RUNNING OUT OF ROAD A cyclist on the Clew Bay Trail between Murrisk and Bertra yesterday (Monday) is forced to leave the trail onto the main road. In 2019, Mayo County Council falsely claimed this section and a greenway from Old Head to Louisburgh were completed. Three years later this section remains incomplete while the Old Head to Louisburgh section has yet to commence. Pic: Conor McKeown
Mayo County Council were slow to come clean on Clew Bay Trail false claims
Last week local councillors and community groups met to discuss progressing a trail from Louisburgh to Old Head beach, a distance of 5.2kms.
It undoubtedly crossed the minds of those present that they should be enjoying the route by now, instead of wondering if they can make it a reality.
Because, as far as the Department of Rural and Community Development were concerned, the project was complete in 2019.
That’s what Mayo County Council told them in their final funding application for the route in October 2019.
In the controversy over the false drawing down of funding by Mayo County Council from the Department, the council’s actions over three different sections of a proposed greenway from Westport to Louisburgh, including the Old Head route, are extremely telling.
Let’s begin at the start.
The Department had approved the following sums for the Clew Bay Trail under the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme (ORIS) 2017 – €360,000 for Section 1D, Murrisk to Bertra; €500,000 for Section 1C, Bertra to Lecanvey; and €624,000 for Section 1A, Old Head to Louisburgh.
By October 2019, Mayo County Council had drawn down the full amounts for Sections 1D and 1A, a total of €984,000, submitting, falsely, that both sections were completed.
They did this in three stages, drawing down on April 9, 2018 a sum of €492,000, saying 20 percent of the project cost had been incurred. On December 5, that same year, they drew down another €162,758.51, claiming that 71.1 percent of the project cost had been incurred. Their final claim, on October 30, 2019, was for €329,241.49, saying the full cost of €1,230,000 had been spent.
The council also drew down half of the approved funding for the Bertra to Lecanvey route, €250,000, in October 2019.
To date, not one metre of the Old Head to Louisburgh or the Bertra to Lecanvey routes is in place. That funding has had to be returned to the Department.
Work is ongoing on the Murrisk to Bertra route and because work there was underway at the time of the audits, the Department of Rural and Community Development have allowed Mayo County Council to continue work there under strict conditions and deadlines.
But before any sanctions came the investigations. The timelines do not read well for Mayo County Council.
From Achill to Louisburgh
That no work had commenced on Old Head to Louisburgh section only became apparent to the Department of Rural and Community Development on a site visit on June 24, 2021. It’s worth remembering that date given all that happened in the year plus before then.
The process all started with the council being notified in March 2020 of plans for an audit of a planned greenway suspension bridge in Achill. The council said they had completed the construction of the bridge when they drew down funding of €200,000 from the Department under the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme (ORIS) in October 2019. However, as almost everyone knows at this stage, the bridge is still not in situ.
Upon conducting a site visit, the Department were able to easily conclude that they had been lied to – the bridge was not complete. Construction was not even underway.
That caused a domino effect – more audits and the Achill bridge was far from an outlier. Four more Mayo projects awarded funding under the ORIS 2017 funding tranche were assessed in 2020.
They were the Great Western Greenway Improvements (€200,000); Bowers Canal Side Walk, Ballinrobe extension (€200,000); Bangor Trail Improvements and Erris Access Bridge (€200,000); and Section 1C of the Clew Bay Trail (Bertra to Lecanvey). With regard to the latter, the council had drawn down €250,000 of the approved €500,000.
It is worth pointing out that 50 percent of the funding could be drawn down on completion of either 20 percent of 50 percent of the project, depending on the particular terms of the scheme, with the final 50 percent in all cases only to be drawn down upon completion of the project.
But while the Department were investigating Section 1C, their investigation, at this stage, did not include 1A (Old Head to Louisburgh) or 1D (Murrisk to Bertra). Even though they were part of the overall planned Westport to Louisburgh greenway, they were funded separately. There is nothing unusual about this.
The Department found that in the case of all five projects they were reviewing in 2020, none of the projects were complete and some had not even commenced.
Following these audits, John Paul Mulherin, Principal Officer with the Rural Programmes and Policies Unit at the Department of Rural and Community Development wrote to Mayo County Council on December 4, 2020.
