Waterford TD John Deasy says there’s still significant scope for the Southeast to share in the €7.9bn Ireland Strategic Investment Fund — the bulk of which has still to be allocated.
Last week the Fund reported that it’s in advanced discussions with over 50 different investment opportunities valued at a combined €2.4bn.
It expects to put over €750m into leveraging additional projects this year and is open to all commercial ideas (see www.isif.ie). Matching private sector capital could double its total worth.
The Fund’s operators, the National Treasury Management Agency, are targeting a minimum average return of 4% from its entire investment portfolio. Commercial viability is a key prerequisite when it comes to sizing up applications.
With “economic impact” also part of its ‘double bottom line’ mandate, Deputy Deasy successfully lobbied at legislation stage to make sure the Fund accounts for where projects are delivered.
“I was concerned Dublin would dominate and so far that’s been borne out, with 47% of approved projects being based in the capital and the remainder spread around the country — two-thirds in the rest of Leinster and 18% in Munster.
“However, there’s still nearly €5.5bn of public capital to work with between now and 2020 so hopefully investors can come in with proposals that target those regions most in need of a lift.”
So far the state stimulus measure — using what was the National Pension Reserve Fund — has invested in capital development projects, finance schemes for SMEs, and recently, in conjunction with Glanbia, an offer of €100m in ‘MilkFlex’ loan supports to the dairy sector.
Deasy says: “I have already flagged with the Department of Transport the potential use some of this money to help generate new business in our regional airports and main sea ports, while still complying with EU State Aid rules.”
He added that regional requirements in the areas of broadband, seafood processing and advance infrastructure for industry would also make good use of some of this catalyst funding.
John persuades Failte Ireland to allow council pitch
Deputy John Deasy has reached agreement with Failte Ireland to allow Waterford City and County Council to make a formal presentation — including a full business case — as to why Waterford’s coastline should be included in the Wild Atlantic Way.
The Fine Gael TD held separate meetings in Dublin last week with Failte Ireland chief executive, Shaun Quinn, and CEO of the combined Waterford council, Michael Walsh.
“I’ve been dealing with this for a couple of months now,” Mr Deasy said. “I proposed to Mr Quinn that the local authority be given an opportunity to make a proper pitch as to why Waterford, being on the Atlantic seaboard, should be included in this multi-million euro tourism promotion.
“Michael Walsh has agreed to put the necessary process in train and the next step is to formulate a comprehensive presentation. It will take a few weeks to put together the business plan, which is a critical component of this.
“While there’s no guarantee Waterford’s submission will be successful, at the very least the council will have the chance to make a detailed case for inclusion. It’s up to the officials now to make the best case possible.”
Deputy Deasy stressed that “the inclusion of Waterford will have to make sense in terms of the considerable marketing plan that’s already underway. The concern already raised is that it might dilute the overall concept.”
“We have to be realistic. There are major issues to be overcome if Waterford is to be included. The most obvious problem is that it would have to comprise East Cork’s coastline as well.”
He believes one big advantage Waterford has is the location of the regional airport, which would be an ideal starting point to the tourist route for visitors from the UK and Europe.
“Having this county’s spectacular 147km of coastline as part of the Wild Atlantic Way would also help the marketing of the airport a great deal. It’s very well located and I presume the airport’s access potential will be a key selling point in the presentation the Waterford council makes to Bord Failte.”
Deputy John Deasy has told the Dáil of a 74% year-on-year increase in passenger numbers at Waterford Airport up to the end of May.
The Fine Gael TD acknowledged “the past few years have been a struggle for everyone involved, but it is fair to say that the work and patience displayed by everyone involved is paying off.”
Mr Deasy said: “I hope the figures supplied to me in respect of the first five months of this year represent a turning point. They go to show that a focused regional airport investment strategy can work and makes smart business sense.”
