Other Questions.

Countryside Recreation Strategy.

John Ellis

Ceist:

75 Mr. Ellis asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the role he envisages for forest parks in public ownership in achieving the objectives of Comhairle na Tuaithe’s countryside recreation strategy in County Roscommon. [7605/07]

Paul Connaughton

Ceist:

102 Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he will expand upon his recent comments that the State would consider buying or leasing land to facilitate increased hill walking opportunities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7731/07]

Dinny McGinley

Ceist:

113 Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the progress made with the IFA in relation a country walkways strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7724/07]

Joe Callanan

Ceist:

114 Mr. Callanan asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he has proposals for the development of a walking and cycling trail on the route of the disused Loughrea to Attymon railway line; and the discussions he has had with Iarnród Éireann on the matter. [7598/07]

Ciarán Cuffe

Ceist:

119 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he will elaborate on the discussions his Department have been having with Iarnród Éireann regarding the use of its abandoned railway lines for recreational purposes. [7766/07]

Dan Boyle

Ceist:

130 Mr. Boyle asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he will report on the disputes regarding countryside access and developments by the expert group set up to investigate the legal issues surrounding land access for recreational use. [7765/07]

John Cregan

Ceist:

141 Mr. Cregan asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the discussions he has had with other State agencies and semi-State bodies in relation to the use of lands in State ownership for countryside recreation; and his views on developing the disused Limerick to Tralee railway line as a walking and cycling route in this regard. [7594/07]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 75, 102, 113, 114, 119, 130 and 141 together.

Comhairle na Tuaithe presented its report on a national countryside recreation strategy to me in September 2006. The strategy defines the scope and vision for countryside recreation and sets out the broad principles under which sustainable countryside recreation can be managed into the future. It also sets out the tasks that should be undertaken to achieve this vision and recommends actions that need to be taken and by which bodies.

Following my consideration of the report I have taken a number of actions. First, I have reached agreement with Fáilte Ireland regarding the employment of up to ten walk managers under my Department's community services programme. Their role will be to promote walking tourism in areas where there are clusters of suitable, accessible walks.

Second, my Department in consultation with the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, Fáilte Ireland, Comhar Leader na hÉireann and the national way-marked ways advisory committee, are identifying a further 30 looped walks and way-marked ways for development in 2007. Fáilte Ireland has informed me that 15 of these will be under way by June 2007 and I have set aside funding of €1.5 million in 2007 for this purpose. In this context, Deputies should note that 40 looped walks have already been developed with the assistance of the rural social scheme and my Department.

Third, my Department is actively pursuing the possibility of using former railway infrastructure as recreational trails for walking and cycling with the Department of Transport and Iarnród Éireann.

In October 2006, officials from my Department met representatives of Iarnród Éireann and CIE to discuss the possibility of using disused railway infrastructure around the country for recreational development as walkways and cycle paths. They confirmed that the only lines that are abandoned and definitely available for development are Attymon to Loughrea, Tralee to Limerick, and Waterford to Dungarvan.

The next step in this process is that my officials will be meeting this week with Comhar Leader na hÉireann, which represents the Leader companies to discuss with them the proposal for the use of abandoned railway lines.

Separately, discussions are continuing with Coillte Teoranta and Bord na Móna to discuss the possibility of expanding the use of their lands for recreational purposes and I will continue to progress this matter.

To ensure that a number of legal issues are addressed as a matter of priority, I have established an expert group, comprising a senior counsel and officials from the Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and my Department. This group met for the first time on Tuesday, 20 February and I have asked them to report back to me by the end of April. Any question of the acquisition by local groups of land to facilitate increased hill walking will be considered following the completion of the group's report.

The Deputies should note there have been meetings with the Irish Farmers Association to discuss ways of moving forward with the implementation of the strategy. However, I want to make it clear that payment for access is not under discussion. The IFA has sought a payment for the maintenance of specific walks throughout the country and I am fully in agreement that there should be no cost burden on farmers arising from the maintenance of permissive ways open to the public at no charge. It is hoped to progress matters further at the next meeting, which is scheduled for later this week.

