Sunday, September 26, 2010

To privatise or not to privatise?

Waterford City Council management are currently looking at all options in relation to its waste collection service including privatisation. While no decision has been made it is clear that privatisation is a real option. The council management are tendering for professional legal and financial services so as to advise on the full implications of ceasing waste collection services. A full asset valuation is being sought so as to value the council’s current customer base.

Ever since waste charges were introduced privatisation was on the cards. Charges led to a private collector entering the market competing with the city council. In 2007 the city council had 16,635 customers while today it has 11,300. The cost of disposing of waste has increased dramatically with the current landfill levy standing at €50 per tonne up from €15 a Tonne in 2008. It is expected to climb as high as €75 a tonne by 2012. A new national waste policy, the introduction of VAT at 13.5% and the prospect of a second private operator entering the market makes it more costly to continue to provide the service.

I have already put my cards on the table. I have told the City Manager I will not support the council privatising the service. Despite leaking householders to a private operator we still have a very loyal customer base. Waterford City Council has provided a high quality service for decades providing good and sustainable employment. We also have 4,400 people in the city who avail of the waiver and these people need to be protected. The best way to do this is for the council to maintain the service.

The council staying in the game will not be easy. Tough decisions will have to be made. Sitting on the sidelines and blaming others will not save the service. I will do my utmost to protect the council service. I would appeal to those who avail of the councils service to make their voices heard. If you want the service to continue – contact your local public representative and contact the city council directly. The council management must exhaust all options before going for the nuclear option. This must involve consulting and engaging with its customers. Privatising the service is not inevitable and must not be seen as such by the city council management.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Regeneration – opportunities for growth

Today I attended a Waterford conference titled Regeneration – opportunities for growth. The conference discussed a diverse range of topics such as the power of collaboration, revitalising the city and looking at opportunities for growth with a clear focus on regeneration. We heard from speakers from Norwich in the UK and Derry City in the North.

  The synergies between Norwich, Derry and Waterford are interesting. They are all medieval walled cities with a strong heritage. The similarities between Derry and Waterford are striking. There is a real case to be made for Waterford to twin with Derry. The speaker from Derry was Dr. Aideen McGinley who has been hugely instrumental in the rejuvenation of Derry. She was part of a team who devised a comprehensive development plan for Derry titled One City – One Plan – One voice.

Waterford City is undergoing significant regeneration. The development of the Viking Triangle, the prominence of the House of Waterford Crystal and the rejuvenation of our quays are all wonderful propositions. The city has upped its game on festivals and as the recent harvest festival showed this is already paying dividends. The tourism product is being developed further and this will yield significant benefits to the city.

We now need to look at other key opportunities for growth. We still have over 14,500 people in Waterford out of work. We need to play to our strengths and plan for the jobs of tomorrow. If we fail to plan we will fail to deliver. Waterford has obvious strengths in the tourism, pharmaceutical, science and I.T. sectors. We need to develop these further. I also believe there are opportunities in eco-innovation, the Green economy, eco-tourism and the digital media sector. Interestingly these are sectors Derry has also earmarked as potential growth areas.

We need to ask ourselves – are we getting enough in these key areas? Is there potential for growth? Are we getting the desired outcomes from the significant investment made in research and development at Waterford Institute of Technology? Are we creating the enterprise opportunities our social, educational and physical infrastructure merit? These are important questions that we need to address.

We must also avoid putting all our eggs in one basket. The continued attraction of foreign direct investment is important but realistically growth will emerge in indigenous micro enterprises. The green economy and digital media sectors provide realistic opportunities here as does tourism (including eco-tourism) and food and crafts. Waterford has a lot to offer and a lot is happening. However we need to do more as we still have far too many people out of work.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Heroin - a deadly and destructive drug

Tonight I attended a meeting organised by a community based drug initiative in the city about the challenges of heroin use. The meeting was primarily about raising awareness and the auditorium at Waterford Institute of Technology was packed to the rafters.

