thereby providing for a better quality of life for local residents.

The current section of the N52 is arguably not fully fit for purpose, with the town of Ardee being subject to congestion, particularly at peak periods. The route serves both passenger and freight traffic every day and the legacy infrastructure is causing daily delays and journey time uncertainty for road users. The existing road runs directly through the town centre, resulting in an inability to regulate traffic flow and reducing the efficiency of travel on the overall network. In addition, the urban environment of Ardee is being negatively impacted as a result of the route running directly through the town centre.

The N52 is a national secondary road connecting the M7 motorway from just south of Nenagh in Tipperary to the N2 north of Ardee. Through the provision of reliable transport infrastructure, the proposed project aims to manage better traffic efficiency along the route.

The Minister has just wasted two minutes. I asked him for an update, but all he gave me was a response. He needs to show some respect to the people in Ardee. In fairness, Louth County Council and TII held a public consultation and the people of the Ardee area had the decency to attend and make submissions. The new design team is working hard to minimise the impact of the scheme on the surrounding areas and communities. I cannot believe that the Minister would waste my time and that of the people of Ardee. I ask him to please give us an update on the situation. Planning permission was granted in 2006. The traffic in the area is hazardous. His response has knocked me for six. I want to know that funding has been set aside and that it will remain in this scheme. Instead of waffling, can he please give me an update?

I mean no disrespect to the Deputy or the residents of Ardee. He is correct, but I wanted to read out the Department's official response so that the full assessment is clear. I will now read the remaining part of that response which, I hope, will give him some of the detailed information he seeks. I will further engage with him in the detail of it.

In January 2018, Louth County Council provided the preliminary overall plan for the scheme to public representatives and to members of the public. Concerns were raised regarding the junction layout and the impacts the scheme might have on local traffic movements. The Deputy will be aware of some of this detail, but it is important to set out the history. Detailed submissions from resident groups were received by Louth County Council and TII. In September 2019, officials from TII, along with Louth County Council, were invited to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport to discuss the issues. I attended that meeting and listened to the full hearing. It was agreed to request the council to undertake a review of the scheme design in advance of progressing the project to build in order that these issues could be fully considered along with matters raised.

A public consultation was held in October 2020 to engage on the emerging preferred junction option for the N52 Ardee bypass. A review of the road design and planning to date, including junction options, planning application issues, an environmental review and compulsory purchase order, CPO, matters, is currently being carried out by technical advisers for Louth County Council, to be completed later this year. In parallel, an environmental impact assessment, EIA, screening report and appropriate assessment, AA, screening report are currently with An Bord Pleanála for review and determination on the proposed amended scheme. The changes to the original scheme include amended junction layouts, additional cycle facilities, flood attenuation and soil management issues.

Subject to the outcome of the review and determination by An Bord Pleanála of the EIA and AA, it is intended to bring the scheme through the Part 8 planning process of the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, as amended. The next step would be to lodge an application with An Bord Pleanála for a further CPO, if needed. On this basis, Louth County Council could be in a position to tender the main construction contract for the scheme in quarter 3, 2022, which could allow a potential construction start date in quarter 3, 2023, with completion in quarter 4, 2025. It should be noted that this would be subject to sufficient funding availability and approval under the public spending code. A total of €8.1 million was incurred on this project up to the end of August 2021.

I mean no disrespect to the Deputy and apologise for the lengthy reply. We have a significant funding problem, but this type of project, which promotes town centres such as Ardee is, to my mind, a real priority. If we can overcome the planning difficulties, I believe funding can be provided.

The Minister has given me the response I wanted. Had he given it in the first instance, I would have been very happy. I must once again point out that the people of Ardee and the surrounding areas have heard nothing but empty promises since 2006 when this project first received planning permission. All I am asking is that the Minister give us confirmation of the status of the project and confirmation that funding previously set aside for it will be ring-fenced. The town of Ardee suffers from chronic traffic congestion, which has a serious effect on the business of the town and the surrounding areas and on people living in the area. I ask the Minister to confirm that this much-needed project will go ahead. Is there any possibility he might visit Ardee to engage with people in the area on this project for which they have been waiting since 2006? I believe, on the basis of the information just given to me by the Minister, that this project will go ahead, but there is so much happening in relation to it. People are not aware that information is awaited from An Bord Pleanála. I ask the Minister to visit Ardee and meet with the people. As I said, this process started in 2006 and it is now 2021. People have been waiting a long time. I put my trust in the Minister that he will help the people of Ardee.

Bus Services

Darren O'Rourke


66. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Transport the status of BusConnects in Dublin; if he has engaged with Dublin Bus management and unions to try to resolve the current dispute over pay and working conditions at the company; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44105/21]

I would like to ask the Minister for an update on BusConnects in Dublin, if he has engaged with Dublin Bus management and unions to try to resolve the current dispute regarding pay and conditions at the company and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I thank the Deputy. BusConnects is a transformative plan to improve and expand bus services in all of our major cities. The programme is initially being rolled out in Dublin, followed by Galway and Cork, and then Limerick and Waterford. Traffic congestion currently costs Dublin city approximately €350 million per annum and this figure is forecast to rise to approximately €2 billion per annum by 2033. It is essential that we tackle that.

