Seanad debates

Wednesday, 29 June 2005

10:00 am

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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As I recognise what the Acting Chairman said during the previous Adjournment Matter, I will be orderly. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, and thank him for coming to the House to speak about this issue.

The swimming pool project in Loughrea has a long and difficult history. The action group initially established raised funds in difficult times, for example by organising small events, to assist the development of a swimming pool in Loughrea. A substantial amount of money was eventually gathered with a view to purchasing a site. The first proposed site, which was made available by Galway VEC, was beside the new vocational school. It was an appropriate site because it facilitated the use of the swimming pool facility by the two adjoining schools. However, the engineering personnel and the consultants who were in charge of the planning application decided, for one reason or another, that the site was unsuitable.

Some time passed before an alternative site, which was adjacent to one of the main residential areas in Loughrea, was provided by Galway County Council. When that site was on offer, a further housing development was planned on a site adjoining the proposed swimming pool site. The developer in question decided to support the swimming pool project by investing the necessary resources to provide top-of-the-range swimming facilities in Loughrea. The project has been bedevilled by queries, responses and delays for the last three years, however.

I ask the Minister of State to clarify the matter by indicating that the Government will provide the necessary funding to pursue the project with the developer in question, who has offered to provide some resources on a PPP basis. The only possible reason for further delays lies with the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. Like Galway County Council, which eventually played its part by providing a site, Loughrea Town Council fully supports this development. While the action group that did so much of the initial work to bring this project to its current stage continues to support the project, its patience will run out and it will get frustrated if there are further delays. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State to indicate clearly that the Department is willing to give the project the final go-ahead.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I will respond to the Senator on behalf of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue. The Loughrea project is not the only swimming pool project under discussion at present. I do not have responsibility in this regard, but I will deal with this matter this evening because the Minister is abroad on business. While the project in question is not the most famous swimming pool project in the country, I thank Senator Ulick Burke for raising its current status on the Adjournment. I hope the reply I will give will be of some assistance to him. On behalf of the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, I propose to outline the current position of the local authority swimming pool programme and, specifically, the Loughrea swimming pool project.

As Senators are aware, the aim of the local authority swimming pool programme is to assist local authorities to provide new public swimming pools or refurbish existing swimming pools. Grants of up to €3.8 million are available for the refurbishment of existing pools or the provision of new pools, subject to the total grant not exceeding 80% of the eligible cost of the project or, in the case of projects located in areas which are designated as disadvantaged, 90% of the eligible cost. Support is available to meet the cost of swimming pools, toddler pools, saunas and steam rooms.

The closing date for the receipt of applications under the current swimming pool programme was 31 July 2000. Some 55 projects have been dealt with since then or are being dealt with at present. If a project is being undertaken by an organisation other than a local authority, it must be considered, supported and submitted by the relevant local authority. The local authority must be satisfied before it supports a project that the proposal is viable, that the balance of funding required to complete the project is available and that the project, when completed, will have a satisfactory level of public access.

Various stages must be completed before a decision can be made about the formal allocation of moneys under the programme. The four main stages in a swimming pool project are, in order of progress: feasibility study and preliminary report; contract document; tender; and construction. The technical adviser to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism is the Office of Public Works, which evaluates each stage of the project. Local authorities cannot proceed to the next stage of a project unless prior approval has been issued by the Department. Grant aid, which is allocated when tenders have been approved for the project, is capped at the time of the allocation.

I would like to put the proposed Loughrea swimming pool project in context. A feasibility report, representing the first stage in the development process, was submitted by Galway County Council for a swimming pool in Loughrea and was assessed as being in order from a technical perspective in 1999. Due to the limited funds available under the programme at that time, the council was advised that it could be some time before funding might be made available for the project. In 2001, the then Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation gave approval for appointment of consultants for the preparation of the preliminary report.

However, in 2002, the Department was advised that a proposal involving an alternative site was being considered and that the process of appointing consultants for a preliminary report and design was underway. In 2004, Galway County Council submitted a tender proposal seeking a grant from the swimming pool programme for a project promoter by a private sector interest to construct a leisure centre, including a swimming pool, on a council site different from that initially recommended in the 1999 feasibility report. The private sector interest would provide a significant amount of funding towards the project and there would be some additional support from a local community grouping.

As already outlined, the normal procedure under the local authority swimming pool programme is that approval should first be sought at preliminary and contract document stages, before tenders are invited for a project. It is clear that this process was not followed by Galway County Council. Notwithstanding this, the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism indicated to the council that it would be prepared to examine the proposal on its merits and this examination is under way. Issues such as the tender process, which has already taken place, public access, social inclusion and control and management of the pool must be carefully evaluated to ensure that the project fits properly within the local authority swimming pool programme. In this regard, Department officials are to meet soon with county council officials and members of the county development board to address these issues. On completion of this evaluation, the Minister can consider the matter further.

It will be of interest to the Senator to know that, overall, there are 55 projects in the pool programme. Since 2000, almost €49 million has been spent on public swimming pools and 17 projects have been completed. These include a new pool in Ballinasloe, County Galway, which was opened to the public in 2002. Some eight projects are at construction phase in Tuam, Ballyfermot, Drogheda, Jobstown, Youghal, Cobh, Letterkenny and Monaghan. The pool under construction in Tuam is due to open in the autumn, giving two new pools to County Galway in the past three years. The Galway East constituency has received two pools in the past three years.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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What is the Minister of State saying?

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I am saying the third cannot be too far away. Some 30 other applications are at various stages in the process, ten are at tender stage, 12 are at contract document stage and eight are at preliminary report stage. It can be seen, therefore, that significant progress is being made to implement the programme.

The Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism is carrying out an expenditure review on the swimming pool programme, which is expected to be completed later this year. This review will examine, among other things, how the programme has worked to-date, the benefits which have accrued to the areas where pools have been built, the levels of project completion and finance necessary to bring the current programme to a close and any amendments which may be required to ensure effective and efficient delivery of the programme.

It is vital that the promotion of sport generally and the development of facilities, such as swimming pools, is carried out in a strategic and focused way, which means establishing priorities, avoiding overlaps and ensuring maximum public access to available facilities. The Government is anxious to ensure that the investment of taxpayers' money provides value for money by ensuring that attractive, viable facilities are built. The level of funding provided in 2005 by the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, at almost €62 million in respect of the sports capital programme, €34 million in respect of the Sports Council and €32 million under the local authority swimming pool programme, which is an increase of 82% on last year's swimming pool expenditure, indicates that the Government's commitment to sport, leisure and swimming is being sustained.