Thursday, 23 March 2017, Leaders’ Question Bord na Móna Factory Littleton.
Deputy Michael Lowry Leaders’ Questions on Thursday 23rd March in connection to the Bord na Móna Littleton Factory following this week revelations that Bord na Móna is carrying out a comprehensive review of its briquetting operations.
Michael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
I wish to raise the issue of the Government’s position with regard to support of Bord na Móna. Bord na Móna, in particular, the Littleton plant in my constituency, has been traditionally known for its production of briquettes for more than 40 years and has given valuable employment to people from Littleton, Killenaule, Templetuohy, Thurles and surrounding areas. The facility in Littleton can be traced back to Bord na Móna’s roots. Recently, to safeguard the facility in Littleton, workers have accepted restructuring proposals from management and unions through the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court. This is a clear commitment that the workforce at Littleton briquette factory is committed to its future.
Recently we have heard about a Bord na Móna review of peat production operations and briquette manufacturing factories. This has led to concerns and fears among more than 120 workers at the Littleton plant. Bord na Móna is going through a difficult time in terms of the sales of briquettes, principally because of the imposition of carbon tax at the insistence of the Green Party in the 2010 budget. At that time, I negotiated a derogation for peat produced products but it was reintroduced in 2013. Since 2013 the carbon tax has doubled meaning that there is a 50 cent tariff on every bale of briquettes produced. On top of that, the import of unregulated fuel products from Northern Ireland is a massive problem in the marketplace for Bord na Móna.
The current review by Bord na Móna of its peat operations is of fundamental and critical importance. Its recommendations will shape the future of peat production in Ireland. It will determine what quantities of briquette production will be required for the marketplace in the future. It will also determine the number of production facilities and recommend the location of the factory or factories. Its recommendations will have far-reaching implications and shuddering consequences. It has the potential to destroy livelihoods and to consign workers and dependent families to financial hardship. The outcome of the report is capable of wreaking havoc on local communities. Therefore, the report is a very serious matter that must treated in a professional, responsible, fair and caring manner.
The Tánaiste must understand that this is a nerve-tingling time for the employees of Bord na Móna, whether they are in Tipperary, Offaly or another part of the midlands. The prospect of further rationalisation or consolidation has struck fear in the hearts and minds of employees. What is the Government’s position on the Bord na Móna efforts?
Frances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
As the Deputy well knows, Bord na Móna is a commercial State company and the management and operation of briquette factories is an operational matter for the company and not one in which the Government has any direct role or function. However, I recognise the points the Deputy has made on the concerns of the employees in both places at present. Bord na Móna is facing significant business challenges in the context of the deregulation of the electricity market and increasingly competitive and challenging environments across all its business areas, not least its fuels business. It has been operating at a level significantly below capacity in recent times and there are a number of initiatives under way at present.
A comprehensive review is being undertaken at present on the operations at Littleton in County Tipperary and Derrinlough in County Offaly. The review will examine projected demand for peat briquettes as well as the plans for biomass and the combined capacity and infrastructure needed to deliver production to meet the forecasted demand. A serious analysis is being carried out at present on the production capacity and the demand and how they can be matched. As it requires much input from a number of people, the review is not expected to be finalised before May at the earliest. We will await the review and its analysis.
In the meantime, Bord na Móna has been working with and briefing staff and employees in the fuels business have been briefed on the review. I assure the Deputy that I understand that ongoing updates will be provided to them. Management has also provided assurances that no decision on the future of the plants will be taken until the review is completed. At the very least, we must await the outcome of the review in May. No one at this point can predict the recommendations that will be in the review, but there are a number of initiatives taking place which it is hoped will give the best outcome for the jobs about which the Deputy speaks. For example, there is a pilot trial for the production and sale of a biomass briquette made at its factory at Littleton for the past 12 months. The development of a biomass briquette is a significant investment by Bord na Móna Fuels and a critical step in future proofing the jobs the Deputy is highlighting and meeting the particular challenges faced by the company at present. However, the company is investing in research to see how it can best meet those challenges ahead.
Michael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
It is important to realise that the Government has a responsibility to oversee the policies of Bord na Móna and how they impact on employment. I presume there is a process involved here. As the Tánaiste indicated, the report will be published in May. I presume it will go to the board of Bord na Móna before being submitted to the joint committee with responsibility for energy and natural resources, the Minister and the Government. The future plans and ambition of Bord na Móna must not be curtailed by financial necessity. The Government must encourage and support the company by making available the substantial funds required to invest in upgrading existing plants such as Littleton and providing the €35 million required to install and commission a combined heat and power plant at the Littleton site. The trial at Littleton has been highly successful and made substantial progress. I hope its conclusions will show we can manufacture a biomass peat product and that this product, combined with investment in the combined heat and power plant, will secure the site’s future. I ask that the Minister take this into account in his discussions with Bord na Móna.
