Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 7 Apr 2022

Vol. 284 No. 6

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Special Educational Needs

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House.

I welcome the Minister of State. I understand he is not responsible for this matter but I appreciate his ear and I am sure he will take the message back to the Minister for Education in this regard.

Gaelscoileanna are the cornerstone of the spoken Irish language community in Ireland and against all odds have seen a welcome growth in our communities.

Gaelscoil de hÍde, Ros Comáin, is one such school that has seen a surge in enrolment since first opening its doors 22 years ago. It was founded through the desire of parents and teachers for children to attend a Gaelscoil and to promote the spoken Irish language in our community. Its principal, Orla Ní Chuinneagáin, and her team of dedicated teachers and staff have continued a strong history of Irish language and culture in County Roscommon. Education through the Irish language in the county is now represented solely by Gaelscoil de hÍde, which is the last remaining school continuing our history of education through the medium of Irish. Historically, during the Penal Laws of the 17th century, there were more hedge schools in County Roscommon than in any other county in Ireland.

The parents, teachers and students of Gaelscoil de hÍde have long awaited the construction of a new purpose-built school that will reflect both the growth in demand for places and the present-day teaching needs of the primary school curriculum. At present, the school is based in a converted residential building that is limited by non-purpose design, inadequate space and leasing agreements. The good news is that there are plans for a new eight-classroom primary school building for Gaelscoil de hÍde in the Government's large-scale capital programme, as part of a shared education campus for Roscommon town. The parents and teachers would encourage this development, which still is at the planning stage, to move as quickly as possible. It will be hugely beneficial to the students and for education in County Roscommon. I know the Department is committed to dealing with this as quickly as possible but it does not address the current accommodation crisis. A new school is a solution for the future but the children who are completing their primary education at this time are suffering because of inadequate space and the inability to provide all the facilities that are needed, which means they are losing out on part of the curriculum. There must be action immediately to provide the new building. It must not be pushed further into the future while valuable learning opportunities for young people are lost.

In addition, the Government must respond to the present needs of the children attending the school. That is the point I really want to make today. Gaelscoil de hÍde needs two mainstream teachers. There are seven children with special needs, with the current special needs assistant, SNA, allocation working out at 1.5. This is way below what is needed. The allocation is based on the school profile and an average figure for the country. However, it is clear than an allocation of 1.5 is not adequate. More SNAs and more mainstream teachers are needed. I accept that the new campus will be a little way down the road. It can be speeded up as much as possible and it is important that this be done. Right now, however, the school needs extra teaching staff. It would be a pity for the pupils who attend the Gaelscoil, and for those who promote Gaeilge, that they should be left behind in any way in the education system.

I have a number of questions for the Minister of State. Why are Gaelscoileanna students currently in some of the largest classes in Europe? Why are Gaelscoileanna not receiving additional special educational needs support, despite the benefit it offers to students? Why are teacher resources based on only one variable, namely, student enrolment numbers? There are a number of other points that I may refer to in response to the Minister of State.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an t-ábhar seo a ardú inniu. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Madigan. The Senator has raised a number of questions. I wholeheartedly agree with him regarding the value of Gaelscoileanna. My children are being educated in Gaelscoil Osraí in Kilkenny, which started off in a prefabricated building and now has more than 500 pupils. It is a hugely successful school and does a fantastic job of passing on our language through education.

The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, wants to stress that enabling students with additional needs to receive an education appropriate to their needs is an ongoing priority for the Government. She assures the Senator that students with special educational needs attending schools, including Gaelscoileanna, are treated in an equitable and fair way in regard to the allocation of special education teacher hours and SNA provision. All schools have access to a similar range of supports. Each child has unique skills and characteristics and it is vital that we ensure our schools and school staff have the resources and knowledge they need to provide a flexible and tailored approach to supporting all children, particularly those with additional needs.

The Department of Education funds a continuum of education provision for children with special educational needs. This extends from a placement in a mainstream class with the necessary additional teaching and care supports provided, through to a placement in a special class or special school. The policy aims to ensure students with special educational needs are educated alongside their peers where that is possible and appropriate. This approach is in the best interests of all children, including those with special needs. In Ireland, most children with special educational needs are educated in mainstream settings. That is the right way to do it. In circumstances where children and young people with special educational needs require more specialised interventions, a special class or special school places are provided. These settings cater for children with the most complex needs and attract much reduced ratios of teachers and SNAs to pupils, depending on the nature of the disability. The nature and level of the educational response, including placement in a special class or school setting, is based on the professionally assessed needs of each individual child.

This continuum of special education has been prioritised by the Government in recent years. This year, the Department of Education will spend in excess of €2 billion, or more than 25% of its total budget, on providing additional teaching and care supports for children with special educational needs. This represents an increase of over 60% in total expenditure since 2011. Significant additional investment in new teacher and SNA posts is provided for in 2022, which will expand provision across the continuum of special education. There is provision for 287 additional special classes, with 1,700 new places for the 2022-23 school year. This will bring the total number of special classes to 2,435. An additional 1,165 SNAs will be allocated to provide support to children with special educational needs, bringing the total number of SNAs to 19,169 by the end of December. There is provision for 980 new teaching posts in special education. There now are more than 14,000 special education teachers, SETs, in schools, who support the inclusion of students with special educational needs in mainstream classes. Two new special schools have opened in Cork and Dublin this year, with a further new special school announced for Rochestown in Cork for the 2022-23 school year.