Flybe operates two commercial routes from Waterford — Birmingham and Manchester. Together they showed a 74% increase in passenger traffic in the first five months of this year compared with the same period in 2013, amounting to more than 12,000 individual inbound and outbound flights.
“For the life of me, I could never understand why barely a penny was invested in Waterford Airport in the years when we had money to spend on infrastructure. There were plenty of announcements by sitting ministers, but nothing happened.”
Deputy Deasy attributed this continuing “substantial increase” in passenger loads — “albeit from a very small base” — to “good marketing, an uplift in the UK economy and a determination on the part of the Minister, the Department, airport management and everyone involved to make this work.
“It is working. Slowly but surely, Waterford is proving business can be found if an airport sticks at it.”
However, he said, “This is not to say that there are no unresolved issues. Money is being raised on the ground to supplement a Government investment that I hope will continue.
“The planning process for the runway extension is nearing completion and an arbitration process will proceed within the coming months, all of which should amount to an additional 200–250m of runway.”
Also, “Talks are continuing with commercial operators regarding the restoration of the Waterford-London route” — and the verified success of the current UK services should assist with this, he said.
While the region’s local authorities are “making the airport a priority and stepping up their involvement” as well, Deputy Deasy cited the Government’s “imagination to see the possibilities and to invest in critical infrastructure when times are tough” as “the key factor.”
By contrast, while he was “not going to bash” the previous administration, “for the life of me, I could never understand why barely a penny was invested in Waterford Regional Airport in the years when we had money to spend on infrastructure. There were plenty of announcements by sitting ministers, but nothing happened.”
Deputy Deasy agreed that “When a recession bites it is even more important that a government spends its money wisely.” But the passenger growth achieved this year “demonstrates that additional capital and operational funding for Waterford and the other regional airports is smart business and is a positive for the country's economy as a whole.”
Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, has said he will review the IDA’s presence in Waterford after his Fine Gael colleague John Deasy called for a change of strategy and the re-dedication of senior staff to the southeast.
Both attended last Tuesday’s (June 10) Oireachtas jobs committee meeting, at which the Minister took general questions surrounding the proposed redundancies and cost-cutting at Bausch + Lomb.
Raising the issue of inward investment, Deputy Deasy said the situation “changed negatively” for Waterford in 1996 — at a time when Mr Bruton was enterprise minister. That year an internal IDA restructuring saw the agency’s southeast and southwest divisions amalgamated. A new southern regional director was based in Cork — the existing SW headquarters.
“At the time plenty of people, including people within Government, sounded a warning that that was going to have a detrimental effect on the city and county of Waterford, and the southeast,” Mr Deasy said.
He reminded Mr Bruton, “You were the minister at the time those warnings were given. Since then, as it’s turned out, those warnings have proven to be absolutely correct”, with over 80% of all Foreign Direct Investment “going to three particular locations — Cork, Dublin and Galway.”
Referring to the Minister’s approval in February for the appointment of 35 additional IDA staff, Mr Deasy added: “I am of the opinion at this point that there needs to be a restructuring with regard to the seniority of IDA staff when it comes to the southeast, and the situation that was in existence in 1996 when you were minister needs to be reinstated.”
Mr Bruton said: “I take the point there is a lot of criticism but on the issue of where do you put new staff ... we’re seeking to build new opportunities in new geographies and all of those 35 people are being put into overseas locations to try to win new investment.”
“But,” he told Mr Deasy, “obviously the IDA is undergoing a review of its overall strategy and its regional strategy in conjunction with my own Department, and we will look at issues that are raised here in terms of staffing at that level.”
The Minister insisted: “I’m confident the IDA, under my direction, is giving this the necessary attention it deserves ... I believe in time that those site visits and that enhanced effort will deliver results.
“This year again, through the IDA, I funded an advanced facility in Waterford; precisely because I feel we need something different in the regions to respond to the challenges that the IDA have had in getting the necessary regional spread.”
He added, “we’ll be taking a tough look at our regions, how we’re doing things, and how we can do things better. I will be reviewing, in the context of the [IDA] regional strategy, the appropriate realignment of resources to the challenges we meet.”
