Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Vol. 285 No. 2

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Primary Care Centres

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The Minister of State always comes into this House with good intention and he will be delivering an answer on behalf of the HSE. As the Minister of State knows, the north Wexford area is one of the fastest growing in the country when it comes to population and that has meant there has been a lot of pressure on healthcare. There was a commitment by the HSE to develop a primary care centre there and excellent medical services are provided by the GPs in the Gorey and north Wexford area but they are under pressure because the population continues to expand. There was a clear commitment given that we would have a primary care centre and a community healthcare network put in place and indications were given 12 months ago that this was all on track and proceeding apace, that a community intervention team was being appointed and so on. There does not seem to have been much progress in the past 12 months. At the time we were told that a developer had been appointed, that plans would be laid out and that construction would take 12, 14 or 15 months. That was the answer 12 months ago and I asked for a meeting with the HSE about a month ago and followed up with emails. I did not get a response but on tabling this Commencement matter, I got an email response last night, which gave me much the same answer I was given 12 months ago. I was told that agreement has been reached for lease and construction work to commence on site and that the construction programme will take approximately 12 to 14 months but that a detailed programme would be issued by the developer prior to the commencement of work. If it will take 12 to 14 months I want to know when the developer will be on site. When is the end of that 12 to 14 months programme when we will see the primary care centre built?

In 2014, the HSE decided to close the health centre down the road in Camolin. That was greeted by a lot of annoyance from residents in the Camolin area and there were discussions with Wexford County Council about the council possibly acquiring it. The council assessed it and decided not to proceed with acquiring it at that stage. At the time, in 2018, my colleague, Councillor Joe Sullivan, raised this issue at the regional health forum in Cork and he was told that this centre would be offered to various agencies but that if the various agencies did not want it then it would go on the open market.

In 2018, the HSE stated it was in the process of disposing of the property. In the email I received from the HSE yesterday in response to my queries, it gave the same answer it gave in 2018, stating it will talk to the various agencies to see if they are interested but if they are not, it will put it on the open market and dispose of it. That is basically the same answer, four years later. This is something others have been raising as well, such as Councillor Donal Kenny and Jack Redmond of the local community development association in Camolin, because they want to make use of the facility. For eight years the HSE has sat on a building that is in very good nick in the heart of Camolin village and done nothing about it and we are getting the exact same answer we got in 2018 as to what it is going to do with the property. I hope the Minister of State can use his good offices to advance the challenge with regard to both the Gorey primary care centre and the Camolin HSE building.

Before I call the Minister of State, I remind everybody of the time slots. They have four minutes each and then one minute after that. That is not aimed at Senator Byrne because he has been excellent in that regard. I welcome the Minister of State.

I thought I was on time.

You were. That was aimed at everyone. I am just pointing it out.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and I welcome the opportunity to provide an update to the House on this very important matter. The ongoing development of both community and primary care is core to the Sláintecare vision. The Government is committed to ensuring local people are provided with the care they need as close to home as possible and have access to a wider range of health and social care services within their community. The development of primary care centres in communities such as Gorey is a practical illustration of this.

The HSE has advised that a third primary care centre for Gorey is currently under development. This centre is with a local GP practice which will extend and develop its existing building in line with HSE requirements. I am happy to be able to inform the Senator, and he may have been informed last night by email as well, that floorplans have been agreed, that planning permission has been granted and that HSE estates are currently awaiting completion of the agreement for lease. I am also advised that the HSE is currently working with the developer on the issue regarding the quantity and location of car parking being offered. Further to this, a proposal has been presented that is currently under review. All in all, this primary care centre is a very welcome development. It will act as a single point of access for health and social care delivery. The primary care team will include GPs working alongside public health nurses and other healthcare professionals, including occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists. This team will also link in with wider community network services, including dental care and hearing specialists, amongst others.

The Senator also asked about the HSE clinic building in Camolin, County Wexford, which was formerly a health centre and is currently vacant. This is a detached building on its own site which is owned freehold by the HSE. The HSE is currently checking the title of the property with the intention of disposing of the site. The various State agencies are to be advised in the next few weeks on the pending sale in accordance the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform circular 11/15 on the protocols for the transfer and sharing of State property assets. If there is no interest from these agencies, the property will be put onto the open market.

