Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Local Improvement Scheme Funding

James Browne

Question:

6. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans to provide additional funding for the local improvement scheme in County Wexford; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43046/19]

What are the Minister's plans for providing additional funding to the local improvement scheme in County Wexford?

The local improvement scheme, LIS, supports improvement works on private and non-public roads which are vital to the functioning of every day life in rural Ireland. The scheme is administered by the local authorities who identify the roads to be included under the scheme each year.

Since I reintroduced the scheme in September 2017, I have allocated over €48 million to the local authorities for improvement works on these roads. To date, almost 1,700 roads have benefited from this funding.

On 7 February last, I launched the 2019 LIS and allocated a sum of €10 million to Local Authorities.  Funding allocations on a county by county basis can be found on the gov.ie website.

Wexford was allocated €329,878 under LIS this year and €1.3 million in total since the re-launch of the scheme in 2017.

The LIS is clearly a very popular scheme and is greatly appreciated by the people who use the roads.  However, some local authorities have been slow to utilise the funds which I allocated to them last February.  That is wrong. I emphasise that my officials are pressing the local authorities to make full use of these funds by the end of the year. 

Given the importance of the LIS to the people who live in rural Ireland, I have secured funding for the scheme again in 2020.  A new round of LIS will be announced next year, but I want to consider first how the scheme can be operated more effectively for the benefit of the people who use those roads on a daily basis.

I raised a very specific roads issue, namely that of the local improvement scheme in my own county, Wexford. These improvement works on private and non-publicly maintained roads are very important to local communities. These roads often lead to houses or farms, but also, importantly, may also lead to lakes, rivers, beaches, castles and old graveyards and other historical and important cultural sites. These benefit historical and cultural access and access to facilities in Wexford as a tourism county and are therefore critical for improving development and infrastructure in rural Wexford. A total of 800 applications have been made for the scheme across the country but only about 30 have been funded.

In 2018 Wexford got the third lowest allocation despite being a five-seat constituency and one of the largest populations and counties. In contrast, the Minister's constituency, a four-seat constituency, received almost four times as much funding as Wexford. In 2019 the funding for Wexford has almost halved. Will there be further funding for Wexford for local improvement schemes? It is badly needed. We have the fifth worst roads in the country. While it is not applicable for public roads, the local improvement scheme would help the county.

I do not like to say this to the Deputy, but the roads in Wexford cannot be that bad. I allocated €329,878 to Wexford and the total paid out to date is nil. Wexford has not drawn down one penny from the LIS scheme this year. The Deputy cannot expect me to consider giving any more LIS money when the local authority has not drawn down one penny. I will outline some other figures in the country. I gave them the money in February because I listened to people like the Deputy - to be fair to him, he is right and I agree with him - as well as my colleagues who told me that the local authorities were getting the money too late. I allocated the money in February and to date of the €10 million, I have paid out €1,977,914. That is 19.78% which has been paid out to local authorities. There is something very wrong if that is happening. If there is such demand for the LIS, that money should be drawn down and spent by now.

Last year almost 100% of funding for Wexford was drawn down. It may be just a timing issue but there is a huge demand in the county. I am particularly interested in seeing funding allocated to cultural and historical parts of the county which might not otherwise receive funding. I thank the Minister for expanding the areas where the local improvement scheme can be used, such as roads which do not necessarily have houses on them but which provide access to castles or beaches, for example. It still requires a community to come together to apply for the funding. A prime example in Wexford is that of Tintern Abbey in New Ross near Saltmills which would greatly benefit from this. I am hopeful that an application can be put in there. It is critical for supporting rural Ireland. I have noted before how Wexford is one of only two counties outside Dublin which does not get any funding from the CLÁR programme it is still running on the basis of 2002 populations rather than more recent census figures.

This is critical for a county such as Wexford, which needs additional funding. I hope more funding will be provided.

