Seanad debates

Wednesday, 13 April 2005

7:00 pm

Tom Morrissey (Progressive Democrats)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. Our ports are an essential element of our economic infrastructure, as they process 99% of the island's foreign trade. They are critical points not only for transport but also for the entire economy. Our economy is dependent largely on the proper operation of our ports. They operate at the interface between two different modes of transports. A crucial role of ports is to facilitate the movement of goods from sea to road and rail transport. Provision of adequate and efficient capacity into the future is, and must be, a crucial strategic Government objective.

Dublin is the most critical of all ports. It is estimated Dublin Port will handle cargo worth at least €45 billion this year. This is almost 35% of GNP. The port is estimated to support 280,000 full-time jobs and to cater for 500 million tourists with an estimated spend of €380 million supporting another 5,500 full-time jobs. Irish ports are crucial with Dublin Port being the most crucial. The Department's ports policy states, "Recent capacity requirement predictions point to a lower than previously anticipated shortfall". However, the Irish Exporters Association disagrees fundamentally with this assessment and I am gravely concerned about this.

It must be asked if the capacity predictions on which we are basing our plans are accurate. Are we putting the operation of critical economic infrastructure at risk? I refer the Cathaoirleach to the review of Dublin Port capacity launched by the Irish Exporters Association only yesterday. It was carried out by consultants and sends a clear message that Ireland's national ports are facing a capacity crisis. Without getting too technical, the review points out that load-on, load-off, or lo-lo capacity will expire in autumn 2006, roll-on, roll-off, or ro-ro capacity will expire by summer 2008 while bulk liquid capacity will run out by autumn 2006.

I do not presume that I have to labour the point beyond that. Those indications must be investigated by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and the Department of Transport as a matter of urgency. All the time, vessels are increasing in size and capacity, and space for development is not infinite. There is also a serious shortage of berthing space. That delays lo-lo arrivals, generating a further estimated cost of €750 million annually. All the while there is a 21-hectare site adjacent to Dublin Port waiting to be developed. The Irish Exporters Association report suggests that development of that site would solve the capacity issues at Dublin Port at a cost of only €35 million. It is therefore also seen as a cost-effective solution.

Let us be honest about why that is not happening. It appears that permission to develop the site is an issue. Such development requires foreshore approval. According to the Planning Acts, development includes reclamation of any land on the foreshore. Getting that approval seems to be the most difficult aspect. A decision to grant a licence to develop the 21-hectare site is, as far as I understand, being bounced between the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and Dublin City Council. If that is the case, it must stop immediately. Responsibility must be accepted and a decision taken.

If it is agreed that development of the site in question represents the best and most cost-effective method of meeting the predicted capacity crisis, the Minister must make the decision. At least the Irish Exporters' Association and the Department agree on one thing, namely, that the time for developing facilities to meet capacity will be very long. The programme for Government states that, "We will implement an integrated transport policy, designed as far as possible to overcome existing delays, bottlenecks and congestion". It may well be that Dublin Port does not represent an existing bottleneck, but if the review carried out by the Irish Exporters' Association is correct, it appears that as an economy we might be facing an almighty bottleneck in trade on and off this island. We must investigate this as a matter of national importance.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Morrissey for raising this important issue on the Adjournment and for giving me the opportunity to outline the Government's position on port capacity.

Of course, ports are vitally important to us. As was stated, 99% of our exports and imports go through our ports, and we are very much victims of our own success. The reason that we require the additional capacity, which I recognised on my appointment to the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, is the growth in the economy. It is as a result of that growth that we now find ourselves in this position. However, we can deal with that and implement the programme for Government. I received a request to meet the Irish Exporters Association over the weekend or on Monday. I did not have the chance to reply, but I will be taking the first opportunity to discuss the issues that have arisen as a result of the report commissioned by it.

I launched the Government's ports policy statement in January 2005. In that, I addressed, among other matters, the issue of further seaport capacity requirements for the country. The background is that, in 1998 and 2000, and again in 2004, my Department commissioned consultants to prepare an inventory of the current and projected future capacity of our commercial ports. The most recent study, which takes into account economic growth and projections and examined capacity up to 2014, found that, while there were likely to be surpluses of capacity at certain ports, there would also be significant shortfalls at some of the major ports, particularly regarding unitised trade. The ports where we see difficulties regarding capacity include Dublin, which is the focus of Senator Morrissey's Adjournment matter.

