Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 15 February 2018
Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach
Estimates for Public Services 2018
Vote 13 - Office of Public Works (Revised)
As the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, and flood relief, I appreciate the opportunity provided by the committee to outline the vital work to be funded through the 2018 Revised Estimates for the OPW and involving a sum of €404 million. I also welcome the committee's interest and input into the outcomes to be gained from this funding. The two areas I wish to talk about are flood risk management and estate management, including our heritage estate.
Members are aware that flooding is a natural event that can cause widespread damage and have a devastating effect on communities, property and infrastructure. It is well known that I have a keen interest in ensuring that the correct actions are taken to prevent and decrease flood risk. Where flooding is likely to occur, the State must provide protection and a speedy response to assist communities and properties. As Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, I welcome the additional €25 million in funding made available in the Revised Estimates to continue to address this challenging issue. Effective flood risk management is a long-term commitment that involves adopting capital infrastructural and non-infrastructural measures. I am pleased to say how my office has produced detailed analysis of flood risk in 300 identified communities, including 19 coastal areas throughout the OPW catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme. This programme has proposed a number of measures to be undertaken as outlined within the 29 flood risk management plans across the State and it also established the prioritisation of our resources in order to deliver maximum benefit to the State.
In addition to the flood defence schemes already completed, eight major schemes are now under construction and 2018 will see the substantial completion of another four schemes in Dublin, Galway, Louth and Clare. Subject to planning approval I expect that eight further schemes will commence in the coming year, including five within the Cork region. I have also worked with my office to develop a range of other measures to tackle flood risk, which include the OPW minor flood mitigation and coastal protection schemes in partnership with local authorities, a pilot scheme in County Mayo of individual property protection measures, flood forecasting in conjunction with the Met Éireann and a number of community resilience initiatives.
The second main area of funding in the OPW Vote relates to estate management. The estate managed by the OPW is made up of more than 2,000 properties and is a critical part of the State's economic, operational and cultural infrastructure. Being very conscious of the current improved economic outlook and anticipating an increase in Ireland's population over the next 20 years, I am planning for the future with the OPW for a similar increase in required public services. As such, my office is continually reviewing the accommodation needs to deliver current and future effective public services which is a key priority within A Programme for a Partnership Government.
From 2008 to 2016, the OPW restructured State office accommodation with the surrender of more than 2 million sq. ft and a reduction in the annual State rent bill of €43 million per annum. Given the evidence in 2017 of an increase requirement for Civil Service accommodation and upward trends in the rental market, this will be difficult to sustain into the future. My office will, however, continue to seek value for money within the State rental portfolio and focus especially on continued effective use of State-owned property. The funding provided in the Revised Estimate supports a continuation of this efficiency drive by providing €3.5 million to buy sites and properties where they are considered to provide the greatest value for money.
I shall now turn to the heritage estate. The good news is the significant increase in visitor numbers and the revenue received by the Exchequer in 2017 is expected to be sustained in 2018. The not so good news is that the condition of a number of these properties is poor and worsening with the additional pressure created by these increased visitor numbers. It has been demonstrated in recent years at sites such as Kilmainham Gaol that there is a link between revenue and reinvestment. It is now critical for us to consider reinvesting some of the income received in the heritage estate in order to sustain and develop a highly important and crucial economic asset.
My office is currently working in tandem with Fáilte Ireland and others to develop and improve these areas with many projects scheduled to start on visitor sites in 2018. Overall, my office works extremely hard at a time of budgetary pressures to ensure appropriate works are prioritised and measures undertaken to complement those already in place. The office is now well positioned to invest any additional resources to be allocated by the Government in the coming years in these two very important areas of State investment; flood risk management and estate management.
I thank the committee for the time allotted to my opening address.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials and I thank him for his opening statement. In overall terms, the €404 million budget for 2018 is up from €365 million. This is an 11% increase net of appropriations in aid. I wish to focus on the flood risk management aspect. The Minister of State has said that the extra €25 million brings that funding up from €75 million to €101 million.
Yes 100%. There are many figures out there at the moment which I believe are misquoted. In 2015, there was an underspend and some €60 million was sent back unspent. Since this Government has been in play all moneys received to date have been spent.
To continue what we are already doing. As the Deputy is aware I am very much to the fore in trying to deliver schemes across the State. My priority is to really deliver on those schemes, and at a faster pace if I can, by which I mean I have a number of areas I want to look at in terms of planning to see if I can speed up the process. I have meetings with the planning section and the heritage section. Where we find difficulties I hope to make some progress.