I have time and again made clear my view that a local, community-based approach is the best way forward where issues of access to the countryside arise. Where it is not possible to reach agreement in a particular location, alternative routes should be explored and developed so landowners' rights over access to their lands are not interfered with. I will be meeting with Pádraig Walshe, president of the IFA, this week and we will discuss this issue.

Finally, the Deputies should note that the draft Rural Development Programme 2007 to 2013 has been submitted to the European Commission for approval. The development of countryside recreation will be a key part of the measures to be rolled out under the new programme.

I have an interest in the forest park area of Lough Key. Arising from his answer, does the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, envisage that his Department might market the area as a suitable location for walking and other tourism related products? These lands are owned by Coillte so does the Minister envisage that organisation joining his Department to provide walkways throughout the forests?

I cannot discuss specific forests but we want to develop a programme and my Department can play a role in the provision of capital rather than marketing. We feel marketing should be conducted by Fáilte Ireland or Tourism Ireland as they are the places everyone looks, both natives and visitors, when seeking to partake in tourism activities in Ireland.

I am a great believer in the one stop shop and our idea is that we produce the product, either on Coillte land or Bord na Móna land with co-funding from the bodies in question. We are willing to provide 100% funding for products based on farmers' land. In all cases Fáilte Ireland will do the marketing.

I have a brief point to make as there are four or five questions being taken together.

There will be more than six minutes allocated to these questions.

I welcome most of what the Minister has said and have some questions that arise from his answer. Regarding bog lands and Coillte owned lands, there is a great deal of land designated as special areas of conservation and national heritage areas. These areas supposedly cannot be used for the cutting of turf but this is not being enforced yet. The bog lands and forest parks can be developed for walkways and they can also benefit the area of education. The Government could lead an initiative, bringing various Departments together, to ensure that disused bog lands do not become dumping grounds and are properly looked after with footpaths and so on. Schools could send groups for educational tours of such areas and they will benefit people living in cities and the countryside. This could be a great initiative, and it is happening in some forests, but we should make plans for bog lands that will be left. In many cases only 40 to 50 hectares are in question and they will become dumping grounds if they are not seen to.

Acting Chairman

Does the Deputy have a question?

That is my question. I am not sure what is wrong with the Acting Chairman today but I request that he give us a chance to ask some questions.

Acting Chairman

There are many questions listed for discussion.

We are not arguing on this point; we are all in agreement for a change and we have a chance to talk it through.

Regarding access to land, the last time we discussed this matter in October or November the Minister said he would consider a suggestion of mine on walking passes. This would be similar to ski passes in other countries and would allow people pay to have access to certain lands for a week. This would help collect money for a fund to compensate landowners for the cost of maintenance and insurance and would give money back to the community for the development of walkways and so on. It would also act as an incentive for communities to encourage more walkers to come, to open coffee shops, to open farmyards and so on. Did the Minister pursue this idea?

We have done a great deal of work in this regard, though I cannot say I have an answer to the Deputy's specific question. We have had discussions with the IFA, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association and the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association. I am going to the Sheep's Head Peninsula, Skibbereen, tomorrow and I intend to walk on the famous walkway there that seems to have caused more debate than any other walkway in Ireland. I will see then what the difficulties are because I am more familiar with the hills of Connemara than the hills of south Cork. It is fine to discuss such matters in an office but sometimes one gets a better perspective on the challenges people face by visiting the area.

My gut feeling is that the traditional way is best in this matter. People should be fairly free to roam the hills of the country and should not have to pay as long as no damage is done. This is the most desirable approach from the perspective of tourism. The Deputy is correct that there is a great deal of work involved and many opportunities for communities. Preliminary figures I have seen indicate that walking tourism is increasing and we are passing the figures that existed in the heyday before foot and mouth disease caused a slump.

The Deputy raised a question about bogs, and this is intriguing. There are special areas of conservation. Bogs that are small must be preserved and only used for education. It is important they are not walked on too much and that none of the flora and fauna we are trying to protect is damaged. Interestingly, cutaway bogs may have more potential than pristine bog; the top has been removed and there are many more things one could do with it. Many bogs are in the east midlands and I am not against go-karting there and other things people wish to do to enjoy themselves. We are talking about recreation, we are not saying everyone must become serious walkers for the good of their health. Many people wish to use the space.