Looking ahead to 2014, the study found that projected traffic will increase by almost 16 million tonnes, some 35% more than the tonnage handled in 2003, and that there would be a shortfall in capacity of approximately 12 million tonnes overall, of which some 4.4 million tonnes is unitised trade, unless action is taken. We will address that. The Department recognises that such studies are necessarily an inexact science. However, we must be guided by the projections, whose implications will need to be checked against the experiences of the individual ports.

When I launched the statement, I said that one of the key challenges ahead was the timely provision of adequate port capacity. I noted that the internal resources of our commercial ports are not generally sufficient to fund large-scale infrastructural projects. As I said, this represents a significant challenge in view of the need for additional capacity at our ports in coming years, particularly to cater for the growth in unitised trade. At that time I said that the Department would consult the commercial ports concerned to determine their view of port capacity and how they intend to deal with the projected capacity requirement. One of the first meetings that I had at national level was with the chairpersons and the chief executives of all the ports. We met in Tramore, and I very quickly familiarised myself with the difficulties, which, as I said, are part of our success story.

As an initial step, the Department has sought information from all the ports that handle unit-load cargoes on key projects identified by them as essential to deal with anticipated capacity deficiencies to 2014 and beyond and whether the ports see those being funded from their own resources or in partnership with the private sector. The new policy framework encourages all port stakeholders to address capacity provision. I understand that a response from the Dublin Port Company in respect of that request for information will be with the Department shortly. I clarify that as residual financier the State would support capacity provision — though only if proven essential to progress — in the form of identified high-quality, self-sustaining projects. Clearly, not all proposals are likely to succeed. On the other hand, some may well be capable of proceeding without any Exchequer financing role.

As indicated in the statement, it is intended to prioritise a range of projects catering for unitised traffic at our commercial ports from an overall national and regional economic perspective as opposed to the perceived requirements of individual ports. To that end, the Department will be procuring expert and independent assistance from consultants so that it can refine the criteria to be used for project evaluation, drawing up a uniform template for submission of detailed project proposals and then evaluating and ranking the projects submitted as a basis for the Department's recommendation to the Government.

Proposals for capacity provision for unitised trade at the ports concerned, including Dublin, Cork and Drogheda, will be considered as part of the process that I have outlined. The Dublin Port Company applied in March 2002 for ministerial consent to the reclamation of 21 hectares of foreshore in Dublin Bay. As private ownership was claimed, the application was made in accordance with the provisions of sections 10 and 13 of the Foreshore Act 1933. Ministerial powers regarding consideration of the application are more restricted where privately owned foreshore, as distinct from State-owned foreshore, is involved. The application was accompanied by an environmental impact statement that the Department had considered by independent consultants.

A number of issues arose about the adequacy of the environmental impact statement and further information was later supplied by consultants for Dublin Port Company. The issues of proof of ownership of the foreshore in question which arose in the meantime are being actively examined by the State's legal services, acting on behalf of the Department, as well the legal advisors for Dublin Port Company.

The proposed development will require planning permission. Dublin Port Company has repeatedly been advised that the necessary consent should be obtained under the planning process before the foreshore aspect is dealt with. That is in accordance with normal practice when a development wholly or partly on the foreshore requires planning permission.

Dublin City Council, which is the area's appropriate planning authority, has been advised that there is no ministerial objection to the making of a planning application for the proposed development. It has referred to the Dublin city development plan, which states that "it is an objective of Dublin City Council to prepare a plan for that part of Dublin Bay, from and including North Bull Island and the South Wall and up to and including Sandymount, Merrion Strand and Booterstown and also concentrated on the Port Area". The council also intends to establish the guidelines for the sustainable development and use of Dublin Bay, its environs and foreshore. I understand that any change arising from the plan should be incorporated into the city development plan by way of variation. The council has advised that "planning applications for foreshore development shall be deemed premature pending the preparation of the plan".