The Department works closely with the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to ensure children with special educational needs receive an education. A network of special educational needs organisers, SENOs, who are located across the country, are working closely with families and young people to access suitable school placements. I will follow up with the Senator on the other issues he raised. He asked about a new-build project, which is not really addressed in this response.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht an cheist seo a fhreagairt. I acknowledge that he is answering on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. To be fair to both of them, I raised an additional issue in inquiring about the shortage of space and the plans for a new build. My question really was around the current shortage of teachers to deal with the number of students and the need to ensure all children get a fair crack of the whip in terms of education, particularly in Gaelscoileanna. Perhaps I should not have mixed up two separate issues.

The Minister of State noted that the Department of Education is allocating 25% of its budget, amounting to €2 billion in expenditure, to additional teaching care supports for children with special educational needs. However, as I said, the allocation is based on a school's profile and is taken as an average for the country. Gaelscoil de hÍde has seven children with special needs and an allocation of 1.5 SNAs. The school unquestionably needs at least one additional SNA. There must be a little flexibility in this regard. I intend to continue this fight and to talk directly to the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the Minister, Deputy Foley. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for coming to the House to listen to my case and to take the message back to his colleagues.

I assure the Senator that the thrust of the response the Minister of State has provided is that she wants to ensure the provision of additional resources to students with special educational needs extends to Gaelscoileanna in an equitable way. I will discuss with her the additional resources he is requesting, as I am sure he also will do.

The Senator also raised the issue of capital expenditure and the new campus to which he referred, which is critically important. As I said, looking at the expansion of Gaelscoil Osraí and other Gaelscoileanna across the country, they tend to start off small and then the demand for places grows. It is fantastic to see it. Similarly, Gaelscoil de hÍde will, with the support of the Department, continue to grow.

Road Network

Before I start, I wish to compliment the Cathaoirleach on his contribution to the joint sitting of the Houses yesterday. I also compliment the others who contributed. It was a moving day and our hearts go out to the poor people of Ukraine. Bualadh bos duit.

The serious issue of the continuous underfunding of roads over the past decade has been raised on an almost monthly basis by councillors in Monaghan, Cavan and many other parts of rural Ireland. In Monaghan, Councillors P.J. O'Hanlon and Seamus Coyle in particular have consistently raised the issue of the underfunding of local and regional roads.

Unfortunately, we in County Monaghan do not have any multinational, so it has been down to the good people of the county to create their own employment through indigenous enterprises in agriculture, including agrifood, and engineering. It is a unique situation, given the number of small enterprises that are located up boreens and small local roads that are connected to regional roads. These local and regional roads are essential so that businesses can get their goods to the marketplace.

Like many other counties, Monaghan and Cavan are unique in the large proportion of their populations living in rural areas. Many people, including parents taking their kids to school in the morning and people travelling to and from work, are travelling on substandard roads. While those roads have received funding, the amount of which has increased in recent years, that funding is not adequate to address the roads' condition. Monaghan has had no rail service since 1958, so the road network is the only show in town for people who have to get to and from their workplaces and for their social needs.

While I welcome the increased allocations, we will get fewer kilometres of road done throughout Ireland because inflation in the cost of materials is on the rise. The Government needs to take this point into consideration.

These small enterprises are dependent on the road network to get their goods and supplies to and from the marketplace. The road network is also critical for communities in getting from A to B. In many cases, roads are the only show in town. There is no doubt that increased funding is a must. We have been calling for it for years. Funding was cut in previous years, and while I am glad that the allocations have increased recently, much more needs to be done.

I welcome the Government's announcement on the local improvement scheme, LIS, two days ago. A total of €11 million has been allocated across the country, but it is inadequate to address the situation at hand. For example, County Monaghan will receive €351,000 while Cavan will receive €371,000. In Monaghan, there is a list of 131 lanes to be done. Some of them have been on what's called an historical list since 2005. While we are grateful for the €351,000, it will only do approximately five lanes. There are 13 people on the historical list who will be waiting the guts of 20 years to get their lanes done. That is not good enough. I welcome the funding, but this is another illustration of how more needs to be done. For rural Ireland, there is no other show in town. We have no rail or Luas. We need the local road network to get by.

Gabhaim buíochas leis on Seanadóir as ucht an cheist seo a ardú. I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The Senator made a good case for small enterprises in County Monaghan. Such SMEs are just as critical to our economy as the multinationals. They provide employment for small numbers of people - five to ten employees - and this has a positive knock-on effect on families, employability and rural development in their areas. The Senator also raised the issue of inflation, and while the LIS is welcome, it will never cover what is needed across the country. It is always oversubscribed.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on these roads are funded from councils' own resources, supplemented by State road grants, where applicable.

The major cuts to funding for regional and local roads during the post-2008 recession resulted in the build-up of a substantial backlog of works across the country, which the Senator referenced. The estimated cost of the backlog is in excess of €5 billion. Due to the pressures on regional and local road networks, approximately 90% of available Exchequer grant assistance to local authorities for regional and local roads is being directed to maintenance and renewal works. This is vital.

While funding is not at a level that would allow the backlog of roadworks across the country to be addressed, there have been significant increases in Exchequer grants for regional and local roads in the recent years. The 2022 allocation for regional and local roads is approximately €597 million - €46 million in current expenditure and €551 million in capital expenditure. This represents an increase of approximately 46% compared to 2017.

The main regional and local road grant programmes are targeted at the following specific policy objectives: pavement sealing to protect the road surface from water damage under the restoration maintenance grants; road strengthening based on pavement condition rating to lengthen the life of road pavements under the restoration improvement grants; and a discretionary grant that allows for a range of activities, including pothole repairs, edge strengthening, renewal of signs and lines, and winter maintenance. These three grant programmes account for most of the grant funding and are allocated based primarily on the length of the road network in a particular local authority area.

