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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Jun 2006

Vol. 621 No. 5

Other Questions.

Water and Sewerage Schemes.

Marian Harkin


45 Ms Harkin asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if the CLÁR programme will be of assistance to the Achill Sound sewerage scheme, County Mayo in view of the fact that the polluter pays principle means that it is making the scheme economically impossible, as the scheme has already been cut back to a considerable extent and the local contributions sought are still too high; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22602/06]

Catherine Murphy


54 Ms C. Murphy asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if the CLÁR programme will be of assistance to the Achill Sound sewerage scheme, County Mayo in view of the fact that the polluter pays principle means that it is making the scheme economically impossible, as the scheme has already been cut back to a considerable extent and the local contributions sought are still too high; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22604/06]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 45 and 54 together.

The Achill Sound sewerage scheme is a public scheme costing €8.55 million and it has been approved under the water services investment programme in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for commencement in 2006. Discussions are ongoing between that Department and Mayo County Council with regard to addressing certain funding aspects of the project. There are no measures operating under the CLÁR programme for the funding or co-funding of major public water and sewerage schemes.

Can CLÁR programme funding be allocated to this scheme? The Minister informed me he has corresponded with Mayo County Council on the matter. The scope of the scheme has been reduced to not include houses on the Mulranney road. With this reduction, the marginal cost to Mayo County Council will be €2.4 million, equivalent to 38%. The council believes its contribution should be only 19%. As there is no existing sewerage scheme, the circumstances are unique. However, the polluter pays principle has sounded the death knell for a wastewater collection scheme in Achill, which has been on the cards since 1991. If the scheme was built then, the polluter pays principle would not be used. The result of having no scheme is that raw sewage flows into Achill Sound. Can a hardship provision be invoked? Can the CLÁR programme provide funding for the scheme?

The idea of the CLÁR programme is to establish schemes. Individual projects are not evaluated. Each scheme has to be agreed with the line Department, in this case the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. No situation is unique — we are all unique and we are all the same. This applies to the Achill Sound sewerage scheme. A delegation recently informed me not to worry about the situation in Achill because there is a unique one in County Clare. My village, Corr na Mona, does not have a sewerage scheme.

If I were to consider the Achill Sound situation under the CLÁR programme, the methodology would be simple. A scheme would have to be established. The success of the CLÁR programme is that schemes are devised that are open to various projects once they conform to the terms of the scheme. I cannot pick out individual projects to suit a scheme. A scheme must be devised to address an issue.

The Deputy claims there are areas in which the normal criteria used by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government do not apply. This is because of the polluter pays principle and the dispersal of dwellings in the area concerned. It must be accepted that the countryside cannot be covered with individual sewerage schemes. If one creates a scheme for the provision of sewerage systems, how does one confine it in such a way that people do not disperse further from villages and townlands to the point of it not being practical?

The Mayo county manager has conveyed his concerns to me on the Achill Sound matter. I had tentative discussions with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the matter. I stress I cannot move on any project under the CLÁR programme without a scheme being properly devised. One attractive feature of the programme is that schemes must be introduced in a systematic manner and be universally applicable. For example, if I install flashing hazard lights outside one school, they must be installed at all other schools. There are serious challenges in devising a scheme that would not have an open sesame effect on projects because I do not have unlimited funds. The costings suitable for a sewerage scheme in a large town or agglomeration may not provide the basic services for areas with more scattered dwellings.

A possible model exists in the Shannon Basin district scheme. It was introduced by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Whether it could be applied universally is another day's work.

As no collection facility exists on Achill Sound, can its development be funded up to 50% by the CLÁR programme? Another reason for programme funding is that the scheme has not received priority in the past 17 years for one reason or another. If the scheme had been built in 1991, the polluter pays principle would not now be applicable and the estimated costs would be different. The Minister has claimed that those areas receiving CLÁR funding are deserving of it. I accept Achill Sound is not unique in terms of Belmullet and other areas without sewerage schemes. However, they are unique in the sense they do not have sewerage schemes. I suggest the Minister could ring-fence the funding for these areas and not extend it on a universal basis.

