Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 17 October 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Rural and Community Development
Estimates for Public Services 2018
Vote 42- Department of Rural and Community Development
This is our first mid-year review meeting with the Department of Rural and Community Development. This is a new committee shadowing a new Department and we hope to follow the roadmap set out in the 2016 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, report entitled Review of budget oversight by parliament: Ireland. The committee will consider the mid-year position in terms of expenditure and performance outputs. The committee is also interested in looking at the link between expenditure and performance following international best practice. As well as considering this budget year, 2018, the committee will also consider 2017 and it will look to 2019 and the following years.
I propose that the Minister for Rural and Community Development will first make his opening statement. This will be followed by a question and answer session structured as followed: outputs and expenditure will be examined programme by programme; and members will be called upon to ask questions on the subheads under the relevant programme and administrative subheads. The committee will consider the Minister's statement and a brief supplied by the Department. The committee must adjourn not later than 1 p.m. because another committee is due to commence shortly afterwards. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Michael Ring. I also welcome Deputy Seán Canney who is the Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development and Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I take this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Seán Canney on his appointment. He is a former member of this committee and he is very welcome having just been appointed yesterday. I also welcome the officials accompanying the Minister and Minister of State.
The opening statements and briefs have been circulated to the committee. I propose that all documents supplied to the committee for this meeting be published on the committee's website. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I invite the Minister and Minister of State to make their opening statements.
I take this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Seán Canney on his appointment and welcome him to my Department. I also want to thank the former Minister of State at my Department, Deputy Seán Kyne, on the great job that he did. I wish him well in his new appointment as Government Whip and Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht with responsibility for the Gaeltacht.
I thank the committee for its invitation to attend to discuss the mid-year expenditure review for the Department. It has circulated a short briefing note to members which includes a summary of the programme areas and sets out expenditure to the end of September.
This has been a year of considerable activity and achievement in the Department. Although Deputies will be aware that it is only a little over a year old, we have made significant progress in bringing it to full operation in that time, while delivering on the ground for communities and rural Ireland. The mission of the Department is even more important as we look at the challenges facing the country and the actions we need to take to ensure a sustainable and high quality of life for all citizens wherever they choose to live and work.
With regard to the allocation for the Department, gross expenditure of €231.532 million is budgeted for 2018. This consists of €144.024 million in current expenditure and €87.508 million in capital expenditure. In addition, provision has been made for a capital carryover of €7.7 million which supplements the provision in the Estimate.
As requested, the committee has been provided with information on expenditure by my Department to the end of September, at which point the total gross spend was €144.34 million. This was made up of €116.2 million in current expenditure and €28 million in capital expenditure.
With regard to actual expenditure compared to profile, at the end of September current expenditure was at 92% of profile and capital expenditure at 62%. Given the fact that capital expenditure has been falling behind profile, I have prioritised this issue within the Department. I am pleased to note that there has been a significant increase in capital expenditure since the end of September, which was to be expected. The focus in the earlier part of the year was on assessing applications and making approvals under schemes and now the bills are coming in. I will outline the most recent figures available to me at the close of this statement.
It is just as important to focus today on what the Department has delivered for communities since its establishment, as well as reflecting on some of the challenges we have faced and how we have addressed them. I will try to keep these remarks short to allow time for discussion with members.
Throughout 2018 I have focused on the twin policy goals of improved rural development and community development. On rural development, an important focus of work has been to develop and launch the new rural regeneration and development fund. This €1 billion fund was established under Project Ireland 2040 and will support ambitious projects that can drive the economic and social development of rural towns, villages and their surrounding areas. The fund provides an exceptional opportunity to support the revitalisation of rural Ireland, make a significant and sustainable impact on rural communities and help make smaller towns, villages and rural areas good places in which to live and work. Initial funding of €315 million will be allocated to the fund in the period 2019 to 2022 on a phased basis. The provisions for the Department in budget 2019 have allowed me to allocate €55 million for the fund in 2019. The closing date for applications under the first call for the fund was 27 September and there has been strong interest across the country. There have been around 290 applications, of which around 125 are for category 1 projects - shovel ready projects - and around 165 are for category 2 projects - projects that need initial development funding to become potential category 1 applications in future calls for the fund. Clear assessment criteria have been published and a project advisory board has been established which will oversee the assessment of applications for the fund. The board is made up of representatives from key Departments, with a number of external experts. On receipt of recommendations for funding from the board, I expect to be in a position to announce an initial number of successful applications in November, with further announcements to follow.
While the rural regeneration and development fund is hugely important for the future development of rural Ireland, I remain just as focused on ensuring the continued success of existing schemes and programmes. For example, this year I have approved 224 projects under the town and village renewal scheme to the value €21 million. I have also approved 389 projects up to a value of €12 million across a series of measures under the CLÁR programme. The town and village renewal scheme is an important part of the Government’s work to rejuvenate rural Ireland and is having a significant impact on towns and villages across the country. The benefit of previous funding under the town and village renewal scheme is being felt countrywide. Since it was introduced in the second half of 2016, almost €53 million has been approved for more than 670 projects across the country.
The LEADER programme is a very important part of the work of my Department. Activity under the programme has increased significantly since the second half of 2017. Over 1,300 projects have been approved by the local action groups, to a value of €43.4 million. There are another 300 or so projects, with a value of over €20 million, going through the approval process. The large volume of projects being approved shows that the changes I have made to the programme are working. The changes have simplified the approval process to be followed by local action groups and LEADER programme applicants and greatly reduced the burden of administrative checks for applicants. The programme is delivering for rural communities. However, despite this ramping up of the LEADER programme, expenditure in 2018 has been less than originally planned. Therefore, I have recently reallocated funds from the LEADER programme to other programmes, namely, an additional €8.6 million for the community enhancement programme and an additional €4 million for library investment. The LEADER programme is demand-led and I remain committed to supporting it. I am confident that the full €250 million available over the lifetime of the programme will be fully utilised.
The other rural development programmes which include the local improvement scheme, the walks scheme and the outdoor recreational infrastructure scheme are also having a real impact in towns, villages and rural areas across Ireland.
With regard to the community development aspect of my work, as the committee is aware, the Department administers a range of programmes that support both individuals and the community and voluntary sector as a whole. The community services programme and the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, are the two most significant in terms of expenditure. The community services programme provides financial support for community organisations to deliver local services through a social enterprise model. The funding supports the costs of employing a manager or a specific number of full-time equivalents. The programme has a allocation of €46 million in 2018. It is benefiting over 400 organisation nationwide, with 1,600 people being supported by the programme.
The social inclusion and community activation programme provides funding to help individuals and communities in society who are experiencing disadvantage. The programme works with people from groups such as disadvantaged women, disadvantaged children and families, lone parents, people with disabilities, those who have difficulties in finding employment, Roma and Travellers. It has an allocation of €43 million in 2018 and supports over 2,200 organisations and 27,000 people. A key development for SICAP in 2018 was the publication of a major review by the ESRI. The review looked at the role of SICAP in the context of other related Government schemes, the continuing suitability of the goals identified by SICAP and the governance structures used in it. The review highlighted a number of areas for improvement such as the need for a greater focus on more intensive individual supports and flexibility to respond to the needs of target groups at local level. They were built into the new SICAP programme that I launched this year.
I will also mention the very successful senior alerts scheme, for which I had originally allocated €2.3 million at the start of 2018. However, the scheme has been far more successful than originally envisaged and I will be allocating further funds for the programme. It will be made up of €2 million from the community services programme and €1.75 million from the Dormant Accounts Fund allocation. The funding allocated towards the seniors alert scheme has allowed over 13,000 people to benefit from it so far this year.
I will talk briefly about the new community enhancement programme which I launched this year. It replaces and builds on two existing schemes. Combining them has allowed a more flexible and targeted approach to be adopted to providing funding for the communities most in need.
The community enhancement programme provides capital funding for communities across Ireland to enhance facilities in disadvantaged areas. It is administered by the 33 local community development committees, LCDCs. In May it initially provided €4.5 million in grant funding for 2018 towards enhancing the facilities available to communities. However, as the programme was greatly oversubscribed, I reallocated €8.6 million for it for other projects around the country.
We are having this meeting to focus on the mid-term review of expenditure. The full details to the end of September have been provided in the briefing document sent to the committee. As members can see, capital expenditure at the end of September was some way behind profile. Close monitoring of the spend position is a significant priority for me and my officials. There has been significant direct engagement with the chief executives of local authorities and close and frequent contacts with local authorities and the LEADER local action groups to ensure we have an accurate picture of the level of activity on the ground. In that regard, the spend at the end of September does not reflect fully the value of expenditure incurred to date across projects that are now at or close to completion. As the committee will be aware, many of the funding schemes operated by the Department involve a large number of individual projects. A key factor is ensuring that, when they are completed, the claims for payment are issued in a prompt manner. That will remain a priority for the rest of the year. I am satisfied, on the basis of projections for the spend to year end, that there will be a full spend under the Vote in 2018. The position on Friday, 28 September was that the capital spend stood at €28 million, compared with a profiled spend of €45 million. The latest position is that, at close of business yesterday, the Department's capital spend for the year to date had reached €48.6 million. This represents a spend of €20.5 million in October to date, which highlights the ramp-up that was expected at this time of the year. I expect progress to continue in the coming weeks.
I have kept my remarks brief so as to allow a full discussion on the programmes and funding of my Department this year. I emphasise that we are making good progress in monitoring capital expenditure. I will ensure our allocations are fully spent this year, in the process delivering for communities and rural Ireland.
I call on my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, to say a few words.
I, too, will keep my remarks brief. As I entered this office after 8 p.m. last night, I am fresh to it. I thank the Chairman for his opening remarks. I also thank the members who were my colleagues until yesterday. We are now even better colleagues, as we will all be working together. Committee members have a common goal - to improve communities and rural Ireland as best we can. We are a great team together and will be able to do so.