The Senator said this issue has been ongoing for the last four years. It is simply not acceptable that four years later we are in the same situation. I will raise it within the Department and within Government. The Government is committed to continued investment in the development of primary care centres nationwide, in both urban and rural areas. We know how important they are around the country. Senator Murphy has seen it in his own area and I have seen it in mine. They take the pressure off accident and emergency departments and many other facilities and provide a very valuable service. They have a crucial role to play in enhancing and expanding capacity in the primary care sector to deliver high-quality, integrated care to people in their own communities. I am sure this new primary care centre in Gorey will be a valued community asset. This process has been far too slow. I thank the Senator for raising this issue again in the House.

I welcome that the Minister of State will pursue this matter with the HSE. There is excellent healthcare provision from the local GPs in north Wexford but we have been promised this additional primary care centre in Gorey and have been waiting a long time, and there does not seem to be progress. I would be particularly grateful for anything the Minister of State can do to expedite the matter.

On the building in Camolin, I am very concerned that the Minister of State's answer, and I appreciate that he is only reading what was given to him, states, "The HSE is currently checking the title of the property with the intention of disposing of the site." One would imagine, given that it has a freehold, that the HSE would know the detail of the title. It closed the building in 2014 and has been talking about trying to dispose of it over the last eight years. You would think that over an eight-year period the HSE would have worked out where the title is. I ask the Minister of State to expedite that in order that the community in Camolin can see that building put to good use.

As always, the Senator is exemplary on time.

I will raise that issue again. The Senator makes a lot of sense. In the eight years since 2014, that title should have been investigated. We should not be in this situation and I will raise it with the Minister. Good progress continues to be made in the development and roll-out of primary care centres and 150 are now operational. Some 12 of these opened in the last 12 months despite the challenges posed by Covid, and a further 21 are at various stages of the construction and equipping process and are expected to open in 2022. I am sure the Senator is aware that Wexford has benefited, and will continue to benefit, from our investment in primary care. In addition to the new primary care centre for Gorey that we have been discussing today, a centre in New Ross is in the early stages of planning while a primary care centre in Enniscorthy is due to become operational by the end of the third quarter of this year. These are in addition to the three Wexford primary care centres that are already operational, with one in Wexford town and two in Gorey. I am sure we can agree that these multi-purpose facilities have a key role to play in supporting the health of local communities and in transforming the way we deliver healthcare in Ireland.

Central Statistics Office

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. The census has now taken place and has hopefully reached the stage where the last few forms are trickling back to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, either via the census enumerators or by post. It is important that we get some clarity on an issue that arose before the census took place. Senator Malcolm Byrne raised this matter at one point and I have also raised it a few times in the House. In March, the CSO issued some rather strange guidance regarding the question on the census form that asked a person's sex and whether they were male or female. On its website, the CSO advised people as follows:

If you are uncomfortable ticking one of these options you may signal this by marking both boxes. However, for statistical analysis purposes all entries will be assigned a sex ... at random.

This advice was truly bizarre. Regardless of what one thinks of the debate about the easily labelled but not so easily defined issue of transgender rights, this issue raises two significant problems. First, to assign sex at random is ridiculous since it will skew the result of the census to some degree. While mathematically, with a 50:50 chance of the correct sex being randomly assigned the difference might be very small, the whole idea of the census is that it should be as accurate as humanly possible. That aspiration is predicated on the legal requirement for people to give accurate information. That CSO advice seemed to deliberately incorporate, envisage and encourage inaccuracy in the results.

Second, and far more serious, is the issue I just mentioned.

The advice from the CSO to mark both the male and female boxes appears to induce or encourage people to fill out the census form in a way that commits a breach of the law. The census form itself references section 43 of the Statistics Act 1993, which states that any person who knowingly provides false information "may be subject to a fine of up to €44,440.". There are no ifs, buts or maybes about that. It is a serious breach carrying a serious fine, to knowingly provide false information and anybody, as I have said, who knowingly provides false information is subject to such a fine. There is no exemption in the Act for anybody who is "uncomfortable" about answering truthfully and yet anyone who followed the guidance on the CSO website would be clearly breaching the law. It is not possible to be both male and female at the same time. To say that one is both male and female is completely false. It is clear breach of the Statistics Act and in this case, a breach encouraged by the CSO.

