Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 26 October 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
Sustaining Viable Rural Communities: Discussion (Resumed)
I remind members and witnesses to ensure their mobile phones are switched off. This is important because they cause serious interference with the broadcasting and sound recording systems.
Cuirim fáilte roimh gach duine anseo. Is ábhar uafásach tábhachtach atá á plé againn a bhaineann le postanna a chruthú thar timpeall na tíre. Baineann sé le gach réigiún, san áireamh iadsan amuigh faoin tuath agus sna Gaeltachtaí freisin. Tá mé an-sásta gur tháinig na finnéithe anseo inniu agus cuid acu ó áiteanna atá i bhfad uainn. Gabhaim mo mhíle buíochas leo as sin. Déanfaimid plé anois ar céard a theastaíonn a dhéanamh chun pobal tuaithe inmharthana a chaomhnú, that is, what it takes to sustain a viable rural community. We have representatives from Enterprise Ireland, the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, ISME, the Western Development Commission and Údarás na Gaeltachta.
An bhfuil sé sin aontaithe? Aontaithe. Cuirim fáilte ar na finnéithe seo a leanas: Mr. Niall O'Donnellan, division manager of policy, people and investment and Mr. Garrett Murray, department manager policy, planning and government relations, Enterprise Ireland; Mr. Neil McDonnell, chief executive officer and Mr. James Coghlan, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association; Mr. Stiofán Ó Cúláin, príomhfheidhmeannach, Mr. Micheál Ó hÉanaigh, stiúrthóir fostaíochta agus maoine and Mr. Gearóid Breathnach, stiúrthóir seirbhísí corparáideach, Údarás na Gaeltachta; and Mr. Ian Brannigan, acting chief executive and Ms Helen McHenry, policy analyst, the Western Development Commission.
Before the meeting commences, I draw attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statements and any other documents submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses of the Oireachtas or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Today's meeting is one of a series of meetings that this committee is holding to consider what is necessary to create a viable rural community and to sustain it. During these deliberations we will examine all aspects of rural communities in modern Ireland including employment, emergency services, local services, quality of life, education and transport. Today's meeting will look at stream 1, employment, which in many ways is the most important element in sustaining local rural areas. It includes investment, development and employment in rural areas, doing business and locating workers in rural areas, incentives for rural enterprise, resource-based industries and creative and media industries. I invite Enterprise Ireland to address the committee.
Mr. Niall O'Donnellan:
Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an gcoiste as an gcuireadh teacht anseo. I am Niall O'Donnellan, head of strategy and regions within Enterprise Ireland and I am accompanied here by Mr. Garrett Murray, our head of policy and strategy. We have prepared an opening statement which has been circulated to committee members. I will highlight three aspects for the conversation and then we will be open to questions and comments afterwards.
First I will address the impact of our clients. We work with 5,000 clients throughout Ireland who employ some 192,000 people directly and in excess of 300,000 throughout the State. In 2014 to 2015 those jobs increased by 10,000. Half of the jobs are in counties outside of the big cities and half the increase was also outside the big cities. Some €24 billion is spent in actual purchasing of services and goods from others within the Irish economy as well. That is the major impact of these 5,000 companies that are in every town, village and county throughout the State. We call them hidden champions and they have a similar impact to that of multinational clients and are central to the growth in the Irish economy. One in six people employed in the Irish economy are employed directly or indirectly in these companies. Roughly half of those jobs are in counties outside of major cities.
The second element I wish to highlight is Enterprise Ireland's focus on regional and rural development. The focus is in three areas, the first of which is to grow the established companies where they are. Many of the companies are where the founder and his or her family have lived for many years. Our focus is on helping those companies to grow internationally through our overseas offices, capability programmes, leadership programmes and providing funding to those companies. I refer, for example, to companies such as VistaMed, which has expanded with 200 jobs announced this year in Leitrim, Grant Thornton in Longford with 50 jobs and LotusWorks Engineering in Sligo. The second area of focus is around encouraging start-ups, both those which are selling globally and those which are working with the local enterprise office network. In that context, it is interesting to note that the competition for young entrepreneurs, Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur, has had over 2,000 applicants in the latest round, which is a significant signal that a lot of people are interested in starting new businesses. The third focus is on the regional action plan, which focuses on things in each region such as skills, innovation, broadband and infrastructure that can help businesses and employment in those areas.
The third issue I wish to highlight is the issue of Brexit. One third of our clients export more than 50% of their exports to the UK. Brexit is obviously a major challenge. Enterprise Ireland sees Brexit as a structural, long-term, fundamental change that is going to change everything for our companies and the whole economy. The immediate impact is the currency exchange, but there are lots of other issues that are about to unfold. This is a major issue, particularly in sectors such as food and engineering, that have relatively low margins and have particular exposure to the UK market and to UK competition. It is also perhaps a wake-up call to all companies to actually focus on innovation and competitiveness as key aspects of sustaining and growing jobs throughout the economy and throughout the State.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an bhfinné. I am going to ask Mr. Neil McDonnell, the chief executive of ISME, to make his presentation and we will then take questions to both organisations. We take the presentations from the two other organisations after that.
Mr. Neil McDonnell:
I thank the Chairman and I apologise to the committee for the absence of ISME chairman, Mr. James Coghlan, who was unavoidably detained on business this morning. I do not propose to read our pre-circulated statement into the record. I will, as my colleague has done, highlight the really important points from ISME's perspective on maintaining a rural community. There are no surprises on the key issues. Firstly, the availability of high-speed broadband is really a non-negotiable requirement. It is as much part of the utility requirement for most small businesses as are electricity and clean water. We simply have to have it and we will not have a dispersion of small businesses into rural areas unless we have the ubiquitous availability of high-speed, high-quality, low-cost broadband services.
We are conscious that the local enterprise offices structure changed in the past number of years when the old county enterprise boards were replaced. We ask the committee to suggest a review of that system because, while the old relationship of those entities reporting directly to the Department still exists, we now have the introduction of the county manager as part of that structure. This presents a difficulty for certain small businesses that might be, for instance, seeking funding to expand while, at the same time, they have a planning application before a local county council. There may be a need to address the sensitivities that might exist there.
We are acutely conscious that rural transport has been under budgetary pressure for a number of years, but it is still worthwhile investing in it. This is especially the case for those who are unable, unwilling or cannot afford to drive and have to access medical and commercial services. We ask that the National Integrated Rural Transport Committee would examine the holistic provision of public transport in less densely populated parts of the west of Ireland. We use French and Austrian alpine resorts as a comparator because free public transport that delivers for local people operates at almost a Luas level of service there throughout the day or at key hours.
Lastly, we have emphasised the ability of the Office of Government Procurement to spread wealth, enterprise and funding into regional areas through the provision of State services via eTenders so that services associated with construction and all forms of commercial and technical activity can be provided by small businesses in towns and villages in rural Ireland. We believe that to be a far more beneficial social contribution to the fabric of rural areas than, say, social provision through the Department of Social Protection.
Nílim ag iarraidh dul roimh an gCathaoirleach, ach tá seans ann go gcuirifimid ar fad ceisteanna a bheidh cosúil le chéile. An bhféadfaimis na ceisteanna ar fad a thógaint, b'fhéidir, i round 1 i dtosach seachas go bhfreagrófaí mise-----
I will be very brief. I will do it in five minutes.
My understanding is that Enterprise Ireland currently owns no sites and that any sites owned in rural Ireland are actually owned by IDA Ireland. As planning requirements get more difficult, should IDA Ireland's sites be transferred to Enterprise Ireland and should there be a policy of having serviced sites - not buildings - available for enterprise as well as the community enterprise centres? Should there be serviced sites in towns so that if an entrepreneur is starting out he or she does not have to start out ab initiowith a planning application?
I think this question is best directed at the Western Development Commission. There is need for what might be called long-term technical venture funding. If there is a 20 or 30-year payback, it might not be called technical venture funding. Is there need for some system of long-term funding to be made available in share capital by the State to start-up companies to ensure they have plenty of working capital?
How much is a lack of basic infrastructure such as roads and mobile and broadband coverage as well as perhaps electricity and water supply an inhibitor of industry and business in rural areas?
Would it be possible to have a map prepared that would show us where Enterprise Ireland industries are located throughout the country? Could it be colour coded between food industries, technology industries and so on as well as by size? There is a myth that the only industries in rural Ireland are micro-industries that relate to natural resources such as food, but my knowledge tells me the situation is not quite so simple. We need to get the facts: where are they placed, what size are they and how should they be categorised. Is it possible to get that information?
Are the State tendering turnover requirements inhibiting smaller local companies from tendering for State jobs, even quite modestly sized jobs? Should all the major tenders have a clause to ensure that where big multinational companies win tenders they would have to employ local labour? I think such a clause is used in the North of Ireland.
Tá cúpla ceist agamsa. My first questions are for Enterprise Ireland. A good chunk of indigenous Irish businesses is more exposed on the effects of Brexit, having more exports to Britain. Those businesses are also more regionally distributed than foreign direct investment is typically. Has Enterprise Ireland been asked to define exactly what it wants from a Brexit negotiation? Is there a specific unit in Enterprise Ireland to deal with Brexit? If so, how many staff are in it and what kind of budget does it have? What is Enterprise Ireland's budget to deal with Brexit? What discussions has Enterprise Ireland had with the Department on spatial strategy? What kind of input has it had? Could Mr. McDonnell answer that question too? Has ISME had any negotiations or discussions with the Department on that issue?
Can the figures on jobs be broken down into rural areas? Typically a rural area is considered to be an area outside a large to medium-sized town. Are there specific figures for those areas? While the distribution of Enterprise Ireland jobs is much better than that of IDA Ireland jobs, they are still not distributed evenly throughout the State. There are pockets that do not have the same level of Enterprise Ireland jobs. For example, the figures for County Kildare, which is a successful county in terms of Enterprise Ireland jobs, dwarf those of other comparable counties in terms of distance from Dublin and population. What are the witnesses' thoughts on that?
What percentage of ISME member firms export to Britain? What are its rural members' needs in terms of exports to Britain?
What do both organisations think of specific enterprise zones that are designed to give those who locate there a specific advantage? At the moment there is a debate on Border development zones for certain areas along the Border given that the Border itself is a limiting element on enterprise and perhaps will be more so with a Brexit. Have the witnesses given any thought to what a Border development zone would like and what it should comprise? Sin iad mo cheisteanna.
I thank both witnesses for their presentations. I have just a few questions.
I intend to be a little parochial. I represent Cork South-West, which is employment-starved. While the situation in Cork city has been turned around a little, in terms of the green-shoots that are now appearing there, unfortunately, the three rural peninsulas I represent have lost a lot of young people and I have not yet seen anything that would help address the situation in any of those communities. Perhaps the witnesses could map their activities for the committee, focusing in particular on their activities around job creation in rural areas and how we can work with them in that regard. I am not pointing the finger at anybody. It is incumbent on us all to work towards turning around the unemployment situation. I do not want to see people having to leave west Cork to find employment either abroad or in Cork city or Dublin. I believe we can create employment in the regions. However, broadband service provision in rural areas is not improving. In some cases, the situation is worsening, which is detrimental to rural areas. I would welcome the witnesses' views on those issues.
I have three brief questions for the witnesses, the first of which is predominantly for Enterprise Ireland. In regard to venture capital for start-ups, particularly in small market towns in rural Ireland, has the idea of credit union involvement been explored? If it has, I am not aware of it. The credit unions are entities within all towns throughout the country that have an inherent interest in local job creation and in seeing their towns flourish and grow. Has the possibility of combining their funding expertise with the expertise in innovation and marketing and so on of Enterprise Ireland been explored? I believe that would be a potent combination. Has that idea ever been discussed or explored?
Deputy Ó Cuív referred earlier to the turnover limits for some of the larger State contracts tendered for in this country. I know of an innovative company in Athenry that is constantly being turned away from significant investment opportunities because of the turnover limit. This company has huge expertise and incredible affirmation of the quality of its product internationally but when it comes to securing contracts nationally it finds it exceptionally difficult to do so because of what I would argue is an outdated and silly turnover limit provision.
I live in an area located about 20 minutes from Galway city, which is booming in terms of job creation with the assistance of Enterprise Ireland and the IDA. What type of collaboration takes place between the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to determine what local supply chain opportunities occur for local companies when a large multinational locates in Galway, Wexford, Cork and so on? Is there significant ongoing communication between the two entities to determine what the potential supply chain opportunities might be and, if so, how are indigenous companies made aware of these opportunities? Also, what opportunities are presented in terms of the creation of new local indigenous companies?
I welcome the commentary from ISME in regard to rural transport and what it is seeking for in that regard. Perhaps a member of ISME would elaborate on the French and Austrian Alpine solution and the free bus. The issue of procurement has been raised. I, too, would welcome some elaboration on that issue.
As stated by my colleague, Deputy Cannon, Galway city is booming on one level but there has always been an imbalance in Galway in terms of the volume of industry located on the east side of the city and the huge traffic congestion arising as a result. I am aware that during my time as a councillor a lot of land was zoned as industrial on the west side of Galway city. Does Enterprise Ireland have a strategy to try to rectify the imbalance in Galway and thus address not only the shortage of industry on one side of the city but the traffic congestion issues? I would also like some information on the overlap between Enterprise Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta, including the type of interaction between both organisations and the dividing line in terms of operations.
Mr. Neil McDonnell might also elaborate on the point he made in regard to the local enterprise offices and the county manager.
Mr. Niall O'Donnellan:
I will respond to the questions in the order they were asked, if that is okay. Deputy Ó Cuív asked about site ownership. Enterprise Ireland does not own any sites. When the two agencies were separated in 1998, it was decided that the IDA would run the landbank and that has continued. On behalf of our clients we engage on a regular basis with the IDA about opportunities and the need for space, such that that in itself is not an issue. In terms of serviced sites, there are some parts of the country where we have expanding companies that are under pressure in terms of acquiring available sites. The private sector supply is as yet unable to meet the scale, in terms of size, or the nature of the units required, in particular units for expanding food companies. This is an issue on which we are focused. We are working with the local authorities to develop a response, particularly in some of the key areas affected. That is part of our ongoing work at regional level.
The community enterprise centres continue to be an important part of our response and that of the local enterprise offices, LEOs, to local communities. I agree with the Deputy that while the question of serviced sites is a related issue in some cases, it is a separate issue. The second question was in regard to funding for start-ups. There has been a considerable amount of investment to seed funds. This has worked, particularly for the technology start-up companies. Outside of that sector, there is a need for some further different type of mechanisms, particularly for manufacturing and food start-ups. We are particularly focused at the moment on finding other ways of supporting start-ups. The Deputy is correct that the best option may not be venture funds but private equity or other types of funding instruments or groups such as business angels and so on.
Mr. Niall O'Donnellan:
They are groups of high net worth individuals who come together to invest as individuals in companies. They are not an established fund but are a group of individuals. For example, there is already a group started in the food industry, which comprises people with a background in food who are interested in investing in food start-ups. In the United States, this kind of investment by high net worth individuals is the main support for start-ups. The seed venture industry in the United State is well established and focuses in particular on the technology industry, particularly on the west coast but most start-ups in the US are funded directly by individuals or a collection of individuals. Hence the importance of the employment incentive fund scheme, which is particularly focused on those individuals. There is a gap in this area but it is one on which we, with our parent Department and the Department of Finance, are focusing on over the medium term.
Reference was made to road infrastructure and mobile broadband and access being an inhibitor, in particular outside of the main centres. Broadband provision in approximately one third of populated areas of the country remains a challenge, which is a real problem. As already stated broadband, from a business perspective, is like water. In other words, it is not an option not to have broadband in terms of a modern business. If a small town does not have proper access to broadband the capacity for back-office operations and start-ups is more limited. It certainly is an inhibitor and so on.
Other aspects are possibly challenging in particular areas but as a general point it is not as challenging. Broadband would be the one we would particularly focus on as a general aspect. There are other areas such as access to roads and motorways, like in the north west, but broadband is our particular focus.
We can provide a map showing the distribution of our clients. Half of our clients are in counties without major cities. Employment with those clients ranges across different sized companies. It is not all microenterprises. For example, there is Univet in Tullyvin, north Cavan, a small rural area, which employs between 30 and 40 people. These are the kind of businesses right across the country. We are happy to provide the map with the categories suggested.
On State tendering procurement procedures, we have a unit which focuses on public purchasing. One of the strategic conversations we are having is with the Office of Government Procurement. There is that whole process of trying to balance the needs of public procurement with access to business, particularly innovative businesses. That can be quite challenging at times and one on which it is important to focus. We have developed the strategic business innovation initiative which is around trying to persuade various providers of public services to take on some innovative companies as part of their public purchasing approach. That is part of the solution. It is not the only one and I am sure my colleague in the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, ISME, will comment further on that.
