Priority Questions

We will now move on to questions to the Minister for Rural and Community Development. This is our first Question Time with the Minister.

Rural Recreation Policy

Éamon Ó Cuív


43. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his priorities for the development of rural recreation in 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1840/18]

I welcome the Minister to the House. Given that he has already waited seven months, having to wait an extra 20 minutes beyond the scheduled time was not too much to ask of him.

I know the Minister has been anxious to come in here to answer questions. I do not know what his colleagues were doing that prevented them from facilitating him before now. It appears that the enormous potential of rural recreation has not been exploited over the past seven years. We are not developing rural recreation at the pace we should be. I would be interested to hear what will be the Minister's priorities for 2018. We are starting with a clean slate at the beginning of a new year.

The Deputy knows I have never been afraid to come into this House. I have been a Member of this House for a long time. I believe in procedure. As the Deputy is aware, the Department of Rural and Community Development is less than a year old. It took quite a while to set it up. I am proud of my achievements in setting up a new Department within a short period. The Deputy will recall that before the summer, we had a day-long debate on these issues. I said on that occasion that I was trying to get legislation put in place to ensure I could come in here and answer all the questions Deputies want to put to me. I love coming to this House to answer questions as best I can and that is what I intend to do. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating that.

The Action Plan for Rural Development includes a series of measures to maximise Ireland's rural tourism and recreation potential in recognition of the contribution these sectors make to rural economies. Actions under this pillar are implemented across a number of Departments and agencies. The Department of Rural and Community Development is delivering a number of funding initiatives which I will continue to deliver in 2018. For example, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme provides funding for the development of new outdoor recreational infrastructure and for the maintenance, enhancement and promotion of existing outdoor recreation infrastructure. In 2016 and 2017, the scheme facilitated the development of greenways, blueways, walks and other trails across the country. This scheme will continue to support important local, regional and national rural recreation projects in 2018. In addition, the Department will work closely with Coillte to ensure the long-term maintenance and development of recreational infrastructure on Coillte lands for public use. My Department administers the walks scheme, under which landowners receive modest payments to maintain sections of national waymarked trails and other priority walks that cross their lands. Some 39 trails are covered by the scheme, under which approximately 1,900 landowners receive payments. A Programme for a Partnership Government includes a commitment to double the number of walks on the scheme. A review of the scheme will be undertaken in 2018 to examine how best to make progress with this commitment.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

My Department has been working with the State Claims Agency on the development and putting in place of a national indemnity scheme to strengthen the protection of landowners in respect of recreational users of private lands. It is a priority of my Department to finalise this work this year. I anticipate that a scheme will be agreed in 2018. I am conscious that there has been a significant growth in the number of people engaging in outdoor pursuits across a wider range of activities. I want to ensure the countryside recreation sector can grow sustainably to support rural economies. In this context, I will review the national countryside recreation strategy and supporting structures in 2018 and consider any updates which may be necessary to underpin its continued sustainable growth.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I understand that a review of Comhairle na Tuaithe was conducted in 2015-2016. It is now 2018. I understand that just one meeting of that body took place last year. I am of the view that it should meet regularly in order to create confidence, cohesion and co-operation between all the stakeholders. Why did Comhairle na Tuaithe meet just once last year? How often does the Minister expect it to meet this year? Does the Minister intend to attend its meetings, where possible, as I suggest he should?

The Deputy is quite correct when he says that just one meeting was held last year. I intend to meet that organisation very shortly.

It is not an organisation, it is a committee of the Minister's Department.

I know that the committee is chaired by my Department. I will meet it in the near future to discuss my proposals. I have no difficulty with that. The Deputy is quite correct when he says that a review of the organisation was carried out. I will meet it shortly to discuss the best way to move forward. I guarantee the Deputy that this meeting will take place in the coming weeks. I will then decide how I can move forward with it. I will have those discussions with the organisation in the near future.