I acknowledge the work done by the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, who has moved on to higher office. I compliment him on the way he conducted his business since taking over the job two and a half years ago.
I look forward to working with everyone present, in particular, the Minister and the departmental officials. I had a briefing session yesterday. There are many challenges facing rural Ireland, but we all have the common goal of improving the quality of life in rural Ireland to the level found in the cities in order that people can live, work and rear their families there.
As I outlined at the start of the meeting, I will try to focus on the various programmes within the Department. I invite members to comment on programme A which covers the rural development and regional affairs aspect. The first to do so will be Senator Paudie Coffey.
I welcome the Minister, the Minister of State and officials. Last week the Minister of State was sitting on this side of the table. I congratulate him on his appointment. It is an excellent one, as he brings great understanding of the challenges facing rural Ireland. I wish him well in his brief.
Although it has been mentioned that rural Ireland faces challenges, I have always been one who sees the glass as half full. There are considerable opportunities for rural Ireland. The Minister outlined in a general way the capital and current funding being made available to support rural communities across Ireland. It excites me. While we hear much criticism, the Minister mentioned a number of schemes, including the community enhancement programme, library investment and the walks and outdoor recreational infrastructure schemes. We cannot underestimate the value of such schemes to communities in giving them the capacity to exploit the potential of their towns, villages and rural areas. That is not even to mention the town and village renewal scheme or the CLÁR programme.
I welcome how the Minister started a pilot programme last week for vacant buildings in villages and towns. He included in their number Cappoquin in west County Waterford which I will use as an example, as I know it well. It was once a thriving village. It was the base of Cappoquin Chickens and there was considerable industry in it, but over many decades it failed. We have seen the decay on the streets. A former councillor, Ms Nora Flynn, who is a great advocate for rural Ireland has always pointed out that, unless we breathe new life into towns and villages and get young families back on their streets, these areas will continue to decay. For the first time, last week the Minister recognised this when he established the pilot scheme. It will build on the likes of the town and village renewal scheme, the CLÁR programme and many other schemes. We will begin to see real progress in collaborating with communities in delivering regeneration on the streets.
The Minister might elaborate on a number of issues. He has provided substantial funding - €315 million in the next three years - for the rural regeneration fund. He referred to "ambitious projects," but I have a concern. While I do not doubt that he and his officials have ambition, as they have proved by providing and ring-fencing this capital funding for ambitious projects, communities might not have the capacity and local authorities, LEADER groups and so on might not have the same level of ambition that he has. He mentioned that more than 270 or 280 applications had been received for the rural regeneration fund. That is welcome, but I would like to gain an understanding of the quality of those applications. We probably will not gain it until November when he announces the first round of allocations. I hope the applications' quality meets the level of ambition he has set. As policy makers, Deputies, Senators and local councillors can play a role in communicating his objective of lifting communities. I hope the applications are strong and have not been rushed.
I hope also that there will be deep engagement with communities and that none of them will be left behind. As the Minister and his officials will know, the ones that are most successful are the ones that understand the process well and have sufficient capacity, but the ones with the greatest need do not have the capacity to draft an application and engage with agencies. What is being done to address such deficits? It is often those who need a leg up that are left on the margins. The Minister does not want that to happen and the committee wants to assist him in ensuring such communities will have the same access to funding as those that will be first up, best dressed and used to drawing down funding. It is an ongoing concern of mine that we should maximise communities' integration into and access to schemes. Various officials at every level face a major challenge. I remind those in the Department that, if an application is weak because a community has not had the capacity to make it stronger, it should not just be thrown onto the scrapheap. Officials should recognise that the community may need more help. An analysis or evaluation of failed or "lesser" applications should be conducted so as to ensure those communities can be built up through deeper engagement.
I hope I am putting it across to the Minister in the right way that we need to help those communities more than the ones that are probably the best. I am probably contradicting myself in a way.
What can be done to improve access for the communities? How we can assist them? How we can prevent the duplication of the work of many of the agencies on the ground? Representatives of some of the agencies were before the committee last week. The Minister of State, Deputy Canney, was in attendance. The agencies, which are excellent and whose umbrella body is Pobal, are delivering on the ground. I asked the agency representatives whether the agencies are competing with one another for clients and customers in the various communities throughout the country. We need a targeted approach to prevent duplication. This means spreading the resources and the funding. The Minister referred to substantial current funding of €135 million or €140 million in 2018. That is to be paid to all the officials and agencies that are meant to assist the communities. I want to see the agencies spending the money efficiently and not duplicating the work of similar agencies. The money should be targeting those who are most disadvantaged in rural areas.
The Minister has done a fabulous job in the previous budget in ring-fencing substantial funds and in having, for the first time, rolling annual funds for the period 2019 to 2022 and beyond. This allows communities to plan. Communities will not have to ask whether there will be a fund next year or whether they will be putting in the effort now on a voluntary basis only to find there is no funding in a year or two. The message has now gone out quite clearly to rural areas that the funding is there to stay over a number of years. It is a question of getting our act together, taking on the good projects and realising the ambition we all have regarding the good living of rural Ireland. The Minister and his Department are to be commended on putting the funding in place. The Minister has rural areas at heart and he deserves the support of politicians and communities in delivering. The real benchmark will be how well we will deliver in an efficient way that can make the difference the Minister wants to see in the communities.
I thank Senator Coffey for his remarks. He is quite correct that rural Ireland is alive and well. Admittedly there are difficulties, and that is why my Department was set up. It was set up to determine what schemes would support rural areas. The Senator is quite correct about the town and village renewal scheme. This year alone, €21 million was made available to support 224 projects. Since 2016, we have delivered 675 projects, worth €53 million. To be fair to the local authorities and communities, the former were asked by my Department to talk to communities and let those communities make the suggestions to them. The authorities made the applications for them. I travel a lot around the country and have noted that fear has been spread in every county. The first year, the local authorities were allowed to submit 15 schemes and the second year we allowed them to submit 12. Some of the schemes were of a very high quality. It takes some time to deliver on them. They are being delivered upon, however. I can see this in every part of the country I go. They are working very well.
With regard to the outdoor recreation scheme, we have approved €1.8 million to date in 2018. Since 2016, we have allocated €23 million. Senator Coffey will have seen what this has done in Kilmacthomas in his county. I have seen it in Drumshanbo, where 78,000 people walked the boardwalk this year. That is what the schemes are all about.
The CLÁR programme is very simple. We have targeted very simple schemes to try to enhance the quality of life for people living and working in rural Ireland. They have worked very well.
The local improvement scheme is a simple scheme for those who are entitled to get their bóithrín or road done. They pay their water charges, household charges and taxes. The local improvement scheme is working very well. I would love to have more money for it. Other programs, including SICAP, are to help rural areas.
The Senator raised two or three specific issues. One concerned the new pilot scheme I set up. I was delighted to set it up. People might ask why there was no grant aid with it. We gave €100,000 to the six towns. I hope the local authorities will work with the businesses, communities and various community groups in the six towns we picked. The Senator raised this in his question. He is quite correct that I could have picked 16 other towns. Just before I am asked who picked them, let me say I got my officials to set up a group with the Departments responsible for housing and finance. The officials picked the six towns and submitted the list to me. They could have picked 16 more. This is a pilot scheme. I want it to be the case that we are not telling the rural areas what we want them to do. I want them to come back to me. The towns might have six different views on how they envisage moving forward. It is not always about grant aid. If it were, it would be noted that we had two schemes within the Department already. Two of the schemes did not work, namely, the repair and leasing scheme and the buy and renew scheme. They just did not work in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
Under the pilot scheme, we have given the local authorities €100,000 each to get consultants, sit down with the groups and come back early in the new year with their suggestions and recommendations. They might have six different suggestions and six new recommendations but they will know what is best for their towns. The Senator and I hear every day that we are out and about that there is much dereliction in many of the towns. Compulsory purchase orders should be used more by the local authorities. That might be one of the recommendations. They might need a mix of grant aid, with the support from the local authority and Department. I am open to considering schemes to try to revitalise some of the towns. The whole point of the scheme is to get people living in rural villages and towns. If they are going to do so, they have to have the necessary services and there has to be public relevance. The towns or villages have to be nice places in which to live, and in which people want to live. That is what the pilot scheme is about.
The Senator is correct about the rural regeneration scheme. The funding amounts to €1 billion over ten years. People said the 2040 project the Government announced was not going to happen. It is happening, however. We opened the scheme, we closed it and we will be making decisions in November. There are two categories in that scheme. One concerns shovel-ready projects. There were 126 in that category. There were 166 in category 2, which concerns projects that need development funding. Naturally enough, the shovel-ready projects mean they are shovel ready. When we allocate the money, the various authorities will be able to start drawing down the funding in 2019 and start the projects.
To be fair to the local authorities, they had a few very difficult years because of the recession. They did not have the staff in place. My officials and I sat down with officials from the County and City Management Association and we outlined to them the schemes that would happen over the next few years. The authorities had to have capacity. They now know they will have the schemes funded on a rolling basis. I see the improvements in the town and village scheme and the outdoor recreation scheme because of the sufficient capacity that now exists. The authorities know the schemes will be funded annually.
With regard to the rural regeneration scheme, I am delighted with the 126 applications this year. It means there is an interest. I appreciate the Senator is concerned about whether the authorities went out to communities. To be fair, they believed it would not happen. They did go out. My Department's representatives went around the country and had a number of meetings with the stakeholders. The shovel-ready schemes will happen but I hope that, now that we know what is happening, they will go out to communities in the second category. We will reopen the scheme again in March. I hope the officials will work out with communities how their needs can best be met and how they might have an input. The whole point of the rural regeneration scheme is that it is for bigger projects.