Deputy Ó Cuív is beside Deputy Browne. Maybe I should do two things. The local contributions from owners or householders have been capped at €1,200 and I have reduced the percentage to be paid by the householder. The Deputies mentioned Mayo but there is a bigger demand in counties such as Mayo, Galway and Leitrim. It is not about the size of the county but where there is a need for the roads. These counties could do with more money but they should spend the money they have.

I am sure the Deputies will agree it is crazy that I am providing €10 million for the LIS, while local authorities are charging my Department between 10% and 13% for administration when they should match the amount. There are elected representatives on councils around the country and they can allocate some of their own resources to the LIS. My Department is the only body doing anything about the scheme. Other Departments should be participating, as well as local authorities, but instead they are taking 13% across the board from my Department. There is also a variation in prices for tar and chippings. I will review the scheme and consider other ways and means of delivering it.

There are a few other Deputies in the Chamber seeking to ask questions and I want to try to get them in before we conclude.

Rural Regeneration and Development Fund Expenditure

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

7. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the amount provided in the 2019 Estimates for the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF; the amount transferred to other subheads in the Vote; the amount remaining in the Vote for the fund; the amount spent to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43662/19]

I was looking at some figures and it seems that after 9.5 months of this year, the Department has only spent approximately half its capital budget. I am curious as to whether the Minister will manage to spend the €52 million allocated to the RRDF or will he find some other way to spend the money? Both the Minister and I hate giving money back to the Exchequer.

The RRDF seeks to support ambitious and strategic projects that have the potential to transform rural economies and communities. The Government has committed €1 billion over ten years to the fund and €315 million is allocated to the fund for the period 2019-2022, with €52 million allocated to the fund for 2019. Following the conclusion of the first call under the fund in February 2019, a total of 84 successful projects had been announced with funding of €86 million provided from the fund to support projects worth a total of €117 million.

Significant progress is being made on the implementation of these projects. A number of the projects have reached their first progress milestone and had funding released. To date, a total of €16 million has been drawn down from the fund by 29 separate projects and I expect payments from the fund will continue to accelerate over the coming weeks and months. Notwithstanding this progress, due to the requirement for due diligence and the time it takes for projects of the size supported by the fund to carry out procurement and get fully up and running, it is clear that savings will likely materialise in this subhead this year.

In that regard, I am pleased that demand under the LEADER programme has ramped up significantly this year and although I initially allocated €30 million to the programme, expenditure stands at approximately €33.3 million. Given this strong performance, I have, therefore, allocated an additional €10 million to the programme to cater for this increase in 2019. This is being reallocated from the savings to be realised under the RRDF subhead this year. I will continue to monitor spend and any savings will be used to benefit other demands under the rural and community programmes of the Department.

The improved activity in the LEADER programme is a welcome development, with more than 2,400 projects now being funded across Ireland. In this regard, I announced this week an additional allocation of €5 million to the ten local action groups most advanced in delivering the programme. These projects, along with the major strategic projects being progressed through the RRDF, are delivering significant economic and social development in rural areas throughout the country. I expect to make an announcement on future rural regeneration scheme projects shortly and am pleased with the great interest in this fund.

I applaud the Minister for transferring the money to the LEADER programme and I am glad it is being spent well, even if it is late in the day for it to start. That still leaves €42 million in the fund, with €16 million spent. In approximately six or seven weeks, the Department must spend €26 million, so is the Minister still confident the funding will be drawn down by the end of the year? Are there other areas in which he could spend the money? For example, has he considered putting more money in the LIS, although I understand the spending is slow there? We do not know whether the spending is slow because the work has not been done or because the Department has not received the bills. It is a perennial problem faced by the Department.

Will the Minister consider, for example, asking local authorities to do some class 3 county roads, which the Minister knows are in poor condition? Quick decisions need to be made. For example, will there be another €10 million in hand to allow a €16 million spend in less than two months, as compared to the €16 million spent in 9.5 months? Should the Minister now make the quick decision to move the money into other funds and have it spent? It is no good trying to do this at the beginning of December.