A statutory agency appearing to condone a breach of the law governing its own statutory functions is a serious matter and I ask the Minister of State to address a number of issues arising from this. First, how does the guidance from the CSO possibly accord, in the Government's view, with the provisions of the Statistics Act of 1993? Does it not fly in the face of section 43 of that Act? Second, why was the CSO encouraging people to break the law by giving false information in a census form? Third, was the Taoiseach consulted before such advice was issued? Fourth, are there any other sections of the census form which people could disregard if they are "uncomfortable" with answering accurately or does the exemption only apply to people who consider themselves to be transgender and if so, what is the logic underpinning that?

Those are my issues and I hope I have stayed within the allotted time. I think I have, by 23 seconds. I have set a record for myself. I try not to do that too often.

Under Commission Regulation (EU) 2017/543, the CSO is legally obliged to produce data on sex, with response options limited to male and female only in census 2022. This is reflected in question No.2 on the census form which asks "What is your sex?" with response options of "Male" and "Female".

The CSO launched a public consultation on the content of the census 2022 questionnaire in late 2017. As part of this consultation, members of the public and interested stakeholders were invited to submit their requests for new questions and revisions to existing questions. To assist the CSO in assessing the submissions, a census advisory group, CAG, was formed. Membership of the CAG was drawn from organisations and groups who regularly use census data. The CAG made recommendations on which new and revised questions should be tested during a census pilot survey which was held in September 2018. Following the pilot, the CAG assisted the CSO in deciding which questions should be recommended to Government for inclusion on the census form.

During the consultation process, several submissions were made requesting a new question on gender identity. As gender identity is an emerging area for statistical data collection, the CAG proposed that the CSO should test and develop a new question that would capture robust data on gender identity before it should be considered for inclusion on a census. Subsequent to the consultation, the CSO has introduced a new gender identity question on both a household survey and as part of the new PULSE surveys. The CSO's view is that the new question has performed well and that it will be recommended for pilot testing as part of the preparations for the next census. Inclusion of the new gender identity question in the next census will be subject to approval by the CAG and ultimately, by the Government.

The CSO is aware that in the absence of a question on gender identity on the census form, some members of the public may have difficulty in responding to the question on sex as it appears on the census form. In order to make the census as inclusive as possible, the CSO has advised that for people who have such a difficulty, they can mark both male and female boxes. In order to meet the aforementioned EU regulation, the CSO is legally obliged to categorise the sex of all persons on the census as either male or female. When both response options have been marked on the census form, the CSO will be required to impute a value of either male or female to each digital record. The imputation of these values will reflect the distribution of the sex variable across the population, which is approximately 50:50. The digital data will be used as the basis for census statistical publications and will only be released in aggregated form. The CSO will not make any amendments to the paper forms returned from the public. Thus, should someone mark both boxes in the sex question on their census form, this paper record will remain unchanged and will be what is made public 100 years after the census, in line with section 35 of the Statistics Act 1993.

Census 2022 also contains a new time capsule section which provides a space on the form where households have the option to write a message of their choosing. Along with the rest of the census forms, these messages will be placed in secure storage until the release of the forms after 100 years. The time capsules provide an opportunity for members of the public to record information not otherwise captured on the census form. SI 637 of 2020, the census of population order, outlines which questions on the census questionnaire are required to be responded to for each person present in the State on census night. The set of questions will vary depending on factors such as the age and economic status of the respondent. All questions relevant to the respondent require a response.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply but the first thing that strikes me is the tense of the response. Phrases like "the CSO has advised that for people who have such a difficulty, they can mark both male and female boxes" suggest that this is an old script, written at the time that this was first raised and before census night. It suggests to me that the Government has not actually considered the issue I have raised at all, which is about the illegality that I propose was a part of what the CSO recommended. It also illustrates that the CSO knew and foresaw that this was going to be an issue for a long time and yet it went ahead with proposing an illegal approach to the filling out of the census form. Was any consideration given to encouraging people to just not fill out that box? Would that have been a legal satisfaction of the requirement on the citizen filling out the census form? Would that not have been a better solution?