We set up a Brexit unit and our entire organisation is now focused on the issue. Since 25 June, the senior management team met daily for four to five weeks focusing on what our companies were telling us about Brexit. Within the first three weeks, we identified the companies particularly exposed to the UK market. We surveyed and got data on all the companies we work with intensely. One question we asked them was which markets they were selling into. From that, we were able to identify each company with over 50% of exports or sales into the UK market. We had a conversation with the bulk of those companies over the following weeks and got feedback. There is a considerable amount of sectorial variation. For example, with engineering and food companies, one got sharp concern around margins and exchange rates. In other areas, such as software, they were not as concerned in the short term but were concerned about longer term issues around the slowdown in the UK economy, if it occurs because of Brexit. The ultimate question for all our companies is what exactly will be the nature of Brexit. Will it be a hard or soft Brexit? If it is a hard Brexit, will it involve tariffs, border controls and issues around transporting through the UK? Many of our companies which export to the Continent transport their goods through the UK. Accordingly, there is a range of questions and concerns.
Our response has been to emphasise five points. First, there needs to be awareness of the issue from a company's perspective. Has it looked at the risks involved? The second point is currency. Are companies exposed to currency fluctuations and have they hedged for this? Some have and some have not. The third point is market diversification. We are telling some companies they need to focus more on the UK. For example, in concrete products, it is unlikely those companies will be able to sell to other countries because of the nature of their product. Accordingly, they will need to intensify and get more sales in the UK. Our team is gearing to help them with that. The fourth point is diversification. There are companies which can diversify and balance their UK sales with sales in other countries. Finally, the fifth point is innovation and competitiveness. Interestingly, we have noted those companies which have managed to get price increases are those with innovative products.
Our overall organisation is focused on Brexit. We have a Brexit co-ordination team in place, comprising two people, which is bringing together the whole effort of the organisation. For example, yesterday, I, along with two regional directors and several local enterprise offices, LEOs, in the Border counties, had a conversation about what was involved for Border counties in Brexit. Our chief executive officer is regularly involved with the Minister's liaison meeting on Brexit.
Mr. Niall O'Donnellan:
The whole organisation is focused on Brexit. Our regions had a conversation yesterday about Brexit with the LEOs as to what our companies are saying in the Border region and our response to that. In this case, we are likely to hold a workshop targeting those particular groups of companies. We reckon there are 60 companies in the Enterprise Ireland portfolio which are particularly exposed to the UK. The LEOs have another 100 companies. We will have a workshop either this side of Christmas or in January focusing on those companies to make them aware of and to prepare for changes as a result of Brexit. The whole organisation is focused on it and the Brexit co-ordination unit supports the organisation.
In the Budget Statement, the Minister focused on extra resources for the organisation, particularly in competitiveness and innovation which will focus on helping our companies to respond to Brexit. This will be coupled with an increased number of staff overseas to help companies diversify into other markets.
Mr. Niall O'Donnellan:
That is just in the Border counties, namely, in the north west and the north east. They are the ones we have identified where more than 50% of their products are exported into the UK. There may be other companies. In the longer run, almost all our companies will have to face a Brexit question. Whatever that will be, we do not know. Brexit is a transformation with a whole series of decisions about to be made at national and international level which will ultimately affect all our companies. The ones we are particularly focused on now are those dealing with the UK market.
We are involved in the regional Action Plan for Jobs and discussions around that and the spatial strategy. We have been involved in forming discussions with the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in its initial consideration around the spatial strategy.
There seems to be some given that everything in Ireland has to be in a town, village or city. I feel when Enterprise Ireland approaches this map exercise, it will discover some of the major industries are not in towns. I am thinking of the Avonmore factory in Ballyragget, County Kilkenny.
I do not understand it - just because people have small back gardens, it attracts industry. What is the definition of a "town”? It is houses close together with small back gardens compared to all of us in the countryside who live with big back gardens and fields around us. There is no fundamental difference between the two, apart from twisty roads and broadband.
It will be interesting because it seems to be an idea that one can only get a factory in a town. Will Enterprise Ireland show us as it is and the way people actually did it, as opposed to the way the gurus want us to do it? What is the distribution between towns, villages and the middle of nowhere, as the rest of us think it is when I think it is the middle of everywhere? Rural development seems to be now about towns.
I would love to see Enterprise Ireland's map because I am not sure it would provide any proof that towns have a significant advantage over rural areas in creating jobs.
Mr. Niall O'Donnellan:
We will be happy to provide a map. There is a broad spread of Enterprise Ireland companies in rural areas, including townlands. I referred to Univet in County Cavan, for example, and there are hundreds of other companies located in similar locations, as well as in small towns, larger regional towns and larger towns and cities. They are evenly spread across the regions.
Mr. Niall O'Donnellan:
On specific enterprise zones, we have not looked at that in the context I believe the Deputy means, namely, in terms of a Border zone. Enterprise Ireland would be pleased to take part in any discussions on the matter should it matter. Synergies are created when companies are located together, particularly if they are operating in similar sectors as this creates opportunities for working together and so on. To respond to Deputy Ó Cuív's comment, this can occur in a small community enterprise centre in Kiltimagh as much as in other places. Enterprise Ireland will be pleased to engage in a conversation on the issue.
Deputy Michael Collins referred to rural development and also asked a question concerning a map. We will be happy to provide the analysis he seeks. Broadband is critical, as has been noted.
Deputy Ciarán Cannon raised the issue of venture capital. We had a conversation with the credit unions in 2008-09, which was during the crisis. We were trying to work out what were the options. As we are all aware, this was a serious time for all our companies. We tried to work out if the credit unions could help smaller companies in particular. Obviously, credit unions are focused on other areas. While we had a good conversation with them, there was a great deal happening on both sides of the conversation, if one likes. In addition, some issues arose because the Financial Regulator had concerns about the types of investment that could be considered in this context. While we did not pursue the conversation at that point, it is one to which we could return.
Deputy Catherine Connolly will be familiar with a credit union in Galway that has taken a highly proactive role in enterprise and enterprise support. This is an interesting model and while it need not necessarily be copied exactly, it certainly offers lessons to be learned. Enterprise Ireland will be happy to work jointly with the local enterprise offices and credit unions, which we view as an important part of local development in rural and urban areas.
On the Office of Government Procurement, as I indicated, issues arise in the procurement area and we are engaged in a conversation through our public procurement team.
On collaboration with multinational companies, we have extensive conversations with IDA Ireland, particularly to try to understand whether companies intending to locate here would be interested in some of the companies with which Enterprise Ireland works. There are, therefore, specific conversations taking place in this area. We have a team known as global sourcing which works directly with IDA Ireland on companies locating in Ireland which are engaged in certain types of activities. In each of the past two years, we have had an Irish markets week during which we introduce multinational companies based in Ireland to potential suppliers. This has worked out particularly well and the multinational companies have shown a strong interest, as have our clients and IDA Ireland.
To respond to Deputy Catherine Connolly, while I am a native of Galway city, Enterprise Ireland has not focused specifically on the issue she raises. We will examine the matter to identify what are the issues. We have invested in Galway city in a number of different ways, both in terms of the companies located in the city and the start-up scene. We were involved in PorterShed and a number of other areas and we are also involved in the National University of Ireland Galway. The regional director and team in place in Galway will be willing to examine the issue to gain a better understanding of it.
Bímid ag déileáil le hÚdarás na Gaeltachta go rialta. I am on the investment committee of Údarás na Gaeltachta and a member of Údarás na Gaeltachta is on one of Enterprise Ireland's investment committees. We work closely together and have a good interaction with the organisation.
I have a further question on one of the most important points of debate. It is one on which I note the European Union is changing its policy at a snail's policy. Does Enterprise Ireland define high-speed broadband as 1 Gbit, 100 Mbps or 30 Mbps? What do large companies need to operate?
Mr. Niall O'Donnellan:
The Deputy has asked a very good question, on which I do not have a specific answer. I will revert to the committee on the issue, although the speed required varies by company. For example, a design software company will need the highest specification, whereas a food company will need a good quality broadband connection with a lower specification. From listening to our companies and the Enterprise Ireland teams working with them, they generally need the basics, that is, a good broadband connection but not massive high speed broadband. However, web design and sophisticated engineering design companies which are using interesting design in making products will require a much higher level of broadband.
Mr. Neil McDonnell:
I will try to answer the questions roughly in the order they were asked. Deputy Ó Cuív asked a question on share capital and Deputy Cannon asked a question on the availability of credit in general. All forms of finance are an issue for small businesses, which have a different approach to finance than businesses with which Enterprise Ireland usually deals. I explain it to people very simply. Small companies do not have a treasury function and most of them do not have an accountant. This means they simply run out of money, which gives rise to a "hair on fire" discussion, so to speak, because the company needs money immediately.
On Monday, I spoke to a highly distressed woman from the west who runs a garden services business. Her company traded through €300,000 of bad debt in the bank crash and lost stock worth €500,000 in the big freeze of 2010-11. The company continues to trade and employs eight staff. The owner told me that three of her staff have mortgages and are waiting for their wages to be paid. She cannot obtain €30,000 for a truck. The conversation arose because she was sending me a rather aggressive letter that she intended to send to a finance house. We talked through the issue and I understood the emotion expressed in her letter.
The consistent message that comes through is that as a result of the banks having to repair their balance sheets, one of the good things lost has been the bank manager who could read a cashflow, profit and loss statement and balance sheet and understand whether a company was good. He or she used to be able to approve or reject a credit application, as appropriate, but they are no longer in place in the towns. Companies must then deal with a system or an IT connection and there is no longer an ability to provide the working capital, which is a serious problem. Whether this comes from an initial squirt of State capital, the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland or another source, it must be provided. There are, however, specialists entering this space. Wearing my previous hat, which was in the transport business, I note that some UK providers are very comfortable assessing the risk of distribution operations. These providers are making headway, although they are charging a premium of 2% or 3% on the cost of capital over what was previously available.
People are paying more money for access to credit now and it is across the board.
I was asked about basic services such as electricity and water. Again, there is a difference among our relative clients. A big business coming to Enterprise Ireland will have a check sheet, and if an area does not pass muster on the availability of services and the services are not there in the first place then a discussion will not take place. Some of our members are indigenous to an area and just muddle through with what they have so they are different, but the consistent message from them is the cost of the provision of these services relative to what their peers pay elsewhere is too high. The cost of electricity and water is too high. The cost to a small café or restaurant of a boil water notice is too high. This has to be fixed. Very politely, the message to all the Deputies and Senators in the Houses is they must sort out the water issue yesterday, because one crowd that will not pick up the tab for a failure to sort out water charges is small businesses. Back in the day they paid rates. Now, many local authorities are renegotiating rates with these small businesses. They must also pay for their utilities. Loud and clear I hear from them that the State should not come back asking more for water just because it cannot be got from someone who refuses to pay for water. We all have to pay for water. The only thing the politicians must decide is how we will pay for water and how much we will pay. It is simple.
Deputy Cannon asked about the turnover requirements for tenders. The simple answer is the turnover requirements are inappropriately high in some cases. I know of a business that tendered for a significant State tender. The value of the tender was €25 million and the turnover requirement was €40 million. There is no justification for doing this. I understand the State, particularly after the crash, decided to address this by having entities with a big turnover, but small businesses take the view that if the tender is for something in a rural area such as a road sweeping, hedge cutting or a road repair service, just because a Spanish or British company has a huge turnover it does not mean it will be able to replicate the service at a value for money price in the west of Ireland, and because it does not have network there it will probably end up buying the service from an SME locally. If we had a more holistic approach as to how the business is tendered in the first place it would cut out the middle man, cut out a piece of margin to a multinational and small businesses would be dealt with directly. We understand the State wants the comfort of dealing with a larger business. What the small businesses state is they can put consortia together but they need time to do so. I have already had conversations with the Office of Government Procurement on this and it is amenable to this discussion but it needs leadership from the State in doing so.
We would hate to see Brexit becoming a catchall cliché, with politicians having a go at each other and it is all great fun for them, but for businesses it will be a real issue. Last night we all saw aired the real right now issue for mushroom farmers who just happen to be very sectorally exposed. Going back to finance, they have a right now hair on fire working capital issue, which must be bridged. This is in the short term. In the medium term, perhaps sterling will settle at the level it is at and perhaps the mushroom farmers will be able to trade through it and trim their cost base, but they have a very tight cost base as it is. Otherwise they will have to reorganise their business or we will no longer grow mushrooms here.
Our concern is that in many businesses people do not realise they are doing business with the UK and do not realise they are doing sterling business. An example is hospitality, and we are not just talking about the west coast hospitality but Temple Bar. Many of the people on stag weekends come from the UK. Perhaps some people will be just as happy if they do not come over, but their pricing decision has changed in recent weeks. We just became 15% more expensive for them.
I was at a meeting this morning with a Coillte director who manufactures prefabricated construction equipment. Most timber in Ireland is now privately sourced. Many farmers who grow timber think their customer is Coillte, and their first customer in Coillte, but the end customer is a builder in the UK. There are businesses whose level of exposure we do not know, and how badly they will be affected will only come out in the coming months.
I believe I have answered the question on credit unions. Small businesses do not really care where the money comes from. There are regulatory issues involved but they need money.
Deputy Connolly asked about Alpine resorts where tourists in the ski season are moved around by a bus that looks just like a school bus with big wide doors. One gets on and there is no conversation or exchange of money with the driver. The locals also use this service. Of course there is a cost to doing this. Either the local commune in Italy will pay for it or the lift company in France will do so. There is a local agreement that just providing this on a regular round-robin basis provides a local service and they are willing to absorb it as the local overhead. To an extent, this already happens with the rural transport initiative, if we think about the school bus service. There is an element of State subsidy in this. We are not necessarily saying that something would go around the place on the hour, but if we think about extended rural areas in the west where people want to go to pubs there is also a road safety argument for it. There are clever ways of thinking about this where we could provide a level of service that would be a return to the local community.
The county manager issue has not clarified itself as yet but I will give some examples where there might be a sensitivity. In the old system, the reporting line was effectively through the county enterprise board to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation or its predecessors. Now the concern is, and we will only see this over time but we are alerting the committee to the sensitivity of it, that we have a county manager who deals with local authority members, and what was previously a purely commercial viability discussion is now potentially involved with something that might have a planning permission attached to it or a change of use for land. There is a concern that where local authority members are involved there may be things that get in the way of the discussions, sensitivities or something that someone does not wish to disclose, simply because the reporting line has changed and there is a local political element to it.
To answer Deputy Ó Cuív's question on what a good connection looks like, there is no simple answer to this. For instance, a local engineering, architecture or design firm that shares drawings or computer aided design will be very data hungry. On the other hand, for someone simply in a small town or village or rural area whose accountant is in one place and whose solicitor is somewhere else and who wants to use a cloud-based service, it will not work on a phone line. While it does not necessarily need to be a 30 GB or a 1 TB service it needs to be there, it must be reliable and it cannot be affected by weather. This is the issue. There have been local press reports. According to a recent study in the Irish IndependentCavan has 5,250 businesses without broadband, Donegal has 8,410, Leitrim has 2,500, Louth has 2,800, Monaghan has 5,200, Sligo has 3,800 and Meath has 6,300. Proximity to Dublin does not necessarily address the issue. It is the dispersal of the population in the area.
We survey our members in our quarterly trends survey, which we publish and which is available to committee members to search.
Of our respondents, 31% highlight quality and availability of broadband as a business issue.
Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an dá eagraíocht as na cuir i láthair. Tógfaidh muid sos beag ar feadh trí nóiméad. We will take a break for three minutes and allow the witnesses to leave. We will then have the presentations from Údarás na Gaeltachta and the Western Development Commission.
Mr. Steve Ó Cúláin:
Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an gcoiste. Mr. Steve Ó Cúláin atá ormsa. Liom anseo inniu tá mo chomhghleacaithe, Micheál Ó hÉanaigh, stiúrthóir fiontraíochta, fostaíochta agus maoine, agus Gary Breathnach, stiúrthóir seirbhísí corparáideacha. Ba mhaith linn ceisteanna an choiste a fhreagairt de réir nuair is atá cur i láthair gearr déanta agam. Tá ráiteas tosaigh eisithe againn cheana féin.
Mr. Steve Ó Cúláin:
Tá ráiteas tosaigh eisithe againn go cléireach an choiste agus piocfaidh mé roinnt pointí anuas a rinne na cainteoirí a chuaigh romham agus ansin freagróidh mé na ceisteanna.
Go bunúsach, ní féidir breathnú sa nGaeltacht ná sa bpobal ar an teanga, an eacnamaíocht, an pobal ná an timpeallacht mar nithe aonaracha nó comheisiacha. Ceapann muid san údarás go bhfuil muid ag plé le cúrsaí forbartha pobail ó 1957 agus sin an rud a dhéanann muid gach lá agus sin an obair atá againn. Tá sé riachtanach sa lá atá inniu go mbíonn caighdeán ard bonneagar agus seirbhísí ar fáil sa nGaeltacht. Tá sé riachtanach go mbeadh oideachas tríú leibhéal ag ard-chaighdeán agus go mbeadh fáil ag daoine ar saol na healaíne.
