I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to introduce the Johnstown Castle Agricultural College (Amendment) Bill 2014 which is a technical amendment to existing legislation governing the use and disposal of land at the Johnstown Castle estate. The scope of the Bill is narrow and straightforward. It is purely an enabling provision to permit Teagasc to develop part of the Johnstown Castle estate, comprising the castle and gardens, as a visitor attraction and to permit the sale of a small area of land to the local community for a burial ground. As expected, there was strong support yesterday in the Seanad for the provisions contained in the Bill and its immediate enactment. I look forward to similar support from Deputies in order that the Bill can be passed into law as soon as possible.
Johnstown Castle estate was gifted to the State by private owners as provided for in the Johnstown Castle Agricultural College Act 1945. The gift was subject to a restriction that it be used exclusively for the purposes of a "lay agricultural college" and no other purpose. The Johnstown Castle Agricultural College (Amendment) Act 1959 extended use of the estate for the conduct of "agricultural research" and transferred ownership from the Minister for Agriculture to An Foras Talúntais. That Act also included a provision preventing An Foras Talúntais from disposing of any part of the estate.
During the 1990s the statutory prohibition on a disposal of the estate was eased and provision was made for the disposal of up to 5% of the estate for "environmental, heritage, amenity or recreational purposes" under the terms of the Johnstown Castle Agricultural College (Amendment) Act 1996. The estate transferred to Teagasc under the Agriculture (Research, Training and Advice) Act 1988, with all related provisions remaining intact in terms of the disposal of estate land.
Johnstown Castle estate extends to some 980 acres and consists of a protected 19th century castle surrounded by gardens and farmland. The estate is of historic and cultural significance. The castle was built in 1840 and is the most significant surviving country house in Wexford. The Irish Agricultural Museum Society operates a museum on the estate, displaying local agricultural heritage artefacts. The walled gardens and grounds remain open to the public and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the EPA occupy offices adjoining the estate.
Teagasc is obliged to maintain the estate at substantial cost to the organisation. It is currently used for farming and agricultural research purposes. The castle and gardens, comprising 120 acres, are no longer used for agricultural education or research. Teagasc is exploring the possibility of transforming the castle and gardens into a visitor attraction for the south east. It has commissioned a number of reports to find viable alternative uses. A conservation plan prepared in 2007, with support from the Heritage Council, recommended conservation works to ensure the significance of the property was maintained. A report commissioned in 2009 by Teagasc, the Heritage Council and the Irish Heritage Trust proposed phased interventions to transform the estate into a high quality visitor destination. More recently, a local steering group led by Teagasc commissioned a business plan to develop a range of visitor and amenity attractions that would attract a substantial number of visitors each year. Currently, the estate has approximately 35,000 visitors a year, but that figure could be increased significantly with the right investment.
Separately, the local community in Murrintown urgently requires land for a burial ground and has identified 2.8 acres on the estate that would be suitable. Teagasc wishes to facilitate the request, but the current legislation, limiting disposal to "environmental, heritage, amenity or recreational purposes" prevents it from doing so. It is proposed to change the legislation to permit Teagasc to dispose of land for burial purposes. The bequest of the estate was a substantial gift to the State by private owners, with certain conditions attached that restrict its use to agricultural education and research. As such, there are quite complex legislative arrangements governing the estate that can only be dealt with by way of legislation. Following examination of the existing legislation governing the estate, the Office of the Attorney General has confirmed that enabling legislation can be introduced to extend use of the castle and gardens and facilitate the transfer of land for a burial ground.
The Johnstown Castle Agricultural College (Amendment) Bill 2014 has six sections and the provisions are as follows. Section 1 provides for a definition of the 1959 Johnstown Castle Agricultural College (Amendment) Act, the Act being amended in the Bill. Section 2 amends section 1 of the 1959 Act to define Teagasc and the Act establishing it. It also defines the map detailing that portion of the estate known as the castle and gardens for which a change of use is sought. This map was deposited on 12 May 2014 with Ordnance Survey Ireland where it is available for public inspection. It is also available on my Department's website.
Section 3 incorporates a number of amendments to section 3 of the 1959 Act. Subsection (2)(a) provides for the inclusion of "burial ground" in the list of specific purposes for which land on the estate may be disposed of. There is no change to the existing 5% limit on land disposals.
Teagasc has already accommodated local interests by providing small land parcels for amenity purposes, as already permitted under the 1959 Act.