The Minister promised 50% funding for the further development of the Michael Davitt Bridge on Achill Sound. It is apt this year as it is the centenary of Michael Davitt's death. The project will cost €4.1 million, half of which the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will match. There is a verbal commitment from CLÁR to provide the other costs.

There was absolutely no commitment made.

The swing bridge is in a precarious condition. In hot weather it cannot be opened because the metal expands, meaning six men would be needed to open it. There is also no pedestrian route across the bridge. Will the Minister address this matter?

The Deputy is straying far from water and sewerage schemes. The challenge when creating a new scheme under CLÁR is to keep it within a reasonable budget. This year €23 million has been allocated but consideration must be given for future schemes. The challenge is to have a scheme that is confined enough to be affordable and good enough to make a difference. I do not pick schemes by accepting people's ideas as I go along the corridor. The rules are clear, even and open. The situation at Achill is not unique. Off the top of my head I can list Corr na Móna, Carna, Kilternan and many other well-established villages which have no sewerage schemes. The challenge under the CLÁR programme in creating a scheme for wastewater disposal is to ensure a reasonable amount of money would make a difference and a larger problem would not be created of people moving further into the countryside.

CLÁR never promised money for the Michael Davitt Bridge. People must always read the small print. At a meeting in Achill Sound, I said if Mayo County Council prioritised funding of €2 million for the bridge under the Gaeltacht strategic roads programme, I would accept it as an eligible project. I normally do not engage in co-funded projects with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This year I made the rules handier for the counties in that I told the local directors of the department that if I give an annual allocation to a county, they can look at the totality of requirement for small piers, strategic roads, bóithre áise agus athnuachan baile, village renewal, and that they can take the whole ball of wax and decide where the priorities lie.

We must proceed to the next question.

If County Mayo decides that Achill Bridge is the priority, I have said that this decision will be accepted.

National Drugs Strategy.

Willie Penrose


46 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if the working group established to develop an integrated rehabilitation service as part of the fifth pillar of the national drugs strategy has finalised its recommendations and reported to the interdepartmental group on drugs and to the Cabinet committee on social inclusion; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22745/06]

The working group on rehabilitation was established in September 2005 and includes representatives from a range of Departments and agencies involved in delivering rehabilitation services, as well as representatives from the national drugs strategy team, NDST, the national advisory committee on drugs, NACD, and the community and voluntary sectors. The terms of reference of the group include examining the current provision of rehabilitation services in Ireland and recommending actions to develop an integrated rehabilitation service for the future.

The development of comprehensive rehabilitation services is a complex process due in no small part to the fact that problem drug use is a chronic, often recurring, condition. As a result, rehabilitation necessarily involves the provision of services that support and encourage drug users at each stage of their drug use, from those whose problem is severe and chaotic to those who may have recovered, have been stabilised or, unfortunately, may have relapsed. At each stage the door must be kept open to enable those dealing with the problem of drug misuse to re-engage with treatment and rehabilitation services.

Services that may contribute to the rehabilitation of drug misusers of necessity may come from a wide variety of sources and agencies. The health services provide aspects of ongoing treatment, counselling and therapeutic services. Educational and training agencies focus on the provision of educational, training and job search needs and community and voluntary organisations provide services under the local and regional drugs task force programmes which provide a wide range of supports.

I thank the Minister of State for that reply. However, I remind him of his reply of 16 May to a similar question in which he stated: "It is envisaged that the recommendations will be finalised by mid-year and that the group will report to the interdepartmental group on drugs and the Cabinet committee on social inclusion". Can I take it that this date was a bit optimistic? Given that we have hit mid-year, will the recommendations be with the interdepartmental group and the Cabinet committee on social inclusion before the summer recess?

Certainly, it appears that our projections were a bit optimistic. The group is continuing its work which has proven to be a bigger job than originally expected. I am informed that the recommendations will be finalised in the coming months. Much work has been done. The group has probably gone into the matter in far more detail than was expected and it has had a great deal of consultation with interested parties. The job has proven to be a bigger one than was originally expected and I am not sure whether the recommendations will be through the entire system by the summer.

