We need to be brave to deliver on Ireland’s infrastructure: Cormican

Joined-up thinking, improving the speed of delivery, and bravery are some of the key qualities needed for Ireland to meet its current and future needs

Frances Ruane, chair, National Competitiveness & Productivity Council; Ivan Yates, conference host; and Michele Connolly, head of corporate finance & EMA head of global infrastructure, KPMG. Pictures Maura Hickey

With the 2nd National Infrastructure Summit 2024 underway on Thursday, May 2, Summit chair Ivan Yates, an entrepreneur and broadcaster, described it as “the key venue for people to access thought leadership, best-in-class and the key players” in the sector.

The theme was the creation of a low-carbon, future-ready Ireland to support the growing population. It was no surprise that the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Dublin, saw a large and knowledgeable crowd congregate to hear from more than 26 different speakers.

The day began with a video message from Paschal Donohoe TD, the minister for Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery & Reform, who could not attend due to urgent government business.

He outlined the key areas the government is working on to help improve critical infrastructure, including investing €165 billion in new and upgraded infrastructure and building up savings in the Future Ireland Fund to ensure such projects continue even during a downturn.

Michele Connolly, head of corporate finance and EMA head of global infrastructure at KPMG, addressed the emerging trends in infrastructure in the summit’s opening address.

In what would be a key theme throughout the day, the speed of delivering projects was a major issue raised. Connolly mentioned her delight in the minister’s comments and his awareness of the issues faced, but money isn’t necessarily the problem.

“The delays and challenges are in getting the projects to the site,” she explained. “It’s not due to a lack of energy or intent on anyone’s part; it’s just that there are too many steps in the system.

“In part, we’re great at jumping at issues, pointing the finger and saying ‘who’s fault is this’ when we need to prioritise the system is moving at pace while ensuring we have a balanced approach to risk.”

Following her was Frances Ruane, chairperson of the National Competitiveness & Productivity Council, who contextualised the challenges facing Ireland’s infrastructure ambitions.

She mentioned that Ireland’s issues are not unique and were experienced by many EU countries. She highlighted how the way objections are held here can cause major delays.

“We’ve ended up in a situation where one person’s interests can stand in the way of society’s,” she added. “So thousands of people can be shortchanged by waiting two years or longer to get something that benefits society.

“We just need to ask ourselves if we get that planning bill through, will we address all the issues that are [affecting] people at the moment at the speed and direction they need to.”

This is tied to the next talk on delivering critical water and electricity infrastructure to the greater Dublin area, which features Angela Ryan, senior manager in the asset management and sustainability directorate at Uisce Eireann, and Michael Mahon, chief infrastructure officer of Eirgrid.

Ryan didn’t beat around the bush regarding the challenges and looming issues the area will face. With 85 per cent of its population dependent upon the River Liffey for water, she stressed how critical it was to have water in the infrastructure conversation, and it’s hoped its Shannon extraction plan will alleviate the pressure.

“The Liffey is the 19th largest river in Ireland; it shouldn’t have 1.75 million people depending on it,” she said. “Every time we see the word housing, we should think about water services because every house requires water [and] we’re just expanding into a system that isn’t there.

“What we have to do is bring on new water supplies and new wastewater treatment in order to provide secure services for the population that are there and the population that’s coming.”

The early-morning session concluded with a panel discussion on the future of major infrastructure planning. Joining Yates on stage were Jerry Grant, chairperson of Dublin Port Company; Kevin Meaney, principal officer of the National Investment Office at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Paul O’Neill, managing director of Infrastructure & Government Advisory in KPMG, and Paul Sheridan, director of main contracting services at CIF.

Sheridan added to Ruane’s point about the slow speed from planning to site, saying that it’s also vital to ensure the flow of FDI which relies on a sustainable track of infrastructure projects, and solving it is about a shift in policy.

O’Neill added that while the challenges of judicial review, delivering public infrastructure generally and procurement is there, the risk is diminished when you have a sustained pipeline of projects.

Phased delivery

After the morning coffee break, the audience returned to a talk on the delivery of elective hospitals by Eamonn Quinn, head of capital projects at the Department of Health.

Stating that it takes a “phased, progressive way of delivering” healthcare sites, he mentioned the mega projects like the Children’s Hospital, saying that while “they are risky, they go over budget . . . mega and major projects in healthcare are really important as they’re used to provide significant benefits to society that you can’t quantify”.

“There’s a significant benefit to all of us, to our children, our grandchildren, and our families, in what this hospital would deliver. It’s very difficult to calculate a return on investment in financial terms, but in society terms, it’s huge.”

