Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 18 September 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
N52 Ardee Bypass: Discussion
I remind members, witnesses and those in the public Gallery to turn off their mobile phones completely as they may interfere with the recording equipment.
I welcome Mr. Peter Walsh, director of capital programmes, and Ms Geraldine Fitzpatrick, head of the roads capital programme, from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, Ms Joan Martin, chief executive of Louth County Council and Councillor Dolores Minogue, cathaoirleach of Ardee municipal council.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that evidence connected only with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Before I invite our guests from TII to make their opening statement, I will briefly summarise the position regarding the N52 Ardee bypass. It is a 4.5 km route. It is expected that it will cost in the region of €34 million. It is a very large project and it will have a major impact on taking traffic out of the town of Ardee, which is choked with traffic. I understand hundreds of lorries pass through the town daily so it is hugely important to everybody. Significant concern has been expressed as to the future of the project. In view of that, I undertook, as Chairman, to invite our guests to come before the committee today so that we can have absolute clarity on this road, which is of vital importance to the community of Ardee, County Louth, and in terms of the entire road network. I invite Mr. Walsh to make his opening statement.
Mr. Peter Walsh:
I thank the Chairman and the members for the invitation to attend. I am TII's director of capital programme management. I am accompanied by my colleague, Geraldine Fitzpatrick, TII's head of the roads capital programme. With us is Joan Martin, the chief executive of Louth County Council.
It is my understanding that the committee wishes to discuss the N52 Ardee bypass project. I welcome the opportunity to affirm TII's commitment to the project and provide clarity on the status of the N52 Ardee bypass and the manner in which Louth County Council will be progressing the project with support and funding from TII.
The Ardee bypass is needed to alleviate high levels of traffic congestion and remove, from the urban environment, heavy commercial vehicles that do not need to be in that environment. The Government’s commitment to the scheme is expressed in the Project Ireland 2040 national development plan where the N52 Ardee bypass is named as a strategic investment priority for the period 2018 to 2027 to improve accessibility to the north west. I have appended an extract from the national development plan to the copies of this opening statement.
The N52 scheme obtained planning approval from Louth County Council in 2005 and An Bord Pleanála approved the compulsory purchase order for the required land in 2006. A map of the approved scheme is also appended to the copies of this statement. Land acquisition commenced in 2007. Unfortunately, the economic crisis that followed meant that it was not possible to provide the funding for the construction of the scheme at that time. Following the mid-term review of the Building on Recovery - Infrastructure Capital Investment Plan 2016 to 2021, a commitment was given to the provision of funding through 2019, 2020 and 2021. Even though the first of the funding was for 2019, the commitment allowed reactivation of the scheme at the end of 2017.
In January 2018, Louth County Council provided the preliminary overall plan as part of monthly updates to councillors and to members of the public on request. As a result of the information provided, which included drawings of the scheme, residents from the Mullenstown-Coole community convened public meetings in April 2018. At those meetings, concerns were expressed about the impacts that the scheme might have on local traffic movements. I would like to acknowledge the work done by a number of elected representatives, including the Chairman, in bringing these concerns to the attention of Louth County Council and TII last year. Through the months of May, June and July 2018, meetings were held and detailed submissions from residents groups were received by Louth County Council and TII. Of particular concern is the closure of the Townspark Road west of the new bypass and the closure of the Mullanstown Road east, that is, on the Ardee town side of the new bypass, and the consequences of these closures. A point made in all of the submissions was that the residents did not wish to delay the construction of the N52 bypass. In the past year, Louth County Council, with the support of TII, has been working to find a way of addressing the issues raised within the limitations of the scheme’s planning permission and within the acquired land. This was in order not to delay the construction of the scheme.
The design of the scheme was completed in 2004. The design is safe and compliant with design standards and the bypass would have been built in 2008 if the funding was available. However, there have been significant changes since then such as the construction of a number of additional houses, the growth in membership and activity in Ardee Celtic football club, Sean McDermott’s GAA club and Ardee rugby club. These changes in the local area and an increased commitment by TII to meeting the needs of vulnerable road users, coupled with an increase in walking and cycling, creates different desirable outcomes to be achieved by the design.
In September of 2018, Louth County Council identified a number of options for possible changes to the junctions on the scheme. All of the options require an amendment of the planning permission and the provision of additional land if they are to be progressed.
On 29 August, Louth County Council sought TII approval to commence the tender competition for the construction of the 2004 design that complies with the planning permission and fits within the acquired land. Local residents had indicated support for this progression to construction on condition that there was a commitment from TII and Louth County Council that subsequent amendments to the junctions, if found to be warranted, would be the subject of a separate and subsequent planning procedure. As director of capital programmes for TII, it is my responsibility to consider this request. It had become clear over the course of the interaction with the residents that the issues raised would have to be addressed. I decided not to grant that approval and I requested Louth County Council to undertake a review of the scheme design in advance of progressing to construction.
