Wednesday, 17 April 2013
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. The people of County Meath deeply appreciate the fact that I can raise these issues in the Seanad.
I am concerned about the state of the roads in the county. The Minister of State will probably argue that the state of the roads is the responsibility of the county council and that the Minister only has a limited function in that regard. However, I contend that the appalling state of our roads, particularly rural roads and regional and third class roads, is due to the cuts to capital expenditure that the Government has introduced since coming into office. The Minister of State will probably respond that we agreed these cuts with the IMF, that they must be done and that they are only following an agreement reached by Fianna Fáil. Before he makes that point, I will counteract it. It is an incorrect contention that is repeated time and again. Under the IMF agreement, in 2012 the Department of Transport was to spend €1.329 billion on capital expenditure. Under the Government's capital framework, that amount was reduced to €1.231 billion, a reduction of approximately €100 million in 2012. Therefore, the Government agreed with the IMF to spend €100 million less than what was agreed by Fianna Fáil in 2010. In 2013, the Government proposes to spend €900 million on capital expenditure in the Department of Transport. Under the four-year national recovery plan, Fianna Fáil proposed to spend €1.075 billion. Therefore, there is a difference of approximately €175 million this year in capital expenditure in the Department of Transport compared with the IMF agreement. In 2014, the difference will be about €120 million. Cumulatively, in 2012, 2013 and 2014, approximately €400 million less will be spent on capital expenditure by the Department of Transport than was agreed with the IMF in November 2010. Therefore, on top of the cuts for which the Government has blamed Fianna Fáil, it has cut the roads budget by €400 million. This is deeply unfair and wrong.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, boasted in The Irish Times before Christmas that he had cut €300 million or €400 million off the roads budget and nobody had noticed. People have noticed, because the roads are in an appalling state. It is incumbent on the Government to accept responsibility for this and to spend the money agreed on capital expenditure. It was part of the agreement the Government keeps citing to justify its actions. That argument is wrong. The €400 million being cut from 2011 to 2014 is having a massively detrimental effect on rural roads throughout the country. While the Government is still prepared to go ahead with some bypasses, I question the spend on the Gort to Tuam motorway and the Ballaghadereen bypass. I am familiar with the area of Ballaghadereen and I wonder why that bypass has got the go-ahead. Frankly, if a bypass is needed on the N5, it is needed somewhere else. I wonder at the priorities in place. We are able to build motorways, but we cannot maintain rural roads. For example, in the Kells electoral area of County Meath, at least €15 million is required to repair class 3 roads alone. This is a massive amount of money. In the meantime, people are afraid to drive and those who are driving to work find their cars are being severely damaged from driving on these roads. Recently, it took me approximately 50% longer to return from a public meeting in Cormeen, in the Moynalty area, than it would have taken me a few years ago because of the state of the roads in the area and the need to avoid potholes. A meeting took place with the Kells area county councillors about one month ago, but there has been no follow-up from the Minister. At the time, he met the county councillors and the county manager, and the case was made for more money for Meath County Council to repair roads in need of repair.
The problem is that the Government has cut €400 million above and beyond what was in the IMF agreement. That €400 million would go a long way, over a three-year period, towards repairing rural roads, not just in Meath, but throughout the country. The state of the roads is costing the economy massively. Damage is being done to cars and this results in huge administration costs for councils, which must deal with constant complaints. I urge the Minister and the Government to reconsider the capital transport budget and to send the money out to fix the roads and to create jobs in local areas.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. During the Meath East by-election I was in the area and have some idea of the condition of the roads. However, in the case of roads we must consider the time of the year. I know that in Sligo, much of the maintenance work does not commence until this time of year because of weather conditions. Engineering staff in Sligo County Council tell me that any remedial work done up to this time of year is often a waste of money due to heavy rain and bad weather. Therefore, I am sure the Senator will be pleasantly surprised when the road crews get working in Meath on the class 3 roads.
I am taking this Adjournment debate on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Varadkar, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, and I thank the Senator for raising this issue in the House this evening. The Minister has responsibility for overall policy and funding for the national roads programme. The planning, design and implementation of individual road projects is a matter for the National Roads Authority, NRA, under the Roads Acts of 1993 to 2007, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned. Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is a matter in the first instance for the NRA in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act. The NRA has a budget of €318 million for improvement and maintenance works on the national roads network in 2013.
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 these roads are funded from local authorities' own resources, supplemented by State road grants paid by the Department. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the local authority. The Minister announced the 2013 regional and local road grant allocations on 25 January. A total of €349 million is being provided under the regional and local roads investment programme this year. From that allocation, Meath County Council is being provided with an allocation of over €10.7 million.