Is part of the problem that there was no representative on the working group from the health sector, the Department or the HSE? Is the Minister of State aware of this fact? This may be one of the difficulties that is delaying the implementation of the recommendations.

It may be the case that too many people are involved. The group is chaired by my Department and it includes representatives from the Departments of Health and Children, Education and Science, the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and Justice, Equality and Law Reform as well as representatives from the national drugs strategy team, the national advisory committee on drugs, FÁS, the HSE and the community and voluntary sector. Both the Department of Health and Children and the HSE are involved. The job is a big one and while I will not say the group has got into it too deeply, the process has taken longer than expected.

Offshore Islands.

Paul Nicholas Gogarty


47 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the role his Department plays and will play in the future of the Blasket Islands, County Kerry. [22791/06]

As previously stated in the House, my Department's role will be contingent on the completion of the arrangements for the purchase of An Blascaod Mór by the State. When these arrangements have been completed, it is intended that my Department, in partnership with Kerry County Council, will be responsible for the development of the two piers, one on An Blascaod Mór and the other at Dún Chaoin. While the county council has engaged in the identification of qualified contractors for the project through a public procurement process, I understand that tenders will be invited only when the island has been acquired by the State.

The Minister appears confident that the current difficulties can be easily resolved. Will he place on record when he thinks the current impasse may come to an end because most of us in the House would like to see finality on this issue and the use of the Blaskets as a national park?

Islands come under the brief of the Minister but in his reply he did not refer to the current responsibilities of his Department towards the Blasket Islands. In the interim period while we are awaiting a solution, is the Department responsible for ongoing work on the island, what is the nature of that work and how is it being undertaken?

My Department does not have specific responsibility for the islands because, as Deputy Boyle is aware, they are not inhabited on a permanent basis. I do not know how long it will take to resolve this matter. As the Deputy is aware, this matter has been ongoing since the late Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, God rest his soul, initiated this project, in which he was most interested. Due to the court cases that were taken, it did not come to fruition. Discussions are ongoing and I hope the matter can be resolved. One can bring a horse to water but one cannot make the horse drink.

What is being done by the Minister or collectively by the Government to breach the impasse? Is the Government considering undertaking other initiatives or has a decision been taken by the Government to await the outcome of the legal process?

The matter has not been in the legal system since the Supreme Court judgment. This is primarily a matter for the OPW and the Deputy should, accordingly, table a question to the Department of Finance. Negotiations took place with the landowners. I wish to state as a general principle, rather than specifically in regard to An Blascaod Mór, that where one is achieving a result by agreement, one cannot allow oneself to be forced into a situation in which one is made to agree to the impossible. In other words, value for money and so on come into play. The issue has been dealt with on a voluntary basis since the Supreme Court case struck down the Bill.

It takes two to tango. To achieve a result, the obligation is equally on the owners to accommodate reasonable requirements of the State as it is on the State to try to accommodate the owners. One cannot have an imbalanced arrangement just because the State is a party to it. One would rightly criticise the State if an open cheque book approach was taken to resolving problems. If that were the case, questions would be asked about the procedures that were followed. I hope the matter can be resolved, but in that type of negotiation it is not acceptable to set a deadline for resolution. Whether these issues can be resolved depends on how reasonable are the requests of the other side.

I was in the Seanad when the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, introduced the legislation. It was the only time he came to that House during my time in it. At that time it was most unusual for a Taoiseach to appear in the Seanad. The publicity that is accruing is not desirable. Recent newspaper reports suggest there is a complete stand-off on this issue. Is there any circumstance in which the State may exercise compulsory purchase powers? These islands are an important element of our culture. The literary tradition alone of the Blascaod Mór is very significant. Is it possible that access to the Blascaod Mór could be denied to both Irish people and tourists in perpetuity or is any fallback available to the State?

The Deputy's question strays far from the responsibility of my Ministry in this matter, which relates to the provision of funding to Kerry County Council for the development of two piers, on An Blascaod Mór and Dún Chaoin, respectively. Deputy O'Shea should put a parliamentary question to the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon. His responsibility includes the Office of Public Works, which is involved in these negotiations. The islands are unquestionably important but it is for the Office of Public Works to make any proposal of the type to which the Deputy referred.

