Wednesday, 6 December 2006
Ceisteanna — Questions
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the outcome of the meeting of the cross-departmental team on housing, infrastructure and PPPs which took place on 8 November 2006; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37074/06]
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach the outcome of the November 2006 meeting of the cross-departmental team on housing and infrastructure; when the team is next due to meet; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38683/06]
Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach the outcome of the November 2006 meeting of the cross-departmental team on housing, infrastructure and public private partnerships; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40252/06]
Question 4: To ask the Taoiseach the outcome of the most recent meeting of the cross-departmental team on housing, infrastructure and PPPs; when the team is next due to meet; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40349/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
The role of the cross-departmental team is to identify and assist in progressing and resolving issues related to infrastructure planning and delivery, ensuring that they are adequately prepared for consideration by the Cabinet committee on housing, infrastructure and PPPs and, where necessary, by Government.
This preparation has helped to improve significantly the capacity for the delivery of national infrastructure, especially in terms of time and cost. However, lead responsibility remains clearly with the relevant Minister and Department in respect of each policy area or individual infrastructure project.
Meetings of the cross-departmental team were held on 8 November 2006 and on 29 November 2006. These considered key issues in regard to housing and transport infrastructure which, in turn, fall to be considered by the Cabinet committee. As the House is aware, Cabinet committees are an integral part of the Cabinet process and questions as to the business of Cabinet or Cabinet committee meetings have never been allowed in the House on the grounds that they are internal to Government.
This well established precedent is founded on sound policy principles and the need to respect and uphold the constitutional protection of Cabinet confidentiality. The cross-departmental team is due to meet again on 21 February 2007.
Can I ask the Taoiseach if the cross-departmental team discussed the progress being made under Transport 21, in particular, in regard to the four main rail projects, the Kildare rail project, the Cork commuter rail project, the linking up of the Luas lines and the extension of the Luas to Cherrywood? I am a firm believer in public transport on the basis that one can move more people per hour by train than by any other method of transport. Money has been allocated for these projects. I understand some funding has been drawn down and spent by the Department of Transport. Perhaps the Taoiseach would indicate whether that was discussed at the meeting, whether an update was given and what is the position?
Arising from that, did the cross-departmental team discuss other major issues such as the necessity for rail lines from Dublin to Navan, from Mullingar to Athlone and the western rail corridor from Ennis to Sligo? Perhaps the Taoiseach would give an update on these matters, in so far as the committee may have discussed them?
Regular updates have been made on different aspects of Transport 21. On some occasions they referred to roads and on other occasions they referred to rail. Regarding the mainline rail projects referred to by Deputy Kenny, most of the intercity carriages on the Dublin to Cork line have been delivered. When the trains have completed their commissioning process they will enter in service progressively. As I understand it, most of the work has been finished on that line.
The new high specification railcars on the Dublin to Ballina, Westport, Galway, Limerick, Tralee and Waterford lines are in place. The delivery of 150 railcars is due to commence at the beginning of January 2007 for the Rosslare and Sligo lines. That work will continue throughout the year. The introduction of these railcars will see the removal from service of all of the older stock and the provision of improved service frequencies on a phased basis on all intercity routes. Work on the first part of the western rail corridor is to start in 2007 but I am not sure when. The planning and other work on it is going ahead. The RPA has submitted applications for railway orders for the projects on the extensions from Sandyford to Cherrywood and from Connolly Station to the docklands. The Deputy did not ask about the metro lines. Most of the projects he mentioned are either well advanced or under way. Under the national development plan and Transport 21, CIE has been given very large budgets. It has much challenging rail work ahead in the next few years. I agree with the Deputy that the more work that can be done on the rail the better. There is an hourly rail service to Cork during the day and also to the west. This should increase the numbers travelling by rail. I have not seen the provisional figures for this year but I understand the figures for 2006 show a huge increase and that there will be a further huge increase in 2007 with the availability of the new stock for a full year. There has been a substantial improvement.
Has the committee done any assessment of the likely impact of traffic, about 6,500 trucks, that will spill on to the M50 and the toll bridge when the Dublin Port tunnel opens? Is the Taoiseach's face still set against throwing open the toll bridge, even on a trial basis, to see what the impact would be? In respect of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, deciding not to put any figures into the public domain on the likely cost of the metro north and the subsequent announcement of the metro west, does the committee have available to it a cost benefit analysis of these projects? Do members of the committee possess that information given it proceeded to make decisions based on that information being in their possession?