Does the Minister of State feel that, overall, there is good value for money being achieved on the more minor schemes where consultants are involved, where there is a lot of design work and where there seems to be a lot of over and back between the local authorities and the OPW? I brought one such scheme to the Minister of State's attention. Huge money seems to be spent on consultants and design and it can take years before a relatively minor project actually starts work under construction. Does the Minister of State believe that system is working well or can it be improved?
All systems can be improved. We made a big improvement around the minor works scheme and we changed the criteria to allow local authorities to come back in where schemes have failed in the past. It also made it easier for them to get more funding to deal with minor works schemes.
However, there is also room for improvement in the planning process where we can make gains. A flood defence scheme is not easy to design. One cannot just tell an engineer that this is the design. A scheme must take climate change and, if it on the coast, rising sea levels into account, to make sure it is built to the highest standard and protects people in the future. I have seen housing developments where developers put in a flood relief scheme that did not live up to the task. I am dealing with one in County Donegal currently. The Deputy can see where I am coming from. We have to allow the consultants to come up with the design. I acknowledge there is toing and froing but I am examining that.
It has been going on for a long time. It is one of the largest schemes ever taken on by the State. I have visited Cork on a number of occasions. I met the executive to try to put through the Morrison's Island phase. That has gone to Part 8 for public consultation. The public's views will be taken into account and the scheme will develop at a fast pace. Everyone I meet in Cork asks when work will start and when will there be a shovel in the ground. I have not been found wanting in this regard and I have done everything in my power to ensure the scheme remains on track and is delivered as fast as possible.
Since I have taken up office, I have broken up most of the major schemes into cells. One deals with objections. The public have to have their say on every scheme. Another cell deals with a scenario whereby if a scheme fails through objection, the next scheme on the list will be carried out.
To answer the Deputy's question, there is a planning process and it would be wrong for me to name a start date and a completion date. It is one of the largest schemes to be taken on. The Deputy lives in the area and there are issues. People are objecting but we are all working together. I give great credit to the local councillors in Cork whom I have met. I am happy that they are working with my Department and with the people of Cork, which is more important.
The Minister of State mentioned the opposition to the scheme. I read material from the Save Cork City campaign earlier. One of the group's tweets states:
The Little Island Tidal Barrier has been studied by world experts and would cost €140m. Walls would cost over €300m and protect much less of #Cork city. The best solution for Cork is the tidal barrier because it benefits everyone. We need an independent and transparent review.
What is his response to that?
The scheme has taken almost eight years to bring to where it is today. A great deal of work and consulting has taken place. The Save Cork City campaign has come up these figures and it has brought in external experts. According to the best advice available to us, we are doing the right thing. The officials who visited from Holland also recognised that what we are doing is the best option for the people of Cork. The campaign says that we have not looked at tidal barriers. Of course, we have looked at them. We have examined all options available to us but my job is to deliver a scheme as fast as possible for the people of Cork. When owners are in their shops in Cork and the water is up to their ankles while jewellery is floating around or customers cannot get to the butcher or the hairdresser, the business owners are roaring at me about what I am doing. I have taken the views of the Save Cork City campaign on board but, like all schemes, when people see the work starting on the ground, they will buy into it. I assure the Deputy that it will be the best money spent on behalf of the people of Cork.
The priority for most people is to have a scheme that works and that protects the city from flooding. We are all aware of the devastating flooding events in the past but people expect the scheme to be implemented in the best possible way to minimise intrusiveness and physical barriers and to make it as attractive and as aesthetically pleasing as possible. Has the tidal barrier option been assessed by the OPW or has the Minister of State had it independently examined?
Mr. John Sydenham:
We did a preliminary assessment of where a tidal barrier might fit into the overall scheme because we have examined a load of options. The important issue to note with a tidal barrier is it will protect against tidal flooding. We still have a major problem with the discharge from the hydroelectric dam and such a barrier would not solve that problem. Both issues need to be addressed. As part of our preliminary assessment, we did quite a body of analysis on a tidal barrier and what it would cost. We estimated it would cost in excess of €1 billion. Following the public consultation exercise, we conducted a more detailed analysis of the barrier. The Save Cork City campaign uses a high level costing for a possible solution in a particular location. Our assessment, done by our own engineers who are international experts, looked at where a barrier would be located and it is important to note that the OPW has never said that a tidal barrier would not be an appropriate solution. It would work; it is just not cost efficient.
With regard to assessing it, there are navigation and location issues. We would not recommend the same location. Equally, we have to be careful because of special areas of conservation and habitats within the harbour area. They would result in a greater cost in addition to the construction cost of tidal barrier. Looking at everything in considerable detail, we concluded that while a barrier is a potential solution, the cost would be prohibitive.