I think this is a great step forward and I am glad the Deputy has welcomed it. We are lucky the State owns huge tracts of land with many possible uses and huge potential that has not been exploited. The reaction from Coillte and Bord na Móna has been most positive and they are engaging in the process, though it is at an early stage. We have started something that will be seen as very positive in two or three years and will give a huge added dimension to State lands.

I am impressed by the progress made on this issue by the Minister and compliment him on the work that is being done. The Minister indicated that the ten walk managers will be located where there are clusters of walkways. What are the functions of these walk managers?

The issue of access to land was mentioned and I am concerned about access to sand dunes because I can see in my town, Tramore, that random access to dunes can lead to problems with erosion and so on. Are there any specific measures to be taken in this regard? I know the Minister is to meet Coillte Teoranta and Bord na Móna but are sand dunes and coastal walkways within the remit of what is being discussed here? Does the Minister have proposals in this regard?

I was astonished to learn from the Minister that only three surviving railway lines are usable. Are there other reasonably intact lines of which sections have been sold to adjoining landowners? Is there merit in considering whether it would be in the national interest to buy back such sections, where possible, to develop the type of infrastructure we are discussing? I have other questions but I will leave it at that.

I will try to answer all of the Deputy's questions. I envisage that a walk manager will have two functions. First, he or she will negotiate possible new walks in developing the product, working from home and using a mobile telephone. The walk manager's second function will be to avoid conflict. A person seeking information about walks in an area will be given the walk manager's telephone number. In addition, if a person wants to find out where to get lodgings or a meal or how to access mountains or fields without disrupting farmers, the local walk manager will be able to help and will know what can be done and what should be avoided. He or she will be able to telephone a local farmer to ask if walkers may use his or her fields to reach a mountain. As well as being managers of specific walks, I hope they will have a liaison role which will create goodwill between walkers and landowners.

If a walker is using a specific walk and finds that flooding has made it impassable — if even 200 yards of a 50-mile path is impassable, the walk becomes pointless — he or she will know immediately who to contact. The walk manager will then contact officials of the rural social scheme to ensure the walk is reinstated. If a farmer notices a broken stile or a gate left open, he or she will know who to contact. Much of the conflict experienced in the past was due to no one being available to take control when a problem arose. Walkers became frustrated when they found that damage to walks had not been repaired, perhaps because the walk may only have been surveyed once every year. On the other hand, landowners often found an area left in an unsatisfactory state or observed walkers acting inappropriately, for example, entering a field with a bull or in which silage was being cut. The walk manager will have a role in this respect.

Many sand dunes and machairí are in special areas of conservation and are, therefore, vulnerable. In such circumstances, measures taken regarding these areas would be subject to advice from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. One would not be allowed to damage pristine special areas of conservation. In many cases investment is the solution, as was apparent in the national park in Letterfrack where a boardwalk was constructed in response to over-usage. We must start investing in this sector which we took for granted until a crisis arose and we suddenly realised we had only exploited about 10% of its potential.

There are three levels of railway line. Some are open and used by trains every day, while others are closed but not abandoned. The latter category includes the Navan to Kingscourt line, about which there has been considerable debate, and the Athlone to Mullingar and Cork to Youghal lines, all of which have been closed for many years. All three lines remain in State ownership and have not been abandoned. For technical reasons, they are currently not available. It is a pity the alignments were not maintained on railway lines which closed. Reinstatement of the lines would have been possible because it would not be a problem converting them back to their original use. It is intended to use some lines for walks on a licensed basis. The three lines under discussion are abandoned but remain in the ownership of Iarnród Éireann. They were not sold to local landowners and offer considerable potential.

I hope the plans will encourage communities in other areas with abandoned railway lines which were sold to local landowners to use part of the lines for cycling or walking. Considerable progress has been made on part of a railway line in the west which has been abandoned since the Second World War. Walkers and cyclists can use part of the line before taking another route and returning to the line thereafter. This is acceptable because walkers and cyclists, unlike trains, are able to take a right-angle turn onto another path before returning to the line on land held be people who are willing to allow walkers and cyclists use the line.

The lines in State ownership are the easy part. Perhaps sections of the Cahirciveen or west Clare railway lines could also be used for these purposes. Even making four miles of line available would be a fantastic outcome. Once communities see what is possible, they will come forward with good and novel ideas. Our experience is that many good ideas are coming out of the woodwork now that the debate has started. I thank Deputy O'Shea for his kind words.

Irish Language.

Pádraic McCormack

Ceist:

76 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he has held discussions with the Department of Education and Science in relation to ensuring that the proposed Irish language teacher training centre in Baile Bhuirne, County Cork is opened; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7727/07]

As I have already indicated to the House, I have had discussions with the Minister for Education and Science on various occasions with regard to the development of an Irish language education centre at Baile Bhuirne, County Cork. Consultations have also taken place between officials of my Department and the Department of Education and Science with a view to progressing this matter.

The Deputy may be aware that officials of my Department took part in a series of meetings in the Department of Education and Science some months ago regarding the matter. These were attended by senior representatives of Údarás na Gaeltachta, Foras na Gaeilge and An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta. I understand the matter remains under consideration. However, while my Department continues to take an active part in that process, the Deputy will appreciate that the issue is primarily one for the Minister for Education and Science.

As the Minister has been aware for some time, this issue has created considerable controversy in the Baile Bhuirne area where the former De La Salle college was an Irish language school. It has been accepted by those who teach Irish that a special Irish language education college would be of tremendous benefit to the teaching of Irish. We spend substantial resources trying to ensure as many people as possible speak Irish but the end result is not particularly positive. Consistent improvements in teaching methods are required to ensure children receive the best possible tuition in Irish and continue to speak the language when they leave school.

Opening an Irish language teacher training centre in the former De La Salle college would be of tremendous benefit to a Gaeltacht area which people have traditionally visited to perfect their Irish language skills. I urge the Minister to encourage his ministerial colleagues to ensure this proposed project comes to fruition. Visiting the building recently during a trip to County Cork, Deputy Kenny gave a clear commitment that the proposal will be implemented immediately after a change of Government.

Deputy Kenny may not be aware that there is, as far as I understand, a coláiste leanúna in Coláiste Mhuire in Marino. The proposal is new and interesting and has not been made before with regard to Baile Bhuirne. I suggest the Deputy raise the matter with the Minister for Education and Science. It is interesting that I appear to receive more questions on this issue than the Minister for Education and Science who has direct responsibility for it.

My Department, the Department of Education and Science, Údarás na Gaeltachta and other bodies are discussing what should be done with the college in Baile Bhuirne. The idea proposed by the Deputy is interesting and I will mention it to the Minister for Education and Science. Other ideas are also in the mix. We should produce a number of proposals for the college.

As I indicated on a recent visit to Réidh na nDóirí, none of us would be discussing the future of Baile Bhuirne, where some of the land in question has already been put to good use, if we had not made the decision to buy the land. It is a decision I never regret because it is an incredibly valuable property. No matter how long it takes to develop something in that location, the site is there to facilitate it. There is no way we could purchase it now.

My understanding is that this centre was intended to develop áiseanna, teaching aids, books and so on for Gaeltacht schools, scoileanna Gaeilge and any schools within the system that wish to use such material. Am I correct in this recollection?

I receive a significant number of representations on this matter. The sod was turned for this project by the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, before the last general election. Is there any realistic chance the Government will proceed with it?

The Deputy would get more useful answers by asking the relevant Minister, who has all the departmental files. My Department offered some capital finance to the project but we are only bit players. The Minister for Education and Science could give the Deputy chapter and verse because she has access to all the files. The Deputy is correct that it was proposed to provide a national education centre there. However, it was never proposed to establish a teacher training college. It is a nice idea, however, and we can convey it to the Minister.

A change came about following the establishment of An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta. Its ideas have influenced developments. I accept the Deputy's point that it is time for us to come to a firm decision on what should be done with Coláiste Íosagáin. Discussions are ongoing and I hope a decision can be made in the near future. Technical issues in regard to teacher centres are very much in the education realm. Such issues are not my direct responsibility and I would not like to pre-empt anything the Minister for Education and Science might say if the Deputy puts a question to her on the matter.

