Wednesday, 26 May 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Bradford: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am disappointed the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism is not present but I understand he is attending another function. Based on my experience in the Oireachtas, I am aware of how Adjournment debates work. The reply is prepared before the debate even takes place. However, I took the trouble to fax details of the issues I wish to raise to the Minister’s office earlier and I hope they have been taken on board in the reply that has been prepared.
I refer to the need for the Minister to respond to an application by a community group from Mitchelstown, County Cork, under the swimming pool projects scheme. It has been fundraising to build a leisure centre for several years. The Minister will also be aware, on the basis of various representations, that the group has been uniquely successful in its efforts and has, to date, raised in excess of €2.3 million towards the project.
The provision of a state-of-the-art leisure complex incorporating a swimming pool, fitness suite, outdoor all weather training pitches, etc, is considered critical to the future well-being of the town as well as supplying much needed infrastructure for the local population. The Mitchelstown group sought funding of €3.8 million under the Swimming Pool Programme, 2000-2002, to complement its own fundraising successes. Despite representations from the group, fully supported by Members of the Oireachtas, including myself, and local authority members, the Minister is not prepared to accept a valid application for funding for the project was made on the basis that a written submission had not been received when the scheme was suddenly closed to further applications in July 2000.
However, when a delegation led by Deputy Ned O’Keeffe, myself and members of Cork County Council met the then Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, in March 2001, he absolutely accepted the validity of the Mitchelstown application and assured us that it would be considered. He could not indicate the outcome of the application but the only condition he laid down was that we should seek a written assurance from Cork County Council that it would support the project. Support was willingly offered by the council and county manager and it was confirmed by letter dated 16 July 2001.
The status of the project is as follows. A site has been bought; full planning permission has been obtained on this town centre site adjacent to shopping and schools; and more than €1.6 million has been deposited by the leisure centre committee in the bank. The project has recently been professionally costed at €5 million plus equipment costs of approximately €200,000 and, therefore, the provision of the grant is essential to the success of the project.
Two feasibility studies have been carried out to verify its viability. Originally one was done by Gaynor Leisure and, more recently, one was conducted by BDO Simpson Xavier, which cited its location near schools and the town centre as excellent. Since then Tesco Ireland has opened a retail centre beside the site and the group has submitted an expression of interest in supplying a site for the decentralised head office of Bus Éireann.
Mitchelstown has been badly hit by job losses in recent months, as its sole major employer, Dairygold, has been forced to rationalise its operations. Against this background, various business and community groups recently came together to develop a plan to reposition Mitchelstown as an attractive location for new industry and inward investment. This plan identified the leisure centre as critical to the image of a forward looking town.
This proposal is being made by a town that recognises the need to improve its image and its facilities to ensure it prospers in the future. The former Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, recognised the merits of the project and, in particular, the achievements of the Mitchelstown community group in raising an extraordinary amount, which reflects the community spirit and self-help attitude that prevails in the town.
I appeal to the Minister of State to look favourably on the validity of the application. If politics is to mean anything, when a Cabinet Minister makes a commitment to a community group, a county manager and Oireachtas Members that an application is valid, it should be taken on board. Governments can change and Ministers can come and go but, since the commitment was given, no adjudication has been made on any application and, therefore, the scheme remains open. The commitment was given freely and openly by the former Minister and I ask the Minister of State to honour it by including the Mitchelstown leisure centre project in the programme and allowing it to be considered for grant aid.
Mr. N. Ahern: I acknowledge the Senator’s comments but I have been furnished with a long response, which is technical, and I do not know whether it contains good news. I also acknowledge his statement regarding the previous commitment and I will convey that to the Minister.
The aim of the programme is to assist local authorities in the provision of new public swimming pools or in the refurbishment of existing pools. Grants of up to a maximum of €3.8 million are available towards the refurbishment of existing pools or the provision of new pools, subject in either case to the total grant not exceeding 80% of the eligible cost of the project or, in the case of projects located in designated disadvantaged areas, 90% of the eligible cost. Support is available towards the cost of the swimming pool, toddler pool, sauna and steam room.
