Covid-19 and Government Formation

After a very difficult week I’m on the train back to Limerick and have time to write an update on what has been going on in the government formation talks and the Covid-19 crisis. I’ve been in Dublin mostly since the election. Initially this was to take part in the exploratory talks with other parties. That went on for two weeks and was a fruitful exchange of policies and ideas. I was primarily involved in discussions about energy, transport and reform of local government. But also on housing, planning, retrofitting, regenerating rural Ireland and development of Limerick and the other regional cities. By the end of last week, as this phase came to an end, we still had an open mind about what might come next. Our over-arching ask for entering government was that a programme would be put together so that Ireland would reduce its carbon emissions by 7% each year up to 2030. This is the level of action that the EU and UN have said is required to keep within the bounds of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature levels to between 1.5 and 2.0 degree celsius over the pre-industrial average. We said to all the parties that this would not be easy, but there were many ways in which it could be done. It was going to take time and a lot of research to figure out what exactly was the right way to go about achieving this reduction. For most of us in the Green Party – being new to national politics – this was an intense period, but we felt we were well able to deal with our counterparts across the political divide. All parties seemed to agree that if further talks did take place it would be Easter by the time there could be an agreement.

This week would likely have seen an escalation of talks, but on Monday doctors and epidemiologists began to get in touch expressing deep concern about how the Covid-19 crisis was being handled. What we learned was alarming. I had heard enough that I felt the schools and universities should have been closed on Tuesday, and that an almost complete lockdown of our country would be required in order to save many lives. By Wednesday it became clear that meaningful programme for government negotiations would have to be suspended. There was no way we could have gone into detailed discussions about long term issues, which we feel are very important, while people were being infected, families suffering and our hospitals overwhelmed. Following a somewhat solemn parliamentary party meeting, where all members spoke their minds, we agreed to call for the immediate suspension of talks and for the parties to work together and devote all their energies to dealing with the imminent crisis. I was surprised when I learned that the Taoiseach flew to the United States later on Wednesday. If it was clear to us what was happening, how was it not clear to the Taoiseach? We called for a National Government to quickly be put in place to handle the crisis. The devastation that is facing our society is so great that only a unified approach is appropriate. The media fixated on the idea of national government rather than our reasons for calling for it. Were we excluding ourselves from talks? Would we still speak with Fianna Fáil? Perhaps they didn’t quite get it either.

Leinster House was very quiet today. Myself and Thomas stayed to continue ironing out the detail of what would be required if we do find ourselves in talks for programme for government next week. Although Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil eventually agreed to suspend talks yesterday, Fianna Fáil are now saying they want them to resume next week. It is difficult to understand this decision. By the end of next week there will certainly be hundreds of positive cases of Covid-19. Many people, especially lower paid workers in the service industry, will be laid off with no income stream. Our hospitals and our public services will be straining under the burden of the crisis. How can negotiations take place in this environment? We have a moral duty to protect our most vulnerable and our society, and hastily advancing programme for government negotiations and changing cabinet roles is certainly not the way to do it.

I’m arriving back, on an almost empty train, to a Limerick that no doubt looks the same as the city I left on Tuesday morning last. But life here will change in the coming weeks. We may see friends and loved ones stricken with the virus. Many people will lose their jobs. Businesses will be brought to the brink, and beyond. And when the virus does pass through, it will take time and hard work to get ourselves back to where we were. For now, let’s look after each other, heed the advice of public health officials, and support those who are on the front line and those who are being impacted by the crisis. If I can help please do get in touch.

Press Release: Saša Novak Uí Conchúir selected as replacement for Brian Leddin TD on Limerick Council

Members of the Green Party have voted to nominate Saša Novak Uí Chonchúir as the replacement for Brian Leddin TD on Limerick City and County Council. Saša Novak Uí Chonchúir lives in Mayorstone with her husband Eoin and children Liam and Fionn. She holds a degree in Political Science and a Masters in Human Resource Management. 