Describing the findings as ‘very concerning’, Mr Mulherin said they ‘also give rise to concerns with respect to funding provided in Mayo generally as part of the Department’s Rural Development Investment Programme’. He anticipated further Department inspections and asked the council in advance of any such inspections to clarify whether funding was drawn down for any other projects which were not completed at the time of drawdown or still have not been completed.
The Department were, in essence, asking the council to come clean about any other projects they had drawn down completion funding for despite the projects not being completed.
Communication took place between the council and Mr Mulherin in January and February 2021. In Mr Mulherin’s reply on February 1 he outlined that no work should commence on any of the five projects ‘until this matter is resolved’ and added that all payments due to Mayo County Council under the Department’s Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme (ORIS) ‘are being held until the outstanding audit issues are resolved’.
Bear in mind, as far as the three sections of the Clew Bay Trail were concerned, this communique related only to the Bertra to Lecanvey section.
As far as the Department understood it then, Sections 1A and 1D had been completed, in line with funding drawn down in 2019. In the months from December 2020 to June 2021, it appears Mayo County Council did nothing to appraise the Department to the contrary.
But all the Department had to do was pick up a local newspaper to realise all was not as it seemed. Consider, too, that the Department’s ORIS projects are administered from their Ballina office.
So all it would have taken was any Department official in Ballina to walk into any local shop and pick up The Mayo News of March 2, 2021 to see something was off.
In a report on a Westport/Belmullet Municipal District meeting, a number of councillors raised the lack of progress on the Old Head to Louisburgh section. Councillors were oblivious to the chaos going on behind the scenes – it was December 2021 when they were first informed of the debacle.
Director of Services Catherine McConnell said Covid had hindered developments on such projects, including meeting with landowners. How much different officials in the council knew about what was happening behind the scenes is unclear. Perhaps it was not widely known that the full amount of funding had been drawn down for the Old Head to Louisburgh section.
But, regardless, the council as an entity cannot say they were being upfront with the Department.
It was May 19, 2021 when the Department first wrote to Mayo County Council saying they wished to review Sections 1A and 1D of the Clew Bay Trail.
On June 24, 2021 Mr Tim Daly, from the Inspection Compliance and Business Development Unit at the Department, conducted site visits when the reality became clear. In his control report letter on the matter, seen by The Mayo News, Mr Daly noted the following:
“It was identified in the course of the control that no works were commenced/undertaken on Section 1A (Old Head to Louisburgh) and that works on Section 1D (Murrisk to Bertra) are currently ongoing and not completed. Indeed, it is noted that, due to lack of access to private lands midway from Murrisk to Bertra, that completion of Section 1D of the trail is severely constrained at this moment in time, preventing finalisation of this section of the trail,” he wrote.
Cllr Peter Flynn says the councils actions further undermined their standing with the Department.
“When you see this timeline, is it any wonder the Department overlooked Mayo for the last five rounds of funding? You couldn’t blame them. If I was in their shoes, I wouldn’t be giving a cent until I was absolutely convinced I was happy with their processes and procedures.
“If I was in the Department’s shoes could I really trust the executive of Mayo County Council to tell us the truth after all of this? The answer is no,” he told The Mayo News.
It all meant that when the Department made their final determination on all matters, false claims relating to the Clew Bay Trail accounted for over 80 percent of the funding the council had to return to the Department.
They had to return the €250,000 they drew down for Section 1C (Bertra to Lecanvey), work on which had not commenced and €624,000 they had drawn down for the Old Head to Louisburgh route, Section 1A. That’s €874,000 out of a total repayment of €1,091,643.
As the Murrisk to Bertra route (Section 1D) was underway, it was one of the projects the Department said could be ‘progressed to completion’ with a sanction of 15 percent of the grant fund, ie €54,000 sanction for the €360,000 the council had drawn down. These projects are being allowed to progress under strict deadlines and conditions.
When locals will see a trail from Old Head to Louisburgh is anybody’s guess though.
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 €1.09 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, with funding drawn down totalling €1.08 million. However, as these projects are underway, the Department are allowing the council to complete these under strict deadlines and conditions. The council have also incurred a 15 percent sanction for these projects, €161,400.
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 this 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.
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 last 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’. On Friday last, the Department said that position has not changed.
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.