If there is one thing that bedevils this Government it is that everything needs to be reviewed. I remind the Minister that time is running out for this Government. It does not have an enormous amount of time in which to fulfil its promises. How many extra walks have been brought under the walks scheme since 2011? How long will this review take? There is a commitment in the programme for Government to double the number of walks. I presume it is intended that this will happen within the period for which the confidence and supply arrangement lasts. The Government is on borrowed time beyond that. How many extra walks does the Government expect to include under this scheme by the end of the year? It will be time up, in effect, at that stage. What progress does the Minister intend to make with the mountain access scheme? As someone who lives adjacent to one of the mountains in question, it seems to me that the scheme is in exactly the same place as it was when I left the Department on 23 March 2010.

This new Department was set up last year. The Government committed in the programme for Government to double the number of walks covered by the walks scheme. Approximately 1,900 farmers are involved in the scheme at present, which I intend to review. We need to review it to see how we can bring more farmers and more walks into it. That is one of my priorities for this year. We have given a commitment. I want to bring more people into the scheme. The Deputy knows that many farmers in his local area and my local area are crying out to be included in the scheme. The reasons for this do not relate to the level of payment involved. The very small payment they receive supplements their income. They do a very good job of maintaining the walks and the scheme. I am going to review it this year. We have given a commitment that we are going to double the walks scheme. I am not giving a commitment that I am going to double the walks scheme, but I am certainly going to review it.

The Government has given such a commitment.

I am going to ensure that more farmers are included in the scheme for the coming year.

Departmental Expenditure

Éamon Ó Cuív


44. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the funding allocated to his Department in 2017; the amount that was spent in 2017; the amount that has been carried forward to 2018; the amount surrendered to the Exchequer at the end of 2017; the amount paid to local authorities in 2016 and 2017 that has not been spent; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1841/18]

All last year, I asked the then Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and subsequently the new Department of Rural and Community Development, about the level of underspend in this area. I kept predicting a significant underspend by the end of the year and the Minister and his colleagues kept telling me that this was not going to occur. Despite the Minister's best efforts at the very end of the year - a late run with the local improvement scheme got rid of €17 million, and fair play to the Minister for that - the Department, which has a total budget of approximately €160 million, wound up with an underspend of €19 million. How can the Minister explain and account for such bad mismanagement of the Department's money?

I thank the Deputy for raising the important issue of funding in my Department. I am committed to working with stakeholders, particularly local authorities, to provide vital services to communities throughout the State. This involves fully using the funding that is provided. The total amount of capital funding allocated to my Department in 2017 was approximately €77 million. This was accompanied by current funding of approximately €85.7 million. The total gross spend in 2017 was €136 million.

Sanction was sought and received from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to carry over €7.7 million in capital funding into 2018. Gross capital underspend of €18.3 million was reduced by the capital carryover of €7.7 million, resulting in the surrender of €10.6 million. The capital carryover will supplement capital expenditure in 2018.

In line with Leader programmes in other EU member states, there has been a lead-in period in ramping up and implementing the 2014-2020 Leader programme. The level of Leader activity in Ireland has increased greatly in recent months. I expect the level of expenditure to grow rapidly in 2018.

A number of other schemes, including the rural economic development zone scheme, the town and village renewal scheme, the outdoor rural recreation infrastructure scheme, the CLÁR programme and the local improvement scheme, provide support to local authorities for the development of rural communities.

My Department has requested updated expenditure information with regard to 2016 funding from individual local authorities. I expect that information to be available by the end of January.

Of the total amount of €28.4 million disbursed, approximately €18.6 million had been spent by October 2017. My Department is continuing to work closely with all relevant local authorities to ensure any remaining funding allocated to them is spent promptly and in accordance with the original project proposals.

In 2017, approximately €23 million in funding under these schemes was disbursed to local authorities subject to a number of drawdown conditions. In the case of the local improvement schemes, funding could be drawn down once it had been confirmed by a local authority that 50% of its works had been completed and that all works would be fully completed by 31 December 2017.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In the case of the outdoor rural recreation infrastructure scheme, town and village renewal scheme and the CLÁR programme, local authorities were required to spend at least 20% of the total project cost before the first tranche payment of 50% of their allocation under the respective scheme could be drawn down. The balance of funding will only be paid on full completion of the projects in question.