The new TD noted “I’m delighted that Saša will be the new Green Party councillor for Limerick City North. She is active in the Mayorstone Community and has been involved in many community activities including the Mayorstone Residents Association and Shelbourne Junior Park Run. Limerick City North will have an excellent new Councillor.”

Ms Novak Uí Chonchúir noted “I’m delighted to accept the nomination of my fellow Green Party members to replace Limerick’s first Green Councillor as we celebrate his promotion to the Dáil. I will be focusing on working as hard as I can for the voters of Limerick City North.“

A special meeting of Limerick City and County Council will take place this Friday to appoint councillors to replace Brian Leddin TD and Richard O’Donoghue TD. The appointment of Saša concludes a historic twelve months for the Green Party in Limerick, which saw successful Council, Dáil and European elections for the branch. 

Education and an evidence-based approach

With the launch of the Green Party manifesto, one item got considerable media coverage: “Exploring the phasing out of homework in primary schools”. Although the party manifesto does not commit to banishing homework, simply asking for an exploration of the idea, it got a lot of attention. The evidence for and against homework in educational research is mixed: the best summary from the research I’ve read seems to say that although there is a correlation between whether homework is completed and educational outcomes, this correlation is quite weak for primary school age children, especially in younger classes. A primary school in Rathfarnham which trialled a ‘no homework’ programme for all classes except sixth has received positive feedback.

There is evidence from other countries too: Finland is renowned as having one of the best primary education systems in the world, yet according to the OECD, students in Finland have the least amount of outside work and homework than any other student in the world.

The important issue is not necessarily about whether we should do away with homework, but the need to follow evidence-based policy in all areas of government. The Citizens Assembly model has worked successfully in Ireland for policy areas which needs a consideration of a wide range of research perspectives. The Green Party has proposed a Citizens Assembly for education to re-evaluate the outcomes of education and the necessity for structural changes at all levels in our education system.

While there are some longer-term changes that are needed to our education system, there are also actions that we can take relatively quickly: reducing pupil-to-teacher ratios at first and second level with a particular focus on DEIS schools, funding third level and further education, funding Special Needs Assistants, and ensuring that students’ ethnicity and religion (or non-religion) are not barriers to their enrolment and participation in school, to name but a few.

Rural Public Transport

As we seek to strengthen our rural towns and villages, we need to better provision them with public transport to give people an alternative to accessing employment, education and public services without needing to use the private car.

If you take the rural areas of the Limerick City constituency: Murroe has only two buses a day, Caherconlish has three, Newport has five, Montpelier has two. Many villages have a skeleton Saturday service and no Sunday service. This has an impact on rural isolation, especially for elderly and younger people who cannot drive.

There have been many studies on public transport in rural areas, and while there will be a continued role for ‘on demand’ and semi-timetabled public transport services to help people without a car to attend appointments and go on shopping trips, I would like to see expansion of rural bus services to at least six services a day, two of which should facilitate commuting in or out of towns and villages (businesses will be more encouraged to locate in rural areas if staff can easily commute into those areas, people commuting into Limerick City need an alternative). We need to make sure that these services connect into an integrated network in the city, so people can conveniently access bus and rail services to take them elsewhere.

An example of this is the recently launched Local Link service from Thurles railway station to Limerick via Newport, UL and Castletroy. This service operates three times a day under contract from the National Transport Authority. We need to expand these services significantly to cover all towns and villages and provide a real alternative to the private car.

Together with a policy of encouraging compact growth in our villages, this will allow our rural areas to grow, thrive, and become more sustainable.

People need to be at the heart of Urban Strategy

After a decade of under investment in our public realm, Limerick City centre is in need of modernisation and rejuvenation. We are now being given the chance to build Limerick city as a truly sustainable city. We can harness this as a moment for considered long term planning in how we want our city to develop. We need to start planning for the city we want Limerick to be in 25, 50 and even 100 years from now. We can start today to build the infrastructure that will Limerick will need to be a sustainable city. The city needs an overhaul of public transport for people know they can rely on a service that is efficient and affordable, and can get them to all parts of the city without stress or delay.

