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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Oct 2013

Vol. 818 No. 2

Priority Questions

Rural Development Funding

Éamon Ó Cuív


1. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the reason for the cut in funding of 49% for community and rural development in 2014 compared to 2013; the reason for the 77% cut in capital funding and the 6% cut in current funding in view of the importance of the services provided out of this funding; the programmes that will be cut or curtailed as a result; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44944/13]

The provision of €102.44 million for community and rural development in budget 2014 reflects the Government’s commitment to the sector notwithstanding the very difficult choices which have had to be made over a number of years to address our economic crisis and place Ireland firmly on the road to economic recovery. I am acutely aware of the great work being done in communities and the need to continue local development initiatives to the greatest extent possible. I have prioritised the Local and Community Development Programme. The 2014 provision of €47.7 million, just €1 million less than this year’s allocation, will allow some 14,000 people who are distanced from the labour market to receive direct one-to-one labour market training and supports.

There are unavoidable reductions to a number of specific budget lines within the community Vote, and these reflect a range of considerations, including the scale of spending in previous years, the maturity of particular programmes and the balance required to meet EU co-funding needs. For example, there will be reductions of between 5% and 7% to the RAPID and Supports for Community and Voluntary Sector allocations for 2014.  The Interreg programme will be reduced by 8%. The Programme for Peace and Reconciliation will have reduced current funding but its capital funding will be increased by 27%.  I am satisfied that these allocations will fully meet 2014 commitments.

Leader is a multi-annual programme which has regularly underspent its annual allocations since it began in 2009. My Department has therefore been in a position to carry over significant amounts of unspent funding into the following year to meet upcoming commitments. Although Leader spending has increased each year since 2009, this will also be the case in the current year. I expect that in the order of €50 million will become available to carry forward into 2014 to fund Leader projects. Final decisions will be made in the wider context of the Department’s overall capital allocation and will be published in the revised Estimates later in the year, which will further underpin my commitment to these important programmes.

Can the Minister clarify how much the carry-over of Leader into this year was? According to my calculations, by mid-2013, there was still €181 million to be spent on Leader before the end of 2014. The Estimate provision for the whole year 2013 was €119 million and the Estimate provision next year is a maximum of €28 million. I did not get the breakdown between other capital expenditure, but that is €147 million. Unless the Minister's carry-over funded the first half of Leader's activities this year, he will be short of money to spend the whole programme by the end of 2014. Perhaps the Minister can explain how €147 million, at an absolute maximum, can fund the whole programme. Presumably some of this year's allocation was spent by the end of June this year. The Minister will be short by €30 million to €35 million at a minimum, but the shortage could be much greater than that. Will the Minister explain how the figures work?

Deputy Ó Cuív knows perfectly well that the revised Estimates volume is where the final allocations are made. Given that the budgetary process is in October this year, rather than in December, these final outcomes are not published until later in the year.

There is a carry-over for this year.

Yes, €35 million was the carry-over for this year on top of a significant amount of money that was spent in 2013. An estimated total of €105 million was available for expenditure in 2013. I have been doing everything I possibly can to get groups to commit to funding. There was a significant underspend on behalf of groups during 2012 and into 2013. I set a date which concentrated the minds of groups, boards and CEOs into allocating funds up to 31 August this year. I will be in a position to know what projects will be decommitted in the next few weeks to allow me to reallocate some of the money. That will ensure that it is committed in 2013 with a view to being spent in 2014 and 2015.

How much of this year's allocation was spent between January and the end of June 2013?

I do not have that figure.

Perhaps the Minister could provide me with that figure.

I have no doubt that when I get that figure I will find out clearly that there is a total under-provision for the Leader programme. The data we were given on budget day is deficient. I would be grateful if the Minister could send me that information - in other words, the spend on the Leader programme to 30 June 2013 out of the €190 million provided this year. I will then be able to calculate the shortfall in the provision of Leader for 2014 to ensure a full spend under the programme.

The entire programme value in 2013 is €370 million. The expenditure to date in October 2013 is €213 million. The balance to be paid is €157 million. The balance to be paid in 2013 is €30 million and the capital carry-over in 2014 will be €50 million. Therefore the allocation of €14 million in 2015 makes up for that. There is a gap in funding at the end of the programme of about €63 million. We will be examining how we can maximise all the elements of Leader funding in terms of commitments and drawn down before the end of the programme.