For a number of years there are detailed reports on the impact of trucks on to the M50. As the Deputy is aware Dublin City Council has made a number of changes this year on how it will be operated, zoned and ringed and the type of trucks to be allowed on it. Originally all types of vehicles were to be pressed on to the M50 but it will now be five axle trucks. That is not the entire volume of traffic that would have gone from Dublin Port originally but it will take the heavy vehicles. According to these reports most of the traffic going west or north, a substantial amount of the traffic, is already making its way to the M50. The exception is the traffic on the quays. That was the original reason for the suggestion that there should have been two tunnels, one of which would be under the Liffey. I regret that did not happen. I still think that creates a problem.
As Deputy Rabbitte said the easiest solution would be to open the toll bridge irrespective of the cost. However, all the studies concluded that this would create a bigger problem. All the wizards say it would help through traffic but that until work on the M50 and the various junctions, including the Red Cow junction, is complete it is better that this works it way through. There are also legal issues to be undertaken. There is no doubt it will be challenging on the M50. Given that the tunnel will be limited to five axle trucks they have covered themselves well. However, the downside is that the traffic will not be eliminated from the streets to the extent that is necessary. I have been pressing hard at the committees to have the work done. Admittedly it will take a few years but it is better to get it done, one way or the other, even if we all have to suffer it in the meantime. Some €1 billion will be spent on the M50. They have a good programme and have, technically, found a solution to the Red Cow interchange which will help. Thank God for that. Barrier free tolling will take two years and it will be Christmas 2008 before that issue is dealt with.
I have been pressing at the committee for work to be done on the orbital road. Looking at the figures, my view, which may not be shared by all the technical experts, is that the M50 was based on approximately a quarter to one third of the current volume of traffic. In light of the rate of growth during the past half a dozen years where the traffic volume has increased by 800,000 I have been pressing to have the work done on the orbital road. Ultimately we need an upgraded M50, work on which will take a solid four years and possibly five if the airport interchange is included. All the work should be done by 2011, which I appreciate is a long time. Planning, advancement and work on the outer orbital road is also under way. There is a tight programme. I wish it could be done faster but at least the entire work on all the phases and the contracts on the M50 are done for the next four years, including barrier free tolling, the three phases and the airport interchange. A considerable team of our best engineers are working on that and the feasibility of the outer orbital road. Dublin City Council has designed it in such a way that it is not pressing all traffic on to the M50 in the short term. That should alleviate some of the difficulty if all traffic had been forced on to the M50 in January.
There are detailed assessment figures worked out by the RPA. The reason the RPA is not putting those into the public domain is because of the experience elsewhere on large tendering projects of international firms. All of the firms that will be tendering for this work are large international firms. They have different expertise. To show our hand would not be wise. That is the only reason for not putting the figures into the public domain. There are detailed assessments but until we see real quotations it would be unwise to put any figures into the public domain. The Department and the RPA have assessments.
Can the Taoiseach give an indication of what proportion of the cross-departmental team's work is taken up addressing the issue of our housing needs? Is he aware if the cross-departmental team has carried out a detailed study of the report on housing carried out by the National Economic and Social Council? The cross-departmental team must be aware that the NESC recommended the construction of an additional 73,000 social housing units between 2005 and 2012. Can the Taoiseach give us a sense of the importance the cross-departmental team places on the whole issue of housing provision? Can he give us a sense of the extent of that address given there are some 44,000 household units currently on waiting lists at local authority level throughout the State and that for many today the idea of aspiring to home ownership, where the current national average cost is €308,000, is totally prohibitive? Will the Government adopt the NESC report as policy and will the Taoiseach ask the cross-departmental team to play its part in progressing the proposals contained therein?
The entire housing section in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government deals with housing, but it is mainly the affordable parts of it that are discussed by the cross-departmental team. There is a range of affordable housing mechanisms, the shared ownership scheme, the 1999 affordable housing scheme, Part V and the State-local authority lands element and the affordable housing initiative. The reports suggest they are making significant progress in assisting people to achieve their goal of home ownership. In the last report that covered the period from January 2003, almost 8,500 affordable homes had been delivered, which is totally separate from the local authorities or the social housing scheme programme. For this year, the latest information suggests that delivery of some 3,000 homes will be achieved. This does not take account of initiatives by the local authorities such as the tenant purchase scheme. That scheme alone will probably bring in approximately 1,700 homes.
