Wednesday, 31 May 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Deenihan: I thank the Office of the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. There is an obesity epidemic sweeping the country at the moment. According to the national obesity task force report, 300,000 children are overweight or obese and this is growing by 10,000 annually.
In a survey which I carried out in 2005 in 1,400 primary schools, I discovered that only 23% of the schools had a sports hall and their physical education programmes were severely curtailed because of the lack of indoor facilities. Many schools were unable to do the minimum amount of physical activity because of the lack of an indoor facility or even an outdoor facility. There are genuine concerns about young children being injured in school yards, which raises the question of liability.
Apart from our schools, there is a cohort of children of pre-school age who need play, which can clearly also be relevant to children of school age. The provision of playgrounds in communities across the country is essential. There is no national scheme on this issue.
I will refer in particular to Kerry County Council, which has been proactive in addressing the issue of public play provision for children. In February 2003, Kerry was one of the first local authorities to launch a countywide policy on the development and management of public playgrounds. I was on the relevant committee at that time.
Since the policy, Developing Play in Kerry, was launched, an internal play appraisal team has been established to ensure that all decisions about play are compliant with the policy. This has provided a more centralised and co-ordinated approach to the development and management of outdoor playground areas. A guideline booklet entitled An Spraoi has been produced by Kerry County Council to assist community groups interested in developing outdoor public playground areas. It outlines eight basic steps, and once communities follow these steps, they can apply to Kerry County Council for insurance cover.
All applications are assessed by the play appraisal team. To date, the play appraisal team has approved nine projects for insurance cover. These are located in Ballybunion, Cahirciveen, Waterville, Killorglin, Sneem, Clohane, Ballyheigue, Fenit and Rossbeigh. Four of these projects are completed and two are at an early stage of construction. The remaining three have not started construction due to lack of funding. These projects are proposed for Fenit, Sneem and Rossbeigh, all of which have or intend to raise 20% of the projected costs locally.
Considering the high capital costs associated with developing a play facility, where playgrounds can range from €90,000 to €350,000, high-impact funding targeted at a level which would allow a project to proceed must be provided. Small grants will not enable projects to proceed within Department timeframes. From a Kerry perspective, to enable these developments to proceed and be completed within the current year, I requested that a bloc grant of at least €200,000 be allocated to Kerry County Council.
The Minister is reviewing the grant allocation for last year as some of the grants were not taken up. The reason for this is that the grants were not high enough to ensure that communities could purchase equipment as it is so expensive. The communities have to make up remaining funds through fundraising, which they find difficult. Will there be a scheme this year and, if so, when will it be announced? The community of Fenit had to go to the bank to borrow money to buy the equipment which it had already ordered, and other communities will have to do the same. Many progressive and forward-looking communities that have taken the initiative to order equipment are left in limbo because no scheme is available from the Department and there is no immediate hope of funding from Kerry County Council. I hope the Minister of State can give me some good news.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. N. Ahern): I thank Deputy Deenihan for raising the matter. Obesity in children has been identified as an emerging public health problem, especially in the western world. Data from recent surveys indicate that one in five Irish boys and girls is overweight and one in 20 is obese. Worryingly, the age of onset of obesity in children across the world is falling and a child is twice as likely to be an obese adult if obese in childhood. We need, therefore, as a priority, to address the trend and scale of excess weight and obesity in Irish children. To do that, we need to look at the eating and activity habits of children and what influences these. We need to make it easier for children to eat healthy foods and to be more active.
Effective weight management for people at risk of developing obesity involves a range of strategies and opportunities for physical activities. For children, play facilities are very important. Ready, Steady Play: A National Play Policy,which was published in 2004, provides a framework for the development of public play facilities in Ireland, with the overall aim of ensuring that children have access to a range of quality play opportunities to enrich their childhood. The development of the policy by the National Children’s Office was as a result of consultation with children and young people who identified the lack of play and recreational opportunities as a major quality of life issue.
As part of the implementation of the policy, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was delighted to provide more than €2 million in grant aid to county and city councils in respect of 32 new or refurbished playground projects under the local authority playground grants scheme in 2004. In 2005, the Minister announced funding of a further €2 million for local authorities for the development of playground facilities. A fixed grant of €60,000 was allocated to each county and city council to meet the cost of purchase and delivery of playground equipment. We expect to announce shortly further similar funding for such facilities in 2006. The level of funding should ensure a substantial increase in the overall number of playgrounds in Ireland and we are pleased that we have been able to play our part in responding to the recreational needs of children.
Local authorities are empowered under the Local Government Act 2001 to promote the interests of the local community in amenity, recreation and other functions. This includes the provision of sports, games and similar activities and general recreational and leisure facilities such as playgrounds. Apart from the direct grants already mentioned, which assist local authorities in this regard, my Department also provides significant financial support to local authorities through the local government fund, which is usable at the discretion of the authority. With this funding and the revenue generated from development levies, we hope to see many more playgrounds being put in place by local authorities which will make a real difference to the future health of our children.
Funding does not all have to come from the special playground grants scheme. Some local authorities specifically ring-fenced a portion of their development levies for playgrounds and other amenities but they had trouble finding suitable areas in which to build the playgrounds, certainly in the greater Dublin area. That was not because there were too many to build but because some residents thought that, while they attracted children by day, they attracted a different element by night. It is hard to find a location that is convenient yet far enough away from residential areas. There might be more room in Kerry.
Mr. N. Ahern: Perhaps councillors might fight for a higher percentage. A scheme is being introduced this year. The Deputy is the expert on Kerry and some of the places I might have driven through on holidays are not huge compared with some of the suburbs in Dublin. However, if there is a local need and a local committee to drive the fund-raising, then the Department and the council might work with them. If it were a matter of a small amount per county per year, some help might be possible. I will talk to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, who is in charge of the policy.
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