Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Departmental Expenditure

Dara Calleary

Question:

33. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the amount of funding allocated by his Department for current and capital expenditure in 2018 including the capital carry-over from 2017; the amount spent under each category to date in 2018; his plans to ensure full expenditure of funds available by the end of 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52192/18]

Let battle commence. I am trying to get my head around the funding model of the Minister's Department and the constant underspend in capital. I know it is drawdown but the fact is there is still 30% of the budget unspent after 11 months of the year. What are the Minister's plans to deal with that and to ease the system whereby money is drawn down from his Department?

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Calleary on his recent appointment. I am delighted to see him opposite me. It is well deserved and it is a great honour that I have the deputy leader of Fianna Fáil as my spokesperson. I am very pleased to have him and welcome him.

The revised Estimates for 2018 in respect of the Department of Rural and Community Development set out gross capital expenditure of €87.5 million and current expenditure of €144 million for the Department. The capital expenditure is supplemented by €7.7 million capital which was carried forward from 2017. As of 7 December 2018, €73.7 million of my Department's capital allocation and €135.4 million of the current allocation has been spent. There remains €21.5 million in capital expenditure and €8.6 million in current expenditure to be spent before the end of the year.

Close monitoring of expenditure is a matter of significant priority for my Department so as to ensure full use of our allocated resources and that value for money is delivered in respect of all 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 has been approved, the programme will not require its full allocation this year. I have been proactive in reallocating 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, LIS. I have also supported the development of Coillte trails, Tidy Towns, agricultural shows and men's shed organisations. The progress being made with regard to payments is clear. Almost €35 million in capital expenditure was paid out in October and November. I will continue to closely monitor expenditure over the final weeks of this year to ensure our resources are fully used, delivering for all communities and for rural Ireland.

I thank the Minister for his good wishes. Both of us share an interest in and a passion for this area and I look forward to working with him. There is €21 million in capital to be spent between now and the end of the year in three weeks' time, and €8.6 million in current expenditure. Is the Minister confident that he will spend that €21 million, particularly in capital? I suspect he will spend the allocation in current expenditure. Can he give a guarantee that if it is not spent, it will go into his Department's budget next year as opposed to going back into the central Exchequer? Are there programmes into which the Minister intends to divert extra cash over the next two weeks or maybe when the House is in recess? Can he give us an indication of what those programmes are?

All available allocations will be spent on my capital. I will guarantee the Deputy that. As I said in my reply, almost €35 million in capital was allocated in October and November. The Deputy is quite correct that I have reallocated resources required including the senior alert scheme, libraries and the LIS scheme. I have reallocated money to that already and am confident that my capital budget will be spent at the end of this year. I can assure the Deputy in that regard. I know he spoke about last year. We have to remember that this Department is 16 months in existence. I want to take the opportunity to put on record that the Department had two moves. The Department was set up in July of last year and I am very proud of the hard work done by my officials, my new Secretary General, my assistant secretaries and all my staff, both in Ballina and in Dublin. I want to compliment the staff on the work they have put into setting up this Department - I am very proud of them. I would go so far as to say it is a Department that should be kept for the future. There is a fantastic team there now. I have no doubt and can assure the Deputy that I will have my capital allocation spent by the end of this year. A colleague of the Deputy's used to have a lot of sleepless nights about underspend. The Deputy should go back over his record; it is no wonder he had sleepless nights.

I am very proud of the Department as well. I am very proud of the fact that my party proposed that it be established. I am delighted we gave the Minister a job. I am proud, too, of the fact that it is in Ballina. That is an example of how decentralisation works. The people who are on the ground, top class civil servants, who are living these programmes are delivering them. Long may it continue and let us encourage more of it. The Minister has made commitments on expenditure but will the groups be in a position to draw them down? Allocations are certainly made but the drawdown across many of the Department's programmes for whatever reason seems to be complicated and difficult. Is the Minster 100% confident that the money will not be just allocated but completely drawn down before the end of the year?

What I will guarantee the Deputy is that my capital allocation will be spent for this year. He asked a question. There is funding outstanding to different groups that they will not be able to spend but we have taken that into consideration. My capital budget will be spent this year. Anything that is not spent I have already reallocated in respect of LIS. The Deputy knows how important that is to our own constituents and to every other constituency in the country. I am proud also that we put in place the senior alert scheme; thousands upon thousands of people now feel safe in their homes because I have reallocated money for that. I am confident that my available allocation for 2018 will be spent and I assure the Deputy that when he puts down this question again in the new year, I will have my capital allocation spent.

