Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Questions (42, 45, 51)

Martin Kenny


42. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the rural regeneration and development fund. [51872/18]

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Martin Heydon


45. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the rural regeneration and development fund; when he expects to make further allocations for 2019 from the fund; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51842/18]

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Éamon Ó Cuív


51. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the funding approved to date for projects under the rural regeneration and development fund; when further tranches of approvals will issue; his plans to seek further applications under this process in the near future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51847/18]

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Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Rural)

An announcement was made in recent weeks that there were almost 300 applications for category 1 of the rural regeneration and development fund and that there were some 18 approvals of projects throughout the country. I would like to have more information on where matters stand in regard to the other categories and when more announcements will be made.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 42, 45 and 51 together.

The first call for applications for the rural regeneration and development fund closed at the end of September. Some €1 billion is committed to the fund over a ten-year period to support rural economic development and help build strong communities, with €55 million allocated to the fund in budget 2019.

There was an excellent response to the first call, with nearly 300 applications received. Applications for the fund are currently being examined by the project advisory board, comprising representatives from key Departments and external experts, which was established to oversee the assessment process. Category 1 shovel-ready projects were prioritised in the assessment process and category 2 projects, that is, those which need development funding to become potential category 1 applications in future calls for applications, are now being considered.

I announced the first 18 successful projects under the fund on 23 November. These projects will receive a total of €24.4 million from the fund while unlocking a further €11 million in other funding, and all are ready to commence in 2019. The announcement on 23 November was just the beginning of the process and further announcements of successful category 1 and category 2 projects will take place early in the new year, with a further call for the fund taking place later next year.

The announcement of funding for 18 projects is welcome. However, there were 125 shovel-ready projects in category 1 and, therefore, many disappointed communities did not get funding. With regard to category 2, the Minister might give more detail on when he expects to put butter on that sandwich. We need something to happen quickly because people have to get moving on this. At the moment there is lack of capacity to get them to a position where they can get into category 1 and draw down funding.

I have looked through the list of projects, all of which are worthy and deserving of the funding they have received. However, in many cases, they are projects for which funding from other Departments, for example, the Departments responsible for tourism, housing or roads, would be expected.

Why is everything left over being gathered up with the notion that the Department of Rural and Community Development will look after it? I just wonder about that.

It might have been Deputy Martin Kenny and others who stated we would never open the fund.

I never said that.

I also heard complaints that we would not allocate the money and then I heard complaints that it would never happen. It happened. Let us be honest and fair about it. There are 18 shovel-ready projects. Shovel-ready status is one of the key elements of the programme. There are many projects which would not have been able to advance but for the funding put in place. Some of the other schemes to which the Deputy referred do not have the level of grant necessary to allow the relevant work to proceed. I am delighted with the scheme and these 18 good projects. These are projects that are going to happen. The Deputy asked about category 2 and I will give him a straight answer. I intend to have the rest of category 1 and category 2 completed early in February. I could do one in January, but I do not want to do that. I want to do the two schemes and get the funding. As stated earlier, I will open the scheme for new applications again early in the new year.

I thank the Minister for the information outlined on those issues. The rural regeneration and development fund is crucial. While I am disappointed that my local authority of Kildare County Council did not have projects at the shovel-ready stage, I am keen to ensure our very strong applications under category 2 will be considered. We have a number of plans to redevelop town squares and we also have public realm plans. In Athy, for example, we have the town centre, the site of the former Dominican church, Emily Square and Athy enterprise centre. In Kildare town, we have Cherry Avenue, which involves a plan for a multifunctional town park, and other projects to improve local infrastructure. There are also public realm projects in Kilcullen, Rathangan, Monasterevin and Robertstown. Each of those projects, some of which the Minister visited with me, will give local communities a shot in the arm. A particularly important one, however, is a plan involving close collaboration with the Department of Defence. We are seeking to leverage all aspects of State involvement and develop a serious management plan for the Curragh plain, a 5,000 acre outwash plain of national significance and great local significance to the people of Kildare who use it for a variety of reasons, including recreation and tourism purposes. We need a co-ordinated plan and I am delighted that Kildare County Council and the Department of Defence are working together as closely as they are. These are the kinds of project we need to see funded early in the new year.

The Deputy is quite correct. The great thing about this scheme is that any State agency or local authority working with community groups can make an application. There are a number of ways to get matching funding. Údarás, local authorities and other State agencies, including the Western Development Commission and LEADER companies, have come in. As Minister, the major complaint I have heard was touched on by Deputy Heydon. It relates to groups getting projects ready. They have often simply lacked the funding necessary to make a plan and the seed funding required to get schemes ready. That is why we created category 2. It provides the seed funding to allow groups to get their applications ready. They were not ready for the first phase, but they will be ready for the next. We are going through and evaluating the projects which have not been dealt with yet and determining which ones can be shovel-ready for next year. We hope to make the announcement in early February. I could have done one in January and the other in February, but I want to do them together. I want to do categories 1 and 2 because I want to get the scheme open again for next year. That is because the important thing about the scheme will be to continue it over the years ahead.

The Minister knows my normal concern. He has let out €24 million and he has to have €55 million spent by the end of 2019. He tells the House that he will let another tranche of money out in February, but he knows from his experience of the LEADER programme that allocating the money out does not mean it will be spent quickly. Is the Minister talking about allocating another €70 million or €80 million given my estimate that he would have to have €100 million approved at the end of February to get a spend of €55 million by the end of next year? That is the reality. Are these the kind of figures he is talking about letting out at the end of February? If not, he is going to underspend again.

To be fair, it is one of the things I am looking at. The Deputy is correct. As with the town and village scheme or the outdoor recreation scheme, if one does not spend in advance, one will have a difficulty. Category 2 will provide seed funding for projects and I expect a lot of it will be drawn down quickly. Some of the schemes are shovel-ready. Those behind one €4 million project have told me they expect it to be completed by September of next year. I am hopeful that people are as good as their word. The project is shovel-ready and an effort will be made to ensure that work will start and projects will be completed by the end of the year. I take the Deputy's point. It is something I am considering. He is correct, given the outdoor recreation scheme, that we need to push on with further schemes and greater spend than perhaps I should do and make the allocations. It is as simple as that and I do not disagree with what the Deputy says.

From his experience with LEADER, does the Minister agree that he will need to have approved €100 million between category 1 and 2 by the end of February if he is to hit his target of spending €55 million by the end of next year? Anything less will leave him short at the end of next year and we will end up having the same debate about money going back to the Exchequer.

While I cannot commit to that, I can commit to ensuring that there will be a substantial spend. I have to see what projects are actually shovel-ready. My problem is that they must be ready to go. Category 2 will be an easier scheme because it is seed funding. People thought the scheme would not happen but it did and it is a good one. The Deputy should be happy that his constituency did quite well in relation to a project which would never have been able to get funding but for the scheme. It would never have been able to get the grant aid it needed. It is a scheme that creates jobs in the Gaeltacht in the Deputy's constituency. I am pleased that project came through because it is a very good one.