It is a key part of the Government’s policy to improve public transport services nationally and to address the impact of climate change. To this end, ambitious targets are included in the National Development Plan 2018–2027, the Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area 2016–2035 and the Climate Action Plan 2019.

BusConnects Dublin includes the network redesign of bus services, the core bus corridors and next generation ticketing. In September 2020, the NTA published the finalised network redesign and the first phase of the new network redesign - the H Spine which is Howth to city centre corridor - was launched at the end of June. The launch went very well, and the feedback has been mostly positive. The customer experience team are continuing to provide support to the public as they familiarise themselves with the new routes. The second phase - the C Spine, which is Lucan to Ringsend via city centre - will be launched by the end of November.

The NTA has also completed a series of public consultations on the 16 core bus corridors proposals in quarter 1, 2020 and quarter 4, 2020.  These corridors will make bus journeys faster and more reliable and reduce journey times by 40% to 50% on each corridor.

With regard to the second part of the Deputy’s question, which was relates to pay and working conditions at Dublin Bus, I would like to begin by explaining that industrial relations issues in Dublin Bus are a matter for the company, its employees and trade union groups. Dublin Bus management engages with its trade unions on an ongoing basis on various matters of common interest. While my Department receives regular updates from Dublin Bus on industrial relations issues, neither I nor my Department have a direct role in and nor do we intervene in such operational matters. 

Go raibh maith agat. There was a resounding rejection of the proposal that was on the table by workers at Dublin Bus, and for a range of reasons, including the impact it would have on pay and conditions. Is the Minister aware of that and has he heeded it? There was a direct call on him by the workers to intervene and get involved. I ask him to set out his understanding of that process, where it is at now and if he is taking a hands-off approach to it, which is my sense of the situation at this stage, or at what stage he will intervene, if at all, and what his understanding is of the rate of progress in terms of the negotiations and the timeline for resolution to the range of issues that have been legitimately raised.

I am very aware. There was a deputation outside my offices on, I think, 20 August. I was away, unfortunately, but I understand the Deputy was in attendance with the 100 plus drivers from Dublin Bus. My understanding is that Dublin Bus drivers have been outside of a pay agreement dating back to 2018-19 and that this agreement, which was on working conditions and pay, was rejected by, I understand, 98% of the drivers balloted. My understanding from soundings from Dublin Bus, the unions and employees is that there are still mechanisms by which they can go back to further negotiate. We have a good approach here. To my mind, the unions and the company have had a good record of working together. I do not think it is appropriate for me to step into that. I am keeping up on it, but will not take a central role.

From my engagement with workers at Dublin Bus I know they are committed to delivering on BusConnects. It is about it happening in the right way, one that works for everybody.

On the issue of delivering on BusConnects, while I appreciate we have the H line and the C line as early pilots or test cases, the big hurdle is delivering on the quality bus corridors as an essential part of the improvement in the network. Will the Minister outline the approach that will be taken in the time ahead to engage with communities to ensure the services that are provided deliver for communities and for the transport service as well?

I will give the key next steps. We will first have the review of the national development plan, which will come out later this month. That will renew our commitment to the BusConnects projects, not just in Dublin but in the other regional cities as well. Very shortly, I hope, we will then go to Government with a business case for the project. It is a significant investment of several billion euro, which will take some time to implement fully. It is critical we act fast. We are seeing with Covid that car traffic is coming back but public transport is slightly slower. We have climate targets that are challenging and the congestion that comes from all that traffic is going to prevent Dublin from working. There will be a tight budget. The budget line is not an easy one because there are so many public transport projects coming through at the one time. BusConnects can be done on phased basis, including rapid development of some of the key traffic management measures we must put in place. That is something the NTA, the local authorities and the bus companies are going to be charged with and which they must deliver quickly.

Road Projects

Michael Collins


67. Deputy Michael Collins asked the Minister for Transport if he will address a series of matters (details supplied) regarding road infrastructure in west Cork. [44395/21]

Will the Minister tell me the date work will commence on the Innishannon bypass? Will he also give the start date for the long-awaited completion of the Bandon southern bypass and start dates for the full northern relief road in Bandon and the Bantry bypass? Will he also tell us whether there are any plans to insert passing bays on the N71 from Ballydehob to Bandon or the R586 from Bantry to Bandon via Dunmanway roads? The people of west Cork have had announcement after announcement about these projects for decades but not a sod has been turned. Today we need nothing less than start dates so we can progress west Cork roads and bring them up to the same standard as those in other constituencies.

The following information is the most up-to-date information available to me on TII's delivery of projects on the N71: regarding the Innishannon bypass, the route feasibility study was previously commenced but was suspended. As this scheme is not included in the current NDP, I have been advised by TII that the project remains suspended at this point in time.

