Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 March 2005

7:00 pm

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am receiving many telephone calls about the same Minister of State complaining of his stance on the sugar factory in Carlow and rail depots. I will leave that matter for a separate night.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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I hope the Senator has a solution for them.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I certainly do. It firmly belongs in Carlow.

The Government speaks a lot about value for money and ensuring that taxpayers' money is well spent. Both I and people living in Bennettsbridge, County Kilkenny and in the south east, have grave concerns about the proposed new motorway. The original route was changed substantially to accommodate Roadstone. The originally planned bridge was doubled in size. Business plans went missing and were then conveniently found again. There is a question about whether dolomite is present on the site. This is now valued at 3 cent per tonne. The compensation for Roadstone has risen to 38 cent per tonne. There seems to be a large amount of over-compensation in this issue. I am not convinced the taxpayer is getting value for money.

Bennettsbridge is a beautiful part of County Kilkenny with a long tradition of pottery making. The original route of the road satisfied everyone. It is amazing that the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, is intervening on behalf of a private company to have the route altered. This involves the doubling of the length of the bridge which I presume will mean a doubling of the cost in that section, not to mind the bad visual effect which the new bridge will have on the village. I am not convinced the Government is utilising taxpayers' money in the best way.

I could not raise this matter on the Adjournment tonight because I would have been ruled out of order and told that responsibility lies with the NRA. This issue has been before the PAC. It is with regret I must announce that the PAC seems to have accepted the NRA figures without further scrutiny.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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The Senator should raise the matter with the chairman of the PAC.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I have raised it with the Chairman. Representatives of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government appeared before the PAC today.

It is the only committee on which Senators may not sit and, as such, we are at a major disadvantage. I ask the Minister of State to examine this issue in Bennettsbridge. He will have an interest in it given that he lives close to the area in question and the Progressive Democrats informs us that value for money is its core principle, even if that claim is not believable in light of the current actions of the Government.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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The Senator is tuned in.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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The Government should ask serious questions about the Department's intervention on behalf of a private company and the reasons the amount of dolomite allegedly present in the mine has never been quantified, business plans went missing, the compensation to be paid to Roadstone will be 38 cent per tonne of dolomite given that it is valued at 3 cent per tonne, and the doubling of the size of the bridge. These developments make no sense. Having brought the matter to the attention of the Minister of State, I hope his officials will examine it and I look forward to the reply.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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I am at a loss because the Senator's question is vague and he provided little detail. I do not even know what is dolomite. I assume it is an expensive type of rock.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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It is worthless and a firm would be hard pressed to list it as an asset. While it had a function in the past, this is no longer the case.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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With regard to the matter the Senator raised, I welcome the opportunity to inform the House of the progress being made in the implementation of the national roads programme and the ongoing priority being accorded to maximising the return on the major investment in the programme.

Exchequer investment in the national roads development programme provided for in the NDP is at an all time high. More than €1.4 billion will be invested in 2005 and the capital investment framework provides for a further investment of €7.7 billion over the period 2006-09. The high quality road network we are putting in place is contributing significantly to supporting our national competitiveness, job creation, and more balanced regional development.

The benefits of the development programme are evident throughout the country in the elimination of major traffic bottlenecks leading to shorter journey times and greater journey time certainty. Road users are enjoying major journey time savings on the Ml, the N7 and N8 due to the Kildare, Monasterevin, Cashel and Limerick bypasses and elsewhere on the road network. Since 2000, a total of 48 projects with a combined length of 341 km have been completed. Work is under way on a further 21 projects amounting to 201 km in length and is due to start this year on 17 more projects. The removal of major bottlenecks such as those at Kildare, Cashel, Youghal, Ballincollig, Loughrea, Ennis, Mullingar, Sligo and others have been prioritised.

These figures indicate that despite the increase in the cost of the ambitious national roads programme mandated in the national development plan, good progress is being made in the implementation of the upgrade programme. The reasons for the increase in the cost of the NDP have been documented in a number of reports on the programme, most recently in a 2004 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. This report concluded that the main reasons for the increase in costs were construction cost inflation which accounts for more than 40% of the increase, initial cost underestimation, changes in the scope of projects and the additional cost of land acquisition.

It will also be clear from the Comptroller and Auditor General's report that the National Roads Authority has implemented a range of measures to improve cost estimation and control in recent years. These include the appointment of a cost estimation specialist; greater use of design and build, lump sum, fixed price contracts offering cost efficiencies, greater certainty of outturn costs and reduced scope for claims; standardisation of designs for high cost items such as bridges and other structures; buy-out of the price variation clause and risk where this gives good value; and greater use of public private partnerships which leverage private sector investment in the programme, incentivise private sector innovation and limit the risk exposure of the Exchequer by transferring risk, including construction risk, to the private sector.

The various measures taken by the NRA to date are acknowledged by the Comptroller and Auditor General in his report and in other evaluations of the roads programme. These evaluations acknowledged that the national roads investment programme is, in general, well managed.

The beneficial impact of the measures taken to strengthen cost estimation and control is evident in the fact that virtually all major projects under construction now, particularly those being constructed under design and build contracts, are within budget and on time. Many projects have already been delivered within budget and ahead of schedule. They include the Kildare, Monasterevin, Cashel and Ballincollig bypasses. All major road projects are subject to appraisal and detailed cost benefit analyses in accordance with Department of Finance guidelines on the appraisal of capital projects.

A high priority will continue to be accorded to strengthening the arrangements in place for programme and project implementation and cost estimation and control. It is important that all involved in the implementation of the programme — the Department of Transport, the National Roads Authority, local authorities, consultants and contractors — maintain a clear focus on and commitment to maximising value for money in the implementation of the programme.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I appreciate he was not aware of the specific case I outlined. He should note that one section of the land covered by the project in question has been treated as commercial, although it is currently an agricultural field, which has significantly inflated its value. Having drawn the Minister of State's attention to the project, I ask that it be re-examined.