As far as the OPW is concerned, it is proceeding with the scheme as it stands and the tidal barrier option has been examined. Such a barrier could work from an engineering point of view but it is not cost effective. The OPW does not accept the figure of €140 million the Save Cork City campaign has put on one.
Is the Minister of State satisfied overall with how the State is managing its property portfolio in the context of entering into leases, achieving maximum occupancy, and making the best use of buildings? What is his overall assessment of the management of the portfolio?
I am happy with the way we are managing our portfolio. Rents are soaring everywhere and that will become an issue down the road in trying to acquire buildings. We are making huge gains in making our own buildings cost efficient, which will be important into the future. The increasing demand for office space for new civil servants will be a problem and that is something we have to manage as well. We are doing everything possible and the State is doing well in this regard.
A great deal of misinformation is being put out by some groups about the cost of the tidal barrier in Cork. While Mr. Syndenham said the figure the Save Cork City Campaign has come up with may be realistic if the barrier could be constructed wherever we wanted, there are many difficulties relating to navigation, conservation areas and so on, which would push up the cost. Will the Minister of State confirm that a tidal barrier could be built for the figure being quoted but not in the most effective location because of the additional costs, and that is why there is such a huge disparity in the figures being quoted by the OPW and the Save Cork City campaign?
The plans for the Morrison's Island works have now gone on public show at City Hall. If one goes down to Cork City Hall there is a full-scale replica of the proposed works. One can see the width of the footpaths and the heights of the walls. When people look at it, they see it is not what this campaign group has told them will be in place. I personally welcome the fact that the Morrison's Island works have gone out to Part 8 public consultation. I hope we can move ahead with it very quickly and continue the works. In my opinion the issue of the tidal barrier is a red herring. We need to move forward with the OPW project as quickly as possible. The Minister of State might comment on the differences in process.
I thank Deputy O'Brien for his comments. As the commissioner, Mr. Sydenham, said we did look at the tidal barrier but it was not cost-efficient. On my visit to Cork I met with people, including people from the Save Cork City group. The idea of the model at City Hall is one I have used. I have seen, in a number of areas, that people have observations on the heights of walls. I do the ordinary thing, which is to cut an election poster to the height of the wall, paint it grey and put lines on it. That shows the height of the wall. People then say that is not what they are being told and that they are being told quite the opposite. That is similar to what has been going on in Cork. I am not saying that the people of the Save Cork City group do not have the best interests of Cork at heart, but this has been going on for eight years and Save Cork City has only come out with these waves, as I would call them, in the past 12 months or so. The first complaint was that we were not putting enough money into heritage. We are putting a considerable amount of money - €20 million - into the heritage of Cork, its quay walls and the infrastructure that is there. It is badly needed.
The widening of the footpaths at Morrison's Island, which the Deputy mentioned, is something that the people want. We have done nothing without consultation. We had quite a number of public consultation meetings. We even had them up here in the audiovisual room of Leinster House. The Deputies themselves did not take part in it. When people say that we did not engage, I would say that we engaged quite widely with all groups involved. As I said we are breaking the works up into different cells. People can see the model of the Morrison's Island works which is on show and they will see that we intend to get in and get out without much disruption to traffic or business. That is what we want to see.
I agree with the Minister of State. The campaign group itself also appeared before a committee of the Oireachtas. As I said, as somebody from Cork I want to see the project pushed ahead as quickly as possible from the OPW side. Can the Minister of State give us any update on the issue of insurance? Has he met with any members of the insurance industry around reworking the memorandum of understanding? That might be more the Minister of Finance's area. Does the Minister of State have any comment on that issue?
On the sale of properties by the OPW, why are so many sold by private treaty rather than by auction? Obviously with private treaty sales it is very difficult to get the names of the people who are buying the properties. I have the reply to an interesting parliamentary question which my colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, tabled. He asked how many building were licensed by the OPW for community use in each of the past five years. Only 12 have been transferred for community use. Would the Minister of State agree that is on the low side? Could we be doing more to transfer those properties for community use?
I will take the Deputy's first question on insurance first. The Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, and I did meet with Insurance Ireland. We had an open meeting with all the members of Insurance Ireland. I laid down a few criteria or things that I wanted to see happen. In fairness to Insurance Ireland, in terms of the memorandum of understanding my Department has with it, we are working very well together. Wherever we are building defences the industry is coming in behind us and offering insurance. There are issues in respect of insurance and that is a matter for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, but as I said I work closely with all those involved for the interests of the public. I do believe more needs to be done but in order for more to be done it is up to us to deliver on the defences to allow people to get insurance. That is the most important thing. Any other issue in that regard would lie with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I might ask Mr. Bourke to speak on the sale of properties.