The main speaker was Rachael Keogh. Rachael’s story made national news when in 2006 she escaped Garda custody after being arrested in connection with shoplifting and in a desperate plea for help allowed horrific photos of her arms to be published. This was the start of a remarkable journey and her story is one of bravery, courage and inspiration.

We watched a TV documentary of her long road to recovery. As she spoke elegantly and honestly about her own personal battle, what struck me most was her change in language as she shifted from one stage of her recovery to another. As she desperately posed for photographers and faced amputation of both arms she spoke of her fears, of not wanting to do drugs, of her morals going out the window and of being better off dead. She had reached rock bottom.

When she started on her road to recovery her language became more positive. She talked about taking one day at a time, of needing to keep herself safe, of choosing life or death and of not being able to do it on her own. Her first step was to be weaned off heroin through methadone. She received on-going treatment and counselling services. At the end she spoke about how looking back at the past was like looking at a different person. She now believes she can do anything she puts her mind to. And I have no doubt that she can.

The other interesting aspect of her story was how it all started. She began by smoking hash. At the start she saw it as a laugh and some harmless fun. She enjoyed it and she felt great. She progressed from hash, to acid to E’s to cocaine and eventually heroin. It is then she became secretive and began to beg, borrow and steal to fund her habit. Her friends told her she would end up a wasted junkie but she ignored their concerns. She felt in control but also driven by the drug. In the end she was crippled with anger and hated everyone. She was trapped and firmly in the grip of a deadly and destructive drug.

Her story is an inspiration. It is harrowing, emotive, challenging but at all times honest and truthful. It is also a wake up call. We need to learn from the experience of people like Rachael. The heroin battle is a complex one that requires multiples responses. It presents a whole new set of challenges to the user, their families and agencies. It also presents challenges to communities. One of the lessons we need to learn from Rachael’s experience is that the community also have a role to play. Communities need to be positive, constructive and open to ensuring services are available and accessible to users and that we are there to help. Rachael is a living example of this

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The show must go on...

I attended a regional conference organised by the Enterprise Boards in the South East today for women in Business. Some would say I was going into the lions den. I found it to be an enthralling conference full of enthusiasm and optimism. The panel of speakers included women who are proven entrepreneurs and the best at what they do. The contributions were of the highest quality with an excellent opening address by the Mayor of Waterford Cllr Mary Roche.

What was most impressive was the positive nature of the gathering and the energy and enthusiasm of the delegates. One of the main speakers was Sean Gallagher of Dragons Den fame. He gave a powerful speech about the future of the Irish economy and the opportunities open to us. He spoke about the need for positivity, confidence and leadership in business, communities and politics. He said now is the time for people to lead from the front. I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly. Now more than ever we need civic leaders stepping up to the plate, be they entrepreneurs, employee representatives or community leaders.

His speech got me thinking. We have a dearth of leadership at national level from our Government. They are hanging on to power by their fingertips, doing more damage to themselves and the country as they do. I think one of the biggest failures of this Government is their distance from where ordinary people are at. They have lost touch with reality and seem to live in a bubble. They see people as being there to serve them instead of them serving the people. They have forgotten what politics is really about – public service.

Most of the conference speakers spoke about the need to have a plan and a strategy. To succeed in business you have to have a plan and a strategy on how to get there. Hope is no substitute for a strategy. The same goes for running the country. Hoping the problems will go away is not good enough. We need a strategy out of recession and into recovery. We need real leadership.

On a visit to Waterford last week Martin McGuinness spoke about his optimism about the future and the ability of the people of this country. We are in the midst of a bad recession but as the Mayor of Waterford reminded us – there is no recession of the mind. If you could bottle the enthusiasm, energy and confidence of the women at today’s event and bring it into every boardroom and our national cabinet Ireland would no longer be in recession. As the theme of the conference proclaimed, despite our problems – the show must go on.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Are we missing the real scandal?