Within the available budget, the Department's grant funding for the maintenance of regional and local roads funding is allocated on as fair and equitable a basis as possible to eligible local authorities. In this context, grants in the main grant categories are allocated based on the length of the road network within a local authority's area of responsibility, with some account taken of traffic. It is envisaged that grants will continue to be made available on this basis.

Basing regional and local roads grant allocations on road conditions could result in an uneven distribution of Exchequer funding. For example, local authorities that allocate higher levels of own resource funding to regional and local roads will have a larger proportion of roads with a higher condition rating than those with lower levels of own resource funding. Basing allocations on road condition could, therefore, disincentivise local authorities from allocating own resource funding to roads maintenance.

The Department appreciates that, within the overall parameters set for the grant programme, local authorities might need to target funding at particular problem areas and there is sufficient flexibility in the structure of the grant programmes to allow for this. It is also open to each local authority to allocate its own resources to priority areas. In this context, the Department has supported the development of a road asset management system for regional and local roads – MapRoad - to provide the data needed for each local authority to manage its network as effectively as possible, including the prioritisation of works for inclusion in its maintenance and renewal works programme. The road pavement condition information generated by the MapRoad system forms the basis for the National Oversight and Audit Commission's performance reports each year.

While this reply does not entirely satisfy all of the questions raised by the Senator, I hope that he appreciates this year's increased allocation for local and regional roads.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. By all means, I welcome any funding that is provided to a local authority, as it is needed. I have made the case for many counties in rural Ireland, but particularly counties Monaghan and Cavan.

In many ways, it is a false economy not to keep roads at a certain standard. If adequate funding is not allocated to local authorities, the road network will get worse and it will ultimately take more money to repair it. The Minister of State can appreciate that there is a case for increased funding. For counties like Monaghan and Cavan, roads are the only show in town because there is no other mode of travel. It is essential that they be maintained to an adequate level. I ask that the Minister of State take that point back to the Minister.

An invitation has been issued to the Minister by the elected members of Monaghan County Council to visit the county and see at first hand the black spots in question. If the Minister of State also passed on that invitation on my behalf, I would welcome it.

I will speak to the Minister about that. It would be useful for him to see the situation at first hand.

The LIS is a useful scheme but, as I have seen across the country, including in my own county, it is virtually impossible to clear the backlog.

It is huge. However, the point is well made that it is supporting many small enterprises in rural areas that are critically important to the rural economy. It is important that solutions are found at a local level. Again, the responsibility is down to the local authority. There is a significant increase in capital moneys from the Department, but I am sure the local authority will be innovative in trying to find solutions at a local level. I will pass on the Senator's request to visit the county and have a look at the conditions first-hand to the Minister, Deputy Ryan.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit agus Seanadóir Gallagher. It is an important issue. The next Commencement matter is in the name of Senator Boylan. The Minister of State will be at home with this one.

Bord na Móna

I welcome the Minister of State. I am delighted he is here to answer the question because it relates to the mid-Shannon wilderness park, which I am sure he is familiar with. The issue is Bord na Móna promised that once it had finished removing peat, the bog would be handed back to the community. After spending generations harvesting peat, the local community decided it wanted a network of bogs that would be turned into a wilderness park. This was supported by the Longford senior planner in 2013. Mr. Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust has made a wonderful podcast on this issue, including the history of the plans for the wilderness park and the potential richness of its biodiversity. In the episode, he reviews the original plan for the wilderness park and describes what needs to happen.

In short, very little needs to be done on this site. A modest amount of intervention is sometimes needed to retain water in shallow lakes. Wilderness requires that we keep our hands off and let an ecological equilibrium that is in tune with the altered conditions establish itself. Left to their own devices, or rewilded, these cutaway bogs would generally flood once the pumps are switched off and, as the Minister of State knows, quickly revert to scenic areas with reeds and birch trees colonising them. In the process, we turn the bog from a carbon source to a carbon sink. We all know that if biodiversity is given the space it needs, it will flourish. The local community and economy would have a wonderful amenity they would be able to enjoy it, in addition to a tourism industry to sustain them.

The reason I raise this matter is the community was shocked to hear that Bord na Móna's plan for that site was to build a wind farm on it. While there is lots of misinformation about wind turbines killing birds, the types of birds that would use this particular site are cranes, white-tailed eagles and whooper swans. Wind farms would be a threat to them. Furthermore, when wind turbines are installed, the water must continue to be pumped, which results in net carbon emissions.

We know Bord na Móna withdrew its original application on this site. It was before a judicial review. I understand the reason Bord na Móna withdrew the application was it knew it was going to lose but, unfortunately, we now hear there is a strong possibility it will submit a new plan for a wind farm. It has been pumping water off the site throughout the winter, despite the high biodiversity value of the area. I recommend anybody to follow the Mid Shannon Wilderness Park social media account. One will see the place is a hive of activity when it comes to wildlife.

The crux of the question is that I urge the Minister of State to intervene now before the planning application is submitted to ensure the original proposal for the wilderness park goes ahead. The mid-Shannon park would go some way towards mitigating our climate and biodiversity crisis. Why is Bord na Móna pumping water off this site? I ask the Minister of State to directly intervene regarding that site and to support the community in its plans. As part of the just transition, it wants to see a wilderness park on this site. That is a win-win for everybody in terms of climate change, biodiversity and just transition. Why is Bord na Móna continuing to pump the land? Will the Minister of State intervene to ensure the mid-Shannon wilderness park, which is in the peatlands strategy, goes ahead?