The Revised Estimate for Public Services 2018 provides for gross expenditure of €239.2 million, comprising €144 million for current expenditure and €95.2 million for capital expenditure, including the €7.7 million carryover, in respect of the Department of Rural and Community Development. The large increase in current expenditure takes into account provision from the community services programme, which transferred at the beginning of this year to my Department from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

My Department will continue to work with key stakeholders, including local authorities, community and voluntary groups and key agencies, to support job creation, attract tourism investment and contribute to long-term economic development in rural Ireland. It will ensure full use is obtained from the resources allocated and value for money is delivered in respect of the 2018 allocation.

I understand €10 million on the capital side and €8 million on the current side that could have been spent on the ground in rural areas has been handed back to the Exchequer. Will the Minister explain how he managed to underspend the current allocation in the Department? Will he also confirm loud and clear that €10 million paid out to local authorities more than a year ago has not been spent on the ground? This seems to be a case of gross mismanagement. When one adds the €73 million the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine failed to spend last year, one finds that rural Ireland has been cheated of approximately €100 million.

Will the Minister explain what he intends to do to ensure this underspend does not reoccur? Not only does he have funding from last year available to him, but he also has a sum of €7.5 million that was brought forward available to him. On what will he spend the €7.5 million?

Deputy Ó Cuív forewarned me earlier in the year. I have been in the Department for six months.

He was a Minister of State in the Department before his appointment as Minister.

No, I was not the overall Minister. I believe I did brilliantly with respect to the Leader programme.

The Minister is starting to sound like Leo.

If the Deputy looks at the underspend in the Leader programme and local authorities, he will see that I provided the funding. Deputy Ó Cuív is always quick to point out the inadequacies of my stewardship as Minister but he has a short memory. I can go back over underspends if the Deputy wishes to discuss them. In 2008, the Department of which the Deputy was Minister handed back €35 million to the Department of Finance. It then handed back €38 million to the Department in 2010 when he was a Minister for a full year. I have only been a Minister for six months. In fairness to the Deputy, he forewarned me.

I have introduced a number of schemes and I am very proud of the local improvement scheme. The Deputy's constituents were glad to receive some funding under the scheme. I was glad to be able to ensure the overspend in the Department was not greater. Will the Deputy explain how he allowed underspends of €35 million and €38 million to arise when he was Minister?

The Minister is wrong. I was not in the Department in 2010. He may remember that I was in the Department of Social Protection in 2010.

The Deputy was finishing up in the Department.

I was not finishing up; I left the Department in 2010. I will answer the Minister's question on the underspend in 2008 as he appears to believe he is asking the questions today. I could have taken the net knowing that the appropriations-in-aid cannot be spent but did not do so. That is what happened in 2008 and the Minister should check the facts. He is very quick to play games with this issue but he had money which he did not spend. I warned in January that this would happen. On what will he spend the additional €7.5 million his Department has carried forward?

As I said, the Deputy forewarned me last year. Please God, I will be in the Department for the coming year. I guarantee the Deputy that he will not ask me questions about an underspend next year. I considered the option of pre-paying the local authorities again but I did not believe it would be wise to do so given all the questions the Deputy was asking. He was probably correct because I was not happy with the way in which the local authorities were spending the funding they received. I will examine this issue, however.

To give the Deputy a straight answer, I am looking at ways and means to spend the money, including through Údarás na Gaeltachta, the Leader companies and other State agencies that may be able to disburse it on our behalf. The local authorities do not have to progress local improvement schemes or outdoor recreation schemes. I provided funding to Waterways Ireland for a number of schemes which were tremendously successful. The agency received money in February or March and delivered projects in October, which local authorities were unable to do. I will monitor the position to ensure there is no underspend next year. I will give the Deputy a guarantee on that.

Banking Sector

Willie Penrose


45. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if he will report on the outcome of the public banking investigation; when it will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1843/18]

For the past 18 months or thereabouts, I have been a strong advocate of a public banking model along the lines of the German Sparkassen model which has been in place for approximately 200 years. Under this model, public banks would be municipally owned, rather than being nationalised entities. They would be not-for-profit and restricted to lending into the regional economy for the promotion of businesses. They would fill the gap left by the demise of building societies, including the ICS. Post offices and credit unions could earn additional income from providing public bank services across the counter at their branches. The introduction of a public banking model would deliver multiple benefits. I would be grateful if the Minister would outline the current position in this regard.