Frances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
I will ask the Minister to liaise directly with Deputy Lowry on this issue. It is planned to run further biomass production trials alongside peat briquette production in the next few months, with a view to completing a detailed business case for this product. The business case will consider the location for the commercial scale biomass plant. If or when this product is developed, it will offer an opportunity to provide sustainable, long-term, quality jobs in the fuels and feedstock divisions of Bord na Móna. As the Deputy noted, there is still some way to go and we await the review at the end of May and the results of the pilot projects which are assessing the viability of the product and how it could be developed. At that point, there will no doubt be committee hearings on the report. We await with interest the outcome in May.
Commenting on the latest figures from the back to ‘School Costs Survey 2016’ issued by the children’s charity Barnardos, Michael Lowry TD has said that the findings reflect what he is hearing from his constituents, that parents are struggling financially to pay for their children’s back to school needs despite so-called ‘free education’.
“This 11th annual ‘School Costs Survey’ highlights that many parents both locally and nationally are under severe pressure at this time of year, dreading how they will pay for all that is required for school.
The findings of the survey highlight that the overall cost of sending a child to primary school is €340 and to post primary school is €775. These estimates don’t even include the money needed by parents to pay for transport, extra-curricular activities, school bags and other accessories. These kinds of expenses are placing enormous stress on families who are already under pressure to pay everyday family costs and household bills. Parents in difficulty are facing awful dilemmas of having to forego home rental and mortgage payments or even borrowing to make ends meet. If education in Ireland is free, why are parents footing these huge bills?
With Budget 2017 approaching it is time for the Government to recognise that parents and schools alike are still straining under the weight of funding cuts. Austerity measures which resulted in cuts to social welfare rates, such as the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance being halved, negatively impacts upon parents’ abilities to fund the most basic requirements needed for their children. It must be remembered that these cuts come despite back to school costs remaining high or even increasing.
I welcome the proposed measures by our present government in relation to investing an extra €500m in education by 2021 and reviewing the School Transport Scheme with recommendations on concessionary school transport. More action is needed to implement measures that will effectively support struggling parents and put a halt to the dread they feel at the back to school time of year. Further investment needs to be prioritised to fund schools and support initiatives that will realistically and significantly reduce costs to parents” concluded Deputy Lowry.
Deputy Michael Lowry has welcomed the decision by the Department of Education to formally approve funding for the construction of an additional mainstream classroom for St. Michael’s National School in Holycross.
Deputy Lowry stated “This new classroom will also facilitate the recent sanction of a 9th teacher for the school. Holycross National School has a strong reputation for the delivery of high quality education. The school is in great demand and has developed and expanded to the extent that it will have an enrolment of 240 students for the next September school term. Compliments are due to the management and staff of the school for their guidance and expertise which is acknowledged and appreciated by the local community”.
Mr. Ger Corbett, Principal of St. Michael’s National School said; “The school community are delighted to hear that we are getting a new classroom for our 9th classroom teacher which will be a very handsome addition to the excellent facilities we have at the moment, ranging from our Gort na nÓg facility to the full range of primary provisions. The school community has worked very hard to provide these and Michael Lowry T.D. has played a key role. From a small but famous school at the top of the Green we now have an excellent facility to cater for this growing community for many years to come.
I sincerely congratulate and thank the partners involved in the education of the young children of this community and we confidently look forward to the years ahead.
The enrolment currently stands at 240 pupils and is being catered for by an excellent staff of 9 class teachers and 5 Special Educational Needs (SEN) team members and all our valued ancillary staff”.
Deputy Lowry concluded, “Fr. Tom Breen, together with the Management Board and Parents Council have also welcomed this sanction and the approval to proceed with this project.”
Pictured here L to R: Ger Corbett Principal Holycross National School, Michael Lowry T.D., Rev Fr. Tom Breen, Mary Ryan and John Bourke
Independent TD Michael Lowry has welcomed the recent added financial investment to our health sector, including the €40m announced for home care services. Same comes as part of the extra €500 million which has been added to our already overall Health Service Budget nationally for 2016, by Minister for Health Mr Simon Harris.
