Thursday, 23 June 2016
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O’Donovan, to the Chamber and congratulate him on his appointment.
I have raised the issue of the rural roads infrastructure, particularly in Cavan and Monaghan. Many Members are well qualified to speak on this issue, as many of us have travelled throughout the country to get elected to this House. We may have travelled up a few dead-end roads but that was from a purely political point of view.
Monaghan is a predominantly rural county with less than 30% of the population living in an urban area, compared to the national average of 62%. It has a strong agrifood manufacturing and engineering base with many employers living in local areas up small boreens. It has no real public transport infrastructure and a poor national bus service. It has the highest density of local roads per square kilometre outside of Dublin. The county is dependent on its roads infrastructure, in particular its regional and local roads, which provide access to employment and mobility. Monaghan has the highest agricultural export value per hectare outside of Dublin, made up mainly of poultry with 52% of the country’s entire flock located in the county. It is also the largest producer and exporter of mushrooms in the country. Both of these sectors depend on commercial vehicles being able to access local roads to get produce to the marketplace. The value of agriculture indicates approximately 2,500 people are employed in that sector in County Monaghan, the highest in any Border region.
This year the roads funding allocation for Cavan-Monaghan came to €13 million. While it seems to be a lot of money, it represents a 40% decrease on the amount allocated in 2011. An extensive survey conducted by Monaghan County Council indicated 60% of the regional local roads are in need of immediate attention. When one thinks of the good work and investment that has gone into the local road infrastructure across the country, it is sad it is now crumbling under our feet. It is an acute issue for an area such as Monaghan from an employment and rural perspective. Will the Minister of State increase the funding?
I congratulate the Leas-Chathaoirleach and all Senators on their election. I look forward to working with Members from various panels and the university seats.
As the line Minister with responsibility for tourism and sport, I congratulate the Republic of Ireland football team on its fantastic result last night. I am sure all Senators and the Leas-Chathaoirleach will agree it was a fantastic result for the country. I see my predecessor, the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, in the Gallery. They are all asking for him in sport but they are in safe hands.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, who is out of the country. Much of what the Senator said resonates with me as I come from west Limerick, a predominantly rural area too. While we have a large urban centre in Limerick city, the majority of the constituency I represent mirrors the area the Senator’s. Accordingly, I am acutely aware of this issue.
The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads in Monaghan and other counties is the statutory responsibility of the local authority, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from the council's own resources supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the local authority.
Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. Due to the national financial position, there have been large reductions in Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure over the past several years. For this reason, the focus has been on maintenance and renewal rather than major new improvement schemes.
In January this year, my predecessor, the then Minister of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, announced the 2016 regional and local road allocations, of which Monaghan County Council was allocated €7.16 million.In February and May of this year, as part of the tranche 1 and 2 funding to local authorities to remedy damage caused by severe weather, Monaghan County Council received additional funding, bringing the total for regional and local roads in the county in 2016 to €12.3 million. All available funding for 2016 has now been allocated. An important change was made last year arising from the introduction of the local property tax, LPT, and the Government commitment that local authorities will retain 80% of revenues from 2015. Under this new arrangement the four Dublin councils became fully self-funding in respect of the main regional and local road maintenance and rehabilitation programmes.
In addition, the Department has emphasised to the councils that will continue to receive Exchequer and local road grants that the commitment of local authorities to contribute significantly from their own resources towards the cost of improving and maintaining the regional and local roads network is essential and that full consideration needs to be given to utilising the local property tax to boost their own resources. For the next number of years the financial realities are that the budgets proposed by my Department indicate that capital funding will continue to be very tight, limiting the scope for progressing additional new projects over and above the public private partnerships, PPP, programme that is already in place and the projects prioritised in the capital plan. It is important, however, to note that the seven-year transport capital plan does provide for the gradual build-up of capital funding for the road network from the current relatively low base towards levels needed to support maintenance and aid and improve works.
The capital plan published in September 2015 outlined proposed transport investment priorities to 2022. The transport element of the plan was framed by conclusions reached in the Department's Strategic Investment Framework for Land Transport. This report highlighted the importance of maintenance and renewal of transport infrastructure, together with targeted investments to address particular bottlenecks and critical safety issues. The capital plan provides €6 billion for investment in the road network in the period to 2022, with €4.4 billion earmarked for maintenance and strengthening of the existing extensive network throughout the country and €1.6 billion for new projects.
I think we are all conscious that the recovery of the economy is generating spending pressures across the Government system, including capital investment needs. As part of the programme for partnership Government there is an increased emphasis on the need for spending on public services, but the Government still has to operate within the EU fiscal rules and this does constrain options. There will be a mid-term review of the capital plan and this will provide an opportunity to assess progress and consider what scope there is for increased levels of investment depending on economic growth. On that point I am very conscious of the review of the capital plan and of where I come from and our dependence on the road network. As the Senator has said, we do not have rail line connectivity from my county either, and I am very conscious of rural counties, tertiary roads, local roads and all of those roads on which we are so dependent in rural areas in the context of the review.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is heartening to know that he comes from a similar neck of the woods to ours and can appreciate and relate to the point we make. I appeal to him, however, to raise in his discussions with the Minister, Deputy Ross, that, as I said before, the network is crumbling under our feet - or our tyres - and we are storing up more problems for ourselves down the road if we do not address the issue now. Additional funding is needed. It is critical as a matter of urgency. Otherwise we will have a bigger problem trying to restore these roads to an acceptable level in the future.
I do not disagree with the Senator. I have met officials from the Department of Transport over the last number of weeks as part of my introduction to my current role. As a former member of Monaghan County Council the Senator will probably agree with me that a major issue is that our local authorities over the last number of years, even when they did have money, did not carry out adequate drainage. One can find roads all over the country on which good money was thrown after bad. Roads are crumbling, as the Senator said, because the water literally has nowhere to go.
One of the issues that I was very keen to deal with as a councillor and now, having been appointed as a Minister of State in the Department of Transport, is that local authorities must also take responsibility for many of the problems, especially on our regional and local roads which are due to the fact that there is no drainage of any description. Drains have not been maintained since the famous man with a shovel was going around, and until we get back to a situation of being able to allow water drain off our tertiary, secondary and regional roads, we will continue to have this problem. I would much prefer to see a proper drainage network that would take the water off our roads rather than, as the Senator said, to watch our road network crumble. I will certainly take on board the points he has made. I will relay them to the Minister for Transport. Much of what he said is what I would say myself, and I do not disagree with any of it.