A Programme for a Partnership Government envisaged that An Post, the Irish League of Credit Unions and other interested stakeholders would be asked to investigate and propose a new model of community banking, similar to the Kiwibank model in New Zealand. The programme for Government also includes a commitment to investigate the German Sparkassen model for the development of local public banks.

A project team comprising officials from my Department and the Department of Finance was established last year to progress this commitment. The team carried out detailed research into the concept of a public banking model, with a particular focus on the Sparkassen model. In addition, a public consultation process seeking views on the concept of a community banking model ran for four weeks. A total of 16 replies from a range of stakeholders were received.

As part of their research, officials from both Departments met representatives from the Savings Banks Foundation for International Co-operation and Irish Rural Link. These organisations put forward a proposal as to how a local public bank, based on the Sparkassen model, could work in Ireland. Departmental officials have finalised their report and submitted their findings to the Minister for Finance and me. The report will be brought to Government shortly for consideration.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am glad he is in the Chamber to answer questions. I have no doubt he is a fearless advocate for rural Ireland.

I also welcome the progress made in the investigation into a new model of public banking. The development of a network of regionally based public banks could be a game changer for small and medium enterprises, agribusiness and the regions.

IDA Ireland's efforts in the midlands, especially counties Westmeath and Longford, have been abysmal, shambolic and disappointing, to say the least. In 2017, only 2% of jobs related to foreign direct investment were located in the midlands, which also experienced the smallest increase in IDA Ireland supported jobs in the year. Of 210,000 IDA supported jobs nationwide, only 4,327 are in the midlands. This equates to 2% of total jobs and the figure appears to worsen every year. It is time the Government took urgent corrective action, particularly in the midlands region, including my constituency of Longford Westmeath. The proposal to establish a midlands public bank in Mullingar as a pilot for a national network of regional public banks would go a considerable way towards making up for the failures of IDA Ireland. As I stated, a regional public bank is not a nationalised bank like Allied Irish Banks.

I understand the Deputy's frustration and that of many individuals and businesses who are trying to secure loans from and work with the banks. The programme for Government included a commitment to investigate what could be done to provide community banking. I am pleased a report on the issue has been completed. I received a copy of the report and the Minister for Finance and I will bring it to Government, after which it will be published. I will ensure this is done as quickly as possible. The good news is that the consultation has taken place, the report has been completed and the Minister for Finance and I will bring the report to Government, after which it will be published.

I thank the Minister for that, and I have no doubt about his commitment. This project for a public banking model is a no-brainer. What concerns me is that the dead hand of the bureaucrats at the Department of Finance will scuttle it. I know what they were like when we brought forward the Bankruptcy (Amendment) Bill. By hell, they resisted it. I am afraid they will resist anything new or novel or anything that represents something away from their cosy arrangements. They got their hands and fingers burned following the economic collapse and the crisis, when they took their eyes off of the ball together with the regulators. I am concerned that they are afraid or are reticent in this regard and that they will kill this before it gets out of the traps. I am keen to give the Minister 150% support. The Minister should shake them up in the way he always shakes people up. He should not be afraid to take on the mandarins, who will try to kill this before it gets out of the traps.

I might want to bring Deputy Penrose into the Cabinet meeting with me. Certainly, this will be brought to the Cabinet as quickly as possible. I do not disagree with what Deputy Penrose has said, but at the same time we gave a commitment and I was given the responsibility to put the matter out for consultation. I did my part of the job. It is now a matter for the Department of Finance and myself. We will bring this to Government. There will be a discussion at Government. As soon as we bring this to Government, I will ensure that the report is published. We will do that as quickly as it can be done.

Community Development Projects

Éamon Ó Cuív


46. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development to outline his plans for the development of the community services scheme in 2018 in view of the fact that responsibility for this scheme has transferred to his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1842/18]

I understand the Minister has taken over responsibility for the community services programme. The programme has major potential. The first thing the Minister will need is money to expand it. It has the potential to use many of the facilities that the State has invested in to keep them open all day every day. What are the Minister's plans to avail of this unique opportunity to expand the scheme rather than simply run it on a maintenance basis?

