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.”
“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.”
::: Brendan Howlin: message
The Fine Gael Parliamentary Party has unanimously supported a motion by Waterford’s John Deasy requesting that the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform conduct an analysis of the potential impact substantial increases in commercial rates may have on struggling businesses.
The proposal, tabled in the context of the ongoing revaluation process, was passed at Wednesday night’s (July 3) meeting of TDs and Senators in Leinster House.
Deputy Deasy, who has alerted cabinet colleagues to the precarious position on the ground, says the message to Minister Brendan Howlin couldn’t be clearer – and insists the prospect of pushing businesses beyond breaking point can’t be ignored any longer by Government.
“We can’t sit back and allow businesses go to the wall because of rateable valuation increases introduced on our watch,” Mr Deasy said afterwards.
“There are countless examples of how this is affecting retailers in my home town of Dungarvan – a situation mirrored elsewhere in Waterford, not least in the city.
“You’re talking about petrol stations needing an annual turnover of around €1.3 million just to remain viable – or a newsagent needing to put €1.2m through the tills just to cover its €50,000 rates bill. It’s simply unsustainable.”
Deputy Deasy added: “There’s new legislation due to come before the Dáil later this year that will pave the way for self-assessment and hopefully a fairer system that reflects business realities. I’ve already called on the Taoiseach to have the Valuation (Amendment) Bill, 2012 expedited through the Oireachtas.
“In the meantime, given the knock-on effects this revaluation process will have in terms of a lower tax take, and unemployment benefit payments, in my view the Department is now obliged to examine the consequences of the current valuation review at both a micro and macro level.”