Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I raise the issue of the sports capital programme. I am the treasurer of my local club, with which I have been involved for the past 30 years. I have also been involved in a number of successful applications for the sports capital programme. The programme was launched in 1998 and more than 10,000 projects have benefited from funding, bringing total allocations to approximately €1 billion. This year, the programme closed on Monday, 1 March, and by the closing date more than 3,000 applications had been made seeking more than €200 million in funding. This is the highest number of applications since the programme began.
The sports capital programme is the Government's primary vehicle for supporting and developing sports facilities and the purchase of non-personal sports equipment. Increasing participation in sport is a central aim of our national sports policy and forms part of the programme for Government, which sets a target of 60% adult participation in sport. To achieve this objective we have to have the appropriate sports facilities in place. The vision of the national sports policy is a country where everyone can regularly enjoy taking part in sport and physical activity for life. This is now more important than ever as recent findings, according to data published by Sport Ireland, have noted that the gender gap in active participation in sport is now at its lowest level. If we are to achieve our ambitious targets on sports participation we need to continue to invest in facilities, and in particular target areas with low levels of participation and areas with huge increases in population.
The sports capital programme has transformed the sporting landscape of Ireland, with improvements in the quality and quantity of sporting facilities in virtually every town and village. The facilities that have been funded range from sports equipment for the smallest clubs to national centres of sporting excellence. The vast majority of grants go to voluntary organisations and I take this opportunity to thank all those volunteers associated with these clubs for their tireless work and commitment to improving their facilities for the benefit of all their members. Significant changes to the programme have been implemented to make the process more user-friendly, including the simplification of the application form, giving applicants an opportunity to correct applications during the assessment stage and the introduction of an appeals system for unsuccessful applicants.
The programme aims to foster an integrated and planned approach to developing sport and physical recreation facilities throughout the country. In particular, its objectives are to assist voluntary and community organisations, prioritise the needs of disadvantaged areas in the provision of facilities and encourage multi-use of local, regional and national facilities. In 2019, €37 million of public money was allocated and 37 different sports benefited. Dublin received the highest amount, at €7.5 million, and my county of Longford received the lowest, at €290,000. Over the past three programmes, Longford has received the lowest average per capitafunding in the country of €20.99. County Westmeath received funding of €25 per capitaover the same three years. This compares with an average of €33 per capitathroughout the country. This is why when decisions are being made we need to ensure this imbalance is addressed.
We know it has been a tough year for sports clubs as a result of Covid-19. Clubs have been unable to do their normal fundraising. This new round of the programme will provide opportunities for clubs to make improvements. I understand it would be impossible to fund all applications received in 2021. Given the large number of applications received, I ask the Department to prioritise in 2022 or 2023 any validated unsuccessful application made this year. If this were done, it would enable applicants to begin planning for 2022, whether through fundraising or finalising planning applications in anticipation of receiving funding in the following year. This would reduce the delay in projects being completed, and the Department has to give a large number of extensions.
Everybody involved knows the importance of the sports capital programme and the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised how important sport is to our society. As well as the pleasure and excitement of watching sport, actively engaging is critical for our physical and mental well-being. I dealt with a number of application for this year's programme. Longford Tennis Club had to apply because its facilities were overused during Covid-19. Longford Rugby Club brought in all the children every Sunday morning, including my young lad, for training during the off-season. However, there is always more that can be done to make sure everyone, no matter their age or background, and whether male or female, has an opportunity to participate in sport in some capacity. This is why the funding is vital this year and will be important in the years to come.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Chambers, and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, who are caught at a Cabinet meeting and unfortunately cannot be here. I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter. We are acutely aware of the importance of sports capital grants to our local communities.
The sports capital and equipment programme is the primary vehicle for Government support for the development of sports and recreation facilities and the purchase of non-personal sports equipment throughout the country. More than 13,000 projects have benefited from sports capital funding since 1998, bringing the total allocations in that time to more than €1 billion.
The programme has transformed the sporting landscape of Ireland, with improvements in the quality and quantity of sporting facilities in virtually every village, town and city in the country. The programme is also an important element of the national sports policy in delivering increased participation in sport. Grants are available to voluntary, not-for-profit sports clubs, community groups, national governing bodies of sport and local authorities. Third level colleges, education and training boards and schools may only apply for funding jointly with sports clubs or organisations.