As the Chairman will be aware, TII's obligation as sanctioning authority under the public spending code is to ensure that value for money is achieved by "doing the right thing and doing it right". I understand that the review of the original scheme will delay the project by 12 to 18 months. However, this review has the potential to incorporate significant benefits such as better community connectivity, infrastructure to cope with increases in walkers and cyclists, improved access for sporting facilities and required adaptation for climate change.
Louth County Council has suggested that a non-statutory public consultation process would be undertaken. This will allow for contributions from all stakeholders, including residents in the wider Ardee community, sports clubs, public transport providers, organisations that provide services to this area such as An Post, school bus operators and local businesses. I am confident that any additional costs incurred in improving the scheme will be offset by the additional benefits. I will hand over to Louth County Council's chief executive, Ms Joan Martin, who will outline what the next steps in the process of delivering the N52 bypass of Ardee will involve.
Ms Joan Martin:
As has been said, our first priority is preparing and organising the public consultation events. This will involve looking at the viable junction alternatives and arrangements for pedestrians and cyclists. We hope that these events will be open to the public towards the end of this year or very early next year. Time will be allowed for all interested parties to make submissions. The most appropriate technical option will then be progressed to a Part 8 planning process with Louth County Council. If planning approval is secured and additional land is required, a CPO will then be submitted to An Bord Pleanála. I should clarify that land can be acquired by agreement with or without a CPO but if land is not acquired by agreement under a CPO, an oral hearing must be held by An Bord Pleanála to make a decision.
Ms Joan Martin:
It involves a Part 8 planning process and a CPO, if required, which may require an oral hearing depending on whether there are objections to any additional land we require. In parallel, the works commenced on the ground, including the fencing contract that has been under way in recent times, will be concluded and Louth County Council will engage with relevant service providers such as the gas pipeline to ensure that the necessary diversions have been progressed. The business case will be updated and submitted for review and then, subject to all the necessary approvals being received, we aim to go to tender with this scheme before the end of 2020. It depends on being able to acquire land if we needed a CPO but certainly it is our intention and that of TII to continue to work closely on this scheme. Getting this and other traffic out of Ardee is still a significant objective of ours but, in the circumstances, we had little choice but to respond to the many representations that have been made over a long period, some of which are ongoing, by and on behalf of the local community and local businesses regarding this scheme but we will certainly progress everything as quickly as possible. I will stay with this scheme to ensure we make the quickest possible progress as I know the Chairman would wish.
Ms Dolores Minogue:
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak about the Ardee bypass on behalf of the people of Ardee-mid-Louth. I thank Louth County Council and TII for bringing the bypass to this stage and I welcome the news that there is a commitment to see the project through. I agree with the opening statement. Ardee is congested. It was congested 20 years ago, hence the need for the bypass, which will be needed more than ever if Ardee-mid-Louth is to progress. I strongly disagree with the announcement of a review or what could be a review of one of the largest projects in the history of County Louth.
Traffic congestion in Ardee also has economic and social consequences. We are right in the middle of two of the largest towns in Ireland - Dundalk and Drogheda. When completed, this bypass will have great benefits for traders, as it is anticipated that there will be much more footfall with less traffic congestion. We are also in the middle of a significant spend on Ardee Castle, which will enhance tourism, and the last thing we need is to have a launch and for visitors to be then stuck in endless traffic. The committee and the Department will be well aware that this bypass is needed. I think even the committee will agree that a wait of 20 years is far too long for a small town that is doing everything it can to survive economically and socially. I praise the Ardee Traders and Business Association for all its efforts to make Ardee a great place in which to work, shop and play. These people need some help. This is an opportunity for the committee to get it over the line. We have a duty to ensure this bypass continues for the greater good.
The Ardee bypass is a must-have, not a maybe. It is a long overdue investment in the quality of life of the people of Ardee. It will be of significant value to the health and well-being of the people of town by reducing the extensive carbon and other toxic pollution that results from the major traffic flows using the town at present. Given the Government's carbon efficiency targets, surely we must put the people first and, in this instance, bypass Ardee. The investment in the Ardee bypass must not come down to a rural versus urban trade-off. Rural Ireland demands this investment to add to the economic well-being of Ardee and the wider area. This is an opportunity to put people first in our planning and budget spend proposal. We need to reduce the sense of social exclusion being felt in Ardee because of the continuous traffic problems and minimal public infrastructure. We must see Ardee as an opportunity centre that can develop with the help of a bypass into a vibrant economic hub for rural Louth. I fully understand and support the Townparks Road issue and hope we can find a solution without delay.
It is ongoing. Councillor Minogue and I were looking at it last week. Notwithstanding everything Mr. Walsh said and all of the issues, the cost is €34 million and if things are on line and on time in 2020, it could be more than that with construction inflation. If there are further delays or legal challenges, it would be even more expensive. Councillor Minogue made an important point about how the people of Ardee are suffering without this bypass. It is provided for in TII's budget but if there was a change of Government or partners in government, that could be taken off the list and the money might not be found. If TII does not spend the money on Ardee now, that money will not be spent on the bypass but must be spent on some other project that is not as high up the list as it.
So the key point is that if TII does not proceed with the procedures, agreements and planning permission it has, the money will be spent elsewhere.