Irish Embassy contacts U.S. Senator after John registers his disgust at his underhand attempt to take B+L jobs
The Irish Embassy in Washington D.C. contacted a United States senator to raise concerns over his call for more than 1,100 at-risk jobs at Bausch + Lomb in Waterford to be moved to New York.
The Irish Times and Irish Examiner both reported the high-level intervention, made at the request of Waterford Government TD John Deasy.
The Irish Ambassador to the US, Anne Anderson, confirmed in a letter to the Fine Gael Deputy that, at his behest, the Embassy in Washington contacted the New York office of Democrat senator Charles ‘Chuck’ Schumer.
This followed Mr Schumer’s call for jobs at Bausch + Lomb in Waterford – currently the subject of negotiations between management and unions – to be relocated to Rochester, New York, where the company also has an operation.
Ambassador Anderson told Mr Deasy: “The Embassy has been in touch with Senator Schumer’s office to draw attention to the sensitivity of this issue, the ongoing negotiations between management, the employees and their unions, and the concern that these jobs be safeguarded in Ireland.”
Mr Schumer had revealed he had “called the CEO of [parent company] Valeant and urged him to move that work and those jobs to Rochester”.
In a press release to this effect, he also said that, after his phone call with Valeant chief executive J. Michael Pearson, he was “confident that Rochester will have a great shot at adding work and jobs from the potential closure of the Ireland plant”.
However, though Mr Pearson subsequently assured Waterford employees in a memo that Bausch + Lomb was committed to maintaining its presence in the city – provided the company got the €20million in cutbacks it wanted – Deputy Deasy was furious at Senator Schumer’s “sneaky” actions.
In a letter to the Ambassador, Mr Deasy said he found Mr Schumer’s media release “unbelievably distasteful”. Having separately condemned the Senator’s “pathetic” attempt to “impoverish” Irish workers, the Waterford Deputy suggested to the Embassy, “I think the Irish Government should express its disgust as well.”
Mr Deasy, who worked as a congressional aide on Capitol Hill before returning to pursue a career in Irish politics, said that, as a former employee of the Senate, “I never thought that a U.S. senator would act in such an underhand manner.”
He asked the Ambassador, “I would appreciate if you would communicate my disgust at the way he and his office are behaving as it pertains to the Bausch + Lomb workforce in Waterford City.”
He added: “I think the Irish Embassy should communicate to Senator Schumer that it would be better if he allowed those negotiations to conclude before issuing any press statements.”
Explaining why he took such offence, Mr Deasy said: “We all fight for our constituencies, but ringing a company CEO to impoverish Irish workers is pathetic. Senator Schumer likes to portray himself as a friend of Ireland. I hope Irish-Americans in New York get to hear about his sneakiness. He has peddled his Schumer visas for Irish people for years. Irish-American voters have just got an insight into how he works.”
Focus new stimulus package and IDA staff on most-deprived regions
Fine Gael TD John Deasy has told the Dáil that the new Ireland Strategic Investment Fund must be aimed at areas worst affected by, not just the recession, but “our evolving two-tier recovery.”
During statements on the Government’s priorities for the year ahead, the Waterford deputy warned that “undue political influence” mustn’t prevent an objective share-out of the €6.8billion stimulus package. “It cannot end up being a political pie, gobbled up by insecure politicians with one eye on a general election,” he said.
Mr Deasy declared that after three years in office, the Government’s strategy to spread jobs to the regions clearly “has not worked ... I have concluded that as long as the headline figures for the country as a whole are positive, the virtual non-existence of regional investment is considered irrelevant. There is almost a sense of resignation about the fact that so much investment – 82% – goes to Cork, Dublin and Galway and so little goes elsewhere.”
Of the 2014 Action Plan for Jobs, other than plans for a few advance manufacturing facilities (one in Waterford), he’d “heard it all before.”
