Tuesday, 27 June 2017
Local Improvement Scheme Funding
I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to the Chamber this afternoon and thank him for attending on this issue calling for the reintroduction of a specific ring-fenced allocation of funding for local improvement schemes.
I have no doubt the Minister is aware that this is an important issue, particularly for people in rural areas whose only access to their homes or lands is through a private roadway. A specific grant allocation was in place until 2011 but it was then removed. It was replaced with a scheme whereby a local authority could allocate up to 15% of its discretionary roads budget to local improvement schemes while the local community could make a contribution of 20% of the cost.Unfortunately, the scheme has not proved to be very successful and very few counties of which I am aware have taken it up. I am not aware of any local authorities in my own area of Cavan, Monaghan, Louth and Donegal taking up that scheme. It is a pity because great work had been done prior to 2011. As a result of the lack of investment since then, the infrastructure of those private roads is deteriorating as we speak. We risk losing the investment we put into these roads up until 2011. The list for County Monaghan is 200 lanes. Something like 180 lanes in County Cavan are waiting to be done. What I am really looking for is a statement from the Minister that he intends to reintroduce this scheme so that a specific grant can be granted for local improvement schemes.
I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this very important subject. I am well aware of it thanks to him and others who are, obviously, adversely affected by this and I understand its importance to him and others, particularly in rural areas. I regret the fact that it was withdrawn. We would very much like to see it restored as soon as possible when financial constraints allow it.
First, the improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads is the statutory responsibility of each local authority in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from the councils' own resources supplemented by State road grants. The initial selection and prioritisation of works to be funded is also a matter for the councils.
Ireland has just under 100,000 kms of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads place a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. Due to 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 of public roads. The maintenance of private laneways-roads not taken in charge by local authorities is the responsibility of the landowners concerned. A local improvement scheme is in place whereby a contribution can be made by the State towards the cost of maintaining these Ianeways-roads. Local improvement schemes are permitted under section 81 of the Local Government Act 2001. Due to the cutbacks in roads funding, regrettably, 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 - 15% of the discretionary grant in 2017 - 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. In other words, it would just involve taking money out of one place and putting it into another. While 2017 will see a modest increase in funding for roads, it will take some years under the capital plan to restore steady State funding levels for regional and local roads. The primary focus must to continue to be on the maintenance and renewal of public roads.
Notwithstanding this, I understand the importance of the local improvement scheme to assist the development of rural Ireland. In light of the provision in the programme for Government indicating that as the economy recovers, the Government will promote increased funding for community involvement and local improvement schemes, I will review the scope for making a separate grant allocation once the planned review of the capital plan is completed. That is due later this year. In the interim, the local improvement scheme remains in place with no separate allocation.
I thank the Minister for his response. It is clear from his contribution that he is very aware of local improvement schemes and their importance, particularly to rural Ireland.I am, therefore, heartened by his response. Perhaps we might look forward, towards the end of the year or at the beginning of next year, to the reintroduction of an allocation. It would be very welcome if that was the case.
I thank the Senator. I am conscious of what he and others have said, but I am also conscious that it is included in the programme for Government, not as an absolute commitment but as an aspiration. There is a commitment to consider it as a priority. The last sentence is fairly definite. It reads: "We will expand the scheme to include the taking in charge of non-council roads with a view to having this scheme up and running by end 2017". That is not a deadline. There is, however, an indication, from all parties, all angles and all geographical areas, that this is something everybody wants to see being brought back. All that is holding it back is the financial constraints.