Wednesday, 10 April 2019
Rural and Community Development: Statements
I thank the House for the opportunity this evening to speak about the excellent work being done by my Department and some of our plans to further our mission to promote rural and community development and support vibrant, inclusive and sustainable communities throughout Ireland. I also look forward to hearing the views and observations of colleagues this evening, which may further inform our work.
This July marks two years since the establishment of the Department of Rural and Community Development and I acknowledge the commitment shown by many officials who have worked through many challenges associated with setting up a new Department. My Department has delivered for communities and rural areas through a wide range of programmes and projects. I am determined that we will continue this progress in 2019 and that the increased budget allocation of €291 million, an increase of 26% for the Department for this year, is put to the best use and continues to support communities across the country. In addition to the direct support delivered by my Department, it plays a vital role with regard to overall supports for rural Ireland. The progress report on the Action Plan for Rural Development demonstrated clearly what has been achieved to assist rural Ireland to continue to play a significant part in the economic and social fabric of this country. Our sense of community across the country is what makes this country what it is. The establishment of my Department was an important step in strengthening Government support for this area. Since then, Project Ireland 2040 has built further on that support. It recognises the economic and social importance of rural Ireland and the critical role of our communities in ensuring a good quality of life for all.
I share the views on Deputies on all sides of this House that our rural towns and villages are facing challenges brought about by economic and social change, and by potential shocks from issues such as Brexit. I also share the desire to help to address those challenges. It is vital that we continue to build resilient rural communities and that we make our towns and villages vibrant places to live and work.
Strengthening rural economies and our communities is a core objective of Project Ireland 2040, with the provision of €1 billion to the rural regeneration and development fund ensuring that the funding is there to deliver on that objective in the coming years. The fund aims to support ambitious projects that can drive the economic and social development of rural towns and villages and their surrounding areas. The first call for applications was in July 2018 and 280 applications were received. Following the assessment process, some 84 successful projects have been allocated €86 million in funding. This will be leveraged with a further €31 million in matched funding, representing a total of €117 million in capital investment across rural Ireland.
The types of projects funded are targeted at sectors where they can have the greatest economic and social impact. For example, €13.6 million will be invested in a national mountain bike project that will develop recreational facilities in four locations across seven counties. In addition, €5.5 million will be invested in Athenry in County Galway to assist in developing the town into a major food and tourism centre. Investments such as these will transform many rural towns, villages and outlying areas by delivering projects in sectors such as tourism, agriculture, food and recreation. I expect a second call for applications under the rural regeneration scheme fund to be launched shortly.
While the rural regeneration and development fund is very important for the further development of rural Ireland, I also remain focused on ensuring the continued success of our existing rural schemes and programmes. It is important that funding schemes and programmes provide a coherent approach to supporting rural Ireland and our communities. As well as focusing on large-scale projects through the rural regeneration scheme, we will continue to support smaller projects and groups throughout Ireland. Such projects can have a significant impact for local areas and communities. The funding provided through the rural regeneration and development fund supplements the existing schemes funded through the Department.
The town and village 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 now 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. I expect the allocation of €15 million in 2019 to support more than 200 new town and village renewal projects.
My Department has introduced a pilot scheme, the town centre living initiative, in six towns across the country. This scheme will see engagement with communities and local businesses to identify practical solutions to increase the number of people living in rural towns. I expect to receive reports on the pilot in the first half of the year. It is hoped that the learning from these pilot schemes may provide an indication as to what might work well for similar towns on a wider scale.
Other schemes include the local improvement scheme, LIS, which supports investment in non-public roads to enable people to access their homes and farms. The €10 million allocation for 2019 will bring the amount invested in LIS to more than €47 million since I reintroduced the scheme in September 2017.