A strong Limerick city is built on strong social ties and communities. We need to build a city that prioritises social connection, that allows Limerick people interact with each other in a pleasant and healthy city centre. The best social places work when you interact with your community without realising you are doing so, where it is natural to share a conversation or a joke with a neighbour without worrying about traffic or noise.

Before we can start such an overhaul of our city centre, we need to decide on where and how the city will grow for the next generation. The city should not repeat the mistakes of other cities across Europe, which were allowed to sprawl without thought for the consequences of such sprawl. People want to live in strong vibrant communities and we know that unthinking sprawl has been detrimental to communities across Europe. It is hard to know your neighbour when you do not have the time to spend getting to know them because you spend too long in traffic or because your local street is an unpleasant place to stroll around. When we talk about Limerick city, we mean a city all of us calls and considers home, in the best sense. We can learn from other cities on how Limerick can build on its already strong communities into an even better city to live in.

A well-planned city will encourage investment and jobs.  It will help drive balanced economic growth. Limerick, and other major cities such as Cork, Waterford and Galway can then provide a counterbalance to Dublin, which is over-heating.

I recently called for Limerick city to adopt a “Tall Buildings Strategy” so Limerick can plan for future developments. We should embrace proper planning of our city to ensure that it is a pleasant place to live, work and visit. We should be ambitious in our plans. I do not see any reason why we cannot preserve the best parts of our heritage while modernising our city. I believe we have the ability and the capacity to rejuvenate Limerick without losing the remnants of medieval and Georgian Limerick. However, if we are to do so, we will need to plan to do so. We will need investment, we will need support from the Government. A vote for the Green Party is a vote not just for this generation who live in and love Limerick, but for those generations who will come after us. We want to be able to say we left them a legacy that we and they can be proud of.

Public & Active Transport

Why invest in public and active transport?

I believe that transport is a force multiplier for society. Transport connects us, it helps us access employment opportunities and it connects communities. We need transport to access healthcare, to visit friends, to interview for a new job, to do anything outside our home.

I am passionate about  developing our regional cities: with focus and effort we can make Galway, Cork, Waterford and especially Limerick engines for growth in our economy. Dublin and the Mid-East region is at breaking point, rents in the city are unaffordable for most, and families are enduring longer and longer car commutes in gridlock despite money being poured into the capital’s road network.

We need to make sure we don’t make the same mistake in the regions.

Growth in the regions needs quality efficient public transport. We need buses and trains that serve rural and urban communities, that reliably, efficiently and comfortably connect where people live to jobs and public services. If we do, we can set ourselves up to grow without the negative effects seen in Dublin. Better public transport will benefit all areas of society, especially people who cannot drive because of income, age or disability.

Active transport is the other part of the puzzle, many trips are under 5km and could be much more pleasant if good facilities were provided. Active travel is critically important from a public health perspective – studies show that having 20mins of exercise a day has a measurable impact on rates of cancer, diabetes, and other conditions. Many of us have happy memories walking or cycling to school but sadly that experience is not available to many young people today, because the roads simply aren’t safe or attractive, resulting in familiar gridlock at back-to-school time. Quality infrastructure where walkers and cyclists are protected from traffic are needed to get active travel levels up to European norms.

This is why I believe we need to allocate much of our transport budget to public and active transport. It will reverse the ‘more roads and more cars’ mistakes of the past. I believe Limerick and the other regional cities can compete for private investment against other cities in Europe, but only if we can develop a transport system that makes living here more attractive.

Of course transport services are only part of the picture. We need to make sure that the new housing we build is compact and accessible. Proper planning is needed so that we build homes where people can easily and efficiently get to where they want to go. This is not just for our cities: we need compact towns and villages in rural areas to make sure we can efficiently serve everyone with the transport services that they deserve.