If and when the new due process takes place, the money may be available at that stage, notwithstanding that it is TII’s intention to have it. That decision might be made by a different Government or different parties in government.
Mr. Peter Walsh:
We can never be guaranteed funding from the Government but over recent years the funding profile, as indicated to us, has been adhered to and remains. We profile a large portfolio of projects and programmes within that funding profile. Where there is a change to an individual project, we re-profile to ensure the prioritised projects — this is one of them — remain a priority within the programme. I do not want to give the impression that if one does not get to avail of it at this time, one loses one's place in the queue. That is not the case.
The procedure is that we will open the discussion to members first. There is one member present, Deputy Catherine Murphy. The normal procedure is to have Fianna Fáil followed by Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. Does Deputy Catherine Murphy wish to comment?
I will answer the Deputy directly. As she knows, we had a meeting earlier at which I made it very clear to members that it was not possible to grant what they had requested. One request was on the question of drones and the second was on the use of scooters and inviting the representatives of the Road Safety Authority and Garda to discuss the matter. Questions also arose in respect of the attendance of others whose presence was requested. Deputy Catherine Murphy is quite right that if this were not on the agenda today, there would be no meeting at all, other than a meeting in order to adjourn. I am very happy, notwithstanding the Deputy’s views, that the meeting is taking place. I reject her comment that this matter is not important.
Hold on a second. It is a €34 million project. That is not to be sneezed at. It is in the national development plan. The road is one that may now never be built. I do not know what the Deputy thinks about that but I believe it is not acceptable. I believe her comments are wrong and I ask her to think again about them.
The clerk cannot speak in public and that is why we had the earlier meeting. There was an attempt to have all the issues prioritised discussed here. I said at the meeting that the report on the Football Association of Ireland is imminent. We hope to have it as soon as possible. It was not possible to have it here today. It is important that the Deputy address the issue at hand if she has views on it.
I have documentation that was sent to me, including a letter that was sent to the planning regulator and compliance section in regard to the Aarhus Convention. There is consultation still ongoing on aspects of this project. I am interested in hearing about the flood risk. All I have got to go on are the photographs sent to me. I had the experience of seeing the chaos that ensued when the N4 flooded. It required significant remedial work in order to prevent recurrence, which then caused further floods further down, as can sometimes occur. It ended up being very expensive. Since the project was designed in 2004, has any change take place? Were there flooding events that would not have happened beforehand? I accept that floods can arise that occur only every 100 years. Should we be concerned about the concerns expressed? Is there any impediment? How does Mr. Walsh work with the concern raised?
If additional land has to be purchased, albeit not a huge amount, has it been costed? When agreement is not reached, it can proceed to a compulsory purchase order. Is there a ballpark figure in this regard?
Mr. Peter Walsh:
With regard to flood risk, there is a procedure that every project goes through. There is a certain return period for floods that a design has to meet. In recent years, we have seen flooding events that were more significant than in previous years. Floods of the kind believed to occur only ever 500 years seem to have occurred in a number of parts of the country at intervals of less than 500 years. We are anxious that any project brought forward account for records of flooding in the area and address the potential flood risk. I do not have sufficient knowledge of the project in Ardee to state whether there are areas of concern regarding the alignment. If the Deputy likes, we can respond in more detail.
I must take the information I am given at face value. When the amount of money in question is to be spent, a flood risk is the last thing wanted. It is sensible to factor in such a risk at design stage and consider routes where flooding might not arise. The photograph is pretty compelling.
Mr. Peter Walsh:
The information made available to the Deputy was made available to TII and Louth County Council and it will be taken into account. There is no question about that.
The cost of additional land has not been factored in at this time. It cannot until such time as it has been identified. The value and cost of land have a number of contributing factors, not least of which are the disruption and the impact on the landowner. The compensation that arises in this regard becomes the figure in our sums when reviewing the business case. I do not know whether that answers the Deputy's specific questions. Of course we are sensitive to the potential of flooding.
I am under a little time pressure because I must attend another meeting so I will be as brief as possible. I thank the representatives from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, the county manager of Louth County Council and the chairman of Ardee municipal council for their presentation. It speaks for itself with regard to the issues that arise. It is important to welcome the concerned residents from the area.
I was a member of Louth County Council when the plan in question was adopted. Everybody hailed it at the time as a great project and some believed it might not happen. We have moved to a stage where money has been committed for it. The community, particularly in Ardee and its hinterland, welcome that and want to see the project completed.
To be fair, Louth County Council had a shovel ready project when the money was made available.