The issue here is that if transgender people can choose not to answer a question on their sex because they are uncomfortable about doing so, then what other sections of the form can be ignored because people are uncomfortable with them? The census asks very personal questions about people's health and relationship status, for example. Indeed, asking farmers to state the acreage of their farms, as everybody knows, is to go where many farmers would not seek to go. If such respondents were uncomfortable about answering the questions accurately, would they be entitled to a dispensation from the CSO? If one question can be answered wrongly, deliberately, then surely all questions could, theoretically, be ignored or answered wrongly. That is the key point.

Senator, I have been more than generous with the time.

Okay, I will finish now. My worry is that left-wing political ideology is infecting every aspect of public life. The census should be strict and impartial.

Senator, the same rules must apply to everyone.

It is designed to gather statistics and cold, hard facts in an unabashed manner.

The public-facing phase of the census 2022 project is now complete and the CSO has begun the processing of the collected census forms. During the last number of weeks, the CSO has received queries and observations from members of the public and other stakeholders about the sex question, the advice relating to the sex question and the lack of a gender identity question on this year's census form. These observations will be a valuable input as the CSO embarks on the public consultation process which will ultimately lead to decisions on which questions will be included on the next census. The consultation process is expected to begin later this year and there will be an opportunity for any parties to give their views on all aspects of the census questionnaire, including which new topics should be included in census 2027 and which existing questions should be changed or removed.

I apologise for cutting across Senator Mullen but I am trying to keep to the show on the road.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in to respond and appreciate Senator Mullen's co-operation.

Construction Industry

I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan, for coming to the House to address this very important Commencement matter dealing with the exceptional costs and materials inflation which has occurred within the construction sector and its impact on public works contracts, particularly social and affordable housing projects.

It has been well documented that as economies reopened in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, significant inflation coupled with shortages in the supply of particular construction materials was experienced by the sector. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated these pressures considerably. We have also seen significant increases in energy prices which are driving even further price increases and leading to great uncertainty around the delivery periods for certain construction materials.

According to the main indices for building and construction materials, the significant movements in timber and steel prices experienced in 2020 have accelerated even further and broadened to include other materials such as plastics, insulation and electrical and plumbing fittings. The breadth of the price increases is in excess of anything experienced in the past decade and they continue to fluctuate almost weekly. The all-materials category of the detailed wholesale price indices for building and construction materials saw a 16.9% increase in the 12 months to the end of March 2022, with some subcategories such as structural steel and rough timber experiencing increases of 64.1% and 46.3%, respectively. As we know, energy prices showed marked increases in the latter half of 2021 and since January, they have increased even further. This has a direct impact on costs in the construction sector, particularly for those projects with a significant reliance on heavy machinery, while higher energy costs have an indirect impact through the increased costs of manufacturing and transporting materials, which is driving even further price inflation.

I acknowledge that as a consequence of the challenges experienced during 2021, amendments to address further price volatility were announced by the Government in November of last year but that these applied only to new contracts. The amendments did not address energy price volatility, the delays caused by supply chain disruption or inflation in respect of new materials that has occurred since then. They did not apply to projects that are currently on site. As a result, as the Minister of State will be aware, many housing projects throughout the country will come in at a cost well above that in the fixed-price contract, which was signed before the project got under way, through no fault of the developer. Many developers simply cannot afford to risk sustaining significant losses, so some builders have downed tools and withdrawn from sites, which, obviously, we do not want to see at a time of acute housing need. This is an area on which I have been calling for significant action over a sustained period, so I was delighted yesterday to see our Government colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, announce the introduction of a new inflation co-operation framework for those parties currently engaged in public works contracts. I understand it is intended the framework will operate on the basis that the State will burden-share the inflationary costs on a 70:30 basis with a developer after both parties have carried out an open-book exercise detailing the additional costs being experienced to bring the project through to completion.

