Adjournment Matter. - National Roads Authority.

Wednesday, 21 September 1988

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 121 No. 1

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Mr. McGowan: Information on Paddy McGowan  Zoom on Paddy McGowan  Somebody commented that this might be a publicity stunt. I will leave the judgment on that to those I represent and to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to comment on the establishment of the National Roads Authority. This is very timely legislation. Coming from a rural area like Donegal I welcome very enthusiastically the establishment of this new Authority. It is important to get away from the go-stop programme of road development when the local authority are allocated funds annually to carry out road repairs. The spending of the allocation for roads started at the most suitable time of the year, the summertime. The funds then ran out and the road programme lay abandoned until the following year. Many roads in rural areas have been under repair for five years and this it totally intolerable. The National Roads Authority will draft a programme for development which will be much more economic, which will get better value for money spent and which will eliminate the go-stop development programme that has been in operation for a long time. It is an opportune time for somebody who represents a rural area like Donegal to comment on the new development and to express the hope that the National Roads Authority will be national in practice as well as in name.

A number of business people with wide business experience have been mentioned for appointment to the National Roads Authority. We look forward to a programme that will not discriminate against rural areas. This is very important. In the past it always has been difficult [127] to accept that there can be high standards of roads and dual carriageways in one part of the country and neglected roads, to the point where funding is not available to fill potholes, in another part. I hope the National Roads Authority will take a global view and take into consideration the difficulties in rural Ireland and upgrade many of our roads. Roads are a very important infrastructure for tourist development and industrial development. They are a basic infrastructure, are not a luxury. If we are true Europeans, by 1992 we certainly hope that our roads will be of European standard. I am talking about all our roads, whether it is the road to Killybegs from which our fish lorries travel all over Europe or otherwise. We hope that the standard of the road leading to Killybegs will be as good as that leading to Paris. That is not too much to expect. I hope the establishment of this new National Roads Authority will lead to the development of our roads to an acceptable standard.

For years people in rural areas have complained that much of the time of local authorities has been taken up discussing the road programme and road allocation. I do not think any local authority in rural Ireland ever received the funding they would like to have received in order to bring the road programme up to an acceptable standard. Elected members have a very unsatisfactory role to play in so far as the people they represent have justification in complaining about the conditions of the roads and the local authority member has very little influence and very little input. As everybody knows, the money is allocated from the central authority. It is only right and proper that the National Roads Authority should be established and be seen to be administering from this centre. The development of the total road programme will be welcomed by people living in rural Ireland. The road going from here out past Donnybrook and Stillorgan and on down to Wicklow is carrying very heavy [128] traffic and we must accept that there is a need to have the road developed. Priority must be given to it because of the amount of traffic on it. It is very hard for a representative from rural Ireland to drive out that road and see Dublin Corporation or the Dublin County Council with their van planting flowers and drive back to his own county and see the standard of roads and the lack of funding. That is the sort of feedback that has been coming from county councils and local authorities all over Ireland. We are aware that there has been a difficulty with funding but hopefully this new National Roads Authority will be able to raise sufficient money by getting loans and EC assistance to solve our overall road problems. Rural Ireland stands to gain most. If we say that tourism is highly successful in Dublin and in the south of Ireland, we are told that the condition of the roads influences where the tourist travels.

I welcome the establishment of this new Authority. I hope they will look at the national problem and ensure that no part of the country is left out. The whole island should be looked at. The opportunities are now great. I hope the Minister will bring to the attention of the National Roads Authority the need for them to examine the total programme and to allocate a fair share of funding to rural Ireland, including my own county of Donegal.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Tras Honan  Zoom on Tras Honan  I understand the Senator is giving some of his time to Senator Farrell.

Mr. Farrell: Information on Willie Farrell  Zoom on Willie Farrell  I welcome the roads Authority. I have no doubt that they are very necessary. As a rural councillor I am worried about some aspects. I have no doubt that we will end up with better national primary routes, but there is a grave danger that we will end up with much poorer county roads. The councils have been doing this job for quite some time. Their biggest problem was not being able to continue because they get only so much money each year. The same [129] set of machinery was used for both the county roads and the national primary routes. Now with the roads Authority moving in, and I know the council will act as agents, there is a danger that this will go out to contract and that the council may not be able to maintain the machinery and, as a result, the county roads will suffer. It may also mean that we will have fewer people employed by the council because they will be unable to keep on those people and our county roads will again suffer.