Is it true that the site in Baile Bhuirne was acquired nine years ago?

Does the Minister not accept that our concerns arise from this delay in progressing the project? Talk of more consultation and consideration sends out the wrong signals about the project. There has been major growth in the gaelscoil sector throughout the island of Ireland. Perhaps consideration could be given to the establishment of a teacher training centre at Baile Bhuirne on an all-Ireland basis. I am sure the Minister is aware of the march that took place in Belfast at the weekend concerning issues arising from the major growth in the Irish language in the North. The idea of developing teaching aids will have a positive roll-over effect in terms of all-Ireland education.

I accept the Deputy's point. However, if a decision were made to establish another all-Irish teacher training college, the possible location would have to be examined. That is a matter for the Minister for Education and Science.

I wish to make clear that Baile Bhuirne was not bought for a specific purpose, something that was controversial at the time. The property came on the market and we decided to purchase it. Proposals regarding an ionad náisiúnta oideachais came after that. I recall that when the proposal to purchase came to me from Údarás na Gaeltachta, I wrote a three-page treatise on why it should be bought, even though there was no specific purpose for it at the time.

The purchase price of £0.5 million seems low today. For that sum we acquired 40 acres of land and a building, on a site adjacent to the Údarás's existing industrial estate in Baile Bhuirne. Some of the land has since been amalgamated into the industrial estate and is used by Údarás na Gaeltachta for its industrial purposes. In addition, some of the land has been made available for sports purposes. We all know the high costs involved in securing land for sports facilities in local communities. The initial investment has probably already paid for itself and we still have the buildings and most of the land for future use.

I reiterate that the property was not purchased with the intention of building a national education centre there. That proposal arose subsequent to the purchase. That is the explanation for the timeframe of nine years since the site was bought. When land became available in the middle of the village of Baile Bhuirne, adjacent to the existing Údarás lands, it was clearly a wise move to purchase because it would never come on the market again. If we had not bought, there would probably be houses there now and everybody would say it was an awful pity we did not purchase it. It is a fantastic State resource and we must use it wisely and ensure good use for it in future. I have no doubt that will happen in time. We will continue to work towards that objective.

Rural Development.

Pat Rabbitte

Ceist:

77 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs his views on whether his Department’s allocation of €425 million, or a 6% share of the €7 billion total provided under the rural development national strategy, is an equitable share; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7702/07]

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Ceist:

91 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs when he expects European Commission approval for the final publication of the Irish rural development national strategy. [7773/07]

Seán Ryan

Ceist:

97 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he will introduce or propose any initiatives for rural Ireland in 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7705/07]

Joe Sherlock

Ceist:

120 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the initiatives he has planned to come into effect in 2007 to enhance the narrow economic base of many rural areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7707/07]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 77, 91, 97 and 120 together.

Rural areas will benefit from a broad range of expenditure under the national development plan, including water, roads, sanitary services, housing, regional airports and so on. The national rural development strategy is a small element of the total rural spend. It sets out national priorities for rural development programming over the seven-year period to 2013 and was submitted to the European Commission in autumn 2006. The strategy was broadly welcomed by the Commission and, following a period of public consultation, a detailed national rural development programme, based on this strategy, was prepared by my Department, working together with the Department of Agriculture and Food.

This programme was submitted to the European Commission at the end of 2006. Officials from both Departments are working closely with the Commission to ensure the programme is approved in a timely fashion to facilitate an early implementation date. Over the lifetime of the programme, my Department will provide €425 million in public funding to support measures aimed at developing the economic and social infrastructure of the wider rural community. This level of funding incorporates 10% of the total EU finance available under the European agricultural fund for rural development and represents a significant threefold increase in support for the rural economy over that available under the current programme, which is now coming to an end.

It is important to stress that this programme, while significant in itself, represents only one aspect of an integrated investment package in rural areas by my Department. Over the lifetime of the national development plan, almost €400 million will be provided directly from the Exchequer to support complementary rural initiatives by my Department alone. The CLÁR programme, for example, which is targeted at supporting small infrastructure projects in rural areas will attract €141 million over the lifetime of the NDP. In addition, the rural social scheme, which provides community-centred employment opportunities for farmers and fisherpersons, will benefit from national funding of the order of €214 million over the same period.

My Department is developing proposals to establish a pilot night-time rural transport scheme, and I hope to make an announcement in the coming weeks in this regard. In addition, I have already put in place several measures for the development of countryside recreation. I will continue to support and enhance such measures in 2007.

The question in Deputy Rabbitte's name arises from the submission made by Irish Rural Link to the Coiste um Gnóthaí Ealaíon, Spóirt, Turasóireachta, Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta on the national development plan. One of the points the delegation made was that 59% of the population lives in the areas targeted by the plan. The delegates raised issues such as the narrow economic base of many rural areas.

I complimented the Minister earlier on the initiatives taken in regard to the outcome of the report of Comhairle na Tuaithe, as a result of which ten positions are being created on the leisure side. However, it is important to bear in mind that while there are many people who live in rural communities and commute to work, we must always focus on creating economic activity in these areas so that people do not have to go outside their areas to seek employment. Niche food products are an example of a market that could be developed. The entry costs for small food industries are higher than for other types of industry but great potential exists and local raw materials are available. When water and roads are taken away from the €457 million, however, what is left to broaden the economic base of rural areas, particularly CLÁR areas where the population is declining? What will this money do to improve capacity to extend economy activity and job creation in rural areas?

The IDA, Enterprise Ireland, the Western Development Commission, Údarás na Gaeltachta and the county development boards all have a remit for rural areas. Often the IDA concentrates on gateways but the other agencies operate across the State.

Údarás na Gaeltachta does not.

It operates in Meath, Cork, Waterford, Mayo and Donegal. The Western Development Commission covers the Shannon and western areas and the county development boards cover the State. Everyone has access to development money.

Leader companies have been doing good work at the micro level and have enjoyed quite a level of success. There was a constraining factor in that I decided at the beginning to put all of the European money into Leader-type action instead of spreading it out to CLÁR and other programmes. This year, however, we got a good result in Brussels which means we will have three times as much funding per annum as we had in the previous national development plan.

I agree about the importance of the small food sector and we have been working with it. We have appointed a co-ordinator for small foods who has been on a yearly contract for the past three years. She has done fantastic work and the sector is growing by 10% per annum. With changing lifestyles and farming methods, it will be an increasing player. We have emphasised farmers' markets and they are sprouting up throughout the country.

We hope to appoint two specialists to support small food producers. We must stimulate them and we have said to the Leader companies that we see the focus falling on this area next time around because rural recreation and small food production interlock. If someone goes to a region to enjoy the rural recreation, he will want to eat the food of that region. We will see a concentration on that sort of indigenous development. Where things get beyond a certain level, however, they must go to Enterprise Ireland for support.

I have had other ideas. I was keen on developing sites for micro-industries. Hygiene regulations are now very strict and people can no longer set up small industries in their kitchens. The costs of buying a site, getting planning permission and securing services are very high. I had an idea that sites, not buildings, should be ready so that a person can erect a small building. There are other ideas in CLÁR areas we should look at.

Unfortunately, despite having worked hard for five years, I still have more ideas than there are hours in the day to implement. We will keep working for the next few weeks and see how much we can get done. A lot has been done and the sector is well set up. I hope the benefit will be seen in the time to come.

Fine Gael also has many ideas so hopefully we will have a few hours after the election to implement them.

The Minister said he will shortly make an announcement on night-time rural transport. Will the Minister investigate the use of vehicles that belong to the Department of Education and Science that are parked at the end of the school day and could be used to save the State money? Perhaps others could be involved locally to fund drivers.

For many reasons, it would be impractical at present to use CIE school buses, one obvious reason being that most of them are too big to go down the bóithríní. It is no good leaving someone half a mile from his house.

I want to make transport available to all rural people as it is made available without discrimination to all urban people. There should not be a means test or an age test to get on a bus in rural areas in the evening. I am considering a transport service that will be available to all within the catchment areas where there is currently no transport service. It might be done by hackneys or small buses, many of which would be contracted during the day for school bus runs.

It is my intention that those who can afford to pay will pay. For those in rural areas, it is not a refusal to pay that denies them the service, it is the fact the service is not there at all. If a person wants a hackney, unless it comes 20 miles from the nearest town, it is not possible. Availability of transport is the number one priority followed by pensioners and those with free travel being able to avail of travel in the evenings. It will be community driven. The shape of the scheme will be decided by the RTOs or Leader partnership companies, it will not be driven by vested interests — community good will be the hallmark of the service. A youth club that cannot get kids safely home has as much of a problem as the person who has three pints and would be wiser not to drive. The scheme will offer an equality of service to rural areas compared to urban areas. It will start on a pilot basis.

Rural Transport.

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

78 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the extent to which he will provide or fund local transport in rural or urban areas which currently do not have such facilities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7722/07]

Pat Rabbitte

Ceist:

90 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the funding he will be providing for rural transport in 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7703/07]

Paul Connaughton

Ceist:

92 Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs his proposals for expanding the availability of public transport, particularly at evening and night time; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7729/07]

Ciarán Cuffe

Ceist:

111 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he will report on progress regarding the planned pilot evening rural transport scheme. [7767/07]

Olivia Mitchell

Ceist:

124 Ms O. Mitchell asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the additional measures he will introduce in 2007 to increase the public transport services available to rural residents during evening, night-time and weekend hours; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6576/07]

Joe Callanan

Ceist:

128 Mr. Callanan asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the way proposals are progressing on plans to provide rural transport services to counter social isolation in rural areas where market failure has resulted in a lack of evening and night-time transport services. [7604/07]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 78, 90, 92, 111, 124 and 128 together.

As the Deputies are aware, generally in rural areas there are no public transport services at night. While in the more developed rural areas there are either hackney or taxi services, these are totally at the discretion of the providers of these services and do not provide a guaranteed service to rural people. There is a need, therefore, in rural areas for an evening transport service to allow rural people to fully participate in the various activities, community, sporting and social, that take place in their areas and to address the market failure that currently exists.

The Department is currently developing proposals to establish a pilot night-time transport scheme and, in this context, I met the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Gallagher, in late January to discuss the parameters of the new scheme. I have in mind a scheme additional to the existing rural transport programme run by the Department of Transport and a small number of areas will be selected to run it over a 12 month pilot period. Where the pilot schemes will be located is still under consideration, as is the question of funding for the scheme in 2007.

All services will focus on maximising the general community good and I am, of course, conscious of the need to ensure that no displacement takes place of commercially viable existing services as a result of the introduction of the new scheme. Discussions are continuing between the two Departments and with Pobal, which administers the RTP on behalf of the Department of Transport, and I hope to make an announcement in the coming weeks regarding the pilot scheme.

When did the Minister have this idea?

I have evidence in an internal memo that we began consideration of it in November. On the day this became a major announcement, I was in Na Forbacha and a colleague issued a statement. TG4 contacted my office and my initial reaction was that I was very busy and did not have time to do an interview but I later changed my mind. I am often asked by TG4 to do interviews on many issues raised by different groups and I try to accommodate them. When I was asked about it, I explained, as I have to the Deputy, that I had been thinking about the issue and that it needs to be addressed. I spoke about the social isolation question. Then the obvious question was asked as to when I would make a decision or introduce proposals. I said that I could not give a time or date, but in an aside I said that obviously it would be before the general election. If I had said it would happen after the general election, some people would have said that I was being too smart by half — I would have been accused of doing it by not doing it. I would have thought that anything being done by a Minister now would need to have been moved forward before an election and that is what caused the great announcement. This matter has been ongoing for some time and I have the evidence to prove it.

I refer to transport for senior citizens in the more remote rural areas. Bus Éireann may commence a service on a trial basis on a particular route and discover that it does not work. There is the rural transport initiative. Some issues are becoming much more urgent in rural areas, particularly regarding the closure of post offices, for example. Wider social aspects are involved. For instance, older people in rural areas who are not very mobile may like to go to town for the day, walk around, have a pint, have a meal etc. While some people may ask why the State should provide financial assistance, I believe it is part of the State's responsibility to look after such people. If on a specific day a minibus went through a particular area and collected people at their doorsteps and returned them home again, many more people would avail of such a service. It would fulfil a very substantial need in rural areas. As the Minister knows, many people live in fear and become quite isolated. Could the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs become involved in such an initiative?

