Thursday, 14 January 2016
Topical Issue Debate
I raise this Topical Issue matter in the House following a public meeting I attended immediately before Christmas in a village called Rathcabbin on the north Tipperary and Offaly border, which is known as the Lower Ormond electoral area. I am not elected to the district but it will form part of the new constituency of Offaly. I, along with my colleague, Deputy Corcoran Kennedy, and other councillors in the electoral area were invited to the same meeting.
The meeting was very well attended. It was called by the residents of the village and the immediate area of Lorrha and surrounding areas because many people are frustrated, infuriated and quite angry about the gradual decline in the condition of the roads in the vicinity. We heard various speakers from those in attendance who were informed in the preceding days by schools in the areas of Birr and Roscrea that school transport providers and bus companies were seriously considering withdrawing their services because of the terrible state of the roads in the area. We also heard from many business owners in the area. It was explained that suppliers were ringing them in advance of deliveries and asking that people meet in locations three miles from their place of business, again because of the unfortunate state of the roads.
It is predominantly a rural farming area which depends on a major form of infrastructure to carry out their daily business and social and economic lives, such as bringing children to school and whatnot. It is becoming a very dangerous chore and impinges on livelihoods, cars and so forth. Unfortunately, over time, very little has been spent. I have submitted many parliamentary questions to the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Transport, Tourism and Sport.
Over time, and in particular over the past number of years, we have underinvested in local county and regional roads, a fact which is now coming home to roost. It is estimated that there has been up to a 50% underspend in the maintenance of our roads. That is putting extra pressure on capital investment and the reconstruction of roads. It is plain to see that the recovery has not taken hold in many rural areas but it has very little chance of taking hold if infrastructure is not put in place or brought up to the sort of level that people would expect, considering the amount of tax that is paid, such as road tax and property tax, and notwithstanding the fact that those two sources of funding were diverted to Irish Water over the past number of years, something which does nothing to assist people in thinking that progress can be made in this regard.
I am also conscious of the ongoing flood situation and the further damage being done to our roads. After the last major storm in June 2014, the Department called on local authorities to apply for funding to repair the damage, but up to 37% of what was requested was not forwarded by the Department. This is causing local authorities to fear doing the work they want to do. Further to a suggestion made by Deputy Corcoran Kennedy and I, a meeting took place between local authority members, a section of the community and engineers from Tipperary County Council. Immediate remedial works were carried out as best as they could be but, unfortunately, they were nothing along the lines of what was intended.
Very significant pressure will be placed on other local authorities as a result of the recent weather conditions. Will the Department make a specific and special case in this instance to address this issue and allow people to see local and national government are aware of the situation and are willing to put in place a plan or programme, over a number of years if necessary, to address this issue and return us to a level playing pitch with other parts of the country?
I am responding to the Deputy on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport who regrets he cannot attend.
The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from local authorities' own resources, supplemented by State road grants. The selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is, therefore, a matter for the local authority.
Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network, and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. The national financial position has meant there have been very large reductions in the Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure over the past number of years. State funding for regional and local roads in 2008 was €604 million while funding last year was €320 million. In this context, it is important to reiterate that the purpose of Exchequer funding is to supplement the own resources spending of local authorities, and the Minister has been emphasising to local authorities the importance of prioritising expenditure on roads when allocating own resources, including revenue from local property tax receipts.
Local authorities are aware that it is a matter for each council to determine its priorities and to allocate funding accordingly. Given funding constraints, the Minister’s objective has to be to allocate funding to local authorities on as equitable a basis as possible. The main grant categories are, therefore, based on road lengths in each local authority's area of responsibility. The division of Department grant moneys under the restoration improvement, restoration maintenance and discretionary grant programmes between various local authority districts is decided at local level.
It is important to note that while the Minister's existing road budget will continue to be tight for the next number of years, reflecting the constraints relating to the EU fiscal rules, the seven year transport capital plan provides for the gradual build up in capital funding for the road network from the current relatively low base towards the levels needed to support maintenance and improvement works. Of course, damage caused by the severe impact of the recent storms and flooding will be assessed and prioritised as required by councils, and the Minister has asked his officials to review the Department’s overall budget allocations with a view to engaging with local authorities to address critical repair needs.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. Unfortunately, what it contained will be of little solace in the near future for those who asked us to put forward this case and highlight it in our national Parliament. The Minister of State stated a five year capital expenditure programme in the form of a national plan is in place, that there would be gradual improvement over time, that we are coming from a very low base and that the allocation of funding in this area has decreased from €604 to €300 million. With the best of respect, we already knew much of this information. According to the reply, the responsibility is, in the main, primarily with local authorities, which should use their own resources. Unfortunately, this avenue is not open to many local authorities. The constraints upon local authorities with regard to the own resources element because of a lack of funds means the work simply cannot be done in a timely fashion.
As I stated earlier, there must be an effort on the part of the Government to bring about better balance, better regional development and a semblance of an intended recovery in the regions, rather than it being concentrated on the east coast as it is at present, with specific and specified funding geared towards restoring vital infrastructure in the constituency I am discussing and the one adjoining it. I attended a similar meeting in Lusmagh where the same issue arose, with the same frustration and anger. A commitment is sought by the electorate from those who represent them to steer funding in this direction to put in place a plan to help these regions benefit from any recovery as it emerges.
I implore the Minister of State to bring back to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, the implicit wish of people in this area, and others, that a realistic programme and funding be put in place to address the further dilapidation of these roads by recent weather conditions. A proper and adequate funding stream should be put in place so people can see the situation is being treated with the attention it deserves. It should be treated properly and effectively, with a plan in place to rectify it over the coming two to three years.
I certainly will convey the Deputy's sentiments to the Minister and I am sure he will see the record. I suggest the Deputy write to the Minister on this matter, which affects various local authorities throughout the country. It may involve a change of policy and direction in future.