In Waterford, where the unemployment rate remains at around 20%, “a downward trend is still being experienced,” he said. Any improvement in the Live Register figures needed to be seen in the context of the huge number of jobs hemorrhaged locally over the last six years, including multiple business and industry closures in the past 12 months.
Mr Deasy put forward “two specific suggestions” to address the growing geographical disparity in terms of job creation. The first being the new strategic fund, which, matched with private sector investment, could provide a national economic injection of €12–15bn.
“This is the only show in town. It is the only stimulus package the country will see for the next five or six years,” he said, insisting it “must be predominantly and proportionately invested in those parts of the country which have seen the least investment over the last ten to 15 years.”
Given the key aim of “isolating the fund from political interference”, the FG deputy insisted that policy and legislation “must guard against base political tendencies influencing how the stimulus package is divided up.”
Though focusing it on deprived regions is “reasonable logic”, he predicted it “will not make sense to some politicians who see an election on the horizon and a potential lump of money for their own constituencies.”
On the other hand, targeting areas where the economic indicators of decline are at their highest should make sense “to any government which is interested in balanced regional development.”
Mr Deasy sees the new Regional Aid guidelines for 2014–20, which are due to be published by the European Commission in July, as the ideal framework for distributing the ISIF investment.
If moves to direct aid towards those areas that need it most are not considered in forthcoming legislation governing the fund, “I will attempt to amend the Bill at the very least to highlight the scenario I have just painted,” he said.
Given there are “people at the most senior level in the IDA who believe the policy designed to attract foreign direct investment evenly across the State has failed miserably and must be re-engineered immediately”, Deputy Deasy’s second solution focused on the recent authorisation of 35 additional IDA staff.
With Waterford a notable, negative exception in terms of net IDA job creation among Irish cities last year, he looked at where the agency’s existing staff are based — including five in Waterford, 36 in Athlone, and 148 in Dublin.
Deploying the new staff coming on stream into those parts worst affected by the recession and which have seen the least amount of FDI, would be “a good start” in terms of prioritising recovery in the country as a whole, he said.
“You consistently gave assurances that you would try to bring the ARV to the lowest level in Waterford – the Dungarvan level – and you did that."
Additional rates reliefs have been included in the new Local Government Bill after Minister Phil Hogan accepted proposals by Waterford Fine Gael TD John Deasy and Labour Deputy for Dublin Mid West, Robert Dowds.
The Minister was thanked for taking the thrust of two joint-amendments they put forward and incorporating them into the new legislation as it passed through the Dáil on Wednesday. Deputy Deasy said Mr Hogan had been ‘as good as his word’ when it came to reducing commercial rate levels in Waterford.
The first change the TDs sought and secured was in respect of a planned rates refund mechanism for vacant premises. In taking their arguments on board, the Minister is to give discretion to elected councillors right across the country to allow owner/occupiers who can’t secure tenants a full rates rebate – not a maximum of 50% as the Bill originally proposed (and which is currently applied in Dublin, Cork and Limerick).
Deputy Deasy said: “The Minister accepted there are areas where there is little or no demand for commercial premises. Councillors will now have the authority to tailor vacancy refunds – from 100% down to zero – to best suit the economic circumstances in particular counties or specific municipal districts.
“While I understand how some local authority officials would have seen a need to have a deterrent to people holding onto sites, to have a blanket 50% rebate would have been madness in this economic climate.
“There is a two-tier economy in this country. In some areas, like my own homeplace of Dungarvan, it’s not a matter of choice. In many parts of Ireland owners simply can’t get tenants for commercial premises. And enabling this to be implemented on a district level will allow for the differences between rural and urban areas.”
Work of Waterford Chambers acknowledged in Dáil
The Deputies – who are colleagues on the Dáil Public Accounts Committee – also proposed an amendment dealing with the issue of outstanding rates charges being passed on to new occupiers; something the Minister was anxious about as well.