Tourism Promotion.

Pat Rabbitte


48 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he will provide details of the plan that was launched to promote tourism on the islands; his views on whether the amount pledged by his Department is sufficient for a sustained tourism drive; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22747/06]

In 2005, officials of my Department met with Ireland West Tourism with a view to examining ways of promoting the tourism industry of the islands. An inter-agency working group was subsequently established comprising representatives from Ireland West Tourism; Gaelsaoire, the Údarás na Gaeltachta subsidiary which promotes tourism in Gaeltacht areas; Fáilte Ireland; and Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, the Irish Islands Federation, with the aim of drawing up a comprehensive plan to market all our islands as a niche product.

Earlier this year, following on from the work of this group, Ireland West Tourism sought and was approved funding of €171,500 over three years from my Department to match a similar amount which had been committed by Fáilte Ireland for the implementation of a tourism plan for the islands. The main aim of the plan is to market the islands effectively to increase the number of tourists visiting them. Its main features are branding of the islands as a niche product; creation of an attractive, comprehensive website; a high quality publicity campaign; and lengthening of the tourism season by targeting specific groups.

This strategy is in line with one of the main aims of my Department regarding the islands, that is, the maintenance of viable island communities through the provision of viable economic opportunities for them. This funding will form the basis for a sustained tourism marketing drive for the islands over the period concerned and will deliver tangible, worthwhile benefits.

I very much support this concept. Is it intended as part of this investment plan that efforts will be made to extend this type of niche tourism to some of the other islands as well as developing it where there already is substantial activity?

One must view this as a two-pronged process, involving both the promotion and development of the tourism product. This investment plan is concerned with the marketing component because the product already exists and is quite pervasive. At the annual general meeting of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, a seminar took place at which representatives of the different islands, including Hare Island, Rathlin Island, Inis Mór, Inishbofin, Aranmore in Scotland and many more, spoke about island tourism. The plan involves promoting all the existing tourism products available on the islands, including islands as small as Hare Island in Cork, as a single product.

Running parallel to this will be the development of the product and there are several ways of doing this. One element of this is the CLÁR programme, under which all the islands are covered. Údarás na Gaeltachta has invested heavily in developing the tourism product for the Gaeltacht islands. In addition, we have a new scheme of incentives for the development of businesses, including tourism products, that are launched on the non-Gaeltacht islands. This means money is now available through the county enterprise boards to develop the tourism product on those islands.

My intention is that this process will be implemented on an annual basis and that we continue to market and develop the product simultaneously. As the product is developed, it must be marketed. Marketing without product is of no use and vice versa — we must develop both together.

I am grateful for the opportunity to ask a brief supplementary question. In the case of Achill Island, for example, it is difficult for local communities to develop any proper tourism product. Notwithstanding his particular interest in the west, I am not sure whether the Minister is aware of the difficulties in this regard. Some wonderful projects have been lost to Achill Island because of the difficulty encountered by local communities because they cannot, for example, compete with private sector interests to purchase land.

In most other EU states, local authorities have a far greater input into these types of projects. Under EU rules, a certain portion of funding must be secured from the local community but many communities simply cannot bear that load. In some cases, however, the local authority has come in and resolved the difficulty. Will the Minister examine how local authorities might be encouraged to assist local communities in developing worthwhile tourism projects? Otherwise they will not happen.

Deputy Cowley is correct in that the problem to which he refers relates to State aids in that the State can provide only a specific percentage of funding. However, because local authority money is exempt from this threshold, it is possible to get around the problem. I encourage local authorities to make this type of investment because it is they who will reap the benefits in the future in terms of rates collected and so on.

An issue that is currently of major interest to me, and in which we are investing considerable time, effort and money, is the development of the new rural development programme for 2007-13. This will involve a review of the de minimus provision regarding the level of grant aid that can be provided under the Leader programme. Achill does come under the island marketing scheme. Areas such as this are also covered under the rural social scheme in combination, for example, with the capital money I have put aside. I am particularly focused on the development of walkways and ancillary facilities through the Leader companies. We will see the results of many months of work coming to fruition in the near future.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.