We all know that the better the national primary roads are the heavier the traffic on them will be and that traffic eventually moves on to the county roads to finally deliver its load. While I welcome better national primary routes, I would not like to see a situation in which our councils would suffer badly and where the county roads would suffer very badly. I hope the Minister will take cognisance of this and ensure that the councils get sufficient funds to enable them to maintain and improve our county roads.

I have always felt that the moneys were not distributed fairly in rural areas. The money should be given on the basis of mileage rather than density of population. We have so many miles of road and so few people living near them. Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of traffic on them and it is not easy to keep them repaired. At present we have problems with roads in many parts of the country particularly in the west where the foundations of some of the county roads are not very powerful because they go through bogs and soggy land in many cases. It is not easy to keep them maintained because heavy traffic vibrates them and breaks them up and causes great trouble. We have the same thing in frosty weather and, because of the soggy nature of the land, our roads suffer. The national primary road grant was a separate grant from that for the county roads. Nevertheless, it helped to share the burden of the cost of employment and of machinery and in that way we [130] were able to do a reasonable job on our county roads.

I note that the council will act as agents to acquire the land. The roads Authority could move in and do a good job in acquiring land because, as we all know, at present the law is not strong enough. One farmer can hold the whole thing up to ransom and we have seen that happen around Ireland for many years. The Minister should bring in some system whereby the roads Authority would have the right to go through and make the road and settle the problem afterwards by one process or another. This is one of the things that has bedevilled county councils in trying to make roads. They get so far and then someone says they want a stone wall or a block wall where it was already agreed to put a wire fence or a railing. All those things can cause a lot of hassle and the sad thing is they hold up the work. The new roads Authority should come to grips with that problem. That is one of the biggest hazards in making new roads.

I welcome the Authority. I am disappointed that there is no public representative on the new board. They are all officials of one kind or another. I know the chairman is a very able man. I am glad to see that the road hauliers are represented as well but I would like to see some member of the local authority, or elected representative on it too. We have a role to play and we have been by-passed. I am disappointed that local authority members were by-passed and that they have no role to play. Perhaps as time goes on there might be some way, through sub-committees or otherwise, in which they could play a role. Many of those people have valuable experience and could contribute in a big way towards giving advice and assistance to the roads Authority rather than having the Authority aloof from the action. I would like to see them represented on the Authority. Perhaps at some time the Minister might consider that because we are inclined to move away from giving local authority [131] members any say in anything. We are inclined to think that if we put in plenty of bureaucrats and civil servants they will do a good job, but we must remember that our county councillors have stood the test of time and they should be recognised in a very practical manner.

Minister of State at the Department of Industry and Commerce (Mr. S. Brennan): Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  First, I am grateful to Senator McGowan for raising the recent establishment of the National Roads Authority on the Adjournment as it gives me an opportunity on behalf of the Government to outline to the Seanad the purpose and functions of the Authority.

As Senators are aware, the National Roads Authority was established on 19 July last and will have responsibility for the improvement and maintenance of national roads and access roads to our principal ports and airports. The national roads, and I think this is worth repeating, are the main links between our major towns, cities, ports and airports. They are the backbone of our inland transport system. They represent one-eighteenth of our total road mileage, but account for one-third of all travel on our roads. Two-thirds of the traffic on national roads is work-related. Industry, agriculture, tourism, mariculture, forestry and so on depend on them. We simply need them to get raw materials from port to factory and to transport finished products to points of export. In short, the national roads are a major part of our strategic national infrastructure along with water and sewerage, telecommunications, energy and so on. They are just as important as those categories.

Senators do not need to be reminded that our national roads are seriously deficient. You will be as aware as I am of the many bottlenecks, bad road surfaces, poor alignments and accident blackspots throughout the country. The development of our national roads makes economic sense because it will contribute to a [132] significant reduction of transport costs, thereby improving the competitive position of Irish industry — a subject very close to my heart.

