5. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council; and the status of the intended reforms of the NESC. (Question 50383/17 asked on 05 Dec 2017)
The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 6 together.
The National Economic and Social Council has played an important role over many decades in developing shared understanding between Government and other stakeholders on economic and social policy and, more recently, on sustainable development. Over the coming years, Ireland faces into a period of significant change at home and abroad that will present some new and exceptional challenges. The Programme for a Partnership Government specifically notes the policy challenges where long-term thinking is required. I expect the council to continue to contribute to policy development with a focus on the strategic and longer term view.
A new council was appointed in May. Four independent members remain to be appointed. I have decided this is to be done through the Public Appointments Service process. The council has adjusted its working measures and methods, with fewer plenary meetings, greater use of working or project groups and more structured engagements with policy actors, interests and commentators.
The council published its most recent report, Moving Towards the Circular Economy in Ireland, on 25 October. The council has approved a work programme up to 2019 comprising three themes. The first relates to low-work-intensity households, quality tailored services and participation. The second relates to climate change and governance of the low-carbon transition. The third relates to land value, land use and urban development. Work on each of these themes is progressing and will be reviewed at the forthcoming council meetings. As is normal practice, I will submit the council’s reports to Government for information before they are published.
Deputy Gerry Adams: It is not clear, although perhaps I missed it, whether the National Economic and Social Development Office has been stood down. The legislation around the National Economic and Social Development Office and the establishment of the NESC as the remaining statutory body has been listed as part of the Government legislative programme since 2013. Will the Taoiseach set out precisely when this will be completed?
The NESC also has responsibility for supporting the North East Inner City initiative. One of the key recommendations of Kieran Mulvey’s report on the challenges facing communities related to the maximising of educational, training and employment opportunities. The involvement of organisations such as the Dublin City Community Co-operative is crucial to the achievement of the Mulvey report objectives. Despite this reality, the 2018 funding for the 13 organisations under the co-operative umbrella remains in doubt. There has been no confirmation of what amount, if any, of the annual transitional funding will be provided for the co-operative for 2018. These are vital organisations in the local community. They are the cement that holds some of these communities together. Yet, their funding remains precarious. If they are not properly funded and are unable to deliver services, then we will be letting down the people they serve.
Will the Taoiseach follow up on this and get his answers from the Minister for Rural and Community Development to secure clarity on the funding intentions for the Dublin City Community Co-operative for 2018?
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Boyd Barrett is next. Can Deputies try to stick within the allocated time to enable us to get through everyone?
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: NESC has done considerable work on housing in recent years. I can suggest one area where we need to do considerable work. The Government needs to do something on the issue of affordability and NESC could possibly be a vehicle. We still do not have any real plan for affordable housing. We have a market where prices are spiralling out of all control and where much of the funding the Government has put, wrongly, to my mind, into the Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund and so on is simply money going to subsidise private developers, but with no guarantees whatsoever over the affordability of the housing that comes back. We need some actual affordability when it comes to delivering affordable housing. Otherwise, as was the case with the Celtic tiger property boom, we will have vast numbers of houses but only on offer at vastly inflated prices that no one can afford or that people are required to take on unsustainable debt if they wish to purchase.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Earlier this year, NESC produced a detailed research paper relating to the development of infrastructure plans and the levels of consultation that represent good practice. Has the Taoiseach implemented the plan in this way in preparing for the new capital plan and the national marketing plan?
In every study of the Irish economy, whether public or private, there has been an absolutely consistent message about our need to go further on the knowledge base of our economy. In particular, we need to further ramp up research at every level - that is a universal recommendation.
Unfortunately, for the first time in 20 years, it appears the Government is abandoning the vision of a research-intensive economy. The budget did little more than allow small progress. Different Ministers have admitted that we will miss agreed targets for research activity under the current science strategy. That is regrettable. This makes the current Administration the first to fail to hit three such targets and the first to plan for failure in the opening period of a science strategy. Can the Taoiseach explain why this is the case? Why did the Government agree to effectively abandon targets for levels of funding and activity in research in its first budget?
Deputy Brendan Howlin: One area where NESC has been helpful and successful in the past is sustainable development. The Taoiseach referenced the NESC work programme. Will he indicate whether the council intends to take on any work in respect of climate change? When a former Minister and current EU Commissioner - someone the Taoiseach knows well - is calling on Ireland to wake up soon, we know it is time for us to take drastic action. Otherwise, as I have said previously, we are sleepwalking into a situation where substantial fines might be imposed on us. It makes no sense not to prepare to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases but opt to prepare to pay fines instead. NESC might have some useful advices if it was tasked specifically with that job. I am keen to hear the Taoiseach’s views.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I agree on that last point. NESC has done some good work on climate change. The council has shown far more ambition than the Government. The Taoiseach says these are all long-term issues. How will the council’s work in climate change co-ordinate with the work done by the national dialogue on climate action, the planning framework and the capital plan? This is a long-term problem but we need the right decisions and a change of course now.
I endorse Deputy Martin’s point about the infrastructure commission. I understand the IMF recommended something similar in its recent report on public expenditure. Will the Taoiseach briefly outline his view of the role of the executive in NESC? The Taoiseach has set out what the council is doing. Does he envisage an expanded role, additional resources or a more precise role for the executive other than simply servicing the council? What use does the Taoiseach intend to take off the executive in this area?