On the Bantry bypass, a feasibility study on possible options was completed previously by Cork County Council. This scheme is being progressed in two phases by the council. Phase 1 design is currently being progressed under European Investment Bank, EIB, funding. TII has been in discussions with council officials concerning phase 2.

On the Bandon bypass extension, a feasibility study was completed by Cork County Council and TII is currently reviewing this. The project appraisal plan was approved by my Department in 2020. This work on early planning and design will continue in 2021, with a preferred route for the bypass extension to be identified. TII allocated €100,000 to Cork County Council to progress this pre-appraisal work during 2021. The current N71 relief road around Bandon ties back into the existing road network via a steep downhill gradient and drivers must also negotiate a number of roundabouts and priority junctions within the built-up area of Bandon. The N71 in this area experiences heavy traffic, with annual average daily traffic of between 9,000 and 14,000 vehicles. The proposed relief road extension would involve bridging over the R603 to remove the existing steep gradient and the construction of approximately 2.5 km of new single carriageway tying back into the existing N71 just west of the town.

The timeframe for the delivery of any major or minor works projects that require statutory approval, whether for an environmental impact assessment report, EIAR, or CPO, or both, is between eight and 13 years.

The Minister is talking about eight to 13 years. That is a hell of a long time. This has been going on much longer than that for the people of Bandon who require the southern bypass to be completed and the northern bypass to be started. It the same with the Innishannon bypass, as I said. This is appalling. I hear nothing I can go back to the people of west Cork with and say that these projects are going to progress, other than reports upon reports that have been going on for decade after decade. The lack of moneys spent on west Cork roads in the past 20 years has left them in appalling condition throughout. The Skibbereen bypass was opened in 2003 and since then no proper funding has been spent on the N71 from Innishannon to Bandon, Clonakilty and Skibbereen. In some parts the road is a danger to people who travel on it. I have told the Minister we cannot wait for another eight years. We cannot wait any longer. I would like the Minister to give me a start date for at least one of those bypasses. We cannot wait for another four, five, six, seven or eight years. The people of Bandon and of west Cork must be respected the same as those of every other constituency in the country, and they need delivery. The Minister is failing in his duty to the people of wes Cork to deliver a proper bypass and open up our roads so we in west Cork can compete.

I share the Deputy's concern about the long time our planning system takes. We are all agreed on that and the need for that to be assessed and changed. There was an additional €4 million in grant allocations this year to the N71 route for various improvements. There was a further €325,000 allocated to Cork County Council under the specific improvement grant programme to progress the road realignment at Ilen Bridge on the R586.

On the €4 million, I understand the Deputy's desire to see those bypasses be progressed. I have been clear that the prioritisation in our overall road schemes should be on bypasses of towns. However, that is a national question. We have hundreds, almost, of towns right across the country where bypasses are the preferred option. We will have to allocate the resources and TII is going to have to prioritise within the overall NDP allocation it has. Bypasses should come first and the towns mentioned are examples of projects that make sense.

The Minister is talking about €4 million for improvements but that is for pothole repairs. That is what he is saying. Those are the facts. I would like him to visit the roads of west Cork. He perhaps knows west Cork better than most Ministers. I can show him some of the roads that are in appalling condition. I took the former Minister, Shane Ross, down there. I should have taken Shep the dog down to west Cork because Shep the dog would have barked whereas Shane Ross did nothing for us. I do not want to be saying the same thing about the Minister in a couple of years. I do not want to say he did nothing about bypasses for Innishannon, Bandon and Bantry. All we hear about is further reports and no delivery for the people of west Cork. A journey from Skibbereen to Clonakilty takes 45 minutes to an hour if one gets stuck behind a lorry. Passing bays must be put in place. It would not cost magic amounts. The Government is looking at astronomical money to do small jobs and it does not look at how simply these jobs can be done. We have no delivery, zero delivery, on further thinking about west Cork since 2003. For almost 20 years successive Governments have failed to deliver for west Cork. I ask the Minister to deliver. He should get up and say that at least one of the bypasses will start in the next 12 months for the people of west Cork.

The ghost of the former Minister, Shane Ross.

What I presented to the Deputy is the best, latest information I have from TII. I have every intention of trying to deliver and improve the bypass options in west Cork.

On the reality of where we are with funding, the Deputy says €4 million is nothing. We are spending €1.2 billion to €1.3 billion per year just to maintain our roads. Thus of the €2.5 billion or so this year, roughly half is going to maintain the existing road network, which is important. If we did not do that the Deputy would rightly be telling me that it is dangerous, that people's vehicles are being damaged and that that work must be done. It is not a small amount. It is huge within our overall capital budget and it must be spent because if it was not we would have to spend more in subsequent years. Out of this year's budget, if roughly half is effectively going to maintenance, the remainder must go on public transport. We must invest in that and in active travel. We are limited as there are certain budget constraints we must recognise and admit. We are giving significant moneys to the transport sector but it must be spread across the country. That is a reality that cannot be ignored.