The level of grants allocated to individual local authorities is determined having regard to a number of factors, which include the total funds available in a particular year, the eligibility criteria for the different road grant schemes, road pavement conditions, the length of the road network, the need to prioritise projects and competing demands from other local authorities. In determining the annual grant allocations, the overall objective remains to supplement the resources provided by each local authority in a fair and appropriate manner. Ireland has a uniquely extensive road network. There are approximately 98,000 kilometres of road in the network, which represents two and a half times the EU average in terms of kilometres per head of population. The maintenance and improvement of this extensive network of roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer.
In light of this country's current financial position, which the Senator is well aware of, our main focus must be on the maintenance and repair of roads. This will remain the position in the years to come. There have been large reductions in roads expenditure over recent years. There will be further reductions in the future. In 2007, grants worth €2.375 billion were made available for national and local roads. These grants have fallen to €665 million in 2013 and will fall further to €629 million in 2014. The reality of the funding position means that priorities have to be set in all areas of activity.
It is important to reiterate that the role of Exchequer grants for regional and local roads is to supplement the spending of councils like Meath County Council in this area. The contribution made by Meath County Council, which is the road authority for the area mentioned by Senator Byrne, has fallen in recent years in real and percentage terms. In 2008, Meath County Council spent over €18 million from its own resources on works on regional and local roads. This represented 40% of the total spending on these roads, including State grants, in 2008. This own-resources expenditure decreased to €4 million, or 26% of the total expenditure on roads in the county, in 2012.
It is appreciated that many local authorities are trying to implement savings. The Minister believes that some local authorities are missing the point when they complain about reductions in Government grants and seek additional funding, given that they have reduced their own contributions by a far greater proportion. The reality is that the available funds do not match the amount of work required. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and local authorities are working closely to develop new and more efficient ways of delivering the best possible outputs from the funding available to them. Given that the squeeze on Exchequer funding is likely to continue, this concentration on efficiency is essential if the best outturns are to be achieved from the limited money available.
In this regard, the Minister recently wrote to local authorities to offer them more flexibility in their regional and local road grants. Councils have an opportunity to reallocate up to 30% of their restoration improvement grants to their discretionary grants. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has invited applications for funding under a pilot community involvement scheme, whereby problems affecting a given stretch of road can be remedied sooner than would otherwise be the case if the local community is willing to assist the local authority, in money or in kind, with the necessary works. The scheme recognises local community involvement in this regard without taking from the statutory responsibilities of county councils in any way.
It is impossible to read the version of the Minister of State's reply that has been furnished to us. The copy of the reply from which the Minister of State read is in the proper font. I do not know why it could not have been photocopied and made available to us. It is impossible to read the document given to us. It is an insult to the Seanad that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has acted in this manner. Perhaps the Minister of State will pass on my views to the officials in the Department. They could have photocopied what they supplied to the Minister of State. It would not have been any hassle. It is impossible to read the version I received. It is typical of the arrogant attitude of the Department.
Two pages would have been fine. If it was twice the size, it would have fitted on two pages.
I would like to make a couple of points on this issue. It is unfair to blame the county council in the manner the Minister of State has tried to do. It is trying to do the best it can from within its own resources. Its income has decreased. It is not allowed to keep the property tax. Certainly, some of it is going around the country. Anyone who tries to blame local authorities for not contributing money is missing the point completely.
The Government should reconsider the Smarter Travel fund. Fine Gael should be aware that it has become a slush fund for the Labour Party. It seems to me that the Labour Party makes all the announcements about the Smarter Travel fund. Some of the projects that have been announced under the fund are not necessary. They are being pursued at a time when roads are falling apart because of potholes. I urge the Government parties, particularly Fine Gael, to examine the matter. The fund is not doing what it should be doing.
We have got to look at spending. I repeat the point that there seems to be a difference of €400 million between what was in the IMF agreement and what the Government is committed to spending on capital expenditure in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. That is the nub of the problem. If we do not solve this problem, the standard of roads in Moynalty will become the norm throughout the country. If we do not get to grips with this problem, roads throughout the country will start to collapse.
The Minister has made it clear that local communities have an opportunity to get involved. Many people on back to work schemes are anxious to get involved in generic schemes in their localities. The proportion of funding that is being made available by county councils is much less than the proportion of funding being allocated by the Government. I am not fully certain where Senator Byrne got the €400 million figure that he mentioned when he spoke about the IMF agreement. The information available to me suggests that those figures are incorrect.
I do not doubt that the local government reform process will create opportunities for autonomy at local level. Elected councillors will be able to make funding allocations from moneys collected in their local areas. Up to 65% of those moneys will be maintained in the areas where they are collected. That is the intention of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, as he devolves responsibility to elected members.
It is easy to whinge and ask the Government for more money. It is up to elected councillors, county managers and the local executive to deal with their business locally. If they cannot match the funds that are provided by the State, it is very hard for the Government to keep supplementing them. As we reform local government over the next 12 months, we will give every local authority a unique opportunity to manage its own business, which is as it should be.