Thursday, 8 December 2016
Local Improvement Scheme
I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport for coming to the House. It is nice that a Cabinet Minister is present to reply to a Commencement matter and we appreciate that.
This matter relates to the local improvement scheme. I am not sure if the Minister was familiar with the scheme in his constituency but, in rural constituencies, the scheme was essential for providing small amounts in grant aid, up to a maximum of 90% of the overall cost, to individuals who resided on roads that are classified as accommodation roads. They are private roads but they accommodate road users, farm activity and rural recreation activity. The budget allocation for the scheme was small but the value for money was significant. A contribution was made by those who lived on the road and the council would come in and carry out the work. While I had questions previously about the value derived from the work in respect of who should carry it out, whether it be the council or whether it would be tendered, that is a separate issue.
The primary issue is that the scheme should be renewed in 2017, if possible. This would merely cost a few million euro in the context of the overall transport allocation to cover the entire country. If a pot of €20 million was made available next year, it would help. The scheme was discontinued in 2011 and, as a result, a large number of roads that would have been repaired under it have fallen into a severe state of disrepair and the individuals living on them do not have the resources to carry out the necessary maintenance or upgrading works. They require a scheme to assist them in maintaining the countryside.There are environmental benefits to the scheme, as well as benefits relating to transport. There are certainly benefits for people living in rural Ireland in particular. Will the Minister of State give serious consideration to reintroduce this scheme at an early date?
I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which I recognise as important. I can understand why he might have thought I am not terribly familiar with it and it is a fair assumption. It is not the case now but it would have been the case six or eight months ago. Several of my comrades in Government have made me familiar with it and I hear of little else from Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran and others. I am familiar with the need for it and I am sympathetic to its cause. As the Senator knows, it is in the programme for Government that it should be fully restored.
The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each city and county council, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from the council's own resources, supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter
for the council. Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and the Exchequer. As a result of the national financial position, there have been very large reductions in Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure over the past number of years. For this reason, the focus has had to be on maintenance and renewal.
Maintenance of private laneways and roads not taken in charge by local authorities is the responsibility of the landowners concerned, as the Senator noted. There is a local improvement scheme in place whereby a contribution can be made by the State towards the cost of maintaining these laneways or roads. Local improvement schemes are permitted under section 81 of the Local Government Act 2001. Due to the cutbacks in roads funding, it was necessary for the Department to stop making separate allocations to local authorities in respect of local improvement schemes. The approved scheme remains intact and within it local authorities can use a proportion of State grant funding, which was 15% of the discretionary grant in 2016, for local improvement schemes should they wish to do so.
The reason a separate State grant allocation is not being made for local improvement schemes is that given funding constraints, a ring-fenced allocation would result in a pro ratareduction in funding for public roads in a situation where public roads are significantly underfunded. Whereas 2017 will see a modest increase in funding for roads, it will take some years yet under the capital plan to restore steady State funding levels for regional and local roads. The primary focus will have to continue to be on the maintenance and renewal of public roads. I do, however, expect that local authorities will continue to be able to use a proportion of their discretionary grant for the local improvement scheme in 2017. In light of the provision in the programme for Government indicating that as the economy recovers, the Government will promote increased funding for local improvement schemes, I will be raising the issue of increased funding in the context of the planned review of the capital plan.