Thursday, 11 July 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
The Minister is currently reviewing the Ceantair Laga Ard-Riachtanais, CLÁR, programme. It is a superb programme, invented by Deputy Ó Cuív, which has made a significant difference with a small amount of money. It is a good project. Where is that review at and how open is the Minister to new suggestions for assisting rural facilities through CLÁR?
The CLÁR programme provides funding for small infrastructural projects in rural areas which have suffered high levels of population decline. The areas originally selected for inclusion in the programme in 2001 were those which suffered the greatest population decline from 1926 to 1996. The Cooley Peninsula was also included on the basis of the serious difficulties caused in that area by foot and mouth disease. The average population loss in the original CLÁR regions over the period of 1926 to 1996 was 50%. In 2006, an analysis of the 2002 census data was carried out by the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, NIRSA, at Maynooth University and the programme was extended to include areas with an average population loss of 35% between 1926 and 2002.
As the Deputy is aware, the CLÁR programme was closed for new applications in 2010. However, I relaunched the programme in the second half of 2016, using the areas identified in the work carried out by NIRSA as a baseline. The projects supported since 2016 include safety measures around schools and community facilities, the provision of play areas, supports for first responders in emergency situations and measures to provide vehicles to transport people to cancer care and respite centres.
I have initiated a review of the CLÁR programme which will examine CLÁR areas by reference to data from the 2016 census. I will also consider whether any other factors should be taken into account in designating areas for eligibility under CLÁR in the future. The review process began last November with targeted consultation meetings with a number of experts who are recognised for their background in rural development issues. Following on from this, my officials have been in contact with NIRSA with regard to carrying out a detailed analysis of the most recent census data in order to inform the review process further. I envisage that a wider stakeholder consultation will also take place before the review is fully completed. Once completed, the review will help inform the design of future CLÁR programmes and any additional measures which may need to be included.
We need to start looking at infrastructure and long-term developments, as well as some of the short-term measures the Minister has taken. For instance, Newtownwhite national school outside Killala in our constituency in County Mayo, a school the Minister is familiar with, has expanded significantly in recent years under the patronage of Educate Together, and it now needs to acquire land. However, the Department of Education and Skills does not support this land acquisition as it is intended for traffic safety and a playing field. That is the kind of project CLÁR could support in order to sustain a developing rural school.
We are also awaiting information from the Minister's Department on the Downpatrick group water scheme, which the Minister is aware of. This is again about putting facilities and infrastructure in place that will sustain communities to live in certain areas and protect the environment. Those kinds of infrastructure investments, which are long term but will sustain communities and help them grow, are what Deputy Ó Cuív had in mind when he first introduced CLÁR and we need to re-focus the programme on them.
I again acknowledge, because I have always been fair, that CLÁR is one of the better schemes we have in place. My biggest problem is that I wish I had more funding for it. I need that funding now, which is why I am conducting this review. When I reintroduced CLÁR after many years, I brought it back in a limited way. The Deputy is correct and as Deputy Neville also mentioned we need to be able to examine schemes. I do not know whether we will be able to buy the land the Deputy referred to, because when I worked on the sports capital programme people were only given funding for capital works and never for buying land. That should be looked at, because that is a small school in a small area that needs support and it can only get so much from local contributions.
Many other places in rural areas also need small bits of support. It is like the rural regeneration scheme we discussed earlier.
That is for bigger projects that need support. The Deputy is correct to say there are small schemes and the CLÁR programme has been one of the best. We have not reviewed it for a long time but we will get an opportunity and I want it to be done before the review of the next CLÁR programme. I want to sit down with other Departments to look at how to do it.
I hope the Deputy and other rural colleagues support me in what I have to say next. We cannot allow other Departments to throw everything over to my Department. There is a bit of that happening at the moment and I want to be careful about it. Other Departments have an obligation to rural-proof projects but I have to ensure that Ministers do not see my Department as a soft touch that has to do everything. They have responsibilities too. They have their own programmes and schemes and they have their own money. I have to make them accountable as well.
I agree with the Minister about other Departments. His Department cannot be just a clearing house. He said he wanted more money but one quarter of his 2018 CLÁR budget is still unspent. We keep coming back to this in respect of all the schemes we discuss. There is an announcement but this is not the same as actual spending. What is it about schemes that we are making them so difficult for communities? I do not care about local authorities, as they are big enough and bold enough, but communities are being affected. If the Minister is saying that he has not got enough money, we will support him and the reintroduction of CLÁR was, of course, part of the confidence and supply agreement. Communities suffer, however, when more than one quarter of the 2018 budget remains unspent half way through 2019. All Departments need to work collectively and to not dump all the rural issues into the Minister's Department.
All the money for schools and community safety, play areas, including the multi-use games areas, MUGAs, community well-being and support, first responders and the mobility and cancer care transport scheme was spent last year. Why must I and my officials write to local authorities to ask them to spend the money they have received? Why are elected representatives not up on their feet at every council meeting asking why money on approved projects is not being spent? I can only do so much and I seek the Deputy's support in this. I have secured the funding but whoever is here after the next election will have the same problem. Pressure is coming on me from the Department not to spend more, because councils have not yet spent what they have got. If I do not have a stream of spent money, we will have the same situation in a few years' time. I would love to put the money out into the private sector, if I could, but I cannot do that.