Is dúshlán mór é clann a thógáil le Gaeilge sa lá atá inniu ann agus an teanga a bhronnadh ar aghaidh ó ghlúin go glúin. Is é taithí an údaráis go bhfuil sé i bhfad níos éasca infheistíocht a mhealladh nuair a bhíonn fáil ar fhoirgnimh nua-aimseartha, d'ard-chaighdéan atá réidh le húsáid. Beidh muid ag obair leis na comhlachtaí agus le hinstitiúidí oideachais chun a chinntiú go mbeidh na cáilíochtaí cuí ag muintir na Gaeltachta amach anseo chun na postanna a bheidh muid á gcruthú agus á nginiúint a chur ar fáil. Beimid ag díriú ar earnáil na turasóireachta sna ceantair Ghaeltachta agus beidh muid ag baint leas as brandáil cosúil le Slí an Atlantaigh Fhiáin - Wild Atlantic Way. Sníonn 25% den Wild Atlantic Way tríd an Ghaeltacht. Beidh muid ag cur tograí straitéiseacha chun cinn. Beidh muid ag comhoibriú go seasta le dreamanna cosúil le Údarás Fuinnimh Inmharthana na hÉireann, SEAI, chun an earnáil fuinnimh in-athnuaite a fhorbairt i gcomhar le tionscnaimh Ghaeltachta.
Tá béim faoi leith á chur againn ar forbairt acmhainní nádúrtha atá flúirseach thart ar an gcósta cosúil leis an feamainn, dobharshaothrú agus próiseáil éisc. Chun gur féidir na cinntí seo a chur i bhfeidhm amach anseo, ní mór go mbeadh rialú ceart déanta ar an soláthar amhábhair. I gConamara an bhliain seo chugainn, beidh muid ag díriú ar fhorbairt Pháirc na Mara thiar i gCill Chiaráin. Beidh go leor eagraíochtaí Stáit, ina measc muid féin, BIM, Foras na Mara agus an chomhairle contae, ag obair as lámh a chéile chun é seo a chur i gcrích. Cuireann an t-údarás béim an-láidir ar chúrsaí forbartha pobail. Tá go leor comharchumainn Ghaeltachta againn agus oibríonn muid go dlúth agus go dícheallach leo seo ar fud na Gaeltachta.
Tá muid ag obair leis an Roinn Coimirce Sóisialaí chun na scéimeanna forbartha tuaithe agus pobail a chur ar fáil sa nGaeltacht agus tá 1,000 duine fostaithe sna scéimeanna seo. Bíonn láimhdeachas go suas le €16 milliún acu sin chuile bhliain. Tá súil mór againn oibriú le Leader 2016 go 2020. Tá ballraíocht againn ar na coistí forbartha pobail áitiúla sna contaetha Gaeltachta i leith chun an clár Leader a chur i bhfeidhm.
Amanta, bíonn contrárthacht bhréageach idir chúrsaí uirbeacha agus tuaithe. Ba cheart breathnú ar an dá rud le chéile agus an continuum atá idir na polasaithe uirbeacha, forbairt uirbeach agus forbairt tuaithe a thógáil le chéile. Is féidir leo maireachtáil taobh le taobh agus is amhail is fearr é sin. Sin an chaoi ba cheart go mbeadh an polasaí.
In summary, for a region like the Gaeltacht, the competitive disadvantages of peripherality, which is one of the principal causes of the underdevelopment of rural communities, needs to be reduced by good infrastructure.
In order to address the potential dearth in rural employment opportunities, policies must be innovative and like any other sector be flexible and adaptable to change. The research and development of the media industry in Gaeltacht areas supported by Údarás na Gaeltachta for the past 20 years has proved to be an innovative step in introducing compatible new-age industries to rural areas. Similar strategies need to be replicated so as to ensure that rural areas can keep in step with similar developments, albeit on a smaller scale, in urban areas. New sectors, which are now ripe for development, are being explored at present and include tourism, new forms of aquaculture, nutraceuticals and biopharma products, to name but a few.
Sin é mo thuairim. Gabhaim mo mhíle buíochas leis an gcoiste as eisteacht liom.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
I thank the Cathaoirleach and members of the committee for the invitation. As needs must, the opening statement has already been circulated to the members, so I will try to keep it brief to allow time for questions.
The Western Development Commission is an organisation that delivers a unique and effective response to the development challenges of a predominantly rural region in the west of Ireland. We do this through implementation, insight, identity and investment. We initiate programmes with partners that deliver real value on the ground in a largely rural region. Examples of this include our work in the creative economy, renewable energy and things such as the regional tourism marketing, which allowed international visitors access our rural region. That programme garnered €3 million for an upfront investment of €1 million by the State. We do this through our insight and development of a robust information base on regional issues which provides an acknowledged valuable input to national policy making in areas such as energy, infrastructure and broadband. A past example where this really helped was the expansion of the availability of town gas to a wider network within our region.
Critically, although we are talking predominantly here about stream 1 and employment, we also talk about our identity as a region. In the WDC we have helped to do this through enabling and promotion of a globally recognised rural region through programmes such as Look West and others which currently have over 20,000 social media friends and have reached out to over 1 million people, addressing the needs, opportunities and strengths of our region to a global audience.
The last way in which we do it is through investment. We operate the western investment fund, a unique source of risk capital for entrepreneurs in the western region. I am very proud to say we have been doing this for over a decade and it is, in effect an evergreen self-sustaining fund, which shows how public sector investment can reap rewards in terms of self-sustainment in the circular economy.
The impact of this has been quite significant. Since 2010 the WDC has sourced and directed over €13 million in total funding towards regional enterprise and employment development. Our regional policy and analysis capability has brought large-scale change in critical areas of our rural region. As mentioned previously, our Creative West report has garnered support in the development of hundreds if not thousands of creative businesses in our region. We look forward to that eventually resulting in significant job growth, all of which will be indigenous and we hope immutable in terms of their link to the land.
We look also at how we have delivered on a regional capability for the region and ourselves to access critical EU funding programmes through the region. This is not just done through INTERREG funds but it is also looking at facilities that have enabled biomass district heating planning and technical assistance funding for local authorities in the region of 200,000, which again is the seed for hopefully moving on to public private partnerships which will allow hundreds of jobs which will be there for quite some time given the nature of the fuel supply for biomass. In total we are talking about €11 million worth of European programmes in our region. Not all of that comes directly into our region but it forms the basis of risk capital for a lot of enterprise development at a very local level.
We previously talked about our investment capability. We referred to this as a regional access to finance capability and I believe some of the members and attendees have already discussed this. We have run the VC funding in response to market failure that was identified over a decade in our rural region in the west of Ireland. At that time only 3% of the national deals were done in this critical access-to-finance avenue. We are proud to say that after a decade of addressing this through the WIF, it now represents between 7% and 10% of the VC deals. This is quite a transformative change brought by the WDC to the region. This means that we have over €48 million invested in 135 businesses, predominantly SMEs and over 2,500 jobs created directly from a programme which is now effectively an evergreen facility and capability for the region.
I return to the regional identity, which is well served by allowing employment and enterprise to grow and also through our Look West programme giving a voice and a brand that helps the region feel good about itself and communicate its needs, opportunities and strengths to the rest of the world.
Although the nature of today's discussion is predominantly to inform the members, we believe the following recommendations merit consideration. I point members towards what the OECD and international community really believes rural and regional development to be. The OECD states that regional development should include: "a development strategy that covers a wide range of direct and indirect factors that affect the performance of local firms; a focus on regional specific assets, and less on top-down investments and transfers; [and] an emphasis on opportunity rather than on disadvantage or need for support".
In short, the OECD recommends that we should always focus on the competitiveness of our rural regions. We believe wholly in this. If we focus on that under this stream of employment, it will serve our needs best. We have some thoughts on what that means, which I will summarise. There is a clear need for infrastructural investment as all parties heretofore have agreed. There is an overwhelming need for an appropriately sized and resourced regional development capability. At the moment the modus operandiis one of dispersed intervention in terms of national bodies taking a slice of regional intervention.
If one looks at the OECD and proof of concept that we and indeed some of the other parties here today have provided, nothing develops a region or a rural area better than the people within that region or rural area. This is not just because of their ties and their passion, but also because of their market intelligence and drive, which the State needs to bear in mind. That will enhance and improve not just the regional competitiveness and total net worth and gain, but also the State's coffers which is something we need to consider in the modern economy.
We believe there is room for upskilling, specifically of a tailored means. Given some of the things in our opening statement, undoubtedly in the rural regions we believe alignment of measures for the self-employed and the creation of an entrepreneurial culture is critical. We are seeing an overwhelming drive of people towards self-help in terms of self-employment. We believe that has to be accommodated in any future steps we take to make this change.
Tosnóidh mise leis na ceisteanna. Déarfaidh mé ar dtús go bhfuil an-jab déanta ag Údarás na Gaeltachta ó thaobh postanna a chruthú sna ceantair Ghaeltachta thar timpeall na tíre. Níl dabht faoi sin. Níl gá ach na ceantair sin a chur i gcomparáid leis na ceantair tuaithe taobh amuigh den Ghaeltacht. De ghnáth, bíonn easpa infeistíocht agus ganntanas gnóthaí sna háiteanna eile sin. Bhí mé i gConamara cúpla seachtain ó shin, áit a bhfuil saghas ecosystem meáin cruthaithe ann. Chonaic mé an méid atá ar siúl ag Ros na Rún agus Telegael. Is cuimhin liom cúpla bliain ó shin nuair a tharla an infheistíocht sin go ndúirt a lán daoine sna meáin cumarsáide gur airgead curtha amú a bhí ann ó thaobh na teanga de. Hollywood beag atá ann anois leis an méid sin rudaí ag teacht as an áit agus an méid daoine atá ann.
Ciallaíonn sé sin go dtagann tairbhe as an infheistíocht sin freisin. Caithfimid a rá freisin go bhfuil dúshlán uafásach ag an nGaeltacht mar gheall ar an dúshlán eacnamaíochta agus dúshlán na teanga atá ann. Bhí beirt academics os comhair an choiste cúpla seachtain ó shin. Dar leo, níl ach deich mbliain fágtha ag an nGaeilge mar theanga phobal sa Ghaeltacht as seo amach. Cuireann sé sin scanradh orainn freisin.
Tá achrann ann san Oireachtas faoi bhuiséad Údarás na Gaeltachta. Cad é an titim atá tagtha ar an mbuiséad reatha agus ar an mbuiséad caipitil ó bhí 2008 ann? Cad é an t-airgead iomlán atá ag an údarás i mbliana agus a bhí ann an bhliain seo caite? Tá dream amháin ag rá go bhfuil titim ann agus dream eile ag rá go bhfuil fás ann sa bhuiséad. Ní féidir an dá rud a bheith fíor.
Cén ról atá ag an Rialtas nó ag an Stát sa language shift atá ann sa Ghaeltacht? Chuala mé le déanaí go raibh an Rialtas ag fáil réidh leis an riachtanas go mbeadh Gaeilge ag daoine atá ag obair i leabharlanna thart timpeall na tíre agus sa Ghaeltacht freisin. Cad a chiallaíonn an méid Béarla atá á labhairt sna scoileanna sa Ghaeltacht? Níl an polasaí faoi Gaeilge sna scoileanna Gaeltachta foilsithe fós. Cad é meon an údaráis faoi sin? Cad atá á dhéanamh ag an údarás ó thaobh Brexit de? Cé mhéad daoine atá ag obair air sin chun cabhrú leis na comhlachtaí? Cad is féidir leis an údarás a dhéanamh maidir leis sin?
Tosnóidh muid leis na ceisteanna ar fad. Mar sin, cuirfidh mé ceisteanna anois ar ionadaithe an Western Development Commission freisin.
The Western Development Commission does fantastic work. It is a great model and it is surprising that it is not replicated in other parts of the country. We have spoken to representatives of organisations at different levels, be they Leader programmes etc., and they have said they work very well and that they do not overlap with the commission's function in that space. Sometimes certain infrastructure has a very long-term repayment to the State. If there is not an organisation such as the Western Development Commission, it is hard to anchor the investment for that type of structure.
One of the most interesting figures I have found recently is that in Britain, solar power created more electricity in the past six months than coal. It shows the development of renewable energy in Britain and can be compared with here. In truth, the solar sector has not started here. Biomass was mentioned. Could the representatives put more meat on the bones with regard to observations on those two sectors? What developments could they play in the Western Development Commission's area with regard to jobs and attracting business?
What kind of budgetary challenges is the Western Development Commission facing? Údarás na Gaeltachta has had its budgets fairly well sliced and diced over recent years. What kind of budgets has the commission experienced? Is there money outstanding to the commission in any fashion at the moment with regard to the building of its own particular infrastructure and capital projects?
I understand that the way the commission's interaction happens currently is that its engagement with Europe, for example, goes through the translation service of the Departments here. Would it be more beneficial for the commission if it could have more independence and freedom to negotiate with the European Union without having to go through that translation service?
Will the commission tell us what engagement it has had with State services or Departments with regard to spatial planning? The commission mentioned that assets would be necessary for the development of the regions. I hold this view strongly as well. Investment in infrastructure without a spatial plan is directionless, headless chicken investment in infrastructure. It is only when we know where our chief cities, towns and industries and specific sectors will be located that the decisions on investment in infrastructure will be logical. What of the need for disruptive infrastructure? Given population trends in the State, with which we do not agree, currently we are chasing our tail on infrastructure investment. How do we disrupt those trends?
Tógfaimid na ceisteanna go léir ar dtús mar a rinneamar cheana. Is féidir leis na finnéithe teacht isteach ansan.
Tá cúpla ceist agam ar ionadaithe Údarás na Gaeltachta. Cad iad na féidearthachtaí atá ann ó thaobh chruthú fostaíochta in earnáil na teanga? Dá gcuirfí an straitéis 20 bliain i bhfeidhm go huile is go hiomlán, cé mhéad post breise a bhféadfadh sé a chruthú sa nGaeltacht? Acmhainn aiceanta é atá sa nGaeltacht nach bhfuil in aon áit eile agus ní hamháin sa tír ach ar fud an domhain. Ní féidir le dream sa tSín, san Ind nó in áit eile dul in iomaíocht le post atá teanga-bhunaithe. An bhfuil a fhios ag na hionadaithe cé mhéad post sa nGaeltachta atá teanga-bhunaithe? Tóg, mar shampla, TG4 agus na fo-comhlachtaí ar fad atá ag táirgeadh faoi TG4, Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge, RTE agus Raidió na Gaeltachta. An bhfuil aon suirbhé déanta ag an údarás ar an méid jabanna atá sa nGaeltacht, idir an Roinn féin, an t-údarás agus an coimisinéir teanga, mar shampla, nach mbeadh ann murach an teanga? Cé chomh mór is atá an t-údarás mar cruthaitheoir fostaíochta de bharr gur acmhainn aiceanta de chuid na Gaeltachta é?
Cé chomh mór is atá easpa bunstruchtúir agus easpa bonneagair bóithre, go mórmhór? Céard faoi leathanbhanda agus an tseirbhís fón póca? Idir easpa bóithre ó Bhaile Átha Cliath go Gaoth Dóbhair, fadhb teacht trasna na Gaillimhe agus easpa bóithre go Corca Dhuibhne ó Luimneach agus mar sin de, cé chomh mór is atá sé sin ina bhac ar fhorbairt i gceantair Ghaeltachta? Cuirim an cheist faoin airgead droim ar ais. Briste síos idir caipiteal ar fhoirgintí agus sealúchas a chuid féin agus infheistíocht i gcomhlachtaí, dá mbeadh sé ag an údarás, cé mhéad a bhféadfadh an t-údarás a chaitheamh go húsáideach, mar shampla, sa bhliain 2017? I mo thaithí, ag caitheamh airgead caipitil go mórmhór, tógann sé am mar chaithfí tairiscintí a fháil agus mar sin de. Braitheann an méid atá an t-údarás in ann a infheistiú i gcomhlacht ar an méid tograí maithe atá ag teachta faoina bhráid. An bhfuil go leor tograí maithe ag teachta faoina bhráid faoi láthair nach bhfuil an t-údarás in ann a airgeadú?
My colleague, the Chairman, has raised an interesting issue with respect to the Western Development Commission: infrastructure leading to development or development leading to infrastructure? Demand first, provision second, or vice versa? We have the most classic case of infrastructure first and a person with a vision and a wide view of the world, which was "do it now and the other will follow". How big has been the impact of Knock airport on the mid-north west in terms of sticking the thing in and saying, if we have that flagship piece of infrastructure, it will make the area more saleable? What is the commission's view on it? Do we wait to have the development first and get the motorway second? Alternatively, do we say we need a motorway to the north west or otherwise what is there and what could be there will not reach its full potential?
I think I was told the technical term for funds that would not give what a venture capitalist might want but would give the kind of return with which the pension reserve fund, for instance, would be satisfied. They used to call it the pension reserve fund but I think it is now called the national investment fund. If given access to that money - be it €20 million, €40 million, €60 million, €80 million or €100 million - under two conditions, one being long-term rates of return, which is what a pension fund wants, and the second being the kind of return a pension fund would expect as opposed to what a venture capitalist might expect, could the commission use the money over a period in useful investment in companies where it would win more than it would lose, allowing that some will lose and some will win, and get a reasonable return for its money on the total package? What kind of funding could it use out of that fund of a few billion euros? Would it make a significant difference? Does lack of working capital inhibit the development of companies?