“He accepted that maintaining the status quo could give rise to an unfair burden on businesses seeking to expand, relocate or start up. In some cases the arrears on a particular premises were holding up the sale,” Mr Deasy said.
“In dealing with and introducing a reasonable variation of our amendment, he is giving city and county managers the authority to write off arrears owed by previous occupiers – meaning property that may otherwise have remained vacant can now be re-let.”
Deputy Deasy said the Minister had lived up to his word in their interactions on commercial rates over the past year. “You consistently gave assurances that you would try to bring the ARV to the lowest level in Waterford – the Dungarvan level – and you did that.
“I’d like to thank you for following through on what you said you would do... I was keeping a close eye on this situation for the past year. But you were consistent with regard to the issue, and it’s turned out to be, in the case of the city, a really excellent result when you consider ratepayers there received a reduction of 20%.”
While county rates were reduced by 5%, some people felt it unfair that the Dungarvan ARV level should remain as is. But “for the most part the feedback I’ve been getting is that they expected it to go up,” Mr Deasy said.
He told Minister Hogan: “I think it’s worth acknowledging the direction that you gave. And everyone’s taking credit for it in Waterford – councillors, officials – but you were consistent”.
This included putting more money into Waterford’s Local Government Fund allocation with a direction that it be used to reduce the rates level locally.
From the floor, Deputy Deasy also said he wanted to acknowledge “the work of Waterford City Chamber of Commerce – Nora Widger and Nick Donnelly – and Dungarvan & West Waterford Chamber of Commerce – Jenny Beresford and Collette Bannon – on this issue.”
Environment Minister Phil Hogan has intimated to John Deasy in the Dáil that business rates could be harmonised “downwards” after Waterford’s local authorities amalgamate next year.
As the new Local Government Bill passed report stage, Deputy Deasy has again argued for changes to be incorporated into the new legislation.
Referring to the harmonisation of rates across councils set to merge in 2014, the Minister suggested to Deputy Deasy that a lowering of rates in Waterford and elsewhere could occur.
“If local authorities are in a position financially to harmonise their rates in one go… we will do so,” the Minister said. “This is about harmonisation of the systems in place downwards, not upwards.
“At the end of the day, it is a matter for the elected members, who have a reserved function on this matter at budget time, to ensure that is the case,” Mr Hogan added.“Any savings that will accrue from the reforms we are undertaking should not impose any additional cost on business.”
Deputy Deasy directly raised the harmonisation issue with Mr Hogan in the Dáil last May, having first addressed it at the Public Accounts Committee a year ago when he pointed to the large variances in annual rateable valuations between the merging councils in Waterford City (€66.22) and County (€69.92), and Dungarvan Town Council (€60.37).
Minister Hogan also indicated he is willing to accept an amendment tabled by the Waterford Fine Gael TD and Dublin Labour deputy Robert Dowds to give discretion to councillors to grant either a full or 50% rebate on rates to owners of vacant business premises. The Bill originally proposed a 50% concession across councils countrywide, “which would be a mistake,” Mr Deasy said.
Another proposal that the Minister is considering is to allow city and county managers waive historical arrears tacked onto a new sale or leasehold.
Mr Hogan agreed with Deputy Dowds at committee stage that incoming businesses shouldn’t be burdened with a legacy debt not of their making, and “I’ve asked the legal people to draft up an appropriate amendment that hits the spirit of what you want.”
A third Deasy/Dowds proposal, namely, a transitional relief scheme that would spread out revaluation increases by rating authorities over three years, is being “constructively” considered by Government officials.
Fine Gael TD John Deasy and Labour Deputy Robert Dowds – both members of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee – are working on proposed changes to new legislation which would allow commercial rates increases to be spread out over a number of years, and alter the planned rates refund mechanism for vacant premises.
The Local Government Bill 2013 was published by Environment Minister Phil Hogan last week, setting down a legislative framework for the new local authority structures being introduced next summer.