Next up was the panel on the environmental requirements for infrastructure projects featuring Brian Caulfield, professor in transportation and head of discipline in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering in TCD; David Flynn, director of the Office of Environmental Sustainability at EPA; and Niall Conroy, acting chief economist and head of secretariat at the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council.

Flynn mentioned that the EPA was looking at the consenting process to ensure there weren’t any roadblocks on their end for delivering infrastructure and was working with the department to ensure the process was sped up.

Caulfield mentioned that while there are green shoots like BusConnects, “when it comes to public transport, our delivery is shocking”.

The summit turned its attention to offshore wind potential, which included Donal Murphy, senior investment director of the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), and Kevin Lynch, chief executive of Source Galileo.

Speaking about floating and fixed wind turbines, Murphy spoke about the potential Ireland’s ports have in facilitating this change but warned about missing the window.

“For developing new green infrastructure and industries and developing hydrogen plans, the ports can be a real catalyst for that,” he stated. “But if we miss the first trick and don’t set up these initial stages, then those follow-on opportunities can be lost.”

With the lunch break near, there was time to spotlight the circular economy, including Dr Angie Nagle, chief executive of BladeBridge; Geraldine Moloney, head of corporate innovation at ESB Group; and JJ O’Hara, chief executive of Future Cast.

Speaking about BladeBridge’s work - where they take decommissioned wind turbine blades and repurpose them into sustainable infrastructure like cycling bridges - she mentioned the work it’s done with ESB on its eMobility eHub, presenting the prototype at the TRA2024 conference two weeks ago. By taking what would have been thrown away, it’s given waste a new lease of life.

“It clearly and publicly shows the repurposing of the wind blade,” she said. “ESB are the perfect customer as they have a stock of ageing wind turbines and have to build infrastructure, so we can help ESB utilise their own waste for assets that they have to build anyway.”

Time to be brave

Once lunch was over, Yates welcomed the attendees back for the afternoon sessions, which focused on where wealth should be invested and what the country’s priorities should be.

The afternoon agenda started with a keynote fireside chat, during which Julia Prescot, co-founder at Meridiam and deputy chair at the National Infrastructure Commission in Britain, shared what Ireland can learn from Britain in delivering strategic infrastructure projects.

Mentioning how extraordinary the parallels were between Ireland and Britain, one area she mentioned was promoting community benefits as a way of talking to the public about infrastructure. Such projects can be abstract to the public, so they need to be described in a relatable and tangible way.

The delays and challenges are in getting the projects to the site. It’s not due to a lack of energy or intent on anyone’s part; it’s just that there are too many steps in the system

Next, there was a spotlight on delivering sustainable transport infrastructure, featuring Derval Cummins, director of transportation at AECOM, and Eoin Gillard, assistant director of transport investment at the National Transport Authority.

When asked if it would be easier to add more trams to the Luas lines to solve congestion issues, Gillard said it wouldn’t be able to meet the needed demand.

“The network’s capacity is limited to about 20 trams per hour, which, give or take, is 8,000 or 9000 passengers per hour,” he said. “To meet that demand, it’s not adequate. With any pipe, if you put a constraint on it, it won’t work, and we need to create that connectivity.”

After that was the panel discussion on EV infrastructure, which featured Aoife O’Grady, head of zero-emission vehicles Ireland at the Department of Transport; Gerry Cash, director of Easygo; and John O’Keeffe, chief executive of ePower.

O’Grady mentioned that while EV sales are likely to recover later this year, if not next, speeding up the process of rolling out infrastructure is vital.

“It can take three to four years from identifying the site to getting the infrastructure up and running,” she said. “Our approach over the short term is to try and plan out those sites and for the sites where there is infrastructure that can be installed quickly because the connection is available, moving on that as quickly as possible while delivering and planning out and working on sites.”

The final panel discussion on the strategies needed to successfully build Ireland’s future infrastructure featured Dearbhla Lawson, chief planner/head of strategic planning at the Land Development Agency; Fiona Cormican of Fiona Cormican Consulting (formerly of Clúid Housing); and P J Rudden, external member of Project Ireland 2040 Delivery Board, Department of Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform.

Cormican was clear about what was needed to deliver on promises: bravery.

“I’m saying we need to be braver and stop worrying about the political soundbites,” she said. “If we’re creating situations where we halt investment, that stops organisations like the LDA having the power to compulsory purchase. We shouldn’t have any vacant properties in any towns in Ireland.”

“Why are they there for years and sitting there? Because nobody’s brave enough to say ‘No, you don’t deserve to hold something and keep it in your back pocket for as long as you want.’”

“Not when we’re in a housing crisis, and we need housing.”