Retail in the City

Any discussion on the fortunes of retail in Limerick merits some context. In the last five decades Limerick has allowed itself to sprawl outwards by permitting the construction of large suburban residential areas, such as Castletroy, Annacotty, Caherdavin, Moyross, Westbury, Southill and Raheen. A number of large institutions, such as the university and the hospital and large industrial estates were also built on the periphery. And of course shopping centres too. These were planning decisions that led, over time, to the people and their wealth moving from the centre to the outer edges. In the past when living in or near the city people would have walked or cycled in to town and done their shopping, but that all changed from the 1960’s onwards. Society became more suburbanised and more car oriented and with the advent of shopping centres the city centre became less important and also less appealing, and went into decline. If you lived in Castletroy, Raheen or Caherdavin you’d be less inclined to sit in traffic in order to do your shopping in the city centre when you could go to the Crescent, the Parkway or Jetland, for example. The phenomenon is not unique to Limerick. Thousands of cities around the world have followed a similar path and are trying to undo the damage and chart a better way forward.

The development of suburban Limerick would not have had such a detrimental effect if the city got the transport planning right. But it didn’t. Fundamentally, transport planning in Limerick was (and still is) all about deference to the private car above all else. And that simply doesn’t work very well. It means you have to build big (expensive) roads to carry a lot of cars but you’re still trying to funnel them all into a small, medieval and Georgian city centre. For the space that they take up in our cities cars are the worst mode of transport for enabling the movement of large numbers of people. It makes far more sense to build infrastructure to facilitate busses or bikes, because that allows many more people to access the city centre than would be possible by prioritising cars. In other words, by prioritising cars we’re effectively limiting footfall.

We can’t turn back the clock but we can make make good decisions now to revitalise the city centre. Getting the transport planning right is key. The car has been given priority for a long time, but that day should be over if we want to see Limerick city centre survive and thrive. On the access routes, in some places, we are likely to need to take the space away from cars and instead install bus and bike infrastructure. In the centre itself we must do away with on-street parking and use that space better. Wider footpaths, landscaping, street art and furniture would all be better uses for the space because they make the streets more attractive to be in.
We also must incentivise and enable living in the city centre, not just travelling to and from it, because it’s the people who live in it will be the main source of footfall that will sustain local businesses. The principle of ‘compact growth’ underpins good planning. We should want as many people as possible living comfortably in good accommodation in a small area so that they can get around easily (without cars) and so that they are numerous enough to sustain a vibrant local economy. We have to look at where people could live in large numbers in or near the city centre, and we have to make living in the city attractive to people. There’s a number of facets to that, of course. One of them is to create a pleasant and appealing urban environment, so again it’s about reducing the car dominance and all the negatives that go with it. People are much more likely to want to spend time in a city with clean air, less noise, less danger from traffic, more landscaping, better walking and cycling facilities, leisure amenities, etc.

On the question of why family owned businesses are in decline versus the large chains, I would ask if we have good data on that in Limerick. We have anecdotal evidence, but we need hard data to draw firm conclusions. While some businesses are closing others are opening. There are certainly many factors at play. One thing is certain is that the nature of retail is changing and especially so in city centres. Many goods and services are purchased online now, if not in the out of town retail parks. It’s a challenge for any business. Should we resist the change or embrace it? I’ve no doubt that there is opportunity there for both the big chains and locally owned businesses, but they will have to adapt. And the Council should certainly support our local entrepreneurs as much as possible. Research consistently shows a strong link between the presence of locally owned businesses and higher rates of job creation, less income inequality and stronger social networks, so we have every reason to get behind this sector.

East Limerick Greenway

I was happy to receive broad support for my motion asking for Limerick City & County Council to develop a greenway from the city towards Cahir in Tipperary. The idea is that this would link up with the Suir Blueway, which runs from Cahir to Carrick-on-Suir. The “East Limerick Greenway” would play a major part in connecting Limerick with the Southeast of Ireland. Speakers enthusiastically in favor were Councillors Eddie Ryan (FF), Jerome Scanlan (FG), Martin Ryan (FF), Conor Sheehan (Lab), Olivia O’Sullivan (FG), and I hope to work with them in the coming months to develop the plan.