The closing date for receipt of applications under the current round was 31 July 2000. The position in regard to Mitchelstown, according to the Department, is that eight projects were submitted by local authorities after the deadline but could not be processed as they were received after the final date for submission. These projects were located in Douglas and Mitchelstown, in Cork city and county respectively, Kells and Trim in County Meath, Roxboro in Limerick city, Portnoo in County Donegal and Cloghran in County Dublin. One replacement project in Monaghan town was accepted into the programme after the closing date, as an exceptional measure, because the local authority pool closed for safety reasons in 2001.
There are 55 swimming pool projects in the programme, of which 13 have been opened or have completed construction work. These are in Arklow, Courtown-Gorey, Dundalk, Ennis, Enniscorthy, Monaghan, Navan, Wicklow, Roscommon, Tralee, Ballinasloe, Finglas, County Dublin and Grove Island in Limerick. Five projects are at construction phase, in the Regional Sports and Leisure Centre, Tralee, Clonmel, Tuam, Churchfield in Cork city and Ballymun in Dublin. In addition, 37 other applications are at various stages in the process, with four at tender stage, 18 at contract document stage and 15 at preliminary report stage. Due to the long lead time associated with such projects, it can take time for projects to proceed through the various stages of development. However, despite the long lead in times, significant progress is being made.
Notwithstanding this, because of the large number of pool projects still being processed, it is not proposed to re-open the pool programme. However, the Department is carrying out an expenditure review on the swimming pool programme, which is expected to be completed by 30 June. This review will examine, among other things, how the programme has worked to date, the benefits which have accrued to the areas where pools have been built, the levels of funding required to honour existing commitments, how these commitments can be managed within the confines of available funding and any amendments required to ensure effective and efficient delivery of the programme. On completion of this review, the question of reopening the programme can be considered. Should it be decided to reopen the programme, the application in respect of Mitchelstown will be revisited.
I will recall for the Seanad the administrative procedures in force under the current programme so that there is full appreciation of what is involved before a decision is made on they allocation of moneys under the programme. Following the submission and approval of an initial feasibility study, a swimming pool project must complete four distinct stages, which are outlined in the report.
Regarding Mitchelstown, it will be of interest to the Senator that where a project is being undertaken by an organisation other than a local authority, the proposal must be considered, supported and submitted by the relevant local authority. Before supporting a project, the local authority would have to be satisfied that the proposal was viable, that the balance of funding required to complete the project was available and that the project, when completed, would have satisfactory public access.
It is vital that the promotion of sport generally and the development of facilities such as swimming pools are carried out in a strategic and focused way. This means establishing priorities, avoiding overlaps and ensuring maximum public access to available facilities. I am anxious that the investment of taxpayers’ money by the Government provides value for money by ensuring that attractive, viable facilities are built. The funding provided for 2004 by my Department, amounting to €63 million in respect of the sports capital programme, €30 million in respect of the Sports Council and, in this context, €15 million in respect of the local authority swimming pool programme — an increase of 67% on the previous year’s expenditure — demonstrates that the Government’s commitment to sport and leisure provision is being sustained.
Mr. N. Ahern: I can only report back to the Minister on what the Senator is saying about the expenditure review that is currently taking place to see if one more application can be considered after the deadline. However, there is still a large list of applications from 2000 that are at various stages of planning. It would seem that it will be some time before others are seriously pushed up the list. However, I note what the Senator is saying and I will report back to the Minister.
Mr. Bradford: This is one of the unusual cases in which a very fair commitment was made in good faith by a Minister to a committee. The only condition he laid down at that meeting was that Cork County Council had to provide written support for the project. That support was immediately forthcoming. We were advised that this was all that was required. We specifically requested the Minister to let us know whether he considered the application to be valid.
Mr. Bradford: He assured us the application was considered valid. Another issue, of which the Minister might not have been aware, is that the scheme ended rather suddenly. It was to remain in place for two years but was shut off midway through.
Mr. Bradford: The then Minister, Deputy McDaid, was accompanied by a team of officials on the day. One member of the delegation asked him if he would assert the application’s validity in writing and he stated he was quite willing to do so. I recall one of his officials stating he should not do so there and then. Caution may have been displayed by the officials but the political master, Deputy McDaid, assured everyone that the application was valid and that money was available for the project.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for allowing me to respond to the Minister of State. An absolute commitment was made in respect of this issue by a Minister. I hope some facility can be put in place to allow that commitment to stand as a political act of faith.
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