Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Ceisteanna (20)

Gino Kenny


20. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht her plans to acquire a site (details supplied) in view of its cultural and historic importance; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10193/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Culture)

I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for what it described as the procedural fluidity for allowing me to take Deputy Gino Kenny's question this morning.

The Luggala House and estate are a jewel in a truly breath-taking location in the spectacular setting of the Wicklow mountains. The thought that this location, which should be enjoyed by walkers, tourists, locals and others, might be bought by some international property investor sends shivers down my spine. My stomach curdled at the thought that Denis O'Brien had expressed an interest in it. It should be something that is available to everybody. The question of whether the State will acquire this estate in order to ensure its availability to the public has been raised several times.

I am aware that this site, comprising a historic house and estate of some 5,000 acres, has been offered for sale, with a reported asking price in the region of €28 million.

As the Deputy will be aware, my Department has no direct role in this sales process as it is a commercial matter between the owners of the property in question and the parties interested in the purchase.

Through the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht manages a property portfolio in respect of national parks and reserves of approximately 87,000 hectares. These important biodiversity areas are located all around the country. Given the limited resources available for capital investment within the national parks and nature reserves, I recognise the need to focus on the core responsibilities relating to the management of the existing parks and reserves' lands. The estate at Luggala would be a significant addition to our stock of publicly owned heritage properties and lands. It provides a central connection between disparate parts of our Wicklow mountains' national park.

My Department could only consider acquiring this property if the price fell to within a certain range, or in the context of a donation or bequest. This is known to the vendors. In this context, I also remind the House that in late 2016 my Department negotiated the extension of Wicklow mountains national park by purchasing almost 4,900 acres of Dublin uplands at Glenasmole in 2016 at a cost of just €800,000.

Wicklow mountains national park and Glendalough are amongst our most beloved and popular heritage jewels. The Luggala Estate has allowed a permissive access to a hugely popular walking route down to Lough Dan for many decades and I hope this would continue under any new ownership arrangements. Furthermore, the estate has been an excellent neighbour to the national park, working closely with it on habitat management and the promotion of our stunning Wicklow mountains for tourism, film-making and amenity. It is my wish that this close co-operation would continue too in future.

Hoping is not the same as achieving. The idea that this beautiful walk which people currently are able to enjoy because Garech Browne of the Guinness family has allowed the public access to Lough Dan through the estate could be ended if some property investor or private interest takes the estate over and no longer allows access. That is why we want more than expressions of concern or hope. We think the Government should actively acquire the estate. Given that the Minister says the Government is willing to consider acquiring the estate if the price is right, what direct negotiations has the State initiated with the vendors to see if we can acquire it? The answer which the Minister just gave is exactly the same as we heard from the previous Minister of State when this question was raised last summer. Has there been any progress?

There were discussions, which for reasons of confidentiality the details of which I am not allowed to give the House. We are open to further discussions on this. As I said, there is a permissive right of way in the estate. The price has to be right. The door is open for negotiations in the future. As well as the location, the estate is of architectural and cultural significance. The estate is in the target area of where acquisition could be considered but it also falls within the core of the parks target area and encompasses some of the most iconic views of Wicklow outside Glendalough. It would not have the same strategic significance to the national parks and wildlife service. We did acquire lands in 2006 which were in close proximity but these were two unconnected pieces of land. There are scarce resources in our Department and we are mindful of the need to focus on core responsibilities. We could consider acquiring this property if it fell within a certain price range. The vendors are aware of discussions which have taken place. There may be further discussions in the future. It is up to the vendors to discuss it again with the Department.

A very passive approach is being taken here. We should be setting out with determination to acquire this estate. The Minister says it is not strategically important or a priority. I do not understand that. Has the Minister ever been up there? It is absolutely spectacular. Currently we can just walk past the estate to Lough Dan. If we had access to the full estate, the investment that the State would put in in its purchase would be repaid many times over in future years. Anybody going to Wicklow or considering travelling through that landscape would want to go down to Luggala. It would easily pay for itself over the medium to long term. There has been all this fanfare over Project Ireland 2040 and the investment in our cultural infrastructure but, God almighty, one could not get a more important piece of cultural, architectural or natural heritage infrastructure than the Luggala Estate which is important for its oak trees, deer, architecture and landscape. It is absolutely spectacular and would be a tragedy if some property developer or private interest got hold of the estate.

I do not know if the Deputy heard my response.

What I said was there have been previous discussions in relation to this estate but that there are obvious financial constraints. Unless the property is in a price range that is acceptable to the Department, it will not be in a position to purchase it. We are leaving the door open in terms of further negotiations and hopefully we will be in a position to proceed. I agree that the estate is of high scenic value and the combination of the mountains, the lake and the woodland are particularly attractive. Its wild aspect so close to a major city also adds to its significance. It is an important example of a hunting and fishing lodge where the emphasis was more on short term accommodation rather than formal reception rooms. It is a particularly striking house for its 20th century cultural connections which are both tangible and intangible. Many noted artists, writers and musicians have stayed as guests and have contributed to a wealth of high quality artifacts. These collectively give the property a quality that would be considerably lessened without them. I accept all those facts.

At the same time, we have to allow reasonability in terms of spending taxpayers' money. We are open to discussions if the Deputy wants to consider it further.