Mr. Martin Bourke:
On the question of community use, 12 properties have been licensed. On the process that the Office of Public Works uses, we have approximately 2,200 properties that we manage, own or lease. Of those, approximately 90 to 100 would be considered vacant and would be available, whether for community use or any other use. Over 50% of those properties are Garda stations that were closed under the 2012 to 2013 Government plan. They are being held subject to a review being conducted by an Garda Síochána and the Policing Authority so they are not available for ourselves or anybody else until the outcome of that review is known. That is right and proper.
Under certain circumstances we will consider community use if a viable business plan is presented and if the community in question can sustain the building under a licence arrangement. As the Deputy can imagine, over the years we would have had a number of inquiries about the use of properties, although not a huge amount of them. It tends to fall down when the community groups start doing their business plans and realise that if the roof gets blown off in a storm tomorrow, if the property gets flooded or if it would have to take out insurance, they often could not afford to deal with it. If a property is licensed to a group, it must look after it. It must sustain it and it must pay for the electricity and all the utilities that would go with the property. Often when groups confront themselves with that reality the idea becomes problematic for them.
I have been involved with property for a year and a half or two years and in that time we have had the keys of properties handed back to us on a number of occasions. People tell us that they had a very good concept and very good intentions but that the person who was involved has moved on. Things dissipate as they go on. The intention is often very good but we have to be careful that a property which is being used is being protected and cared for. Other than that, often the only logical thing to do with these properties is to sell them. The money then goes back into the Exchequer for use by community groups or other Departments to help communities through the normal funding arrangements.
The 12 properties in question are all former Garda stations. If there is a hold on transferring Garda stations because of the review, there is probably very little likelihood of further properties being transferred for community use given that the previous 12 were former Garda stations.
If I may answer that point, I totally agree with the Deputy. I have met with the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, in respect of this matter. While the review is ongoing we must be honest with ourselves that a number of the properties we have are Garda stations which may never come back into use. I am bringing in the Minister, Deputy Ring's Department in terms of looking at some community involvement in that regard. While this review is going on an awful lot of State properties are lying idle that might be put to good use. Based on what Mr. Bourke has said, we need to give comfort to the communities that do get these properties that money will be given from a different Departments to help them in terms of infrastructure, or the development or protection of those buildings and to make them livable or occupiable for the use in question. I am looking at that personally and I have met with the two Ministers in that regard. It is something we are working on.
Will the witnesses address the issue of the number of properties that are sold by private treaty rather than by public auction? Is there a reason some go to auction and some are sold by private treaty?
Mr. Martin Bourke:
The vast majority of properties we have disposed of over the years - and the number is diminishing at this time because there are just fewer to dispose of - have gone to auction.
If there is a special interest on a property, for instance if there is a garden adjoining somebody's house, entering into an arrangement with the person might be considered because there would almost be a moral obligation to do some class of business with the person, subject to an independent valuation. At present, the majority of action taking place on the disposal of properties is actually with regard to other State agencies, particularly local authorities. Before any property is disposed of, either through private treaty or at auction, a protocol is in place and there is a circular from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that requires the property would first be offered to State bodies, such as local authorities, the Department of Education and Skills or the HSE, to see whether they require the property. This was part of the OPW's reform agenda on property and we now do this as a matter of course. As a result of this, particularly in the context of the housing and homelessness issue, there has been an amount of interest in vacant properties. Some local authorities have taken an interest, particularly Dublin City Council, and we have worked with it to transfer those properties under the protocol. We also have similar arrangements in Limerick, Cork and Tipperary. It is a fluid situation and we are trying to make sure the properties are used to their optimum. As a general rule, if they have to be disposed of we advertise them. We get an auctioneer and advertise them so everyone would have a fair chance to get them.
I do not have the 2017 figures, but if we look at 2014, 15 properties were sold by public auction and none by private treaty. In 2015 that changed to ten by public auction and 19 by private treaty, and in 2016 there was only one by public auction and 18 by private treaty. There has certainly been a shift away, based on the information I have, from public auction to private treaty. Is this a policy decision or is it just the way things have panned out?
Mr. Martin Bourke:
That is a good question. It tends to be the circumstances of the particular property, and without me having the absolute detail in front of me I suggest that quite a number of properties sold by private treaty related to residences attached to Garda stations. Often, a former member of the Garda Síochána was already resident there and possibly had been there for many years. There is an almost moral obligation not to put out these people, but they would still have to pay the market value, as independently valued by a body such as the Valuation Office. Often this is the reason. It is that somebody is already in the house, and we cannot really get involved in an eviction situation as it would not be right.