It is good to get a question relating to my Department. I will set out the vision of Ireland's national peatlands strategy, which is "to provide a long-term framework within which all of the peatlands within the State can be managed responsibly in order to optimise their social, environmental and economic contribution to the well-being of this and future generations". The strategy sets out a cross-governmental approach to managing issues that relate to peatlands, including compliance with relevant national and international environmental legislation, climate change, forestry, water quality, flood control, energy, nature conservation and restoration, land use planning and agriculture. It is underlined by 25 key principles and commits to undertaking 32 actions across various sectors and themes including, among others, tourism, agriculture, forestry, conservation, energy, water quality and climate change. The strategy was developed in partnership between relevant Departments, State bodies and key stakeholders through the Peatlands Council.

The strategy was established to cover the period 2015 to 2025 and included provision for a mid-term review. The original principles and actions of the strategy were a positive attempt to stake out a plan in a rapidly changing context, with the understanding that circumstances were evolving and that goals and actions would need to be updated to match them. It was always intended to be a living document. The purpose of the mid-term review is, therefore, to provide a broader assessment on where the strategy currently is, what it can achieve over the coming years and, if necessary, to propose changes to the actions set out in the strategy to refocus it in line with its overall goals and the current context.

Internal drafting and consultations began in 2020 on the review with stakeholders consulted in the preparation of a draft mid-term review document. A public consultation on the mid-term review concluded at the end of June 2021, with a sizeable number of submissions received from individuals and bodies involved in the sector. The review proposes that the actions set out in the strategy be updated into a new implementation plan, which focuses on refining outstanding actions and prioritising measurable, achievable objectives. It is intended that the annual progress report will be published at the end of June 2022, with the outcome of the review published, subject to Government approval, shortly thereafter.

One of the strategy's actions relates to the consideration of the creation of a national peatlands park. My Department intends to undertake a feasibility assessment this year that would inform the establishment of such a park and examine existing and potential visitor facilities in the ownership of public, semi-State and voluntary bodies, such as the mid-Shannon wilderness park. The strategy also sets out the principles for the after-use of industrial cutover peatlands, climate change and the restoration and rehabilitation of sites. As part of just transition, under the enhanced decommissioning, rehabilitation and restoration scheme sponsored by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, and regulated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department, with Bord na Móna acting as the operators of the scheme, 33,000 ha of Bord na Móna peatlands that had peat extracted for electricity generation will be rehabilitated. The rehabilitation will take place on 82 bogs over a five-year period. Funding of €108 million is allocated for this scheme under the climate action fund but, subsequently, full funding was secured from the EU recovery and resilience facility.

It is my understanding that some mid-Shannon bogs, such as parts of Derryadd Bog and the Mountdillon Bog group, are included in scheme. I further understand that if the operator intends to sell, charge or carry out any development or economic activity on rehabilitated peatlands, it must first provide substitute lands with equivalent benefits as the original and to the satisfaction of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, as regulator. Any proposed development on peatlands will be subject, as required, to the planning process, associated environmental assessments and public participation mechanisms required under national and EU environmental law. Considerations regarding the use of peatlands are also an integral part of the current national land use review being undertaken as part of the programme for Government to ensure that optimal land use options inform all relevant Government decisions.

I thank the Minister of State for clarity on when we will see the mid-term review, which was due in quarter 1 of 2022. I am concerned about the reference to the operator, if it intends to sell, charge or carry out any development, being required to provide substitute lands with equivalent benefits because this site is already proving its value. Even if the national peatlands strategy is a living document, principle 16 states "cutaway bogs that flood naturally ... be permitted to flood unless there is a clear environmental and/or economic case to maintain pumped drainage". In addition, principle 18 states, "Environmentally, socially and economically viable options should be analysed to plan the future use of industrial cutaway[s] ... in conjunction with limiting factors as outlined in Bord na Móna’s Strategic Framework for the Future Use of Peatlands".

It is concerning if there is any hint that Bord na Móna will just substitute this location with another location because all we need to do is stop the pumping of the water. This site is an amenity for the local community and its biodiversity is thriving. That is a concern for me.

I thank the Senator. I know every dust of peat on Mountdillon Bog as it is close to me.

I reassure the Senator that any proposed development on peatlands would be subject to a planning process and environmental assessment, as I noted in my opening statement. This is a matter for Bord na Móna, which is a semi-State company. Our involvement is through the national peatlands strategy. The ultimate goal of the National Parks and Wildlife Service is to achieve the maximum value of biodiversity for Ireland. We have major objectives as regards nature under the next national biodiversity action plan. The specific issues raised are largely a matter for Bord na Móna. The engagement between Bord na Móna and the mid-Shannon wilderness park group is vital for that group. We all want to achieve the same objectives for nature and it is critically important that any proposals that are made are subject to all the environmental rigours that any other project would be subject to, particularly where there are such environmental and biodiversity sensitivities.

Rental Sector

The Minister of State is welcome. Based on statistics from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, in 2016, some 143,178 people were renting in Ireland. There will most likely be an increase in this number after the current census figures come out some time next year. The number of people renting is rising, with more apartment complex developments and build-to-rent schemes. These people, however, need to be protected during any disputes that may arise. Landlords also need support if they have any difficulties with tenants.

The Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, was established through the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to act as a service to mediate and provide dispute resolution between landlords and tenants. If someone is living beside a rented property and has an issue, the RTB can also assist him or her through mediation and appeals. The role of the RTB is to be an independent body, providing both support and knowledge for tenants and landlords and ensuring both parties know their rights and responsibilities. Unfortunately, the RTB has been poorly promoted with many tenants and landlords not being aware of the board or its function. Moreover, many landlords and tenants are contacting their local county councils regarding disputes. County councillors are not trained in mediation and can unfortunately only do so much to help with issues raised by those renting or letting.

