Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Ceisteanna (8, 14)

Martin Heydon

Ceist:

8. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence his plans to upgrade and improve the built infrastructure across Defence Forces installations, in particular, those on the Curragh camp; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38548/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Jack Chambers

Ceist:

14. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence the initiatives he is taking to improve accommodation for members of the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38424/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Defence)

While we work to improve the pay and allowances of members of the Defence Forces, it is also vital that we invest in the built infrastructure across Defence Forces installations and constantly strive to improve the facilities in which Defence Forces personnel work, learn and, in some cases, live. Will the Minister of State outline how much money has been allocated towards the maintenance and upgrading of buildings in Defence Forces military installations this year and his plans for investment in the coming years?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 14 together.

In order to ensure the Defence Forces have the capability to deliver in all of the roles assigned by the Government, I am committed to the development and improvement of the physical environment and living conditions in military installations throughout the country. The Defence Forces built infrastructure programme is compiled on a priority needs basis by my Department in conjunction with the military authorities. This year some €28 million was allocated towards the maintenance and development of new building projects for the Defence Forces. This represents an increase of over €10 million compared to the figure allocated in 2018. I can confirm for the Deputy that it is intended that the budget allocation will be matched in the coming years to ensure the level of building activity will be in line with Defence Forces requirements.

The White Paper on defence has identified the need to develop a rolling five-year capital plan to provide for future Defence Forces built infrastructure requirements, taking account of the capability priority needs of the Defence Forces. The plan is expected to be finalised shortly. The list of works identified as part of the project will be prioritised for delivery based on military needs and updated annually to form the basis for the selection of capital projects under the programme into the future.

I will set out some of the key ongoing projects under way in improving Defence Forces accommodation and living standards across military installations. The refurbishment of the apprentice hostel accommodation block at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel is well advanced. It will provide classrooms, an auditorium, recreational facilities and improved living accommodation for 75 personnel. The project will be completed shortly at a cost of €3 million. The refurbishment of the dining hall in Custume Barracks in Athlone started in 2018. The scope of the works includes the refurbishment and upgrade of the existing dining hall and cook house. The upgrade and refurbishment of the building currently in place will provide a modern dining facility and ensure the long-term viability of the complex at the barracks. The works will be completed by year end at a cost of €3.6 million. The upgrading and refurbishment of Plunkett Block 7 at the Curragh Camp, Defence Forces Training Centre involve the refurbishment of the existing accommodation for 58 personnel to modern standards. The works will commence shortly. Upgrading and refurbishment of the existing accommodation for 80 personnel in blocks 1 and 2 in Cathal Brugha Barracks will also commence before year end.

I am confident that the increased level of building construction will continue in 2020 and onwards. Next year I expect construction to commence of new gymnasia in Kilkenny and Limerick at a cost in the region of €5 million. I should also mention two significant projects that have recently been approved to proceed. The refurbishment and upgrading of the accommodation block at the naval base at Haulbowline will deliver additional living capacity on top of the existing provision of 210 beds spaces provided at the naval base. It is intended that work will commence on block 8 on site in 2020. Another project involves the upgrade of the former USAC complex in Galway. This building has been designed to accommodate 120 persons living in single rooms. The rooms are fitted out to a basic standard and ablution facilities are provided communally. The building is nearly 50 years old and does not meet current standards with respect to building construction methodology, fire prevention measures and energy efficiency. While both projects are at an early stage of design development, it is expected that construction works will commence in late 2020.

Taken together, the projects which are all being prioritised represent a combined value of €30 million in planned capital investment. This level of investment illustrates the importance I attach to ensuring the quality of the Defence Forces built infrastructure meets the expectations of serving personnel.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I welcome the investment in Defence Forces accommodation, particularly the upgrade and refurbishment of Plunkett Block 7 at the Curragh, Defence Forces Training Centre which is in my constituency of Kildare South. It is an ageing military camp that was originally developed by the British. The need for investment in a large-scale development is significant. There is also a need for redevelopment and ongoing maintenance to ensure members will not be expected to work in substandard accommodation at any stage. It is critical that the level of investment referred to by the Minister of State be maintained and increased in the future. Other areas at which I would like the Minister of State to look include investment at the Curragh but not from his budget. The Department of Education and Skills holds the key. The Minister for Education and Skills outlined the potential to redevelop the post-primary school at the Curragh. I want the site to be located at the Curragh because it is the right place for it to be located. It is a great school with a fantastic community spirit. I have written to the Minister of State about a site that would be suitable for it. I ask him to encourage his officials in the Department of Defence to deal directly with officials in the Department of Education and Skills to tease out the potential concerns of military management and the potential for synergies. There is a great opportunity in that regard. This is a key investment of over €10 million that would provide a significant boost at the Curragh.

The Deputy understands there are a number of old and ageing buildings at the Curragh and that it would take a considerable investment to refurbish some of them. Slowly but surely, we are refurbishing some of the older blocks and building some new ones.

