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.