Monday, 5 July 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am not going to ask him about anything that the Government does not already agree with in principle. The Liffey valley is recognised as a special amenity area. It is an area of outstanding beauty and special recreational value.The Minister of State will be aware it is recognised by Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. Time has stood still, however. Nothing of note has happened regarding conservation or to enhance the Strawberry Beds as an amenity area since the early 1990s. My father was a Deputy then, and time has stood still since. This is despite the wonderful assets in the area and the stunning natural environment, including Shackleton Mills, which has been described as the jewel in the crown of heritage assets in Fingal. It has not been developed, but it has been obtained. It was a water-powered flour mill from the 1770s. There is also the Silver Bridge, also known as the Farmleigh Bridge, which was built by the Guinness family in the 19th century to supply electricity and water from the Liffey Valley as well as to cater for workers coming from Palmerstown. Waterstown Park, to which the bridge connects, is another beautiful park in the area, with 300 species of plants, animals and birds, a 5 km track and a natural playground. Weirs are dotted along the Strawberry Beds which people do not know about. The best way to enjoy that area is by kayak, because the roads are used as a rat run for the M50.
I have recently been successful in having the area designated as being for cycling. Eighteen signs have gone up and lining is going onto the tarmacadam over the summer. However, I was not successful in getting advisory cycle lanes because that would necessitate having lighting on the road. All these changes are not enough, however. Until Covid-19, this area had fallen between two metropolitan stools, namely, Blanchardstown on one side and Fonthill and Lucan on the other. It has an underutilised strategic purpose. Opportunities have been missed over the years in this regard, including the 260 acres at St. Edmundsbury which were sold by the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, ten years ago. There were calls at that time to purchase the land to create a Liffey Valley national park and to join up the lands from Islandbridge to St. Catherine’s Park in Leixlip and including Lucan Demesne, which was secured under the auspices of the rainbow Government many years ago.
During Covid-19, businesses sprouted up in the area as well. These include the Strawberry Hall, which has evolved with Goats Gruff. The Wren’s Nest is also evolving its businesses now, and the Angler’s Rest has been there for many years. There is also a market at St. Catherine’s Park, while Lucan village itself is being marked as a destination town, with €2 million going into the public realm and tourism in that regard. The Liffey Valley Trail is something I steered, along with Councillor Howard Mahony, when I was on Fingal County Council. We started a tourism working group, and Councillor Siobhan Shovlin is working on that aspect now as well. We have launched the trail as a tourism proposition and €140,000 has been secured from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to restore the Silver Bridge.
In addition, the canal loop is going to join the future greenways on the Royal and Grand canals. We need to do more in this regard, however. All these changes are coming because of the beauty and value of this area, yet it is behind and at the periphery. We would not hide away the history and beauty of the Mona Lisa, yet we are not establishing this area and taking advantage of its potential. The localism we have witnessed because of the impact of Covid-19 has highlighted the potential more. Therefore, a feasibility study by the Department of Transport is needed to examine cycling and walking along a route between the Phoenix Park and St. Catherine’s Park via the Strawberry Beds. It is not the busiest commuter route, but it could be of more recreational value. We must think bigger about this project. It must encompass Fingal County Council and South Dublin County Council and establish and develop the area as an official park and, potentially, as a recreational amenity.
I thank Senator Currie for giving me the opportunity to address the Seanad today, on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, to talk about the important issue of investment in cycling infrastructure, which will ultimately make our cities, towns, and villages more accessible for everyone.
As Senators will be aware, the programme for Government sets out an ambitious and wide-ranging set of commitments concerning walking and cycling and states that €360 million in cross-Government funding will be spent yearly on walking and cycling over the lifetime of the Government, which is equivalent to 20% of the 2020 transport capital budget. This investment will help support the planned delivery of almost 1,000 km of improved walking and cycling infrastructure by 2025, as well as additional investment in greenways.
The Minister was delighted to announce earlier this year an allocation of €240 million to active travel projects in the greater Dublin area and the four regional cities. This funding will support the addition of 233 new sustainable transport projects to the investment programme of the National Transport Authority, NTA, in 2021. The NTA will be tasked with overseeing and supporting the development of the high-quality mobility infrastructure across all projects and will also ensure projects are accessible and age-friendly. Fingal County Council, which is the lead local authority for the Strawberry Beds area, received an allocation of €14.87 million under this funding programme, which is a sizeable allocation and will facilitate progress on numerous projects this year across the Fingal County area.
The Minister fully understands that to deliver these projects local authorities require adequate resources to enable them to do so. As the Senator is also likely aware, the Department of Transport has therefore agreed to fund 218 active travel posts in local authorities throughout the country to ensure delivery of the increased programme of active travel infrastructure. In January, the Minister wrote to the County and City Management Association, CCMA, to advise that Fingal County Council has been allocated up to 18 additional staff through this funding, and I understand the necessary recruitment processes are under way. The Department of Transport is also working with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and the NTA to develop a national cycle network which will ensure investments are focused efficiently, which should outline the cycling routes currently available, identify gaps in the network, and ascertain improvements likely to be required.
Regarding the specific matter raised by Senator Currie, the Senator is likely aware that the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area, GDA, was approved by the Government in 2016. Under the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008, the NTA must review the transport strategy every six years. This review assesses the implementation of the current plan and looks to produce an updated strategy which will set out the framework for investment in transport infrastructure and services to take us to 2042. The scope of the transport strategy encompasses all land transport modes and services in the greater Dublin area, including cycling. As part of the broad range of inputs into the preparation of the transport strategy, the NTA is updating the 2013 greater Dublin area cycle network plan. The need for cycling infrastructure and the appropriateness of the road network at and in the vicinity of the Strawberry Beds is being examined as part of that update. This updated plan will be published for consultation as a background paper for the transport strategy in September 2021.
The step change in funding for investment in sustainable transport projects committed to in budget 2021 is proof of the Government's commitment to active travel, and I and the Minister look forward to the delivery of the numerous projects throughout the country over the course of this year.
I thank the Minister of State for the update. It is encouraging to hear the cycling infrastructure and the appropriateness of the road network at the Strawberry Beds are on the radar, but I want them to be on the radar in the right way. This area cannot be a rat run for the M50. It should not just be there to accommodate people travelling from one side of the city to the other. The potential of the area to act as a recreational amenity, connected to the local communities, must be placed on the agenda. This Government is doing much great work in the area of cycling and walking infrastructure and valuing it, so this is an opportunity which cannot be overlooked.
I will note the points made by the Senator and relay them to the Minister when I see him later this week. I will also mention some smaller scale initiatives being progressed by the Department of Transport to support and promote efforts to increase active travel. These include the recently launched safe routes to school programme, which will provide funding to accelerate the delivery of walking and cycling infrastructure on key access routes to schools. That initiative has already had a great response, with applications from more than 900 schools nationally. The €15 million additional outdoor infrastructure fund to support local authorities in enhancing outdoor urban space and improving walking and cycling infrastructure through short-term measures will assist with the safe outdoor reopening of society as Ireland gradually emerges from the pandemic. Finally, a joint initiative with my Department of Rural and Community Development will see the provision of high-quality upcycled bikes and e-bikes for those on low incomes and those most marginalised and disadvantaged.