The RTB has also experienced a shortfall in resources in recent years, with many cases taking a significant amount of time to be solved. I can personally attest to such a case. We had an issue when someone moved into a rental property beside my house and we were asked to go that route with the RTB. To be honest, I would not go that route again. I had to go the legal route because it was the only way to solve the issue we had, which ended up in court. Renters and landlords need to be made aware of the board, particularly those not from Ireland who may not know who they can contact if they are experiencing an issue. The RTB needs more power and adequate resources to deal with any disputes that may come before it. The number of people renting is increasing dramatically every year and both landlords and tenants need to be aware of the role of the RTB in the rental sector.

Along with my colleague, Councillor Deirdre Forde from Cork, I am working on drafting a Bill that will provide an adequate mediation service for homeowners experiencing neighbourhood nuisance. This Bill will require that the Legal Aid Board provide mediation services to resolve neighbours’ disputes as many people are unable to afford the high costs of the court system if they have to go down that route. Mediation is extremely important as both parties can co-operate and avoid unnecessary conflict or even court proceedings. However, there still need to be more resources allocated to the RTB. Many people do not want to use the RTB, including me in my case were it to happen again in the future, due to the backlog of disputes which is leading to more court cases and creating another backlog in the legal system. We have established a board to prevent disputes going to court but we need to allocate more resources to it and ensure it has adequate power to deal with those disputes.

Before the Minister of State makes his reply, I welcome our guests from St. Joseph's College, Lucan. They are very welcome and I assure them the Seanad is not always this empty. There are few Senators present. The first debate will take place when the students leave. We are dealing with Commencement Matters, which are the first business the Seanad deals with every day. They are specific issues and there are only a limited number of them. That is the reason there are a few Senators in the Chamber. I hope our guests have a lovely day.

I join the Acting Chairman in welcoming our guests from St. Joseph's College, Lucan. It is important that young people get to see our democracy in action. I thank them for being with us.

The RTB was established as an independent statutory body under the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2021 to operate a national tenancy registration system and facilitate the resolution of disputes between landlords and tenants. The RTB is quasi-judicial and its mediators, adjudicators and tribunal members have independent decision-making powers in the same way as a judge. The RTB replaces the courts for the vast majority of landlord and tenant disputes. It can award damages for breaches of obligations under the Residential Tenancies Acts of up to €20,000. Since July 2019, Part 7A of the Acts, on complaints, investigations and sanctions, provides the RTB with enhanced powers of investigation and sanction in respect of improper conduct by a landlord. Where it is found that a landlord has committed improper conduct the sanction imposed can be a written caution and a fine of up to €15,000 and up to €15,000 in costs, or both. The operation of the rental market and the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2021 are kept under constant review and any necessary legislation will be introduced to enhance their efficiency and effectiveness.

The RTB was allocated €11 million in Exchequer funding for 2021, an increase of €2 million on the previous year to reflect the expansion of the RTB's core functions as a result of new powers and functions conferred on it in 2019. In order to ensure that the RTB continues to be fully resourced to deliver on its mandate, €11 million was secured to fund the RTB's operational costs in 2022. Following recommendations in the RTB workforce plan for 2018 to 2021 and engagement with Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the RTB has received sanction for an additional 41 staff since 2019 to ensure that its enhanced powers and the new legislative provisions are fully implemented and enforced. This includes the sanctions granted in 2021 by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for two new full-time permanent senior posts at principal officer level and also for the remuneration of the director or CEO, to be set at assistant secretary level. The director was previously remunerated at the salary equivalent of principal officer. The authorised staff complement for the RTB is now 106.4 whole-time equivalents. The Department continues to engage with the RTB to guarantee that it has the funds and staffing it requires to effectively discharge its functions in the residential rental sector.

It is easy to say these positions have been sanctioned but the reality on the ground is different. It is frustrating for landlords, tenants and neighbours that when they engage they are looking at a two-year process, which is not acceptable. Is it possible to get a review of the figures that have been sanctioned and to find out what the current position is? Have these principal officer and staff level positions been filled? Can we get a report on where we are with regard to the number of disputes that have been logged and settled and the length of time it takes for them to go through the process? If it is going to take two to three years to settle a dispute, that is not acceptable. I would be grateful if those figures could be provided and if the report on that could be forwarded to me. I am also hopeful that when I come with the Bill I mentioned, which we have been working on with the Bills Office and drafters, it will be supported. I forgot to say hello to the students who have joined us. I will say goodbye to them and I hope they enjoy their day here.

The figures the Senator is seeking would be useful. I can go back to the Department and look for them. I am sure all those data and figures are available and that they would be useful to Members. I will ask the Department to provide them via the RTB, which might be useful. The additional resources that have been provided, given the enhanced functions of the RTB, are substantial. It may take considerable time to see the impact of those resources, given the complexity of the issues between tenants and landlords and the additional supports the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has put in place to protect tenants' rights.

We are keen to ensure that both tenant and landlord are protected in the system and the RTB is there to perform that function. We can certainly look for that data and send it on to the Senator.

National Parks

The Phoenix Park is a much-loved amenity and natural asset. It is not just for the people of Dublin 15 and west Dublin, whom I work for, but for the whole country. People came to the park for the visit of the Pope in 1979, which was my first visit. They come to visit Jinpa, the red panda, in Dublin Zoo. They come to play GAA or cricket, which is the fastest growing sport in west Dublin. They use it for a weekly walk. The Phoenix Park is not your average park and there are very strongly held views about how the park is managed. It is a busy, living and breathing park, and we want it to be used and enjoyed. We must also ensure it is protected as a home for biodiversity and nature. It requires a balance of needs and those needs have changed over the past decade, and need to change further, based on our sustainability and climate change agendas.

