Seanad debates

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Adjournment Matters

Rural Development Programme Funding

7:35 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Minister to explain why funding to the West Cork Development Partnership has been cut by approximately €2.2 million - according to today's Irish Examiner, the cut is €2.4 million. In effect, there is a 14% cut in this budget whereas other partnership groups have had increases - in one instance, an increase of 58%. Projects in west County Cork, such as those in Goleen, Schull, Ballydehob, Beara, Clonakilty, and Bantry, which have gone through the process, are now left high and dry because of lack of funding. I am sure the Minister will agree that great community effort and energy went into these projects and in some instances a planning process was completed. If these projects were to proceed, it would result in a minimum of 50 to 60 jobs, which would be critical to an area such as west County Cork. Some of these projects are community based, some of them relate to e-commerce and others are tourism projects. As I am sure also applies in the Minister's county, Kilkenny, the Leader programme has delivered great benefit to communities. The money is very well used and the benefits far outweigh the costs.

The West Cork Development Partnership is obviously dismayed at the unilateral usurping and overturning of the money that had been promised and was believed to be in train. It throws a spanner into the works over the future of these partnership groups. In west County Cork, as in rural areas in general, we suffer from a major outflow of people affecting our communities, parishes and GAA clubs. They are emigrating to Australia, Canada, America, Britain or wherever they can get work. The schemes offer some employment and also hope to the communities involved.

There is absolute dismay and concern. Local community groups have contacted me and I have spoken to some of my colleagues, Deputies from west County Cork, who have also rightly come under pressure from these groups. It is not that they are moaning and groaning. Some communities have planned these projects for six, nine or 12 months and in some cases planning permission had been granted. Now with a swipe of a pen by the Minister or someone else in high office, the money has been swept away, leaving these projects high and dry. It is like the periwinkle when the tide goes out - it is left on the rock, dry. These projects are abandoned and I am deeply concerned over the impact and the message we are sending to rural communities. I hope the Minister will have very positive news for me. Knowing that he is a kindly gentleman, he may contact Mr. Ian Dempsey, the CEO of the West Cork Development Partnership, to tell him that the funding is available again so that it can proceed with these projects.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to respond to the issue raised by Senator O'Donovan and to clear up considerable misinformation on the alignment process with local government as well as the funding arrangements for the rural development programme.

The Leader elements of the Rural Development Programme 2007 - 2013 finally commenced in February 2009 after a delay of more than two years, effectively reducing the programme period to less than five years. During 2010 it became evident that while on the one hand a significant number of local development companies were not committing funds at the level required to ensure that all the funding would be allocated by the end of this year, on the other hand a number of local development companies were more than capable of allocating funding.

In late 2011 the European Commission approved a change in the maximum co-funding rate from 55% to 85% for the Leader elements of Ireland's rural development programme. It is estimated that this change will reduce the available funding from €427 million to approximately €370 million, which is still a considerable amount of money.

In addition in late 2012 and early 2013, after repeated requests from many local development companies, I agreed to allow significant additional programme funds to be assigned to the basic services measure, which includes grant assistance for community centres and other projects, amounting to more than €19 million in total.

In the context of the situation as outlined, it became necessary fully to review the level of commitments and expenditure for the programme, and to adjust the individual local development company allocations in line with the reduced value of the programme taking into account the level of commitments already entered into.

My Department recently completed a comprehensive review of the programmes in every Leader area. As a first step I released €42 million worth of projects which had been approved by the boards of the LDCs asking them to confirm those projects that were in a position to proceed. If any of the projects the Senator mentioned are in the pipeline, they can be paid for out of this particular fund. If they have already gone through the system, as the Senator indicated, and had planning permission and co-funding, and met all the criteria, there is no difficulty and they will emerge, hopefully, through the Department in the coming weeks. Those projects that were in the queue have been prioritised to be released for funding.

When we did the trawl of the €42 million, we found that only €25.5 million in that category had all the necessary approvals. Perhaps some of the projects brought to the Senator's attention may be in the other €18 million that did not meet all the criteria. We are subject to serious audit by Deloitte on behalf of the European Commission so everything must be done properly.

Using an estimated final programme allocation of €370 million, the total spend to date and outstanding commitments under the programme were established and deducted from the €370 million. Some €6 million was ring-fenced for the former MFG, which as the Senator knows went into liquidation. New Gaeltacht projects and associated administration costs were transferred to contiguous local development companies.

The original percentage of the programme which was awarded to each local development company in 2009 was then applied to apportion the remaining funding among all local development companies. I ensured that nobody got less than the 80% of the original allocation. If that was applied to west County Cork, it would have gone lower. I have actually protected as much of the funding as I possibly can for the West Cork Development Partnership.

The Leader elements of the RDP have already provided significant financial resources to communities. I agree with the Senator on the good work already done. When I discovered that the momentum behind the programme was not as good as it should have been in 2011, I opened up to all Leader companies, including West Cork Development Partnership, the opportunity to apply for additional funding for additional projects.

The ones that came forward with additional proposals are being rewarded. Notwithstanding this, I ensured no company had less than 80% of the original allocation. I am glad to clarify the process. There is money in the system and available for projects in the queue and it will be paid in the coming weeks. It has to be spent between now and the end of the year. I will be returning to the West Cork Development Partnership and all other Leader companies by the end of August to clarify whether projects to which they committed in 2011 and 2012 will go ahead. If not, we will reallocate the money to companies in a position to draw it down. All of the money in the rural development programme must be committed by the end of the year.

7:45 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber and appreciate it when the line Minister responds. What he has outlined is substantially at variance with what I am hearing on the ground. Some 300 people turned up at a meeting in Skibbereen to discuss the alignment proposals, with which Cork County Council, like many other councils, is not happy. There is something radically wrong. Either the Leader company people are misleading us - I think not because their jobs and lives depend on it - or there is misinformation somewhere. It does not stack up. I hear about valuable projects on the Beara Peninsula, a remote area, the Mizen Peninsula, in Clonakilty and Bantry being stymied by a lack of funding. I must tease out this issue with the Minister on specific projects. My story is that they were ready to roll. There was a major announcement that they had lost €2.2 million, a substantial amount of money for any programme, because of which at least a dozen projects will be shelved.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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There are sufficient moneys in the system in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to pay for projects approved and in the queue for payment. If there is a difficulty in the evaluation of projects in the Department, we must obtain further information. That rarely happens and there should not be a difficulty if the projects have been submitted to the Department. The moneys will be paid from the €25.5 million I have allocated, which will be cleared by the end of the week. Further moneys are available to West Cork Development Partnership to bring forward new projects between now and the end of August. I will review the projects to which the development company has committed, as I will review all other Leader projects. This is to ensure all of the commitments made in 2011 and 2012 will be met. If projects are not going ahead, I will take back the money and reallocate it to companies around the country in a position to spend it. The ball is firmly in the Leader company's court. Cork County Council is very satisfied to work with local communities, as are all local authorities, to reduce the level of administration and duplication and prioritise funding for front-line services and projects.