The Taoiseach: I will start towards the end of the questions on climate change and the NESC. One of the three themes that the council will pursue in its workplan through 2018 is climate change, especially the governance of low-carbon transition. I was asked about the actions the Government is taking. I agree we need to do far more than we are doing at present. The capital plan will contain many actions and commitments relating to climate change, including in the area of public transport. These include transitioning away from the bus fleet as we fuel it currently, electrifying some of our railways, further investment in forestry and so on. Budget 2018 included new incentives to encourage more people to buy or lease electric vehicles.
The views of different parties are relevant, either in the context of the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil or Opposition parties in general. I am keen to have consensus on carbon taxation. I think we need to increase carbon tax in the coming years. If we could secure cross-party agreement to do that in a stepped way in the next couple of years, I would certainly be willing to do so and have that conversation with the parties.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, is working on a number of initiatives which I hope he will be able to publicise in the coming weeks and months. They focus in particular on the renewable heat programme, the better and warmer homes scheme, the insulation programme and-----
Deputy Brendan Howlin: The Government may need to come up with a name other than the renewable heat programme.
The Taoiseach: I will ensure it is called something else. Windscale and Sellafield were different names for the same plant, albeit with many more safeguards. The Minister will also publicise other actions, particularly regarding price supports for solar power and other forms of renewable energy.
On the National Economic and Social Development Office Bill, work is under way to prepare heads of the Bill and these will be brought to Government in early course. The Bill will provide for the dissolution of the National Economic and Social Development Office, NESDO, and deal with related matters, including the transfer of functions to the National Economic and Social Council, NESC. NESDO was initially created under the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006 as the body corporate for three constituent bodies, the National Economic and Social Council, National Economic and Social Forum, NESF, and National Centre for Partnership and Performance, NCPP. As NESF and the NCPP were dissolved by order in 2010, leaving NESC as the only remaining body, the framework of the NESDO was consequently no longer necessary.
It is important when discussing affordability that we view the issue in terms of a triangle. There are three types of affordability, namely, affordability to rent, buy and build. Examples of measures the Government is taking in this area include a new affordable housing scheme. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, should be in a position to publish the details of the new scheme soon. The current scheme dates from 2010 or 2011 and is out of date and the Minister will advance the new scheme in the new year. We are also changing the planning regulations, particularly regarding apartment building in cities to make it much less expensive to build apartments, thereby generating more construction of apartments. We have worked into programmes such as the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, a requirement to provide a proportion of affordable housing in any developments that are made possible as a result of LIHAF.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: The requirement is poorly defined.
The Taoiseach: Home Building Finance Ireland, HBFI, has not yet started but when it starts it will certainly not be a subsidy as Deputy Boyd Barrett described it. It is a loan and developers who receive development finance from HBFI will have to repay their loans with interest. Rather than being a subsidy, it will generate a return for taxpayers through cash repayments on the loans and a social return in terms of new housing that perhaps would not otherwise be built.
On the north inner city, Mr. Kieran Mulvey recommended a wide range of actions to advance the social and economic regeneration of the area and the Government is committed to implementing these in full. As recommended, a programme implementation body was established last June comprising representatives of the statutory, community and business sectors. The board is led by Mr. Michael Stone and is being supported in its work by the local programme office established in Sean McDermott Street. The chair of the board reports regularly to an oversight group of senior officials chaired by Mr. Martin Fraser, the Secretary General of my Department. This is to ensure continued strong engagement across all Departments and agencies and to deal with any structural barriers and issues highlighted by the board. I will continue to ensure ministerial oversight and support of this initiative is provided through the Cabinet committee system.
Since its first meeting in June, the board has moved quickly to establish four dedicated subgroups to advance specific measures on the priority areas of crime and drugs, education, training and employment opportunities, services for families and young people and physical improvements. The board implemented a number of proposals across the four priority headings in 2015 at a cost of €2.5 million. This is in addition to the range of local measures implemented in 2016, which were worth approximately €5 million. Further measures will be developed and supported in 2018, with funding of €2.5 million set to be provided through the RAPID programme. To ensure the wider community is involved in the process, the first in a series of community consultation events took place in Larkin community centre on 19 October. We have also confirmed our full commitment to reopening Fitzgibbon Street Garda station following a programme of refurbishment works which is at planning permission.
We are also fully behind the development of a community hub on the Rutland Street school site. This is being overseen by Dublin City Council, which is finalising costs. Examples of other specific projects that have been delivered include new and refurbished sporting facilities; new outreach workers targeting street dealing who have been in place since September last; the appointment by the Department of Employment and Social Protection of a full-time case officer dedicated to securing job opportunities from local employers; a new construction skills course, which has run several times and secured employment for local participants; the development of a local project to tackle the major problem of litter and dumping in the area; continued improvements by Dublin City Council to lighting, roads and hoardings; the award of community grants totalling €123,000 to 40 small local projects; closed circuit television, which is at an advanced stage of approval, to be installed at 13 sites across the north inner city; and a programme of clean-up works under way on local railway bridges and the canal bank in co-operation with Irish Rail.