I am quite confident that all my funding programmes are on profile. I know I will not spend all the money for the rural regeneration scheme but I am confident a substantial amount of that money will be spent between now and the end of year. Many projects, including some in my county and the Deputy's county, are completed and the money will be drawn down between now and the end of the year. I am looking at ways and means of re-profiling the money but I have a big problem with LEADER and the way it is ramping up. There is no doubt that money is being drawn down and I will certainly have to find more money for the programme between now and the end of the year, which is good.

I can give the Deputy a commitment. I know he has been saying this for the past two years. Last year, I spent 100% of my capital funding, as I did the year before. Last year, I spent 99.5% of my current spending allocation and we made some savings in staffing and information technology. It was only a small amount. I spent almost 100% of the money. I can commit to the Deputy that same will happen this year. I hope I have enough money.

I apologise but I am conscious of the time.

I presume the Minister will get the same amount for the RRDF next year.

The amount has been increased.

When will the next tranche of applications be approved? He has had them for some time. The quicker stuff gets out before the end of this year, the quicker people will be in getting started and the more likely it will be that money will not have to be shifted around towards the end of next year. When will the Minister announce the next tranche of projects under the RRDF? I refer to approvals rather than calls to participate in the scheme. When will the next round of calls for projects to apply for funding?

I am very pleased with my officials and we have done well. I am very proud of the Department as we will have a second call for the RRDF. None of the other schemes has had a second call. The Deputy asked a question and in the next two to three weeks I intend to have an announcement regarding the fund. There are some issues on which the Deputy and I disagree but there also some on which we agree.

I need to keep the schemes moving. As the Deputy knows, officials do not like us spending money in advance as at some stage, it will catch up with us, like it did with LEADER. The RRDF is fantastic but it takes time. We need a year or two of allocations so it can level out. I am very proud of the way the Department has worked. There was a scheme last September that was closed in August and in the next two to three weeks, I will announce the successful applications. It will be open again early in the new year for a second round. There will be €1 billion over ten years and the money is there. Next year there will be an increase in the budget for the RRDF. As the years go on, there will be a bigger drawdown.

Community Services Programme Administration

Ruth Coppinger

Question:

8. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if he will increase funding of community centres to ensure workers receive a wage higher than the national minimum wage (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43809/19]

I wonder if the Minister can help so that people doing vital work in community centres can be brought above the poverty line, where many of them now live. There is a terrible anomaly between workers getting the national minimum wage and those on community employment, CE, or Tús schemes.

Ironically, people on the schemes can end up having more income because they are also entitled to other allowances, while directly employed workers are not. The managements of the centres have limited resources and cannot necessarily afford to fund pay rises, which is a terrible anomaly. Obviously, there was no increase in the national minimum wage in the budget. An increase was deferred for reasons that have not been fully made clear.

I thank the Deputy for the question. I presume she is referring to the community services programme which supports more than 400 community organisations in providing local services through a social enterprise model. CSP funding is provided as a fixed annual contribution towards the cost of an agreed number of full-time equivalent positions, including a manager, where warranted. A total of €32,000 per annum is provided towards the cost of the manager position, while €19,033 per annum is provided towards the cost of each full-time equivalent position. The CSP contribution is not aligned with the national minimum wage and does not meet the full salary cost of supported posts. It is a fixed annual contribution that must be co-funded by the organisations concerned from other sources, for example, income generated from the use of facilities and services provided. Supported organisations are obliged under the CSP to pay employees at least the national minimum wage.

Indecon Consultants is carrying out an independent review of the CSP programme on behalf of my Department and the review is nearing completion. It will examine, among other things, the programme's qualifying criteria and income generation requirements. It will help to inform decisions on the future shape and structure of the programme. In the meantime, the Department has provided over €1 million in additional support this year under the CSP support fund to help to address the financial challenges faced by many of the smaller CSP-supported organisations that struggle to pay employees the national minimum wage. The additional contribution paid under the fund was increased from €350 per full-time equivalent in 2018 to €1,100 in 2019.