In Towards 2016, we have set a target of delivering some 17,000 affordable houses in the period from January next over three years. That is ambitious, but the increasing yield from Part V, which is now yielding because the planning permissions have gone through the system, and from the State and local authority lands element of the affordable housing initiative will make a significant contribution towards meeting the target. The establishment of the affordable homes partnership, which recently gave a report to the committee, is making an important contribution to the greater Dublin area. Particularly important for the operation of the partnerships are land exchanges and a "call for lands" process, which they have launched. They have studied the NESC report, but I will bring the Deputy's comments to them.
Taken together, the total Part V yield to date from finished units, land and individual sites is the equivalent of some 4,000 homes. In addition, up to the end of June, some €38m in cash settlements had been received by the local authorities under Part V. While some characterise the cash option as the developers buying their way out, the officials concerned say that is not what is happening. Completed homes, land and sites account for the vast majority of Part V agreements.
The legal obligation under Part V can be satisfied by way of a cash contribution only if the local authority considers it appropriate, taking account of its housing needs. It is important to remember that payments received by local authorities through Part V agreement are ring-fenced. The allocation received in the Book of Estimates is substantially increased for housing next year and particularly for social housing.
I asked this question the last time this topic was discussed. No cost-benefit analysis has been carried out on the proposed second parallel runway at Dublin Airport. From the point of view of the Taoiseach and the interdepartmental team, it is a basic requirement that a project of such significance should have a cost-benefit analysis. Does he feel the interdepartmental group would make such a recommendation? According to the Taoiseach the group informs the Environmental Protection Agency on Government policy. Has it made recommendations on, for example, incineration, and the proposed super dump at the Nevitt in north County Dublin? Is it part of its remit to make such recommendations?
The issue of housing really highlights the problem of Government policy. Has the interdepartmental group had any reason to reflect on the way that Part V of the Planning and Development Act has been designed? Since 2002, some 7% of the 400,000 new houses have been social houses. Is there not a need to increase that number? Would the Taoiseach not agree that the 20% originally outlined in Part V is obviously better than the 7% and we require it to be——
It was not discussed, so perhaps the Deputy could take it up with the line Minister. On Part V, approximately 100,000 planning applications for housing units were extant in the system and it took a number of years for them to go through. Many developments in the past four or five years had earlier planning permissions and did not come under the requirements of Part V. This year has seen a change in that, which is why the figures for this year are almost 4,000. That is changing and as we go forward it will change. In conjunction with the cross-departmental group the Minister and his officials have issued guidelines to all the local authorities — I am sure the Deputy has seen them — on how Part V should operate. It is a very clear document which removes many of the ambiguities. The officials also presented it to the CIF and various house builders' groups. Many of the difficulties and ambiguities in it have been removed in 2006 and it is far clearer.
Environmental impact and infrastructure are local authority issues, working with the guidelines. The cross-departmental group has been trying to get local authorities to move away from landfill sites and to find sustainable and environmentally friendly ways to deal with the issues. However, it has not gone into individual projects.
Has the issue of rail freight been discussed by the cross-departmental team and what progress has been made in that regard? It has come to my attention that Coillte, a semi-State company, is importing timber from Scotland because it claims it is cheaper to do so rather than transport it across the country. We need to give serious consideration to the issue of rail freight. Has utilisation of the Phoenix Park tunnel been discussed in conjunction with the development taking place in Spencer Dock? The Phoenix Park tunnel is a very valuable asset that is greatly underutilised. While I know it is in the Taoiseach's constituency, it is critically important to consider its full utilisation to enhance services in the city of Dublin.
I am not aware of the rail freight issue. I will bring the Deputy's views to the attention of the Minister. It was not discussed, but I take the point he has made. Needless to say, I am familiar with the Phoenix Park tunnel. The Deputy is right in saying it has much potential. For some time it has been examined by CIE, not only regarding the development at Spencer Dock, but also in conjunction with the realignment of stations in the inner city. I was somewhat disappointed that a report from a few years ago showed that the experts were not as enthusiastic as I was about it. It has some potential. As the Deputy knows it is used sparsely and it would require substantial refurbishment. In the overall development of inter-connectivity between Heuston and Connolly Stations it comes back into play. I understand that preliminary work was carried out and that this is still being progressed and remains a priority for the company. I have not seen any recent plans.