I have a quick question on flood prevention measures. There are a number of issues in my constituency, and I presume around the country, where people have suffered flooding. The local authority has engaged in flood prevention work, which apparently is to a 100 year standard, but the people are still unable to access insurance because the OPW does not include it in the memorandum of understanding with the insurance companies. I think this is because it is at too low a level and involves relatively small technical work. It leaves these people, as far as I can understand it and presumably it affects quite a few people around the country, still in a position whereby flood prevention work has been carried out, which may or may not be to the required standard as I cannot speak to that, but they are still unable to access insurance. Is there any plan to deal with this?
In years gone by, wherever we have built flood defences we have always encouraged the insurance companies to insure the properties afterwards. In recent years, we have worked on a memorandum of understanding with insurance companies. Now, where we build flood defences 70% and, in some cases, 78% of the properties are insured. Investment by the Government and the good work done by the OPW - throughout the country anywhere we have built fences none of them has ever failed thank God - means insurers are helping people to insure their homes.
Can anything be done to bring flood prevention works done by a local authority into the memorandum of understanding whereby the insurance companies would be satisfied in terms of the work being done and therefore would provide cover for those cases where they are still not willing to provide it?
I hear what the Deputy is saying, but I defend and protect properties and the question the Deputy has asked me is a matter for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform working closely with my Department. This is something I can look into. It has been said to me in other parts of the country also. It is something I will follow up.
To follow up on Deputy Murphy's question on insurance, a number of years ago the OPW completed a scheme in Kilkenny city. I had thought that scheme would have resolved the insurance issues but in the past two weeks I have discovered a number of properties along John's Quay in Kilkenny city are having difficulty in getting insurance. That was an area that was constantly flooded before the scheme. Where do they go with that query? Is the Department involved in any way in investigating one-off issues such as this, where residents are affected but the Government has spent so much money on a scheme?
I cannot talk about the individual case because I do not know the details, but I take what the Chairman is saying. It is something I can take up with the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy. If the Chairman drops me a note I will raise the issue directly at my next meeting with Insurance Ireland.
I have a number of other questions. Recently, I submitted a matter for a Topical Issue debate to the Ceann Comhairle's office, which ended up in the office of the Minister of State. The intention was to ask the OPW whether it would take the lead role from among a number of agencies. It was to do with works that are required at Tinnahinch in Carlow and Graiguenamanagh in Kilkenny. I received a reply from the Minister of State, and I appreciate it, but I wanted to raise as a Topical Issue rather than a parliamentary question. I want to explain to the Minister of State the reason for this is that a considerable amount of work must be done on both sides of the river at that point. This work will involve a number of agencies, including Kilkenny County Council, Carlow County Council, Waterways Ireland, Irish Water and, I presume, the OPW, because there is still a flooding issue at one point along that section of river. There is also the issue of the removal of sandbags that were put there to prevent flooding. Those sandbags cannot be removed because of the fact the flooding continues, and there is a fear that a house or two would be flooded. I am using this opportunity to ask the Minister of State again whether he will look at the possibility of the OPW taking a lead role in bringing these agencies together so that an overall plan can be put in place to deliver all of the work required under supervision. The river must be cleaned along there as must the eyelets of the bridges.
As the Chairman knows, if a county council came into my office regarding a minor work scheme for the removal of silt, or whatever the case may be, and there is a flooding issue my office will take care of it. However, when all of those other agencies are involved I will gladly mediate and sit with the Chairman to see if he can get a positive outcome for the people inquiring, but the Department would have very little say with regard to what the Chairman is asking me to do. If a local authority came in for a minor works scheme that is where I would fit in and I am glad to help wherever I can.
I know it is difficult and frustrating when many agencies are involved and it is hard to know who is taking the lead role. The OPW has 10% to 20% responsibility for that. I am offering my support, as a mediator, to bring the agencies together. I will do that with a heart and a half but I cannot engage with Irish Water and all of those other entities that do not come under my remit.
No, I have not looked at it. I know that there are a number of agencies involved. If the local authority made an application under the minor works scheme or if there was a flooding issue, I would handle it.
I asked about the maintenance of Kilkenny Castle recently. The Minister of State touched on maintenance generally in his opening remarks. I tabled a parliamentary question about it but I am raising it here because I believe it is an issue. There is significant work to be done to the outside of the castle. I can see it and visitors to the castle can also see it. I want to ask again if that work will be undertaken.
I look at many castles throughout the country, and the issue with Kilkenny Castle is one that has come across my desk. There is a significant amount of work to be done at Kilkenny Castle and I have spoken to my officials on the heritage side about it. Where we can make improvements we are making them. It comes down to funding. Heritage has been starved of funding for a number of years but where we can invest money, we are doing so. I have spoken to my officials about Kilkenny Castle, and I will come back to the Chairman about it. Some ongoing works are taking place in respect of the windows in the castle. There are a great number of windows to be replaced and that is something at which we are looking.