However Lowry warned, “Despite this new welcome allocation, serious challenges still continue to remain within the service, with demands for home help and home care packages continuing to grow.”
In particular Lowry pointed out, “Patients who are medically ready for hospital discharge continue to remain waiting in much needed hospital beds, due to our inability to access and put in place home supports.”
“More access to home supports” stated Lowry, “could see patients living at home; instead of remaining in long-term residential care, should these appropriate services be made more readily available. This said problems are also arising in the number of older people already in receipt of home care, who have been identified as not receiving the number of help hours needed.
“It is readily acknowledged that many more patients could be at home”, continued Lowry, “where they themselves want to be; where their families want them to be; and where Government policy says they should be. However we are simply not providing these necessary homecare supports and this present situation goes completely against Governmental stated objectives of caring for individuals within our communities.
In particular over the past number of years Health Care in its entirety across Tipperary has faced utter devastation through serious financial cuts, e.g South Tipp General Hospital, Our Lady’s hospital Cashel, Dean Maxwell Roscrea, Mount Sion Tipperary, the effects of which can only be described as terrifying and a gross burden on our most vulnerable. To this end I will now be seeking an assurance from Minister Harris that a fair share of this much needed new funding will be made available to Co. Tipperary.
This new investment in our community care services is indeed a most positive development, however we now need to put in place a system that provides for more appropriate homecare services and packages. This will enable many more of our citizens to return to live in their own homes under a more tailored care plan, which in turn will be one step closer to solving our current hospital overcrowding”, concluded Lowry.
Deputy Michael Lowry has called on the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources, Mr Denis Naughten, to urgently advance the Government’s National Broadband Plan for County Tipperary.
Currently there exists well over 41,000 properties across Tipperary without broadband and of these over 8,000 are businesses of varying sizes, each attempting to compete in the wider market place. Larger towns like Clonmel, Thurles, Nenagh, Tipperary Town and Templemore are well served by commercial operators; however other smaller towns and villages right across Tipperary require immediate intervention by the government.
Deputy Lowry recently contacted Minister Naughten highlighting that “a key element for rural development must be to invest in infrastructure in areas outside of the main towns and cities. The absence of high speed broadband is a significant issue in attracting foreign direct or other investment to rural areas, thus obstructing all future job creation in Tipperary”. Lowry further insisted that “the State now fast-track the necessary capital funding into the Broadband process to expedite the rollout schedule and guarantee rural broadband to 100% of Tipperary homes and businesses.”
The Independent TD continued, “The Government needs to review its current timeline on Broadband issues and stop referring to it as anything other than what it actually is, a basic and essential utility. Lack of Broadband is threatening the very growth capacity of entire local economies, particularly in Co. Tipperary. Broadband has become a critical factor to 21st century business life, and rural businesses rightfully feel abandoned and unable to compete, while city based businesses continue to thrive.This same digital divide now places rural Ireland at a massive disadvantage and is not just failing individuals and businesses in their ability to communicate, but is also affecting students in our educational system to adequately engage in their intellectual pursuits; much of which now depends on having access to basic Internet facilities.
Obviously the lack of basic Broadband accessibility is only one of the many areas that need to be scrutinised in an effort to stop the everyday curse of migration, emigration and unemployment. These factors are draining rural areas of their very livelihood. However, with rural Ireland lacking critical 21st century infrastructure in providing 21st century opportunities, rural dwellers will continue to flee in favour of greater prospects elsewhere.
Business, whatever its size is the very lifeblood of every economy and if entrepreneurship is to be encouraged to set up in rural Ireland, access to Broadband is now essential if we are to work, grow and fairly compete,” concluded Deputy Lowry.
Independent TD Michael Lowry has called on the Ulster Bank to reverse its decision to sell more than 900 distressed loans to ‘vulture funds’, in their efforts to rid themselves of acquired problem assets, mostly obtained during the so called boom era.
“This sale of assets by Ulster Bank, valued at €2.5bn, is made up of distressed business loans, buy-to-let mortgages and owner-occupier mortgages. Their decision is aimed at drastically eradicating all remaining so called ‘toxic’ property loans from its books on both sides of the border. However if carried out there exists a further fear that other banking establishments will most likely replicate similar procedures against their customers.
About €100m of the total face value of Ulster Bank loans, now being offered for sale, are owned by farmers and in many cases are linked to necessary on-farm business investments. This threat now comes at a time when Irish agriculture, in particular, is already on its knees with farm debt on an upward spiral, due to world market price volatility, which looks set to remain for the foreseeable future.