Is the Minister saying that he will make a provision of €63 million in 2015 to ensure a complete draw-down of the Leader programme?

I did not say that at all. I said that these are matters that will be discussed in the context of what resources are available in the budgetary situation in 2015. The Deputy does not expect me to announce now what allocations I will have in 2015.

Alternative Energy Projects

Brian Stanley


2. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the proposed new guidelines for the siting of wind farms; if he will have regulations brought forward to protect residents who are living in areas where it is proposed to locate commercial turbines; and if he will ensure that any relevant heads of Bill are brought before the Joint Committee for Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht. [44943/13]

My Department is currently undertaking a targeted review of the Wind Energy Guidelines 2006 focusing on noise, proximity and shadow flicker. In the interim, these comprehensive guidelines remain in place to ensure that all proposed wind energy developments are subjected to careful scrutiny by the relevant planning authority. They provide advice to planning authorities on catering for wind energy through the development plan and development management processes. The guidelines are also intended to ensure a consistency of approach throughout the country in the identification of suitable locations for wind energy development and the treatment of planning applications for such developments.

The guidelines were issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 which requires both planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to have regard to them in the performance of their functions. The indicative timetable for the publication of the draft revised guidelines is quarter 4 of 2013. These will – like all other new or revised guidelines – go out for extensive public consultation for a period of six weeks to two months to allow for publication of the final guidelines in 2014. All interested parties, including the joint committee, are welcome to make written submissions during this consultation period.

Once the consultation period is closed, the submissions received on the draft guidelines will be considered and taken into account in the final form of the guidelines. The final revised guidelines will issue under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which again will require both planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to have regard to them.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I am raising this matter because concerns about wind farms are growing across the midlands. Even people who support wind energy are concerned about the approach being taken on it. The Minister of State mentioned guidelines to which projects must have regard when seeking planning permission. She knows, however, that there are two weaknesses in that argument. The first is the word "guidelines" which can be pulled to whatever length one wants, like an elastic band. Second, the term "have regard to" can mean reading the guidelines before shredding them. That term can mean anything and is not descriptive. We do not have an adequate regime in place. We need to have a moratorium on siting wind farms until proper guidelines are in place. The Government should put such guidelines in place. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources said recently that one company has paused its projects for nine months. I am asking for them all to be paused until we have regulations in place.

For quite some time, I have made it clear what the timelines are concerning the guidelines.

I am aware of the concerns expressed. There is a big difference between wind energy produced for export and wind energy which will be used in the context of Ireland meeting its targets. In regard to the wind energy produced for export, this cannot happen until agreement has been reached between the two Governments and the policy framework being developed in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has been completed. Such projects will also have to go through a rigorous planning process. As such, no wind energy project will go ahead in the next nine months. This cannot happen until all of the processes outlined have been completed. Work on the policy framework being developed by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources will be ongoing throughout next year. People can be assured that any projects involving wind energy for export will not be proceeding any time in the near future.

If projects involving wind energy for export are being delayed because of policy development, should projects involving wind energy for domestic use not also be delayed? We are talking in this regard about huge developments. I ask that a maximum height be imposed in respect of turbines, some of which will be 600 ft. or 185 m in height. I believe restrictions in terms of maximum height should be imposed and that a minimum setback should also be imposed. We need this type of protection for local communities.

Has the Government undertaken a cost benefit analysis of the wind energy industry? Mr. Colm McCarthy and other economists have questioned the viability of such projects, in particular those being built in the midlands, which in terms of the generation of electricity will be enormous. Time does not permit me to quote what they have had to say but I can share the quotations with the Minister of State if she wishes. Has the Government undertaken a cost benefit analysis of the industry?

Extensive work in this regard is being done in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. The Deputy would need to table a parliamentary question to the Minister to get the detail in that regard.

On height and so on, all these issues have a bearing on noise, proximity and so on, which issues form part of what is being considered in the review of the guidelines. As stated, a draft of the guidelines will be published before the end of this year. Up to two months will be provided for consultation on the draft guidelines. I hope the relevant committee will find time to consider them. Assuming the draft guidelines are published before the end of this year and taking into account the following two months for consultation, the final guidelines will probably not be published until the first quarter of next year.