As I do not have a copy of the written reply, I cannot interrogate all of the detail. I want to make this simple. I was approached by several workers in my local community centre. They work for €9.80 per hour. They are employed directly by a council-run community centre. They approached the council and the management committee to seek a pay rise to bring them into line with workers with whom they were working alongside who might work 25 hours and receive €11.70 per hour. When the fuel allowance kicks in, of which we are all in favour, these workers actually receive the equivalent of €12.70 per hour. We have an unreal situation where people who are employed directly are receiving €2 or €3 less per hour than others with whom they are working who work fewer hours. This cannot continue. People cannot actually survive on the national minimum wage, especially given the cost of rent and the cost of living. The carbon tax has just been imposed and so on. One in every four workers is low-paid. Now we have a situation in community centres where there is a need for pay parity. It is the same demand as that being made in the public sector.

I hear what the Deputy is saying. We do not want to have anyone living in poverty. I repeat that the CSP fund was extended in 2019 to provide additional funding for organisations which were finding it difficult to meet national minimum wage obligations. The CSP fund is totally different from the community employment programme which is a labour activation programme which has been designed to help people who are long-term unemployed to get back to work. The other important point is that under the CSP a contribution is made towards the cost of employing a person which must be co-funded by the organisation concerned. Those of us in the Department are delighted to say we have allocated a further €700,000 for the CSP fund in 2020, bringing the total allocation to €46.89 million. This means that we can bring more new entrants into the programme in 2020. The increase of €700,000 will allow for the approval of approximately 36 new full-time equivalent positions. It is important to reiterate that it is a contribution towards the cost of employment. It has not been designed to meet the full cost.

The way around the problem is to increase the funding provided for community centres specifically to increase the wages of the workers they employ. It should be ring-fenced for that purpose. I know that in reply the Minister of State will argue that the Department does not have the money to do so, but that is simply not tenable. We have the highest number of high net worth individuals - the super rich - that we have ever had in this country. We are also meant to be in recovery. We have seen a major increase in wealth in recent years.

I walked into a community centre in my area the day after the budget was announced and the manager immediately said to me all of the people there were worse off on that day than they had been the previous day. Their wages had not been increased since the national minimum wage had not bee increased, but obviously other things were increased in the budget. How can the Government stand over this? We have a problem and I am not for one moment suggesting a downgrading of the salaries of the temporary workers employed. We can imagine how a person feels when he or she is employed directly when others can come in and work fewer hours and be paid more. The Government cannot stand over this. The only way around the problem is to ensure community centres have sufficient funds and increase the national minimum wage to make it a real living wage, an issue on which we had a debate earlier this week. We proposed that the national minimum wage be €15 per hour, a rate that applies in a number of US states. It also applies in other countries.

I hear what the Deputy is saying, as does the Minister, Deputy Ring. I reiterate that Indecon Consultants is carrying out an independent review of the CSP programme on behalf of the Department. The review will examine, among other things, the programme's qualifying criteria and the income generation requirements that are necessary. It will help to inform decisions on how funding will be provided in the future. It is important to note that the review will be completed shortly. The timeline has been extended to facilitate regional consultation to ensure local input. We discussed this issue earlier. We intend to look at case studies and the extensive consultation with key stakeholders, including management and staff in CSP-supported organisations. If there is a particular case the Deputy has in mind, she should forward the details to the Department. We can get Indecon to examine it.

Local Improvement Scheme

Brendan Smith

Question:

9. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development to set out the likely timescale for the allocation of funding to local authorities in 2020 for local improvement schemes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43822/19]

Brendan Smith

Question:

28. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development to set out the level of funding to be allocated to local authorities in 2020 for the local improvement scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43821/19]

As the Minister knows and Deputy Browne put it so eloquently earlier, the local improvement scheme is particularly important for many rural parishes. It is not simply for one or two houses sited along individual lanes. In many instances, it can serve up to six or more families. In my county there is a significant backlog of applications running to almost ten years. In County Monaghan there is an eight-year waiting list. I am keen to see a substantial increase in the funding provided for this important scheme in 2020. It is a highly valuable scheme which represents is a great investment in rural communities. It is important that this infrastructure be protected and receive investment in order that families can live along laneways that are drivable and to a decent standard up to their homes.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 28 together.