Paragraph (b) is an entirely new provision which provides that the part of the estate delineated on a map and comprising the castle and gardens may be used for "heritage, tourism, amenity or recreational" purposes. This provides a statutory basis for the development of the castle and gardens as a visitor attraction. They are largely under-utilised in their current state and it is recognised that their preservation for future generations requires Teagasc to find alternative uses for the estate. As I said already, there is also a significant maintenance cost of €300,000 per annum which is not covered by admission charges to the estate currently.
Teagasc is preparing an outline plan to precisely define the project scope and estimate the full cost of transforming the castle and gardens into a visitor attraction. It is being assisted by the Office of Public Works and Fáilte Ireland to leverage their experience and expertise in developing heritage and conservation projects. Teagasc is also working with Wexford County Council and the county manager on the project. This is a collaborative effort to try to get the most out of a fantastic piece of infrastructure that was gifted to the State many years ago. The plan will be subject to a full capital appraisal in accordance with Government guidelines before any expenditure takes place.
Paragraph (c) permits Teagasc, subject to the consent of the Minister, to lease the castle and gardens or any portion of that part for "heritage, tourism, amenity or recreational" purposes. This is another new provision permitting Teagasc to lease the castle and gardens or part thereof to another organisation to manage it as a visitor destination on behalf of Teagasc, if it deems it the most appropriate and efficient way in which to operate the property as a visitor destination. Any lease will be subject to the consent of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Paragraph (d) is a re-enactment of the existing provisions. Subsection (3) prevents a change of use of the estate to anything other than the purposes set out in subsection (2). We are not really changing anything here. The estate will remain in its current state. We are simply looking for a change of use for the house and gardens but are keeping the entire estate in public ownership.
Section 4 inserts a new section 3A into the 1959 Act to set out the provisions relating to the map showing the area of the castle and gardens for which change of use is being made in order to separate it from the rest of the estate. It provides for the deposition of the map in the central office of the High Court and the Circuit Court office for the county of Wexford after the passing of the Bill. It also provides for retention of the map in the office of Ordnance Survey Ireland, OSI, and that it shall be available for inspection free of charge in the office of OSI. It is also available on my Department's website.
Section 5 inserts a new subsection in section 4 of the Agriculture (Research, Training and Advisory) Act 1988 which outlines the principal functions of Teagasc, which owns and operates the estate. As currently constructed, the existing provisions do not allow Teagasc to operate and develop the estate as a visitor destination. This amendment provides that, in addition to its other functions in providing research, advisory and education services to the agricultural sector, Teagasc may develop and operate the castle and gardens in the estate for heritage, tourism, amenity or recreational purposes. Section 6 provides for the short title and collective citation of this Act.
Johnstown Castle estate requires a new sustainable use to safeguard its future as well as investment to arrest the continuing deterioration of the property. The estate has potential to be developed as a visitor destination for the south east. However, the basis upon which the property can currently be used is restricted by legislation to agricultural education and research. The whole purpose of what we are doing today is to change that.
The Johnstown Castle Agricultural College (Amendment) Bill 2014 brings legal certainty to the future use of the estate and permits Teagasc to develop part of the estate comprising the castle and gardens for tourism purposes as they are no longer required for the performance of Teagasc functions in the agricultural sector. I emphasise that the estate will remain in State ownership and continue to be vested in Teagasc. The Bill is sufficiently restrictive to ensure that the spirit of the gift of the estate to the nation is respected. It does not interfere with existing sporting rights and rights of way reserved in perpetuity to the donors.
Teagasc has been in contact with the descendents of the original donors, who live abroad, about the content of the Bill and I am pleased to say that they have not raised any objections to the planned change of use. They are also supportive of the provision to include a burial ground in the list of purposes for which land on the estate may be disposed of. There is no direct cost to the Exchequer on enactment of the Bill. It is purely an enabling provision to allow the castle and gardens to be developed for tourism purposes and to permit the sale of 2.8 acres to the local community in Murrintown for a burial ground. The objective is to create a flagship heritage and tourism project in Johnstown Castle estate offering a wide range of visitor experiences. Any such development can be expected to generate positive economic spin-offs by enhancing the attractiveness of the area and sustaining jobs in the local economy through increased visitor numbers and so forth.
I look forward to the swift enactment of this legislation and hope the Deputies opposite will facilitate that. I also look forward to hearing what Deputies have to say, and if they have any questions or queries I will try to respond to them.