It is clear from the written presentation I have read that Transport Infrastructure Ireland is committed to the project. Reference has been made to the fact that the project was adopted in 2005 and that many things have changed in the vicinity of the proposed bypass since. As I said to several people before the meeting, I joined the council in 1991. Road developments, particularly of this nature, need to be cognisant of rural communities. In fact, I had prior dealings with Transport Infrastructure Ireland on two specific projects, one of which involved the provision of an underpass at Killkerly on the main M1 motorway that preventing the break-up of the parish community of Killkerly and Knockbridge. Subsequently, there was a problem on the N52 on the outskirts of Dundalk which was dividing Haggardstown and Blackrock, but a compromise was found by way of the provision of traffic lights, about which many complain to this day, including me. However, the important point is that the communities were facilitated to the best possible degree. The engagement that took place with the local authority is what helped us to find a solution, certainly in the case of the first junction. My specific question is: did it require having to go back to the drawing board? I firmly believe it did not and that we were reaching a compromise in the case of the second junction at Mullenstown. Ultimately, on a point referred to by Councillor Minogue, there is an interdependence between the people living in the urban area who want to see the project happen yesterday and the rural community who must also be taken into account.
This has been a live debate since the money was allocated. Concerns were raised about flooding which I understand were addressed by the diligent engineers of Louth County Council, with whom I have been proactively involved. I would like to see the project going ahead. The message needs to be sent loud and clear and I think I can speak for all public representatives and politicians of one hue or another within the constituency. No one wants anything other than what has been proposed at the two junctions and the issues are resolvable. The residents who have legitimate concerns are as anxious as anybody to see the project go ahead. I am not sure whether it is possible within the law, but we should stick to the confines of the proposal, even if there has to be compulsory purchase or there are other issues.
I understand the Chairman has tried to express a fear that we could lose the project, but that is not my reading of what Mr. Walsh said. I would like Mr. Walsh to confirm that no Government, regardless of whether the Government changes in the next 12 months, will change the fact that it is a live project and that, when the costings are made, it will be reviewed and be a rolling project. If delays into 2020 are inevitable, which is what Mr. Walsh seems to be saying, it is incumbent on all local public representatives and those dealing with the project to row in behind it to ensure the concerns are dealt with. I have attended many community meetings and the only issue raised was about flooding, a matter which I believe has been addressed. The message must again be sent loud and clear about the benefits of the project, not just locally but also regionally and the wider area. It is essential that it go ahead.
Mr. Peter Walsh:
Yes, I can confirm that that is the case. The national development plan is very clear in the commitment given. Just over €7 million of taxpayers' money has already been expended on the project. We find ourselves in unusual circumstances with it. It is really a function of the lapse in time due to the unavailability of funding which is not common on projects. We do not typically pause or rethink, having received planning approval and where the local authority is anxious to proceed. In going through the planning process it would already have received the full endorsement of Transport Infrastructure Ireland. The review is the direct result of the concerns raised and brought to our attention by elected representatives and the Minister. That is the reason the review is under way. The issues raised have been heard. To be fair to Louth County Council, it had no wish to state, "No; thanks, we will review the project". Our obligation to build the right project is one we cannot ignore.
I thank the delegates for providing clarification. We all had a stomach turning moment when we heard that the project had been put on hold, pending a review, given that it is almost 20 years in planning, give or take, given the work that has gone into it and, above all else, the serious need for it. To say the congestion is worsening in Ardee is an understatement, but there is a still a concern, although I know that Mr. Walsh has provided clarification on the commitment given and the fact that the project is included in the national development plan. On the point raised by Mr. Walsh and Ms Martin about the compulsory purchase order if additional land is required for the project, they said they hoped the scheme would go to tender by the end of 2020. I hope that will happen, but if there were to be challenges, what would the timeframe be? Is the end of 2020 the minimum or maximum time period for getting it to that stage if there were to be challenges in acquiring land? I am not sure if the delegates can put a definitive timeframe on it.
Ms Joan Martin:
There are a number of stages that we have to go through. The first to which we have referred is the public consultation process on the options. There is a report available that lays out a number of options for dealing with the junctions about which people are concerned, particularly the two mentioned. That first process will obviously have to be undertaken through a public consultation process to listen to people and look at the technical issues involved. We will then decide on the best technical option, but until we get to that stage, we have no idea which of the options identified it is going to be. For some of them considerably more land would be required than for others. In the case of some of them, the land is tight around the junction, while in the case of others, it is nearly like a new road is being built to link a number of junctions. There are different options on the table. When we get to the stage where a decision is made on the option to be brought forward, obviously, it will have to be mapped and designed, laid out and approved before we can commence the Part 8 planning approval process. We are moving along in chunks of time. This is unavoidable as we have to undergo these stages. The Part 8 planning approval process normally takes no more than three or four months. A judicial review will only arise if one does not strictly adhere to the legal process. It is only on that basis-----
Ms Joan Martin:
Yes, on a point of law. We are always very careful to try to ensure we do everything correctly in accordance with the law. The process takes about four months, depending on the dates and times of council meetings and so on. The Chairman knows how it works. We always try to do things in parallel. As Transport Infrastructure Ireland pointed out, there are ongoing contracts and the diversion work will continue. They are all moving ahead; therefore, the scheme is progressing insofar as it can. As soon as we know the option chosen, work will commence on the various plans and drawings, the detailed design and contract documents. All of that work will be done in parallel.
