Councils face losing cash they should have spent on rural projects
Local authorities face the prospect of being stripped of millions of euro of taxpayers' money for the first time because they are failing to spend it on improved services in rural Ireland.
An internal Government report, seen by the Irish Independent, reveals how a raft of councils are sitting on significant cash piles specifically earmarked for four major rural development schemes.
Nearly €30m was dispensed to councils through the four schemes in 2016 - with the Government insisting it be spent in full by the end of last year.
But the report shows almost a staggering 40pc of the money remains unspent and is lying in local authority bank accounts.
Offaly is the worst offender, having spent just 18pc of its allocated funding, followed by Cork (21pc), Kilkenny (41pc), Westmeath (42pc) and Donegal (42pc). Counties Wicklow, Leitrim and Kildare have also spent less than half of their allocated spend. Carlow and Louth are the most effective counties with their respective local authorities having spent 84pc of their funding.
The Irish Independent understands Community and Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring is to haul all the local authorities' chief executives before him to demand to know why the money is going unspent.
He is believed to be considering requesting the money is repaid by the worst offenders and channelled through other agencies such as the Leader Programme and Údarás na Gaeltachta.
The Mayo politician is understood to be "extremely frustrated" at the lack of action from councils and their failure to adhere to a clear instruction to spend the monies by the end of 2016.
The schemes administered by the department are: The Rural Recreation Scheme, The Clár programme, the Town and Village Renewal Scheme and the grant scheme known as RedZ (Rural Economic Development Zone).
The initiatives were all announced by the Government amid much fanfare as part of its pledge to revitalise rural Ireland. But the report shows that many counties have spent no money whatsoever that was disbursed to them through some of the schemes.
Following his appointment to Cabinet by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in July, Mr Ring hit out at what he described as the "negativity" surrounding rural Ireland.
The minister is then understood to have been involved in robust discussions as part of the Budget, telling colleagues that he was initially deeply dissatisfied with his allocation.
He secured a €19m, or 12pc, increase on the previous year.
The news of the planned meeting with the council chiefs comes almost a year after the Government revealed its action plan for rural Ireland.
The €60m plan, entitled 'Realising our Rural Potential', proposed the protection of rural schools as well as tackling commercial rate bills that are crippling small businesses.
It also proposed increasing flight connections at Cork and Shannon Airports, as well as a clampdown on so-called "mobile phone black-outs".
But one year on, the Opposition will claim the Government has failed to deliver for rural communities.