I am sure the Minister of State will expand on that in his reply. In addition, he might explain what was announced yesterday and touch on how the 70:30 figure was arrived at and why it was not 60:40, for example, or 80:20 in order that I can understand the thinking of the Department.

I welcome the pupils to the Visitors Gallery. It is always fantastic when students come to the Houses and see how our democracy works, so they are very welcome.

A key priority for the Government is that everybody should have access to sustainable, good-quality housing for purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard, located close to essential services and offering a high quality of life. The Government plans to increase the supply of housing to an average of 33,000 units per year over the next decade. This includes the delivery of 90,000 social homes, 36,000 affordable purchase homes and 18,000 cost-rental homes by 2030. Housing for All is supported by an investment package of more than €4 billion per annum.

One key challenge being faced during 2022 relates to the significant level of construction inflation, which has led to delays in some projects because contractors face difficulty in meeting contracted prices. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and departmental officials have been working closely with stakeholders, including the local authorities, approved housing bodies and construction industry representatives, and there is clear evidence of the impact inflation is having on public housing projects, as the Senator outlined. The Minister has been engaging on this matter with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who has responsibility for public procurement policy.

In January, the Office of Government Procurement, which is under the latter Minister’s remit, introduced measures applying to new public works contracts. Under these arrangements, the fixed-price period for public works contracts was reduced to 24 months and mutual cost recovery is permitted within the fixed-price period for material price changes in excess of 15%. Provision was also made for the indexation of the materials element of the tender sum from the point at which the tender was submitted to the award of the contract. In the interests of further safeguarding public projects already under construction and to mitigate the risks of significant losses being sustained by contractors, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform yesterday announced further measures to address the impact of construction material inflation on public work projects. This includes the introduction of an inflation co-operation framework, which the Senator referenced, for those parties engaged under a public works contract, including public housing. This framework will facilitate both parties to engage with each other for the purpose of addressing the impacts of the most recent onset of exceptional inflation and supply chain disruption, and will operate on an ex gratia basis. The framework will set down the approaches and parameters within which the parties to a public works contract circulate additional costs attributable to material and fuel price fluctuations, using price indices published by the Central Statistics Office, CSO.

In recognition that neither party is responsible for the global events that have given rise to this inflation, it is proposed, subject to budgetary constraints, that the additional inflation costs will be apportioned between the parties, with the State bearing up to 70% of the additional inflationary-related costs. The framework will apply to payments made from 1 January 2022. The Department will work closely with our delivery partners to support the implementation of this framework.

I do not have details on the rationale as to why the ratio was set at 70:30 and not 80:20, although we can revert to the Senator with that response.

I too extend a céad míle fáilte to the students from St. Mary's Primary School, Mullingar. I whizzed up the bypass by them at 5.30 a.m. today and little did I know they would be coming here. I understand Mr. Scally and Mrs. Bolger are here with them. I hope they all enjoy their visit to the Seanad. On behalf of all the Members, the Minister of State, the ushers and all the other staff, I hope they have a nice day. By the way, the Chamber is usually fuller than it is now, but this is an item of business in which Senators deal with individual issues, which is why there is such a small crowd.

I welcome the students to the House. I thank the Minister of State for his reply. If he could correspond with me in respect of the rationale, I would appreciate that. The inflation co-operation agreement announced yesterday is a significant and very welcome move by the Government to address this issue, which has been raised by the sector for a considerable period. I welcome the fact it is to be backdated to the start of January this year, given there has been a significant level of inflation within the sector over that period, which was one of the other points I wanted to address.

Another matter on which if the Minister of State does not have an answer to hand, he might let me know at another point, relates to who will be responsible for carrying out the assessment. I acknowledge it will be indexed to the CSO in terms of the main indices and the inflation that will have been recorded by that office, but in the case of housing projects, whether social or affordable, will individual local authorities carry out that open-book assessment with the developer or will there be national oversight of the assessments?

I welcome the moves made by the Government, which are very significant. They will ensure that much-needed housing projects will continue to be delivered throughout the country.

I thank the Senator and commend him on consistently raising this issue in the House, which has been important. There was a debate last night in the Dáil on housing affordability, at which one side of the House argued we were subsidising too much for the construction sector while others maintained we were not doing enough. The Government is trying to strike a balance and that is what we have done here. We have acted swiftly given global events that have been outside our control, with construction costs increasing even before the war in Ukraine. We have a significant challenge on our hands and are responding as we go.