Once we know the option that is being chosen for the junctions, if that is where we are going, we will immediately seek to reach agreement on the acquisition of the land. We would only use a CPO if we needed to but even when we go into the CPO process and publish it, if agreement is reached with the landowner before the process closes, then An Bord Pleanála can immediately confirm it. We would be very quickly in a position to acquire the land and move forward. In many ways, it is a question of how long is a piece of string but we have a lot of staff in TII and in the council who are very familiar with all these processes. We will be streamlining and working in parallel to minimise the delays. Nobody is more disappointed than the engineers in Louth County Council, some of whom have worked on this scheme from day one. Indeed, I was involved with it myself at the very start, as a director in the roads section. We are as anxious as everybody else to see it proceed and we will leave no stone unturned to streamline and speed up the process as much as we can. With a fair wind and a bit of luck, we could be out to tender by the end of 2020, if not a little before then, although I would not like to be over optimistic about it and make promises that we cannot fulfil. We will certainly move it along in parallel and as quickly as possible. I assure everybody of our ongoing commitment to doing that. It is a high priority for Louth County Council and a strategic objective of our plan as well as of the national plan. It was a major step to get it included in the national plan and that copper fastens its position, status and funding, insofar as anything can ever be copper fastened.
In the context of the new process being undertaken, could other third parties make submissions and challenge decisions that might be made? I am not referring to the people the council is currently dealing with, including residents and so on, but others who could actually delay this project if they were so minded. I am not saying that will happen but-----
Ms Joan Martin:
If we are to accommodate the representations and the public meetings and so on and deal with these junctions, we cannot do so within the existing permission. That is very clear. We can only work with the permission we have. We need a new permission and we need to move forward with a new approval. That is a new process and quite clearly, when we engage in public consultation as part of a formal Part 8 planning approval process, anyone can make a representation about any issue relevant to the planning and the road.
Ms Joan Martin:
We can only deal with that when it arises. We will go to public consultation under Part 8 in due course and submissions will be made. I will then make a report to the council, as I always do, on all those submissions. We will deal with any issues that arise and hopefully continue to drive the scheme forward as quickly as possible.
I thank the representatives from TII and Louth County Council for being here today. The Ardee bypass project has been on the agenda for a very long time. It is situated on the N52 and runs for 4.5 km. Funding of €34 million has been allocated and the people of Ardee, including shop owners, cannot wait for it to happen. In 2005 planning permission was granted, in 2006 a CPO was published for the land and in 2007, the land was acquired. Then suddenly we had the economic crash and there was no money to go ahead. I do not know how the witnesses can guarantee that this will go ahead in 2020. The opening statement refers to the economic situation in the past but let us look at the current economic situation. It has never been so unstable. We have Brexit looming and nobody knows what is going on. Billions of euro are being spent on the national children's hospital and will be spent on the national broadband plan. I cannot see how the witnesses can appear before this committee today and state, categorically, that the money will be made available for this project. I just cannot understand how they can give that kind of commitment. The people of Ardee, many of whom are listening in to these proceedings today, have been waiting for a very long time for this. To be honest, this Government is probably in the most insecure situation that we have seen for a very long time.
The witness from TII referred to contributions from all stakeholders, including the residents of the wider Ardee community but did they not make submissions previously? Reference was also made to sports clubs, public transport providers, An Post, school bus providers and so on but they have had plenty of time over the last few years to submit objections. Why, when the money has been allocated and Louth County Council is ready to start the project, are we now in turmoil? There will be no one more disappointed than me if this does not go ahead but the witness does not have the right to tell people that this is going to happen. This might never happen because nobody knows what the situation will be in 12 months. Back in 2005, when everything was going so well, everyone thought this project was going to happen. How can the witnesses-----
I want to get this right because part of my job is to make sure that everybody is treated fairly. What TII has said is that from its perspective, it is not changing and I accept that. The problem, which Deputy Fitzpatrick has put his finger on and about which I am also concerned, is that if a new Government is elected, if there is an economic crisis or if the money is not available in the future, it might not happen. That is the problem. In other words, this is a leap in the dark. We do not know for sure that it will happen but we know that if the council was ready to go to tender now and did so, the project could start immediately. That is the point.
I would like be wrong about this but I do not know how anyone can guarantee this project, given the current situation. The Chairman has been in the Dáil for the last number of years along with myself and other colleagues. He will agree that nobody knows what will happen in the context of Brexit. Nobody knows what is going to happen with regard to the children's hospital or the broadband plan. The whole situation is in turmoil at the moment. I am just saying that the people of Ardee deserve better. This has been going on since 2004. We cannot leave this room today and say that this bypass is definitely going to happen in 2020 or 2021 because we do not know that. As the Chairman said, we could be facing an economic collapse. I hope that I am wrong but I am very disappointed.
My question relates to the stakeholders. Are there any new stakeholders involved now who were not involved previously? There was so much work done in the past over a long period and now, all of a sudden, we are in a mess. We had the exact same problem with the Narrow Water Bridge project in Louth. We thought we had the money but when the council went to tender, the costs had increased two or threefold. The same thing could happen in Ardee. Why are we so unlucky in County Louth? We have a project that is shovel ready but for some unknown reason, a review is being conducted and everything has been put on hold. The contractors and everyone else were ready to go. I just cannot understand it. There is something wrong here. Can the witnesses tell me what is wrong?