Rural Resettlement Scheme

Martin Kenny

Question:

34. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his views on whether the allocation of €100,000 to six towns as part of the scheme to encourage families to return to live there will be adequate to achieve that purpose; the way in which he plans to achieve what is intended with that amount; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51990/18]

The Minister has introduced a scheme to encourage families to return to live in towns and villages. He has allocated €100,000 to six different towns. While I understand what he is trying to do, the scale is tiny. Boyle in County Roscommon contains dozens of old buildings that are falling down. One could spend €100,000 on just one of these buildings. I cannot envisage anybody in London or Birmingham being encouraged to move back because €100,000 is coming to their home town. It is ridiculous. Somebody needs to get a grip on the scale of the problem because this will not solve it.

The rejuvenation of our towns and villages is a priority for the Government and is a strong feature of the national planning framework, NPF, and the Action Plan for Rural Development.

As part of the Government's efforts to rejuvenate towns, I launched a pilot initiative on 11 October 2018 to examine how best to encourage people to take up residence in towns. The town centre living initiative is being piloted in six towns of different sizes around the country.

The reasons people do not choose to live in town centres, even if premises are available, are complex. These may relate to the availability of services, recreational facilities, access to public transport etc.

Each of the towns in the pilot will receive funding of up to €100,000 to engage with their communities, chambers of commerce and local businesses to identify practical solutions that can be delivered to achieve the objective of increasing the number of people living in the town. Every town’s situation is different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, the ideas emerging from this pilot may serve as a model for other towns with similar features.

It is envisaged that the solutions identified through the six pilot towns will lead to the development of more proposals for funding from the rural regeneration and development fund.

The rural regeneration and development fund will provide €1 billion up to 2027 to support the revitalisation of rural settlements with a population of less than 10,000 people, and their outlying areas. The fund aims to support ambitious projects of scale that are multifaceted and which will make a significant impact on the economic and social development of our towns.

I announced the first round of projects to be supported under the fund on 23 November and further announcements will be made in the new year.

This is basically money to pay for a study in six different towns. I presume the study will involve employing a consultant to do a report. That seems to be where we are going here. The Minister should talk to Irish Rural Link, the credit union movement or the chambers of commerce in any of those towns. He would not need to spend €100,000 for an analysis of the problems and where the money needs to be spent to regenerate those towns and get people to come back to live in them.

It is a waste of resources compared with the problem we have. With €100,000 allocated, people in those towns think that it is coming to deliver something in that area and not to produce another study. We have probably had dozens of studies on rural Ireland and they are all sitting on shelves gathering dust. Action is needed. The Minister will say before having action we need a plan as to where that action will be and all that. All those plans have been done before. I am frustrated €600,000 will be spent buttering up more consultants. If that is what it is about, it is time the Minister gave this a bit of a shake-up.

The Deputy is missing the point. The point is a number schemes involving grant aid existed. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government had two schemes, but there was no uptake and, therefore, there was a problem.

We picked six towns for the pilot. The €100,000 is not to do up any premises. The €100,000 is to sit down with the local people, chambers of commerce and other groups. These six towns might come back with six solutions for their towns. They may all be the same or different towns might come up with different solutions.

The Deputy and other Members continually refer to the diktat coming from Government. I am now saying the Government is going to the people and the groups. They are going to sit down. We have given them funding. They will get professional people and work with the community. They will talk to everybody and they will come back to me next year with proposals. When these proposals come back, I can then consider what funding we can take from the rural regeneration and development fund, what funding we are spending in the towns and villages what funding we are spending on outdoor recreation to see what we can do to help these towns. They may be different solutions; they are different problems. The existing schemes have not worked and this is a new way of doing it.

We knew the schemes were not working. We should not throw more good money after bad because the schemes have not worked. One of the examples is the repair and leasing scheme where a person could get €40,000 from the local authority to do up a property which would then be leased to the local authority for ten years. It did not work. It is not necessary to be a genius to know why it did not work. First, there was not enough money. If it was going to cost €150,000 to do up a property, nobody would be willing to accept €40,000 and then lose control of it for ten years. It was a poorly thought out scheme. It might have been fair enough if it only needed a bit of painting of decorating. However, for that amount, it was never going to work. It is not necessary to have someone do an assessment as to why it did not work.

We need money put into the schemes that require money. We need proper grant schemes to allow people to do up those old buildings and make them available for rent without restrictive conditions. Much of the time it is not the people on the local authority housing lists who want to rent houses in towns, but the people who are working and cannot get on the local authority housing lists. The problem is with the people trapped in the middle. Many people are not on the local authority housing lists because they earn slightly above the limit, but, at the same time, they cannot afford to rent. It is the Minister's responsibility to make available places they can rent.

That is the whole point. The Deputy gave me the answer in his question.

Why does the Minister need to spend €100,000 asking other people?