Local and Community Development Programme Staffing

Joan Collins


3. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government his views on whether, given that local development companies are almost exclusively funded by State money, his Department is acting as shadow employer in view of the changes alignment will bring about for workers; his views on whether there must be meaningful engagement between workers' representatives and his Department or via the employers body, the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN; and the way he proposes this engagement could be carried out. [45167/13]

There are 50 local development companies contracted on my Department’s behalf to deliver the local and community development programme, LCDP, 35 of which also deliver the Leader elements of the Rural Development Programme, RDP, 2007-2013. These companies also deliver a range of other programmes and interventions on behalf of other Departments and funders. The local development companies are independent companies with their own boards of management. My Department has no role in relation to staffing or employment matters. These are matters for the board of each company, as the employer, to manage.

My Department recently met SIPTU and staff representatives from the local development companies, at their request, to discuss a number of issues concerning the implications of the alignment process. The Department reiterated that it remains the responsibility of the companies as the employers to engage with their staff and to keep them apprised of progress.

The alignment working group, which is actively progressing the alignment recommendations to enhance alignment between local government and local development, comprises representatives of the County and City Managers Association, the Irish Local Development Network and Pobal, and is chaired and supported in its work by my Department. The Irish Local Development Network has three representatives on the working group. It is a matter for that body to select nominees to fill these positions. It is also the responsibility of the representatives from each sector to consult their nominating bodies, staff and other relevant stakeholders as part of this process. I encourage such dialogue by all parties.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I have raised in this House the issue of access by workers to proper representation in terms of the affects of alignment on their jobs. There has been no consultation with workers. While a meeting was held between workers and departmental officials, as stated, no further progress has been made. When I last raised this issue with the Minister during the Topical Issue debate he said a report would be published in the following two to three weeks.

Given the local development companies are funded by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, it is their shadow employer. Will the Minister intervene and ensure workers are represented in any discussions on how alignment will affect their jobs?

There must be very little communication from the negotiators on behalf of the community sector to the people concerned.

There must be.

Departments are not shadow employers. A number of State-funded programmes are delivered at local level by the network of local development companies, which are independently limited companies that have their own boards of management, memoranda and articles of association. These companies have tendered to deliver certain programmes for a specific period. Similar to other funding Departments, my Department has no role in the internal operations of these companies and, therefore, does not have a role in relation to staff or employment which are for the board of each company, as employer, to manage.

Departments provide funding to particular groups and local development companies to carry out work on behalf of the State. They are separate private companies and are treated as such. It is a matter for each of the companies to decide its role, responsibilities and staffing and to ensure interaction between them and their representative groups is good.

The point is that it is not. There is a serious problem in this regard. The Minister, Deputy Hogan, initiated the alignment of the local development companies and has instructed them to move in a different direction. It is incumbent upon him as Minister, in seeking to change how these local development companies operate, to insist that worker representatives are recognised and heard and that information in regard to how the alignment will affect them is passed on. When will the report mentioned by the Minister be published?

I share Deputy Collins's desire to ensure we have local development companies delivering local programmes. The alignment process which I have initiated with local government is to ensure some funding will be available. Given the national budgetary situation, there is no guarantee of any funding in future. I expect, especially in the Dublin area where there will be a high retention rate of local property tax, that local councillors will be able to make decisions on social inclusion measures and the local development programmes to be delivered in each particular area. I encourage the local development companies to consider the situation in the context of the relationship they will have in future with local government, which is likely to be far healthier than the one they currently have with national government.

The information being sought by the community sector in Deputy Collins's area is available via the negotiators as part of the alignment working group. I would like to see work in this area completed immediately. I understand a meeting was held yesterday. I await a report of that meeting to see whether we can come to a conclusion on the alignment structures and committees to be established in local government to ensure programmes are delivered and the people about whom the Deputy and I are concerned continue to get front-line service delivery.

Local Authority Housing Provision

Barry Cowen


4. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government if he will provide a breakdown by county of the 4,400 new social housing units due to be operational in 2014 as announced in budget 2014; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44945/13]

The Abridged Estimate for my Department, published by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the expenditure report for 2014, provides €525.8 million in respect of the housing programme. These resources have been supplemented by a further €50 million announced in the budget to fund infrastructural investment, primarily in the housing area. When taken in conjunction, funding for housing is, in effect, maintained at 2013 levels.

Meeting social housing need within the available resources will necessitate smarter and more innovative approaches to maximise output. In 2014, I will continue to focus the available resources towards the most vulnerable and disadvantaged sectors of the community. Approved housing bodies will play a key role in 2014 in the delivery of social housing, in particular in their capacity to attract external financial investment.