The CLÁR programme has provided funding of more than €25 million to more than 1,200 small-scale infrastructure projects in rural areas that have experienced significant levels of depopulation since I reintroduced the scheme in 2016. Under the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, a total of €41 million has been approved for almost 600 blueways, greenways, trails and other projects that will benefit visitors and locals alike in rural areas. The LEADER programme has approved almost 1,800 local development projects for funding in excess of €61 million towards economic development and job creation, social inclusion and the protection of the rural environment. A further 355 projects are at various stages of the approval process, seeking funding of approximately €22 million. This marks a substantial increase in activity under the programme. I am also delighted that the Department has been able to provide supports to Tidy Towns committees and agricultural shows around the country. These organisations and events make a significant contribution to their communities.
The Department also provides a range of community development programmes which support individuals and the community and voluntary sector. The community services programme, CSP, provides financial support to community organisations to deliver local services through a social enterprise model. The €46 million allocation will ensure that the CSP will continue to benefit more than 400 organisations and 1,900 positions nationwide in 2019. The social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, provides funding to help individuals and communities 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 finding employment, Roma and Travellers.
A new five-year SICAP was launched in 2018 and ensures a greater focus on more intensive individual support and flexibility to respond to the needs of targeted groups at local level. In year one, the programme supported 31,967 disadvantaged individuals on a one-to-one basis and 2,558 community groups. A total of €43 million was allocated in 2019 to assist more than 2,200 organisations and 27,000 individuals. In addition, more than €12 million in funding will be provided in 2019 for national organisations in the community and voluntary sector and in supports for volunteering to support these organisations in the vital work they do in our communities. A sum of €4.5 million will be provided for the community enhancement programme and €7.2 million for library development. Libraries are fantastic resources in communities and the strategy document, Our Public Libraries 2022, which was published by the Department last year, outlines the increased role that I hope libraries can play as civic spaces and places where everybody can access technology and other services.
In 2019, the Department is providing €6.5 million towards the regeneration of the Dublin north-east inner city. The investment will benefit not only the local community but the city as a whole. Isolation in our communities is of increasing concern and through these and other measures the Department aims to aid social inclusion in our communities. Funding supported more than 300 men's sheds around the country in 2018. The very successful seniors alert scheme has sustained a large increase in demand to improve the inclusion of more than 20,000 vulnerable older people for personal monitored alarms. This enables them to continue to live securely in their homes with confidence, independence and peace of mind. The Big Hello, the national community weekend, will take place on the May bank holiday weekend and is a celebration of the great spirit of community and neighbourliness that exists in our cities, towns and villages. It has been undertaken in the context of many people not knowing their neighbours and some being isolated as a result. We want to see neighbours do what they do best in many places by getting together locally for a celebration that is open and inclusive for all.
There are major opportunities to support rural Ireland and communities. The Department is running a series of rural opportunity events, which seek to highlight the opportunities available to those in rural communities. I attended an event this morning in County Clare. It was inspiring to see some of the best examples of how Government supports have been used to foster enterprise, tourism, quality of life and culture and promote the Irish language. The response to these events has been overwhelmingly positive to date. My hope is that individuals and communities will be encouraged to take their own ideas and projects forward. I am proud of the progress made by the Department in 2018 in the rural and community development areas and I am confident that 2019 will see a continuation of this work.
I acknowledge the Minister's passion for his work. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, which had a full Cabinet Minister, was abolished in 2011 and reinstated in 2017. My party established the Department a long time ago.
The Minister spoke about rural development, the challenges facing rural Ireland and what we need to do. Many of the traditions in rural Ireland have been chipped away at and challenged for a long time. If we are to be realistic about a debate on rural Ireland, we need to make sure young people stay in rural communities. Since the introduction of free education 50 years ago, we have had a fantastic education system in urban and rural communities. In rural areas in particular there are some fantastic schools. There are small schools and schools where kids who have challenges fit in better, develop better and a lead a fulfilled life.
We start with young people. One of the first challenges they face is securing planning permission. Deputies often speak about this issue. We have to be realistic and accept there are challenges with planning permission and try to ensure that young people in rural areas can get planning permission. We have to challenge the system on this because we have seen the overload caused by the drive urbanisation. Planners tell us this is way to do it but we have followed that for many decades to our detriment. It has not been the right way to do it. We should ensure that our towns and villages are encouraged to be places where young people can live.
