MISSING IN ACTION The site for the proposed Greenway bridge at Springvale, Achill Sound. The greenway has been constructed to either end of the proposed bridge but three years after Mayo County Council claimed it was completed, the bridge is still not in situ.
Mayo County Council continue to count the cost for false funding claims
Yesterday morning and the a tiny inlet of the ocean near Springvale, just outside Achill Sound, glistens in the baking April sunshine.
On the Achill Sound side, a beautiful stretch of greenway meanders through trees right up to the inlet.
Across on the Sáile side, work has commenced in recent weeks on a 50 metre extension to bring a 1.5km section of the Sáile greenway right up to the site other side of the inlet.
All that is missing is the bridge over the inlet in Springvale. The bridge Mayo County Council said was completed three years ago.
The bridge which is still in absentia and no one is too sure when, or if, it will be built.
It has the capacity to be a spectacular section of the famed greenway but has, for now at least, become associated with the funding controversy that Mayo County Council has embroiled itself in and one that is ongoing, the full cost of which has yet to be made clear.
It all started when the Department of Rural and Community Development first began to ask questions about the bridge after the council had drawn down €200,000 in funding for it in 2019, saying they had completed its construction.
A few short months later, Mayo County Council were contacted on March 9, 2020 by David Yeomans, Head of Internal Audit at the Department of Rural and Community Development.
In email correspondence seen by The Mayo News, Mr Yeomans said he was conducting an internal audit of the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme (ORIS), one of the schemes administered by the Department. The ORIS is a funding scheme local authorities frequently apply to finance greenways and walkways.
The Department had approved €200,000 for the Achill greenway bridge in 2019 after Mayo County Council submitted that the bridge was completed.
Of course that turned out to be a lie.
When Mayo County Council told the Department in 2019 that the bridge was in place, they needed to submit documentary evidence for the costs entailed. Naturally, this proved quite difficult for a project which was not even underway.
The Department asked for documents in 2020 too. Still no bridge, so still a difficulty.
Some of the documents submitted by the council stand up to scrutiny. There are invoices for consultancy by a chartered engineering company and also from environmental consultants in County Cork, costs which would be incurred in advance of construction.
But also included is a receipt for fencing at Keel Caravan Park, work which was done but given its location some 15km away, has no relationship with the Springvale bridge.
There’s an invoice for a safety training event and, curiously, mileage paid for a council employee for travel from Mulranny to Kilmeena. Quite how this ought to relate to the greenway bridge in Achill is a mystery.
The total of the invoices comes to less than €50,000, only a fraction of the €200,000 the council sought and nowhere in there is anything for a physical bridge itself. The Department say it was a random audit but it is not stretching it to say the council’s submission raised their suspicions.
Perhaps Mayo County Council thought civil servants in Dublin might not be tuned into whether a bridge in Achill was constructed or not. Except, of course, that you cannot forget that the Department of Rural and Community Development have a base in Ballina as well.
The past and the future
The Great Western Greenway which runs from Westport to Polranny, just shy of Achill Island, has been a spectacular success since it opened in 2010.
Mayo County Council carefully negotiated the route with landowners and it has brought huge numbers of tourists to the region.
In more recent years, the council has sought to extend and expand this greenway.
At the Achill section, they plan to run it from Achill Sound through Sáile, Cashel, into Bunacurry and down into Keel. A second section of the Sáile greenway is currently under construction. There are also plans to run a greenway south from Achill Sound to Cloughmore.
At the other end of the Greenway, the council are planning to run a greenway from Westport to Louisburgh and onto Roonagh. Part of that route has been constructed while a section from Old Head to Louisburgh and Bertra to Lecanvey has become mired in this funding controversy also.
The eventual plan is to have a greenway which will run all along Clew Bay and allow tourists to get the ferry to Clare Island from Roonagh, go from the island to Cloughmore in Achill and continue a spectacular 100km loop.
It is a project with huge potential but in falsifying a claim for the bridge at Springvale, the council have done huge repetitional damage to themselves and, more directly, lost out on considerable funding in recent months.
Because once the Department audit confirmed there was no bridge in place at Springvale, they widened their audit and scrutinised several more ORIS projects in Mayo. More issues were discovered.
In December 2020, a letter from John Paul Mulherin, Principal Officer in the Rural Programmes and Policies Unit at the Department to the then acting council Chief Executive Peter Duggan said the department’s findings were ‘very concerning’ and that funding was ‘drawn down in contravention on the conditions on which it was provided and without associated works being completed’.
In all the council have had to hand back over €1 million in department funding whilst also being frozen out from the last five rounds of funding from the Department of Rural and Community Development.
How much this means Mayo has lost out on is hard to pinpoint but Westport-based Cllr Peter Flynn estimated it as being between €5 million and €8 million since the council handed back over €1 million last December.
So while the tide may come and go at the site for the bridge at Springvale, the controversy that has blown up since last December shows no sign of washing away.
In a nutshell, Mayo County Council drew down completion funding from the Department of Rural and Community Development for a series of projects which were not complete and, in some cases, had not even commenced. An initial Department audit on a greenway bridge in Achill led to more and investigations are ongoing.
What are the consequences?
So far, Mayo County Council have had to hand back €1.05 million in completion funding they drew down for five projects not completed or, in two cases, not even underway.
There are a series of other projects they drew down completion funding for which are not finished. However, as these projects are underway, the Department are allowing the council to complete these under strict deadlines and conditions.
The council have also been frozen out of the last five rounds of all funding schemes from the Department of Rural and Community Development, including LIS roads funding, Rural Regeneration and Development Fund, the Town and Village Renewal Scheme, the CLÁR Programme and the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme, the last of which is where issues first arose.
The council are hoping they will be allowed access to Department funding next month.
What projects have been impacted?
The council have lost €624,000 for the Clew Bay Trail from Old Head to Louisburgh; €250,000 for the Bertra to Lecanvey section of the same trail; €200,000 for the Achill Greenway footbridge at Springvale; combined with €9,056 for a greenway link at Rosturk, Mulranny and €8,585 for the Slievemore Track in Achill.
Where did the money earmarked for these projects go?
It is generally accepted the money was directed to other projects in the county but there has been no clarity at any council meeting on where the money was redirected to.
When did this story first emerge?
The Mayo News first broke this story on Tuesday, December 7, 2021 and a meeting of Mayo County Council later that day saw the details confirmed and councillors express their anger.
But the Department audit process commenced in March 2020?
That’s one of the things which has frustrated some councillors – that Mayo County Council were aware of this explosive audit taking place for 21 months before they informed the elected representatives. There have also been questions about why the ongoing investigation was not highlighted for or in internal council audits before then.
Who is to blame?
In their report to councillors on the audits, the council were quick to point out that the drawing down of completion funding was not signed off at Director of Services or Chief Executive level, saying it was made within the Tourism, Recreation and Amenity Unit. This is something many councillors have expressed doubt about, arguing that, if true, it highlights considerable issues relating to governance.
What happens next?
The Department audit has to be completed and then it will emerge if they are happy to allow Mayo County Council to draw down funding in the future.
In response to questions from this newspaper earlier this month, the Department said access to their funding schemes will be made available ‘once the department is satisfied with the level of assurance provided through the enhanced procedures and reviews that it receives from Mayo County Council’.
Even if the council are allowed to receive funding once more, there will doubtlessly be ongoing scrutiny on the council from Government departments for some time to come after this debacle and the damage done to Mayo County Council’s reputation, both in the county and at national level, is considerable.