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Finance Act 2004 (section 91) (Deferred Surrender to the Central Fund) Order 2020: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1003 No. 7

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill: Information on Jennifer Carroll MacNeill Zoom on Jennifer Carroll MacNeill] We have had an opportunity to reflect on how we live our lives and to think about how we want to continue to live them in future. I refer to where we want to live our lives, how we want to get to and from work and how we are going to plan for those aspects over the next ten years. I am not sure we would have ever had this opportunity in other circumstances, or it might have taken an extremely long time.

The national development plan, NDP, and the national planning framework on which it is based, was conceived in earlier times and before we had this opportunity to reflect. The effort at that earlier time, with which I was privileged to be involved, was intended to try to dampen development in Dublin and push it out to the other cities to achieve a better regional balance across the island. The primary driver of that process was the climate agenda in respect of trying to ensure we were not overdeveloping a single location. The aim was to provide real communities, where it would be possible for people to do all that they wanted to do in cities on the rest of this island, and not just in Dublin. Included in that aim were activities such as going to a cinema or to the theatre, to work in the high technology area or anything that people may have wanted to do around the different parts of the island. It was a process, however, driven by an urge for compact urban development, so that people would not have been commuting long distances to and from work.

That idea concerning commuting to work, and over long distances to work, has now been turned on its head. We must now think differently about work and commercial space and the repurposing of those spaces in the years to come. We have a major opportunity to reconceive our cities. There is a great opportunity to reimagine how Dublin has been used, the scale of commercial space and whether, and how, it may be possible to convert some of that space into residential space. I refer to reinvigorating our city and town centres and making them vibrant places where people can really live. Such a process could, in its own way, help to suppress the demand for more and more housing out in the hinterland of the city. That demand still exists, notwithstanding the national planning framework and its placement on a statutory footing.

This is a creative opportunity which we may not get again because we may not have the political, social and cultural space to do it. In the repurposing of this money, and in planning for the next two budgetary cycles, I urge the Minister to really think about whether a team might be put together to imagine creative changes which need to be made to the national planning framework, about which a national consultation is ongoing. Thought must also be given to how that undertaking is going to be driven from within the Civil Service and how that process of reimagining can be driven for the benefit of our people in the years to come.

On this specific spending, I agree with the previous speakers regarding not mentioning constituency projects. It is difficult as a Teachta to reconcile the challenge posed by being, on one hand, a national legislator here to speak on the planning of the national finances as much as anything else, while, on the other hand, addressing the needs of constituents concerning schools and other similar things. Instead of mentioning different schools or other issues, therefore, I suggest that it is not sustainable for us to reach the point where Teachtaí must beg for the redevelopment of schools. We cannot get to a point where schools are based in prefabricated buildings for years, without any certainty about what will happen the following year. That is an unsustainable financial and political model which favours clientelism and local lobbying. It is not a sensible and grown-up way to plan. The need for school developments is already visible. The schools themselves are well able to articulate those needs, and they have done so.

Projections of our growing population allow us to know where people are living and where the resulting demand is. We can see from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, data where more schools are going to be needed. We cannot have a situation where schools are begging for money and begging the Department of Education for redevelopment and for an architect to visit. It is an unsustainable way of planning, and I urge the Minister to use his offices and his Department to require that a different model be adopted in the Department of Education. I refer to a model which is better planned, frankly, than the current model and which would not require me and other Deputies to come in and beg for money for different schools in different places.

This is the final opportunity that can be availed of in respect of this money, and other moneys, in the broader context of what I said about the existing opportunity to operate counter-cyclically, in the area of addressing our overwhelming climate agenda and the associated projects which are essential to allow us to continue to survive. An example is the substantial water treatment upgrades necessary in different parts of the country, particularly in my constituency. These are massive capital projects requiring urgent investment. There will be financial implications for the State in respect of environmental fines if we cannot resolve these problems, which would just be wrong. While we have this counter-cyclical opportunity, and it will not come along all that often, we must invest in the manner that I have outlined.

We must also think about how we can use our existing space in respect of horticulture and waste management to try to drive ahead with the development of horticulture, food provision and food security for this island. Several opportunities are evident when we look around our cities for developments in vertical farming, for example, and for taking steps that have not been available or desirable thus far. This is a unique opportunity to reimagine Dublin city centre and city centres generally. The revision of the national development plan, on foot of the national planning framework, if that itself needs changes, is a substantial opportunity, and I urge the Minister to use the best resources available in respect of imagination and creativity to try to drive this endeavour.

Deputy Patricia Ryan: Information on Patricia  Ryan Zoom on Patricia  Ryan I welcome this opportunity to speak on this motion. In other years, attempts were made to dispose of this matter without debate and I am pleased the Government has not tried to go down that road this time around. I also accept that there will be occasions when money will remain unspent. However, some of the areas where spending has not occurred are inexcusable. I have many concerns about the 2021 Revised Estimates for the public services.

I am concerned that we underspent in our current and capital spending on housing last year. We are also planning a €721 million reduction in the Estimates in current spending on housing this year, which is a 23% reduction. We are in the middle of a housing crisis and we should be increasing our spending in this area, and not reducing it. I note that there is an increase in capital spending, but it is nowhere near enough. Only small, single digit, increases are proposed for our defence capital and current spending. We must pay the personnel of our Defence Forces more and ensure that they have up-to-date equipment. The members of the Defence Forces have stood up to the plate during the pandemic and it is time to start reversing the years of underfunding and neglect.

There is also a pittance of an increase in current spending of 1.2% for An Garda Síochána, which comes at a time when there have been two attacks on elderly people in their homes in south Kildare in as many weeks. Garda visibility is at an all-time low. I do not blame the Garda for this situation, because the force can only work with what we give it. We can and must do more. Remaining in the justice area, there is a 10% reduction in capital spending in respect of An Garda Síochána, a 24% decrease in spending on the Courts Service and a 21% decrease in spending on the Prison Service. What kind of message is this sending to criminals? It is an absolute disgrace.

There is a 9%, or €34 million, reduction in spending in the area of rural and community development. We must repurpose many empty buildings in our towns and villages to provide employment opportunities, as well as homes, and give people a reason to stay in rural Ireland. It seems as if this Government could not care less if the last person leaving rural Ireland switched off the lights. The Government forgets that the country does not end at the ball in Naas.

While I welcome the increased spending in the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, we must ensure that there is a just transition. It cannot all just be about carbon taxes, which affect our older people disproportionately. Microgeneration must be at the heart of our policy. Subsidising foreign-owned wind farms is not working. We must fast-track the ability in respect of microgeneration for retail customers. They must also be able to sell power back to the national grid and we must make it more economical for them to invest in renewable energy.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett This is a technical motion on one level, but it is, nonetheless, an opportunity to highlight some important issues. We are talking about underspending of €709 million in many areas of capital spending, which is an indication of how significant the impact of Covid-19 has been. We must also add to that figure the roughly €20 billion in additional spending which is also related to the pandemic.

To be honest, this exposes the Government's false narrative concerning its strategy balancing public health with the economy. The truth is that the living with Covid-19 strategy has been a disaster from a public health perspective, which we can see when we look at the number of tragic fatalities.

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