The Deputy has mentioned a new school to me on several occasions and led a delegation to my Department some time ago seeking a site. While that can be considered, serious consideration must be given to the military and its needs in the Curragh Camp, the property that is available and the views of the Department of Defence. I am willing to assist the Deputy and his community in accommodating a new school but we have to take account of the concerns and considerations of the military and the Department of Defence and their plans for the future of the Curragh site.

I went to Cork and met some of the new and young recruits. As many as 70 are sleeping on ships at the naval base. Even on their days off, they are living in poor conditions. The fact that they are being left there because of the accommodation difficulties is truly shocking. I visited Newbridge with my colleague, Deputy O'Loughlin, and Ms Sara Walsh of the Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces organisation. The previous Deputy mentioned the shocking conditions in the Curragh Camp. When one speaks to PDFORRA and the families affected, one hears of more announcements but a lack of delivery where accommodation difficulties are concerned. We have seen pictures released on social media showing the really poor conditions in which people must live. One of the triggers causing people to leave referenced in the Public Service Pay Commission's report is that the threshold of accommodation, certainty and security is not what it was many decades ago. We need more than just announcements of capital investment. We need to hear a plan of delivery that will address the accommodation difficulties and the important education issues for the families of those affected.

I am very surprised to hear that new recruits are sleeping on ships but I will check that out. The Deputy spoke specifically about the Curragh Camp. Over the period from 2016 to 2018, some €17 million was spent on various capital projects and the ongoing maintenance of buildings and facilities at the Defence Forces training centre. Most notably, this included the refurbishment of blocks B and D in Pearse Barracks, as well as the provision of newly constructed ammunition storage facilities. As Deputy Heydon will agree, there was a huge lack of investment in the Curragh Camp for many years. Even though there was an absolutely buoyant economy when Deputy Jack Chambers' party was in government, significant investment was not made in the Curragh Camp. We are now paying for that. Between 2016 and 2018, some €17 million has been invested there.

I note the upgrade to blocks 8 and 9 at the Haulbowline facilities and the construction of a new block in Collins Barracks, which is costing €4.3 million. As I stated in my original reply, approval to commence a design solution for the new accommodation blocks at Haulbowline is at an advanced stage.

I thank the Minister of State. In regard to the post-primary school for the Curragh area, I absolutely accept it must work for the Defence Forces and senior management. I have spoken to the Curragh Camp's general officer commanding about it. I believe both can work in harmony. Another key project that would see huge investment and development at the Curragh is the peace and leadership institute referred to in the White Paper. It is a key development. It would highlight and develop all the Defence Forces' key capabilities concerning peacekeeping around the world. It could be a key centre and bring a huge benefit to the Curragh community, the greater Newbridge community and Kildare because of the activity and visitors it would bring to the area. This is a key investment in the Curragh area with which we need to proceed.

I have consistently been in contact with the Minister of State in regard to the Curragh Plains. We need to get his officials together with those of Kildare County Council. This has dragged on for too long. I have written to the Minister of State on this previously. I ask that he and I arrange a meeting together to examine how we can advance those plans. Kildare County Council is very open to a partnership approach. We need to see this happen.

Personnel working at Haulbowline have traditionally sought houses in Cobh and Carrigaline because of their proximity to Haulbowline. However the cost of rent has risen considerably, as the Minister of State is aware. Moreover, PDFORRA has said it is sceptical of the Minister of State's announcement. People would like to see a timeline of construction and delivery to accompany the Minister of State's announcements of new accommodation proposals. Similarly with the Curragh Camp, we hear a lot about the overall capital sums which the Minister of State and the Department are setting out to spend. Where is the delivery around education and the broader accommodation remit? We still do not know exactly what the Minister of State is planning and what he is going to do to address the Victorian conditions there. When is the delivery planned? Every few months the Minister seems to announce the same plans over and over, without any follow-through. We cannot see our Defence Forces personnel left in these Victorian conditions, which act as a trigger in causing personnel to leave year after year. We need to know when the construction projects the Minister of State has listed will be completed.

I am not really interested in announcements. I want to get to work on the ground. That is why between 2016 and 2018, €17 million has been spent on various projects within the Defence Forces training college in the Curragh. Regarding the Naval Service accommodation, I note that approval to commence design solutions for the refurbishment and upgrade of the accommodation block and the naval base at Haulbowline was issued on 10 July 2019. The procurement process for the appointment of a design team to develop this project is ongoing. This project will deliver additional living capacity, on top of the 210 bed spaces already provided at the naval base. It is intended that works on-site at block 8 will be commenced in 2020. However, as this is a listed building, planning consent is likely to have a significant impact on costs and delivery. There is no doubt that renovating old Victorian buildings costs twice as much money. Is it value for money? I often ask that question myself. Renovating a very old building does not provide the same quality as a new build.

I have penned a tentative date for a meeting between myself, Deputy Heydon and Kildare County Council into my diary. I acknowledge this is of huge concern to the Deputy, who has raised it with me on numerous occasions. The Department of Defence has responded to a lot of the Deputy's requests. We have dedicated people working on the Curragh Plains. This is a great amenity for the people of Newbridge and the greater Kildare area. I will come back to the Deputy with a specific date for that meeting.