03 September, 2010

Back from the Break

I'd recommend the South West for holidays. We were blessed with the weather, and had a great week west of Dingle, and another on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork with a 'staycation' week at home in the middle.

The pic shows a well-used old caravan near the beach in Allihies - a magical part of the world.

This Autumn is going to be tough. Difficult choices need to be made in Government to get us through these challenging times. The call on Anglo-Irish Bank is a difficult one. Senator Dan Boyle has said that the wind-down of the Bank needs to be quicker than ten years, but regardless of the time-frame it will put huge costs onto the tax-payer. Most commentators (including Dan O'Brien in today's Irish Times) feel that letting the Bank go the way of Lehmans would cause even greater difficulties. The heart and the head are going in different directions on this one, and we are all gritting our teeth as we consider what's the best option. At least we have the luxury of a bit more time this time round to consider these momentous decisions than we did two years ago with the Bank Guarantee scheme. It seems that everyone in Government is keen to see a solution at least cost to the tax-payer, and that's our priority over the Autumn. I'll be interested in seeing what the European Central Bank and the European Commission have to say on these issues over the month ahead. I'll also listen to the Central Bank's comments, and read the robust commentary and analysis on the Irish Economy blog.

A huge challenge over the coming months is how we close the gap between the State's income and expenditure. Either way it looks as though we have to narrow the budget gap by another three billion euro next year. An additional increase in income tax on working families would be hugely challenging, and I don't envy Brian Lenihan the task that he and his colleagues have in Cabinet to bridge the gap. I'm sure we'll have a passionate debate about these and other issues at our Parliamentary Party think-in down in Carlow in a fortnight's time.

Currently I'm trawling through the information that's coming out from the nationwide survey of ghost estates carried out by the Department of teh Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I've heard a lot of good suggestions for how we make best use of these housing assets. Certainly, it can be a selling point of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation when attracting businesses to Ireland if they could offer housing on a turn-key basis to potential employers in many areas. In addition, Third Level institutions may well be able to take advantage of this surplus to offer housing close to campus. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the surplus hotels end up as step-down accommodation for those convalescing on release from hospital, thus releasing beds for those who need them most. My colleague Minister of State Michael Finneran has been looking at how empty housing units can be used for those on local authority housing lists. However in some cases the accommodation may be unsuitable for family needs, or be in the wrong location for access to the job market. By the end of September we should have some good analysis completed, and be in a position to sit down with stakeholders and offer some positive advice on these issues. The new Planning Act will make it difficult to build housing estates for which there is no proven need, and will focus on providing good development in the right locations.

Charging for water is another hot button issue at the moment. Currently most householders pay for their water through the general taxation pool, apart from those on Group Water Schemes, or with their own well. Clearly more has to be spent on leak reduction and upgrading schemes, but there's no great incentive to conserve water. Currently in the greater Dublin area we're about to take water from the Barrow River and there are plans afoot to tap the Shannon during the Winter months and pump water to the East coast via a new Midlands reservoir on Bord na Mona lands. Would charging for excessive water use obviate the need for this? I'm not sure, but we need to concentrate people's minds on the need to use water resources wisely. If water meters can be fitted at a low enough cost, it might be a way of reducing demand and tackling those who waste water. The important issue is to make people aware that water production has a cost; to use that precious resource wisely; and to ensure that the small minority who waste water pay a real price for their squandering of the resource. There's other issues that are being worked on within the Department of the Environment at the moment, such as improving the Building Regulations to provide for water harvesting and gray water re-use, and encouraging low-flow taps that can be very effective at reducing demand. More effort is also required from local authorities to ensure that all commercial water users pay the full price for their water, and many councils need to improve their poor performance in this area.

Charging for pollution is an effective way of improving the environment. The introduction of a carbon tax at €15 a tonne has made people more aware of the need to tackle global warming. It has also taken pressure off tax hikes in other areas. Certainly the new system for car taxation has motivated people to choose lower emission vehicles when making new car purchases. Work is progressing on the Climate Change Bill that will ensure that Ireland honor its international commitments, and ensure that we're better placed for reducing emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, and its successors. Ireland can change its reputation from being an excessive emitter of carbon to capturing the early adopter gains of low-emission employment, but a more concerted effort is required across all government departments.The measures we take towards 'de-carbonising' Ireland will pay dividends in the years ahead. My hunch is that we'll get a decent-enough global agreement on tacking Climate Change at the COP 17 in South Africa at the end of 2011, rather than at the December talks in Mexico, and that countries will pay a much higher price for carbon subsequently. Those counties that face up to the climate challenge sooner will be better placed to create employment in low-carbon industries subsequently.

In the meantime, there's a stretch of railway to be re-opened between Clonsilla and Dunboyne tomorrow. This will realise real benefits for the traveling public, a good news story in these difficult times.

No comments: