Wednesday, 1 December 2004
I thank the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, for taking this motion. It concerns the need for approval of a feasibility study for Ballymacormack Community Centre, Stonepark parish, County Longford, an issue of great concern to the people of that parish and which I fully support. This community centre would be the sole provider of recreational facilities under the Leader programme, the remit of which is to enhance such provisions in rural communities. People with the dedication and commitment of the Ballymacormack committee are the backbone of rural communities and deserving of all the unstinting support we can offer.
Ballymacormack is a parish of some 850 people with its own individual identity. It is patently unfair to ask parents to take their children to community halls with which they have no affinity, situated several miles from their homes. The parish is a thriving community with a school, GAA club and various sports and charity organisations. The addition of a community centre would be a valuable asset for the youth, the elderly and everybody in the area. There is a strong demand for such a facility, which would maximise the potential of the community and provide a safe environment where young people, parents and grandparents can congregate.
The national school in Stonepark has a current enrolment of 232 pupils. Some 32 are enrolled to date for next year, which proves the area is growing at a great rate. The school has no green space and must use the facilities of the local GAA club. The pupils are housed in nine classrooms, including five prefabs. There are three new housing estates due for development adjacent to the proposed site for the community centre, which will comprise the building of approximately 87 houses, excluding any additional once-off houses in the parish.
The proposed centre would be situated in the centre of Ballymacormack parish, on the R397 to Athlone, across the road from the school and beside both local churches. There is a thriving supermarket and other facilities in the centre of the parish. Verbal assurance was given by the planning department of Longford County Council after an inspection of the site that it was suitable for a community centre. The committee has actively worked to raise funds for the feasibility study, which is estimated to cost only €5,400. A contribution of €3,800 has been made by the committee towards this cost.
In view of the Minister's avowed commitment to rural communities, I am sure this project is not one he would wish to overlook or see abandoned. Such a project represents a well thought out effort to enhance active community facilities within a thriving area without the danger of breaking community bonds which result from having to travel for recreation outside the natural grouping. This is at the heart of the Minister's commitment to rural Ireland. I ask him to use his influence to ensure the necessary funding is granted for the feasibility study. The committee will be applying for lottery funding and significant fundraising projects will be undertaken over the coming months and years. The commitment and goodwill of the Minister's Department can be displayed by granting the €5,400 necessary for the feasibility study. If this is not granted, the committee will forge ahead itself but it would be a great bonus if the Minister could provide assistance and give his blessing. I hope he can give me a positive response on this issue.
Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, as do dhea ghuí. Senator Bannon makes a compelling case. However, the decision in this case does not rest with my Department although it is the funding agency in such matters.
There are two Leader programmes in the current round of structural funding, the Leader+ community initiative and the area based rural development programme, a sub-measure of the regional operational programmes. Funding for these programmes is provided by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. These programmes aim to help rural dwellers to think about the potential of their area in the longer term. They also aim to encourage the implementation of integrated, high-quality, original strategies for sustainable development. Such strategies are designed to encourage experimentation with new ways of enhancing the natural and cultural heritage, reinforcing the economic environment in order to contribute to job creation, and improving the organisational abilities of communities.
Senator Bannon is correct that I am very committed to these issues. As he is aware, a matching scheme operates under the CLÁR programme whereby if the local Leader company approves a community grant for a building, the Department automatically doubles that grant. We must be clear about one matter, however. There is always a significant demand for bottom-up development and localised decision-making. However, as soon as this is facilitated and a decision is deemed unsatisfactory, everybody wants the centre to get involved again. Decision-making should be either local or not local. If it is local, it should be left as such.
The entire basis of the Leader programme, at both the European and national level, is that decision-making is undertaken at a local level in accordance with detailed guidelines issued by my Department. These guidelines set out the aims of the programmes, how the Leader companies should operate at a local level and the obligations of those companies with regard to issues such as the Data Protection Act 1988, the Freedom of Information Act, the Prompt Payment of Accounts Act 1997 and the provision of a bilingual service. We lay out guidelines and good practice but the decision on any application is made locally.
In County Longford, the programmes are delivered by Longford Community Resources Limited. It has a budget for the period 2000-06 of €3,211,000 for Leader programmes. This is made up of approximately €2.5 million for Leader+ and €770,640 for the area-based rural development initiative. The decision making process is autonomous of the Department and I do not interfere with it. At times, the advice of the Department is sought as to whether a scheme comes within the guidelines of a programme. That is a technical issue and not a decision making issue.
My Department clarified the position with Longford Community Resources Limited with regard to this project. The board of the company considered the application for funding for a feasibility study from Ballymacormack Community Centre at its meeting on 24 June 2004 and decided that the application should be rejected as there are a number of community centres within a four mile radius and some displacement of existing services needed to be considered. I understand Senator Bannon appealed the decision on behalf of the applicants on 28 October and the manager of Longford Community Resources Limited wrote to the Senator on 2 November, confirming the decision of the board and the reasons therefor. It was pointed out that under the operation of the Leader+ programme a grant is prohibited if it distorts competitiveness and usage of other similar localfacilities.
Leader operates on a decision making basis at a local level and I am satisfied that Longford Community Resources Limited took its decision on this application after giving it due consideration. I also understand that the question of whether the application was within the rules was not referred to my Department. The local company made the decision on the various issues involved and I must respect the localism of decisions on the Leader programme. As Minister of State and as Minister with responsibility for rural development, I have been very careful not to interfere with the programmes of the local Leader companies. The programme was intended to be autonomous. If it is intended to be a bottom-up programme, it must be so.
I suggest that the local group continue its contacts with the Leader company. Unless the Department is requested to give an adjudication on a technical issue it does not have a role in the matter.
I made representations on behalf of the local community. This project has the complete support of the parish. The people of the parish feel they are being victimised. A local community is enthusiastic about having a community centre to serve the people of the area and to keep the identity and spirit of the community and parish alive. Very few parishes have a facility such as this. The enthusiasm of the people should be respected.
Can the Minister use his influence to accommodate them? They have the commitment to raise the necessary funds. Will the Minister meet a delegation from the local committee?
I thought I made myself clear. Next week, this House will debate other issues which run parallel to this. For very good reasons, I do not interfere with Leader groups or try to pressurise them into decisions. If I did, there would be howls from the Opposition of ministerial interference in bottom-up companies.
Longford Community Resources Limited has decided to reject the application. Any change must come through persuasion of the company, by Senator Bannon and other local people, to revise the decision. Unfortunately, I must be adamant in this case. It is not my practice, and for good and valid reasons I do not intend changing that practice, to try to pressurise Leader companies. They were given autonomy. It was Europe's wish that they have autonomy and I do not want to impinge on that autonomy.
I am not giving a personal view of the application. I am hugely in support of community development. I cannot adjudicate on this case. Even if I think an individual decision is wrong — one can always feel that — I still do not interfere as long as the decision has been made within the rules. Local autonomy is a precious thing which has been given to local community groups. There are community representatives on every Leader company and they are very local.