I did not hear live coverage of the now infamous Morning Ireland interview with Taoiseach Brian Cowen. As the morning progressed I listened to news bulletins on various radio stations talking about the interview. Simon Coveney’s tweet set the story on fire. Within minutes the news went viral and was carried around the world. Like it or not – the International story was one of a drunk leader in charge of a sinking country. Not a pretty picture.

I listened to a podcast of the interview several times. My first impression was that it was not as bad as it was made out to be. The Taoiseach was hoarse and probably a little hung over but in my opinion not drunk. He was certainly incoherent and exercised bad judgement in doing the interview. What was missed as the day progressed was the real story.

The real story had little to do with the state of the Taoiseach’s appearance and more to do with the state of the country. The Taoiseach spoke about savage cuts and the taking of €3billion from the real economy. He suggested cuts in expenditure and tax increases which will hurt low to middle income earners. He refused to answer a question about the holding of the by-elections and was evasive on banning corporate donations.

However it was what the Taoiseach did not say that troubled me most. He said nothing about a jobs plan and getting the unemployed back to work. He failed to inspire any confidence in the ability of the Government to help those out of work. He had no vision for the country’s future and offered no hope. His only promise was to continue with the failed slash and burn policies of the last few years.

While the media focus in the time ahead may be on Cowen’s rendition of the Lakes of Pontchartrain or his impersonation of Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh Government Ministers will be busy planning savage cuts that will further exacerbate the problems in the economy. Surely this is the real scandal.

Monday, September 13, 2010

No accountability in Irish Health Care system

At tonight’s monthly meeting of Waterford City Council we discussed the 2009 Annual Report of the South Regional Health Forum. I make no apologies for my robust criticism of the forum and the H.S.E. In my view the Forum is a talking shop at best and in no way holds the public health care providers to account. That is not to take from the good work of those councillors who sit on the forum and represents their respective councils and counties well. It is a reflection on a health system in which no one takes responsibility and everyone passes the buck.

Here is an example of this Pontius Pilate imitation at work. In July of this year Waterford City Council discussed the much needed 50 bed geriatric facility on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Hospital. Later that month the Minister for Health said she did not know when funding would be released for the proposed new unit. The unit was promised when the HSE closed St. Brigid’s ward at the hospital last October.

On the 13th of July Waterford City Council received correspondence from Minister Mary Harney and the Department of Health and Children acknowledging the questions raised by the council and stating that responsibility for service provision rests with the H.S.E. Note the buck passing. A day later the council receives a letter from the H.S.E. again acknowledging the issues raised and referring the matter to the regional director of health operations for the South. Note the buck passing again.

The H.S.E, the Minister for Health and the Department for Health and Children are incapable of providing basic answers to straight forward questions. Is it no wonder that the health service has seen so many scandals like the misdiagnosed miscarriages? The H.S.E. is a farce of an organisation that is unaccountable and desperately in need of reform.

HSE CEO Prof Brendan Drumm warned the HSE board last April that the beleaguered health executive was at a "tipping point" and faced a crisis, after the board vetoed key components of his plans for HSE reform. He also wrote to Department of Health Secretary General Michael Scanlan expressing frustration at the pace at which HSE reforms were being implemented.

I wish the new Chairperson of the H.S.E. Waterford’s Mr. Frank Dolphin the best of luck in his new appointment. He surely has his work cut out. A good start would be to replace the regional health forums with local community health partnerships which genuinely allow local politicians and others to hold health service providers to account.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

McGuinness impressed with new House of Waterford Crystal

Some time ago I invited Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to visit the South East region. Martin is part of an all Ireland trade delegation visiting the United States later this year. He will attend an important economic development conference organised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I am delighted Martin has accepted the invitation to visit Waterford and the new House of Waterford Crystal ahead of the U.S. trip.

Speaking today Mr. McGuinness said:

I am delighted to be here in the South East today meeting with business, trade union, community and civic leaders.

I thank the Mayor of Waterford City Councillor Mary Roche for hosting a reception. I commend the efforts of local people and civic leaders who are trying to create enterprise opportunities in Waterford.