Mr. Walsh made a comment to the effect that he does not see any reason for it to be delayed. If he is going to make such a comment then I am going to make a comment on the economy because nobody knows what will happen. He said that he does not see any reason for it not to go ahead but nobody knows. There is no point in us leaving this room and telling people in Ardee that the bypass will happen in 2020 or 2021 because nobody knows. We were ready but now, all of a sudden, progress has stopped.
Mr. Peter Walsh:
I probably cannot contribute anything to that particular aspect of understanding but I hear the Deputy's frustration. I understand that for a project that has been awaited for 20 years to be further delayed is a source of immense frustration for people. We have projects all over the country that have been awaited for a very long time. We were 25 years building and are about to complete the New Ross bypass. We have the N6 project going back to An Bord Pleanála after 14 years.
Delays to projects occur. This review is needed on the basis of issues brought to our attention by elected representatives and the genuine concerns of local residents that connectivity of the local community will be negatively impacted. The engagement between Louth County Council and those groups, and the detailed submissions received from them, pointed to the changes that had occurred in the time since planning approval was granted in 2005 and raised issues that needed to be addressed. The idea that we would proceed with a project over which there were significant question marks in terms of whether changes needed to be made would fly in the face of our obligations under the public spending code to ensure we do what is right and do so correctly. We need to ensure this is the right project for this reason, and the forthcoming consultation in Louth is an effort to do that. The reason I mentioned bodies such as An Post, school bus services and so on was to provide some reassurance that the submissions received had been noted. For example, a number of them pointed to the width of a road used by some buses being such that they could not turn on it and there would be issues in terms of the circuit they currently travel. All of that information has to be responded to. I did not choose the organisations I mentioned out of the blue. Rather, they are the organisations from which we received submissions.
I hope I have answered the Deputy's question.
Mr. Peter Walsh:
In 2008 and the years immediately after, our capital programme was effectively stopped because the country did not have money. The first opportunity to get the project back onto the Government's capital plan was the mid-term review in 2017. We availed of that opportunity and we were successful in getting the project added to the plan. Nothing happened in the meantime because we could not justify the expenditure of taxpayers' money during years when there was no prospect of projects going ahead.
The point being made by Deputy Fitzpatrick, Councillor Minogue and I is that there is no guarantee that TII will have the money into the future. If it does not have money, this bypass will not be built. TII has the money now to build it, notwithstanding the issues and the point about consultation. Consultation is very important. It goes to the heart of what everybody here wants to happen. It is the job of public representatives to represent their communities and to make submissions to TII but that does not mean that TII should not proceed having taken into account all the other issues. The issues not iterated in Mr. Walsh's arguments are the impact of the ongoing air pollution in Ardee, the thousands of cars delayed every day and the health of young children. As mentioned by Councillor Minogue, approximately 1,700 children in Ardee travel to and from school every day along the same route as hundreds of lorries and HGVs emitting fumes. TII did not consider those issues. I am not being critical of Mr. Walsh. Rather, I am making the point that those issues were not considered.
TII is holding up construction and the end result could be no construction. If Brexit happens and the Government decides to withhold funding for projects, there is a possibility that the Ardee bypass, which the people of the town and the mid-Louth area have been waiting for for the past 14 years, might not proceed. The message coming out of this meeting must be that this project is shovel-ready and will proceed. At matters stand, nobody knows what is going to happen. I cannot understand why this project has been halted. It is mentioned in the submission that nobody wishes to delay construction. Why then are the contractors not on the ground and ready to commence the project?
Mr. Peter Walsh:
I included the comment that in all of the submissions, the residents pointed out that they did not want to delay the construction because that is what they said in the submissions. The other question I was trying to pre-empt related to what happened in the intervening year. The answer to that is the county council and TII were trying to work to find a solution that would fit within the current planning permission and current land acquisition so that we could proceed without going through any other processes. Who knows? That might still be possible. Until the issues have been addressed, it would not be right to proceed to construction of the project designed in 2004.
I am disappointed that the Ardee bypass is being delayed. We are facing Brexit and a possible change of Government and we cannot foresee what will happen in 18 or 24 months. It is a pity and a shame that, despite €34 million being allocated for this project, it might not proceed. Louth County Council has done a fantastic job in consulting the local community. This problem has appeared out of the blue and everybody in County Louth, in particular Ardee and mid-Louth, is disappointed.
The issues raised by Mr. Walsh are dealt with in that report. One of the key issues is journey time delays, from 2.6 minutes to 3.7 minutes. I accept and acknowledge that but in the town of Ardee the delays are longer and, thus, unhealthy for the people there. The TII should seek to achieve greatest good for the greatest number.
