Wednesday, 4 October 2006
Ceisteanna — Questions
Public Private Partnerships.
Question 8: To ask the Taoiseach when the cross-departmental team on infrastructure and public private partnership will next meet; the number of meetings of the team planned for the remainder of 2006; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28193/06]
Question 10: To ask the Taoiseach the number of meetings scheduled for the interdepartmental group on housing, infrastructure and public-private partnerships for the remainder of 2006; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28318/06]
Question 12: To ask the Taoiseach when the cross-departmental team on infrastructure and public private partnerships last met; when its next meeting is scheduled; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30661/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 12, inclusive, together.
The cross-departmental team on housing, infrastructure and PPPs last met yesterday. The items on the agenda were Transport 21, broadband and the new National Development Plan 2007-2013.
The team is scheduled to meet next on 8 November 2006. It has one further meeting planned for the remainder of this year.
The team's role is to assist in progressing and resolving issues related to infrastructure planning and delivery. The team plays a valuable role in identifying appropriate issues to be addressed and ensuring that they are adequately prepared for consideration by the Cabinet committee and, where necessary, by Government.
Such cross-departmental co-ordination has helped to improve significantly the capacity for the delivery of national infrastructure, especially in terms of time and cost.
Lead responsibility remains with the relevant Minister and Department in respect of each individual infrastructure project.
The Taoiseach made a passing reference to the national development plan. How much of the focus of this committee is on getting projects moving that are chartered out at the moment? How much of it is in preparation for the new national development plan to 2013? Has the situation with regard to Cork Airport been clarified? As the Minister, Deputy Martin, knows, there is a major issue about the overhang debt at Cork Airport.
Can the Taoiseach tell us if Dublin Airport has been the subject of any recent meetings of the cross-departmental team? In regard to over-runs in public contracts and public contracts coming in late, to what extent, in his assessment at this stage, have we learned from the lessons of the past and to what extent is that phenomenon under control?
This particular team is not dealing with the Cork Airport issue but it is being dealt with elsewhere. That matter is close to being resolved. If not formally resolved, the parameters of a resolution have been worked out on the structures for the airport so the matter should soon be wrapped up by the various boards. The team worked very effectively during the last few years. Originally we did not have cross-departmental structures but because of the size and scale of the projects the team has worked well. Deputy Rabbitte is correct in saying that most of its work is in ensuring that ongoing capital projects are dealt with efficiently and move through the system. It has done a good job during the past five years. Much of the effort between the various organisations, the National Roads Authority, local authorities and various other bodies, is due to the work done by this group of civil servants across the Departments. Because of the significant changes in design and build, the cost estimation and the new procurement arrangements, most of the major contracts come in under time and under budget. Of the recent contracts, the Naas Road contract came in on budget, but nearly all the others came in under budget and under time, with a significant number of months being knocked off the contract time. There is always the danger that difficulties will arise in complex areas such as the Dublin Port tunnel. Given that we have never built a tunnel of that magnitude it has been necessary to carry out various checks and many additional safety issues have arisen. Almost all the other projects have got on top of their estimations, timescales and planning. This team began its work in 1999, and since the start of 2000, 63 major projects have been finished, 25 are under construction this year and a large number of contracts are at various stages of planning for the next decade. In fairness to this particular group, it has done a very good job on major infrastructural projects.
On the Taoiseach's reference to the experience of Dublin Port tunnel, is it settled Government policy that the metro will go to the airport? Given the experience we have had with the tunnel and all the safety and other issues that have delayed it and everything that has surrounded it, is the Government settled in the conviction that a metro is the correct way to go as distinct from some form of surface connection to the airport?
Will the interdepartmental group or cross-departmental team in its forthcoming meetings address the issue of the restoration of Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 as instituted in 2000 on the passage of that legislation given that housing is one of the key areas? I note with some concern that the questions posed invariably here do not reflect that housing is one of the three central pillars of responsibility of this interdepartmental group. I am anxious to establish if the Taoiseach envisages address of the restoration of Part V of that Act at future meetings of this team.
Does the team look at infrastructural development on an all island basis? Is its consideration confined only to developments within the State or is it taking the wider view and recognising the importance of cross-Border co-operation in infrastructural development particularly but not solely with the beneficial effect in relation to the Border counties? Will the Taoiseach indicate if that is something the team addresses and what progress, if any, he is aware of as a result of those deliberations? For instance, is there somebody within the team who has a specific remit to examine the role of the team in relation to its impact on all Ireland matters, not only infrastructural but under the other areas of responsibility? Can the Taoiseach advise whether telecommunications infrastructure comes under the remit of the team and what attention it has given to the importance of the roll out State-wide of broadband? Currently its absence in vast swathes of the 26 counties of our country is an impediment to real progress on those areas reaching their natural potential.