I know broadband is not in the remit of this Department but if we are to be realistic about ensuring that young people set up home and start families in rural areas and these communities remain viable, we must tackle broadband head on. I raised this as a Topical Issue Matter last night and the answer I got did not encourage me to believe there will be a broadband plan in the near future. We have to accept that this presents a serious challenge. Many of the small companies employing between 50 and 100 people are at the top of their game in respect of their products. To take three small companies around Kanturk, Avonmore Electric, which we visited last year, Ashgrove and O'Flynn Medical have been acknowledged by their peers as being way out there. They are exporting across the Continent and beyond. These companies point out that broadband, or its equivalent, costs them €800 a month, whereas in Dublin and other places it costs only €50. That is a competitive challenge that has to be faced. Right across rural Ireland, companies are competing in world markets and they are as good as companies in other places but broadband and planning issues make the challenge of keeping them in rural communities even bigger.
These companies are dotted across the country. The Minister knows as well as I do that if they were to apply for planning permission today, the planners would require them to move into the centre of the town or to a settlement. This is the type of nonsense that is going on. These companies must be encouraged. I know Enterprise Ireland is working with many of them but it must work better with them and ensure they are not just located in Dublin or on the east coast. Rural communities can provide employees that are as good, if not better, than anywhere else in the world.
The Minister spoke briefly about LEADER funding. Measured by any yardstick, the decisions taken five years ago on LEADER funding have slowed down the amount of money provided for community projects. Everyone associated with LEADER companies, including board members and chief executives, have come up with brilliant ideas to encourage initiative in rural communities. No money should be kept back from meeting their needs, whether in business, social life or leisure.
Kanturk, Millstreet, Charleville and Newmarket have been market towns for generations. They have served their rural hinterlands and should continue to do so. In some of the town centres there is much dereliction and many buildings that are not being used. From a layman's point of view, there are a whole pile of buildings that are not being used in towns and villages. The shortage of housing is a challenge for all of us. It does not only affect major urban centres. Something must be done in this regard and not only a pilot project. The Minister may not admit it but the town renewal scheme introduced some 20 years ago gave people an incentive to develop properties in town centres. Something needs to be done to try to encourage people. Dereliction is not just a feature of the four towns I mentioned but also affects villages where anyone driving through will see boarded up properties. We should introduce measures to encourage temporary letting and help people to get on the property ladder. There are challenges that have to be addressed.
While agriculture does not fall within the remit of the Minister, it is an issue for rural Ireland and presents major challenges. Thankfully, the dairy industry is doing well and people who made the decision to expand in recent years are able to sustain the debt they accrued. However, many farmers in the beef sector and with more marginal land are giving up and walking away from agriculture. This will lead to land abandonment, which is as much an issue on less marginal land as it is on marginal land.
Trees are taking over from people in some areas. In Rockchapel, 60% of the land in the parish has been planted. That is not acceptable. We want people and vibrant communities, rather than having trees everywhere. Young people will live in these communities. The greater Duhallow region, which I know well, mirrors many rural communities across the country. If we give young people jobs and provide broadband services that enable them to work at home two or three days per week and avoid commuting, they will live in rural communities. I challenge environmentalists on all of the nonsense we hear about once-off houses. The people who were granted planning permission in rural areas in the past ten, 15 or 20 years are adding to their communities. They are involved in many voluntary and community activities, including GAA clubs, which are the backbone of communities. We have to address that issue as well. I stress again the need to address broadband, LEADER funding, agriculture and dereliction in town centres to encourage people to live in rural Ireland. We must accept that rural areas can deliver services and quality of life that are as good as elsewhere.
If all the young people in rural communities leave, we will have an issue with care of the elderly in generations to come. The intergenerational issue is fiercely important. This will lead to estates in cities and towns being of one particular generation. I thank the Minister for the opportunity. I am only really opening up and I could talk for hours.
I also acknowledge the Minister's clear commitment to rural Ireland and the enthusiasm he has shown in running his Department. The small, rural parish I live in has a church and a pub. There was a post office but it closed a couple of months ago. There is a football field and a three-teacher school which, unfortunately, will soon become a two-teacher school. This is emblematic of many of the parishes around me. The next parish, Gortletteragh, is pretty much the same, as is the parish of Drumreilly down the road. Where there is no town, there is no focal point.