Greenways can be a very significant economic driver for rural areas. We can see this in Mayo and Waterford particularly, where hundreds of jobs have been created and many millions invested in the rural economy. The Great Southern Greenway, towards the west of County Limerick is a fantastic amenity, and it should be connected with Limerick City and with the large towns of County Kerry in time, but we should get the ball rolling on a route from Limerick City towards Tipperary too. The province of Munster has among the most picturesque rolling landscapes in Ireland and I have no doubt that if a route is developed that can enable cycling tourists, both from within Ireland and overseas visitors, to travel across the Golden Vale from Waterford to Clare, they will come in their tens of thousands and breathe new life into our rural towns and villages.

Affordable Purchase Scheme

This scheme applies to ‘affordable’ homes built on publicly owned, i.e. Council lands.

It is designed to appeal to low and middle income households. Single applicants or couples can apply to purchase one of these and if successful the local authority will provide 40% of the purchase cost.

It’s obviously quite an attractive offer, so how does one qualify? There are certain criteria which must be met in the first instance.

  • the combined income of the household must be no more than €70k, or €50k in the case of a single applicant.
  • the applicant(s) must have already secured mortgage approval.
  • the applicant(s) must have been living within the local authority area for at least the preceding 12 months.
  • the applicant(s) must suit the house that is on offer, i.e. a three person household is suited to a two bedroomed house, a four person household is suited to a three bedroom house.

Each local authority, via its elected members, can set further criteria.

  • the applicant(s) must have a child in a primary school within certain radius of the property.
  • or the applicant(s) must have a child in a secondary school within a certain radius of the property.
  • or the applicant(s) must have a child in a third level institution within a certain radius of the property.
  • or the applicant(s)’s place of work must be within a certain radius of the property.

It is a reserved function of the councillors to define these distances. And this is what we did today.

Obviously, having wider bands for the distance criteria renders them meaningless. Effectively, a large radius means that the proximity of the house to your children’s school or its proximity your place of work doesn’t give you an advantage in securing the affordable home over those whose kids are in a school at the other side of town, or whose job is a long commute away.

It is tempting to cast the net wide and not rule anybody out. But where does that leave us? It raises the prospect of having a very large amount of eligible applicants for a small number of affordable homes. Those who satisfy the basic criteria have as much chance as those who have children in a local school or whose job is nearby. And ultimately the decision as to who gets the house, and the 40% support will be made on a first come, first served basis.

It means that if an affordable home becomes available in Adare, then applicants from Limerick City whose child is in a city centre school and whose place of work is in Shannon will be just as eligible for the home as the family who is from Adare, whose child is in the local school and who works in the village.

We set these distance criteria today, and it appears that we set them to be tighter than any other local authority in Ireland. After much discussion we decided that, all other criteria being met, if your child is in a primary school 15km from the home you qualify. If your child is in a secondary school 20km from the home, you qualify. If you have a son or daughter travelling up to 120km daily to a third level institution from the home, you qualify. And if your workplace is 150km from the home, you qualify.

It remains to be seen how this works in practice, but I can see two problems arising. Firstly, as mentioned above, if there are too few homes then we have created a situation where a lot of applicants are eligible for those, and the first come, first served criteria kicks in. That’s really not a good way to decide eligibility. It also means that we are reinforcing some very negative patterns that have developed in Ireland in recent decades. We have an opportunity to disincentivise parents from sending their children to schools far from where they live, and that is a good thing to do for all kinds of social, economic, and environmental reasons.

As it happens, the first sites to come on offer are in Adare and we’ll see how it plays out. At any time the Council can revise the distance criteria and we may have to do just that.

Moneypoint

Combustion of coal at Moneypoint is to end by 2025. From an emissions point of view, this is to be welcomed, and by right it should be happening sooner.

However, while the station has been a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it has also significantly contributed to our power generation needs and the economy of County Clare and therefore to the livelihoods of many thousands of people who live there.