This is my final point. We are always talking about problems in rural Ireland, and I do not like seeing it that way. I always say that the problem in rural Ireland is unexploited potential. There is more potential than we could dream of and people with creativity and the ability to develop. However, what are the three or four biggest factors that hold them back? Are they finance, education, infrastructure? What would unlock this absolutely incredible potential in rural Ireland? What would be the three or four things that would unlock it and allow it flourish? The potential and the resources are there in so many sectors. We need to just turn the key and unlock it.
My first question is for both Údarás na Gaeltachta and the Western Development Commission. I live in a little village approximately 25 minutes drive from the periphery of Galway city. My perception is that Galway city is the primary driver of economic growth in that whole western region. I am sure most of us here share that opinion.
The údarás has been exceptionally successful. If we move beyond what might be described as the economic footprint of the city, past Athenry, Loughrea, Na Forbacha and An Spidéal and into the sparsely populated parts of our county, both west and east, companies have been convinced that a sparsely populated area is a perfectly adequate and acceptable place to locate. How has the údarás done this? I believe its experience of doing that in Connemara could be replicated in parts of east Galway that have yet to see any sort of economic recovery taking place.
My next question is also for both entities. This has the potential to be significantly politically sensitive, but I will discuss it anyway. There is now a proposal on the table to merge our two local authorities in Galway. In my opinion, this artificial construct that separates the city from the rest of the county is an inhibitor to the economic growth that can occur across the whole of the county, driven primarily by the presence of the city but artificially suppressed at this point in time because of the presence of two different local authorities. What is the delegates' opinion on the proposed merger?
A recently published report recommends the merging of the two local authorities. It does so predominantly for that reason, namely, there could be significant collaboration and sharing of expertise and resources across a whole county rather than the artificial construct that exists. For example, there is a huge amount of job creation happening in the city, but Parkmore is predominantly in County Galway. How do we get the exceptionally successful economic engine that is a city the size of Galway to drive economic regrowth in farther flung locations of our county? Is there an international model we could replicate?
I have a further question, perhaps two, for Mr. Brannigan. He makes a point about education that I find fascinating. He stated that the OECD has shown that investing and upskilling lower-skilled workers in rural regions has a greater impact on economic development than investing in increasing the number of highly-skilled workers in the region. Could he expand on that statement? What is meant by investing in increasing the number of highly-skilled workers if not investing in upskilling? Does this refer to bringing in workers from other locations? What is the distinction?
In the subsequent paragraph in his written submission, which is a fascinating paragraph, Mr. Brannigan states, "Numbers of self-employed grew ... strongly in the Western Region (31.1%) [between 2012 and 2016 in comparison with 7.2%] in the [whole] rest of the state". He goes on to state that 22.9% of all working people in the region are self-employed compared with just 15.2% in the rest of the State. That is fascinating. He expands on the statement by suggesting it is probably because there are relatively limited job options in rural areas that people have to create their own jobs. I think what we are doing here is tapping into the innate creativity of our people. They are showing that, given the right resources and supports, they can create not alone jobs for themselves but jobs for their neighbours and members of their local communities.
What does the western region possess that results in this statistical anomaly? Is it that necessity is the mother of invention? Perhaps it is. What can we do to further enhance this kind of job creation potential? Something unique is being tapped into there. Is there anything we can do? I know broadband is a huge issue. What Telegael and others have done with the creative industries out in the depths of Connemara with the right resources and infrastructure is fascinating. In terms of the creative industries across the whole of the rural western region, what is the potential and how do we support it? Are there any lessons to be learned from other locations in the world that are doing something similar?
Gabhaim mo mhíle buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach mar níl mé ar an gcoiste seo ach tháinig mé isteach mar tá suim agam i gcúrsaí Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta. Sin an fáth go bhfuil mé anseo. Tá cúpla ceist agam maidir leis an mbuiséad. An bhfuil sé thíos nó an bhfuil sé thuas? Is ceist dhíreach é agus ba mhaith liom freagra macánta - ní freagra "macánta" ach freagra dhíreach. Tá a fhios againn go raibh éileamh ón údarás agus ó Chonradh na Gaeilge maidir le €18 milliún. Airgead suarach i ndáiríre é agus an tréimhse ama a bhí i gceist. Cé mhéad airgead a fuair an t-údarás?
Tá an t-údarás i mbun oibre agus ag obair go dlúth le muintir na Gaeltachta ar na scéimeanna teanga. Tá an straitéis Gaeilge againn le fada anois. Táimid leath-bhealach tríd? Cá bhfuilimid maidir leis seo?
An bhfuil na figiúirí nó an ráta dífhostaíochta sna Gaeltachtaí ag na hionadaithe?
Tá ceist sonrach agam maidir leis na scéimeanna fostaíochta pobail agus tuaithe. Dúradh go raibh 1,000 duine sna ceantair Ghaeltachta páirteach sna scéimeanna sin. Is iontach an scéal é ach, de réir mar a thuigim é, tá deacrachtaí ann anois agus daoine á stiúradh i dtreo an chórais príobhaidaigh. Is é Seetac an comhlacht atá fostaithe ag An Roinn Coimirce Sóisialaí agus míl rogha ag duine anois dul ar an scéim seo cé go bhfuil ag an duine maidir le scéim eile. An bhfuil mé ceart nó mí cheart maidir leis sin. Sin mar a thuigim é, ach bheadh an t-eolas ag na hionadaithe. An bhfuil réiteach ar an scéal seo? Bheadh sé dona go leor dá mba rud é nach bhfuil deis ag duine obair ar an scéim seo sa Ghaeltacht.
Tá a fhios ag na finnéithe go raibh an tOllamh Ó Giollagáin agus an Dr. Brian Ó Curnáin os ár gcomhair coicíos ó shin agus cur i láthair iontach acu. Cuireadh os ár gcomhair arís go bhfuil an Gaeilge i sáinn. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil daoine ann nach bhfuil ag iarraidh é sin a chloisteáil ach tá muid i sáinn ó thaobh na Gaeilge de agus é sin ráite ag a lán daoine. Cad atá ag teastáíl?
Dúirt na finnéithe gur féidir tuilleadh fostaíochta a chur ar fáil ach an t-airgead cuí a bheith acu.
An bhfuil sé agaibh nó nach bhfuil? Cé mhéad airgid atá ag teastáil? Is sábháil airgid é i ndáiríre i ndeireadh na dála mar ní féidir leanúint ar aghaidh leis an nGaeilge mar theanga bheo gan postanna a bheith ann.
Maidir leis an Western Development Commission, I am not on this committee but I have a particular interest in this. I thank the witnesses. The whole presentation has been very helpful to me. In a sense, it is a pity that ISME and Enterprise Ireland are not here because it is all interrelated. There was an extraordinary sentence from ISME in its saying that it is limited only by its imagination in terms of employment. The witnesses present are saying something similar. It is a pity that ISME is not here. The Western Development Commission representatives might comment on where it is on the issue of the western railway project.
I have an initial 30 seconds for the Western Development Commission again. I am returning to the issue of upscaling. What sort of engagement does it have with the education and training boards, ETBs, across the region in determining what skills shortages there are and how they can be addressed? What potential job creation opportunities are available across our rural regions? How can the ETBs become deeply involved in maximising that potential?
I apologise as I was in the Seanad earlier and that is why I was late to the committee. I am particularly interested in the presentation of the Western Development Commission, given it is headquartered in Ballaghaderreen. There are two areas on which I want to follow up. Mr. Brannigan pointed out challenges within rural communities in terms of being understood. I understand that for all agencies - Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, local enterprise offices, the Western Development Commission and all of those - we need a proper needs analysis of each town and village and of the connections between those towns and villages with the hinterlands. I do not believe we have that in-depth specific analysis at the moment. I certainly believe the Western Development Commission would be in a strong place to assist with that work to provide us with the evidence for support from our employment agencies. We effectively need our employment agencies working to ensure areas with the greatest need receive opportunities and support. That is the challenge at the moment. I say that with a specific example in mind of my engagement with Enterprise Ireland and a community initiative which was not funded. It seemed to have been an area that had the greatest need. I ask the Western Development Commission to expand further on the excellent work it does in providing that evidence as we move towards a more evidence-based model.
Mr. Branniganstated that the western investment fund and the micro loan programme has supported 135 projects, invested €48 million and is leveraging €210 million in supporting the creation of more than 2,500 jobs. Will he expand a little on the demand and whether there is greater potential for support? We know that the western region is supported by small to medium-sized enterprises. Obviously, the micro loan programme would be very important. Will Mr. Brannigan give us a bit more information on that and on its further potential?
Mr. Steve Ó Cúláin:
Thosaigh an Cathaoirleach na ceisteanna trí labhairt maidir lena chuairt ar Telegael agus "Ros na Rún". Tá sé tráthúil ag an stáitse seo comhbhrón a dhéanamh le muintir Mháire Ní Thuathail a bhí ag reachtáil "Ros na Rún" ar feadh 20 bliain. Bhí an Teachta Cannon ag cur ceiste maidir leis an gcúis, what the reason is or what the active ingredient is. In many cases, it is the people who run these companies. We have been lucky to have attracted and retained high-calibre, passionate and driven individuals who have had a lot to do with the development of this, especially in the creative industries.
Dúirt an Cathaoirleach go bhfuil dúshlán eacnamaíochta agus láidriú teanga ann agus go bhfuil deich mbliana fágtha ag an nGaeilge mar theanga phobail sa Ghaeltacht. Ní bheinnse chomh héadóchasach sin, ach muna ndéanann muid rud ar bith agus muna dtarlaíonn aon rud anois, measaim go bhfuil contúirt mhór ann go dtiocfaidh teip mhór ar an teanga. Ach níl muid chun suí síos agus gan rud ar bith a dhéanamh. Bhí dúshláin ag an nGaeltacht cheana go minic agus tháinig muid tharstu. Bhí easpa fostaíochta sa nGaeltacht, easpa deiseanna sa nGaeltacht agus bhí na daoine ar fad ag imeacht ar an mbád bán nó on the beat. Tá rudaí i bhfad níos fearr anois agus tá cúrsaí eacnamaíochta i bhfad níos fearr anois. Tá cúrsaí teanga níos laige anois ná nuair a bhí mise ag éirí aníos, ach tá mise dóchasach leis na pleananna atá muide ag obair ar faoi láthair na huaire go dtiocfaidh feabhas. Beidh gá go leor oibre a dhéanamh.
Fágfaidh mé an buiséad ag mo chomhghleacaí, an tUasal Gearóid Breathnach. Míneoimid é sin, ach tógfaidh mé pointe amháin anois. Bhí an pointe céanna ag an Teachta Connolly. Tá trí bhuiséad ag Údarás na Gaeltachta - buiséad caipitil, buiséad forbartha reatha agus buiséad reatha. Nuair a shocraíodh buiséad 2015, lonnaíodh an buiséad caipitil ag thart ar €6 mhilliún. Le linn na revs nó na revisions, an buiséad athbhreithnithe, cuireadh €1 mhilliún breise leis. Effectively, bhí sé ag €7 milliún.
Mr. Steve Ó Cúláin:
I 2016, gabh mo leithscéal. Socraíodh buiséad 2016 i 2015. Bhí sé socraithe initially ag €6 mhilliún. Cuireadh milliún euro leis agus bhí sé ag €7 milliún. An t-am seo, tógadh an bun-líne ag €7 milliún. D'fhéadfaí a rá go raibh méadú €1 mhilliún ann, ach bhí sé mar an gcéanna leis an rud a bhí muide ag úsáid anuraidh. An dtuigeann an Teachta an rud atá mé ag rá? Cuireadh milliún euro leis an mbuiséad sna revisions.
Mr. Steve Ó Cúláin:
The revised budget was taken as the baseline for 2017. Is é sin an áit a raibh na hathruithe sna figiúirí ó thaobh bhuiséad caipitil de. Maidir leis an mbuiséad reatha forbartha, úsáideann muid an t-airgead sin le haghaidh airgead a chur ar fáil do na naíonraí, na comharchumainn, Ealaín na Gaeltachta, Muintearas agus na dreamanna sin ar fad atá ag plé le forbairt pobail. Bíonn sé sin ag €3 mhilliún. Tá sé sin ardaithe i mbliana ag an Aire go dtí €3.25 milliún. Tá €250,000 breise ansin i mbliana. Beidh sé sin le roinnt amach an bhliain seo chugainn. Mar sin, tá airgead breise ann.
Ó thaobh airgead na teanga do Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge, bhí €1 mhilliún anuraidh ag an Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta, Gnóthaí Réigiúnacha, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta. Thug an Roinn 40% d'Údarás na Gaeltachta anuraidh, is é sin €400,000. Táimid ag plé leo i mbliana le breis a fháil mar tá an buiséad sin ardaithe €250,000 freisin go dtí €1.25 milliún. Is é sin an áit ina bhfuil na buiséid faoi láthair.
Úsáideann Údarás na Gaeltachta an t-airgead reatha le haghaidh pá a íoc agus mar sin de. Bhí ardú beag ansin. Tá na figiúirí cruinn ag an Uasal Breathnach má tá an coiste ag iarraidh dul isteach ann níos mine ná sin.
There is language shift. I agree with that. An dúshlán atá ann ná an teanga a thabhairt ó ghlúin go glúin. Measaim go bhfuil dúshlán mór ann ó thaobh na ndéagóirí de. Sílim go bhfuil brú mór ar na déagóirí ón domhandú, nó globalisation, ón teilifís agus ó na hearnálacha seo ar fad. Tá siad sníomhtha isteach i chuile theach anois. Ní raibh siad ann fadó. Caithfear tabhairt faoi siúd ar bhealach eile.
An cheist an bhí ag an Teachta Connolly agus an Cathaoirleach ná faoin méid atá Údarás na Gaeltachta ag déanamh. Tá an Ghaeltacht roinnte suas againn i 26 ceantar. Beidh 26 plean Gaeilge á chur le chéile bunaithe ar na riachtanais sna ceantair faoi leith. Tá 18 de na pleananna sin á scríobh faoi láthair. Beidh 22 ann faoi cheann mí eile. Tá súil agam go mbeidh siad ar fad i mbun oibre ag deireadh na bliana seo. Bíodh Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge nó ná bíodh, is é an próiseas phleanáil teanga atá tábhachtach anseo agus táimid chun brú ar aghaidh leis agus feidhm a thabhairt air. Beimid ag úsáid saineolas. Tá coiste inmheánach ag bord an údaráis ar a bhfuil teangeolaithe saineolacha, cosúil leis na teangeolaithe a bhí istigh anseo i dTithe an Oireachtais an lá faoi dheireadh. Tá coiste inmheánach againne freisin agus tá saineolas acu siúd san ábhar seo freisin. Tagann siad le chéile ag gach cruinniú boird.
Maidir le cúrsaí oideachais, tá an polasaí oideachas Gaeltachta á sheoladh Dé hAoine seo chugainn sa nGaeltacht. Cuirfidh sé sin go mór le cúrsaí.
I mo thuairim féin, is é an rud is tábhachtaí ná go mbeadh polasaí ceart oideachas Gaeltachta. Má bhíonn polasaí láidir oideachas Gaeltachta ar fáil, is féidir ansin an teanga a mhúineadh d'aon duine. Bíodh siad ón nGaeltacht nó ón nGalltacht, is féidir leo an teanga a fhoghlaim. Níl aon fhadhb ag páistí cúig teanga a fhoghlaim. Sin é an fáth go bhfuil mé dóchasach. Má bhíonn an polasaí ceart oideachais i bhfeidhm, agus beidh sé á sheoladh Dé hAoine seo chugainn, beidh sé mar an rud is tábhachtaí a tharlóidh sa nGaeltacht le fada fada an lá. Tá ómós ag dul don Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna a tháinig aníos leis an bpróiseas sin. Rinne Údarás na Gaeltachta éascú ar an bpróiseas ar fud na Gaeltachta. Tháinig 500 aighneacht isteach ó phobal na Gaeltachta. Beidh mé dóchasach go mbeidh guth an phobail sa pholasaí. Má chuirtear i bhfeidhm é, beidh rath ar chúrsaí amach anseo i mo thuairim.
Maidir le Brexit, táimid ag caint le Enterprise Ireland an t-am ar fad. Polasaí náisiúnta a bheidh ansin. Déanfaimid dove-tailing le Enterprise Ireland ar sin.
Labhair an Teachta Ó Cuív maidir le féidireachtaí in earnáil na Gaeilge. An rud stairiúil a bhí ann ná go rabhamar ag úsáid 20% de thograí teanga-bhunaithe sa nGaeltacht. Tá tograí teanga-bhunaithe agus tá tograí teanga-lárnaithe. In Údarás na Gaeltachta, an Roinn agus Raidió na Gaeltachta, úsáidtear an Ghaeilge mar theanga urlabhra ó lá go lá. Tá comhlachtaí eile cosúil le Telegael agus "Ros na Rún" atá teanga-bhunaithe. Úsáideann siad an Ghaeilge mar áis ina bhfuil a gcuid oibre. Tá ar a laghad 20% ansin. Tá sprioc againne 1,000 post nua a chruthú sa nGaeltacht, má bhíonn an maoiniú againn. Bheadh muid ag rá go bhféadfaí ar a laghad 20% dóibh sin a chur isteach go díreach mar thograí teanga-bhunaithe.