I am delighted with the rural regeneration scheme but want to keep the existing schemes, namely the CLÁR programme, outdoor recreation scheme, town and village scheme and local improvement scheme. These are all important. The good news is that the funding is in place for next year. The good news is that we had approximately 300 applications. People were aware of the scheme. They did not believe it would happen so fast. It has happened and it is now closed. We will make the announcements and I hope that in March, when we open the scheme, communities will be ready for it. It is worth €1 billion over ten years. The funding for next year is in place. There is €55 million extra in the budget for next year. We are committed to this scheme but also to the others. I want to send out loud and clear today the message that the rural regeneration scheme will not take over any other scheme. The scheme is specifically for bigger projects and to create the jobs, infrastructure or whatever applications are submitted. I want to see the shovel-ready projects starting early next year.
Some local authorities complained that they did not have the capacity or money to put some schemes and applications together. Under category 2 of this scheme, local authorities will get the necessary capacity and funding, and they will be able to put together strong applications. It is a good scheme that is going to work and will supplement the other schemes we have.
I thank the Minister for his presentation, which was of interest to rural Deputies. I congratulate Deputy Seán Canney on his appointment as Minister of State at the Department. I have known him since I was elected to the Dáil and he has a great interest in and understanding of rural communities. I echo the sentiments expressed by Senator Coffey regarding it being an excellent appointment. I look forward to working with the Minister of State.
The rural regeneration programme is of interest to any active rural Deputy. It is a difficult time in rural Ireland. Similar to Senator Coffey, I like to consider the glass half full, but sometimes it is difficult to do so. Eight businesses in west Cork closed in the past three weeks. The communities there contact me about such difficulties. I have recently been contacted regarding the credit union in Drimoleague, a local school in Goleen, a shop in Kilbrittain, a post office in Ballineen and another in Enniskeane, AXA insurance in Bantry, and Long’s shop in Timoleague. That is only the tip of the iceberg. Rural Ireland is haemorrhaging badly. I acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Ring, always has his finger on the pulse in terms of where moneys should go, but people are being squeezed out of business which causes great difficulty in rural Ireland. I have sought to emphasise the importance of the rural regeneration programme and spent many hours asserting its priority in the programme for Government.
Many years ago, County Clare was a role model in how it delivered for its community. There is a housing problem in the bigger cities but the unfortunate situation we are left with is a shortage of people in rural towns and villages. There is plenty of available housing in villages and towns, such as in over the shop accommodation, and that should be utilised. The Minister referred to six towns chosen to participate in a pilot scheme. How can a local community apply to that scheme? Many communities wish to turn things around and bring more life to their community. How can we get deserted buildings in towns back into use and get people living in them?
There have been several funding applications to the rural regeneration and development fund, the deadline for which was 29 September. When will the Department announce when funding will be made available for those projects? As the Minister stated, some may be shovel ready and awaiting a final tick of the box by the Department to make funding available.
The walks scheme has been very successful in west Cork as in other parts of the country. At a time when farming and building in rural communities, which were the pillars that kept people in their communities, are in difficulty, many people have turned their attention to tourism. Although I acknowledge that money has been allocated to set up new walks, including funding for stiles and signage, farmers have not been compensated under the scheme for people walking on their land. I ask that this issue be concentrated upon. Of course, the foundation must be put in first. In many cases, however the foundation has been laid but farmers have not been compensated and are allowing access on goodwill. Although such goodwill is important initially, there needs to be a little more than that going forward because farmers need to consider the long-term viability of their farms, as many are doing. Some farmers have told me that they look on the walks scheme as a way to supplement their farm income. Some are willing to allow access out of goodwill for the first year or two of the scheme to get it off the ground. However, those in certain areas who have not been brought in under the scheme will consider it somewhat unfair if farmers in a neighbouring county or townland are being compensated. I ask the Minister to elaborate on that issue.
There is no questioning the success of the local improvements scheme. Of course, the problem is that only two or three of every 20 or 30 applications are allocated funding. The scheme as announced may seem well-resourced but many schemes are not getting funding. I ask the Minister to consider further funding for the local improvements scheme because it is very popular.
As I stated, tourism is a major issue. The rise in VAT from 9% to 13.5% will have serious implications for rural communities. Even up to this morning I have been getting phone calls on this from businesses that are struggling and will probably go out of business because of the change. However, that is another day's work.
The community services programme is of great benefit to the community and voluntary groups that access it. There is one issue-----
I do not have primary responsibility for post offices but I am concerned about the issue. I would like as many post offices as possible to stay open. Some 950 post offices will remain open. As the Deputy is aware, I have provided €80,000 to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment to establish a pilot scheme of ten digital assist post offices. I had no input into which post offices were chosen to participate in the scheme. The aim of the scheme is to see what we can do to help provide more services in the chosen post offices. The issue of post offices has been discussed and I do not wish to get into detail on it again today, but there has been a public outcry to keep them open. I have always been honest about post offices, as have some Deputies opposite. On this occasion, post offices were not compulsorily closed but, rather, were given a package.
When I was Minister of State at the then Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, I, along with postmasters and An Post, was responsible for considering what we could do to keep post offices open. I completed a report for Government which I handed to the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, who was responsible for post offices. On that occasion, we considered how to offer further services in post offices. I have allocated €80,000 for a pilot scheme of ten digital assist post offices to see what we can do to allow post offices to offer more services.
I attended a public meeting on a post office closure. I obtained the figures for the particular post office from An Post. Amazingly, although there were more than 300 to 500 people at the public meeting, the post office had sold 50 TV licences in that full year. Some 350 families were living in the area. Either people in the area did not have TV licences or they sourced them somewhere other than their post office. If people want to retain their local post offices, they will have to use them. We have made that point loud and clear and I have been honest on it. At that meeting, the local postmistress stated that she had to subsidise the post office to keep it open in recent years.
I hope An Post reviews the issue and considers where post offices can be saved and put into businesses or elsewhere. I encourage it to leave as many post offices open as possible. The public must use and support those which are left open, however, of which there will be at least 950. Deputy Fitzmaurice might have heard a segment on MidWest Radio featuring a postmistress who called a public meeting a number of years ago. Many of the local community attended and promised to support her.
She did not get the support she wanted and she made the decision to close the post office.
The second issue was in regard to the walks scheme. The Deputy is correct, in particular in regard to farmers. It is a very good scheme and we have 1,900 landowners getting funding from it. We had €2 million in the budget and I am glad to say I have got a further €2 million this year. I will be looking at ways and means of increasing that scheme for next year, but I have an extra €2 million. In line with the commitment in the programme for Government, therefore, we will be doubling that scheme next year. I know there are a lot of walks in the Deputy's area and there are many new people trying to get into the walks scheme. I have to formalise this and look at ways to progress it. While we will not be able to get everybody in, we will certainly try to double the number from the current 1,900. At least I have doubled the money from €2 million to €4 million.
The Deputy talked about the rural regeneration scheme. His own county has been very active. Cork has made 19 applications in category 1 and 47 applications overall for the rural regeneration scheme, so it has certainly been on the ball. As I said earlier, many local authorities, the public and some public representatives did not think this scheme was going to happen. I am delighted it has opened. Applications have now closed and we will be making allocations in November for the shovel-ready projects. We will make further allocations for other schemes later. My priority is the shovel-ready schemes, to get the successful projects announced and to have them operating for 2019. They will be announced in November so people know they have their money, and it is up to them to start progressing the schemes. Cork has done very well and it has certainly put in the projects. While many other counties have not done as well, it is a new scheme and people will learn from this. As I said to Senator Coffey, one of the big issues is capacity, and the local authorities now have the capacity. I want them to talk to the local communities and to have an input. We will be opening the scheme again in March but the priority is to get the first round open. We are assessing the applications and I want to get the allocations made in November.
The Deputy raised the issue of LEADER funding. We originally had €35 million allocated for LEADER in 2018 and this was supplemented by a further €5 million that was carried over from last year. Activity has ramped up and there are now 1,300 projects approved to the value of €43.4 million. Given the profile of the expenditure, however, I had to reallocate some of that money because I know it is not going to be spent this year. The drawdown to date stands at €15.6 million and I am confident that, by the end of the year, we will have that up to about €26 million. I am monitoring it and I will keep doing so. There is no doubt this is ramping up and that many more projects are being approved. Like every LEADER programme, it takes a number of years to make applications, get approval, do the work and then have the drawdown, and the drawdown is the final thing that is done. There is €25 million in total for the programme up to 2020 and there will be three years after that to complete the programme. I am confident we will have that spent and I can see it ramping up. There may be one year where we have a problem but we are hoping for a drawdown of €26 million this year and, if there is a shortfall next year or the year after, we will have to find that money.
I thank the Minister for his opening remarks. I know he was in north Leitrim last week and I must apologise as I was not able to attend. I am sure he had a good day in Rossinver. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, and wish him all the very best in his new role. I know he will be a fighter for rural Ireland. He certainly was on this side and I expect him to be the same on the other side.
With regard to the measures outlined, I will not go into every issue as other members have done so. With respect to the local improvement schemes, in my own county, Sligo, and in neighbouring counties, no money was spent on these types of roads for seven years and there are huge lists of people who want to have these roads done. While I welcome the money that has been spent, it was €17 million last year but only €10 million this year. I would have hoped that, by now, we would be in a situation where the Minister was announcing an additional package of money for these schemes. There is a substantial backlog and many people need these roads done.
As I said, the Minister was in Leitrim last week. There are two walkways in Leitrim which are awaiting funding and on which people are anxious to get going, one being the greenway from Manorhamilton to Enniskillen and the other through Ballinamore on the old railway line. They are in an area which, in terms of the number of overseas visitors, has seen a very negative impact because of Brexit, although it has not even happened yet. The area needs to see investment in critical infrastructure like this. The Minister mentioned the walk at Drumshanbo, which has been a tremendous success. We need to see more investment to be able to generate the kind of visitor numbers we need in regions like this.