The Authority faces a major challenge in both developing the national road network and in preserving the investment already made. I shall stress that the Department of the Environment have estimated that we need to spend £2.2 billion on the improvement of our national roads, a further £300 million on improving strategic roads in major urban areas and an additional £800 million on the maintenance and renewal of the existing network of national roads. That investment needs to be made over the next 20 years at the outside and ideally and preferably over the next ten to 15 years — as our financial circumstances permit — but we must make that investment and we will make that investment. Let me add that the Department's overall review of road needs across the entire network of national, regional, county and urban roads identified broad expenditure needs of £8.5 billion over a period of 20 years.

The Authority will operate initially on a non-statutory basis. Legislation will be required in due course to establish the National Roads Authority on a statutory footing. However, the Authority will be able to operate effectively for a period without a specific legislative framework and it is, therefore, proposed to wait some months before commencing the detailed drafting of the necessary Bill. When the Authority has been operating for a while, we will all be in a better position and get a feel for it and, therefore, to draft the specified legislation required.

I would like briefly to outline the main functions of the Authority which are fivefold. First, it will do the future strategic planning for national roads. The Authority will be asked to prepare regular medium-term plans for the development of this network. Once each plan has been approved by the Minister, it will [133] provide the framework for the Authority's work over a period.

Secondly, it will look after the expenditure of State funds for national roads. It will make recommendations each year as to the allocation of State road improvement and maintenance grants and once allocations have been approved by the Minister the National Roads Authority will administer and pay the grants.

Thirdly, it will make arrangements for the design of road improvement projects and for the placing of construction contracts.

Fourthly, it will have an important role to play in promoting the case for EC funding of the development of the network of national roads, subject to coordination by the Departments of the Environment and Finance.

The decisions taken by the European Council in February last on the implementation of the Single European Act and in particular the decision to double the resources of the Structural Funds by 1992 in the case of the least prosperous regions, including Ireland, and to increase the maximum rate of grant aid to 75 per cent will have a major impact on this country. We simply have to do everything we can to maximise EC financial assistance for roads and we are doing that. The ground work has already been done with the approval of £194 million in EC aid last December on foot of a national programme of community interest on road development for the period 1986 to 1990, which was prepared by the Department of the Environment.

Fifthly, the Authority will promote private investment in roads and negotiate the best possible terms. Borrowing by the Authority will be subject to ministerial consent.

As its first and most urgent task, the Authority was asked for its views on the draft Blueprint for Road Development by 12 September. I am pleased to be able to tell the Seanad that the Authority complied with that deadline and provided useful and constructive comments, which are now being assessed. It is planned to [134] publish the blueprint before the end of the year and we will then have a comprehensive statement of Government roads policy which will provide a framework for the activities of local authorities and the Authority and the formal basis for maximising EC financial assistance.

Finally, I want to comment briefly on the role of local authorities now that the National Roads Authority has been set up. This was referred to by Senator Farrell. Local authorities will continue to have an important role in the development of national roads. They will continue to own, maintain and manage these roads and to acquire land by agreement and compulsorily. They will normally act on behalf of the National Roads Authority in the design of improvement projects and in the supervision of contracts. Most importantly, local authorities will continue to have full responsibility for non-national roads, which account for 94 per cent of our total road mileage.

The National Roads Authority has a wide-ranging membership with relevant expertise and experience drawn from Government Departments, the construction and haulage industry and the financial and legal professions. I should say at this stage that I take on board Senator Farrell's constructive and well-meant criticism about the role of the public representative at local level and I certainly will make sure that the Minister for the Environment is made aware of the Senator's interest in that matter. As I have said already, the National Roads Authority face a major task and I believe that they have the capacity to respond effectively to that challenge.

Let me make one final comment. The decision to establish the National Roads Authority is particularly timely given the gathering momentum towards the creation of a single market by 1992. The Authority, through its work on the development of the national road network, can play a very significant part in improving industrial competitiveness in the 1992 context and is well placed to benefit from the increased levels of funding [135] which will become available from the EC Structural Funds.

In conclusion, my sincere thanks to Senator McGowan for giving me, on behalf of the Government, the opportunity to spell out the role of the National Roads Authority this evening. I think it is very timely and important that we [136] should spell it out just now and my thanks also to Senator Farrell for his very constructive criticisms which are taken very much in that fashion.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 22 September 1988.

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