Friday, 5 March 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Harbours and Piers
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ba mhaith liom labhairt faoi Chuan Dhún Laoghaire, atá faoi Chomhairle Contae Dhún Laoghaire-Ráth an Dúin. The Minister will be aware that a number of years ago a policy decision resulted in the transfer of many harbours and ports to local authorities around the country. One of them was Dún Laoghaire Harbour under the charge of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, of which I was a member at the time. We welcomed the decision. It was a very important measure of local democracy to involve the local authorities and, by extension, councillors in the administration and running of the harbour, which is an asset to the council. When I became a councillor in 2009, local authority members were removed from the board of the harbour company, which was a retrograde step.
As the Minister is aware, Dún Laoghaire Harbour is a Victorian harbour built in the first half of the 19th century. It is a massive granite edifice off the coast of Dún Laoghaire. The town developed in its wake and with the construction of the Dublin to Kingstown railway. The harbour is a fabulous heritage asset, as well as being a port that facilitates the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the body that services the buoys and lighthouses around the island of Ireland. It facilitates fishermen who use the coal harbour and much pleasure and leisure activity through sailing and other water sports. It also facilitates occasional visits from cruise ships, although not recently.While the harbour was under the management of the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company, which was a commercial entity that existed from the 1990s until the harbour was taken back under the control of the county council, it is my opinion that the harbour infrastructure was substantially mismanaged. There were serious financial problems with the administration of the harbour. Certainly from 2015, when Stena Line left, a massive income stream was lacking and that simply meant there was no money to pay for important infrastructural maintenance and upgrades. We know, for example, that recent storms have substantially damaged the east pier and other parts of the harbour walls and they need to be upgraded. An engineering report and an assessment were done before the hand over that said the liability could be as much as €45 million. That finding was pooh-poohed by the then Minister for Transport, Shane Ross. I do not know whether a final figure has been arrived at but we know that with Dún Laoghaire harbour, there comes a massive financial obligation on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. The reality is that the harbour as a heritage port and facility does not have the same capacity to make money like larger or more commercial ports. The harbour is located very close to Dublin Port so we cannot compete on the same level.
The harbour company talked about plans to put in place a cruise berth facility at a cost of between €17 million and €19 million, which would never have washed its face. The company talked about creating a badeschiff, which is a swimming pool inside a barge inside a harbour. The company talked about floatels inside the harbour as well. None of these things ever came to fruition but there was great talk. The reality is that the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has been left holding the baby. There is now a situation where the council has a massive financial obligation and no means to fulfil that other than to transfer it to the taxpayers of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and transfer the commercial rates on to small businesses in the county or the local property on to the residents of the county. That is wrong and central government must make financial provision for the county council not just to run the harbour but to ensure that it is maintained to the highest possible standards to make sure that we do not lose any aspect of this beautiful heritage facility and historic part of Dún Laoghaire town and the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area. I call on the Minister of State to make provision for that funding.
I thank Senator Ward for raising this issue and giving me an opportunity to update the House.
The national ports policy, as set out in 2013, provides for the transfer of certain ports to the relevant local authority and sets out the arrangements for giving effect to this. In that context, the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company transferred to the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on 3 October 2018 in accordance with Part 3 of the Harbours Act 2015 that provides, inter alia, for the dissolution of the port company and the transfer of assets, liabilities and rights to the council.
My Department has a prudential role in the financial integrity of all local authorities and seeks to ensure that local authorities' finances, as far as is practicable, are on a sustainable footing. In that regard, it is my Department's position that, in the case of all transfers of ports, the relevant local authority should not unduly be encumbered or exposed to financial risk by the effective transfer of a commercial body to their control.
Dún Laoghaire harbour is a substantial strategic asset and amenity that, as the Senator has quite rightly pointed out, notwithstanding its ongoing expenditure requirements, also generates income from a number of sources that can be directed towards investment needs. The transfer of Dún Laoghaire harbour to the council provides a real opportunity for the harbour and town to become more integrated.
The Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is currently working on an economic plan for the harbour. The council has appointed Indecon and KPMG to prepare economic and spatial plans for the Dún Laoghaire harbour and town. The council has very recently undertaken a public consultation on a roadmap to assist and guide the ongoing optimal development and strategic planning of both Dún Laoghaire harbour and town given the synergies and interdependencies between both. The consultation, which closed last week on 28 February, has sought the public's views on the future uses and development of the harbour, and how the town might be more connected and integrated with the harbour.
To be clear, while central government responsibility for ports policy and associated issues remains a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Transport, as the Senator quite rightly articulated in terms of the past Minister, I am focused on promoting the sustainable development of our local authorities in the context of Project Ireland 2040. I, therefore, look forward to seeing proposals from the council, which we expect, on the future development of this very strategic key asset.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht an ráitis shoiléir sin. I am not sure exactly what the Government means when it says that no local authority should be unduly burdened. The reality is that, for the first time since local property tax was introduced, although opposed by Fine Gael councillors, the local property tax was increased in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's last budget, notwithstanding that householders in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown pay the highest rates of this tax in the country. Part of the excuse for this increase was that money was needed to pay for elements of the harbour. To my mind, that is an undue burden on the citizens of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. I welcome the consultation the Minister of State has mentioned, which is a good step forward towards making progress, but we need to make it possible, and even easy, for the local authority to maintain this important historic asset and to ensure that no further damage is done to the piers as a result of not being properly maintained. Money is required not only from the Minister of State's Department, but from a range of Departments, to ensure the council has those resources.
Again, I welcome the opportunity to address the House on this very important matter. As I articulated, a report is being carried out by two independent agencies at the request of the council. We will have to wait and see what comes back. This is a strategic asset and we want to see what its future direction of travel will be. I do not want to predetermine that. We need to discuss the matter with the council. I will, however, be very clear that no one, including my Department, wants to see any council being encumbered with a great financial risk on its balance sheet from which it cannot derive significant income. As a Department, we are very aware of that. As I have said, the Minister for Transport has the key role in funding ports but we will engage with the local authority. I look forward to seeing the result of both of these reports which will, I hope, give us clear direction.