On town and village renewal, I want to raise an issue I have raised with the Minister before. It is my view that the Government needs to prime the pump in this regard. We need to come in with more than schemes that just tinker around the edges. A decent grant aid scheme needs to be put in place for people to renovate these kinds of properties. If a 60% grant to a maximum of €50,000 is the type of grant that is put in place, it would be cost neutral because, within a year of offering that kind of grant, when the work starts to happen, the State gets excise duty, income tax from the people doing the work and VAT on the products being put in place. It gets all of that back and, within a year of offering that kind of grant, it gets the 60% spend back in taxes. All of that is without talking about the multiplier effect. Normally, when work like that happens, other people in the area also get work done or the person that is doing the work does additional work that is not covered by the grant. That has been the experience not just in Ireland but is also widely recognised internationally. It is a cost-neutral benefit to put that type of scheme in place.
If such a scheme were put in place across large areas of rural Ireland, it would have a magnificent impact on employment creation and regeneration and in getting people to believe again that there is a sense of future in rural Ireland. That is what we need to do. The Minister said rural Ireland is alive and well, doing well and all of that. The experience of many people, however, is that life is getting more and more difficult. One of the main reasons for this is that people cannot get access to credit. I have spoken to a number of people who have the kinds of properties the Minister is talking about in towns and villages throughout the country. They would like to be able to renovate them because there is a market for rental properties. We still have a situation in most parts of rural Ireland in which it is impossible to find a house to rent, even in a rural parish like my own, which does not even have a town or village and only has a church, a post office that is now closed and a pub. People who have houses to rent and who want to renovate them cannot get a loan from a bank to do it. They need that bit of assistance from Government to give them belief again. I urge the Minister to put that kind of money in place as quickly as possible.
With regard to LEADER, while I know there is movement at last in regard to the amount of money being spent, we need to see that delivered as quickly as possible in many rural areas. The issue of post offices was mentioned and I want to come back to it. The Minister is right that some post offices are small and will be unable to survive. One of the big problems at present, however, is the review mechanism that An Post has in place. If a postmaster or postmistress takes the redundancy package, the position is reviewed, and the review mechanism states that An Post will provide a post office where there is a population of 500 people in a settlement.
Its interpretation of a settlement is taken from the 2016 census. It is a minimum of 50 occupied houses, each no more than 100 m apart. If this criterion is used, it means An Post can close almost every post office in Ireland outside the major cities and big towns because there are few places where that criterion would be met. For example, it would not be met in an area with 50 houses, of which three or four are unoccupied houses. An Post has used an interpretation that will allow it to close almost every post office. That issue needs to be addressed. I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, who I understand will have a role in this. An Post needs to be held to account on that because using that criterion is a means by which it can close post offices throughout rural Ireland. That needs to be reviewed. In fairness to Mr. Tom Hobson and Mr. Paddy McGuinness who have been asked to review this matter, they both have great empathy with rural areas and building them up and providing for them. The terms of reference of the review are totally flawed and anti-rural. I appeal to the Minister and Minister of State to do something about that because there is no point in letting An Post away with it. It needs to be changed quickly.
I had a tremendous day in County Leitrim where there is fantastic community spirit. Rossinver, a small community in a very rural area, has put in place facilities that are a credit to the people living there. One can feel the community spirit in the area. As the Deputy knows, the community works together. Rossinver faced many challenges but kept going, put a project together and secured funding from various streams. I compliment everyone involved.
The Deputy raised the local improvement scheme. He is right that we did not have a scheme for seven years. While there is a major backlog, the allocations the Department provided in the past two years have been a big help, especially in smaller counties. The Deputy asked about further allocations. I am looking at this issue. It is a scheme I want to support and which has worked well. I would like to see some matching funding from another Department. Members may wish to ask other Departments, perhaps the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, whether it will provide matching funding.
The local authorities charge us extremely high fees for administering the scheme. Perhaps they should consider its social value and instead of taking 13%, 14% or 15% off the top, they should invest the money I give them in roads. Maybe that money should all be used to tackle the problem we have. The Deputy has to give me credit for recommencing the scheme after seven years when it no one funded it. I am glad I did that and I will continue to do so. The Deputy is right that I allocated €10.8 million this year and I am considering what I can do in respect of having further funding. I will make that decision over the coming weeks.
The Deputy spoke about the walks scheme. He has certainly seen what the scheme has done for his area. On the outdoor recreation scheme, the Deputy is correct that I have a further round of funding to allocate for the in-between schemes and bigger schemes. County Leitrim has been given a great lift. Off the top of my head, I remember we provided funding for a walk in Drumshanbo. We also provided €1 million for a scheme from Drumshanbo to Leitrim village and from Leitrim village to Carrick-on-Shannon. The tourism sector tells me that this has given the area a tremendous lift. In Drumshanbo alone, eight new companies were created from that particular investment. The Department allocated €700,000 and subsequently €1 million. Funding for walks along the Beara-Breifne way, which will extend into counties Roscommon and Leitrim, will also be of help. I will discuss with the Deputy the separate question he raised regarding the town and village scheme. The outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme is one of the better schemes we have but it takes a little time to put these schemes together.
On supporting farmers in respect of the walks scheme, some of these schemes would not proceed without the support of farmers and communities. I was in County Leitrim last week, as Deputy Kenny said, where I met a group that is looking for further funding to extend the walks schemes. The group has the farmers on board. It is committed and sees what such a small investment does for the community and the value for money it provides. The area will not attract multinational companies. The best way it can build a community is through enterprises in Drumshanbo such as the food hub and the local drinks company, which are creating lots of jobs. People sometimes overlook the effect some of the legislation they want to bring in will have on jobs in rural Ireland. I know alcohol has knock-on effects but, at the same time, if it is not being made in Drumshanbo, it would be made in Vienna or some other place. The drinks company in Drumshanbo creates many valuable jobs. The abuse of alcohol is another day's work. I support anybody seeking to address that because of the effects alcohol has on families and communities and the costs incurred by hospitals as a result.
The outdoor recreation scheme is a great scheme and it is working well. The Deputy raised the town and village scheme and the pilot scheme. He is correct that the schemes run by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government were the repair and lease and buy and renew schemes. The Department thought these schemes would resolve the problem but the Deputy is right that they did not work. The proof of any scheme is the level of drawdown and there was very little drawdown. The schemes just did not work. For this reason, I reverted to the community in respect of the pilot scheme I have introduced. I have asked the community to investigate.
The Deputy put forward a number of ideas. Boyle is one of the towns that has been selected. We need communities to tell us what they think will resolve their problems. It could be a combination of a number of schemes. People are always talking about grant aid, which is necessary. However, what I need to know first is what are the priorities of communities and what the State can do to support them. My Department and every other Department needs to listen to what communities say. They may say they need the local authorities to use compulsory purchase orders to take over some of these properties. Once that has been done, the communities or local councils should get funding from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government or from other scheme that could be set up to support them.
The town and village scheme has worked very well. It has been a great scheme in cases where it has been used properly. I have seen examples in counties Wicklow, Roscommon, Mayo, Galway and everywhere else. Under that scheme, small amounts of money are used for simple work that lifts the community and the public realm. It makes places look nice so that people want to live in and be proud of them. I will seek further funding from the Department of Finance for further funding for the town and village scheme in the future. The Deputy is correct that the more money put into the scheme, the better. The scheme has been open on a wide basis. It can be used for digital hubs, food hubs, public realms or other areas for which communities want to use the funding. It is a scheme of which I am very fond. I like it because I see the value of it instantly. The walks scheme is the other such scheme.
The Deputy talked about the pilot scheme. I am not putting any pressure on the six towns that have been selected but local people in the communities in question may come back with suggestions the Department has not seen. Local communities know what it happening and how to resolve their problems. If one looks at towns, villages and communities that have done well, for example, Rossinver, which I visited last weekend, one will see that it is all about communities working together and focusing on what they believe they need. What they want is support from the local authorities, this Department and other Departments.
We have to start looking differently at rural Ireland and our towns and villages. As I have said on many occasions, there is no point pretending. In some areas, many small shops were taken over by the multinationals, which are now being overtaken by online shopping. Life is changing and we have to equip for that and seek ways and means of doing things differently in rural Ireland. I would love to see a bit of life restored to some of these towns and villages.
There is a demand and need for housing and rented accommodation.
As for why these other two schemes did not work, I need to see what the local community will say to me. It might come back with ideas for six different solutions. If it does, I will look at piloting a few of the suggestions. If we need to extend the pilot to other towns, I will look at that at a later stage as well.
Deputy Kenny also raised post offices and the LEADER programme. The Deputy is correct that the LEADER is ramping up at last. It is beginning to happen. The projects are now beginning to be approved and it will take some time for the funding to be drawn down.
On the post offices, the Deputy will have an opportunity to raise issues when representatives of An Post appear in a week or two. As many post offices as possible should be kept open.
An Post needs to consider new approaches. The company has been talking about providing banking services for a long time. The company needs to get into that business and other areas.
The first time I met An Post it was not involved in the parcel business. Online shopping is increasing, with €6 billion worth of goods bought online last year. An Post had the infrastructure in place but it took the company a while to realise that was where the business was. Its business turned around because of the parcel business. The management spoke to the unions and started delivering parcels on Saturdays. An Post had to reinvent itself and I hope it does that with its post offices as well.
There are communities and businesses that are prepared to take on the post offices. An Post does not have to give them the full services but it can give them some of the services to keep the post offices alive in some of the areas where they can be kept alive. Approximately 950 post offices will be retained and I believe that number could be increased to 1,000 or more. An Post should look at certain post offices that are quite capable of providing the business and being profitable and I hope it will do so.