Since I reintroduced the local improvement scheme in September 2017, I have allocated over €48 million to local authorities for improvement works on private and non-public roads. The scheme is administered by the local authorities which identify the roads to be included in the scheme each year. I have secured €10 million in funding in budget 2020 to continue the scheme next year. However, I also want to review it to ensure it is operating as effectively as possible for the people who use the roads on a daily basis. This year I introduced a cap on the level of contribution which any individual householder or landowner is asked to make to the cost of repairs to a road. However, I am still seeing wide variations in the cost of completing these works across local authorities. I am committed to continuing my support for rural communities in 2020 under the LIS and intend to announce a new round of funding next year when I have reviewed how the scheme has operated to date. I want to ensure we get the best value for taxpayers' money which is being used to fund the scheme. The exact level of funding to be provided for each local authority will be confirmed when the scheme is announced.

I thank the Minister for his reply. As people who represent rural constituencies, the Minister and I are conscious of how important the scheme has been during the years. I am keen to see more money invested to try to reduce the substantial backlogs in many counties.

The funding allocated to my county in recent years has been drawn down. Knowing many of the lanes involved and families who have been the beneficiaries, the work was carried out to a very high standard. I am glad that the Minister has introduced a cap on the local contribution because, in many instances, it was prohibitive, particularly for older people who are surviving on a pension and who would not have money available to contribute. It is important that the scheme not be put beyond people's reach because of income pressures. In many instances, members of families, often sons or daughters, may want to set up home on a site given to them by their parents. One of the factors taken into consideration when deciding whether to build in a particular location is the quality of the roadway to the proposed home and the quality of the road network more generally. In many parishes, thankfully, there is good quality community infrastructure like football and hurling clubs, soccer clubs and community centres, with, by and large, a great network of primary schools. We want to try to ensure people who wish to remain living in rural parishes will not be denied that opportunity.

To be fair, County Cavan was allocated €269,254, but, to date, not one penny has been drawn down from my Department. It is sad that it has to telephone local authorities to ask them to draw down money. County Monaghan was also allocated a substantial sum of approximately €250,000, but, to date, not one penny has been drawn down. I was delighted to be able to reintroduce the LIS. There had been no scheme in place for a number of years as it had been closed down. My Department has played a major role in that regard. A total of €48 million has been allocated for the scheme since it was reopened two years ago. However, I am not getting any support from anybody else. The time has come for other Departments to consider contributing some funds to the LIS. One issue that really annoys me about the scheme which is under review is that local authorities are charging between 10% and 13% in administration costs for delivering the scheme when they should be matching the funding I am providing.

Can some of the money be redirected to counties Carlow and Kilkenny?

I assure the Minister that in respect of both County Cavan and County Monaghan the entire allocations will be drawn down before the end of the year. The local authorities in both counties would be very glad to spend an even greater allocation next year. If the Minister were to double or even treble the funding provided, I assure him that it would be spent very well in both counties. In the past the Minister's Department, through the CLÁR programme, used to provide a top-up which was funded directly by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. In 2012 the then Minister, Deputy Varadkar, now Taoiseach, abolished the scheme, but I would love to see it brought back as a mainstream programme in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, with the Department of Rural and Community Development supporting it in the most isolated areas with a top-up payment. That is the route we should take to ensure isolated communities will have the investment and support they need in order that we can keep as many people as possible in rural Ireland.

I support what my colleague said about the need to reallocate the scheme to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and have a top-up payment made by the Department of Rural and Community Development. It is worrying to hear that certain local authorities are not availing of the scheme and not drawing down the allocated funding when county councils such as those in counties Longford and Westmeath have schemes that are oversubscribed every year. Is there an opportunity for the councils that are proactive and deliver in the early part of the year and have schemes that are oversubscribed to avail of moneys allocated to other councils that have not been used by the end of the year? The last thing we want to see happen is money not being used and going back to the Department.