I got the distinct impression he was. I assure the committee that the first priority for the Green Party is the threat of air pollution to our children and looking after the environment. There is an environmental issue with regard to this project in that the original planning permission was, I would imagine, done under Part 8 in 2001. An Bord Pleanála decided to ignore the recommendation of the inspector at the time that it would not require an environmental impact assessment. This road as proposed goes through Ardee bog, which is an annex 1 habitats proposed natural heritage area. It is the furthest east raised bog we have. Raised bogs are probably the most threatened and most critical habitat we have. Am I correct?
The council has raised concerns about the effect on a raised bog of the construction of a road through it. Is TII confident that if the road will go through the bog, TII is safe from appeals to Europe that it is in breach of the European habitats directive and a range of other environmental directives? Is the organisation concerned that 20 years on from the original plan the critical nature of our habitats, particular =nnex 1 habitats, makes running a road through a raised bog open to European challenge?
Ms Joan Martin:
I am no expert on this kind of stuff and, as chief executive, I have minimal dealing with the detail of it but we undertook screening for the appropriate assessment again recently. I can say with certainty that the county council always seeks to comply fully with all European requirements for protection of the environment. All of those issues would certainly always be at the forefront of consideration.
Did the result of the screening mean that, as part of this new Part 8 permission, on this occasion the council would include within it an environmental impact assessment to protect it against possible environmental challenge in Europe?
Ms Geraldine Fitzpatrick:
The appropriate assessment was carried out on the existing scheme as it currently stands. The appropriate assessment will be revisited if, as a result of this review, we have to go back and look at a change to the scheme. We will be led by our technical and environmental advisers if there is a need for environmental surveys, etc. There is no intention to not deal with issues if they arise as a result of this review.
The main concern was that access back to the town for local residents was catered for. Does the proposed or likely rerouting that TII might consider, or the change of junctions and so on, lead any redirection of the road away from the raised bog area?
Ms Geraldine Fitzpatrick:
It does not. The review, as it stands, is on the issues that have arisen and the arrangement of the junctions. We do not foresee an extensive change in the line of the road because, as the Deputy will be aware, the land has been purchased and fenced off. The idea would be to use as much of the existing land that we have in ownership to deliver the scheme. There is a need for review of the junctions and it will take place.
We are 20 years on from the initial screening exercise and must consider protection of natural habitats, particularly the ongoing diminishment of habitats in contravention of annex 1 of the habitats directive. Did the screening process raise any new concerns regarding the risk to this scheme being in breach of European environmental directives? Was that raised when this new screening exercise was done, 20 years on from the original one?
Having watched the debate on the monitor, I am very concerned. Given the current economic climate, I wonder is TII facilitating the Government to ensure it does not overspend. TII was before the committee not so long ago regarding the Dunkettle interchange in Cork. That project has been pulled because it did not properly go out to tender on day one. In this case, a project that was ready to go to build stage is now being pulled. It beggars belief why all this is happening now.
In considering solutions for the Ardee bog, I have travelled in poorer countries where flyovers on stilts can be built over conservation areas. Has such a solution been considered? The M7 and M8 motorways, from Dublin to Limerick and Cork, were delayed because of a snail issue in Kildare. That became a protracted issue.
It is a pity this took so long to come to a head. Instead of moving a mountain to fill a valley, does TII, in its construction programme, consider tunnels, or flyovers on stilts, as opposed to ploughing through areas? People have spoken about floods but we do not need a land bank going through the entire bog. Would people compromise if it was built on stilts and there was a flyover for the bog area? I do not know the acreage but it looks substantial. Would TII consider a flyover? It would speed things up.
Mr. Peter Walsh:
The issues that have been brought to the attention of Louth County Council and TII over the past year do not bring the design, as it stands, into question, except when it comes to the junction arrangements. I do not know enough about the detail of the project to tell the Deputy the level of elevation or the structure of that particular section. I can get the information if he would like but we look at all engineering options for any project and I would like to think that we come up with what we see as the most appropriate design response to the circumstances we are facing. Achieving value for money for the taxpayer is the top priority.
As we are hearing today, there is a conflict between connectivity and biodiversity. There is also much talk about climate change at the moment. I am big into connectivity but I also respect the views of other organisations and Departments. I am concerned at the manner in which this project has fallen at the final hurdle, like the Dunkettle exchange project did. It is beginning to feel-----
Ms Dolores Minogue:
For clarity, this is not a review of the whole route but only of sections of the proposed new junctions. As the other witnesses stated in their opening contributions, nobody wants the bypass to stop. Can we continue with the bypass and address the junctions when we need to, as Deputies Fitzpatrick and O'Dowd said, for fear of losing the bypass altogether, or pushing it down the road for another ten to 15 years? Our town is absolutely chockablock. I understand the concerns of the residents of Townspark but, if TII thinks there is a way to fix this with a review, surely we can go on with the works and fix the issues when we get there. I would like that question answered.
Ms Joan Martin:
If one gets permission to build a house, one cannot decide to change the design and say that one is still building the house. One must build in accordance with one's permission. It is a problem if a junction is laid out differently. One cannot change it as one goes along and say a junction should have been done differently. That is the challenge and that is where the review will uncover the extent to which we need a new permission or additional lands. It would often be very difficult, if not impossible, to address concerns that people raise within an existing permission no matter how small and trivial they seem to them. The permission is not granted for something ever so slightly different that one would now like to build. That is not how one can work, legally speaking, and that is the challenge.