We are having an interesting debate about policy but this is more a review of progress to date this year. I read with interest the Minister's opening speech, which we receive the night before meetings. One line jumped out at me and I ask the Minister to clarify it. He stated an extra €20 million had been spent since the beginning of this month on capital. How much of that €20 million was spent on the rural development schemes? Under the big headings, roughly how much - to the nearest €1 million - was spent on LEADER, the town and village scheme and the local improvement schemes, respectively?
The allocation for the rural development scheme is €15.3 million and the Minister indicated that approximately €5.5 million has been spent. Give or take, there is nearly €10 million to be spent in the remaining two months and 16 days of 2018. The Minister reduced the allocation for LEADER from €35 million to €23 million. I am now working on a base of €23 million. Some €15 million has been spent, which means €8 million is available to spend by the end of the year. The allocation for the town and village scheme is €15 million, of which €8.3 million has been spent. On the local improvement scheme, the Minister had to shake the bushes there. I grant that it can be frustrating trying to get local authorities to send in the shagging bills. They whinge about money but when they do work, it is a matter of trying to get money out of them. There is a €10 million allocation, of which €4.8 million has been spent.
The challenge I see is that despite the reallocation of the money into community, which I welcome and which we will discuss under the community heading, expenditure has fallen far short of the allocation under each of the headings. None of them is pushing in there right up to the wall. Is the Minister still confident that he will spend the reallocated €66 million under the rural heading on capital? If I take LEADER on a pro ratabasis, the figure of €23 million will not be reached? In other words, after ten months I should have ten twelfths of the allocation spent. Ten months will have elapsed shortly and not much will be spent from 21 December onwards. One would have the mature liabilities in. I have a simple question. Is the Minister still confident or will he reallocate more money on the underspending subheads? If so, where will it be allocated?
I am bitterly disappointed and I am sure the Minister is tearing his hair out. The allocation for the LIS was made in January and having shaken the bushes, only half of it has been spent nine and a half months later. The best time of the year, summer when one could work until 11 p.m., is gone. We are into dark, wet evenings unsuitable for working on roads, yet only half the money has been spent. Is the Minister still confident he can spend all the money? Will he reallocate unspent funds to areas where they might be spent? On the LIS, what can anybody do to shake up local authorities so that they spend money we give them? Why not refuse to give them any more money until they spend what they have because they do not seem to understand that?
Deputy Ó Cuív asked three questions and I will answer them as best I can. On the spend, I am confident that we will have this funding spent by the end of the year. I may have to reallocate some funding. I am monitoring this, not from week to week but on a day-to-day basis. I will give the Deputy one commitment today. The money will be spent this year.
I am confident, in relation to LEADER which the Deputy raised, that approximately €26 million this year will be drawn down. I will continue to monitor this daily. I will have a few ideas in the next couple of weeks about how to spend this funding.
The Deputy knows well the position regarding local authorities. I will not say anything more because I am fed up saying it. We sit down and make an agreement with them.
The Deputy is quite correct, they were putting pressure on me to put the funding out early in the year. I put the money out early in the year. I could not have put it out any earlier. In respect of LIS, I cannot do any more. They have to do the work. When I gave it late, they complained. They also complained when I gave it earlier. I do not know what I can do. Some of this may have to do with capacity. The local authorities did not have LIS for the past few years. They now know that they have it.
As Deputy Ó Cuív stated, I did get the local authorities to send in a secondary list in respect of LIS. I will consider that in the next few days. I checked with some of the councillors in my county in advance of this meeting to find out if these roads were done. Many of them have been done. The councils are so flush with money they are not in a hurry looking for it. I cannot understand that and I read the local newspapers every week and see councillors complaining that they cannot get enough money and that there is not enough money going in. I am putting money into their pigeonholes and they are not able to draw it down. I will be monitoring this between now and the end of the year. In response to the Deputy's question, I intend to have spent my budget between now and the end of the year.
Deputy Ó Cuív and many others have been here long enough to know that when a new Department is set up from scratch, there is a lot of work involved. We set it up last year in July and worked as a functioning Department, and the number of schemes and the amount of money we delivered last year was a credit to the Secretary General and to the tremendous staff who worked hard in difficult circumstances, some even without offices. I think we did a tremendous job. I will give Deputy Ó Cuív one commitment: this money will be spent. There will be no money left unspent. The Deputy has been asking about the underspend. He must worry at night about the underspend and not sleep. I can understand that because he had a lot of it in the period 2008 to 2010 - his Department had €38 million in 2008, €3 million in 2009 and €34 million in 2010. That was when the country was booming, when everything was going well and when people were working. This Department has done a tremendous job and I have no doubt that I will spend this money. I give that commitment now, even if I have to stay awake at night worrying about it. I will give an undertaking that this money will be spent.
I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Canney. I am delighted he got his promotion and appointment.
What mechanisms does the Minister have to ensure that there is a balanced approach to regional funding? I am from the Waterford area and Dr. Senan Cooke was before the committee recently discussing the area made up of Dunhill, Fenor, Boatstrand and Annestown where funding was provided for social enterprise. The effect of what was done can be seen in that area but there is a need for continuing support. What does the Department do to ensure that development continues in circumstances where money has been spent on a project? The Waterford Greenway runs from Waterford to Dungarvan and has had an amazing impact on that area. What further support can be given to what is a positive development? When traction happens, how can the Department ensure that a project develops and moves forward?
An opportunity has been missed in the Dunmore East area of County Waterford. The latter is a fishing and tourist area. It is quite a distance from the greenway. Once upon a time, the fishing communities were the lifeblood of their areas but there is a lack of support for them now. What might the Minister do to support them?
How does the Minister ensure that all the regions get a fair crack of the whip in order that none is given an advantage over the others? How does his Department work with the others, particularly the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, to ensure that there is a holistic approach to the schemes in place for the region and that the Department of Rural and Community Development is not working in isolation? How does he ensure that there is a holistic approach to the use of taxpayers' money in order to ensure that rural communities can develop in the best way possible?
I also congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, on his appointment and I wish him well. He was one of our colleagues up to a few days ago. Now he is a Minister of State on the other side of the House. We look forward to working with him. I thank the Minister, Deputy Ring, for the great work he has been doing in the past 12 months in what is a very important Department.
A previous speaker indicated that there has been an underspend in respect of LIS. Kerry County Council has spent the money the Minister gave it earlier this year, at the end of last year and early last year. I want the Minister to recognise that because the council has done the work and its second application has been with the Department for over a month. That application includes a request for funding for emergency hardship schemes. Such funding comes out of moneys for LIS. The council was not able to fund that in the first round of LIS. The emergency services cannot get up and down the roads to the homes of people with disabilities. This is one aspect of the application made to the Department. I ask the Minister to the council an opportunity to do the work while the weather is reasonably good. There are over 800 applications for LIS with Kerry County Council. I assure the Minister we will spend the money if he sends it to the council because we have so many roads in a deplorable condition. When I was agitating for the reintroduction of the scheme, I said these people are every bit as entitled to a good road to their doors as the people in Dublin 4.
The Minister understands that. I appeal to him because it is important and they deserve recognition.
The repair-and-lease scheme was a disaster and I had that matter out with the Minister of State, Deputy English, on different occasions. The local authorities could only offer the scheme where there was pressure for social housing. The Minister of State tried to deny that and rebuff me but that was the fact of it. If people applied for the scheme in places such as Kilgarvan, Gneeveguilla or Rathmore, there was no hope in the world for them because there was no pressure in these areas. However, many houses there were falling asunder and into dereliction and yet we did not benefit from the scheme at all. I do not know if there was enough funding or whatever.
We are discussing the rural regeneration scheme and we are all listening very attentively. We have proud towns in my county such as, for example, Cahersiveen, where businesses closed down in the past two weeks. We can spend money to do up the houses in the town or to provide housing but jobs are what will sustain people in their homes. There are schools in the Cahersiveen area this year that have only two youngsters going into the junior infants class. That highlights the seriousness of the situation. In Currow, the post office, a shop and one of the pubs have closed. There is just a shop and a pub left and we do not know if they will remain open. There are so many different places. In Rathmore, Cadbury Ireland gives employment but there are many houses vacant and shops closed along the street. That is the road leading into our county from the manor side to the first town in Kerry.
There are so many places that need jobs to sustain them. I know funding can be provided for houses - and the Minister is doing his best to do that and to regenerate these places - but we need to consider how we are going to create employment. I appeal to the Minister to do that because if we are going to regenerate rural Ireland and keep it afloat, what we need are jobs. I refer to Cahersiveen in particular, which is so far from anywhere else. We need to get jobs down there.
Reference was made to walkways and to farmers. The people of the Iveragh Peninsula are waiting for the greenway from Glenbeigh to Cahersiveen to be put in place. I am of the view that the local authority went down the wrong road. I do not know from where it got its advice. Three and a half years ago it went down the route of making compulsory purchase orders, CPOs. However, the greenway has still not materialised. A number of farmers needed to be dealt with, but not that many. Now that the CPO process is in train, however, more people have their dander up because of the idea that the greenway will be the created by means of using CPOs. I ask the Minister if he could intervene and ensure that this greenway gets going via communication and agreement rather than through the use of CPOs. It is not too late to pull back from the CPO approach and to talk to the landowners involved. After all, they had to pay for the land going back generations and they had to fight hard to hold it. They have a right to be spoken to and that would be the fastest way to achieve this important greenway between Glenbeigh and Cahersiveen. The people of Cahersiveen really need it and the boost it will provide.
Like my colleagues, I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, on his appointment. As others have stated, he sat on this side of the table and he lives in a rural area so he has a good grasp of the challenges which face us. I wish him the best of luck in his new role.