The community services programme was transferred to my Department on 1 January 2018. The CSP supports community organisations to provide local services through a social enterprise model. Funding is provided towards the costs of employing a manager and a specified number of full-time employees. The funding allocation for the programme in 2018 is €46.2 million.

My immediate priority for the community services programme is to ensure its smooth transfer to my Department and to maintain the level of service for the 425 organisations funded under the programme. Thereafter, the intention is to monitor the programme's progress over the next six months and, working closely with Pobal, undertake a thorough review, to commence in early autumn 2018. The review will consider, among other things, how the programme fits with overall Government priorities as well as my Department's other community programmes and its policy objectives. In particular, the review will consider potential crossover with my Department's forthcoming national policy on social enterprise.

In the meantime, I expect to approve total funding of €1 million in the coming weeks for social enterprises providing employment to specified disadvantaged groups. The funding will be allocated to new social enterprises selected following a call for applications issued in 2017 under strand 3 of the programme. I also expect to approve funding for additional social enterprises during the year as space and funding become available as part of the ongoing management of the programme.

How many reviews does the Minister have going on at one time in the Department? It seems every answer to every question put to this Government involves doing a review. How many reviews is the Department carrying out at the moment?

How does the budget of €46 million compare to the budget for the same programme last year? Has it been increased or is it the same money?

Deputy Ó Cuív will have to agree that we need a review of this programme. I have only taken over this scheme in the past three weeks. I certainly need a review to see where the programme is going and what it is about.

The budget for this year is €46.2 million.

What was it last year?

This supports over 1,600 positions. As Deputy Ó Cuív knows more than anyone, the community services programme provides vital services for the community. I truly believe this programme is one that I need to review in the coming months to see how it fits in with other programme, as I said in my earlier reply.

There is one thing I want to do. I know Deputy Ó Cuív tried to do the same thing when he was in office. We have many schemes and programmes that involve people drawing funding from this pool, that pool and the other pool. I am keen to ensure that the communities and the people who need this money most get the funding. The scheme has come over from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The most important thing is that there is a smooth transfer. I am keen to ensure that I can review the scheme to see how I can improve and enhance it.

I will ask the question again: how does the money provided this year compare to the money provided last year? Simply put, the Minister knows he cannot dramatically increase the scheme if the money has not increased. How does the money this year compare to last year?

Mayo would claim to have great prowess at Gaelic football. However, it seems to me that the Minister is becoming keen on rugby, because all he does with everything is kick to touch. Will the Minister explain the rocket science aspect to this programme? Surely the Minister is familiar with the programme from his work as a Deputy. It runs community centres, including the centre in Cong beside me and so on. The programme has schemes for the disadvantaged, for Travellers and so on. The people employed all need the employment. The programme creates considerable tourist revenue because many tourist facilities are loss leaders in their communities. Why is it so urgent to undertake a review rather than expand the scheme? Expansion could ensure more people could avail of working rather than drawing the dole. That is what they want to do. They are queueing to come on to these schemes.

Is the Minister not satisfied that the services being provided are, in the main, needed? Is he really going to tell people he will withdraw the scheme from them? How will the affected facilities survive afterwards?

Those involved in some of these schemes tell me that the main difficulty they have is getting people to come on to the schemes.

That is what they are telling me. We are near full employment. Yet, these schemes are vital to rural Ireland and to communities that need the services.

I have taken over the programme this year. I am pleased that I have taken over this programme. These are social enterprises - Deputy Ó Cuív knows that. We are giving a subsidy to these social enterprises. They are supposed to be in place, and they are. The enterprise in Connemara is doing very well. It has generated good revenue. The more of these social enterprises we have that work, the better for Deputy Ó Cuív, myself and for employment. That is what I want to see. I want us to support them. I have no wish to support the enterprises making large amounts of money or those with large amounts of money in the bank. I would prefer to support the enterprises that need the €19,000 per annum or €32,000 for the manager. Such supports assist these enterprises and enable them to operate. The supports make them good social enterprises. That is my plan and it is something I will look at in the coming year.