I am at the back end of having had 'flu so if my voice begins to break members will understand the reason for it. I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for this opportunity to address them. As they will be aware, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment telephoned me a few weeks ago and asked if I would be willing to act in the capacity of a just transition commissioner in regard to the midlands. Up to that, I was not altogether very much aware of the debate that had gone on in terms of just transition in its wider sense but I was aware of what was happening in the midlands regarding both the ESB and Bord na Móna, as the two major State companies involved in the area. Since that telephone call, I started some of the preliminary work that I consider necessary to do. That has been limited in scope because of the time available but I have managed to begin to meet most of the main players involved, namely, the Minister, and his departmental officials. I have further meetings arranged with them early in the new year and also with the cross-departmental team in the Department of An Taoiseach. I have had a meeting with the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, regarding the research being undertaken by it on the issue of just transition both on what is required in terms of Irish climate change policy and on what may be happening, particularly in Europe, and the projects and policies being adopted in Europe. I have received voluminous documentation from them, which I hope to read at some stage over Christmas. I have just dipped in and out of it in terms of the technology, scope, policy, direction and the issues not only in Ireland but in Europe.
My first belief on getting this role was on the need to begin to meet the main players involved. I had a long meeting with the chief executive of Bord na Móna and his senior management team on their plans and what they were doing in response to the decision of the ESB and other ongoing issues with respect to plans they had in anticipation of decisions further down the line towards 2027, which now need to be brought forward with a greater degree of urgency.
I had a discussion with the chief executive of the ESB. We have not been able to arrange a meeting but are scheduling one for the first week of January with his senior management team to get their view on their decision, their continuing existence in the midlands, the industries that continue to operate there and what potential exists there.
I have also been in contact with and have received correspondence from the group of unions represented by Willie Noone, whom I would have known in a previous capacity when I was director general of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and Patricia King. Even though industrial relations are not directly within my remit or terms of reference, I see it as being important to meet the workers and their representatives in the context of what is happening there.
One of the big issues I raised with the Minister when I met with him was the type of support I would get for this project to immediately start running with this. My view was that I needed some support around secretariat arrangements and meetings but, more importantly, around people on the ground both in the Department and in the local midlands region. I am in the process of sorting that out but a number of decisions I have agreed with the Department and the midland transition team is that the office would be based in the midlands. It would not be a Dublin office transferring to the midlands. There would be an office available in Tullamore in Offaly County Council and its chief executive, Anna Marie Delaney, and particularly, Sarah Morgan, the major person involved in the transition team who is doing most of the work for the regional transition team, will be available. Michael Goodwin from the Department will be seconded for a period over the next number of months to assist me in meeting the parties and establishing a number of issues around the funding. We are designated funding for this of €6 million from the Government directly in the context of the immediacy of the issues plus €5 million to come from the ESB. I am still finalising this and I am nearly there but my view is that this would a fund in the region, in escrow, under the auspices of the local authorities in the region that would readily available once we recognise which projects need to be given some seed money, development money or go-ahead money. I am very keen that would be in place and that we would not have to go through a bureaucratic multi-layered procedure to seek approvals and the inevitability of that taking weeks and months when people are looking for money to commence, initiate or continue with projects.
I had a meeting with the regional development team in Tullamore on 29 November. My impression from that meeting is that an enormous body of work is being done on the ground already. That regional team, including the regional business transition team whose members I have yet to meet, has been up and running for some time. A great deal of work has been done on the ground in the context of the original timescale but some of that will now have to be truncated in light of the ESB's decision.
The Minister indicated he would like me to give him a report by the first quarter. I see that very much as being the end of March or earlier if we can move matters forward.
As I stated in my submission, I see myself largely conducting this transition commissioner posting very much on the ground. I have been through this in the role I had relating to urban renewal in the north inner city. When I did that report, I learned it is of vital importance to meet people in their own locality and circumstances where they can outline their concerns, ideas, proposals and hopes for what can be done in their region. I also learned the importance of meeting the local authorities. There is some discussion about how many local authorities are involved but the central ones are Longford, Westmeath, Offaly, Laois, Roscommon and north Tipperary and this may extend to Kildare. Immediately, a number of local authorities are involved. I met the chief executives of some of them recently. I will involve myself in meeting the local authorities directly and then meeting the public representatives, both at Oireachtas level and at local level, who are a vital component of representation of their constituencies in the region with respect to the effects this will have upon them.
In the context of the terms of reference and having an-inclusive approach, it is important to meet the State agencies regarding employment issues. I refer not only to Bord na Móna, the ESB or other local employers in the region but to what the local enterprise offices, LEOs, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland are planning or envisage will be planned for the regions and what issues are involved in placing either industry, services, call centres or whatever it may be in the region. A strong point put to me during a meeting was the constant and continuous migration from the club close to the Shannon but also east of the Shannon towards the Dublin region, with such migration thereby not sustaining the population, services and industries in the region.
I will place a big emphasis on employment creation, development, sustainability and retention.
On the day in Tullamore, the education and training boards, ETBs, Skillnet and the Springboard programme made presentations regarding identifying the skills among the current workforce, in particular Bord na Móna's, and how they might be adapted to new industries in the area, including Bord na Móna’s incubation industries. It was also about identifying what needed to be done in respect of those Bord na Móna employees who wished to take up further skills training or educational opportunities. The bodies are mapping that issue actively, not only in survey form but through one-to-one interviews with employees. This will also involve the Athlone Institute of Technology, the board of which I was on for a number of years, and Maynooth University.
There is significant tourism potential in the region. It is a sector that needs to be explored. There is extraordinary interest among young people in climate change. They are leading the agenda and the fight. As part of that, it is important to use some of Bord na Móna's utilities as an information area. Bord na Móna is identifying one or two locations, not just in the midlands, but perhaps across the rest of Ireland, for visitor centres for the sole purpose of identifying climate change actions.
I am conscious that community groups of all descriptions are the backbone of any community. The appropriate groups in this circumstance are those that are involved in leisure, sporting and specific community activities. As such, it is important that they be included in whatever discussions take place. I am also arranging for visits in January, weather permitting, to all of the sites that Bord na Móna and the ESB have in the region. As part of that, I hope to meet local industries that employ reasonable or sizeable parts of the local population.
Overlaying all of this is the constant education that I will undertake in respect of climate change itself and how it affects the region. In particular, this will look at the regeneration of the wetland bogs and Bord na Móna's programme to restore them to their natural condition, etc.
It is a large-level programme. Between now and the end of March, I plan to listen to what is being proposed by the regional transition group and other groups in the area, their concerns, proposals and ideas, and will try to put it all together in various segments in a co-ordinated way with a view to determining what can be funded from the Central Fund. A midlands-wide activity is being undertaken. It is not centred in any particular area or on a particular level of activity. In the meantime, I have arranged another session with the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, and the Department of the Taoiseach on Government proposals in respect of climate policy. I am conscious that the EU's secretariat technical assistance to regions in transition, START, coal initiative group visited the region recently. I will try to ascertain what came of that visit. It has the potential to unleash a considerable level of European funds, not only for this kind of climate change transition, but for the regeneration and transition of our regions that have been relying exclusively on these carbon fuel-based industries.
To date, I have undertaken a number of meetings. I am trying to finish work and ensure there is movement. The first three months of next year will be very active in terms getting a number of projects off the ground and assessing who can apply and receive funds from the grants that have been allocated or transferred to this fund.
I reiterate this work is midlands-based in terms of operation, the secretariat and the fund being available in the region.