The answer is very simple. We are giving these towns funding to allow them to plan their futures. It will not be the local authority or the Department of Rural and Community Development, but the towns. I believe Boyle is in the area the Deputy represents. The people in Boyle are very happy. They welcome the €100,000 pilot scheme because for the first time they will be able to plan their futures. They will be able to identify what Boyle needs and not what the Government thinks Boyle needs. The same applies to Callan, Ballinrobe, Banagher, Castleblayney and Cappoquin. We picked these towns. If they come back to us with proposals and solutions, we will look at them. We will look at all the existing schemes we have. In the case of Boyle, the funding will tie in to the overall plan the people have for that town. They are delighted they were included in the pilot scheme. They are happy that they can plan for the future.

LEADER Programmes Administration

Dara Calleary

Question:

35. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the progress made to date with the roll-out of the LEADER programme 2014 to 2020; the expenditure incurred to date on the programme by administrative, animation and project costs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52193/18]

The LEADER programme continues to be behind budget. The Minister referred to it in the reply to my previous question. He made some changes when he took office. I ask for an update on expenditure on the programme.

LEADER is a multi-annual programme with a total budget of €250 million over the period to 2020.

Total expenditure on the LEADER programme since it commenced, which was effectively in 2016 when the majority of funding agreements were signed, amounts to €34 million. This comprises: €1.47 million in initial costs incurred by the LEADER local action groups to develop local development strategies; €21.6 million in administration costs of the local action groups and the cost of their engagement with communities to generate projects, which is also referred to as animation costs; and €11 million on project expenditure.

The level of project activity under the LEADER programme has increased significantly this year. A total of 1,525 projects have now been approved for funding of more than €50 million, compared with 592 projects approved at the end of 2017. A further 370 applications, requesting an additional €23.4 million, are at various stages in the approval process.

Project payments have also increased significantly in recent months as approved works are completed and claims are submitted. More than €10 million of project expenditure has been incurred in 2018, compared with just under €700,000 in 2017.

I expect the progress being made on the LEADER programme will continue as further projects are approved and payment claims are made. The progress has been assisted by improvements made by my Department in the past year to the applications and approvals process in consultation with the local action groups.

I thank the Minister for his reply. A total of €11 million has been spent out of €250 million and we are now in year five of a programme that runs from 2014 to 2020. Only €11 million has actually been spent on projects to date. Even if we were to add the €23.4 million to that total it only brings the spend up to approximately €35 million. There is still a problem here. The Minister has referred to the ramping up of expenditure during 2018. He has also been moving funds out of LEADER and into other programmes, which does not suggest full confidence on his part that we will spend the €250 million by the end of 2020 or even 2021. How much of the €250 million will be invested in projects at the end of this? Is the Minister proposing any other changes to ensure that the cash goes into projects and that spending increases significantly during 2019?

As the Deputy knows, spending under the LEADER programme takes a while to ramp up. To date, €35.5 million of the programme budget has been spent since it commenced. I am expecting that by the end of this year, a total of €24.5 million of that funding will be spent. Every LEADER programme takes a while to ramp up because the local action groups, LAGs, or LEADER companies have to identify projects in the first instance.

Another issue to bear in mind is the fact that with previous LEADER programmes, there were no other competing schemes. Now we have numerous other schemes and funds, including the rural regeneration and development fund, the outdoor recreation infrastructure fund, the town and village renewal scheme and so on. That said, I am pleased that this year a total of 1,525 projects have been approved to the value of €50.5 million and a further 370 projects with a value of over €23 million are going through the approvals process. When projects are approved, they must be developed further and then funding is drawn down. Approval has been granted for many projects and much work is under way. The programme is beginning to ramp up significantly and I am pleased with that.

While there has been some progress in 2018, the Department has still only spent 50% of what was allocated for LEADER this year. That suggests that the Department is not yet up to speed in terms of getting the budgeted amounts out. Is the Department looking at any of the structures involved? Are there LEADER companies or local authorities that are not performing at the level required? Has the Department identified any laggards that might be delaying allocations to projects or delaying the draw down of funds for any particular reason and if that is the case, does the Minister intend to act on that?

I am monitoring this closely. To be fair, my Department is not holding back progress. When the Department gets receipts, it pays out the funds as quickly as possible. In response to the Deputy's specific questions, some of the LEADER companies around the country have done very well. In Mayo, for example, 88 projects have been approved with a total value of €3.689 million and to date, €407,887 has been drawn down. In Kilkenny, 55 projects with a value of €1.498 million have been approved, while the figure for approved projects in Laois is €941,000, with a draw down to date of €317,000. The Deputy is correct in saying that some counties have been slow to get off the ground but they are beginning to make progress now. Galway has not been doing too well so far but I am sure it will improve. In Galway east, projects worth €1.254 million have been approved but to date no funding has been drawn down. In Galway west, a total of 22 projects worth €381,000 have been approved but only €70,000 has been drawn down.

To be fair, my Department is not holding things up. I have already made a number of changes to LEADER. My Department meets the LAGs on a regular basis. I met LEADER companies earlier this year and told them that I will make any changes that are required to improve the programme.