I have a few points to make. The people of Roscommon are delighted that €780,000 was awarded through the town and village renewal scheme this year. That impacted on seven towns and villages across the county. Within that scheme, it is a decent amount of money to make an impact. As we see the economy improving, it is good to see increases in the allocations regarding that impact. It is also good that the Minister anticipates that the scheme will be rolled out further. Does he expect further changes to be made? I refer, in particular, to the economic impact. Last April, the Minister spoke in the Abbey Hotel in Roscommon at the launch of the Beara-Breifne Way. Specifically on the walk scheme - and the Minister is known as a man of his word - he indicated that he hoped to extend it. The allocation of an additional €2 million in budget 2019 in this regard is a positive development. I am involved with a number of community groups regarding the Beara-Breifne Way and it is important that landowners are properly supported. We anticipate that the €2 million to which I refer will have a positive impact within our area. Almost €1 million was allocated to the Beara-Breifne Way. The Minister will be happy to know that work on that is under way in Roscommon.
I also want to mention Boyle. The Minister already referred to the town in the context of the pilot scheme. It is a really good initiative in trying to encourage town centre living. Many of the challenges Boyle faces relate to accommodation. That is particularly the case because of the fabulous tourist amenities such as Lough Key and the King House Historical and Cultural Centre. In the context of trying to create footfall within the town, preliminary work has taken place on scattered accommodation to support tourists or people who want to come into the area to stay overnight in the town centre. I hope that with this money the community will come up with innovative ideas to support that and encourage town centre living.
On the rural regeneration scheme, I understand that decisions will be made in November. There is a major emphasis on economic benefit. How will the applications be prioritised or adjudicated upon? It is positive to see tangible funding being given to local communities. Positive discrimination towards rural towns and villages is what we need in order to encourage balanced regional development, as Senator Grace O'Sullivan indicated. The Minister is working exceptionally hard on our behalf to ensure that there is adequate funding. However, there is always room for more. These schemes are important and will be beneficial. We have seen the benefits already from the town and village renewal scheme, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme and the reintroduction of LIS. Many of the schemes have been beneficial but we need further positive discrimination towards rural and towns and villages.
I thank our guests for their presentations. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Canney - the man to whom I showed the ropes a few years ago - on his appointment and wish him the best of luck.
Many of the schemes introduced by the Minister have been successful. I am not here to criticise him. I hope the Minister of State gets the same disease as the Minister in order that he might make money available. I know that, at times, it is difficult to do this. I have a few suggestions of which I would like the Department to take note. If councils are not fit to spend money on LIS, there are communities in every part of this country with community groups that are able to access money. There are only four or five roads in each municipal district. If the groups to which I refer are unable to carry out work on the two, three, four or five local roads by a certain date, they should be able to hire private contractors, price projects at the proper specs and make applications in order to draw down money, particularly if councils are not considered fit to do the work in question. This would be a way of alleviating problems in respect of accessing funding.
The Department distributes money for the Tidy Towns competition. Great work is being done throughout the country but there is a problem in respect of which the Department might liaise with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Many towns are struggling because someone might be on the scheme for a year but then has to leave and another person will not take up the position. There are towns and villages that do not have the relevant people and the local Tidy Towns groups are now paying individuals keep them in good nick. The groups in question do not have the resources to do that but they are battling on trying to do so to make sure they are awarded good points. There is a need to ensure that if there is no one to replace a person in a village on the scheme, an extension will be provided under the community employment scheme or Tús. I know that more people are working, which is good, but some Tidy Towns groups are really struggling.
I welcome the money provided in respect of the Suck Valley Way, the Beara-Breifne Way and other walkways.
The Minister referred to post offices. His argument that people must use post offices is 100% correct but in most of these areas, people were not allowed to hand them on. People are entitled to retire at 70 or 80. In this instance, the families of postmasters or postmistresses have not been allowed to take on the business. This is the reason why people are being forced into a corner. This point is directed to the Minister of State. The Minister has responsibility for rural affairs, while the Minister for State deals with climate change, etc. Is it possible for him to try to resolve a situation whereby letters are being sent back different communities, including that of the Chairman in County Clare. Nobody is saying that there is a need for a five-day or a seven-day service in small villages. Will the Minister sit down with the head of An Post and discuss this matter. We are seeking to ensure that designated local shops would be allowed to give out pensions, social welfare payments or child benefit once a week, perhaps on a Friday. We are not saying that these shops should do every single thing under the sun. What we are saying is that if the 50, 60 or 100 people in a particular village have to go to another town, then that village will struggle. That is all I am seeking. Nobody is saying that we will offer everything in these areas. If, like someone 60 years ago, I went out today with a horse and a mowing machine, I would not get any work because times have moved on. In business, including An Post, we have to move on and draw people in the door rather than allowing matters to stagnate.
I accept that the position regarding LEADER has been relaxed to an extent bit but would it be possible to work on ensuring that schemes are simplified? Every one of us finds that for some people, it is nearly like looking at the clock every night. They are waiting to see when this or that scheme is coming. Could the Department produce a calendar so that people will know that a certain scheme will commence in May, July or January? These people are volunteers, as the Minister is aware, and are trying to complete forms as best they can. I know the sports capital grant only comes out at a certain time. There is a system in respect of many of the schemes set up by the Minister so that they come out in February or March. Would it be possible to create a link with the schemes run by councils in order that we might provide communities with opportunities? It should not be a case of someone telling me that he or she did not know of a scheme's existence.
Senator Grace O'Sullivan asked a very good question. I will go through a few things. The whole point of setting up the Department related to regional development. That is why the Taoiseach, in particular, and the Government made the decision, which involved trying to rebalance what was happening in Dublin and rural Ireland. Dublin has a problem with capacity, housing and overpopulation, while rural areas face all sorts of difficulties. Rural development was one of the matters to which the Senator referred. This is why we drew up the Action Plan for Rural Development. I chair the group responsible for the latter. We bring in all the different entities, including State agencies and Departments. I also have a second role in the Cabinet regarding regional development. My officials and I must monitor every scheme that comes through. The Senator asked a good question about our working with other Departments and Ministers. My job, particularly in Cabinet, is to ensure that any scheme, development or change is rural-proofed. This is where I must fight rural Ireland's corner, particularly when it comes to balance. This is why we set up the outdoor recreation scheme to which the Senator referred. She spoke about how well the greenway in Waterford has worked. It has been a tremendous success and has lifted the town and the surrounding area. I have seen similar things happen in Leitrim, Mayo and Sligo. The scheme has worked very well in any place where these walks were grant-aided. The Senator asked whether we monitor the schemes we grant aid. We try to support the schemes, particularly social enterprise schemes. Social enterprises receive direct grants in some cases. They are expected to be self sufficient after a number of years. Some of them have worked very well.
The Senator also referred to Dr. Senan Cooke. I had the pleasure of launching Dr. Cooke's book. Senator Coffey asked me to do that. Dr. Cooke has been very passionate about rural Ireland all his life so there was no better man to write the book because he did it from the ground up. Along with Senator Coffey, I was in his place a number of years ago. He is committed the social enterprise aspect of community, as am I. Some of the schemes support social enterprises where we have another problem. They are supposed to be social enterprises. I am carrying out a review of that scheme. We hope that the social enterprises will be able to create jobs, become self-sufficient and not need any support from Government. I have the other problem whereby we have enterprises that do not really take in any revenue but that do a social justice job for us which local communities, the Government or the councils will not do. In respect of funding these community groups and where there is a problem with the minimum wage, there is a hardship fund that I have asked Pobal to examine.
It will write to them directly. I will continue the scheme for the year, but I need to carry out a review of schemes.
We spoke about the rural regeneration scheme. I have a note on was applied for in County Waterford. Waterford County Council has done well during the years in the funding it has received. It has made one application for a shovel ready project under the rural regeneration scheme and four applications in category two for seed funding. That is why the rural regeneration and the town and village schemes were established. We copied the Action Plan for Jobs in providing an action plan for rural Ireland. If there was one thing that worked it was the Action Plan for Jobs. What I like about the action plan for rural development is that I can bring in any State agency. Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice raised issues to do with social welfare and housing. All of the various Departments have representatives who must come in. I chair the group and look at the issues that affect rural Ireland.
The Department's aim with the rural regeneration and the town and village schemes is to have balanced regional development. That is why I met Enterprise Ireland recently and will meet IDA Ireland next week. We must start looking at ways and means. Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta must be able to put in place initiatives to create ways for companies and individuals to invest in rural Ireland. The best way to get them to invest is through the town and village scheme to make nice places in which to live and have community spirit, through the sports capital programme to provide facilities and through the provision of schools and infrastructure because if they are not provided, companies will not come and people will not come to live in rural Ireland.
One thing we have in rural Ireland is a great quality of life. People like living there. They want to live in rural Ireland. They are not looking for the sun, the moon and the stars. What they are looking for is fair play from central government, which is why the Department was established. The schemes are working well and I am happy with them. Of course, I would like to have more money and this year I fought hard with the Minister for Finance for further funding, but, as Senator Maura Hopkins said, as the economy begins to lift, more funding will become available. The rural regeneration scheme will deal with bigger projects, while the town and village scheme, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, the CLÁR programme and other schemes, including the social enterprise scheme, will all help social enterprise in rural Ireland.
Deputy Danny Healy Rae spoke about the local improvement scheme in County Kerry. It was one of his big issues and has always been an issue for him. To be fair, he has always acknowledged that the funding has been well spent. To be fair to it, Kerry County Council is a very good local authority. It is one of those at the top in the LEADER programme. To date, allocations of €7.65 million and €1.659 million have been processed for LEADER projects. The total amount approved for projects is €23.02 million. The total claimed for projects in 2018 amounts to €525,000. Kerry is one of the better counties when it comes to spending. It has applications in the shovel ready category, as well as the second category. It is doing well in that regard. The Deputy spoke about the lease and repair scheme about which I spoke. It did not work. He also spoke about the post office network. I will answer that question later. He also spoke about the works scheme. Funding is in place to provide for a €2 million increase in the allocation for the scheme this year.