One aspect of the Bill relates to how councils deal with commercial rates. However, Deputies Deasy and Dowds – a TD for Dublin Mid-West – are concerned that it doesn‟t take the current Valuation Office review of rental values, nor local economic circumstances, into account.
Consequently, they are planning to submit joint amendments to the Bill when it goes to report stage in the Dáil in the coming weeks.
Mr Deasy said: “For the past number of months I've been highlighting the potentially crippling impact the current revaluation process underway in Waterford – and parts of Dublin – would have. It particularly affects the retail sector, where most businesses locally are facing a significant upward adjustment of their rates bill; a hike of up to 300% in some cases.”
While the Bill provides for phasing in the effects of rates “harmonisation” – i.e. where different local authority areas with different Annual Rateable Valuations will be merged – the proposed legislation doesn't factor in the damaging impact a sudden revaluation hike would have.
Deputy Dowds said: “Even though the Valuation Amendment Bill has been introduced in the Oireachtas and provides for a new system of self-assessment of commercial rates, there needs to be a provision which allows for regular reviews on a statutory basis so that businesses can budget accordingly.”
Mr Deasy added: “What we are looking at is a way of giving councils powers whereby the elected members can decide to allow businesses whose rates bill is being increased as a result of revaluation to spread the 'hit' over a number of years.
“The Bill as published would abolish the refund regime entitling owners of vacant commercial properties to a 100% refund of their commercial rates liability in certain parts of the country. In many cases businesses would not be able to afford that refund regime changing in any respect.
“Once the Minister has given his response in this week‟s second stage debate, we will consider how best amendments might be framed to ease the burden on businesses as much as possible.”
Deputy John Deasy says the Government’s decision to release funding to allow for a limited but vital runway extension at Waterford Airport is a “very significant” breakthrough.
Having been working to secure this investment for a number of months, dealing directly with Transport Minister Leo Varadkar, the Waterford Fine Gael TD had argued that a relatively modest outlay by the state could yield major benefits for the region’s economy.
The same capital expenditure grant of €405,000 was originally approved in late 2011 only to be frozen after Aer Arann’s decision to pull out of Waterford from January this year. Following a meeting with the airport board late last month, the Minister – despite the instability within the aviation industry – has now given Waterford Co Council the go-ahead to CPO the required 18 acres of land.
With the agreement being dependent on a contribution from a number of companies, along with local authorities, in the region, “In committing this funding I think the Department feels relatively happy with the private sector involvement in meeting the balance of the project cost, including laying the new stretch of runway,” Deputy Deasy says.
“There’s also an acknowledgement that the people who have worked at Waterford Airport for the past four years have used every cent to try to pave the way for additional expansion to bring in different kinds of jet aircraft, including small jets, and to connect to London in particular.”
“Psychologically it’s very important that we move to ensure that the airport is viable going into the next five or 10 years at the very least."
The additional lands are also needed to comply with international safety standards, including the provision of a runway end safety area. The 150m runway extension itself will, Deputy Deasy expects, “greatly improve the prospects of attracting a carrier to operate the Waterford–Luton service.”
Applauding the airport’s proactive approach despite the challenges it has faced in recent times, Mr Deasy added: “I don’t think there’s anyone in Waterford or the South East who doesn’t realise how critical this piece of infrastructure is for the region, for the city, for the county – an area that is suffering very badly.
“Psychologically it’s very important that we move to ensure that the airport is viable going into the next five or 10 years at the very least. Direct air access to our biggest trading partner is extremely important, and Waterford Airport supports considerable direct and indirect employment – not least in terms of tourism, which accounted for over half the inbound traffic from the Luton route.”
Now, after what’s been a lengthy process of negotiation, Deputy Deasy hopes things can progress swiftly, with a CPO operative and the contracts already agreed. Though the transfer of lands to the Airport will require a Section 183 Resolution by Co Councillors, officials believe this will not be a problem and that work can commence within a matter of months.