While it is clear that we must stop burning coal in Moneypoint, it is equally clear that we need new generation capacity and we also must protect the workers and the economy of Clare.

Moneypoint has excellent infrastructure. Ireland has only two 400kVA transmission lines. Both begin in Moneypoint.

That suggests it still could have a major future in power generation. This is especially important as Ireland moves towards an increasingly electric economy. Currently, oil and gas are the fuel sources for home heating and transport, but in the coming years electricity will power both these sectors to a far greater degree. There is no doubt that we are going to need to generate a lot more electricity than we currently do, and it must be electricity that has zero or near zero emissions.

A question worth considering is what kind of power generation facility could be located at Moneypoint. We are quickly moving away from coal, peat and oil-fired power generation, but combustion of methane, commonly known as natural gas, also has large CO2 emmissions and we should not be switching to that either. Biomass power plant could be a possibility and some would argue that the deep water berth enhances its potential at Moneypoint. But there is a huge embedded energy and emissions cost in importing biomass from overseas. Recently we have seen An Bord Pleanála shoot down similar proposals for the ailing peat-fired power stations in the Midlands.

A developing technology is hydrogen power generation plant. Large scale projects are being trialled overseas. We could be considering the same in Moneypoint. The basic principle is that hydrogen is created using water and electricity, via the electrolysis process. It can be stored in liquid form and at some future point changed back to electricity (and water) via a turbine and generator.

One of the limitations of some renewable energy technologies, particularly wind and solar power, is that we might not need it at the specific time it’s generated, and traditionally we had no way of storing it. It’s been a case of use it or lose it, and that has been a disincentive to widespread roll out of these forms of renewable energy plant. But hydrogen could be used as a medium for storing great quantities of renewable electricity. Perhaps there is a scenario where very large offshore wind farms and land-based solar farms would send power to Moneypoint, where hydrogen is produced, and in turn used to generate electricity, as it’s needed by the national grid. Or perhaps, in order to mitigate transmission losses, hydrogen would be generated offshore and shipped to a terminal and power generation facility at Moneypoint.

No matter how we harness energy, the conversion of it from one form to another inevitably involves losses and these proposals would be no different. Ultimately the case for renewable energy paired with hydrogen would be political and economic rather than technical, and it is worth examining, especially if it could allow us to dramatically reduce emissions from power generation.

Hydrogen is also likely to be an important fuel in transport. There are lots of trials into hydrogen fuelled vehicles, particularly busses and trains, but also cars. Some breakthroughs recently suggest that the future of shipping may be powered by hydrogen. Could the west of Ireland, with its vast renewable resource, be home to a major hydrogen production and export facility?

To consider further prospects for Moneypoint, whether linked with hydrogen or not, there are certainly opportunities in the offshore wind sector. Currently, all proposals to harness this abundant resource are to develop projects in the relatively calmer and shallower waters off the east coast. But advances are being made in the durability of offshore wind technology and the Atlantic coast presents a major opportunity for Ireland.

With its deep water berth, could Moneypoint become a base for offshore wind deployment or as a hub for maintenance and repair of turbines? Or has it a future in wind turbine manufacturing? It is argued that as an island nation, without the necessary industrial base and supply chains it makes more sense to import our wind technology. But in an era of wind becoming a major part of the energy mix in Ireland and internationally, should we be reconsidering this position? We have a choice now of letting the Danes and the Germans dominate this lucrative sector, or we can begin to look at doing it in Ireland with a view to developing a healthy and profitable sector in the coming decades. With its long jetty lending itself to blade construction and transport, Moneypoint may be the place to do it.

We can and should be hopeful for Moneypoint, but we must also make courageous decisions to help it transition to a clean, rewarding future. Nearly a century ago, with the development of the Ardnacrusha power station at the other side of the county, some visionary politicians and engineers set County Clare as the stage for one one of the greatest achievements of the new nation. Might Clare once again be the backdrop for the great, new challenge we face?