I am thrilled to be visiting the house of Waterford Crystal. I was saddened when I first heard the Kilbarry plant was to close and Waterford and Ireland faced losing an iconic brand. It was a loss not to just to Waterford but to the island of Ireland.

My heart went out to all the workers and I was moved by their courage when I saw the images on Television of the workers engaged in a sit in.

Today we have a different situation. The new House of Waterford Crystal is a top class facility. I want to commend all of those who were part of this exciting venture. The people of Waterford should be very proud of this gem in the heart of the city.

It was a remarkable effort by a lot of people to make all of this possible. The collective effort of Waterford City Council, trade union and business leaders to back this plan is a shining example of what can be achieved through genuine partnership, good will and dare I say taking a risk.

I hope that those former workers who are without jobs and pensions are supported and find new employment.

I also want to support the campaign for University designation for Waterford Institute of Technology. The arguments for W.I.T. becoming a university are unassailable.

I visited W.I.T. on the last occasion I was in Waterford. I was hugely impressed by the facilities, the range of courses and the research and development capacity at the institute. University designation would lift the entire region economically, socially and culturally.
I was reminded by the Mayor of Waterford that today is the second anniversary of the sinking of the Irish Sail Training Ship, the STV Asgard II. The Tall Ships fleet visited Belfast in the past and will visit Waterford next year.

I think the island of Ireland should have a ship and a sail training programme. I will raise the idea of an all-Ireland venture at the executive of the assembly and at a future meeting of the north south Ministerial council.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Waterford today. I know we face tough times ahead but as the new Waterford Crystal venture shows, by working together people can make a difference.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Rosslare – Waterford rail service suspended on Green Party watch

The decision by the National Transport Authority to approve Iarnród Éireann plans to suspend the Rosslare to Waterford Rail service is regrettable. The Regional Authorities in the South-East and the Mid-West, together with their ten constituent local authorities, made a formal submission to the National Transport Authority (NTA) strenuously opposing the proposal of Iarnród Éireann to cease passenger services on the Rosslare to Waterford railway line. The two Regional Authorities, the city councils of Waterford and Limerick and the eight county councils in the regions joined together in a show of solidarity to strongly oppose the closure of the Rosslare-Waterford section of the railway line that links the Rosslare Europort with Waterford, Limerick and onwards to the South-West and the West.

The decision of the N.T.A. to ignore the collective weight of the regional and local authorities is mind boggling. That this has happened on the Green Party’s watch is unforgivable. This is a party which prides itself on promoting public transport and sustainable living. The irony of the Green Party being partly responsible for the loss of this service will not be lost on the electorate. This is not to ignore Fianna Fáil’s culpability but do we really expect anything better from them? There is no end to this Government’s bad mix of disastrous and ridiculous policies. The Greens have become a laughing stock. The quicker we have an election and get rid of them the better.

However it is the legacy that this Government will leave be behind that is the real tragedy. Losing a rail service at a time with local authorities are promoting greater use of public transport through green routes is incredible. The business community in the Southeast also voiced their concerns. A socio-economic and business case for the maintenance and promotion of the line has been prepared and submitted by the Regional Authorities on foot of wide ranging submissions. The proposals were submitted to the NTA supporting the argument for rejection of Irish Rail’s application to close the line and for its continued operation. A key recommendation is the establishment of a Community Rail Partnership, a concept that involves the rail operator partnering with the local authorities and local communities to operate, promote and market the railway and its services. This is an excellent proposal of which I fully support. It is a practical and common sense strategy that needs to be supported.

Last Wednesday I attended a protest at Plunkett Station Waterford. It was attended by dozens of local and regional politicians and community activists. The show of solidarity and strength was impressive. Sadly our views were ignored by the Government. Politicians and activists from the Green Party supported the protest. Senator Dan Boyle attended offering his support. I challenged him as to what his party was going to do to save the line. He said the Greens would raise it at cabinet level. It appears their appeal fell on deaf ears and one wonders what influence they really have in Government. It seems there is no end to this Government’s incompetence.