Senator Maura Hopkins spoke about the town and village scheme. I agree with her that it is the best scheme for rural Ireland. I met the local authorities because it is called the town and village scheme and I wanted towns and villages, particularly villages, to be given an opportunity. The one good thing about it is that last year every local authority was given an opportunity to make 12 applications. I insisted on projects being spread throughout the country. The funding we put in place is spread throughout the country.
The Senator also spoke about the Beara-Breifne Way, into which we put €1 million, as many people had spoken about it for a long time. We are developing it in on a phased basis and it is going very well. The Senator knows that the scheme has created and will create many jobs and generated tourism in the area, as has happened in County Waterford because of the numbers of people using the greenway and resulting from it has done for small businesses and local communities.
The Senator spoke about Boyle being one of the six towns chosen for a pilot scheme. Off the top of my head, last week it received funding under the town and village scheme. We also gave it €100,000. There is a very active young group in it and people really want to see the town being revitalised. It now has such an opportunity and will come back to the Department. I hope it will give us some ideas about what it would like to see happening in their town. This is also the case in Ballinrobe and other towns, including Callan, County Kilkenny and the town in County Waterford that we picked. They will give us ideas and tell us what they want to do to try to regenerate towns and villages.
More and more people are coming to live in rural Ireland where accommodation is beginning to become a problem. It makes financial and political sense for local authorities, State agencies and the Government to work together to try to put in place a scheme to encourage people to live in rural Ireland. It is an opportunity to deal with the housing crisis. It is not all about grants, but I am sure what will come back in the recommendations from the six towns is that they will require investment from the Government and that we may need pilot schemes. I am prepared to look at and do anything to deal with the problem.
An issue of which I am aware - I know that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is looking at it - is that we need to do something about compulsory purchase orders where a local authority wishes to take over a derelict property. Some of the properties have been left to people who are deceased or who are in the United States or Australia and do not even know that they own them. When I was a member of the town council, the scheme worked well. A property is valued on the day it is taken over and anyone coming back to inherit it has his or her rights. It is terrible to see the dereliction caused where people do not even live in the country and probably who do not even know that they own the property. We need to do something about this issue. That is what the pilot scheme is all about.
In County Roscommon there are applications for two shovel ready projects and two for the other scheme.
Senator Maura Hopkins asked about the assessment criteria. We have set up an advisory board in the Department that will also involve the Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Housing, Planing and Local Government and Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Three independent outside experts will look at the schemes. I will not get involved. They will make recommendations to me. One of the criteria is that I want to see a spread throughout the country. Some counties may submit very good schemes, but I want to see a good spread. The advisory board will conduct the assessment and come back to me with recommendations. I will make the final decision, but the advisory board will have to decide on the projects. It would not be right for me or the Department to do so. The best way to do it is through the advisory board as it is more independent. The one thing I want to see is a spread throughout the country.
Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice asked about spend. He is correct.
This year, under the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, I let LEADER companies apply for funding for smaller schemes to see if they would be able to handle the spend better. I will adjudicate between now and the end of the year to see how they get on. If there were other formats and ways that I could use to give the money to communities, I would use them, but I also have to have the public auditor to make sure everything is above board. The Accounting Officer is sitting to my left and also has to be satisfied that whatever taxpayers' money we spend is spent correctly. It has to be monitored; there have to be checks and balances, as we saw in previous schemes when things went wrong. There were problems with the LEADER programme when many difficulties were encountered in the first round.
The Deputy also talked about the Tidy Towns competition. I am glad that he mentioned it. He was one of the few to mention it. I allocated a capital grant of €1.4 million and simplified the scheme. I made it very simple. It is a "Thank you" for the work Tidy Towns committees do all over the country.
I have raised the issue that was raised by the Deputy related to social protection. I will ask the Secretary General to obtain the information. If I do not have it at the next meeting on the action plan for rural development, I will bring in representatives of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection at the meeting after that. The meeting is to be held tomorrow. I will not have the information tomorrow, but I will have it at the next monthly meeting. I will make sure the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will give us an update. I thought there were going to be changes. The Deputy is correct, as I see in my county, that people are satisfied with the schemes, including the rural social scheme and others. They are great schemes which work well and are good for the community and the country. I am not being disrespectful when I say this, but people are at an age where they probably will not find employment and are happy with the jobs and work they have to do. I will talk to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection about the matter.
We do not thank or appreciate Tidy Towns committees enough for the work they do for local communities. Sometimes people complain about the work they do. I try to encourage and support them because they deserve credit for what they do for towns and villages. They do not really get the recognition they deserve. I see people involved in my town out at 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., cleaning up after others. People come into towns, dump their rubbish and expect others to clean it up. I compliment Tidy Towns committees for their work in that regard.
The LEADER programme is beginning to be ramped up. I want to see the funding spent. I am confident that this year €26 million will be spent on the programme. I would like to see more being spent on it. As it is ramped up, we will put funding in place to ensure people receive the money for which they will apply.
The Deputy talked about post offices. He knows my views on the subject and I know his. I agree with him. When representatives of An Post are here, they cannot take a rigid line. Where there is demand and a need, while it does not have to provide the full range of services, it can provide some. That will keep people happy. An Post has a public obligation to provide a service for the community. Somebody else raised the way it worked out the criteria, of which I would not be overly fond. There would be 950 post offices left. If we could save 1,000 of them instead, we would be doing well. I hope that in the future people will realise that if they want to have a post office, they will have to use it. We looked at post offices handling the car tax renewals. Over 80% of people now do so online and will not change their habits. When people need a passport when going on holidays or a loved one dies, they used to come to us. They also used to do it through the post, but now they can do it online. That service is broken. We have to start looking at new ways and means, as does An Post. It cannot expect the Government to do everything for it. It is a semi-State company and has to start looking at new schemes, ways and means to generate new business. That is what every other businessman in the country does. They look at where they are and where they are going. If every other businessman and business in the country was to stand still, they would close down too. An Post has to start looking at new ways to do business.
I am not usually at the committee, but I have come for the community development aspect of the matter. It is clear from the contributions made so far that a huge amount of much-needed work is being done in rural Ireland. I apologise in advance for being a buzzkill when I bring the discussion back to community development in some of the poorest urban areas. The issue has fallen off the cliff both for the committee and the Department. Even the press release that was issued from the committee included the words "discuss rural spending". I think something has been lost in translation with regard to the brief of the Department of Rural and Community Development. When it was first set up, I was quite excited, having come from the community sector. I was a community development worker for a long time. After years and years, dating back to Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív's time in 2002, I felt the systematic destruction of the community sector and the abolition of community development projects, CDPs, had left it in disarray. It has moved from being a sector focused on social inclusion, addressing poverty and inequality and which played a crucial role during the years in critiquing State policy to being told to desist from campaigning and the closure of 19 of 180 CDPs in 2008, with those remaining being dissolved later. Local workers were taken over by managers who were not local and did not understand the target or approach needed in communities which had been destroyed by poverty and various social issues.
Coming from the community sector, the Department's community development brief covers one of the most important aspects of life in the community sector. It includes everything from addiction to the high rates of suicide and children being taken into care since the family resource structure was affected. In working class communities we have seen a rise in the number of children going into care since the CDPs and family resource centres were practically dismantled. The level of expenditure under the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, is €40 million. SICAP needs to be completely reformed and restructured. There is no longer local autonomy whereby local communities are empowered to be involved in decision-making. It needs to be reinstated. By 2009, it was estimated that up to 41% of funding had been taken out of the community sector, compared to a figure of 7% across all other sectors. Effectively local community development programmes had replaced grassroots community development, which has lost its meaning. The words "community development" are still being used, but the process has become market-driven and about employment activation more than enhancing and empowering communities and building capacity within them to be able to address poverty at grassroots level.
Perhaps it is lost within the wider Department. The rural and regional development brief is understandably large and I understand the attention it needs, but the role of community development has become lost in the championing, not only by the Minister's Department. Politically, in general, there do not seem to be champions for the local community development structure. I have certainly looked in on this committee since it was set up. There was a position for either Senator Grace O'Sullivan or I, but I said I would step back and that she could take it. I have watched it, but I have not seen the community development aspect being considered to address poverty and social exclusion. We need to look at restoring funding to that sector and adopting some targeted approaches.
There will be a launch of a report in a few weeks, which unfortunately I cannot give to the committee now, that deals with the systematic destruction of community development and the impact of that. My request to the witnesses at this point is to let me support them and the Department in refocusing some of those efforts towards community development. Maybe we need to carry out some sort of review or analysis of what has happened in the past ten years within the community sector and the effect that the cuts and the restructuring have had. We can look also at reinstating a significant portion of that funding and be willing to look at the failings of both the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, and of the kind of managerialism that has set in in the community sector where people from outside the community sector have come in with a very business-like model which is being imposed at a local level and is simply not working.
I have come here today to put some of these issues back on the agenda. The communities I work with, like north Clondalkin, for example, would remind a person of the 1960s, such is the lack of investment. The community is completely destroyed. It is a similar situation in Inchicore, Athy, and west Tallaght when one looks at the family resource structure. I have been meeting people in those communities and some of them did not even know that community development was within this Department. I had to tell many of the communities that there was a Minister in place in control of this. There a lack of acknowledgement or distance between them and the community development sector where people view this sector as involving rural development only. Perhaps we should do something to change that perception and put the urban question, as it were, in terms of the poorest communities in urban centres. I will bring those community sectors together and the Minister and his Department could meet us and be brought up to speed with the situation.
I am aware that this destruction started long ago before the Minister came to this Department, so I am not pointing any finger in his direction. That said, decision-making was brought back to the centre of the Department and the State and the amazing work that was happening on the ground was completely disempowered and disenfranchised.
I would look forward to having the opportunity to engage with and support the Minister and his Department in bringing some of these issues to the fore, to helping those communities that are struggling, and to looking at the current structure of SICAP.