I concur with Deputy Michael Moynihan. People in high offices somewhere are telling people in rural Ireland that we should not build houses and we should all move into towns. It is as if they come from outer space because they do not understand that Ireland is made up of dispersed rural communities. That is what we have had for generations and we intend to keep it, regardless of what these people may think.
The biggest issue is jobs and people in rural areas being able to find employment and stay in their own area. To be able to build a house in their own area is also vital and rural planning is a big issue in many parts of the country. It is a major issue in County Leitrim. Jobs and enabling people to work in their local area are key. The advantage of rural areas is that people do not expect the kinds of salaries they would need if they lived in one of the cities, certainly Dublin. The place that is least developed has the most potential. That underlies all of this.
Broadband is a serious problem in many areas. Eir has produced a map showing purple areas that signify towns where it will deliver broadband. The lines between the various towns on the Eir map run along roads. I can them running along the telegraph poles and a person who looks out a window at the broadband cable and applies to Eir to have broadband provided in his or her home will be refused and told they do not live in one of the areas marked in purple. Something needs to be done about that. Many people can see the broadband fibre optic cable from their homes, yet they are being refused a connection.
The issue of rural housing is also a serious problem. Many of our small towns and villages have major dereliction and many houses that could be developed. As I told the Minister previously, a new scheme is needed, not a Mickey Mouse one like the previous scheme under which applicants received funding to rent out a property. Those schemes do not work. We need a scheme that has the potential to release capital. The Government must show it has confidence in communities by giving them a scheme under which they would be able to leverage additional funding to build and complete a house. That would make a major difference for many people in rural areas.
Tourism was mentioned, an area that offers major potential in many rural areas. In fairness to the Minister, he mentioned cycle ways, greenways and other initiatives, all of which are vital. However, it is about having tourist attractions that are big enough to attract visitors. People need to have a trail from one point to another to be able to spend one week or two weeks in a region and do not visit for only one day, have a look around and go home again. Facilities are needed, particularly for activity based tourism. Some work is being done on that but much more could be done, including through social enterprise and communities coming together.
The problem with LEADER funding has been caused by the changes made to the programme.
I am certainly not blaming the Minister but those changes were negative. They had a negative impact on rural Ireland and that needs to be said. The more that can be done to push that back, give communities more say and give the people on the ground who are making decisions about their own lives more say in what and how they can spend that money, the better. The Minister mentioned the local improvement, LIS, schemes. That fund was very welcome. There is also a whole lot of small rural culs-de-sac with numbers on them that are not private lanes and they also have a problem in getting funding. There was a community involvement scheme in the past and we need to see more money being put into the likes of that so that it can be done again.
An awful lot of the stuff that happens in small rural areas is done through community employment, CE, schemes, Tús schemes and all of those. While it is not the direct responsibility of the Minister, there needs to be more places on those schemes and less stringent rules around them. If someone is over a certain age he or she can only stay for one or two years. I have people coming to me who are in their early sixties and are not going to get a job anywhere else. They have been brought into JobPath to fill out forms and do CVs to look for jobs that do not exist. Somebody somewhere needs to cop on that the place for those people, the place they want to work and want to be, is back on a CE or Tús scheme. There are also issues about having them properly funded, as well as the issue of ensuring that supervisors get their full entitlements and their proper pension entitlements in the future, which is denied to them up to now. That is a very sore issue for a lot of rural communities because they know that these people are the engines of their rural community and they are being badly treated. That needs to be acknowledged and sorted out.
There is a need to make rural areas places where people do not just want to come and live but where they can have opportunity again. Opportunity is what is missing. We must put the capital and the investment in so that people can see the State believes in them. All of us as we go on in life want our children to do a little bit better than we did. Most people in the part of the country I come from want that as well, but they do not see their children doing better than they did where they live now. They see them going away somewhere else to do better. We need to create a society that allows them to succeed where they live themselves.
