Thursday, 17 December 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Rural Recreation Policy
14. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the developments in the past year in rural recreation; the work carried out by Comhairle na Tuaithe in that period; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43079/20]
As the Minister knows, in the early 2000s there was a crisis about rural development, access to hills and so on. Much work was done on it. There seems to have been a long hiatus in the early part of the past decade in which little happened. What progress has been made in rural development? How are we going to develop this absolutely phenomenal asset we have? For example, has the Minister resolved the issue of access to mountains in an organised way, as was piloted back in 2008?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I want to acknowledge the work he put in to setting this up when he was Minister in this Department.
Covid-19 has reminded us all of the importance of outdoor recreational amenities for our physical and mental well-being. My Department provides substantial funding for outdoor recreational infrastructure through programmes such as the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, the walks scheme and the rural regeneration and development fund. My Department also works with State agencies, such as Coillte and Fáilte Ireland, as well as other stakeholders, to facilitate the strategic development of the sector.
Comhairle na Tuaithe, the Countryside Council, is central to this work as it brings the outdoor recreation stakeholders together in an advisory role. In June 2019, Comhairle na Tuaithe was given a new mandate to strengthen its role in the development of the outdoor recreation sector. Dr. Liam Twomey was appointed as chair of Comhairle na Tuaithe and he has driven the new mandate with the support of the council members. Earlier this year, the group commenced work on the development of a new national outdoor recreation strategy to provide a vision and framework for the growth of the sector. I will bring this strategy to Government when it is completed next year.
A range of other initiatives are being advanced by the council which will be captured in the annual report of the group to be agreed at the next meeting of Comhairle na Tuaithe. My Department is also establishing an interdepartmental committee to help progress recommendations coming from Comhairle na Tuaithe. This group will be particularly important in the development and implementation of the national outdoor recreation strategy. My Department continues to provide substantial support for the sector with expenditure of approximately €11 million on the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme this year. At the end of last year, an additional ten trails were approved for inclusion in the walks scheme. An external review of the scheme is also expected to be completed in the new year. This will pave the way for the further expansion of the scheme to 80 trails.
The genesis of setting up Comhairle na Tuaithe and the most urgent problem it faced in its early years was the whole issue of access to farmers' lands, particularly hill land and mountains. All that is owned by somebody. What we call commonage is shared ownership land. It is not common or some public land unless it belongs to some organisation such as Coillte.
As it was not mentioned in the Minister's reply, what progress has been made to build a scheme that recognises the rights of farmers and, on the other hand, gives widespread access to the hills and mountains? We do not need to build the hills or the mountains. They are there. People want to be sure they can access them and that they would be welcome. On the other hand, the farmers want to be assured that there would be no dogs on the hills, fences will not be damaged and the policy of leave no trace will be followed.
A pilot scheme was set up in 2008. Indemnity was to be given to the farmers against the very off-chance that somebody would try to take a case because they slipped on a rock or something on a mountain. What progress has been made in ensuring access to the hills? Is it intended to extend the trail scheme again this coming year because that was in abeyance for the past ten years?
We have been working hard with the local authorities to develop a pilot insurance scheme. Indemnity has been a long running issue for farmers in upland areas. It was far too complex to provide a blanket indemnity scheme. We got advice from the Attorney General on it and we would have had to put amendments through several Acts. The problem was that it was getting complicated.
Instead, we are working with the local authorities to roll out a pilot insurance scheme. It will have the same effect. For example, it would involve the introduction of an insurance policy in the Macgillycuddy's Reeks in the first instance which might then be expanded to other mountain access project areas such as Mount Gable in Galway. It is hoped that new mountain access project areas would then be developed with support from my Department. We have rolled out ten new trails and we are looking to develop more.
The Minister said local authorities might take out insurance. Will she clarify how that will stop somebody suing the landowner, as well as the local authority which has got the insurance cover?
The idea of the indemnity scheme was to indemnify people against being sued. There is very little chance of a successful claim for somebody coming to harm on a hill through no fault of the farmer. The person would have to show reckless disregard according to the law. There are cases, as the Minister knows, in Wicklow and up in Donegal that have gone to the Supreme Court, which has ruled against the plaintiff and in favour of the defendant. One was a State defendant. The chance of a successful claim on a hill because of something that might happen is very small.
The problem was not that someone would succeed. The problem was that somebody might take a case and that a farmer would be part of a court case and have to put a lot of resources into fighting another case that would fail. Will the Minister assure me that whatever she is proposing will deal with the specific problem, which is not the cost of getting insurance, which was never a problem because most farmers have insurance, but how to stop farmers being enjoined in a case and having to go through all the rigmarole of defending a case that would never succeed?
The one thing I want to ensure, and I know the Deputy will agree with me, is that we do not want to give the farmers any problems in this space. The farmers are allowing people access to their lands. We want to try to facilitate and accommodate this. Most stakeholders in the sector share the view that a public liability policy has the potential to deliver the same benefits as an indemnity scheme but it can be introduced much more quickly. The focus on the indemnity scheme may have somewhat distracted from the development of an alternative solution linked to insurance. As I said, for some time the officials have been examining how best to introduce a scheme to indemnify private landowners, particularly in upland areas. It is a complex issue. They have looked at it and they feel this is the best way forward. The point I am making, and I know the Deputy will agree with me, is that we do not involve the farmers in this. They will not have any liability. We do not want that to happen.