Thursday, 19 September 2019

Questions (7, 11)

Martin Heydon

Question:

7. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the role her Department and Waterways Ireland can play in developing and progressing the proposed Barrow blueway through counties Kildare and Laois; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37640/19]

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Martin Heydon

Question:

11. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the status of progress of the Barrow blueway through counties Kildare and Laois; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37639/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Culture)

The Minister will be aware that the proposal to have the Barrow Blueway run through south Kildare is of great interest to residents of the area. She experienced the great excitement in the area when she attended a recent public meeting hosted by the Monasterevin Blueway group. Other public meetings in Rathangan and Athy were attended by officials from Waterways Ireland, including Mr. John Boyle. These were very well attended and great interest was shown by everybody. I have raised this matter with the Minister previously but my focus today is on the role of her Department and Waterways Ireland in rolling out this project to make it a reality.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 11 together.

The Barrow blueway is a planned upgrade to provide a multi-use shared leisure route connecting Lowtown in County Kildare to St. Mullins in County Carlow, a distance of 115 km of off-road, flat, accessible, public space. Waterways Ireland is now moving forward with plans to develop the Barrow Canal towpath as a 46 km blueway from Lowtown to Horse Bridge in Athy.

Kildare County Council in partnership with Laois County Council and Waterways Ireland, with the support of my Department, made an application under the rural regeneration and development fund for funding for this development and the outcome of that process will be known before the end of the year.

Waterways Ireland has undertaken an economic appraisal of the development of the towpath, which concluded ultimately that benefit to the local economy of the development would be €2.5 million per annum from tourism and recreational spend, with a payback period of less than five years. The project to enhance the Barrow towpath will create approximately 90 jobs during the construction phase and create an estimated 130 direct and indirect jobs in the tourism, recreational and hospitality sectors in the area.

The blueway will link and connect many communities along the 46 km route. In developing the blueway it is hoped to engage effectively with those local communities and thus provide a sense of civic pride in areas that might otherwise by overlooked by visitors.

Waterways Ireland has considerable experience in developing blueways throughout the inland navigations, including the Shannon navigation in 2014, which attracts more than 100,000 visitors to the region, and generates an estimated €4 million per annum for the local economy. Waterways Ireland will actively work with other bodies in the region to progress the development of the initiative in Kildare and Laois. It will provide assistance to the local authorities in sourcing appropriate funding for the project and will be centrally involved in the construction phase if funding is obtained. It is this strong partnership approach among public sector bodies and the private, community and voluntary sectors that will ensure that ultimately the Barrow blueway will be developed, promoted and maintained for the benefit of the entire Barrow community.

I was delighted to speak at a public meeting on 29 August about the Barrow blueway organised by Deputy Heydon in Monasterevin community centre. I congratulate him on it. There was a very good turnout. In particular, we spoke about the significance for counties Kildare and Laois. Some of the other officials, as well as councillors from Kildare and Laois, Mr. John Boyle of Waterways Ireland, Mr. Joe Boland of Kildare County Council and the local tidy towns group have done a lot of good work. The Monasterevin blueway group has been integral to much of the progress made thus far.

To provide background on the development of previous blueways by Waterways Ireland, the Shannon blueway attracts more than 100,000 visitors to the region and generates an estimated €4 million every year. Thanks to the collaborative approach by Waterways Ireland and Kildare and Laois local authorities, and the support of the local community, an opportunity has finally arisen for the development of the Barrow blueway. The blueway should be an experience and perhaps the word does not fully capture what is on offer in such a project. It is about much more than the water and water-based pursuits. It offers opportunities for walkers and cyclists on the adjacent paths, connecting communities and enhancing the tourism potential of an area by showing off some of its incredible natural amenities. It is also about preserving and protecting an artificial ecosystem with diverse species and an important water supply. It is, and will be, a hook, and this was discussed at length at the meeting, to get people to stay an extra night in the area. Ultimately, this is what it is all about so that people will stay over and invest in the local economy. To be realistic, this is a three-year project and, as with all projects, a funding package needs to be put together.

I thank the Minister for her response. I acknowledge the role she and the Department have played, along with Waterways Ireland, in making the crucial decision over the summer. I raised the issue with the Minister prior to the summer recess. We had lost out on planning permission to the element of the proposed blueway south of Athy. At the time, the proposed blueway was 115 km. It was a brave decision and the right decision to proceed with the 46 km for which we now have planning permission. The people in Carlow who objected to this originally will, in time, look at us with great envy and wish they had this. I hope that in time the challenges with regard to the full route can be met.

