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 Header Item Rural Transport Services (Continued)
 Header Item Coastal Protection

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 868 No. 1

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Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (Deputy Michael Ring): Information on Michael Ring Zoom on Michael Ring The regulation of the small public service vehicles, SPSV, sector is a matter for the National Transport Authority, NTA, pursuant to the Taxi Regulation Act 2013. This includes responsibility for the rural hackney licence. As such, I have no function in this matter. I can, however, set out some background and some information on the operation of the scheme, which has been provided to me by the NTA.

The recommendation for the provision of a local area hackney licence category arose from the taxi regulation review report published by the Government in 2012. The background to the recommendation was the recognition that in many rural areas there is a low level of access to a taxi or hackney service, with many areas having no access at all to these services. The report also stated that the reason for the poor level of access to taxis and hackneys in these rural areas almost certainly relates to the economics of providing a taxi or hackney service in these areas. Given the level of taxis available nationally, it is likely to be the case that if the service was commercially viable, it would be provided by the market at present. However, the limited nature of transport hiring activity in these areas means that sufficient volume of business to justify the placement of conventional hackney and taxi services does not exist in many locations.

Provision for the granting of rural hackney licences was originally adopted in the Taxi Regulation Act 2003 (Local Area Hackney) Regulations 2013. The provision has since been restated in the Taxi Regulation (Small Public Service Vehicles) Regulation 2015. Both of these regulations were made by the NTA. The regulations reflect the recommendations of the taxi regulation review board, which anticipated the following features. First, the area of operation is limited. The focus of local area hackney licensing is intended to serve a local community. While the size of the operation area will vary from place to place, it would be expected that many areas would be represented by a five to seven km radius from a defined central point such as a village. Second, the need for a local area hackney licence must be validated by a local community or business organisation. The applicant has to provide the following: confirmation of a need from an established organisation representing local businesses or from a community group with charitable tax status; a need analysis study carried out by or on behalf of the relevant local authority; a letter confirming this signed by the manager or director of service of the local authority. Third, drivers must be resident in the local area.

The requirement to sit the skills development programme in respect of area and industry knowledge which applies for the general SPSV driver licence is waived. Licence fees are also low and the vehicle standards are less than those required for general SPSV licences. Like all hackneys, the driver is not permitted to trade on public roads or at a taxi rank, however, the establishment of an approved hackney stand in an off-street area is permissible, where the hackney vehicle can accept customers. It should be noted that the licensing of a local area hackney service is intended to address transport defects that would not otherwise be addressed in certain rural areas. It is not intended to replace or displace conventional taxi or hackney services. Under the current legislation, the NTA is permitted to grant a licence if it is satisfied that the public transport needs of the area can only be met through the granting of a local area licence.

I am advised by the NTA that to date, 42 applications for rural hackney licences have been received. Two of these applications have lapsed. Of the remaining 40, seven have been granted, a further seven have been offered on a conditional basis or approved in principle, 17 have been refused and nine are pending. The rural hackney licence is still at an early stage of roll out. The NTA is satisfied that it is a necessary scheme to tackle transport defects in rural areas where the most general SPSV services are not being provided. The NTA has assured me that the regulatory arrangements that have been implemented are fully in accordance with the recommendations of the taxi regulation review group report approved by Government.

Deputy Ciarán Cannon: Information on Ciaran Cannon Zoom on Ciaran Cannon I can only speak from my experience of working with three distinct communities and three individuals wishing to serve those communities. They satisfied all of these criteria. Their application was accompanied by a letter from a community group that advocates on behalf of the community and works to address the needs of the rural community. They were also accompanied by a forensic analysis of the public transport needs carried out by the local authority and signed by a very senior figure within the local authority management. The individual concerned also had a suitable vehicle and made a very significant commitment not to operate outside a distinct radius of, as the Minister of State pointed out, five to seven km. They also committed not to undermine to any extent existing hackney services in adjoining towns or villages. They satisfied all of those criteria, yet were refused. I can only speak from the experience of working with these individuals. They were exceptionally disappointed. The communities they were willing to serve were equally disappointed.

When this rural hackney opportunity was first proposed back in December 2013, it was welcomed by a number of groups advocating on behalf of rural Ireland - Irish Rural Link, the Irish Farmers Association and the Vintners Federation of Ireland all welcomed the opportunity at long last to be able to serve the needs of rural communities that were badly served by public transport. It has been my experience that the spirit and intent of the regulations and legislation, and of the review of taxi services nationally that produced this recommendation, have not been honoured by the NTA. It seems to be an exceptionally difficult entity to deal with in terms of securing these rural hackney licences. I urge the Minister of State to engage directly with it and to question it on whether it is implementing the scheme as it was intended. It is my experience that the opposite is happening.

Deputy Michael Ring: Information on Michael Ring Zoom on Michael Ring I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is an important issue. To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, when he brought in this scheme he did so to deal with the defects. The Deputy is correct in that there are many rural areas that do not have a taxi service. If it was commercially viable people would provide the service. There has to be a balance. I am going to ask my officials and will also myself engage with the NTA. I will also ask that the points raised by the Deputy be brought to the attention of the NTA. There have been 42 applications yet only seven licences been offered. The scheme is at an early stage and there are teething problems, nevertheless I will ask the NTA to have a look at it again. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and I will also negotiate to see if we can try and support and make sure that the areas that need licences get them.

What we do not want - the Deputy can understand this - is to displace people who are there. It is difficult enough for taxi people, particularly in rural Ireland. They are finding it hard enough to make a living. There are many people finding it difficult to make a living. What we need is balance. I will ask the NTA to look at this again and to take the Deputy's concerns into account. I will send on this report from the Dáil today to the NTA and will ask it to have a look at this again. The scheme was intended to serve areas that were not getting the required service. What we do not want is an over-regulation of the scheme, but we also do not want to make it easy and put other people out of business. There has to be a balance and we are trying to strike the balance. It is important that this scheme be looked at again and I will ask it to do that.

Coastal Protection

Acting Chairman (Deputy Olivia Mitchell): Information on Olivia Mitchell Zoom on Olivia Mitchell The next matter for Topical Issues debate is in the name of Deputy Michael McNamara to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, on coastal defence studies. The Minister of State, Deputy Harris, will take that matter. May I first offer Deputy Michael McNamara my good wishes on his recent engagement?

Deputy Michael McNamara: Information on Michael McNamara Zoom on Michael McNamara I thank the Acting Chairman. I do not know where to begin after that.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Olivia Mitchell): Information on Olivia Mitchell Zoom on Olivia Mitchell I am sorry.

Deputy Michael McNamara: Information on Michael McNamara Zoom on Michael McNamara It has been a little over a year now since west Clare and many parts of the west were very damaged by unprecedented storms. It seems like a lot longer but time flies when one is having fun and the reverse is also true. For the people who live there, the intervening period has not been entirely satisfactory. They have seen considerable delays in repairing a lot of the damage that was done to public infrastructure. There were 43 impacted sites identified by Clare County Council after the weather events, and of these, 15 have by now been fully restored and 28 require further work. Clare County Council estimated the cost of works required to address the damage from the storms at approximately €36 million, which included both the cost of repair and reinforcement works.

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