I appreciate that. A significant number of tourists visit the castle, even outside of the main tourist season. It is a big economic generator for Kilkenny city and it is important that it is maintained. The staffing at the castle and the promotion of the parade tower concern me as well. It has been brought to my attention that security on the castle grounds needs to be improved. While there are significant numbers of tourists, there are occasions when the security presence is not what it should be. I have asked for that to be reviewed a number of times, in the interest of the protection of the castle and its grounds. I have not received a response that is in any way encouraging.
That matter is being examined and I will come back to the Chairman about it, along with information regarding the refurbishment of the castle. I will drop him a note or meet him again to discuss the matter.
I also asked about a room in Kilkenny Castle that is not in use. Can someone tell me about that room and what its intended use is? I understood it to be a room that was going to be made available for a caretaker and that it is not now in use despite the money spent on it a number of years ago.
Mr. Mick Long:
My understanding is that it is an apartment that was refurbished and renovated as part of an overall scheme when Kilkenny Castle was being renovated a number of years ago. The work was done but the apartment as not renovated to a habitable standard. It is dealt with as part of the overall complex rather than an individual apartment that is available to be lived in.
The Chairman has raised a number of issues about Kilkenny Castle. I will meet with him when I am briefed about exactly what is going on in terms of the heritage side of things and in respect of the room to which he referred and the windows.
The Minister of State might investigate another issue I raised and about which I spoke to Mr. Buckley, namely, the acknowledgement of the transfer of the castle into different ownerships. At one stage, it was transferred into the ownership of the castle restoration committee and later it was transferred onwards by that committee. The OPW arranged for a plaque to be unveiled at the castle. I understood that this was to be a temporary measure. However, I believe that the history of the transfer of that castle should be celebrated publicly. I stand by my views on that and encourage the Minister of State to look at it again. I raised the mater last year and I am raising it again now.
Mr. Maurice Buckley:
I agree with the Chairman. As a result of his raising the issue last year, we initiated a conversation with the Butler family. There were two transfers. The first transfer was made to the Butler trust in 1967 and two years later the State became involved. It is our intention to celebrate the involvement of the State in Kilkenny Castle on the 50 year anniversary of that, in 2019. At the Chairman's request, we made contact with the Butler family last year when it was organising a gathering. Matters were a little bit rushed and a bit last-minute but we did succeed in getting a plaque to commemorate that event. The family, the foundation and the committee involved in the castle were very appreciative of that.
I take the Chairman's point that there is a possibility of bringing that celebration of ownership to the community. Kilkenny Castle is very much appreciated in the town and there is an opportunity to celebrate the fact that it is in State ownership and is a tremendous benefit to the town. Our plan is that we will have a bigger celebration on the occasion of the 50-year anniversary of the transfer to the State.
I make the point that there is no harm in celebrating the work of a local committee that had the vision to pursue the matter and have the castle transferred, creating the greatest economic driver in the city and county and, indeed, in the south east. I have listened to what Mr. Buckley has said. I look forward to 2019 and to acknowledging the people who participated in that event.
At a meeting on 15 February last year, I raised an issue about a business in Kilkenny, namely Brett's Mills, which had been in operation for 100 years. The mill is located just outside the city. The OPW spent some flood protection money on it. I understand that some money was given to the business-owner to assist with flood protection. The flooding that occurred before the last major flood destroyed the house again and put the man out of business. He spent his money, restored the premises and got on with it, but the same thing happened again. Is there any relief for someone like him? The house were his son and family had lived is now destroyed and is uninhabitable. The man moved out of his own property because of the flooding issue and his business has been destroyed. The business had existed for 100 years. It is a mill which had wheels driven by the river. It cannot exactly be moved elsewhere.
I hear the Chairman's view on this matter. I have come across similar situations in a number of areas. I am looking at individual home protection. The Chairman can imagine all that has happened in the eight months since I took up my role. This is an area on which I wish to focus. We have people whose properties have been flooded and finding an engineering solution is key. Such a solution can be found to protect a number of properties but incidents such as the Chairman has mentioned would require the help of an individual home protection scheme. I am in favour of such a scheme and I am looking at helping people to get individual protection.
I say that with great interest because I know many people who it affects. With regard to the house relocation scheme, there are many people who do not want to relocate; they want to find a solution. It is something I am working on but it will be later in the year before I will be able to come back to the committee on it.