I join in the congratulations to Minister of State, Deputy Canney. I ask for an outline of the specific responsibilities he has and I wish him well in the Department. It will be a challenge for however long the Government lasts.
It is up to my boss. It is not up to me personally, unfortunately.
The Minister has abolished the revitalising areas by planning, investment and development, RAPID, programme. Other than Dublin north inner city, what programmes are there specifically to deal with the issues of intense social deprivation in what were the RAPID areas, which were the most deprived areas in the country and which were all urban communities? In reality, despite the talk of booming cities and the challenges in rural Ireland, the most deprived communities in this State, socially, economically, and under quality of life and all other indicators, are exclusively urban communities.
My further question, which the Minister has touched on himself, is on the community services programme. In recent years, before he took over the programme, an increasing divergence has taken place between the grant that was paid for wages and the minimum wage. That has meant that the companies have had to top-up out of their own resources funding to pay the wage bill. That was not the position up to 2014. This is a phenomenon of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. In 2018, every worker has to be subsidised by €2,000. For such programmes as meals on wheels, that is an impossible burden. I accept that some of the companies have good income streams, and the Minister and I know of a number of these. Will the Minister revert back to the payment of the 100% wage grant in the case of those companies that provide vital social services that the State would otherwise have to provide, that have a very marginal income and perhaps charge €5 for a dinner?
I am very pleased to hear that more money is being put into what was the RAPID programme and into community facilities of €8.6 million. Has the Minister mature liabilities for all of that money?
I am also pleased that the Minister is putting more money into libraries. Will he confirm that he has mature liabilities for all of that extra money? Will they will able to spend even more money if the Minister has it left over before the end of the year?
I acknowledge the contribution of Senator Ruane because it is true that community development is an area on which this committee has not focused. We do not have a definition of what that means for us. We sometimes focus too much on rural and do not look at community in terms of urban communities.
I draw the Department's attention to a recent ESRI report on SICAP. One of the points made was that there is a need for a broader conception of community development. A further point made in the report is that one of the weaknesses of the current model is that it is centralised. The community development programme model was focused more on the community, empowering communities and the ground-up community approach as opposed to the top-down method, which may not be beneficial to sustaining communities in the long term.
I clarify a point for the Minister to avoid misunderstanding. On new ideas to spend money, I was talking specifically about the local improvement scheme, LIS, for example, where there is a list of the roads, and a value on them, a council cannot do it by a certain date, and a community is willing to take it on and do it - within reason; not at the 11th hour and 59th minute - providing that it is within the prices and guidelines set out by the council.
I compliment the committee members as I feel as passionately about community as they do. As to allocations, this year alone our Department is spending €133 million on community, which is very important. The Department and I take the SICAP and all of the community programmes very seriously. There is no such thing as rural or urban poverty. It is everywhere. I have a role which I do not view as rural. My job in the community sector is to look at both urban and rural. The SICAP programme, in particular, is one of the programmes announced last year and is a five-year programme.
Some €190 million has been allocated to that programme. A review of the programme was carried out, not by myself or by the Department but by outside experts. The review made 15 recommendations and we accepted them all. We made it more flexible and gave groups more power to deal with problems. One of the recommendations concerned one-to-one services. There was a lot of group work involved in these programmes, but there is a need for one-to-one services where people are applying for jobs or learning to read and write.
I went to Limerick recently and saw the SICAP programme working at its best. It gives a lift to communities and self-respect to people who get a second, or indeed a third, opportunity. They deserve these opportunities because they are in disadvantaged areas. I was in the middle of Dublin city last year with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and I will be there again tomorrow to provide further funding for disadvantaged communities. It is important that we continue with these programmes. The 2018 target is to assess 27,452 individuals and 2,219 community groups. It is important that we support these groups. They are working at the coalface, dealing with communities and with all sorts of problems. I try to support those groups in any way I can. The Deputy is correct. Over the years these programmes were scaled back because of the challenges the country and the economy faced.
I am committed to SICAP. It is one of the flagship programmes of my Department. It is evaluated regularly, and I will be working with communities and with people such as the Deputy. I want to support them in any way I can. I have always said that social enterprises are one thing, but community work involves the targeting of the most disadvantaged sectors in society. The people working on this know what is happening on the ground and what supports are needed. I have made SICAP more flexible to give the people working on these programmes the opportunity to deal with the problems. One of the problems with programmes such as this is that sometimes the rules and regulations that have to be followed are too rigid, and I am offering a bit of leeway on that in response to recommendations made in the report.
The community enhancement programme, including the community facilities programme and the RAPID programme, did not receive big funding, but I was able to deploy some money towards it from savings I had. The community enhancement programme replaces the community facilities and the RAPID programme. I provided the funding to the local community development committees, LCDCs, which comprise elected representatives, community groups, business groups and local councils. Providing the funding at that level will make sure that money is targeted at areas where it is needed. I will ask my Department to monitor this. We are using the Pobal HP deprivation index guidelines to help decide on the allocation of moneys. A value for money review of the RAPID programme was carried out, and I absorbed the findings of that report. I hope that by providing the funding directly to the LCDCs, we can target the areas where funding is most needed. This year the funding is €4.5 million, consisting of €2.5 million from RAPID and €2 million from the community scheme. I also added a further €8 million into it, meaning that total funding this year is more than €12 million. Local authorities approached me and told me that they were having difficulties with the funding I provided. I want the programme to support their needs. It is not all about rural schemes. These community schemes are very important to me.
Deputy Ó Cuív has raised the issue of the community services programme, CSP, and the minimum wage. The CSP review will look at the level of support provided to organisations as well as the need and feasibility of aligning the CSP supports with the minimum wage. Pobal has a hardship fund, and I have asked it to look at every single group throughout the country. Where it finds a need I have asked that funding be provided to these groups. It is an issue I have to face going down the line. If I link these groups to the minimum wage, it will cost another €4 million. We are making a contribution here. It costs €21,000 for a manager, and we pay the staff as well. It was never intended that the Department would provide an employment grant but rather a contribution. The Deputy has made his point and I have made mine. Some of these groups are social enterprises that can easily match the top-up we are providing. I am asking Pobal to look at this issue. Where the groups are able to pay the minimum wage and do not require the top-up, I must provide that funding to other groups that do not have the means to raise funding. I am carrying out a review of that, and hope to have it completed by 2019. It has to be done.
Due to the current regulations, some of these community groups have difficulty surviving. I do not want to see that difficulty happening. I want community groups that are dealing with problems the Government, the councils and the health service are not dealing with. If we did not have these groups doing the work they do, we would have a problem. My review is considering whether two different categories can be created. If any member of this committee has any advice or any submissions in this regard, I would appreciate his or her contribution. I want services maintained and retained in communities where they are needed and where the State is not providing them. I have continued to support funding, and I hope we can, in the next few weeks, top up some of the groups that need more funding.
To answer Deputy Ó Cuív's question on the roles and responsibilities I will have, I have to sit down with the Minister, Deputy Ring, but I will have the same responsibilities that the former Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, had in the Department, which are the areas of rural development and responsibility for the oversight of the work of the Western Development Commission and of the Atlantic economic corridor task force. I will have functions relating to the Department's input into rural broadband, the national planning framework, an overview of funding schemes, including dormant accounts, the scheme to support national organisations, SSNO, and the community and voluntary funding schemes. I will also be involved in the development of the public participation networks, the citizen engagement policy, the forum on philanthropy, and the social innovation fund. I will have responsibility for the Charities Regulatory Authority and the Control of Dogs Act 1986. I do not know if I will have more responsibilities or if the Minister will take any away from me.
The other area of my portfolio, from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, is post offices. I have not met officials or the Secretary General from that Department yet, but I hope to meet them this afternoon to find out my role and responsibilities. I will also meet the Minister, Deputy Bruton. I have learned much about the Department of Rural and Community Development since 8.30 p.m. yesterday to ensure I was prepared for this meeting.
I look with great hope across the table. The Atlantic economic corridor was mentioned. A person can take a train from Limerick and do very well until he or she reaches Athenry, when the train will stop even though there is a railway line in place. If one is driving from Limerick one will find that the motorway stops at Tuam. I look forward to working with both the Minister and the Minister of State on developing the Atlantic economic corridor. I am sure that my colleague will join me in kicking up the tables to ensure that the corridor does not stop at Tuam or Athenry. Progress has been made, but we must push it further. We have to connect Mayo into the national network of decent road and rail services.
With the two Deputies present in the Department, I am very hopeful that we will see progress.
I am going to put my head on the block now and may get it taken off. I will be straight and honest about post offices versus rural broadband. People are migrating online for shopping and social welfare. We all know it. I do an awful lot of business online. I have probably stood in a bank three times in the past 30 years. It is just the way of the world. We do know one thing. If we had ubiquitous, high-quality fibre broadband into every business premises and house in this country, the guts of a million people who live in rural Ireland would be online and using that broadband virtually every day. That is the population of Dublin, give or take. When I see people here in the great city throwing their eyes to heaven because it might cost €250 million or €500 million, I ask if they can show me a train or Luas line in Dublin that will carry a million people a day and that can be built for €500 million.
I am not one of those guys who go around saying rural Ireland is done. The area I live in is much better than it was when I went to live there in the 1970s. We were dependent on manual phones then. If I was asked the one thing we need to make rural Ireland grow, the answer would be high-speed mobile and fixed broadband into every premises, covering every area and road in rural Ireland. Do that, and the people will do the rest.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Ring, and the Minister of State, Deputy Canney. I also acknowledge Deputy Kyne's contribution to this committee and his contribution as a Minister of State, and I wish Deputy Canney well in his role. I thank the officials for the contribution they have given to this committee today, and for the briefing material they made available beforehand. I will defer the meeting of this committee in private session until the next day. Is that agreed? Agreed.