The transport and mobility study last year gave us an opportunity to debate and discuss the changes required and the needs of the park. The Office of Public Works, OPW, and the Minister listened to people who said they want better and safer cycling facilities and walking trails and paths, and better and safer links to the park, including by public transport. They do not want the park to be used only as a commuter highway into town or as an all-day car park for commuters. Can we please not throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Every week, I receive voicemail messages from older people who used to use Chesterfield Avenue, which runs the length of the park, for parking to access walks in areas that are unspoiled and are not congested. They cannot find places to park anymore. They need alternatives to be able to enjoy the park and spread out across it.

I thank the OPW for its engagement with Dublin Zoo to address its parking needs. Additional spaces have been provided on North Road. Councillor Siobhán Shovlin from Castleknock has suggested age-friendly spaces and says the needs of our elderly are not being addressed. I agree with her. We need alternatives and more information about how people can access parking. Perhaps an application could tell people where car parking is available across the various pockets of the park.

I would like to hear about the progress of the trial for a bus to run from Heuston Station to the Cabra gate. I believe that, as part of the trial, it was found that the bus did not fit through the gate. I reiterate the views of the community, who would prefer a shuttle bus that brings people to all different parts of the park. We should consider a dedicated and climate-friendly electric bus to bring people all over the park.

The 30 km/h speed limit on Chesterfield Avenue is not working. I am all for such a speed limit, especially in densely-populated areas such as estates, where there are volumes of children. That would apply to certain areas of the park but Chesterfield Avenue is a straight road on which people are highly alert and enjoying the scenery around them. Drivers are trying to observe the 30 km/h speed limit but with the best will in the world, they are not doing so. This is where people get frustrated. We are trying to bring them on a green and sustainable journey with us, as we need to. When people see things like that speed limit, it frustrates them. The limit is not workable or practical for people and is putting them off. Can we be green and practical?

We have heard loud and clear from the OPW that cars are not welcome in the park but that also affects people who visit the park. The OPW has tried to close three of the gates to exiting traffic and is not providing alternative parking spaces. The 30 km/h speed limit is not workable for cars. The OPW is telling us that cars are not welcome but when there are not sufficient public transport links, it is telling us that people are not welcome. There is a fear that the OPW is working alone and not with county councils. When the OPW makes decisions, it impacts on the surrounding communities and the county councils are having to deal with those impacts. We want co-operation. Everybody wants to reduce car use and traffic but the OPW must work with the area, as has been said by Councillor Colm O'Rourke of Dublin City Council.

Like the Senator, I was in the Phoenix Park for the visit of the Pope in 1979 and still have fond memories of it. The Senator has outlined the challenges facing this hugely popular resource for the people of Dublin. It is one of the largest public parks in Europe, as far as I am aware. It is important that the park should be a living, breathing space for everyone, and for all other species, including exotic species, that occupy the park. It is critical that we get this right.

I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, who is deeply committed to ensuring that the sustainable use of the park continues into the future. The post-consultation report for the Phoenix Park transport and mobility study was launched last summer. The consultation process saw over 2,200 people engage with the OPW on their vision for the Phoenix Park. The Phoenix Park transport and mobility options study recognised the diverse and complex functions that the park serves, including its historic landscape, biodiversity habitats, visitor attractions and recreational spaces, along with its significant institutions and places of work.

The study proposed that the recommendations would be undertaken in three phases over the next seven years. Within the study, five common themes emerged in the areas of walking and cycling; access, gates and roads; public transport; movement within the park; and public consultation. The study proposed that the recommendations will be undertaken in three phases over the next seven years. I am proud that works are well advanced for the projects identified in phase 1.

A pilot study has been implemented for nine months for culs-de-sac on the North Road and Upper Glen Road. This commenced on Monday, 28 February 2022. The North Road has new road markings and signage, and is operating a one-way system in the city direction only. The OPW has erected signage at both entrances to the Upper Glen Road notifying motorists of this. Bollards delineating the cul-de-sac have been installed to allow cyclists, wheelchairs and people with buggies access. In addition, there are two cycle lanes clearly marked on the North Road.

The design and plans for the 8 km permanent one-directional cycle lanes along both sides of Chesterfield Avenue, linking Castleknock to the city, are currently being advanced with the National Transport Authority and Dublin City Council. Baseline topographical surveys are currently being undertaken. The OPW has installed traffic lane separators along the entire length of Chesterfield Avenue, on both sides of the road, providing a safer environment for cyclists. More than 8 km of temporary cones have been removed and these new durable and strong lane separators will ensure a safer experience for both cyclists and vehicles using Chesterfield Avenue. In addition, more than 40 new bike stands have been installed throughout the park, with another 70 planned for 2022.

A 30 km/h speed limit was implemented in the park on 28 February. The reduction of the speed limit for all traffic will preserve the park as an access route to Dublin, while safely accommodating access for all. I take on board the points opposing it but it is critical that the 30 km/h limit be retained. It was introduced in the interests of public safety and there has been a significant reduction of speeds within the park with a noticeable change in driver behaviour, which is what this is all about. Drivers may not slow to a speed of 30 km/h but they are keeping their speed lower, which is critical. It makes the park a safer place for all visitors. While there may be some frustration regarding this reduction in speed, studies have shown that lower speeds reduce the risk of fatalities dramatically. It should be noted that when motorists exit the park towards the city, the same 30 km/h speed limit applies. This speed limit has been adopted in many other urban areas across Europe, including in cities in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, not only for safety reasons, but to reduce noise, air pollution and CO2 emissions.