In response to Deputy Troy, Longford County Council has not drawn down any of the funding allocated to it this year, although Westmeath County Council is a credit, having drawn down 100% of its allocation. As Deputy Brendan Smith said, my Department reintroduced the LIS. However, I have been saying since its reintroduction that I need support from local authorities and other Departments. The Deputy is correct in saying I should only be topping up the money available under the LIS. Local authorities should be providing some funding. They have revenue and the elected councillors, regardless of who they are, can make decisions on budgets. They could use some of their own discretionary moneys and some of the funds generated in rates and so on and put them into the LIS. I will continue with the scheme for next year-----

In fairness, the counties that most need the LIS are also the ones with a smaller rates base, unfortunately.

Yes, but at the same time, local authorities have access to lots of money. They are always able to find it when they want to find it and want to become involved in particular schemes. I have respect for the local authorities, but I do not like the fact that they charge my Department for administering the scheme. The revenue raised from charge should be put into the scheme.

Departmental Strategy Statements

Bernard Durkan

Question:

10. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the mission statement of his Department; the degree to which he remains on course to achieve or exceed its targets; the degree to which these objectives can be widened to cater for a wider section of the community, if not already covered; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43823/19]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

288. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the extent to which he expects to be in a position to respond in full to the request in respect of rural and community development in both rural and urban areas in proportion to need; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44122/19]

I wish to ask the Minister about the extent to which the mission statement of his Department is sufficiently broad to enable it to cater for the wider community to the greatest extent possible.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 288 together.

The mission statement of my Department, as set out in its published statement of strategy, is to promote rural and community development and support vibrant, inclusive and sustainable communities throughout Ireland. The Department was established in 2017 to facilitate the achievement of this mission through creating conditions to support increased economic opportunities and local employment in all areas of the country; delivering schemes and programmes that support the revitalisation of towns and villages; improving access to services and social networks that ensure a high quality of life; enabling communities disadvantaged by location or social issues to reach their full potential; and supporting communities to have a voice in shaping their own future. I am satisfied that, through its various funding supports and policies, the work of the Department is delivering positive outcomes for communities throughout Ireland.

Project Ireland 2040 recognises the economic and social importance of rural Ireland through the €1 billion rural regeneration and development fund, the objective of which is to strengthen rural economies and communities. Other funding supports provided by the Department complement this fund, including town and village supports, community services programme and SICAP funding. In addition, my Department continues to work with colleagues across government to drive positive rural and community development and deliver policies and initiatives that consider the economic and social needs of all communities, regardless of location. The policies include the publication in 2019 of Ireland’s first national policy on social enterprise and a five-year strategy to support the community and voluntary sector in Ireland entitled, Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities. The Department is also in the process of developing a new rural development policy to follow on from the action plan for rural development and a national strategy for volunteering, in consultation with all stakeholders. Supporting agencies, including the Western Development Commission, Water Safety Ireland, the Charities Regulator and POBAL, also helps communities.

I am confident that the work of my Department is benefiting all communities and delivering on our mission statement. I am determined that this will continue to be the case and that available funding and supports will continue to deliver positive, visible impacts for all communities across the country on a fully inclusive basis.

In its work to date with various community groups throughout the country has the Department observed a need to extend or expand its various schemes, with a view to enhancing its direct links with community and rural development groups?

We are very satisfied that departmental funding and policies are making a positive difference to communities. Many vibrant towns and villages across Ireland are gaining and one can see that positive changes are happening. Evidence of our impact can be seen in the growing opportunities for employment creation and improved quality of life across rural Ireland. Funding for rural development, town and village renewal and community support schemes is just one of noteworthy examples. Once schemes are put in place, they are reviewed on an annual basis in order to ensure the public money being provided is delivering the required outcomes. There is not a town, village or community in any of the 31 local authority areas that has not benefited in some way from the schemes being run by my Department. All morning we have been talking about various departmental schemes, including the LIS. There is a need for more support, particularly for the LIS, from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and local authorities so as to ensure we will leave nobody behind.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.