As Mr. Walsh said, we have been working over the past year and a bit to try and find a way to proceed within the existing permission, and the conclusion and decision that has been made is that there probably is not a way to do that. We need to review the scheme and decide how we are going to deal with these junctions before we can see exactly how to go forward.
As I said earlier, we will do that as quickly as we can.
Mr. Peter Walsh:
To clarify, the difference relates to the functionality of the road. If we get approval for the expenditure of taxpayers' money for a road that performs in a particular way, prioritises strategic traffic and has a consequence for local movement, then that is the scheme we have approval for.
I understand it changes and do not doubt that. In theory, the scheme could proceed to tender next month without Transport Infrastructure Ireland having done its review. The review could come in before the tender process is completed and TII could examine its outcome. It is only a small section of the entire road. TII could commence construction and by the time it gets to that part of the road, it would have dealt with all these other points. It would not mean a very significant engineering change or change to the route. Is that not a better way? Mr. Walsh is saying, ultimately, that this stops now until this other process completes. Other people get the money that should be going to Ardee, from our perspective, and if the money is still there, this may or may not happen. Does Mr. Walsh understand that-----
Mr. Peter Walsh:
I do. The public spending code requires that the business case is submitted to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. That business case has to properly describe the project that we are going to fund. The only project that we can currently present is the 2004 design. If we present that to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as the business case for the project but we tell residents and the local authority that there are a couple of issues here that really need to be addressed, we would be doing it on the hoof, having presented one thing to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, then entering into a contract with a contractor to build that in the knowledge that we may well vary it. That is not the right way to do it. That is why we need to clarify exactly what we want to put into this project and what the right response to the requirements of the project and the problem it is trying to resolve is. If we can identify that and get it into the footprint of the land as it stands, then I am sure Louth County Council and its engineers would have done so.
Ms Geraldine Fitzpatrick:
That report was done in the context of the possibility of going back to a compulsory purchase order, CPO. That was part of the review that Louth County Council engaged in to see if something could be done within the footprint of the road. It makes recommendations and tries to deal with it within the footprint of the road. To be fair to all of the people who have raised concerns and the public in general, we have received submissions from one side of the people who have come in to us. To be fair to the entire community, the opportunity is now there for everybody to feed into the process and have that considered as part of a review. That review was done following a meeting here with elected representatives.
Ms Geraldine Fitzpatrick:
We need more information and we need to be open to the possibility of a CPO. That is the reason for the review. It has come clearly as a message to us. We want to be fair to all people, including those who want the scheme. We need to give everybody the opportunity to feed in.
I know what Ms Martin is saying. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are only issues with a small section of the road and that the witnesses could park that until they get a design and start building the rest of the road, because the vast majority of the road is agreed. There is only an issue with two culs-de-sac and how they are dealt with. Have the witnesses looked at other local roads in the area to which funding might be provided to alleviate issues that they spoke about, such as road widening or different access that would facilitate the businesses and people in that area? Is that not a possibility?
I appreciate that. Will Mr. Walsh put on his agenda that the alternative is to go ahead with the road and look at this? The increase in construction cost is €34 million now. God knows what it will be in two years, since it sounds like it will take that long, along with all the legal matters and such. If works can be done to facilitate people who have issues and to support Louth County Council, might that be something to look at?
Mr. Peter Walsh:
A priority in the process will be to achieve the best value for money that can be achieved. We are trying to meet the needs that the scheme is trying to address. If a solution can be identified that allows the scheme of 2004 to proceed unchanged and another alternative to be found, I see no reason that could not be pursued. As the Chairman rightly says, inflation is a factor in the value for money sums that need to be done. I see no reason that cannot be included.
That would be significant to me. While I am not identifying any business, if there are issues with the widths of vehicles and such, I do not know what the answers are but there must be a solution that will meet those needs and, at the same time, Louth County Council has to go ahead. I appreciate that the witnesses have been very helpful. I know that Ms Minogue would like to make a final comment.
Ms Dolores Minogue:
With regard to what Ms Fitzpatrick said, the community already engaged in this process. It did not need to organise itself because planning permission was given. It wants this bypass and is not against it. I now have people on the cul-de-sac side who are delighted that there is no speeding on the road and that they are in the cul-de-sac. We will upset them and then be back here in five years. I am getting very frustrated and understand where Deputy Fitzpatrick is coming from. We are trying to accommodate people who are already upset. If we can accommodate them, that is brilliant. We will upset people who are looking forward to a cul-de-sac. As a public representative, my mind is boggled with regard to what answer I can take back to my constituency to be able to say that everybody is happy. Nobody will ever be fully happy. Either we build the road or we do not.
I thank our witnesses for their time. It has been helpful and the questions have been asked and answered fairly.
I express my deep concern about what is happening and believe the only way out of it is to find other ways to improve access points on existing roads and to let work on the new road go ahead as planned and financed. It is available immediately and if we do not do it, it might never happen.