Wednesday, 18 April 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Small and Medium Enterprises Supports
24. To ask the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation her plans to address issues facing small businesses in County Donegal including concerns regarding the retreat of rural services and the lack of Government supports for small businesses outside the remit of Enterprise Ireland and the IDA and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16256/18]
I am taking this question in my capacity as Minister of State with responsibility for small business. My Department and other Government agencies operate a number of programmes and schemes to assist the start-up and expansion of small businesses. My priority as Minister of State is to drive the creation of high-quality and sustainable jobs around all the regions and counties of Ireland, including Donegal.
The local enterprise office, LEO, in Donegal is the first-stop-shop for providing advice and guidance, financial assistance and soft supports such as training and mentoring to anyone wishing to start or grow a business. Funded by my Department, LEO Donegal plays a critical role in supporting micro-enterprises in the start-up and expansion phases.
LEO Donegal has invested significantly in micro and small businesses by way of its core suite of supports since its establishment in 2014. Between 2014 and 2017, LEO Donegal paid out over €1.4 million in grant funding in respect of 121 projects. Clients supported with grant funding have consistently added new jobs with 100 new jobs supported in 2017 and 621 in total over the past four years. During this time, over 5,200 participants attended LEO training courses and 132 participants received mentoring. Furthermore, 211 applicants from the county entered the Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur competition since it was launched in 2014.
I secured an additional €4 million in capital funding for the 31 LEOs for 2017 to fund a range of LEO Brexit supports across the country, including Donegal. This additional funding has been maintained for 2018. These supports are aimed at strengthening the capacity of micro and small businesses to cope better with the changing external environment, especially the impacts arising from Brexit. The supports include grants to assist LEO clients in diversifying their markets, targeted training and mentoring to address Brexit-related challenges and opportunities as well as a Lean for Micro programme to help micro-enterprises to address competitive issues within their businesses by building the capability of their employees to identify problems and improve operations.
In May 2017, my Department with Enterprise Ireland launched the regional enterprise development fund, REDF, with funding of up to €60 million. The first call under this fund concluded last August with results announced on 11 December. Three projects across the north east-north west secured funding under the first call, including Donegal Digital Innovation, which will involve the creation of an innovation ecosystem in Inishowen by delivering a three-year enterprise capacity-building programme based on the peninsula's location factors, high tech skillsets and applied research potential in traditional sectors. The second call for projects under REDF opened for applications on Monday, 16 April.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
The LEOs can also assist businesses in accessing other Government supports, for example, business loans from Microfinance Ireland or trading online vouchers for businesses that want to improve their online sales.
The regional action plan for jobs, launched in the north east-north west in November 2015, is a central pillar of the Government’s ambition to create more jobs in rural areas including Donegal. Under the plan, the aim is to increase employment in the region by 10% to 15% over the period to 2020 resulting in the delivery of 28,000 jobs. A total of 12,000 more people are in employment in the Border region from quarter one of 2015 to quarter two of 2017 representing good progress towards the target of 28,000 jobs by 2020.
Finally, the action plan for rural development takes a whole-of-Government approach to the economic and social development of rural Ireland. The plan contains over 270 actions to be delivered by a range of Departments, State agencies and other bodies. The plan seeks to support sustainable communities, support enterprise and employment, optimise our rural and recreation potential, foster culture and creativity and improve rural connectivity. A key objective of the plan is to support sustainable communities through the enhancement of local services in areas such as rural schools, post offices and convenience shops.
The Minister of State gave an overview of supports. Again, it focuses on export, development and businesses. I am talking about small businesses located in all the rural towns and villages right across Donegal and the whole country. I recently carried out a survey of those businesses to ask them how they felt they were doing. These were small businesses with between one and five employees. I wanted to focus on them because they fall outside the remit of Enterprise Ireland and other bodies. The type of businesses that took part in the survey were coffee shops, hairdressers, furniture shops and newsagents. The results were quite stark. I received over 100 responses that showed that the sector is struggling and that there are barriers facing small businesses across the country across the board. Small businesses are emerging from the recession but the problem they face is the lack of Government policies that actually support them. An overwhelming majority of respondents were not aware of any Government initiative to help improve local enterprises and are concerned about the impact of rural depopulation and the closure of services for which the Government has direct responsibility through closing post offices and Garda stations. This all has a knock-on effect on small businesses and their confidence.
There is the question of rates, but also networking and the ability of those businesses to work together. That is something the Government could actually do that would make a real difference.
Donegal has so much to offer in respect of small to medium enterprises. I visited Donegal myself on a number of occasions, both in a personal capacity on holiday and also visiting the local enterprise offices, LEOs. The LEO in Letterkenny is doing really good work.
I say to Deputy Pringle that the branding of Donegal is really good internationally. It is recognised as the coolest place on earth to visit, which is really good. We need to continue to develop Donegal, particularly those small enterprises in the tourist capacity. The Deputy should look at the branding the LEOs have done in respect of The Food Coast, which was an LEO initiative. The Food Coast is a fantastic initiative to build on the success of the Wild Atlantic Way. There is so much that can happen along the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal with its fantastic Atlantic coastline, small resorts and villages and wonderful beaches. I have seen the shops myself, the cafes the Deputy talked about, small enterprises, all growing as a result of that fantastic initiative, the Wild Atlantic Way.
My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Griffin, will be in Donegal next Monday to open Fanad lighthouse officially, which has been a tremendous success. I visited it myself last year in Donegal. I have seen the success of Loop Head lighthouse in my own constituency, which brings 30,000 or 40,000 visitors a year and is growing all the time. The same can be done in Donegal. We have seen a huge drop in unemployment in Donegal in recent times - 43% over the last four years. There is real potential to grow micro-enterprise in Donegal and to work with the LEOs. The LEOs play a fantastic role in that. There is Project Ireland 2040 as well, the road network and the collaboration that is going to exist between Strabane, Derry and Donegal. All these are initiatives that will build Donegal.
I wish the Government would stop citing the fall in unemployment figures, for its own sake. The reason the unemployment figures have fallen is emigration. That is why I am asking this question. It is not because of anything the Government has done to create jobs. Some 8,000 people have left the county and that why there is a decline in unemployment figures. That is what we are getting at.
From the survey I have done, 75% of small businesses rely on local trade. They do not rely on tourism trade. Local trade is what we need to develop and foster to ensure they stay there. It is the thing the Government needs to concentrate on to ensure that local businesses can survive, which is the only way to ensure the county survives. If there are not people there, all the tourism factors the Government wants will not make any difference. It is the people whom tourists come to meet and see and that is what we have to protect.
Only last week we had GTeic and the whole digital hub concept which we are developing in Donegal - a fantastic initiative. The future of work is changing and we have got to adapt to that change, particularly in respect of digital technology. The local enterprise offices are putting in place many initiatives. They created 100 jobs net last year. Some of those jobs are in the food sector, which is extremely important. We talked about that branding earlier in respect of The Food Coast. Whether it is small cottage industries, all of this is extremely important. It is also important to look at what is happening in Donegal currently in the branding it is getting. It is a really positive message out there. I say to the Deputy that he should sell his county in a positive way and not be complaining about it all the time. Our policies are working. There were 21,000 people unemployed in Donegal a few years ago and the figure is now down to 12,000.
That is falling all the time and will continue to fall with the policies we are putting into place. The Deputy should work with the LEOs, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland. I assure him that the Government will continue to ensure that the infrastructure is put into place in Donegal because Donegal deserves that.