Tá easpa buneagair pléite ag gach duine. Tá plean aontaithe againn. Tá suirbhé déanta againn ar ár gcuid clients faoi chúrsaí leathanbhanda. Tá gá le comhlacht leathanbhanda nua-aimseartha d'ard-luas. Tá plean againne chun é a chur i bhfeidhm. Táimid ag lorg cead chun é a chur i bhfeidhm. Táimid ag glacadh comhairle faoi láthair ó thaobh rialacha chúnamh Stáit agus rialacha soláthair poiblí de, ach tá mé an-dóchasach go mbeimid á chur i bhfeidhm an bhliain seo chugainn. Bealach amháin nó bealach eile, caithfimid é a chur i bhfeidhm. Ní féidir linn fanacht go dtí 2022. Tá sé sin i bhfad ró-mhall. Beidh luas 30 Mbps i bhfad ró-mhall faoi 2022. D'fhéadfadh sé a bheith 300 Mbps faoin am sin. Aontaím leis an Teachta Ó Cuív agus le na daoine a deireann go dteastaíonn fibre. Má tá fibre ann, is féidir é a chasadh suas de réir mar atá riachtanais na gcomhlachtaí ag teacht leis agus de réir mar atá siad sásta íoc as.
Táimid i gcónaí ag déanamh aighneachtaí ó thaobh bhóithre na Gaeltachta de. Mar a dúirt an Teachta Cannon, tá comhlachtaí ann ar an gcósta thiar. Caithfimid an stuif a chur amach ar an mbóthar mar nach bhfuil aon bhealach eile amach. Caithfidh bealach a bheith ann, cuarbhóthar, thart ar chathair na Gaillimhe. Táimid ag tacú le sin, mar a bhí i gcónaí ón tús. Cuireann muid aighneachtaí isteach go dtí na comhairlí contae maidir le na ceantair Gaeltachta ar nós Chorca Dhuibhne, Dún na nGall agus Gaillimh thiar an t-am ar fad.
Luaigh mé an buiséad. Deputy Cannon asked about driving employment in the western region. As I mentioned earlier, we were fortunate in that we had very good promoters of companies. We also have big companies recently, but they were very small when they started. They grew organically. They were not planted there and we did not actually bring them in from overseas. I would say that nearly 90% of them started very small, were taken over or expanded and over a period became the fairly large and substantial SMEs we have today. How do we attract these types of industries? In many cases, we proactively develop the sectors ourselves, such as the creative sectors. We still support one, two or three-person operations in the craft art field, as we have been doing since 1980. Before that, our predecessor Gaeltarra Éireann supported very traditional crafts and arts all throughout the Gaeltacht, be it Donegal linen crafts or something else. In the media sector, we set up a training programme 25 years ago. Many of the people who went through those programmes initially, such as Ms Lelia Doolin and people like that, are proficient and experts in their field. The people working as producers in Telegael or "Ros na Rún" today probably came through that process. We did the same with the agriculture sector in the 1980s. We have trials, failures and successes, but it is coming together now. Sometimes, we took those initiatives ourselves.
We have made a submission on the merging of the two authorities in Galway. We see both points of views. We work very closely with Galway City Council and Galway County Council. We find them both quite good. We work more so with the county council than the city council because we are county-based. We would not like to see anything jeopardise the relationship that the county council enjoys with the hinterland. We feel it is quite good, that the local representation is good and that it is aware of what the needs are. If they were to amalgamate and most of the income was to come from one major city, there could be a question down the road of where the services would be directed. That would be our fear.
Mr. Steve Ó Cúláin:
Ó thaobh an rátá dífhostaíochta de, tá sé difriúil i ngach ceantar Gaeltachta. We are in seven counties. If one looks at ceantar na n-oileán agus Conamara, bheadh sé ard - up to 20%. I gceantair cois farraige, where we are based, it is on par with the national figures. It varies a lot. There is a very quick migration of people out of rural areas when there is no employment. What one finds is a diluting of the areas more so than a huge amount of people walking around unemployed. They actually move out of the area. We have a programme and as we develop our plans in the future, we have to engage with the diaspora to entice these people back. We have to do that using modern media.
Mr. Micheál Ó hÉanaigh:
I dtaobh na gceist a d'ardaíodh ansin, is cinnte go bhfuil muid ag déileáil le réimse leathan de ceantracha tuaithe. Mar a bhí an príomhfeidhmeannach ag rá, tá ag éirí go maith linn thar réimse éagsúil de thionscail. Sílim go bhfuil sé ag cruthú gur féidir le tionscal a bheith beo in gceantracha tuaithe.
An t-aon rud amháin a dhéarfainn faoi na bóithre ná go raibh na bóithre, an leictreachas agus gach rud mar sin thar a bheith tábhachtach. Ach mar a dúirt duine níos luaithe, sílim gurb é an rud is tábhachtaí anois dúinne ná an leathanbhanda. Má thógtar sampla Pháirc Ghnó Ghaoth Dhobhair, bímid i gcónaí ag brath ar na bóithre le hamhábhar a thabhairt isteach agus earraí a thabhairt amach. Ach anois agus muid ag breathnú chun cinn, tá ár straitéis bunaithe ar an earnáil digiteach, samhlaíocht, na tionscail cruthaitheach agus rudaí atá bunaithe ar na hearnálacha nua seo. Tá Aislann Ghaoth Dobhair mar shampla an-mhaith atá forbartha againn a bhféadfaí breathnú air. Tá foirgneamh den chéad scoth ansin againn. Fad go bhfuil muide in ann leathanbhanda ag 100 Mbps a chur isteach ansin i láthair na huaire, tá duine ar bith in ann lonnú ansin agus freastal ar aon mhargadh in aon áit ar domhan. Sílim go gcuirfidh muid an béim ar sin. Mar a dúirt an príomhfheidhmeannach, tá plean dár gcuid féin againn atáimid ag iarraidh a chur amach comhthreomhar leis an bplean náisiúnta lena chinntiú go mbíonn leathanbhanda d'ardchaighdeán ar fad i ngach ceantar Gaeltachta. Sílim gurb é sin ceann de rudaí is tábhachtaí dúinne ag dul chun cinn.
I dtaobh costas Brexit, beimid ag breathnú go géar ar sin. Tá comhlachtaí againn atá ag brath go mór ar mhargadh na Breataine. Beimid ag obair leo sin. Mar a dúirt an príomhfheidhmeannach, beimid ag comhoibriú le Fiontar Éireann, ach beidh mo rannóg féin ag obair agus ag dul i gcomhair le na tionscail seo. Beimid ag déanamh saghas stress-testing orthu sna míonna amach romhainn le feiceáil cad iad na dúshláin agus na contúirtí atá ann dóibh. Beimid ag obair leo chun cinntiú go gcuirfidh muid rudaí in áit chun déileáil le haon chontúirt atá ann.
Mr. Gearóid Breathnach:
Cuireadh ceist maidir le sonraí na mbuiséad idir 2008 agus anois.
Nílim ag iarraidh dul ró-mhion isteach sna figiúirí. Mar atá ráite ag an bpríomhfheidhmeannach cheana féin, tá trí fhoinse airgeadais againn ón Stáit: airgead reatha do riarachán, airgead reatha d'fhorbairt agus airgead caipitil. I 2008, fuaireamar €25.5 milliún ón Stát i gcóir caipitil. I mbliana, beidh díreach faoi bhun €9 milliún againn. Le déanaí, fuaireamar €2.4 milliún breise don bhliain seo ó thaobh caipitil anuas ar an €6.7 milliún ón ngnáth-leibhéal. Tháinig an laghdú suntasach ar an bhfoinse sin i 2011, nuair a laghdaíodh é go dtí €6 mhilliún. Tá sé thart ar an méid sin ó shin i leith. Ó thaobh airgead reatha de, bhí beagnach €14 mhilliún againn i 2008. I mbliana, tá €8.9 milliún againn. Don bhuiséad forbartha reatha, a chaitear go léir ar fhorbairt teanga, forbairt pobail, forbairt eagraíochtaí pobail agus mar sin de, bhí €4.7 milliún againn i 2008. Tá €3 mhilliún againn i mbliana. Ó thaobh foirne de, i 2007 bhí 112 fhostaí againn. Anois, tá 80.
Rud amháin atá mé fiosrach faoi ná an scéim fostaíochta tuaithe. An rud eile ná go bhfuil sé ar intinn ag an údarás 1,000 post breise a chruthú. Cé mhéad airgid atá ag teastáil chun na poist sin a chruthú?
Mr. Steve Ó Cúláin:
Is éard a dhéanann muid le na scéimeanna forbartha pobail ná tógann muid an t-airgead ón Roinn Coimirce Sóisialaí agus cuireann muid amach díreach é. Déanann muid an riarachán. Tá thart ar 1,000 duine ar na scéimeanna sin. Tá thart ar 50 saoiste ar na scéimeanna sin agus tá na saoistí sin fostaithe go díreach againn. Bhí fadhb ann le tamaill. Tá a fhios agam an rud atá an Teachta ag rá agus caithfidh mé an mionshonra a fháil di. Bhí cruinniú idir an feidhmeannach atá ag plé leis, an tUasal Tadhg Ó Conghaile, leis an bhfeidhmeannach ón Roinn, agus ó Tús agus SOLAS.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
I will try to take the questions in order so as not to overlap. Ms Helen McHenry and I will answer between us as required. I thank the committee for the kind comments at the beginning. They were very helpful.
The Chairman asked for a little bit more detail on solar energy and biomass energy. It is easier to start with solar. Solar is very much nascent in our rural regional economy. We see it as a real opportunity. The point of the work now is really getting proof of concept, connections into the grid and solar farm proof of concept facilities. We are working with some energy co-ops to try to kick-start this and get it moving.
It is easier to speak about biomass energy as we have obviously been working on that for a lot longer. It is fair to say that we cut our teeth with some really good research working with the Departments, Coillte, etc., in the late 2000s when we wanted to see a step-change in the whole biomass industry in the west of Ireland, given that 40% of the assets, the wood, is in the region, but 40% of the supply chain and factors was not. It is hard to say whether we have achieved all of that, but at this point we are definitely well advanced. We have achieved quite a lot of micro-business growth. A good example would be the Donegal woodland co-op. This is a disparate group of farmers and foresters. We have used some of the money we have had there in programmes to move them from selling logs to garages to providing heat on a larger scale. They buy boilers and get ten-year contracts. They build, design and operate. We have used our money to make that sort of business change which gives them a greater security of supply, etc.
That is where we gained our expertise and cut our teeth. What I am proud to say now is that it is a scaled process. To step back, while we claim that we have been directly involved in around 2,700 jobs and directly and indirectly involved in about 5,000, we really need to be much better. We are looking at creating 19,000 or 20,000 jobs or more by 2020 to make a discernible difference in the region, bring the gross value added, GVA, up, etc. Every aspect of what we do needs to scale. That will come across in answering some of the Cathaoirleach's questions. Specifically around biomass, I did mention earlier that we have answered the questions of several local authorities about biomass being a viable fuel source. We have answered the question of whether it is hugely helpful for local enterprise - and I do mean local enterprise, because that is the supply chain to this. What we are now trying to do is to design the business solutions, without using too much jargon, that get the money in there to create the demand.
The big problem in the supply chain is demand. Broadly speaking, we need clients to use the heat. We have a couple of district heating schemes that have either advanced a little bit or are at the early stages and looking for money. As I said, through Deutsche Bank and the European energy efficiency fund, we received approval for €184,000 for a technical assistance fund along with one of the county councils in the region to bring forward the whole idea of a district heating level of around 2 MW to 3 MW. That would secure long-term fuel supplies for local providers of fuel.
That is the position we are in now. When I come back to answer Deputy Ó Cuív's questions and others around funding, one of the requirements for funding for us is to be able to fund these things directly rather than have to go to Europe. It is a very long, drawn-out process; it refers to patient investor principles.Energy contracts usually take a decade or more to pay back, but they are hugely job-rich and locally job-rich. It is not like a hydrocarbon project, which in plain speak is oil or gas, that transfers the money out of the State in the main and away from taxes and the Exchequer. This transfer the money in the main to the local economy where people can spend it and there is that lovely multiplier effect. That is where we are on biomass.
In terms of budgetary challenges, we represent around 828,000 people across the seven counties. We are a tiny organisation. Our direct budget, non-pay and pay, is roughly €1.5 million. I realise I am under privilege and I can be more exact than that if required. Essentially, the problem for us is that our non-pay has not changed since 2009. I realise that is reflected in other organisations as well. Our non-pay is around half a million euro. Take out what it costs to light and heat the places in which we work, and we are talking about a couple of hundred thousand euro to do everything we do. It is simply not enough. That is why one of the statements we made at the beginning was that since 2010, we have sourced €13 million of our own money from Europe, from contributions from local authorities and from devolved funds within the western investment fund to get out there and make a change. We could not have carried out the job creation we have carried out by relying on what we received through the Exchequer funding. Respectfully, we are putting a lot of positive pressure on to increase that. We have more people but we need more resources, or else a diminishing marginal returns issue arises. Without the resources, one cannot do anything. One can keep talking but cannot actually effect change.
The other budgetary challenge, as pointed out, is probably around the capital plan allocation of last year. We have had movement on that recently. That is a million euro per annum and we believe that it will be forthcoming to us. It will help us greatly to carry out several of the pilots that we were wishing to carry out in order to accelerate our job growth and employment work.
The Chairman asked a question about the benefit of working directly with the EU.
I will tie this into a question I was not asked, if I may with respect, and that is Brexit. The committee will see that we are using European capital more and more as risk capital in the regions because that is what we have to do. Brexit affords us an incredible opportunity. We are already seeing it. We are inundated with requests to partner from European groups and are working on this with local authorities and other collaborators in the region. What we need to do now is accelerate this capacity rapidly through the end of the current EU programme and position ourselves for the next seven-year cycle. That will allow us to really advance our cause in this field. There is a great deal of funding there which can really help to kickstart a great deal of employment and socioeconomic progress. To answer the Deputy's question directly, there is demand and we are taking the initial steps to look at a western regions office built around deal making not information over in Brussels. It is something we are working with all parties on, including the Department, in terms of how we do this because we believe it will garner huge responses monetarily and information-wise for the region.
On the next question on the spatial strategy, I will pass to my colleague.
Ms Helen McHenry:
We participated in the statutory consultation in June on the national planning framework but we have also met with the national planning framework team as part of our membership of the Regional Studies Association. We have had quite a lot of connection with them. We co-sponsored a conference with the team in September to look at spatial strategies and planning for the future. We have a great many connections with the national planning framework team in the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government but we are also next door neighbours of the Northern & Western Regional Assembly which is charged with preparing the regional spatial and economic strategies which are the regional tier of the national planning framework. We met with the assembly last month to discuss how we can work together to share data and analysis. We are ready and waiting for more opportunities to have an input. We are prepared and have made all the connections on the spatial strategy.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
I move to Deputy Ó Cuív's questions. There was a very interesting question around infrastructure in general and Knock Airport specifically. There is an overwhelming opinion - I have to call it as I see it - that if one builds it, they will come. The attitude is that building an airport in the north west of Ireland has, fortuitously, served us really well. It is just on the cusp of what some of our analysis shows is commuting distance for an international airport. Knock has served the north west reasonably well over the years. I speak not for its balance sheet or operational effectiveness although I believe the former is very healthy now or at least is getting a lot more healthy. Passenger numbers are growing. From our own case, it is an incredibly positive thing to speak of a region with an international airport within it. It is very difficult to put an absolute value on that if one is looking for inward investment. If the IDA was here, I am sure it would say that this gives the region cachet. The net effect for us is that it is an incredibly positive development and asset for the region. On the general question of infrastructure, it proves the point in some ways that there is an attitude of balanced risk management in deciding to undertake some of these infrastructural investments. I point respectfully also to the motorway to Galway. The anecdotal response was to look to the tourism boom that was engendered without ever seeing it simply by building that infrastructure link from Dublin to Galway. That is the sort of thing that motorways, airports and ports engender in a modern economy. We are always surprised after the fact, which is something we should learn from.
Deputy Ó Cuív asked about funds. There is a demand and a need for a scaled fund that looks at patient-investor principles, which is to say longer-term returns, and a wider socioeconomic return. It is a fact that there are challenges for a lot of ideas that are job rich and projects that are probably shovel-ready in that they would find it very hard to meet the criteria for commercial returns that are currently in the market, that is, shorter times and higher return rates. I am not even certain that, actuarially, a pension fund would be capable of doing that but there is absolute demand there in tourism, energy projects and a multitude of cultural events and projects to provide long term returns to the State far in excess of any investment. To answer the Deputy's question, consideration should given to the creation of a regional socioeconomic fund. We have run a venture capital fund for some time now and that market is well served. We have already talked about the transformational growth there. What we are talking about is something that is not looking at early stage seed capital but rather at more returns to a wider region, including rural areas, which is starved of the actual funds to get things off the ground.
