Thursday, 11 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Harbours and Piers
The fourth important matter comes from Deputy Cullinane, who wishes to discuss funding for pre-dredging works at Helvick Pier to allow safe passage for the locally-stationed Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI, lifeboat. Which Minister is in charge of dredging?
Helvick is a working sea fisheries harbour in the west Waterford Gaeltacht. It also hosts an RNLI lifeboat station that serves the bay of Dungarvan and the surrounding coastal zone. A build-up of sand and silt in the harbour has resulted in it becoming inaccessible and unnavigable at low tide. Fishing boats can neither enter nor leave the harbour, except at high tide, and the lifeboat is on restricted service. This means it cannot launch for 90 minutes each side of low tide, which equates to approximately three hours out of every six and a half hours. Necessary dredging has not occurred because of the prohibitive costs on the local authority to self-fund preliminary surveys and environmental assessments. Until dredging is carried out, lifeboat services will continue to be restricted. In the words of one RNLI worker, it is only by pure luck that the lifeboat has not been tasked to an emergency by the Coast Guard during these restricted service times up to now. Not only is the situation affecting the ability of fishers to earn a living and to carry out their work safely, but it is actively putting lives at risk at sea. I do not want to have to raise this matter with the Minister of State again in the wake of a tragedy at sea where lives have been lost due to the inability of a lifeboat to launch.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine can provide funding for dredging. This is important and necessary funding. I welcome the funding that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine made available for a number of different harbours in County Waterford over recent months. All of that funding is necessary. However, funding for dredging does not cover the preliminary work, that is, the surveys and the environmental impact assessments that are required to be carried out before dredging can commence. The cost of this work can often be as high as the cost of the dredging itself. This is placing local authorities in a catch-22 position. The Government will fund them to dredge harbours but will not fund the preliminary works it requires them to undertake to be allowed to dredge.
I am sure, because I have been here before, that the Minister of State will say that local authority funding is a matter for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and that funding for day-to-day activities such as surveying and assessment is also a matter for that Minister. I have heard that before. However, when I talk to the chief executives of local authorities, they say they do not have the funding. As the Minister of State will know, they have very tight resources when it comes to their core funding. They simply do not have the ability to fund the necessary preliminary works. All of this ignores that those surveys and assessments are not budgeted for anywhere and must come out of the local authorities' overall budget. I am sure Members of this House who were councillors before arriving here will know that, if the local authority in Waterford was to provide funding for these preliminary works without that funding coming from some other source, other very necessary services in Waterford would have to be curtailed to make way for funding for these surveys and assessments to be made available. In other words, the funding would have to come out of the local authority's budget.
Will the Minister amend the regulations and expand the funding stream to cover the pre-dredging surveys and assessments to allow local authorities such as Waterford City and County Council to carry out the dredging works that are so urgently required?
I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and thank Deputy Cullinane for raising this issue. Responsibility for the development and maintenance of local authority-owned piers, harbours and slipways rests with each local authority. The relevant local authority in the case of Helvick Harbour is Waterford City and County Council. However, as part of its annual fishery harbour and coastal infrastructure development programme, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has, in previous years, provided funding to assist coastal local authorities in carrying out small-scale projects for the development and repair of piers, harbours and slipways in their ownership.
Under this year's programme, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, approved funding of €4.2 million to assist coastal local authorities to undertake and complete 79 development and repair projects on local authority-owned harbours and slipways. The package provides funding for maintenance and repair works in addition to supporting the ongoing development and enhancement of harbour facilities, including some marine leisure developments.
Waterford City and County Council secured funding of €510,000 under this year's programme to undertake five harbour development projects. I am pleased to advise that a project to undertake upgrades to the pier in Helvick Harbour was approved for the maximum available funding for an individual project under the programme of €150,000. This follows on from previous funding of up to €530,000 having been granted for projects in Helvick Harbour since 2010. The Department's scheme remains focused on supporting actual works. It is a matter for Waterford City and County Council to progress any preparatory studies, permitting and design reports.
The Minister, Deputy McConaIogue, recently received the final report of the seafood sector task force, which was set up earlier this year to examine the impacts on the fishing sector and coastal communities of the trade and co-operation agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom. The task force has recommended an initiative for the development of publicly owned marine infrastructure, with an emphasis on providing stimulus for economic diversification in view of the impact of the loss of fishing opportunities on coastal communities dependent on the fishing industry. I understand that the Minister has asked Department officials to urgently examine the report.
Should any application be made for funding by Waterford City and County Council under any future funding programme for actual dredging works or other eligible capital works at Helvick Harbour, it will be given due consideration, taking into account the terms and conditions of the scheme, the priority attached to the project by the council, available funding and overall national priorities.
I will raise with the Minister the issues the Deputy outlined regarding the works in advance of the capital allocation being completed. As Minister of State with responsibility for local government, I assure him we are working constructively with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to finalise a Supplementary Estimate for loss of income in that sector to ensure it will have the capital and the funding to carry out its services in the ten months ahead.
I do not think the RNLI lifeboat station, the people who work in that area or the fishers really care where the money comes from. Whether it comes from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not the issue for them. The problem relates to when Departments operate in silos and there is not a joined-up approach. On the one hand, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has indicated that it will fund the dredging or at least receive and process an application while, on the other, the local authority has stated that it does not have the funding to carry out the preliminary works, which can cost as much as the dredging. When the funding from the former Department is not there, we end up with a chicken-and-egg situation whereby the lifeboat cannot be used at certain times of the day and fishers cannot use the harbour at certain times because of the build-up of sand and silt. It is a matter of knocking heads together between different Departments or, as I suggested earlier, amending the regulations to allow the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to fund all the works, including the preliminary works, which are necessary for the dredging.
I have raised this matter previously, as have other Deputies, but the dredging remains necessary at the harbour and the build-up is getting worse. I visited the harbour recently with my colleague Deputy Mac Lochlainn, our party's spokesperson in this area, and we met fishers and others. They are getting very frustrated and want a resolution. Will the Minister of State convey this matter to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine? I do not care where the money comes from, as long as it comes and the work can be done in order that the lifeboat can do what it needs to do and fishers can do what they need to do.
I undertake to raise the matter with the Minister. Between 2010 and 2020, 15 coastal local authorities benefited from grants under the scheme. Over that period, the Department provided €31 million in grants for investment in local authorities and infrastructure. Approximately 14 piers in Waterford have benefited from one or more project approvals, to the tune of almost €3.15 million over that time. As for capital finance from the Department, we have increased the allocation, as I said earlier, from €150,000 to €200,000 in respect of the maximum funding for a project that can be undertaken. Furthermore, in 2020, €2.4 million was allocated to local authorities, with €345,000 for projects in Waterford city and county.
I hear what the Deputy said about vulnerable users and the lifeboat. The Government takes such remarks seriously. I will convey them to the Minister and ask him to respond directly to the Deputy on the case.