I am looking at individual home protection, which will be for the country not just for an isolated area. It is something I am focusing on based on all the other flood protection initiatives in the OPW? Individual home protection is something I am focusing on. I have not established the process for how they can apply yet?
It is necessary to investigate the whole incident and look at the issues. The Chairman is aware of the humanitarian aid available to businesses if they are affected by flooding. The money that can be drawn down is somewhat low. Flooding can affect mental health through stress and also result in a loss of income and revenue to businesses. I cannot provide an answer on an individual case but I am looking at individual home protection schemes for such people.
In terms of applications in Kilkenny for areas such as Thomastown, Graiguenamanagh and Inistioge, are there live applications in the Department that are being looked at relative to these areas or are they being looked at directly?
Mr. John Sydenham:
In Thomastown and Graiguenamanagh, we did an assessment, which was effectively a pilot scheme, for individual property protection because of the unique circumstances in those areas. That was in the context of a preliminary assessment looking at both these areas which concluded there was no viable major flood scheme for either area. On a pilot basis, we looked at whether individual property protection would work. The conclusion was it could work but the downside of the scheme is it would give protection for a one in 15 year event. The Chairman will be familiar with the level of damage from the 2015 floods, which was extensive. They were one in 100 year floods so individual property protection would give no defence against the consequences of a flooding event of that magnitude. We have subsequently looked at both areas again and concluded there are viable CFRAM schemes for both areas. Technically, they are doable. Our colleagues had an engagement with the local authority to go through these issues. What has been identified, given the nature of the adjoining rivers, is that the fixed defences, the embankments and the walls would be very high. In Thomastown, we could be looking at in excess of 2 m so visually there is a potential impact which we have discussed with the local authority. There may be an option to put Perspex inserts into them to lessen the visual impact. If we go that route, the cost of the scheme will start to increase rapidly and then it will have to be assessed against the benefit. We are in the process of working our way through what the optimum approach is. The important thing is we have now identified technically viable schemes for both those areas.
Mr. Martin Bourke:
We have a human resources division, which is headed up by our director of corporate services. We have a new HR manager, newly employed from an external panel due to commence in the next two months. The person is on a notice period with his or her existing employer. We have a number of people in the human resources division who have qualifications in HR. We have people qualified up to master's level in human resources. There was a particular emphasis on training staff last year and it will continue for the next number of years. The investment in training is very important. We have a person who is qualified to master's level who is leading the training initiative there. We are very much seeing it as an investment in the future of the OPW.
Mr. Martin Bourke:
No. We have over 2,000 staff dispersed throughout the country in over 100 grades, including administrators, industrial staff, professional staff, technical staff and drivers, who are all doing very important jobs. As is the norm with any major employer with that number of staff, there are issues but we do not have a disproportionate number.
With regard to OPW properties, what is the turnover? I am looking at an old school site in Kilkenny and have been told it is an OPW property. It was the school of the Holy Spirit on the jail road in Kilkenny. Does the OPW have many sites like that that are close to centres of population that could be developed? The school would be a typical site for housing. Does the OPW have any more sites like that throughout the country?
I have recently met with the Minister of State, Deputy English, on the issue of housing and we have identified a number of sites that his Department and the OPW could look at with the possibly of some being turned into housing. That is to address the present outcry about housing. It is something we are looking at with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
There is no problem getting a list of sites. It is a matter of value for money and whether they can be developed for the housing section. We have another meeting the week after next to look at other sites the Department has a key interest in. Back in the days of decentralisation, we made sites available which were allocated for housing also. The OPW has given sites to the Peter McVerry Trust to develop apartments.
That is a good move on the Minister of State's side. I mentioned that site on the jail road because often the local authorities are not very proactive in identifying sites and building on them. The Minister of State might look at that site and see if it is in the ownership of the OPW.
In places where the Arterial Drainage Act applies, we do the work. In some sections, it is the local authorities or Waterways Ireland that carry out some of the work. Last year I set up a pilot scheme and gave five local authorities a sum of money to do some channel cleaning and cleaning of what the Chairman asked about to see if we can make local authorities more efficient in helping with channel cleaning.
I understand weirs come under the ownership of Waterways Ireland and most of the maintenance work would be undertaken by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht rather than OPW.
For example, to go back again to the OPW scheme in Kilkenny, with which we had issues but the outcome was successful. One of the issues is the number of weirs that must be cleaned on a regular basis. Does that ongoing maintenance come under the remit of the OPW, as it put the scheme in place? If the OPW undertakes a major scheme, is it the body responsible for the maintenance of that scheme or does it fall to somebody else?
