Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Cuirfimid tús le Ceisteanna chuig an Aire ar an Roinn Forbartha Tuaithe agus Pobail, an Teachta Michael Ring, leis an gcéad Cheist, Ceist Uimh. 1, ón Teachta Éamon Ó Cúiv agus tá tríocha soicind aige.

What is the quorum, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle?

The quorum is ten Members for 10.30 a.m., to commence the business.

There are not ten Members here.

I would not be starting if there was not ten here.

Departmental Expenditure

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

1. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the amount of funding allocated to his Department for current and capital expenditure, respectively, for 2018; the amount spent under each category respectively to date in 2018; his plans to ensure full spend of the available funds by the end of 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46146/18]

The question relates to continued underspend in the Department even against its own profile which is skewed towards the end of the year and which is bad practice. Even allowing for that, however, there is a significant underspend in the Department. Will the Minister give us the up-to-date situation on what he proposes to do about it?

The Revised Estimates for 2018 in respect of the Department of Rural and Community Development sets out gross capital expenditure of €87.5 million and the current expenditure of €144 million for the Department. The capital expenditure is supplemented by some €7.7 million capital carried forward from 2017.

As of 5 November, €54.8 million of my Department’s capital allocation has been spent and €124.7 million in current expenditure has been spent. There remains €40.4 million in capital expenditure and €19.3 million in current expenditure to be utilised before the end of the year.

My Department is working in partnership with key stakeholders to fully utilise the available resources. Local authorities, community and voluntary groups, as well as dedicated agencies have key roles to play in supporting job creation and attracting investment across rural Ireland and supporting the development of communities throughout Ireland. Close monitoring of expenditure is a matter of significant priority so as to ensure full use of our allocated resources, and that value for money is delivered in respect of our funding. I have already identified areas where some capital programmes are unlikely to spend their full allocation this year. For example, while LEADER activity is ramping up and a healthy pipeline of projects have been approved, the programme will not require its full allocation this year.

I have been proactive in reallocating capital resources where possible. For example, I have already expanded the community enhancement programme this year, increased investment in libraries, and provided additional support to fund the local improvement schemes. I have also supported the development of Coillte trails, Tidy Towns, agricultural shows and Men’s Sheds organisations. By ensuring claims are made, continued close monitoring of expenditure and, if necessary, further reallocation of resources, I will ensure the resources made available to my Department will be fully utilised, delivering for all communities and for rural Ireland.

Will the Minister explain why, according to the Exchequer returns, the expenditure on the current side is €8 million behind profile at the end of November? The Minister said he has reallocated money and I saw an announcement on local improvement scheme, LIS, roads, but, as of yesterday, the local authorities have not received formal notification. These local authorities obviously cannot spend money they have not been notified about, no matter how many press releases have been issued by the Minister. Will he inform us when it is intended to let the local authorities, which have been told this money is on the way but about which they have not received formal notification, know that they have this money?

Today is 8 November and these authorities will not be working on LIS roads over Christmas. They have to get the bills in and the work has to be certified and inspected before that. When is the Minister going to notify them about the extra LIS money?

I am surprised to hear that because I was told by colleagues yesterday that some of the local authorities have started spending some of the money that was reallocated to them last week. My understanding is that the local authorities have been notified, but I will correspond to the Deputy on that. The local authorities have been notified of the amount of money they are getting for the year.

Let us call a spade a spade. I allocated money in early February of this year to some of the local authorities and some of them have still not spent some of it. As a former councillor, the Deputy knows the LIS money, in particular, is always spent at the end of the year. I have been told by colleagues that many LIS roads are being done. Looking at the newspaper cuttings from around the country, I am being accused of giving money for roads because the local elections are coming up. I am pleased to have put €37 million into LIS roads to date.

Deputy Ó Cuív, to be fair to him, has been pushing me to reallocate money and the LIS is one of the better schemes. We wrote to the local authorities last year and gave them an indication of when we would allocate money. As I said, by October there had been a drawdown of €24.6 million from the capital budget. As Deputy Ó Cuív knows, the local authorities are always complaining that they have no money, yet when they are given money to spend and asked to draw it down, they leave it to the last minute to do so.

Not so long ago I submitted a question about money allocated in 2016 on a forward payment basis that had not been spent. I cannot understand why, when local authorities are consistently not spending the money allocated to them, the Department does not allocate funds on a use or lose basis. The Department allocated local improvement scheme money in January, for example. Why did it not specify that any money not spent and accounted for by June would be lost and reallocated in July? Now is not a great time of year to make a big push on roads, with dark, wet and frosty days ahead.

The Minister did not answer the question regarding the underspend in the current budget, amounting to €8 million against profile at the end of November. I ask him to explain where that underspend has occurred because it is significant in the context of the current budget. Regarding the capital budget, the position at the end of November was that €45 million out of a total of €88 million had been spent. I ask the Minister to explain the underspend on the current side.

On the LIS, the Deputy will be interested to note that €10.8 million was allocated in April of 2018 and up to October, €7.8 million had been drawn down, which is acceptable. I am happy with that and many of the local roads projects will be completed before the end of the year.