This threatened outcome by Ulster Bank is an appalling and insensitive approach to vulnerable business mortgage holders, who are currently finding themselves in financial difficulties. On a daily basis, I am confronted with appalling instances of financial institutions being allowed to ignore their own wrong-doings, while trampling and terrorising Irish borrowers.
This devastating threat, if carried through, will bring about the most negative and damaging of effects to families, overall business development in our regional communities and more especially will decimate attempts at any real rural recovery. If Ulster Bank mortgages are sold off to these ‘vulture funds’, then we will witness further new and increased cases of homelessness and a continuance in the escalation of private rental costs.
I now urge all banking establishments to develop new long-term funding arrangements and to immediately suspend their present threatening action. The vast majority of customers are keen to find a resolution to their current financial difficulties and should be given professional, independent advice on restructuring their outstanding loans. I also call for a renewed sense of urgency by the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure, to assist in creating a more efficient funding mechanism to halt and reverse this recent banking decision” concluded Deputy Lowry.
Michael Lowry TD welcomes the decision by Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney, in cancelling plans to introduce a mandatory minimum pay-by-weight charge for Green Bin waste.
The charge had been part of a new nationwide pay-by-weight system and was due to come into force as and from July 1st, 2016. These minimum charges had been specified at 11c per kg for black bin waste, 6c for brown bin and 2c for green bin.
Michael Lowry stated “It made no logical sense to apply a charge by weight to a recycling bin. While regional waste authorities have predicted that landfill waste could be reduced by up to 25%, I believe that this 25% reduction would undoubtedly have contributed to even more illegal dumping on our rural roadsides and an even greater reduction in proper recycling.
Already problems regarding the cleaning up of illegal dumps are costing Tipperary County Council vast sums of money and are also greatly hampering the efforts of the many voluntary Tidy Towns and other groups in the county. WEEE Ireland’s recent visit to Thurles & Templemore gave an opportunity to bring along old redundant electrical appliances for recycling thus eliminating the temptation to dump illegally in our scenic countryside.
Anything that discourages recycling is unsound and even greater attempts to recycle needs to be further encouraged. If recycling is to succeed it needs to be free to all communities. I am delighted that the Government have fully recognised that introducing such proposed charges would have had a total detrimental effect on householders penalising them for disposing their waste responsibly. I now look forward to further positive support from all waste operators across the country”, concluded Deputy Lowry.
Independent TD Michael Lowry has called for an immediate, focused and balanced debate by all elected TD’s, with regard to planning a future for rural Ireland. Commenting on recent radical proposals for Ireland’s development by Mr John Moran (Former Secretary-General at the Department of Finance), Deputy Lowry stated that he disagreed with many of the views expressed by Mr Moran with regard to his future vision for rural Ireland.
Using the comparative example of Ireland versus France; Mr Moran had declared that France was “pulling back services from less efficient parts of their country and encouraging those areas to develop a different business model.”
“How can rural Ireland attract a “different business model”, when such areas have been totally stripped of infrastructure and investment, with little attempt at supporting regional development. To advance a ‘different business model’ would entail a modern rural road network as part of other required infrastructure. Mr Moran appears to be unaware that the National Roads Fund decreased from €608 million in 2008 to a current figure of €294 million in 2015. In 2011 Tipperary received €45 million for roads. In 2016 this had fallen to €25 million. Also in 2015 some €439 million was made available to the semi-State utility Irish Water; taken from motor tax payment and local property tax.
Deputy Lowry continued: “The IDA must immediately begin to invest in advance industrial infrastructure in places like Co. Tipperary, providing ready-to-go turnkey facilities with access to high-speed broadband being a priority. Neglect of infrastructure and investment in turn has had a domino effect in relation to the lack of job opportunities for a highly skilled and well educated workforce. The previous government and national agencies have done little or nothing to correct this current urban / rural imbalance. Young people are being forced to leave their homes, families and communities daily. Emigration has also had a massive impact on close local communities; particularly on sports clubs, who are suffering from decimation by the forced flight of its younger membership.
Back during the emergence of our Irish State; using our then fiscal capabilities, we established one industry after another. Ensuring not to make new developments simply localized affairs; we spread new factories as wide as possible throughout the State. This was done to avoid the problems of the over-centralization of industry; becoming part of a plan to make industry conform to the general well-being of rural areas. Same industries were predominantly placed in agricultural based areas, sharing in an industrial revival, offering work to those who otherwise would have departed via an emigrant ship. During this same period our Irish economy saw the net value of industrial products increased from over €18.25 million to over €28.25 million; while wages paid to production workers increased by €4.25 million and placed eighty thousand additional workers into steady regular employment.