More than 4,100 units will be provided for social housing in 2014, through leasing and existing capital programmes. This includes the continued transfer of NAMA units, completion of existing building and acquisition programmes, transfers under the rental accommodation scheme and completion of mortgage-to-rent arrangements.

Furthermore, an additional €30 million being invested in local authority housing will facilitate the construction of new infill developments in areas with the highest demand for social housing, it will bring long-term vacant units back into social use and will result in producing up to 500 new homes for families. A further €10 million will transform the most difficult unfinished housing estates and result in enhanced quality of life for families. Housing adaptation grants will also benefit by €10 million and this will assist older people and people with disabilities to remain at home for longer. In order to ensure continued progress towards the achievement of the 2016 target of ending long-term homelessness, the homeless budget is being maintained at €45 million. A new social impact investment initiative will also see more than 130 homeless families move out of private emergency accommodation and into sustainable long-term tenancies.

These housing schemes operated by my Department are demand led and a detailed county breakdown will only be available at year end. In respect of the new and refined schemes, I intend to announce fuller details of these in the coming months, taking into consideration the needs and demands of housing authorities.

I thank the Minister of State for her response and I look forward to reading it in detail in order to ascertain exactly what information is contained within it. The housing situation is fast becoming a major crisis, with 100,000 on waiting lists throughout the country. In his budgetary speech, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform stated that he was allocating an extra €30 million from the sale of the national lottery towards housing projects under the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. However, proposed capital expenditure for next year in the budgetary booklet contains a fall of €40 million. Is it just a €10 million deficit for the coming year? The Minister of State has stated that she has maintained figures, so is it basically a retention of what we achieved last year? I am a little confused, so perhaps the Minister of State might clarify the issue.

The overall housing budget will remain more or less as it was last year, but that is across different functions. The extra €30 million will be added onto the capital budget for construction, which had been steadily dropping over the past few years. All capital budgets have been declining significantly but we expect to have an additional 500 new units from the construction stimulus package. Part of that will be in construction and the Deputy will know that it takes some time to build new houses. Part of it will be bringing voids back into use. We have information from various local authorities that they have voids which need significant work. There was a previous scheme which addressed some of the voids, but others require significant work, so we intend to use a large portion of that money to bring those back into use.

Basically what the Minister of State is saying is that despite the fanfare attached to the announcement on budget day, the figures remain much the same as they were last year, and there is no great increase as a dividend from the sale of the national lottery licence to which the Minister of State can attest. The money just brings the figures up to much the same rate as last year.

There was a cut that the Deputy's own government had agreed year by year-----

Exactly. The Minister of State has given me the clarification I required. What procedures are in place for local authorities to make applications, based on this new figure that the Minister of State claims is supplementary to the initial annual Estimate? When can local authorities be expected to make applications for this? Is the extra €10 million, which the Minister of State mentioned in respect of housing aid for the elderly and so on, over and above what had already been committed? Can local authorities also expect a dividend, given that this House was informed of such a dividend on budget day?

There was an agreement made by the Deputy's party, when it was in government, that the capital budgets would be cut gradually over a period of five years, and they were built into our figures over the last three years, unfortunately including cuts for this year, which I regret very much and which most Deputies have raised here over the year. There will be some increase in the private house grants for next year from this year. The €30 million will be on top of the original intended allocation, in accordance with the agreement that was made five years ago in respect of the cuts in capital allowances, but it does represent extra money. We have done a trawl of local authorities already to see whether they have projects that are ready to go and in which construction can begin, because we want to spend the money next year. We do not want long-term plans. We are very confident that the local authorities will be able to spend money in the next year. They will already be aware that we are coming to them and asking them for projects.

So the Minister of State can give me the content of the initial question as to where these 4,400 units will be constructed throughout the country.

They will not all be constructed. Some of them are coming from a variety of ways, as I said in my initial reply.