Deputy Ó Cuív asked about the three or four biggest things with potential in the rural region. We are absolutely talking about potential. If the point was not made before, the GVA roughly of our region exceeds that of Northern Ireland and Wales. While it has to catch up on the rest of the country in the country's benefit, it actually has very good potential. We are ignoring something by not going after it. As such, the question is what are we going to do. We see infrastructure as key. That is a big question. We have mentioned skills and will come back to that. Access to finance is a major issue, without a doubt. We have addressed it through VC funds over the years and I will come back to microloans, which are something we have also looked at. However, the working capital is not there in many businesses, especially self-employed SMEs. A more mature, flexible model must be developed in that regard. Again, I come back to the point that this must be a place-based model. It is hard to run risk assessments from an office two and a half hours away where one does not understand the dynamics of a business and cannot make the calls on risk mitigation there. I put that into the mix, respectfully.
The next question was from Deputy Cannon and centred around the merging of local authorities. With respect, I will take a pass on that if I may. There was a good answer on it and I will leave it at that. Of course, we could give an opinion, but there are models where it has worked and there are probably models where it could be better. All I would say on anything like that is "Deal with the real issues". When we look at recent mergers, I note that one-stop shops are great but one has to ensure that they increase capability rather than diminish it. I have no point to make on the specifics.
On the OECD question, I hand over to my colleague.
Ms Helen McHenry:
This was about upskilling lower-skilled workers in respect of which the comment was very interesting. We have more people with lower skills in our region. While we send a lot of people to higher education, very often they do not return. A significant number of those in employment or looking for work have lower skills. The advantage of upskilling them is partly that it is more appropriate to the sectors we have in our region, which tend to be less high technology or knowledge based. Upskilling them in the areas in which they are likely to find work allows benefits. It also brings benefits to those companies because they are people who can improve productivity and be more innovative. Partly, it is a numbers thing and also it is what contribution they make to the type of industry and enterprise we have in the region. Obviously, higher skills are important and this is not a suggestion that we ignore them completely. It is just in terms of what we are doing in the region and the people who are living there and who are very often more anchored in the region. People going for higher skills or going out for education tend to be younger and more mobile, whereas focusing on the people one has and who are strongly attached to the region brings significant benefits. We have done a great deal of work previously on how enterprise, employment and education in terms of training and skills are all tied together and should be looked at as part of a whole so that it is possible to provide the training or entrepreneurial emphasis one needs by working across all three together.
In its expert assessment and knowledge of where locally our strengths lie for the future, has the Western Development Commission decided as an entity that there are specific sectors in which we can really make jobs happen? The witnesses seem to be very ambitious on biomass, which is great. Are we spreading our resources too thinly and trying to cover too many bases? Should we focus simply on where our real strengths lie in terms of potential job creation and gear our upskilling towards that? Have the witnesses thought about that or done any research on it?
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
We will come back to the research point because there are some thoughts. We want to avoid duplication. Tourism, for example, is well served so we look for niche tourism areas on which to work with Fáilte Ireland and local authorities. We are heavily invested in the medical device sector, so we understand big industry. We also understand, however, the issue of microbusinesses and the rural aspect of people choosing to be there for quality of life.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
Yes, we want that and we are considering tailor-made businesses for them. That is why the creative economy and renewable energy are big. That is why we are looking at these rather than knowledge intensive service industries per sethat will suit Galway and some of the other things. We are looking for high value in many cases. The gross value added, GVA, for the creative economy is quite low because a lot of people work seasonally, part-time or it is a lifestyle choice. We think that is great. One should not ignore it because it does not generate huge GVA. It keeps people in the sector and helps them to supplement their income so that they can stay in the region.
In the area of completeness, I shall come to Deputy Connolly with a response to her question on the western track. They are old friends. I shall also supply a response to the question on ETBs because the committee needs more detail than I can give here.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
Senator Hopkins asked about an indepth specific needs analysis for the region and I could not agree with her more. Enterprise Ireland is best placed to carry out the analysis as we have an excellent track record in terms of econometric analysis and otherwise. We should consider doing it as it would help inform other State agencies.
The Senator also asked for details about micro loans. We have carried out a pilot programme and invested in 17 micro loans that amounts to €313,000 in micro loans. I will have to get back to her with information on jobs. Nádhúra Design in Galway has said there would be 60 jobs created but I do not have the number for the jobs related to micro loans. The micro loans were a response to a demand from the creative economy that said we cannot get money to do anything. The micro loans are very small and amount to up to €25,000. This is the type of tailored response that one will get from a regional or locational based solution. The conversation I would love us to have in the future is that I would like more engagement with the larger State bodies on a model of whether we can slice and dice it from the centre or should go directly to where the need is and work it from that end. At the moment, we slice and dice it from the centre in terms of inward investment and enterprise development; that has worked for a long time in this State. It has had good results. The OECD and other modern countries are very thoughtful about new approaches and tend to seek information from where the issues are in order to best realise the potential. I will leave my comments at that.
Gabhaim mo mhíle buíochas leis na finnéithe go léir as an eolas. Cuirfimid an t-eolas sin in ár dtuairisc agus foilseoimid an tuairisc sin ag deireadh na bliana.
We will suspend briefly to allow our guests who have already presented to leave.
Mr. Joe Healy:
I thank the Chairman, Deputies and Senators for their invitation to address the committee today. I am joined by my two colleagues, Mr. Thomas Cooney, chairman of the IFA environment and rural affairs committee and Mr. Thomas Ryan, a member of the IFA environment and rural affairs executive.
For those of us who live and work in rural Ireland, it is a place we love to live in. We enjoy living and working in rural Ireland. As President of the IFA I am proud to say that farming is the backbone of economic activity across the countryside. Farming is Ireland's largest indigenous productive sector. The sector exported food and drink worth almost €11 billion last year and provides employment to more than 300,000 people directly and indirectly. Farming has been one of the key drivers in Ireland's economic recovery. The IFA believes that the recovery has not been felt evenly in all areas and definitely not by people who reside in rural Ireland.
The vote by the UK to leave the EU earlier this year has already had a disproportionate impact on the rural economy. The depreciation of sterling has had an immediate and negative price impact on agrifood exports and exports from Irish owned SMEs for whom the UK is the destination for over 40% of our products. The strategic response by the Government to the UK's Brexit decision will have a defining impact on the Irish rural economy. We feel strongly that the Government must use its strong relationships with the UK and EU to influence as positive an outcome to the negotiations as possible. We want the positive trading relationship with the UK maintained, we want a strong CAP budget retained and the free movement of people must be maintained. These are three key priorities.
The Government has recognised the importance of a vibrant countryside, not just for farmers, but for the wider rural community. That view was reflected in the recent budget and provided the following: increased funding support for farm schemes, the amendment of the income averaging system to deal with income volatility and cashflow pressures; and the provision of a lower cost interest rate on borrowings for farmers. Also, the reversal of the cuts to the farm assist scheme is hugely positive. It provides a vital support to low income farmers and allows them to remain farming and living in rural Ireland.
Broader support for the rural economy has been provided through measures such as the increased allocation for Leader and CLÁR funding, an increased number of places for the rural social scheme and increased funding for the national broadband scheme. The reduced rate that applies to the capital gains tax entrepreneur relief will also make a difference. There are a great many small business success stories in rural Ireland, many of which are unheralded enterprises that provide vital employment and income in rural areas.
The IFA has, over many years, developed clear proposals to sustain rural communities. It has published two key policy papers in this area and I have copies of them with me. The proposals have contributed to the significant work undertaken by the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA. I hope it will also feature strongly in the Government's proposed action plan for rural Ireland but action is now required. The CEDRA report has recognised that rural areas outside of the State's five main cities have been particularly affected by the post-2008 economic downturn with an increase in unemployment of 192%. The action to be taken must be a total Government response. The national consultation meetings on the development of an action plan have concluded and it is essential that further progress is made.
The CEDRA report and its 34 recommendations cannot just be remembered as good ideas. Actions, responsibilities and delivery timelines are required if the Programme for Government's commitment to deliver 135,000 jobs outside of Dublin by 2020 is to be delivered. To support this initiative the IFA has identified a number priorities that we believe will sustain viable rural communities. They are as follows - A high quality rural fibre broadband network across the countryside to support farm business, job creation, investment and rural development; a three-year exemption from local authority rates for new business start-ups to support local enterprise development in rural areas; measures such as tax credits to encourage employers to take on apprentices and create long-term employment; tax incentives for businesses to locate in villages and town centres that were decimated during the recession; increased and measurable targets for policing hours and the presence of mobile units in rural areas by An Garda Síochána to reduce crime and create a greater sense of security in the countryside; an increased and ring-fenced annual rural roads budget from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport each year allocated to local authorities as part of a planned repair and maintenance programme; the re-establishment of a separate local improvement scheme fund in each local authority; an increase in the number of voluntary rural walk schemes to support economic development and tourism in rural areas; a package of measures to facilitate the development of proposed Greenway projects that works in co-operation with landowners impacted and protects their rights; a review of the hedgecutting dates to reduce the closed period in line with the nesting season; and increased fines and greater enforcement by local authorities to tackle the scourge of littering by passing motorists and users of the countryside.
On the issue of broadband, the case is well made, but the need for action is long overdue. The plan needs to be announced and rolled out as quickly as possible and the following elements must underpin it. First, it must be fibre-based, and to the home. Second, it must be as cost competitive for the homeowners living in Dingle to receive it as it is for their Dublin cousins and third, clear and equivalent download and upload criteria must be set out in the tenders.
Our apprenticeship proposal is based on the Canadian model, whereby the employer receives an annual tax credit equal to 10% of the apprentice’s salary, up to a maximum of $2,000 per year. With regard to rural security, the additional Garda resources announced are welcomed. However the basic question remains: what will this mean for rural Ireland? Objective and measurable hours of policing carried out in rural Ireland must be published by An Garda Síochána. We need to know that the additional resources are delivering.
Littering is a blight on the countryside. In 2014, the IFA conducted a survey which found that almost two-thirds of members are concerned about the issue of rural littering, and 95% of those surveyed support the introduction of stronger penalties being imposed on anyone who dumps litter out of cars and along roadside verges. I speak from experience because I have land along a main road and I see bags that have been thrown on to it every week. The IFA would welcome the support of the committee on this issue and also to address the anomaly in the existing littering legislation, which currently holds landowners legally responsible for the rubbish dumped on their lands by third parties who use the countryside as a dumping ground.
We are happy to expand on the points I have mentioned. I again thank the Chairman and the committee for the taking the time to consider what it takes to sustain a rural economy and I hope the presentation has given them the IFA's perspectives. Between the three of us, we will our best to answer questions.
I appreciate the presentation. I fully agree with Mr. Healy's view that proper investment in services in rural areas is needed for people to be able to live in them. No matter where you are, the living environment you experience is one of the key elements for you locating there. Garda stations, post offices, functioning banks, schools, etc., need to be anchors in those areas for them to be sustainable.
I agree that littering is shocking. Sometimes when hedges are cut back, one notices how much litter has been cast into them over the summer. Fly tipping is also a problem along with people throwing rubbish out their car windows because the wildlife picks up the rubbish and disperses it over an even wider area.
We often discuss Brexit as a Border issue due to the high dependence on agriculture in Border counties. It is, however, a 32-county issue. What interactions has the IFA had with the State for the State to ascertain and analyse its experience? What engagements has the State had with its members to alleviate the issues they are experiencing? Could Mr. Healy point to material interactions and materials engagements the State has had with his members to begin the process of alleviating the damage Brexit is causing and will continue to cause?
Has the association engaged with any State organisation looking for inputs, presentations or perspectives on a spatial strategy? What is the IFA's view on the fire station of the west? Biomass presents a major opportunity, as we heard from our contributors earlier, but there are worries in rural areas that if we go down the route of fire stations in too dense a fashion, it will force people to leave farms and add to the depopulation of areas. What is the association's perspective on that?
The flagship greenway is the Westport to Achill route and other greenways have been established since it opened. Could the IFA have a role in accelerating these projects, given that many of the farms the greenways could potentially pass through are on its members' land? For example, we are trying to establish a greenway in County Meath running from the source of the River Boyne to the estuary, which would pass through many internationally recognised heritage sites such as Trim Castle, the Hill of Tara, Newgrange, Slane, the Battle of the Boyne site, etc. Could the IFA have a role if project administrators went to the association for help to contact all the farmers on the route?
One of the major threats to farming in rural areas is market concentration. In other words, the demand that is fed is concentrated in a few hands, which exert enormous pressure on prices and the terms and conditions of supply whether it be the factories that farmers supply or the supermarkets that purchase agriculture products. There must be a strong attitude towards preventing that over-concentration of buyer power in the market. Has much effort been made by the IFA and farmers to develop a new wave of co-operatives? A contributor to the committee recently pointed out how a co-operative was set up in the north west in respect of the supply of biomass. It went from an inconsistent supply of timber into service stations to the production, sale and installation of boilers and a more secure and direct supply.
I welcome the IFA representatives. I must declare an interest, as I am a paid-up member and I am a former chairman of my local branch in Schull, west Cork. I am also a paid-up member of the ICSA and I am proud to be a member of both. The Schull branch members got rid of me in the end. I was a thorn in their side because I always stood up on behalf of the small farmer. I have had lengthy discussions with them. Even prior to the budget, I had many discussions with Cornie Buckley, the excellent IFA chairman in west Cork. He put his points across and, thankfully, it was a fair budget in respect of farming, especially at a difficult time because suckler cow, dairy and grain farmers are struggling severely. The IFA officials will be well aware of this as they deal with them on a day-to-day basis the same as I do. I called locally in west Cork recently for the co-operatives to be more lenient. Some of them were angered by that. I did not read the reply in the local newspaper from the co-operative chairperson who was angry about my plea to the co-operatives, the banks and the Department of Social Protection to give some ease to farmers who were in severe difficulty. I called on the Taoiseach to do the same during Leaders' Questions.
It is hugely important that we have a Taoiseach who will work with the IFA and the other farming organisations to ensure the co-operatives, the banks and the Department of Social Protection work together because many farmers are in serious difficulty. During the negotiations on the programme for Government, I had many angry discussions with the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, about the fact that some farmers are in receipt of €150,000 under the single payment scheme but, sadly, most of the farmers in Cork South West, which I represent, earn less than €10,000 per annum.
This situation needs to be addressed. There are only a small number of people affected but the amount involved is huge to a farmer on a low income. I am a small farmer. If I did not have my income as a political representative I would be in serious trouble. I could not survive on the income I get from the farm. My single farm payment amounts to approximately €3,000 per annum, which is a pittance. There is no way out of that web once one gets caught in it. While I am not personally caught up in that way many of the farmers I represent are and they believe that the current situation is unfair.
I would urge the IFA to take a look at the situation with a view to ensuring a fairer system. I understand that bigger farmers have higher costs but €150,000 is a huge amount of money. This issue needs to be examined. I had many serious and heated discussions on this issue with the Minister in the context of the programme for Government, as did other Deputies from rural communities. This cannot continue and it must be changed.
Looking at the budget from a positive perspective, the additional 500 places on the rural social scheme is welcome. This is one of the issues I have discussed regularly with Mr. Cornie Buckley of west Cork IFA. Under this scheme low income farmers can get a small top-payment while working in their communities. In fairness to the Minister for Social Protection, he has increased the number of places on that scheme by 500, which, hopefully, will come about quickly.
The walks scheme was also mentioned, which, in the main, emanated from west Cork, including the Sheeps Head Way and the Beara Way but development of these walks has come to a standstill. There are many areas of the country that want to see the development of walkways in their area and funding in this regard needs to be directed to them. The co-operation of farmers in terms of development of these walkways is brilliant, particularly in west Cork. There are a great success story in terms of tourism. Verge cutting, another issue related to farming, although at a low level, is a huge issue in rural Ireland. The withdrawal of responsibility for verge cutting from the local authorities was a disastrous move. They are now pointing to responsibility in that regard being with the landowners. Everybody is pointing the finger at the landowner but if a landowner when cutting a verge cuts away part of a ditch he or she is taken to task for doing so.
Responsibility in this regard should rest with the local authorities. People in rural Ireland are paying enough in taxes to enable the local authorities to undertake verge cutting. The IFA needs to be stronger than it has been to date on securing a reversal of that decision which was taken a number of years ago. We are encouraging tourists to come here to see our beautiful country. Many cars used by tourists to travel around the country are being damaged by overhanging bushes and briars and as a result they are not getting their deposits back on cars hired when they return them. That is not good enough. This is an issue for the local authorities and the IFA needs to be stronger in terms of its stance in this regard. Obviously, over-growth of bushes and briars on the inside of a verge is a landowner issue but over-growth on the roadside should be a local authority issue.
On planning, I come from a peninsula. I am involved in the board of management of a local school in my area. While the school is well staffed and has an excellent principal enrolment at the school is decreasing, which is indicative to me of where things are heading. There are few employment opportunities in the area. The current planning laws are deterring people coming to live in rural communities. I had a meeting the other day with a person who was refused planning permission because of the seven year clause. We need to start using our heads. The position of Government in terms of whether it wants to see people living in rural Ireland is questionable. Rural communities will not survive if the planning laws are not relaxed a little. I accept that the IFA has been strong on this issue down through the years.