Parking remains a concern in the park. There are approximately 2,000 dedicated parking spaces available for the public to use. These include five car parks linked to Chesterfield Avenue and all of these car parks are served by surfaced footpaths traversing the park. As part of the pilot one-way scheme on the North Road, the OPW has created further car parking spaces to facilitate visitors to the park and visitors to Dublin Zoo. The OPW is undertaking a parking strategy for the park. A commencement meeting is due to take place later this week with the appointed consultants. This six-month study will include a baseline review, identify options, undertake public consultation and make a series of recommendations.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. He said that drivers may not slow to a speed of 30 km/h and that is where the frustration is coming from.

They are trying to hit the 30 km/h speed limit. People want to make the park work for everybody. I have noticed a decrease in speed and I accept that, overall, things are improving. However, people should not be penalised for not observing the 30 km/h limit.

I do not know where the 2,000 parking spaces are. I welcome the parking strategy. Perhaps the issue is around communications, but the frustration is there. Elderly people and people who are not mobile need to be able to access the park in the way that they could before. It is brilliant that we are progressing on active travel, but we also have to make sure visitors who want to enjoy the park are able to do so and, most important, that they feel welcome in the park. At the moment, communities are telling me they do not feel welcome.

I again welcome the visitors in the public gallery. I did not respond to the issue the Senator raised around the shuttle bus. We have implemented similar schemes in Glenveagh National Park, and we are looking at this because there are increased visitor numbers across our parks. The National Transport Authority is reviewing bus options for a pilot bus route linking the Phoenix Park to Heuston and Broombridge stations. That might be an option.

The Minister and the Office of Public Works are deeply committed to ensuring that the Phoenix Park is for everybody and that people can access it and feel safe in it. That is critically important for people of all ages. Long-stay commuter parking, as well as high levels of illegal parking around the perimeter of the park, were identified as major issues in the transport and mobility study. Therefore, those issues have to be addressed. We have to look at this outside the context of the park itself and look at parking options as well. We want the park to be a sustainable place for everybody to enjoy. It is a huge amenity for the people of Dublin. As I said, the Minister of State, Deputy Donovan, is committed to ensuring the park is available for everybody to enjoy.

Heritage Sites

Before I call Senator O'Loughlin, I welcome the guests from the Abbeyfeale Active Retirement Association to the Seanad. They had a long journey. They are very welcome and I hope they enjoy their day and the few minutes of this session.

The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has had a mixed grill, from Gaelscoileanna in Roscommon to the Curragh of Kildare. Is he taking the next matter?

The Minister of State is familiar with this matter as his mother is from beside the Curragh.

She is. I think we have the Minister of State with responsibility for this matter in the Chamber.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for his responses and co-operation as he took five Commencement matters. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon. I will move from one Kildare person to another and call Senator O'Loughlin.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for accepting this Commencement matter on the Curragh Plains. As the Minister of State will be aware, the Curragh is a jewel in the crown of Kildare. It is something we are truly proud of as Lilywhites. It is incumbent upon us as political leaders to ensure we do everything in our power to protect the Curragh's heritage and ecological value and ensure we use it to its fullest potential.

The Curragh is home to the Army, the racing industry and, of course, many sheep. Many hundreds of years ago, it was also home to Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna, and of course St. Brigid. It is a place of great importance from an ecological, archaeological and cultural perspective, with the film "Braveheart" having been filmed there. It is a great place for local people in which to walk and enjoy as it is bordered by Kildare, Newbridge, Milltown, Athgarvan, Kilcullen, and Rathangan. During the two years of Covid, it provided a great leisure facility for people. Local people have a great respect for it. For this and many other reasons, it should have the highest level of protection, while affording the opportunity for people, both locally and nationally, to enjoy its beautiful surroundings. We should seek UNESCO world heritage status for the Curragh because it is an important focal point in County Kildare. Some months ago, I also raised a Commencement matter on this matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. UNESCO world heritage status is the Holy Grail we should aim for.

The Curragh has its own unique administrative arrangements enshrined in law, in the Curragh of Kildare Act 1961. For several years, there have been ongoing issues with illegal dumping and encampments on the Curragh. These completely take away from its beauty for those who wish to use it daily and can deter people from utilising a local amenity. Earlier this week, there was an illegal encampment of 25 caravans. I thank Inspector James Molloy for his help in ensuring the group in question was disbanded, but we must do more in this regard.

In July 2021, there were a number of online focus group workshops on the Curragh Plains. These were initiated by the director of services at Kildare County Council, Joe Boland, and the Department of Defence. The Paul Hogarth Company was also involved. It undertook a conservation management plan and a branding, wayfinding and interpretation plan for the Curragh Plains. Such was the interest that 4,000 people responded. There is significant scope in that work to secure the long-term viability of the Curragh. The aim of the project is to help protect and conserve the special status of this landscape, manage more effectively the diverse yet critical uses of the plains and realise the Curragh's potential as a destination of value to locals and visitors alike.

I have been calling and lobbying for many years to see the Curragh designated national heritage status, and I believe such a designation would further protect the Curragh in the longer term. It is a truly unique landscape and a wonderful amenity. It was used as a meeting site during pre-Christian societies. The Curragh is shrouded in a mist of mythology. It has a close connection with the Hill of Allen as well as St. Brigid.