The point made by the Minister about funding is very valid and I understand an application has been made to the rural regeneration and development fund. I hope the Department is working closely with the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Minister, Deputy Ring, to put the best case forward. Waterways Ireland has made a very detailed submission. We will do everything to try to bring through the funding.

What role does Fáilte Ireland have in funding? Will it play a role in marketing afterwards? We know the huge potential Kildare has to bring in tourists. A large number of tourists travel through Kildare at present and our challenge is to get them to slow down and stay. Many of them drive to areas beyond Kildare. In 2017, the Waterford greenway had more than 250,000 visitors, with an average spend of €29.50 per day or €110 per person who stayed overnight in the area. This is what we want to achieve in Kildare. We want people to slow down, stay and spend time in the area and, obviously, leave more money behind them in the process.

The Department of Rural and Community Development has a key role to play, as do other State agencies and Departments that can fund the blueway once it is constructed. I hope we receive the grant from the Department of Rural and Community Development. How will ongoing maintenance be funded? What role will the local authority have in this regard?

I note what the Deputy has said on the planning and his acknowledgement of the 46 km part of the project. This will be of great benefit to the area. In future it would be good to see if we can roll out the full blueway but at least we have this element of it. Planning permission for the remainder of the route from Athy to St. Mullins was refused mainly on the grounds of the impact it would have on the special area of conservation. Waterways Ireland now wishes to develop the 46 km stretch in collaboration with Kildare and Laois local authorities. The estimated cost of developing the 46 km route from Lowtown to Athy is €6.8 million. Earlier this year, Kildare County Council, in partnership with Laois County Council and Waterways Ireland, made an application under the rural regeneration and development fund. We await the outcome of this process in the autumn. It is this strong partnership approach among the public sector parties and the private, community and voluntary sectors that will ensure that ultimately the project will be developed, promoted and maintained for the benefit of the entire region.

With regard to Fáilte Ireland, as I said, the public meeting is an opportunity to explore what funding may come from it. It is certainly something that should be investigated.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Another point she heard raised at the meeting organised by the Monasterevin blueway group, one that was also raised at the meeting we held afterwards in Athy at which there was an equally impressive crowd and energy, as was the case at gatherings in Rathangan previously, were concerns from local landowners. These are challenges that must be worked through with the development of every blueway and greenway that traverses private land. Points were made on drainage issues and roads and local bridges that might need maintenance. Mr John Boyle of Waterways Ireland went into detail on navigation of the channel. Engagement on ongoing maintenance will be very important after we obtain the funding and construction starts. We will need a proper mechanism for engagement. Will the Minister outline how this will work? Will it be the responsibility of Waterways Ireland or the local authority? Who will be the go-to person for people who might have concerns or to bring the issues that we will need to thrash out as it is being developed? There is huge goodwill in Kildare and that is not to be underestimated in any way. Therefore, it is all the more important that when local residents or landowners raise a concern they have an opportunity to be heard. Local landowners know the local challenges better than anybody else and we want to ensure every potential problem that crops up along the way for our tourists, visitors and locals can be addressed in a collaborative way without causing upset.

A good engagement process throughout is really important. Does Waterways Ireland or the local authority have lead responsibility for that?

There would be a collaborative approach on the canals. Waterways Ireland is ultimately guided by a three-year aquatic weed management plan. It is informed by operational needs and best international practice. The plan considers both the protected and invasive aquatic weed species and pays due cognisance to the need for biosecurity during all aquatic weed control operations in order to minimise the spread of invasive alien species, which is important when talking about dredging and ensuring the canals are clear.

Aquatic vegetation growing in the navigation channels is not removed by dredging but is controlled by weed harvester, a weed-cutting boat, during the growing season which is May to October as resources permit and it is currently ongoing. We are aware of all these matters. I know that some of the Members who attended on the evening discussed ensuring that the boats can go through the canal. There is no point in having a canal unless it is properly maintained and looked after. Waterways Ireland does as much as it can. We want to be able to ensure that people can canoe and kayak, and enjoy a quality experience on our canals. Waterways Ireland is always conscious of that with all its canals.

There will be challenges in ensuring any kind of quality experience. Waterways Ireland has worked in partnership with Sport Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and other bodies to ensure that.

Question No. 8 replied to with Written Answers.