Reference was made to the CEDRA report. Many rural post offices and Garda stations have been closed. The two banks on the peninsula where I live have closed. We no longer have a bank in the area which means people have to travel up to 25 miles to Goleen, Skibbereen and Bantry to do their banking, which is incredible. As I said, many rural post offices and Garda stations have been closed and while I do not anticipate any reversal of the decision in that regard I ask that the IFA strongly support us in trying to bring it about. I am sure that members of the IFA are aware of the new proposals regarding post offices, including that they be 15 km apart. The idea of travelling post offices has also been proposed. These types of proposals will worsen the situation for rural communities rather than help them. The CEDRA report has not been acted on. The Leader programme has been destroyed in most areas because it is no longer community-led. These are all serious issues. There is no point in people telling me that things are improving because there is no evidence of that in the constituency I represent.
Many farm families are dependent on off-farm income, including, for example, income earned from home help provision. I would urge the IFA to try to secure more funding for the home help service in rural communities. In my own area we are finding it very difficult to secure an additional hour or day of help for people under the home help scheme. People often ask me why it is they are eligible for help from Monday to Friday but are deemed able to help themselves on Saturday and Sunday. People's circumstances do not miraculously change at the weekend. It is important issues like that are addressed.
I acknowledge the work of the IFA in regard to the fair deal scheme and I urge it to continue its work in that regard into the future on behalf of the many people who are experiencing serious financial hardship in respect of loved ones in nursing homes. While I could speak for another hour the above are the main issues arising for me. As I said earlier, I am a farmer from a rural community. There is need for a clear understanding of the huge differences in farming from area to area. Farmers are being fined because they have scrub on their lands but what can they do? They cannot remove the hills. There is no clear understanding or common sense being applied in relation to farming as a result of which people are suffering. It is my job to represent the views of these people. I am pleading with the IFA to continue to work with us into the future. I look forward to working with it.
I thank the IFA for its presentation to the committee this afternoon. It was very helpful. We all know that farming has been through a difficult few years in terms of commodity prices and weather conditions. In terms of Brexit, the IFA president, Mr. Healy, has pointed to the importance of a positive trading relationship with the UK and the retention of a strong CAP budget as essential if we are to ensure that we have a vibrant agricultural sector. During last week's meeting of the committee we heard that over 90% of farmers in Roscommon have been paid their basic payment, in respect of which over €25 million was paid out. Seventy per cent of basic payment scheme payments were paid out last week. This is important in the sense that it allows farmers to pay their bills, which in turns feeds into ensuring the vibrancy of communities. The introduction of preliminary checks in respect of the basic payment scheme is positive. The objective of this measure is to ensure farmers are not continuously penalised, which is important. The move to online application has also helped. However, this feeds into our conversation around broadband. In my own county of Roscommon the IFA has been very influential in assisting farmers in gaining access to educational programmes to ensure they become more online savvy, which is very important. In this regard, the IFA has been working closely with Teagasc and the Roscommon Leader Partnership. These educational programmes are important in the context of the move to online trading, which is necessary these days.
I wish to raise a number of issues. The budget was positive, in the sense that there was an amendment to the income averaging system to assist with cashflow pressures. The interest rate of 3% for low-cost borrowing is very important. My conversations with the IFA centred on access to finance, which was a major issue. It is positive that we are beginning to see practical measures to assist farmers.
Obviously, we face significant challenges. As a member of Macra na Feirme, I know there are challenges in encouraging young farmers to take on the occupation of farming. Measures have been introduced, but a lot more needs to be done to encourage young farmers into the sector. Access to finance has been an issue. Alongside that, the discussions we have had on off-farm income are important. We need to try to create better job opportunities in rural areas to supplement farm incomes.
The issue of hedge cutting is due to be debated in the Seanad over the next two weeks or so. I am aware the IFA wants to ensure we bring forward the hedge cutting date by one month. It would seem to be a very practical measure, in terms of contributing to better hedgerow management and trying to address safety concerns as it is confined to periods where daylight hours have been reduced. I take on board what was presented on the concerns around hedge cutting.
Bigger challenges have been mentioned, namely, broadband infrastructure, modernisation and ensuring that services are in place to support communities. As a young person living in a rural area and coming from a farming background, I know there are major positives. Rural Ireland offers a very good quality of life and its potential is untapped. We need to be constructive, but also practical and positive about the positive elements of rural life.
Litter is a bugbear of mine. While I agree with the penalties, until there is mobile CCTV we will not deal with the issue. It needs to hit people where it hurts, which is in the pocket. I am involved with the Tidy Towns committee in my local area and it is extremely frustrating. We need to move to a situation where mobile CCTV targets blackspot areas and penalties are imposed on those who do not abide by the law.
I am very supportive of greenway projects, which have assisted in the development of tourism. There has been a large amount of co-operation from landowners, which has been positive. We know there are some challenges with certain greenway projects but where they have worked, they have been very positive in attracting people to areas and increasing footfall in communities.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions and look forward to continuing to work with the IFA. It has a significant amount to offer, not just within the agricultural sector but also in terms of its input in the wider picture.
Reference was made to the CEDRA report. An action plan for rural Ireland is currently being developed. It is very important that the IFA plays an active role in the development of that action plan. By their nature, farmers and farming are very much embedded within the greater community.
I thank the president for the presentation. It set out stark facts in terms of how the farming sector is critical now and in the future to sustaining rural communities across the country. Most of us who live in rural Ireland are either directly involved in farming or are, at most, one generation away from it. When farming thrives, rural Ireland thrives. It is as simple as that.
I have some questions. Reference was made to an apprenticeship scheme, something of which I am not aware. I ask the delegation to expand on that because it sounds interesting and a little more than fascinating.
I refer to artisan food producers, that is, people who add value to their food product before it leaves the farm gate. The president of the IFA will be very familiar with the work of Ronan Byrne in the poultry sector in Athenry, Justin Flannery who is involved in the beef sector and Declan Droney who is doing extraordinary work with smoked salmon in Kinvara, all of whom are Galway-based farmers who have been exceptionally innovative in adding value to their products before they leave the farm gate.
Does the IFA see them as outliers or does it believe that there is significantly more potential for farmers to develop food products within the farm gate? What sort of activity is taking place in this area? Is there ongoing liaison or engagement with Teagasc on the significant potential of the sector? I may be mistaken in having the view that there is significant potential but when I see what local farmers are doing, I wonder whether the IFA sees that sector as a major opportunity for growth in the rural economy in the future.
I refer to micro-energy generation in terms of wind and perhaps photovoltaic cells. I cycled in rural France during August and lost count of the number of farmyards I came across where farm sheds were covered in photovoltaic cells. Any large roof spaces were covered. I spoke to one or two farmers who told me they easily covered their on-farm energy requirements and fed the excess back into the grid. Is that something that the IFA sees as having major potential for Irish farmers in the future?
I am more than familiar with greenways. I congratulate the IFA on the very proactive and supportive approach it has taken to the development of a national network of greenways. These routes offer significant potential to create tourism opportunities in parts of Ireland that have never seen tourism. East Galway is not exactly overrun with tourists and Mr. Joe Healy will agree with me on that. I congratulate the IFA on how supportive it has been. My assessment of the challenge that remains in delivering the greenway from Athlone to Galway is that the first attempt to find a route was exceptionally badly mismanaged by the NRA. There was little or no engagement with the farming community. In fact, the only engagement was to present the community with a route once it had been designed - in essence, it was a fait accompli. How can we overcome this problem? There was significant use of State-owned lands from Dublin to Athlone, yet west of Athlone such lands were not used. Instead, productive agricultural land was used. What is the solution? It is something I want to see happen, I hope in my lifetime. The potential is untapped and the IFA has a major role to play. It has been very proactive in the area. How do we get over the initial obstacles we encountered and make it happen?
I apologise to the committee and delegation for arriving late. I had a family event today I could not avoid. I am glad to be here to welcome the delegation. We need to work together because the farming community is at a crossroads.
The biggest issue we must face, fight or get around is Brexit. If farmers make a bit of money, they are the best community to spend money. If the farming community is not doing well, the country does not do well. It is time the people up here in Dublin and in urban areas begin to realise this because if the farmers do not do well, the rest of the country will not do well either. When I say farmers put back everything, I mean they put back every bob they make into the farm when they have a few pounds to spend. A few years ago, a farmer won the lotto and when he was asked what he would do with his winnings, he said he would stay farming. Where the farmer said that can be traced back because it is the truth. Whatever they have they spend on their land. They are criticised at times for breaking environmental rules by these environmentalists, but some of those fellows do not know what they are talking about. They can spread slurry fine these days as the land is dry and it can be done, but a few weeks ago they could not do it because places were saturated. They are beginning to dry slowly now. The farmers know and will always treat their land well because it was handed down to them or they had to pay a high cost to buy it.
Prices for produce is the biggest issue. There is very little mention of beef farmers but they are under severe pressure. When they receive only €3.60 per kilo in the factories for beef how will they survive? It costs them more to produce than they get for the produce when they sell it. What needs to be dealt with is the monopoly of the factories. I make no bones about it. There is a rule that people are fined €70 or €90 for going over four movements when the animal is hanging up. I ask each and every person here what difference does it make, and how will someone know how many times a carcass has moved by looking at it or cutting it up? It is a penal law imposed by the factories. I ask that we all work together to ensure this ridiculous law is removed. Last week, I took ten heifers to the mart but did not sell them. I would not sell them for what I was getting for them and I brought them home. This is classed as a movement. It is totally unfair and must be addressed. There will have to be an almighty attack launched on the factories to get rid of this rule.
Milk farmers are under serious threat and I make no bones about it. The previous Government advised farmers there was a market for milk and to increase production. They went at it hell for leather and spent €200,000, €300,000, €500,000 or €1 million on set-ups and are now on the rails. What can we do to help them? Something will have to be done.
A very important thing is the road to the farmer's door. We were promised local improvement schemes, which were suspended in 2011, but there was no mention of them in the budget as much as I, other Members and local authority members throughout the country have fought. The people in rural Ireland are entitled to a good road to their door. The last half mile to their door is as important as the road to the door of the people in Dublin 4 and we do not begrudge anyone anything. This came from the Department of Finance. It tried to bring about this change to stop the taxpayer for paying for what it calls private roads. In many instances they are public roads going to many houses. These people are entitled to them. They pay car tax and every kind of tax, including property tax, but they see very little for it.
It is the same with regard to the emergency hardship scheme. In the case of an old farmer or his wife, the doctors or home help cannot get up or down the road. We used to have a good scheme which was the emergency hardship scheme. There is no funding for it now. Everyone here knows there is no maintenance money for draining county roads and there is no money for surfacing county roads. These people pay their tax as well as anyone else. It is galling to think work never stops on motorways but no work is carried out on the local roads because there is no funding for it.
Hedges were mentioned. I have been raising this issue for as long as I was a member of Kerry County Council. They tried to take my seat off me the first year I mentioned it because they said I was trying to get the local authority to cut the hedges so that I would get the job myself. Nothing could be further from the truth. School buses cannot go up or down roads. A load of hay cannot go up to any farmer's yard now because the roads are closed in. Something has to be done to open up the roads and let the people travel.
The rivers are all clogged. Something must be done. I put the whole blame on Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI. It will not let a farmer go near a river or waterway. The trees are crossing the rivers and there are big mounds of silt and gravel where the farmers always knew where to take it out without doing any harm to the river. The IFI threatens the farmers or whoever that if they do not get out of its way it will get the gardaí to remove them and they will have to bring back all the stuff. It is ridiculous. We must let the water flow. Roads are blocked, houses are flooded and in one instance in Glenflesk the whole place gets flooded. The emergency services cannot get up or down the national primary road there. There are 22 houses in the community and they are all flooded. We have nothing to bring in this year because the IFI is holding up the entire thing. I call for the IFI to be brought to task somehow by a Minister to make it realise this. The sad thing about it-----
When farmers' payments are held up why not allow so much of the payments to be paid? They hold up some farmers' payments for a whole year or maybe more, and those farmers cannot put bread on the table when this is going on. They are entitled to receive some of the payment but not to it all. However, the whole lot is held up and this needs to be addressed.
Under the fair deal scheme the farm is taken into account when the old person has to go into a nursing home. The person must pay 7.5% of the cost of the farm and this is a serious issue. As far as I can see it has not been addressed in the budget. We need to address this issue and work together on it.
With regard to diesel there was a lot of talk that the VAT and excise duty would be increased in the budget. They were not increased in the budget and they were not mentioned. At the same time, the price has increased at every pump throughout the country and there is no excuse for this because the barrel of oil is still very cheap.
Why is that happening? When there is any small increase it goes up at the pumps the following day.
Mr. Joe Healy:
I thank the members for the questions. While I admire their views and we love to see people thinking in the same way as we do, we need to recognise that the members are the people who have been elected and are in power. We need to lobby them to get done many of the things they have raised. We are dependent on them, as our politicians, to get them over the line. We will divide up the questions between us so that members will not get too bored of any voice going on for too long.
The Chairman asked about Brexit. At times we might be forgiven for wondering if there is any other story in town. From a farming point of view it is the big story and the major concern. It is by far in a way the greatest threat to farmers and agriculture. We have seen its impact already with the volatility and movement in currency. On the day of the Brexit referendum, 23 June, the exchange rate was 76p or 77p to €1 and that has now gone to 89p or 90p to €1, which is an incredible movement over a short space of time.
I just came from a Bord Bia board meeting where it dominated the agenda in respect of how best to spend the extra allocation given to Bord Bia and whether some of it should be spent in the UK, which is our largest market for beef. There is not even a close second; it takes over 50% of our beef. It takes 42% or 43% of our total agrifood exports with a total value of €4.8 billion going to the UK. The board members were asking themselves whether money should be spent there to try to enhance the market we have there and to try to create such an awareness that in the event of a worst-case scenario of the UK doing its own trade deals, our beef products would be so prominent in consumers' minds that they would decide to stay with it but at a price, or whether it should be spent elsewhere in other markets.
We are very involved with Brexit. Even before the referendum, we organised a number of events to create awareness of the issues, and highlight the worst-case scenarios and the importance of the UK as a market.
Mr. Joe Healy:
The Minister attended one of our council meetings. There were two main issues. First, we had the cost competitiveness issues on which we were lobbying for the budget, including diesel and low-cost financing. Brexit was the other one. We proposed the need for adequate funding to be given to source markets elsewhere, which is related to what I mentioned earlier about Bord Bia. We also discussed adequate resources in the Department, especially on the veterinary side, so that if markets are secured in other places, they will not be held up by a delay in veterinary certification etc.
We have been involved at Oireachtas events. Rowena Dwyer, our chief economist, attended one of them last week as I was out of the country. We have also had a number of meetings with personnel from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
I am thinking about a particular farmer who has specific supply problems with Britain. Have officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine met such farmers to provide marketing support tools and point out the markets elsewhere they need to go to? While I understand there have been high-level meetings and some budgets have been located in good areas, what kind of hand-holding has there been?
Mr. Joe Healy:
I am not aware of the Department getting directly involved with any individual as of yet. If the Chairman were to ask them, they would say they had been in contact with the IFA. Only yesterday we called on the Department to help the mushroom sector, which is very exposed with 90% of our mushrooms going to the UK. Four mushroom companies have folded since the Brexit referendum. Yesterday we called on the Department to look to the EU. There should be and there are schemes regarding state aid. I know there is a provision - I forget the article number - that allows for aid for sectors that suffer excessively owing to decisions taken outside their control. We will need to continue to push for that especially for the mushroom sector. Today the managing director of Kepak suggested that something similar needed to be done for beef. That is our work with the Government and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on Brexit.
On market concentration and the food chain, only last night in Portlaoise we had a meeting to discuss liquid milk. In 1995 a total of 3,334 registered milk suppliers were supplying fresh milk for the winter trade and the milk-drinking trade. Twenty years later, only 1,982 remain. There was a drop-off of 40%, which shows farmers voting with their feet. The same is true of almost any sector in agriculture. We often say that what the consumer is paying is adequate to ensure a margin for the processor, the retailer and the farmer, but unfortunately it is not getting back to the farmer.
Teagasc quotes a break-even figure of €4 per kilogram in the production of beef. Currently we are at a base price of €3.60 to €3.65 per kilogram, losing 40 cent per kilogram, which is a loss of €160 on a 400-kilogram carcass; it is quite easy to do the maths on it. Teagasc also quotes a figure of 26 cent a litre to produce milk in a normal year. This year, 2016, was not a normal year weather-wise and farmers were selling at a base price for most of the year of 22 cent or 23 cent a litre - it went down as low as 21 cent.
I am chairman of the COPA food chain group. Christine Tacon, the UK groceries code adjudicator, spoke at our last meeting. She will attend a meeting we have organised at a venue close to Dublin Airport on 30 November. When the question was put to her, she was very clear on the need for mandatory legislation at national and EU level. Unlike what we have here, it needs to include a ban on below-cost selling. We also need an ombudsman to enforce the rules and laws on it. We need to ensure that the farmers and the producers of the raw material in each sector are getting a fair return from the marketplace.
Deputy Michael Collins is a member of two organisations in west County Cork. I know Cornie Buckley very well. I will be heading to Bantry tonight to attend an event tomorrow to commemorate the farmers who left Bantry in 1966 to walk to Dublin. That was where they started out from first. I am looking forward to meeting them tomorrow.