The Senator asked me how we arrived at the proportion of 70:30 and who will be responsible for carrying out the assessment. I do not have that information to hand but I will revert to him in due course with a response. I reiterate we recognise the considerable challenges facing the construction sector and the fact developers have managed to absorb those costs insofar as they can. There is no doubt we want to work together to deliver on Housing for All and to deliver sustainable housing for communities, which is why this intervention was vital.

I again thank the Senator for his contribution to the matter.

Departmental Funding

I welcome the Minister of State. I appreciate the opportunity to get an update on these really important projects. Last year, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, announced an allocation of a whopping €11 million for Castlebar for two key projects. One is the redevelopment of what we call the historic town core of Castlebar, including an upgrading of the old post office, the mall area and Daly's Hotel. It is really the centrepiece of Castlebar and it is very important, with much history attached to the area. There is over €8 million allocated to that specific project. The second project is very close to my heart and it involves the redevelopment of Castlebar Military Barracks. I started my military career in the FCA in Castlebar Military Barracks many years ago when I was only a teenager. That place in Castlebar town means a lot to people. Many a youngster passed through those gates and came out a much more well-rounded and developed individual heading off into the big world.

These two areas of Castlebar are centrally located and getting that amount of money for redevelopment had the aim, really, of improving the public realm in the area and making it a more attractive place to visit, live, work and invest. Ultimately, it is about benefiting the people of Castlebar and surrounding areas. Castlebar is the county town of Mayo. Anything that benefits Castlebar extends its reach beyond the town to the rest of the county. This is very important work.

This was announced last year and the citizens are asking, correctly, at what stage are these projects. There is much recognition and admiration for the work that Mayo County Council has done in putting together the application. As we all know, funding like this is not allocated without a substantial, worthwhile and well-drafted application from the local authority. In that context, I commend the work of the team in Mayo County Council. Citizens are asking for an update on the work nonetheless. Has money been drawn down or when will that happen? What stage of development are these projects at and when will we see the projects delivered for the people of Castlebar and Mayo?

I ask this in the context of inflation and rising costs of building materials and labour. There is also a difficulty in getting tradespeople, especially when we are looking at restoring old buildings. I think particularly of Castlebar Military Barracks, and a specialist expertise would be required to carry out those types of work to the standard we all expect to see. It would be good to get an update from the Department on the overall project. Does the Minister of State foresee any potential difficulties or challenges? It would be remiss of me not to put on record that if there are to be escalating costs for the local authority, the Department should work with that local authority in Castlebar to try to bridge the gap between what the estimated cost of the work was a number of years ago against a realistic price today. As we all know, whether it is a small garage, house or a significant building project, everybody is feeling that pinch.

I reiterate that these are very important projects for Castlebar and Mayo. That €11 million might not seem like much if we stood in Dublin city centre but in Mayo and its county town of Castlebar, it is a huge amount of money and significant delivery for the town. It is the biggest allocation of funding we have seen in a very long time. I place on record my thanks to the Minister for allocating that funding and for working with the local authority to advance these really important projects.

I support all the Senator's comments on the historic regeneration of Castlebar town under our town centre first policy. It is critical that we support projects like this and it is what the funding is doing. It is a similar case with Castlebar Military Barracks. The Senator had a military career in those barracks. I was born in James Stephens Barracks in Kilkenny and I grew up on the campus there. I am aware of the immense cultural and heritage value of these barracks and what they mean to local communities in particular. I also recognise that Castlebar is the county town of Mayo . I am due to visit the county in the next couple of days. I am looking forward to that because it is a wonderful county.

The urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, is one of four funds established under the National Development Plan 2018-2027. It was launched in 2018, primarily to support the national planning framework's growth enablers for the five cities and other large urban centres. The URDF is providing part-funding for applicant-led projects that will support more compact and sustainable development and enable a greater proportion of residential and mixed-use development to be delivered within the existing built-up footprints of our cities and large towns, while also ensuring that more parts of our urban areas can become attractive and vibrant places in which people choose to live and work, as well as to invest and visit.