Deputy Ó Cuív asked why there is an underspend on the current side. I can give him a guarantee that my money will be spent in full by the end of the year. In terms of current spending, we are awaiting some bills that have yet to come in. I have no doubt, however, that both my capital and current budgets will be spent. As I have said at committee, I intend to have my money spent before the end of the year. That is why I have reallocated money to the local improvement scheme, men's sheds and the Tidy Towns competition. I have also reallocated money to the community enhancement programme. All of the aforementioned schemes are delighted to be getting additional funding. There is a underspend in LEADER and Deputy Ó Cuív has tabled a number of questions in that regard to which I will respond later. I can give a guarantee in the House today that my money, both current and capital, will be spent by the end of the year.

Question No. 2 replied to with Written Answers.

CLÁR Programme

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

3. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans to reintroduce the group water and sewerage top-up leverage schemes under the CLÁR programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46147/18]

My question relates to the reintroduction of the group water scheme top-up. I read a value for money report recently indicating that certain officials seem to think that an average spend of between €10,000 and €12,000 per house on schemes in very isolated rural areas is very expensive. Does the Minister believe that everyone in the country should be given access, with very few exceptions, to water from a group scheme or a public main, where we can be sure of the quality of the water, rather than from wells?

The CLÁR programme provides funding for small-scale infrastructure projects in disadvantaged rural areas that have experienced significant levels of depopulation. As the Deputy is aware, the programme was effectively closed for new applications in 2010 but I relaunched it in 2016 and since then more than 1,200 projects have been approved for funding of more than €25 million.

Since 2016, the CLÁR programme has provided funding to support safety measures for schools and other community facilities. It has funded play areas and multi-use games areas in communities and also provided supports for first responders. This year, for the first time, it has enabled the purchase of vehicles to transport people to cancer care centres and respite services.

My objective is to ensure that the funding available under the CLÁR programme is used to benefit communities in remote rural areas to the best extent possible. I have been able to visit some of the projects which have been funded through the scheme and have seen at first hand the positive impact which even a small amount of support can have on these communities.

I am open to considering expanding the scope of the CLÁR programme to include other measures, subject to budgetary availability. I am aware that in the past the CLÁR programme supported measures such as group water and group sewerage schemes.

I have initiated a review of the CLÁR programme which will examine CLÁR areas by reference to the 2016 census of population data. This review will also help to inform future CLÁR programmes in 2019 and beyond. Decisions regarding specific measures which might be supported under the CLÁR programme in 2019 will be made early next year.

Does the Minister believe that it is the fundamental right of every household to have access to water from either a high quality group water scheme or a public main? Does he agree that those who say a cost to the State of €12,000 per household is excessive should examine the cost of providing basic services to an urban house? In an urban context, one is talking about water, sewerage, street lighting and pavements which would cost well in excess of €12,000 in capital, not to mention the running costs. In most cases, the top-up on the CLÁR scheme was much smaller than that amount but the top-up meant that many rural group water schemes, including many in County Mayo, got going because there was a certainty from the beginning with regard to the amount each household would have to pay.

I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív. As I said, the CLÁR scheme was closed in 2010 and reopened in 2016. The Deputy is correct that it needs to be reviewed. In response to his simple question, I believe that people in rural Ireland have a right to clean water. I agree with the Deputy’s views on CLÁR and I will review both the sewerage and water schemes. The Deputy’s assessment is correct. When members of small communities are collecting local contributions for a group water scheme, the amounts involved are too high for individual households so a top-up must be put in place. I will review the CLÁR scheme in that context and speak to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment which should increase the funding available for setting up group water schemes.

My first priority on taking office was to get the CLÁR programme back up and running and I am glad I have done that. I have looked at a number of different measures because there is an element of flexibility within the CLÁR programme in terms of supporting rural Ireland. I do not disagree with the Deputy's views on this matter and have been considering a top-up. However, while I want to support small group water and sewerage schemes because the local contribution required is too high, I do not want to see the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment withdrawing money while my Department subsidises such schemes. I want to be able to top up the group water and sewerage schemes in an effective way and will consider the possibility of doing so early in the new year.

When the top-up system was in place previously, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment did not withdraw money. In fact, the top-up had the opposite effect in that it made it possible for schemes in isolated areas to access funding from that Department because it made collecting the local contribution easier and ensured that proposals for group schemes were viable. Communities were drawing down significant amounts of money from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Does the Minister accept that it is unrealistic and wrong for Irish Water and the regulator to say that any extension of sewerage schemes should be done at total economic cost, particularly when urban areas were serviced with no local contribution?

The Minister is a great advocate for rural Ireland. Can he guarantee that the principle of extending the group sewerage schemes to areas near towns, which can be done relatively economically using the public main, will be pursued and that we only develop group sewerage schemes that can be connected into the public system? Will he reintroduce the top-up for group water schemes to achieve the simple aim of having high quality, highly monitored water in every house in this country?

No, I cannot guarantee that. However, I agree with the Deputy that we need a top-up for group water and sewerage schemes. I will see what I can do in my Department, but there are budgetary constraints. I am committed to what the Deputy seeks and, like him, believe people in rural Ireland should have both water and sewerage services, where possible, and receive the same supports from the State as people in cities and towns. I can give one commitment to the Deputy. I am reviewing the issue and sympathetic to group water schemes. I am aware of schemes that were ready to go in 2010 when the CLÁR programme was closed down and they never happened because it was not possible to get the local contribution. It was a good scheme which worked. I will review it and if I can find some funding in my Department, it is one I would like to have up and running as quickly as possible.