Year after year, small shops, post offices and Garda Stations are shrinking. Fewer homes are being constructed, resulting in no work for builders and associated trades. Fewer children are being born; school numbers and teachers are reduced leading to inevitable school closures. The shortage of priests is leading to parishes becoming clustered with grave implications for church communities.
Urban centres must not forget that our valuable agricultural exports continue to emanate from a currently neglected rural Ireland” concluded Deputy Lowry
Lowry calls on HSE to reverse its decision not to fill the vacancy of Registrar for Thurles Civil Registration Services Office
Michael Lowry TD has called on the HSE to fill the vacant post at the offices of the Civil Registration Service, situated at St. Mary’s Health Centre, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.
“The previous Registrar has recently retired after a lifetime of dedicated service. The HSE have confirmed that there is no immediate plan to re-appoint a replacement officer to this now vacant position.
The HSE’s Civil Registration Service plays a most important role in our community; being responsible for assisting people to register births, together with marriages, civil partnerships and deaths.
This recent dilemma yet again highlights the immense challenges currently faced by Irish rural dwellers on a day-to-day bases. In particular, services provided by the HSE, are dying nationally; but not more so than those currently being experienced within the rural constraints of Co. Tipperary. Currently within our Health Service, post after post in our rural areas are falling vacant, with no incentive to attract suitable personnel.
In the past the Thurles Civil Registration Office has provided a professional and quality service to the local community. This same service has been undertaken in conjunction with parts of South Tipperary, Dundrum and Cappawhite, together with Templemore and Borrisoleigh. In the case of individual citizens originating from Tipperary and now residing abroad; they too have greatly benefited from the provision of these services.
I am well aware that there are other Civil Registration Service offices in Nenagh, Roscrea, and Cashel which open 3 half days only on a weekly basis; while Clonmel offers a morning-only service to the public; caused by a retirement and the death of a staff member. The filling of a fulltime replacement position in Thurles is therefore now essential.
I have been in contact with the Health Service Executive (HSE) and have requested that they immediately make a full, focused and determined effort to attract a fulltime Registrar to fill this most essential post” concluded Michael Lowry.
Lowry calls for Rural Road Funding
Independent TD Michael Lowry, has requested that all Tipperary’s newly elected TD’s unite to ensure that necessary future funding for rural roads be made an immediate priority for the 32nd Dáil.
“The Rural Road Network throughout county Tipperary is crumbling. The principle factor is the lack of investment and continuous decrease in monies made available to local County Councils. The National Roads Fund decreased from €608 million in 2008 to a current figure of €294 million. In 2011 both North and South Tipperary got a total of €45 million for roads. In 2015 this had fallen to €28 million, with a further €3 million of reductions this year.
This decrease in funding has had a huge negative impact on rural communities, with many of our roads becoming extremely hazardous. Daily struggles are arising for rural school buses, and other essential service providers. In many cases these erosive conditions are creating obstacle courses which are bordering on the impassable. Drivers find themselves in dangerous situations where they are forced to drive erratically to avoid deepening potholes. Each day my office receives countless complaints from vehicle owners, where their vehicles are being damaged, tyres have been ripped off and issues are arising with steering and suspension, brought about by potholes which rapidly merge to form giant craters.
The people of Tipperary are extremely frustrated with this outgoing government and justifiably point out that as citizen’s they pay heavy car taxes, numerous charges and levies, yet the horrendous state of rural roads tolerated on a day-to-day basis in Tipperary would never be permitted to exist in our capital city. It is evident that this current administration continues to cultivate a two track society; one which offers fast urban centres, while rural Ireland is permitted to remain abandoned.
I have spoken to the CEO of Tipperary County Council, requesting that an inventory of all roads, which need repair and replacement works right across the county, be immediately established and should include reasonable estimates for all repairs and refurbishments.
I will work alongside my elected colleagues, in seeking the appropriate funding for this crisis, while exerting my influence on the introduction of a proper roads network program into the future. I have also requested that the management of the council ensure that they get satisfactory value and return for all money spent, while all future work practices remain up to a recognised standard, using quality material and ensuring proper road drainage is put in place.
The total neglect of our rural roads now requires urgent attention and the present scenario of drastically reduced infrastructural funding must be immediately reversed,” concluded Deputy Lowry.