I am not sure if I took the Deputy up right on this. He mentioned co-operatives and the banks. Senator Hopkins also referred to it. Rather than calling it low-cost finance, what we have is lower-cost finance compared with where we were. A rate of 2.95% is great and we very much welcome it. An IFA delegation went to Belgium to meet farmers there about two months ago.
We met one particular farmer who had borrowed €650,000 using three loans with a fixed term of between five and seven years at interest rates of 1.4% to 1.7%. European farmers are our counterparts in Europe but they are also our competitors, which is a handicap. We very much welcome the 2.95% interest rate. It is a huge improvement on where we were but we like to think that there is room for further improvement.
We welcome the announcement of 500 extra positions on the rural social scheme and the reversal of the cuts made to the farm assist scheme in terms of the income and child disregards.
The areas of natural constraint, ANC, payments were not mentioned in the budget even though we lobbied hard for it to be included. When I attend meetings, farmers tell me that the ANC payments, or the disadvantaged area based payments, are from the one scheme where everything goes to the farmer unlike GLAS where one must pay a planner and vets for certificates. A sum of €25 million has been allocated and is due to be announced in budget 2018 even though we wanted it to be brought forward to budget 2017.
Next year's ANC review is something that we, as a lobby organisation, will need strong political will behind because very often, reviews are simply used as a means to reduce the number of participants. We hope the review will be like the agritaxation review that was carried out a few years ago where the Government accepted the issues that were put forward and there were no losses in that regard. The ANC review is critical for rural areas as the funding reaches the areas most in need. I have flagged the scheme to notify the committee that the IFA will seek its support to drive on this agenda.
Senator Maura Hopkins mentioned that 90% of basic payment scheme payments have been paid, which is great. Without a doubt, preliminary checks have been positive but 10% of such payments remain unpaid. It would make no difference if 90% were not paid because the payment is so important for each person who is part of the remaining 10%. That is where we need political support. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae has mentioned this also and we have lobbied for same. As much as 70% was paid out in the first tranche and 30% in the second. There were few or no penalties - one can count them on one hand - over 30%. The majority of penalties are below 10%. We feel strongly that the first tranche should be paid out to 100% of farmers and if there are penalties or anomalies the second tranche should be held back. This is the time of year when merchants must be paid and there is a tax bill. This is also an expensive time of year because children have returned to school and college fees must be paid. Regardless of how small is the basic payment, a 70% advance is crucial. We have fought for, lobbied for and continued to push for the 70% advance to be paid out across the board.
Access to low-cost finance has been mentioned. We need to ensure that the €150 million is drawn down and, if and when it is drawn down, that another amount is put in place to satisfy demand. Moreover, by next January the Department and the Minister should have worked with the banks in order that they are ready to roll and that the banks will not have the power to put obstacles in the way.
Senator Hopkins mentioned broadband. People used to call vice grip pliers a farmer's toolbox but broadband is now a farmer's toolbox. No matter where one goes in the country one must apply for a virtual private service, VPS. It is terrible that by the year after next, applications for important and crucial agricultural schemes for the countryside must be submitted online and yet there are large tracts of the country that have no broadband.
I will tell a story about poor broadband coverage that I am sure Senator Hopkins has heard previously. When I was on the campaign trail I visited a house and asked the woman who answered the door where her husband was. She told me that he was down the yard, so I walked down the yard and called after him. I thought he was in a particular shed because his voice came from that direction. I went into the shed and realised that he was in fact standing outside of the shed. I walked to the corner of his shed and saw that he was standing there holding his jacket over his laptop because that was the only place on his farm where he could get broadband coverage. He told me "I shall not shake your hand as I am afraid to move. You will get my vote but don't stir me." He stood in that position because he was trying to register his calves online. In this day and age, having poor broadband coverage is not on. Broadband must be rolled out.
It has been mentioned that the problem of litter cannot be tackled unless there are satellite cameras everywhere. There is an anomaly in the existing legislation because a landowner is held legally responsible for what someone passing outside of the wall throws out the window of his or her vehicle. That is wrong and needs to be tackled.
Deputy Cannon mentioned artisan food producers. I know every one of the artisan producers he mentioned, including his own neighbour who farms in Athenry. I am fairly confident that there is scope for further improvement in the sector and it would add value inside the farm gate. The sector is a niche market and has a long way to go before it is anything other than a niche market. We need to ensure that bureaucracy is minimised and the IFA organisation can lobby for that. People who are willing to set up their own business with a potential to create employment should be encouraged rather than discouraged. The level of bureaucracy certainly discourages many people from setting up a business.
Deputy Danny Healy-Rae mentioned bringing his heifers to the mart. He should look on the bright side because he was able to bring them home. I know many farmers who could not afford to bring them home but the Deputy's point is correct.
The movement of cattle to a mart is not a movement. If one brings cattle to a mart and then brings them home it is not a movement.
Mr. Joe Healy:
It is not a movement. Marts have a special exemption in that one can bring one's animals to a mart and bring them home again. The Deputy is right that having only four movements is wrong. Let us say Deputy Danny Healy-Rae is a quality assured farmer who has signed up to the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme, satisfies all of the criteria and his first cousin is Joe Healy, minus the surname of Rae, and he, too, is a quality assured farmer. If I sell my cattle to the Deputy and all they do is move in a trailer from my farm to his farm then that should not be classed as a movement. Even worse than that, let us say Deputy Danny Healy-Rae rents a shed from the farmer next door, operates a bed and breakfast and does all of the feeding of the cattle over the winter. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae must move those cattle from his herd number into that man's herd number even though he has never seen them and the Deputy looks after the cattle. When the Deputy moves them back into his own herd number it will be deemed two movements and, as a result, one is halfway to losing bonus payments. The IFA has constantly lobbied about the matter but there has been little progress. It all comes back to the power of the processor and retailer in the food chain.
I have dealt with the query about the basic payment scheme, BPS.
The IFA lobbied hard for the fair deal scheme to be included in the budget. Unfortunately, it was not delivered. It has been mentioned that a 50% rate might be introduced. Ms Rowena Dwyer, the IFA's chief economist, compiled figures on the fair deal scheme and discovered that a 50% rate would add nothing. A farm is to a farmer what a hammer is to a carpenter. A farm is only a tool to generate an income to keep a family or individuals off social welfare and in employment. The IFA makes no apologies for being against anything that puts a farm at risk. In terms of the fair deal scheme, a farm is only a productive asset that we want removed from the calculations. It is fair enough to include a house or private residence but not the tool that is used to generate an income.
The final issue I will address is excise duty on agricultural diesel, an issue on which we lobbied hard. While I accept that prices at the pumps are increasing, at least we avoided an increase in excise and common sense prevailed. Agricultural diesel is the fuel that keeps rural Ireland alive.
The use of two types of diesel creates a space in which criminals can operate. This causes difficulties and generates significant policing costs. An argument has been made for having one type of diesel and allowing farmers to apply for rebates, perhaps on a bimonthly basis. Under the proposed scheme, farmers would continue to pay the same costs for diesel as they did for diesel for agricultural purposes. At the same time, the scope for criminal activity would be eliminated and the €600 million annual cost of policing the issue would no longer arise. I accept, however, that it would give rise to cashflow challenges for farmers as they would have to wait for a rebate. What is the IFA's view on the matter?
Mr. Thomas Cooney:
The proposal has been examined and we believe it would be difficult to administer. A farm family may have a number of cars and some family members could be employed elsewhere, which means the exemption could be abused. The marker in diesel has been improved and we are informed that the use of laundered diesel has declined as a result. The proposed scheme would create a cashflow problem initially and farmers are already experiencing problems accessing finance. The scheme would impose a serious burden on agricultural contractors who cut silage in June and this burden would fall back on the farmer, creating an additional cashflow problem. We are in favour of waiting to see if the improved marker works. The issue may have to be reviewed in future but we are not keen on the proposal at the moment because of the cashflow problems it would create.
We were asked a question about planning. I attended the national planning framework consultation, which was held in the Ashling Hotel in Dublin in May or June 2016. The IFA will make a submission when the time comes. Our position is that the current housing guidelines are ten years old and must be redrafted and placed on a statutory footing. We would require local authorities to grant planning permission to families who wish to work and live in their local communities. While we clearly do not want a house to be built in every field, we must strike a balance that allows people who are indigenous to an area and who wish to live and work in it the opportunity to build a house there.
A national spatial strategy was put in place some time in 2012 and signed by the then Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar. Aspects of this strategy are preventing family members of farmers from accessing national secondary roads in County Kerry. My county has more miles of national secondary road than any other county. Family members are being prevented from securing planning permission. In some cases, Kerry County Council has granted planning permission and the road engineers have found no problems with road access but Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has then appealed the decision to An Bord Pleanála, which has subsequently overruled the planning approval on the basis of a clause inserted in the spatial strategy in 2012. Are the witnesses seeking a review of the relevant provision because it is hurting many people?
I referred earlier to farmers in receipt of payments of €150,000 and the willingness or otherwise of the IFA to work towards a fair payments scheme for the significant number of farmers who receive less than €10,000 per annum and are unable to survive on that. How can we find a balance? I could not get the message through to the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, in order that he could gain a clear understanding of farmers who are in a difficult position because they have very low incomes. I would appreciate the witnesses' comments on that.
Mr. Joe Healy:
The law will probably have to be changed at European Union level. Some EU member states are much more interested than is Ireland in maintaining the higher payments. The common consensus in Ireland is that people would prefer the ceiling to be much lower. We hope changes will be made as part of the review of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2020. It is impossible to defend payments that are only capped at €150,000. The ceiling could be reduced to one third of that figure. We can try to have the position changed but it will be difficult to do so.
Mr. Thomas Cooney:
On greenways, the IFA calls on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, to open up the consultation period. We want all farmers' fears to be addressed. While we support greenways, provided they are done in agreement with landowners, we will not allow them to be railroaded through farms. An adequate compensation package must be provided for farmers. We are informed the greenways will be opened up for public consultation in the coming months. That is our position.
On hedge cutting, our priority is to get the Bill to which Senator Hopkins referred through the Seanad. We will ask all Deputies to support the legislation when it is introduced in the Dáil. The Bill provides that hedge cutting would be permitted in August and controlled burning would be allowed in March. I accept the point on funding for hedge cutting. Our current priority is to have the roads fixed, potholes repaired, etc.
Farmers are passionate about the local improvement scheme. All county councillors and farmers will agree with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae's comments on this issue. Apart from access for family members, farms must also be accessible to milk, cattle and meal lorries. The local improvement scheme is vital in this regard. Members should keep up the good work in seeking to have funding for the scheme increased. We understand the scheme is part of the programme to be announced in 2018. A scheme was included in the programme for Government of the previous Government but it was not good enough. It is no good taking money from a depleted roads budget, as was done under the measure introduced by the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar. We want a separate source of funding for the scheme.
We welcome Senator Hopkins's suggestions regarding closed circuit television cameras to monitor littering. The environment committee of the IFA is in the process of drawing up a submission to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, on legislative changes to address the issue of fly-tipping. We do not want to facilitate dumping but we need to get the balance right on the issue. We will make some suggestions to the Minister as regards legislative changes to remove the responsibility for fly-tipping from the landowner. At the same time, we do not want to introduce a measure that could be abused.
The environment committee has also done surveys on the diesel price and highlighted price differences of as much as 8 cent to 10 cent between counties. County Kerry was found to be the dearest county in one survey. It is important that farmers shop around or use group purchase schemes and similar approaches.
While progress is being made on delays in payments, as the president noted, that is of no benefit to those who are experiencing delays. We will continue to lobby on this issue.
Mr. Thomas Ryan:
I will briefly address four areas. I note Deputy Cannon, who raised the apprenticeship scheme, has left the meeting. The scheme is based on a model introduced by the Canadian Government known as the apprenticeship job creation tax credit.
Essentially, this is a non-refundable tax credit equal to 10% of the employee's salary each year, up to a maximum of €2,000 per year. It has been in place for ten years, since May 2006. It is seen as something that encourages the normalisation of work when these people are taken on. While there can be a black economy issue the apprenticeship scheme also stimulates activity in the rural economy for the micro-enterprises such as the one or two person artisan food producer or the local mechanic. Something like this can make a difference with regard to taking on that extra person, and every job counts in rural Ireland.
The Chairman made reference to forestry. Whether it is from an environment brief or for the diversification of farm income, forestry has a role to play. Forestry however is not just for the west of Ireland. Sometimes there is a perception that forestry is for the west. It can play a role throughout the country and in perhaps policy can better support the role of agri-forestry whereby, rather than looking at planting the entire farm that rural development programmes and rural schemes generally would facilitate and encourage payments for planting a number of acres of a holding. This is the agri-forestry concept where forestry can live better in harmony with mainstream agriculture.
With regard to the area of micro-energy - as raised by some speakers - there are two principal issues around that. The first issue is the lack of policy certainty right now. Solar energy was mentioned and at this point in time there are 20,000 acres of land under some form of a solar contract in Ireland. We have not one solar farm yet but a number have gone through planning and have received planning. There is in excess of 20,000 acres of farmland that is under some form of the solar contract. This is in anticipation of a tariff coming from Government that was due at least 12 months ago. This lack of clarity on the issue from the Government has an unintended consequence of leading to a high level of speculative activity by developers. The second issue relates to renewable energy. Deputy Cannon referred to the rooftop solar panels he saw when he was on his cycling trip across Europe. In many European states the concept of smart metering is standard but is not even introduced in Ireland. Smart metering is where a person has a solar panel or micro turbine on the farm and they can discount the energy produced by the turbine or solar panel from their overall energy use and reduce the cost of their electricity. The enabling of smart metering would be a driving force towards the uptake of renewables.
I will now turn to the matter of the tariff that may be announced by Government around renewable electricity, specifically solar. We are lobbying for favourable discrimination towards community participation. Where development companies offer a proportion of the project for community ownership they would get a tariff premium of an increase in cents per kilowatt hour for facilitating community participation and community ownership. It is seeking to move the narrative on so that these renewable projects can live more hand-in-hand with the local communities within which they are often imposed. My colleague, Thomas Cooney has addressed the issue of greenways. I would say to the committee that there is a vacuum in this respect because there is a lack of a national framework in the development of greenways in the State. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae knows well the scenario in south Kerry and we have members from Donegal, Cavan, Leitrim, to name a few counties. That is before we even talk about the 180 km from Dublin going across to Galway. The development of greenways, one of which is in Meath, was referred to as haphazard. Some are led by the Transport Infrastructure Ireland, some are led by local authorities, some are led by partnership companies and, quite frankly, there is not that certainty in place. We do not know if the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross intends to hold consultation but we are seeking dialogue on it. Greenways have a role to play but there must be a framework which recognises that one cannot just carve up a farmer's farmholding for the purpose of putting a cycle track through the middle of it. There is a balance to be struck.
The roadside hedges should be cut all year round and priority must be given to the people travelling the roads over the birds. No bird is so stupid as to make a nest outside the ditch anywhere along the side of the road. I totally agree about the greenway routes. I am very disappointed with the route taken by our local authority in the way it has gone about it - there should have been agreement with all the landowners. That could have been achieved. Agreement with the landowners is the way to go and agreement can be reached.
There is no grant for forestry for marginal land. A person has to have 80% of green ground before they will get a grant to plant. In any land holding in Kerry it is the other way around - 20% of green ground versus 80% of marginal ground - so there is no planting going on there now because it is not attractive for farmers to do so. That needs to be addressed. It was changed a number of years ago and there has been no planting since on marginal ground. I have been asked a lot about when farmers got the grants for planting forestry and they were told it was going to be tax-free. Now the USC charges are being applied to it. That issue also needs to be addressed because if you make a deal with a man you must stand to your word and that is not what has happened in this case. The Government has broken its word.
Mr. Joe Healy:
The Deputy is right about the USC being applied and we are looking for it to be phased out. If one goes to the north west, to Leitrim for example, there is a completely different anti-forestry attitude because of outsiders coming in and buying the land. They are able to pay what local farmers are not able to match. We have a very active forestry committee in the organisation.
I want to return to the matter of flooding. We are at a critical time of the year again. We see it in parts of Senator Maura Hopkins's county for example. I was out at Lough Funshinagh recently-----
Mr. Joe Healy:
They got flooded last year. A month ago the water level was 8 ft. higher than it was at the same time last year, when it still got flooded. There is disappointment and frustration. I was at a meeting and a lady spoke with tears in her eyes. I will never forget the way she answered me when I asked her if she was fearful of the unknown. She said: "No Joe - it is the fear of the known". They know they are going to get flooded this year. There was disappointment and frustration. I fully acknowledge the work, the ambition and the desire of the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney and Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran to do something about it, but unfortunately there are so many different sections and so many interested groups - about 17 entirely - that it might be hyperbole to think that we will ever get to a situation where there would be one agency with responsibility for it. We need to reduce the numbers of agencies involved and we definitely need to reduce the power that some of those have to stop very real work that could save people's houses and people's livelihood from flooding.
I thank all the witnesses for coming in today and for the detailed presentations that they have given. The information that we have received will become part of this committee's analysis and report on this issue and we will be sure that the witnesses get a copy of the report when it is completed. There is no doubt that this committee will be inviting the witnesses in again in the coming years to focus on this particular issue. Gabhaim míle buíochas leo as ucht teacht isteach.