Mr. John Sydenham:
I will deal with that question. Where the OPW does a large scheme, in most instances it will do the maintenance on the scheme. Our primary responsibility would be in the drainage districts where we have arterial drainage. Where we work with the local authority a lot of the responsibility to maintain it passes to the local authority on completion of the scheme. To answer the Chairman's question, it varies, depending on the scheme, and depending on the lead agency.
I am referring to a scheme that was developed and delivered by the OPW and similar schemes of that kind all over the country. Are these the types of schemes for which the OPW provides the maintenance?
Mr. John Sydenham:
For some we do, in other cases the maintenance will be shared with the local authority. There is no fixed rule. It depends on the local circumstances, the nature and type of defences. As these are local interventions we would look to the local authority to maintain them. When we are funding schemes, we factor in as part of the budgetary process a discounted value for maintenance over ten to 15 years on completion.
Mr. John Sydenham:
Oddly enough last week we completed the process. It has been formally transferred to the State. The OPW was the key trustee. I was the trustee on the estate. We accepted on behalf of the State the formal handover of Mount Congreve and that is being transferred through the trust to Waterford City and County Council. That was finalised last Friday. As we speak it is now being run by Waterford City and County Council.
That is an old hobbyhorse of the Chairman. The Chairman is well aware that he made contact with me to raise the issue of Durrow Abbey when I became Minister of State. I told him that I would look into it. Since then legal action has been taken and papers have been served. For that reason, the Chairman knows better than anyone, in light of his position as former Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts that I or my Department will not be making any further comment on Durrow Abbey.
Mr. John Sydenham:
In the main because we are a State body, we would use the services of the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. Any actions that would arise in terms of our day-to-day business, we would use the chief State solicitor. If there was a court case or litigation, it would be the Office of the Attorney General which would deal with it.
I do not expect Mr. Sydenham to comment on this, but I am going to make the point. In 2016, the then Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, wrote to me on the Arts for Peace Foundation and Durrow Abbey. He welcomed the fact that he had written and proposed a meeting and that both parties were going to focus to mutually resolve the current impasse, recognising the issue faced by all and agreeing a way forward.
I met the then Minister of State, Deputy Canney, and some of the officials on two if not three occasions and I felt the issue was being moved forward in a positive way and that a resolution would be found. I am deeply disappointed that effort was not brought over the line. My feeling is that while there was reluctance on both sides to find a resolution, the greater reluctance was on the side of the OPW.
In spite of the papers being served, both the Minister of State and his officials know, that papers can be served and deals can be done even after that. Papers can be served at times, and I believe this is one of them, when the client on the other side is pushed to the point where if they do not serve the papers before a particular date, they lose. To protect their position, they serve the papers.
I believe that the Arts for Peace Foundation as a project is an excellent project. I have visited Durrow Abbey and looked at the building. It is in good shape and I think it should be in the ownership of the State as it was. I firmly believe that with an effort, with both sides sitting down without being tied by legal process and without prejudice, they could reach a resolution, rather than spend unnecessary funds and scarce resources on a case when in my opinion the Arts for Peace Foundation has a good case. Going to court is a step beyond common sense in my opinion in this instance.
I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, to do as Deputy Canney did, and bring the client and the officials back to the table and make a last effort. It does not harm the court case. I have seen instances where this was done in commercial cases. I have seen it done through mediation. I have seen it done in my ways. I think the State has an obligation to protect Durrow Abbey, not to damage the Arts for Peace Foundation any further and to be careful with taxpayers' money.
I am asking the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, and the chairman at least to make some effort, without putting this case into question, to try to resolve it.
As I said to the Chairman at the outset I was glad to get involved in that case. Once papers are served, I have to protect the OPW. The OPW did not want to go to court but once papers were served we had to take that course.
I have no problem meeting the Chairman and other people involved at a later date. Once papers were served I have to be careful about what I have to say.
That is what brings people to court. However, if each side has a jot of common sense, they will not end up in court. I am not a spokesperson for the Arts for Peace Foundation. I am not involved at all in it, it is not in my constituency and I have no personal connection, but when I saw the building and came to an understanding of how the building was leased, there is an obligation on the OPW and on the Arts for Peace Foundation to make an effort to resolve the issue before it goes to court.
I ask the Minister of State and the Chairman of the OPW to talk to their officials. I encourage them to find a way to have a meeting, without jeopardising their own position.
One of my Bills will go to Cabinet next week and my other Bill is not far off it. As the Chairman knows, the legislation that will keep people in their homes is very important. I have put an awful lot of work into the legislation.
Good man. I am telling him that he has done a good job. At least he has connected with the people and shown a willingness to intervene and sort things out. I hope that the Chairman of the OPW has got on well in his first year in office.