On the North-South issues, a sub-group of the cross-departmental team has been examining existing and potential areas of co-operation. Until now it has been mainly on roads, road development and road infrastructure. As the Deputy is aware it has done quite a good job on the Dublin-Belfast Road and the Ballymascanlon-Newry project is well under way. There is also a high level of North-South co-operation on infrastructural initiatives. In the energy area, the energy regulators, North and South, are working together on the creation of an all island energy market which is a big and significant project. On the roads, as I have mentioned, there is the Newry-Dundalk link but improvements are under way and are well advanced in planning on the N2 and N3 which have a cross-Border dimension. On waste, there are 32 local authorities in the South and 26 district councils in the North participating in an all island recycling scheme which was declared the winner of the UK national recycling awards in its category. There has also been an all island approach to a successful project for the disposal of waste fridges and freezers. These are examples of where there is much co-operation. There are many other issues on which there is co-operation in various Departments but I would not be aware of them all.
On the issue of broadband, we came from a slow start as there were difficulties after the Eircom issues but substantial progress is being made. The provision of telecommunications services, including broadband, is a major issue for the private sector companies operating in a fully liberalised market, regulated by ComReg, the independent regulator. It was clear for some time that the private sector had failed to invest at the level necessary to keep pace with the demand for broadband. The recent broadband programme addressed that issue. There are 120 towns and cities nationwide in the metropolitan areas network. Phase 1 of that programme, into which we have invested more than €80 million, has delivered fibre optic networks to 27 towns. The second stage of that MANs programme is well under way. The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has also given assistance to group and community broadband schemes and the projects cover approximately 575 communities with a combined population of 400,000. By next year broadband penetration throughout the country will be in excess of 90%. I admit we started slowly, but we are growing faster than anywhere else and the figures for last year and this year are impressive. There will obviously be small areas left that must be dealt with and the Minister is concentrating on these. Penetration is successful and broadband take-up is very good.
I have three questions and will try not to repeat those asked by others. Has the group had climate change on its agenda? One third of the built environment, including houses, hospitals and schools, areas that would be on the agenda, contributes to greenhouse gases which are an issue that must be tackled. Given the critical importance in getting it right when it comes to facing up to that challenge, has the group had any input into the climate change review? I do not know whether the Taoiseach has had the chance to see the film "An Inconvenient Truth", but perhaps he should bring the group to see it.
I appreciate that and will stay on the point, but what I have said is still relevant. A meeting was held in May to discuss airports. Have cost-benefit analyses been carried out or will they be a requirement for projects being carried out at airports or for any work contemplated? There is no cost-benefit analysis on the runway plan at Dublin Airport. Is that in line with Government policy?
On the issue of broadband, we are currently 14th out of the EU 15 with regard to provision. The Taoiseach mentioned in his reply that we live with a liberalised market. Does he believe that as Eircom owns the golden mile, the monopoly——
I will not go into the general issues. The new owners of Eircom are anxious and determined to deal with and get on top of the broadband and other issues. I wish them well on that.
On energy policy issues, in recent months the team has considered these and wider energy issues. Its discussions focused mainly on the issues of climate change, energy issues, particularly the overall policy direction to be given to the Environmental Protection Agency, and on preparing a second national allocation plan for the emission trading system. The team spent some time on this and its deliberations have helped to prepare the way for careful consideration of the necessary balance between environmental protection and the protection of overall competitiveness. They also helped inform Government on overall policy of the EPA and covered the features that should be included in it. The team has, therefore, played a major part. The Green Paper on Energy, which we presented last week, brings these issues together in a single document for the first time in 20 years.
What targets does the Taoiseach set for this team? Each year the Minister for Finance produces the public-private partnership target and announces how much money will be spent and at the end of the year we see how much has actually been spent. From memory, I would say the Government achieves approximately 20% of its target each year and therefore fails to the extent of 80%. How does the team explain away this consistent failure to achieve its central reason for its existence, namely, to co-ordinate work to deliver these targets?
Each year when we read the National Competitiveness Council's annual report, we see we are bottom of the league on port infrastructure, broadband infrastructure and in a host of other key infrastructural areas. What sort of score sheet does this team from the Taoiseach's Department keep to inform him as to how we rate compared to our competitors in these areas? If this sort of team is to have any sense, it must take a broad view and give the Taoiseach a picture of where we stand. Does it work to a score sheet or to a performance in terms of PPP delivery or does it simply just get on with the usual drudgery of its work and never report on these sorts of high level achievements?
A cross-departmental team of all key Departments, not just a group in my Department, looks at the competitiveness report. It takes the report into account and probably feels satisfied when it sees all the areas in which we are top or in the first three or four. There are some areas, and I have mentioned ——
The reason we are not high in some infrastructural areas is that until approximately a decade ago what we spent in this country on infrastructure was pathetically low. We did not have the money because we were spending our money on the national debt.
