Adjournment Matters. - Swimming Pool Projects.

I welcome the Minister of State. I am a voluntary director of Longford Leisure Limited which looks after the Mall Complex and Leisure Centre in Longford.

I hope the Senator has declared it.

I receive no remuneration. I was appointed on a voluntary basis by Longford County Council.

Longford swimming pool is probably the oldest in the country. In 1991 renovation work was carried out to the pool which was constructed in the 1960s to extend its life for a period of five to six years. Following an inspection in April 1996, consulting engineers, Malachy, Cullen and Partners, informed the council that it appeared likely the pool could continue to be used for another two to three years. We are truly on borrowed time in relation to the pool.

In May 1976 Longford County Council commissioned a report from architects on the development of a new 25 metre, six lane indoor swimming pool, overlooked by a public spectator area for 200 people, with a learner-cum-children's pool, adult health suite, sauna rooms and bubble pool, fitness area and snack facilities, to be located at The Mall, Longford, a lovely leisure area, overlooking the River Camlin. All the required submissions and reports are with the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism for some time.

Within a 30 mile radius of Longford there is a population of approximately 30,000 people. There is no other public swimming pool or water leisure centre in the area. A figure of 250,000 visits per annum is conservatively estimated for year one of the development. The pool will have a better opportunity to achieve financial viability by comparison with most other pools in the country.

The former Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, met the company almost three years ago and gave the development its blessing. The council believed it would be at construction stage within 12 months. The most recent letter I received from Longford County Council on 5 June stated the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation in its letter of June 2002 had approved the appointment of consultants to bring the project to contract document stage and that the status of the project at that point was that the consultants were preparing to enter the public planning process.

The Minister of State will agree there have been many assurances during the years in relation to the pool. It is grossly unfair that following several promises from the Taoiseach to our two local Deputies, we are still waiting. At this stage we need fewer promises and a definite commitment to a commencement date for the project.

Longford is part of the BMW region and was projected as a disadvantaged area in last year's ADM report. It is now part of the RAPID programme which is supposed to accelerate development in disadvantaged areas. I am requesting the Minister of State to leave no stone unturned to prioritise and progress development of the pool. The people of County Longford have been fed half-truths for too long on this issue. We need this facility now and I hope the Minister of State will announce that the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism will be in Longford soon to lay the foundation.

I thank Senator Bannon for raising this matter and for affording me the opportunity to outline the current position on the application for funding towards the provision of a new local authority swimming pool in Longford town.

The aim of the local authority swimming pool programme, which is administered by the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, is to assist local authorities in the provision of swimming pools. I would like to recall for the Seanad the administrative procedures in force under the programme.

Following an initial submission and approval of a feasibility study, there are four distinct stages, which a swimming pool project must complete. In order of progress, these are: preliminary report; contract document; tender; and construction. My Department's technical advisers, the Office of Public Works, evaluate each stage and local authorities cannot proceed to the next stage of a project unless prior approval issues from my Department.

Grant aid is allocated only when tenders have been received for the project and the grant aid is capped at the time of allocation. Grants of up to a maximum of €3.8 million are available towards the refurbishment of existing pools or the provision of new pools, subject in either case to the total grant not exceeding 80% of the eligible cost of the project or, in the case of projects located in designated disadvantaged areas, 90% of the eligible cost. Support is available towards the cost of the swimming pool, toddler pool, sauna and steam room.

Since 2000, some 55 projects have been or are being dealt with under the programme. Grants were paid to ten swimming pool projects in Arklow, Courtown/Gorey, Dundalk, Ennis, my hometown of Enniscorthy, Monaghan, Navan, Wicklow, Roscommon and the Aquadome in Tralee. These projects are now complete. Four projects are at, or about to go to, construction phase in Finglas, Ballinasloe, Tralee, and Grove Island, Limerick. In addition to the 14 projects mentioned, 41 other applications are at various stages in the process: five have passed contract document stage; 18 have passed preliminary report stage; 13 have passed feasibility study stage; and five applications are under further consideration.

Turning specifically to Longford, the answer I am giving seems to contradict what Senator Bannon said. I am aware that the existing swimming pool in the town has served the community well over many years. The view locally, however, is that it needs to be replaced. As a result, Longford County Council proposed that a new integrated leisure complex incorporating a swimming pool be constructed at The Mall, Longford. In August 2001, the then Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, approved the preliminary report submitted by Longford County Council for the proposed new pool. This approval allowed Longford County Council to proceed to the next phase, namely, the preparation of the detailed contract documents for the proposed work. The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism awaits the submission of the contract documents and will consider the application further, in consultation with Office of Public Works, when all documentation is received.

On a more general level, I am pleased to say that throughout the country there has been steady improvement in the quality of the facilities now being provided under the programme. There is increased sophistication in the applications being made by local authorities and there is a welcome deeper emphasis on sustainability of projects. I welcome this trend of looking more closely at the life cycle of a swimming pool and on the vital issue of usage rather than just on the capital cost of a project, although this is also a critical factor.

Swimming is a sport in which most people can participate from a very early age, continuing throughout their entire lives. Among leisure and recreational activities, swimming is still generally considered to be one of the best and most enjoyable forms of physical exercise for developing and maintaining good levels of physical fitness. While I do not have up to date statistics on the numbers of people swimming as a form of physical and recreational activity, the 1996 national survey of involvement in sport and physical activity indicated that swimming was second only to walking as the most popular form of physical and recreational activity.

It is vital that the promotion of sport generally and the development of facilities, such as swimming pools, are carried out in a strategic and focused way, which means establishing priorities, avoiding overlaps and ensuring maximum public access to available facilities. I am anxious that the investment of taxpayers' money by the Government provides value for money by ensuring that attractive, viable facilities are built and with the level of funding provided for 2003 by my Department at €61 million, in respect of the sports capital programme, and €9 million, in respect of the local authority swimming pool programme, the commitment to sport by the Government is being sustained. Since 1998 more than €2.3 million has been provided, through the sports capital programme, to various sports clubs in County Longford.

In formulating future policy on swimming pools, the officials in the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism intend to carry out an expenditure review of the local authority swimming pool programme. This review will examine how the programme has worked to date, the benefits which have accrued to the areas where pools have been built through the existing programme and what amendments, if any, are required to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of the programme.

In August 2001, the then Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, approved the preliminary report by Longford County Council and, two years later, the Department is still awaiting the contract documents. Perhaps the Senator might take the issue up with Longford County Council to find out why there has been such a delay.