Thursday, 22 September 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, for coming in. It is safe to say we both agree how important sport is in Irish society. We are a real sporting nation. It is one of the pillars that sustains Irish society. Whether it is at grassroots or amateur level or supporting our elite athletes and teams wherever they represent us, we simply love sport.
Sporting organisations play a major role in community development and in fostering stronger social cohesion. An average of one in ten of all adults frequently volunteer within local sporting clubs. The economic value of volunteering for sports alone in 2018 was approximately €1.5 billion per annum. The impact of this is felt far beyond the pitches of our local sports clubs. These additional and often less spoken-of benefits are often some of the most profound. The negative effects of dropping out of supervised sporting activities are also extensive, ranging from increased substance misuse and poor school grades to widening the socioeconomic gap. Research from Sport Ireland has shown the impact that social class has on sporting participation. Only 47% of our children from a lower socioeconomic class grouping will continue some form of sport post primary, while 65% from high social class groupings will participate in post-primary community sport.
To ensure that sports continue to play this vital role, support for modern facilities needs to be provided. Despite the clear benefits of sports in our society, Ireland comes bottom of the table in the EU in general when it comes to investing in sports and recreational activities. The Irish Government is a persistent underfunder of sports and recreational activities. Our EU peer group spends on average three times more on sports and recreation than that of Ireland. When the large scale sport infrastructure fund, LSSIF, was launched in 2018, it was widely welcomed right across the sporting community, which felt that the Government was finally moving in the right direction and introducing adequate funding for major projects. This was seen as a much-needed Exchequer support for larger sports facility projects.
Unfortunately, since the first allocations under the LSSIF were announced in January 2020, very little has progressed. Approximately €86.4 million has been awarded to 33 different proposals. However, only approximately €900,000 has been paid out to projects. As we all know, building costs have skyrocketed since 2020. Questions must be asked as to how many of these projects are viable under increased building costs. Where projects are facing difficulties, will the Minister of State intervene with support for these sporting infrastructure projects? Capital projects funded through the LSSIF are capped at 70% of the total project. Has the Minister of State considered increasing the cap in view of rising building and construction costs?
The cost-of-living crisis is having a severe impact on the financial resources of clubs and national governing bodies, NGBs, across the State. As we enter the winter months, the floodlights will be back on and in action on a nightly basis. This will see increased costs for clubs and local authorities. We will see basketball halls across the State filling up, with basketball being one of our most popular winter sports. Many clubs are being pushed to the edge just trying to cover the cost of energy bills.
Can the Minister of State give a commitment that swimming pools, which are expensive to run, will get the funding they need to stay open and that they will not close? Resources for new facilities will be tighter than ever before. Is the Government confident that the 33 proposals awarded funding through the LSSIF will be delivered and when will the Department review on the LSSIF be published?
This is a single Topical Issue matter but multiple topics are being raised so I will try to deal with some of them. The LSSIF was launched in 2018 by the previous Government to provide an open and transparent system for applying for funding for larger sports facility projects, including swimming pools, where the amount being sought by applicants was greater than the funding available under my Department's sports capital and equipment programme. The first call for proposals was confined to sporting bodies and local authorities. Following a detailed assessment process, the first allocations under the fund were announced in January 2020 and thus far, approximately €86.4 million has been allocated to 33 different proposals. It should be noted in all cases that the funding provided by the Department represents a proportion of the overall cost of the project and it was a requirement for all applicants to show a minimum of 30% own funding for their proposals.
I know there is huge ambition in the sporting system, including for the projects that have received funding, for projects that were given funding for planning and design and for projects that have been developed since that time. Drawdown of these funds is not where I want it to be but it should be noted that the allocations were announced in January 2020, just prior to the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic gave rise to significant financial challenges and delays in construction for all grantees, with many of them having to reprioritise their expenditure plans due to significant reductions in their income streams. The Government provided significant support during that period, with a massive expansion in direct funding for sporting organisations and clubs to keep them afloat. In more recent times, the high rate of construction inflation has also resulted in grantees pausing some projects until they are in a position to secure the balance of the funding required to complete works. From my Department's perspective, every effort has been made and there has been direct engagement with all applicants to advance all projects as efficiently as possible. While the priority remains to advance all the successful projects, as it is now two years since the first allocations were made, and in view of the issues faced by grantees as a result of Covid, it was considered timely to review progress on all projects that were allocated grants. My Department has met with all successful grantees and work is at an advanced stage in completing the review.
I refer to the efficiency of the scheme. As the Deputy will appreciate, the funding provided under the LSSIF is substantial and, accordingly, the Government is trying to get value for money. While overseeing the spending of public money on capital works, it is a requirement to ensure that projects adhere to the public spending code. In the case of some of the projects awarded funds, delays were encountered, with grantees completing the due diligence procedures to allow a grant agreement to issue. It should be noted however, that letters have issued to 16 of the grantees, confirming that the Department is satisfied with the economic appraisals and other documentation submitted and is happy to proceed to the grant agreement stage. Furthermore, it is encouraging that based on the discussions with grantees, 22 of the 33 projects should be in a position to draw down funding in 2023. Accordingly, I expect significant progress on many of these projects in the short term. In the context of ongoing increases in construction costs, other projects will require additional funding to progress and I am aware of the broader ambition that existed across the sporting system to deliver additional large sporting infrastructure. Delivering on that ambition will require significant further investment and this is something I have ongoing engagements on with my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
The Deputy referenced a league table, although he did not say where he got it from. I question his data because we announced more than €160 million for the sports capital and equipment programme earlier this year, the largest ever investment in grassroots sport. That demonstrates a massive expansion in our delivery for the sporting system and for clubs and communities. This Government has been committed to delivering that. We are seeing massive drawdown of funding within clubs. We are seeing all-weather pitches being built, equipment being delivered and all sorts of delivery across the sporting system. I accept that we have to make further progress on this but the update I have given the Deputy demonstrates that drawdown for those 22 projects will occur in the short term. There is progress but I accept that there have been delays during that two-year window.
I thank the Minister of State and I acknowledge what he and the Government did for sporting organisations during the pandemic. As he said, it kept many clubs afloat and it is important to acknowledge that. However, we are in another pandemic and there is a lot of talk in advance of the budget on household supports, which are vital, as well as business supports. Equally, there will be sports clubs that will need to be kept afloat. If you go to any park the floodlights will be on and swimming pools need to be kept open, even though they are costly. Many clubs that are drawing down these grants and other funds are struggling and it is important that a lifeline is thrown to them. The Minister of State said that 22 of the 33 clubs had progressed their applications but for the rest we need to ensure that where they need funding they get it and the sports organisations should not be allowed to die as a result of a lack of commitment by Government. The Government did not let the clubs go during the pandemic and I seek that sort of commitment and support to be continued during this energy pandemic for sports clubs. As I said earlier, the template we need to follow is that of the League of Ireland and Shamrock Rovers' facilities. We need to ensure those sort of projects and that sort of funding are provided for the League of Ireland, basketball, hockey and cricket. These sports need to be funded and they cannot be let go because of the energy crisis.
We have a €15 million club fund and Sport Ireland has written to all sporting organisations and governing bodies on same. This fund has been kept in reserve from earlier on in the year and, therefore, there will be an injection of support for grassroots clubs before the end of the year that will provide a significant support to clubs and sporting organisations. We are focused on participation grants that resulted from Covid. As the Deputy will be aware, some of the indoor sports were more affected than some of the outdoor sports but we are trying to focus on the participation gap and a €15 million club fund will be delivered into the grassroots system prior to the year end.
We are also conscious of the difficulties the Deputy mentioned regarding energy costs and we are in discussions on that. As a Government we have been clear that we want to support society and our voluntary sector when it comes to the impact of the cost of living. Given we backed all of these organisations through Covid, it is important we sustain their progress over the coming months and during the winter. We are also clear when it comes to our ambition for the LSSIF and 22 of the projects will advance shortly while there is a funding gap for some of the others. Some of that is not specifically related to funding but to other matters that have to be concluded. These are large multimillion euro projects and it is not simply a funding question. Some of them have not been able to advance for other reasons. There is proactive work by the LSSIF division in my Department. We want to ensure we get drawdown quickly and we are there as willing partners to make sure the funding is given out and that these projects can commence. We are keen to advance them but there were construction delays. There is a financial gap for some of these projects but we are keen to ensure progress over the coming months.