The 5,000 acres of the Curragh are under the care and protection of the Department of Defence and it is considered to be the oldest and most extensive such tract in Europe. It provides the setting for one of Ireland’s most significant prehistoric landscapes. There is no doubt of its significance or potential. However, we need to do more to protect this vital heritage site. We have seen unacceptable levels of dumping and fly-tipping, as well as significant damage at key sites such as the Gibbet Rath. That is wholly unacceptable. I am pleased that the circular economy Bill will pave the way for use of CCTV to detect and deter illegal dumping and littering, and I am hopeful that this will be utilised to protect the Curragh. What will the Government do to help that process?

On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, I thank the Senator for raising the matter of the Curragh consultancy study. The Minister has asked me to convey his regrets to the House that he could not be here and has specifically asked me to reassure the Senator that in both his current role and as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who oversaw the development of newly constructed racing stadium, he has a keen appreciation of and affinity with the Curragh.

Needless to say, as a local Deputy for the area, I am passionate about the Curragh Plains, as I know the Senator is. We are acutely aware of the huge potential that exists but also the challenges in terms of its ongoing management on a day-to-day basis.

The affinity we have is not just based on the military, sheep or horse racing sectors. The Government is keen to see those activities continue, but it is important that the 5,000 acres of unique grassland, as a place of significant natural beauty, should be protected for generations to come. To that end, the Department of Defence together with Kildare County Council have embarked on a unique collaboration aimed at finding a way forward in addressing the many challenges involved in managing and developing the Curragh Plains.

The key objectives of this collaborative work are to implement best practice to protect the landscape, care for its natural qualities and uniqueness while balancing the needs of its different users and potentially improve the recreational and educational value of the Curragh as a resource to local people, while also increasing visitor numbers on a sustainable basis.

Obviously that would of huge benefit to the local south Kildare economy.

A public consultation process commenced in March 2021 which, given Covid restrictions, was conducted through the Curragh Plains website. The response, as the Senator has touched on, was phenomenal. Over 3,600 responses were received thus demonstrating the strength of feeling about the Curragh Plains. This was followed by a series of targeted virtual workshops with various stakeholders, which involved several Members of both Houses as well as local councillors. The Minister has asked me to thank all of them for their participation.

In terms of the next steps, a conservation management plan for the Curragh Plains is due to be submitted to the Department of Defence and Kildare County Council in the coming weeks. That will be followed by an interpretation and branding plan that is centred around the potential development of the plains as a cultural and amenity attraction. I, like many others, look forward to exploring these reports in depth and the potential they have for the improved management of the Curragh Plains from a conservation perspective, and into the future.

While the study is scheduled for completion by June 2022, the Minister is prepared to see the deadline extended if needed as it is essential that we get this once-in-a-generation opportunity right, as the Senator will no doubt agree.

I conclude by thanking the Senator for raising this matter and look forward to answering any additional comments that she may make. The main takeaway point is that the Government is determined to protect the Curragh and enhance and develop all of its great attributes for the benefit of everybody whether that is local people, tourists and visitors, or stakeholders who depend on the Curragh Plains as part of their livelihood. The Government is determined to do so in a sustainable way that protects the unique history of the Curragh Plains, which the Senator referenced.

The process has taken time but it is really important and a great opportunity for us. I am delighted to discuss this matter with the Senator here today.

I thank the Minister of State for his response.

I am pleased to hear that the conservation management plan is due to be submitted to the Department and Kildare County Council in the coming weeks. Obviously there will be a plan around the potential development of the plains. While the study is scheduled to be completed in June 2022, I am not sure that we should seek the deadline to be extended because we need action sooner rather than later.

Earlier I mentioned the illegal encampment. In the coming weeks I will re-introduce a Bill, which I introduced in the Dáil, to ban any encampment on this key site without a licence. Will the Minister of State support my Bill? I also ask the Minister and the Minister of State present to support the notion of the Curragh receiving national protection as a national heritage park and that we consider submitting an application for protective status to UNESCO.

I accept that the Minister of State is here on behalf of the Minister for Defence and to read the speaking note that was provided. However, as the Minister of State is a Deputy who represents Kildare, I ask that he supports all that I have asked.

I thank the Senator for her comments and appreciate her interest in this matter. I am aware of her recent announcement that she intends to introduce a Private Members' Bill on the permitted use of the plains. While I do not wish to assume the outcome of the study I think that we can both agree that there is a need to place the management of the plains on a modern footing with which I am sure everyone who lives in proximity to the Curragh Plains will agree.

The Senator mentioned the recent illegal encampment. We are aware that on a very a regular basis during spring and summer the Department of Defence and An Garda Síochána work closely together to deal with illegal encampments and trespassers on the plains, and particularly during the summer months. This was a feature of a significant number of comments that were received during the public consultation phase, which is no surprise to anyone who has been a public representative for the area. It is very clear and important that the challenge must be dealt with as part of a conservation management plan.

Sadly, fly-tipping is a feature of the misuse of the Curragh Plains. While the Department of Defence has a waste collector on-call to clean up, it is very difficult to prevent such anti-social behaviour but the issue cannot be ignored and we must proactively manage the plains into the future. I note all of the Senator's comments and will convey them to the Minister, including applying to UNESCO for protective status. My view of the ongoing management of the plains is that we must strike the right balance between conservation and proactive protection yet not shut off the plains from the people who depend on and use them. I think that we can get strike the right balance with this process.

As both the Senator and Minister of State have said, the Curragh Plains is a beautiful and unique landscape. It is a particularly lovely location for a drive.

I thank the Minister of State, fellow colleagues and staff. The ushers were very good at telling us who was in the Gallery today.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.46 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar meán lae.
Sitting suspended at 11.46 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.