I would not like to think that people across Departments, who are trying to see road, waste and other infrastructural projects go through, would spend their time either looking at EU reports or statistical analyses of an academic exercise that is useless to the people. What they are trying to do is to ensure the removal of any administrative, structural or other blocks in the system in order to allow us spend the money now available to have better procurement and cost systems. They are succeeding in doing that and that is the reason this country now has a capital programme that is higher pro rata than anywhere else in Europe. It is delivering on that programme. Despite all the difficulties and problems of planning and other issues, the group does a good job. It has brought together the roads investment programme which has completed 65 projects, has 25 under way and from 40 to 50 coming through. The group has worked across the agencies to do this and has done the same in areas such as energy, broadband, regional airports and housing programmes.
The team would be conscious of shortfalls and of where we are not achieving targets. It spent some time this year on the third level education sector trying to get co-ordination and co-operation in the sector to obtain better use of the research and development budget. Where it sees deficiencies, it works with the stakeholders to try to achieve better delivery. In fairness, the team has made a significant difference compared to the old way a Department tended to go ahead with a project without any connectivity.
I remember being at a meeting on transport some years ago in which senior people from the NRA, the RPA, CIE and other groups were involved. It was clear that even though they were all involved in transport, they had never met, did not know each other and had never sat down together to have a meeting on integrated transport. We have moved a long way from that. On whether the situation is ideal, nothing is ever perfect, but significant improvements have been made. The reason things did not work so well in the past is because there was no connectivity between the various bodies. In recent years the system is working well across Departments. There is always room for improvement, but cost estimation, planning and structures within Departments are far better than ever.
Arising directly out of the Taoiseach's reply, he says there is now greater co-ordination within the transport companies. Did he read the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on integrated ticketing where it is precisely the failure and obstruction by companies——
It was the Taoiseach who raised this matter. If the Taoiseach is in order to set this out, we are surely entitled to ask about the reply he has given.
This is a most bizarre ruling from the Chair if the Taoiseach is allowed say things and we cannot question him about them.
By the end of this decade, the targets will be achieved for the Cork, Limerick and Galway roads. I acknowledge the Waterford road may be behind. The bus capacity and the rail targets are way ahead. They are not way behind. It shows a negative attitude to concentrate on one among many projects. Huge progress is being made in this area. I acknowledge that difficulties exist in some areas, such as in the area of broadband. However, they are catching up and should be encouraged.
We should aim to motivate the entire system instead of trying to find another report to show we are lower down in the list. This is a very negative attitude which kept us where we were since the 1920s. Our attitude was that this country could never do things. If one has that negative attitude to life, one will always believe everything is a failure.
Is this cross-departmental team strictly a co-ordinating team or has it any interaction with outside relevant bodies, even public sector organisations? Is there any structured role or involvement of the National Development Finance Agency and how does this knit into the work of this committee?
I refer to the Taoiseach's reply to the same question on 27 June 2006. A large part of his response was taken up with the refurbishment of the M50 which he stated will take between three and four years. Will the Taoiseach give any indication in respect of the particular matter where he says, almost unbelievably for the lay person, that it will take between three and four years to put in barrier-free tolling of the kind that one sees elsewhere in member states of the Union?
I am not going down that road, Ceann Comhairle.
Will the Taoiseach say if this is the case? It beggars belief as to the reason it should be the case because there is no constraint on the availability of this technology, as I understand it. If that is the case and if we are going to have to put up with between three and four years of torture while motorists are log jammed on the M50 during the period of refurbishment——
I do not care who the Ceann Comhairle wants to bring in. I want to ask my question.
I ask the Taoiseach if that is the situation is there any reason the State cannot throw open the toll bridge for the period of the refurbishment——
It is not a related matter but the Taoiseach may be able to inform the House whether this interdepartmental group discussed the cessation of the beet growing industry and its possible replacement by an indigenous alternative fuel industry and if it did——
To be helpful to Deputy Durkan, this group is not dealing with this matter. However, a ministerial group dealing with energy is working on the biofuel, biomass and bioenergy issues.
In answer to Deputy Rabbitte's question on the M50, there will be three or four phases. I have attended meetings on this issue. Work has commenced on phase one. Phase two is to be a public private partnership project and will start at Easter time, I believe. Phase three consists of a short link of 3.2 km on the plaza end of the West Link. It is estimated this work will take about two years and should be finished in 2008. I understand there are five or six global companies who can undertake the barrier-free tolling initiative and discussions have commenced with these companies. It is the view that all the projects must be undertaken together. More chaos will be created if the barrier is removed in isolation. The N3, N4 and N7 routes will need to be done at the same time. It is projected there will be barrier-free tolling in two years' time, in the third quarter of 2008. It is based on all the work on the M50 being completed within a four year period which is 2010. The barrier-free element of the project will be introduced in 2008. Any opening in the intervening time, considering the ongoing road works, would only create more difficulties. It might seem the easy solution, but it is not so. There should be a significant improvement in the two-year period but it is a four-year contract for the whole project consisting of four phases.