Thankfully, there is no need for that because the Government is already doing it. The Department of Transport does that and the allocation to the rural transport programme has been doubled. That programme does exactly as the Deputy has described — it brings people to their local town or village and it is locally driven. As the majority of its clientele is non-paying, it is much more expensive to run than my idea, which would service a wider spectrum of the community, but still include the targeted group the Deputy mentioned.

Whenever a proposal is made regarding rural areas, there always seems to be a better alternative. People may propose — something that we accepted as fundamental when I grew up here in Dublin — that there would be a bus in the evening in a rural area. People may ask why not save the post offices or do something else. Nobody ever asks whether we can have buses in Dublin in the evening or should we do something else with the money like investing in hospitals. Nobody makes such suggestions in the urban context. There remains a massive mental divide between what people regard as acceptable in country areas and what is absolutely basic in an urban area.

We must, of course, deal with the issue the Deputy mentioned, and we are dealing with it. In a city people need to travel much smaller distances as shops and pubs are nearby. However, if evening transport was discontinued in this city, there would be a hullabaloo. Rural areas face a much bigger problem, particularly with regard to the changes in society, because people are more scattered. When the Government starts to consider the parity issue, we are told there is no need as it is not a top priority. As someone who lives in the real countryside, I find it hard to get my head around it. I will give an example of how simple this can be.

The Minister's time has concluded.

The Ceann Comhairle will be interested in this example. Let us consider a hackney in Deputy English's area. For a small retainer, he is required to bring anybody from within a ten-mile radius to anywhere else in that area between the hours of 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. from Thursdays to Sundays. He would charge everybody apart from pensioners. However, we would pay him a retainer to prevent him from going to Dublin on the basis that more money could be made there in a particular week. That system does not need to be very expensive. It would be very efficient and would change the whole quality of life in Deputy English's area, as I am sure he would agree.

Rail Network.

Jimmy Devins

Ceist:

79 Dr. Devins asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if the work funded by his Department for the preservation of the right of way of the western rail corridor from Claremorris, County Mayo, to Collooney, County Sligo, has been completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7599/07]

Line clearance works between Claremorris and Collooney, as funded by my Department, commenced in October 2006. A sum of €5 million has been provided to carry out the works associated with the preservation of the railway line to facilitate its possible reopening at a future date. To date, €1.3 million has been spent, predominantly on hedge cutting and cutting back the significant overgrowth on the line. It is envisaged that the works will be completed in September of this year, which is in line with the plan as set out by Iarnród Éireann. Works are, therefore, proceeding as planned and in line with the budget and timescale set out at the commencement of the process.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Would he agree that the landowners who have co-operated fully with Iarnród Éireann in the preservation of the railway line are worthy of our thanks? Does he agree that the railway line is of vital economic and tourist value to the west and north west? Will he outline the next stages in the reopening of this important infrastructure?

As the Deputy knows, over the years those who want to knock the project have always said that if we went to open it we would find problems with the right of way or the way even though it was owned by Iarnród Éireann. The landowners have been magnificent. They have co-operated with what has been very dramatic work. It has been amazing to see the railway line reappear from the undergrowth. Rail fencing remains to be erected. I am a great believer that good fences make good neighbours and that work is to continue.

Clearance work has already started on the reopening of the line from Ennis to Athenry. It is to be completed either next year or early in 2009. By 2011, it will reach Tuam and on the current schedule Claremorris will be reached by 2014. I would hope that, at that stage, the project would be such a success that we would then be in a position to continue the line further north.

Another strategic Government decision last week makes this more possible with the investment of an additional €27 million in Ireland West Airport Knock, which will increase the passenger numbers through the airport and further justify reopening the railway line north of Claremorris. At the rate of progress being made, I would be very confident that we will see a second phase to the western rail corridor and we will see the day when passengers can get on a train in Sligo, travel to Galway or Limerick, or get off at Charleston to go to the airport. Once Ireland West Airport Knock breaches the 1 million passenger barrier, it will need to be supported by other public transport. Everything is coming together.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.