Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Questions (15)

Brendan Smith


15. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the funding allocated for the 2014 to 2020 LEADER programme; the expenditure to date; if he is satisfied that the total funding will be drawn down by the end date for the programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2977/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Rural)

As I mentioned, I represent two counties which have had the benefit of a LEADER programme since its inception in 1991 following the decision of the then European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Ray MacSharry, to initiate a programme across the European Economic Community. Community groups have bought into it. We have seen great benefits arising from LEADER programme investment. The people whom I represent and who are involved in communities and small businesses are anxious that we achieve the maximum drawdown of funding in this programme.

The 2014 to 2020 LEADER programme has a total budget of €250 million over its lifetime. Some €220 million of this has been allocated to the local action groups, LAGs, which deliver the programme throughout the country. The allocation is used by the LAGs to administer the programme and to fund individual LEADER projects in their areas. The remaining €30 million in funding is available for schemes which will be administered at a national level. This includes funding under the LEADER food initiative and funding to support local action groups that come together to deliver projects on a collaborative basis.

Total expenditure to date under the LEADER programme is in excess of €38 million. Project payments, in particular, have increased significantly in the past year, as approved works are completed and project promoters submit claims for payment. Approximately €13.6 million was spent on projects since the commencement of the programme up to 14 January this year. Over €12.5 million of this amount was spent on projects in 2018 compared with just over €700,000 in 2017. This is a substantial increase in the past 12 months. More than 1,600 projects with a grant value of almost €56 million have been approved for LEADER funding by the LAGs. A further 355 projects, requesting funding in excess of €22 million, are at various stages in the approval process. The progress being made by the LAGs, together with the administrative improvements introduced by my Department, will result in a continued increase in project approvals and payments. As a result, I am confident that all of the funding allocated to LEADER will be fully drawn down during the course of the programme.

Like my colleague, Deputy Calleary, I share the concerns that in the overall scheme there has been a very slow and small drawdown to date. We sincerely hope that every cent of the allocated money will be spent by the end of the programme. I note from figures the Minister gave me recently that in my counties, Cavan and Monaghan, local action groups have a substantial programme and a good level of commitment. I realise that between the end of November and the end of December there was a substantial increase in the number of applications and funding committed. I sincerely hope that will be replicated throughout the country. As we are in 2019 now and the programme is to end in 2020, does the Minister envisage a reallocation of some funding towards programmes and local action groups that have moved the projects forward and have been to the fore in approving projects and drawing down funding to date? Early consideration should be given to reallocation of funding if there is a possibility that some of the overall funding programme would not be drawn down.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. As I said to Deputy Calleary, the level of funding in 2018 is double the amount that was approved in 2017. That is important. We made many changes in the programme. I will give a straight answer to the Deputy's specific question. I and the Department wrote to the LAGs in October or November allowing them, in their programmes in their counties, to move 25% of the funding into another programme if one set of funding was being used very well and there was not spending on another programme. I have allowed that to happen. I will monitor the situation with regard to funding and spending over the next months. Some of the companies have done very well, for example, in Carlow. It might be asked what is going on with other counties on the list. The same rules and regulations apply to Carlow, Kerry and Mayo. They are all doing well, as is Deputy Smith's county. It has to be asked why it is working in some counties and not in others. I will monitor the situation. For now, I have allowed LAGs to transfer money that is not being used in certain programmes to other programmes without funding and I will monitor the situation.

I want to be honest with the Deputy. I do not want to take money from any county, but if they are not spending it, I have to do something.

I welcome that the Minister has given some discretion to the local action groups, which is important. I know that the two groups with which I am particularly familiar, Cavan and Monaghan, will ensure that the taxpayers’ funding is put to good use. That discretion is welcome. I am sure many colleagues in the Oireachtas would have made representations to the Minister to have the application processes streamlined. There was some movement in that respect which helped to speed up the application process. The Minister should have an ongoing review of the way the system is working. There should be a dividend for the groups that have been to the fore in ensuring projects are progressed if there is money unspent elsewhere.

On requests from people like the Deputy and others, I have reviewed the LEADER programme. We have made approximately 32 changes regarding the programme, especially to the administration of it. I changed many actions to make it easier with respect to applications, groups and the administration of the LEADER programme. I want to see it working. I want to see the money spent. I want to see these local action groups, LAGs, delivering on the programmes. Some counties are doing very well in that regard but others are not doing as well. I need to monitor that.

I have been told that 80% of the funding for project approvals will be approved by 2018. Allocations can be made up to the end of 2020 and project promoters have a further three years to get the work done to draw down the funding. I cannot do any more as the Minister responsible, and neither can the Department, to simplify this scheme. The Deputy will be aware, as he has been very much involved in the programme down the years, that there have been difficulties in some LEADER programmes throughout the country. There have been difficulties in the way some of them were run. I have a responsibility to the taxpayers of this country and also to Europe which is co-funding this scheme.