In keeping with the aims of the national planning framework and Project Ireland 2040, the URDF demonstrates a new and more tailored approach to the provision of Government support. Over its planned duration up to 2030, URDF support in excess of €2 billion will be targeted in an integrated, dynamic and responsive way to support the regeneration and rejuvenation of our towns and cities. Through the URDF, successful applicants receive targeted integrated support for innovative holistic solutions to the issues that have hindered the regeneration and rejuvenation of our large towns and cities.

To date, there have been two calls for proposals under the URDF with a total of almost €312 million allocated so far in respect of the 87 projects approved under call 1, while in March 2021 URDF funding support of €1.3 billion was announced in respect of a countrywide programme of a further 45 proposals approved under call 2. The 45 proposals approved under call 2 in 2021 build on the existing pipeline of URDF-supported projects launched under call 1. This URDF-supported programme of projects will ultimately contribute significantly to the transformative regeneration and development of our large towns and cities and to the achievement of national planning framework and Project Ireland 2040 objectives.

Under call 2 of the URDF, a total of a little more than €11 million has been provisionally allocated to Mayo County Council for the two projects to which this matter relates. The Castlebar historic core reactivation initiative project was allocated €8.527 million and the Castlebar Military Barracks project was allocated was allocated €2.5 million. The URDF support for the Mayo County Council's projects, as with all other successful URDF proposals, is approved in principle subject to appropriate appraisal, justification and advancement in accordance with the public spending code.

The Department works closely with the successful applicants in respect of project funding but responsibility for the advancement of URDF-supported projects through the various stages of planning, development and completion is, in the first instance, a matter for the sponsoring agency, which in this case is Mayo County Council. All URDF-supported projects must be carefully developed and managed by the sponsoring agency in accordance with the normal conditions and arrangements that apply to public sector-managed projects, including exercising appropriate cost control and delivering projects as approved, and managing its advancement through the various decision stages set out in the public spending code. As part of this public spending code process Mayo County Council has submitted a preliminary business case in respect of each of these two projects and following their evaluation the Department will be in touch with the council on the matter in due course.

I thank the Minister of State for a very comprehensive reply. I will touch again on the stage the projects are at. I acknowledge the Minister of State's comments in that the primary responsibility for advancing this work lies with Mayo County Council. We all accept that and there is absolutely no difficulty there.

Now the council has submitted a preliminary business case, what is the next stage? When does the Minister of State envisage his Department will have evaluated that business case? When will his Department be in touch with the council on the matter? On behalf of the citizens in the area, I am looking to establish an approximate timeline that we can work to, acknowledging that it has been more than a year since this was first announced. People are, understandably, asking questions.

I have a second question. The Minister of State mentioned that the local authority must exercise appropriate cost control. That is exceptionally difficult for any organisation, business or local authority in the current climate. In this reply, will the Minister of State touch on what the Department is doing to deal with inflation and the excessive rise in costs of building materials and labour, which will of course affect the local authority as well? In the interests of the public good, these are the types of projects in respect of which the Department will have to take a more hands-on approach. It appears from the reply that it is currently taking more of a hands-off approach. In dealing directly with rising costs associated with projects like this, the Department will need to get around the table with all its expertise and see how we can assist the local authority in managing escalating costs.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Senator's final comment. It is critical for the Department to engage in such a way.

I will revert to the Senator with a response on that. Appropriate cost control is important, given the inflationary pressures, which were mentioned in the previous Commencement matter as well. We are in exceptional times and it requires a high level of engagement between our Department, the local authority and other local authorities on this. We commit to that engagement.

The Senator made a point on trades and traditional skills in respect of the barracks and the historic core. These buildings require a specific set of skills and in many cases there is a deficit in those skills, which we are working to address in developing a national programme for traditional skills, which is an important measure. Bridging the gap and dealing with those escalating costs is something the Department will sit down and work with the local authority on in this specific case.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit agus leis an Seanadóir. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an bhfoireann agus leis na huiséirí as a gcabhair freisin.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.21 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11.30 a.m.
Sitting suspended at 11.21 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.