The programme's objectives are to assist sporting organisations to develop high quality, accessible, safe, well-designed and sustainable facilities in appropriate locations and to provide appropriate equipment to help maximise participation in sport and physical recreation, to prioritise the needs of disadvantaged areas and groups, such as people with disabilities, in the provision of sports facilities, and to encourage the sharing and maximum use of sports facilities. The programme for Government commits to continuing the sports capital programme and prioritising investment in disadvantaged areas.
On 30 November last, the Minister, Deputy Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, announced that a new 2020 round of the programme was opening, with applications being accepted from 11 December until 1 March 2021. By this closing date, 3,106 applications had been submitted seeking more than €200 million in funding. This is the highest number of applications ever received.
The scoring system and assessment procedures have been finalised and published. All applications are now being assessed in accordance with these procedures. Given the large number of applications received, this assessment process is likely to take a number of months. As soon as this process is complete all applicants will be informed of the outcome of the assessment of their application. The sports capital and equipment programme only funds projects that are sporting in nature, whether competitive or recreational. All applications are assessed against six published criteria. These criteria are the likelihood of increasing participation, including female participation, and improving performance, whether the proposed facilities will be shared with other users, the level of socioeconomic disadvantage in the area, using the Pobal deprivation index, the technical merits of the project, the level of own funding available, and the amount of funding previously allocated under the programme. At least €40 million is being made available and it is planned to make allocations in tranches throughout 2021 as batches of applications are assessed, starting with applications for sports equipment in the summer followed by applications for capital works later in the year.
I welcome the Senator's genuine and passionate interest in the programme. However, the suggestion that allocations to applications under this year's round of the programme could be made over a three-year period is problematic for a number of reasons. The sports capital programme assessment process is competitive and rewards the projects that are more likely to deliver on the programme's objectives of increasing participation, prioritising disadvantaged areas and groups and encouraging the sharing of facilities. The Senator's proposal could be seen to reward inferior projects that do not score sufficiently high marks this year to secure funding. The proposal would disadvantage new and worthwhile projects that intend to apply for funding under future rounds of the programme and it would effectively mean no new applications for the next three years.
For these reasons, while I thank the Senator for raising this important matter, I am not in favour of making the changes to the programme that he has proposed. As demonstrated by the number of applications this year, there is very strong ongoing interest in developing local sports facilities throughout the country and it is important that the opportunity to apply is not curtailed and that investment continues to be made in the best projects that will make the most impact.
I thank the Minister of State. The departmental officials might have taken me up wrong. This was not in any way a proposal that there would be no new applications. It is with regard to applications that are validated but may not have scored as highly as other applications.If, as a club, we were not successful, we would have to reapply and go through the whole system again. Department officials would spend months going through the same application again. If we knew that we had a validated project and our funding application would be successful, we could be much better prepared and far more fundraising could be done. The officials in the Department will confirm that the reality is that they often have to grant extensions of a number of years to projects because many clubs are struggling to finish the projects due to a lower percentage in funding being awarded. My point is that we should award a higher percentage of funding, particularly during the Covid pandemic, to ensure that those projects are delivered. That will mean that the clubs can prepare themselves, get the funding put in place and know that the applications for future projects will be successful, so that they will not have to go through the process all over again with all the red tape involved.
Fair enough, updated bank statements, etc., will be needed. However, I would not place restrictions on applications being submitted for new projects. To be honest, we are creating more bureaucracy in a system that is already clogged up. There are over 3,000 applications in the system. That is five times over the limit of the fund. There will be a significant number of unsuccessful applications. If we are going to hit the targets that we have set as a Government, we need to put more funding into sport. I felt that this proposal was a way around the problem and a way to cut down on the bureaucracy and deliver the facilities.
It would appear that perhaps there has been a misinterpretation of the Senator's proposal. I take the Senator's point that the intention is not to prohibit future applications. As I understand it, current applications will remain valid for the next round of funding, so that organisations do not have to go through the entire process of reapplying in that situation.
I will certainly bring the additional points to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers. I will ask the Minister of State if perhaps a representative from the Department can engage directly with the Senator to determine whether his ideas could be teased out further and could in fact be considered.
I fully agree with the Senator. The work in these clubs is done by volunteers. I was out with a local club, Cloughbawn, in Clonroche, last night. I have seen all of the work that is put in by volunteers in various clubs. It is getting more difficult to get volunteers to become engaged with the organisations. Younger people are living such busy lives that the number of core volunteers who have to do a lot of the fundraising is reducing each year. That is the case across all sorts of organisations. I certainly understand the Senator's point. I will bring the additional points to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers. I will find out if the Department can engage further with the Senator on this most important issue.