Thursday, 28 September 2006
The Government's ports policy statement, which I launched early last year, aims to equip the port sector and its stakeholders better to meet national and regional capacity and service needs. One of the key challenges that lie ahead is the provision of adequate in-time port capacity, especially for unitised trade, lo-lo and ro-ro. The policy statement sets out a framework to ensure that capacity needs are identified, planned and progressed in a co-ordinated manner.
As part of this process, my Department appointed in September 2005 a firm of consultants expert in this field, Fisher Associates, to help determine whether the anticipated capacity requirement to 2014 and beyond can be efficiently and adequately met through the successful advancement and implementation by the port sector of some combination of the various proposals under development in the sector.
Detailed submissions outlining proposals for new capacity for unitised trade were received from the following ports and evaluated by Fisher Associates: Cork, Greenore, Dublin, Drogheda, Rosslare, Shannon Foynes and Waterford. The final report of Fisher Associates was completed in June 2006 and the Government noted its conclusions in July 2006. It is intended to publish the broad conclusions of the report in an information paper shortly, which will be available on my Department's website at www.transport.ie.
In summary, the study concludes that there is significant available capacity for lo-lo traffic at Irish ports. Available capacity for ro-ro traffic also exists, although less so than in the case of lo-lo. The conclusions of the study clearly demonstrate that the projects being progressed by the ports sector have the potential to deliver adequate capacity, in line with the Government's ports policy.
I assure the Deputy that my Department will closely monitor the progress of these proposals, and for its part will certainly do what is necessary to ensure the statutory and other corporate governance requirements are dealt with expeditiously. If there is a sound business case for these projects, the Minister for Transport and the Minister for Finance, as shareholders in the State-owned port companies, will be positively disposed towards them.
While the Government, as shareholder and policymaker, has a clear interest in ensuring the provision of adequate, cost-effective port capacity, the development of the necessary capital projects is primarily a matter for the individual port companies and their boards. This is in line with the commercial mandate given to the port companies under the Harbours Act 1996.
I am well aware these investments have to stand up commercially. It is up to the ports to make the investments. However, the Minister for Transport is responsible for making broad strategic decisions about where capacity will be provided. When the Minister spoke earlier about buses, he said he was great at making decisions and that we would be hopeless at making decisions. He is the world's greatest ever procrastinator. The reality is that decisions on port capacity and, in particular, container capacity in ports have been postponed indefinitely. Many reports and policy statements have been published, but no policies have been outlined. Policy frameworks have been promised and the Fisher report has been completed, but no decisions have been taken. As a result, no strategic direction for the ports has been indicated. Is the Minister aware that the growth in capacity requirement that was originally envisaged by the Government is just half the level of growth that is anticipated by IBEC? When will the Minister make some kind of strategic direction known? Putting something on a website is not the same as making a policy decision or taking the kind of proactive position that is expected of the Government. The Minister and Ministers of State in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, who have joined the Taoiseach on many occasions when he has gone around the world to tout for trade, are aware that our ports cannot accommodate an increased level of trade.
We would not have any problem with port capacity in the future — there may be a shortfall in meeting the requirement of 12.2 million tonnes by 2014 — if it were not for the success of the economy. I am making a political point when I say that.
The most objective observers are suggesting we will continue to enjoy growth of between 5% and 6% in each of the next few years. There will be a long lead-in time because it is not possible to provide additional capacity in the short term. For that reason, I launched the ports policy statement in January 2005, when I was Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. I appointed Fisher Associates to compile a report shortly thereafter. We have been proactive. The Fisher report was cleared by the Cabinet in July — this is the end of September. I am taking the opportunity to meet representatives of the Irish Ports Authority at its meeting in Galway tomorrow. I will pursue this matter even further at that forum. As we speak, a number of ports are making progress. The various ports, including those in Dublin and Waterford, are at different stages. The purpose of this process is to establish what is required and how it can be delivered. I have been impressed with the ports. I believe they can provide additional capacity from their own resources. As I have said previously, if it is necessary for the ports to sell non-core assets, they can do so. The State might be in a position to assist them in exceptional circumstances.
The Minister of State has been proactive in commissioning reports, but he has not been proactive in making decisions. Will the Minister of State make a strategic decision? Will he give strategic direction to the ports? Will he outline where he thinks capacity should be provided? Will he ensure capacity is provided in a way that could integrate with our rail freight policy, if we had a rail freight policy?
While the port authorities are responsible for making decisions of this nature, they will have to come to us for approval. I will discuss this matter with the Minister, Deputy Cullen. After they have made their decisions and issued their recommendations, we will certainly co-operate with them to ensure the additional capacity can be provided.