Pyrite Issues

Catherine Murphy


5. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government the reasons a contribution from industry stakeholders was not ultimately included in the final agreed remediation scheme for pyrite damaged homes; if he has asked the industry for a voluntary contribution; if he will provide an estimate of the total cost to successfully remediate a house in the most seriously affected category; if he can demonstrate that the €10 million fund set aside will cover all affected houses in every category; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45168/13]

It was the intention of Government to provide for the imposition of levies on the quarrying and insurance sectors as a means of funding a pyrite remediation scheme . However, during the preparation of the required legislation, legal difficulties arose at which point it became clear that it would not be possible to proceed on this basis. Following receipt of the report of the independent pyrite panel in June 2012, I engaged with the key industry stakeholders with the objective of securing a voluntary agreement, including an appropriate funding arrangement, to provide a solution to the pyrite problem. However, despite protracted discussions, the industry would not commit to putting in place a voluntary scheme and in the absence of such agreement I sought and received the Government's approval to the imposition of mandatory levies. Regrettably, it is not possible to proceed with the proposed levies and in light of the exceptional nature of the pyrite problem and the circumstances in which it occurred, the only practicable and sustainable option is to provide Exchequer funding for the scheme.

The pyrite resolution board, or PRB, will continue to engage with the stakeholders to see what positive contribution they can make to the implementation of a pyrite remediation process. The PRB estimates that the typical cost of remediating an average house is approximately €50,000. This is inclusive of ancillary costs, including the costs of alternative accommodation during repair works and the removal and storage of furniture and fittings. However, this is an estimate and does not take account of cost efficiencies that may be achieved where a number of units are grouped together for remediation purposes.

The remediation scheme will only apply to dwellings which are subject to significant pyritic damage established in accordance with the relevant Irish standard published by the National Standards Authority of Ireland, and where the homeowner establishes to the satisfaction of the PRB that he or she has no other viable option to seek redress. The Government has approved initial funding of €10 million for 2014, with additional funding to be provided from the capital stimulus programme to be agreed early in 2014. This will enable homes identified as being in need of immediate repair due to significant pyritic damage to be remediated over a two year period.

The Minister did not tell us the legal difficulties that prevented the issue being proceeded with. The industry caused the problem but the Exchequer is picking up the tab. Will the Minister take court action against the industry? Is there any prospect of these levies being brought in? Is there a prospect of forcing a payment on the industry? Will it be time limited, as was envisaged not just for those that were most seriously affected, but also for those that will present a greater problem in future? Will the other €40 million identified as needed for the first 1,000 all be forthcoming from the Exchequer? Is there a prospect of any of that being claimed from any of the industry sources?

I share Deputy Murphy's sentiment that we should have been able to get some contribution from the construction industry, the quarrying sector and the insurance sector. However, when we went through the process of setting up the remediation scheme, the legal opinion from the Attorney General stated explicitly that providing for the levies led to a substantial risk of a successful challenge by the quarry owners. I could have challenged that legally but it would have meant that the homeowners - those we are trying to help - might have to wait three or four more years while that legal process was going through the courts, in order to wait for a solution. Rather than do that, I got the approval of the Government to set up the pyrite resolution board on a statutory basis - the legislation will be published shortly - and to give an Exchequer contribution to kick-start the process. Further moneys will be made available as necessary, in light of the independent panel's report, in 2014 with the capital stimulus.

While I agree with the Deputy that I would much prefer to have imposed levies on the quarrying industry and on the insurance industry, I must take legal advice. I am sure the Deputy's and my concern is that the homeowners get a speedy resolution to their problem. I assure the Deputy that we will continue to pursue, based on cases before the courts at the moment, all avenues to ensure we get a contribution from the sector.

The Minister and I can both agree on the dire need for the work to happen as quickly as possible in the most damaged ones first. In the absence of being able to pursue the industry, is he confident there will be sufficient money coming from the Exchequer to repair in the first instance the most damaged houses? Will this be a time-limited scheme to deal with the ones that will have problems into the future?

There is a great deal of concern among people who did not have insurance and have had to repair the houses themselves because they were no longer fit to live in. There is fury over the lack of justice in not including them in some respect in the scheme. The Minister referred to the ongoing court cases involving insurance companies. Are there any other means available? Could the Government take a legal challenge?

We are keeping all options open on potential legal challenges based on case law before the courts at the moment. The Supreme Court will hear a number of significant cases, hopefully in the near future, which will give us the necessary case law to go on. If there is a legal opening for the State to extract some moneys from the quarrying or insurance sectors, we would certainly be glad to do so in order to get more money into the scheme to remediate the people's houses. This is not a compensation scheme. This is pyrite remediation scheme for the first 1,000 identified in the independent report as being in need of urgent remediation over a two-year period. The Deputy will appreciate it is not easy to get money from the Department of Finance or the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform during a bailout programme. I thought she might be satisfied that I got money at all to start the scheme.