Adjournment Matters

Road Improvement Schemes

In recent years the funding available for various road schemes has been significantly reduced. Last year the local road improvement scheme was suspended. Under this scheme, families on privately owned roads that had fallen into disrepair could come together to fund 15% of the cost of bringing the road up to standard. The funding would then be supplemented by 85% funding from the relevant local authority which could, following the completion of the works, take the road in charge.

Similarly, under the local community road improvement scheme, local authorities would provide 75% matching funding, through central government funding, provided a local community could provide 25% of the funding required for works to a road. This scheme allowed communities to come together and created a meitheal type environment in which local people worked together to raise funding for a road scheme. This funding would then be matched by the local authority in a spirit of partnership. Community involvement in road infrastructure is positive as it gives communities ownership of roads and often results in the development of community sports facilities, community centres, facilities for older people and so forth. Moreover, the local road schemes have resulted in a high level of partnership between communities and local authorities.

I understand local authorities have been contacted by the Department seeking expressions of interest in road schemes based on a funding ratio of 50:50. In other words, the local authority would provide 50% funding for a scheme and this would be matched by a 50% contribution from a local community. While I understand the Department is stretched in the current economic climate and must try to find novel ways to fund roads, local communities have been ravaged and will struggle to find such funding for roads projects. With thousands of people emigrating and hundreds of thousands of people on unemployment benefit, the contribution of local communities has been effectively doubled. Where a community can come up with 25% of the cost of funding a project, it should trigger a community involvement road project.

I hope the Minister of State has positive news, even if it is that the scheme will be introduced as a pilot project or that such road projects may not be proceed without central government or departmental approval. It is unrealistic to expect community groups to come up with 50% of the cost of a project. I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter which I am taking on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on such roads are funded from local authorities' own resources supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the local authority.

The main focus of each county council's roads programme are the restoration, maintenance and improvement programmes, which deal with the maintenance and improvement of regional and local roads. In the normal course of a county council's road works programme, repairs to minor county roads would only be considered towards the end of the programme after more heavily trafficked routes had been dealt with. The purpose of the community involvement scheme is to permit local participation in the repair of roads.

All local authorities were issued a circular in 1994 requesting them to investigate the potential to promote and harness community support for road works in their respective areas. Typically, community support has involved activities such as minor road works and drainage or a financial contribution towards road works. In this way, if there are particular problems affecting a given stretch of road and the local community is willing to assist the local authority in money or kind with the necessary works, such roads can be improved sooner than would otherwise be the case. As such, the scheme recognises local community involvement in this area without in any way diminishing the statutory responsibilities of county councils.

The statutory underpinning for local community involvement in road works is provided in the Roads Act 1993, section 13(6) of which provides that a person or group of persons may, with the consent of the road authority, carry out maintenance and improvement works on a local road. The subsection also provides that a road authority may provide materials, plant, equipment and the services of its staff to a person or group carrying out such works and that the person or group is indemnified by the authority against all actions and claims arising in respect of the works, provided they are carried out in a bona fide manner and in accordance with conditions, restrictions or requirements specified by the authority.

In previous years local authorities were permitted to allocate up to 7.5% of their restoration programme grants for community involvement scheme works on regional and local roads. Under that scheme, the community contribution, in money or kind, could not be less than 25% of the cost of the works. In practice, however, such works were usually only carried out on cul-de-sac local tertiary roads.

This year the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is launching a new pilot community involvement scheme, which will be based on contributions within the range of 20% to 50%. This is a significant increase in the local contribution. Where the local contribution is monetary only, it will be 20% and where the majority of works are to be undertaken by the council, the local contribution will be 30%. Should the majority of works be undertaken by the local community, the local contribution will be 40% and where all the works are to be undertaken by the local community with the local authority contributing by way of materials or machinery, the local contribution will be 50%. In the latter case, no cash contribution would be required from the community.

The local authority will take into account the length, width and condition of the road and number of dwellings along the road and will then estimate the overall cost of each scheme, taking account of material, labour, machinery and traffic management costs. It will then determine the local contribution, make a priority list of projects and apply to the Department for funding. This method of calculating the local contribution is deemed to be the most fair and equitable way to proceed. The funding available for the maintenance and improvement of regional and local roads will be reduced significantly in the next few years and it will not be possible to provide the full funding required for these less trafficked routes.

It should also be noted that the community involvement in road works scheme is purely voluntary in nature and local communities will not be forced into participating in it. The scheme is available to give local communities the opportunity to have these works completed where they would not normally be considered for funding.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. Is the Department prepared to give local authorities reasonable flexibility in assessing the new criteria? If a county manager or director of services for infrastructure and roads were to make a recommendation that funding be provided at a certain level, would the Department approve his or her decision or would the criteria be strictly applied?

As I am not a Minister in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, I am unable to answer the Senator's questions. However, I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister and ask him to reply directly.

I appreciate the Minister of State is not the line Minister and thank him for his assistance.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.25 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 30 January 2013.