The issue of education is very important. Most of our children, particularly those of us from rural Ireland, go to college, do well and succeed, but there are no jobs for graduates back in the rural areas. Jobs for graduates is the key thing. There is no point in bringing in jobs that are on the lower end of the scale when our young people are attaining such high degrees and doing so well and have such ambition. We need to have ambition not just for our children but for the place where we live. To do that will require not just the Minister's Department but all Departments to work together. That is the missing bit.
I acknowledge again that the Minister is a man who wants to get the job done. I was talking recently to a person who told me he had worked with a company that wanted to come to Ireland and the man introduced the company to the IDA. The IDA wanted them to go to Dublin only this particular man got them out of Dublin and out to the region. If he had not had the stubbornness to make that happen, it is Dublin they would be in. That is a problem. Part of it is that as good as this city is, housing is too expensive, rents are too expensive and it is chock-a-block with traffic. There are so many things that need to change in this city. The opportunity is outside of it, yet we continue to put more and more pressure on it.
We believe that the regions can work. I think the Minister believes that as well. He needs to talk to all his colleagues because there is somewhere a vacancy which needs to be filled. People do not understand the opportunity that exists in rural Ireland. More and more people would work remotely, would work from home, would work in hubs, and would love to see small businesses grow, develop and evolve. If we have proper fibre-optic broadband in rural Ireland, people could be at the centre of commerce no matter where they were. That is understood yet it is denied to us. One of the big problems we have, which goes way back, is that Eircom was sold off and we do not have control over that any more. We need a Government that takes charge again, that does not continue to put it out there and say the market will look after it. Unfortunately, when it comes to places that are underdeveloped, the markets let them go further downhill. We need an emphasis that ensures that we develop rural Ireland and that we develop all of it. Rural Ireland is not just the place at the back of the hill. It is also the towns and villages, and some of them are quite big towns. People who live in them might think they are urban but the truth is that most of the economy that is generated around even our larger towns is generated by people who live in the rural areas because agriculture is such a big part of our rural economy.
I commend the Minister on the work he is doing. So much more needs to be done by Government. In the most successful things we have had in this country down the years, if we look at ESB, Bord na Móna, Coillte, any of those things, the State went in and took charge and actually delivered. Later on when they were successful, the State sold them off. We do not need to see that happening again.
I acknowledge at the outset that the Minister certainly has his heart in the right place in respect of rural regeneration and revitalisation. He is intimately familiar with the rural issues and problems that arise for rural and local people. The local elections will soon be upon us and as we know, all politics are local. We are talking about rural and community development, but Ireland remains one of the most centralised states in Europe with the lowest number of local municipalities per population in Europe. Our local authorities have fewer powers and almost no real financial autonomy. We rank last in the EU on local government autonomy We only spend 8% through local authorities, compared to the EU average of 23% and compared to much greater levels of local control over public spending in the Nordic countries. Simply put, too much power is centralised in the capital and not enough power resides with local councils to be the engine of development in rural Ireland. We can talk about rural development schemes all we like but if we do not give local government in rural Ireland more power, it will never develop to its full potential.
Rural towns and villages are at the heart of rural Ireland. They provide jobs, places to socialise and a range of public and private services. We need strong towns and villages to drive economic development in rural Ireland. The Labour Party’s Bill on the restoration of town councils would give real power and autonomy back to towns around the country. By strengthening local democracy in at least 80 towns, it would ensure councils have a singular focus on the development and well-being of their area, including the wider rural catchment area. Under the Bill town councils would also serve as rating authorities.
Small businesses in rural towns have been crippled by the higher cost of county level commercial rates, with businesses closing and employment being ripped from those communities. Two or three jobs in a rural village are equivalent to 100 jobs in a large town. I know something about this. Rates for a small shop we have in our own village in Baile na Carraige quadrupled. It was already a shop that is subsidised and its rates quadrupled. It is time that town councils should be given the power to set and reduce the rates bills for SMEs as they did in the past, which would help promote the return of busy and vibrant streets in rural Ireland. There has to be a significant reduction in the rates bill for small shops in small rural areas where population levels are not greater than 600. That is the only way. A few jobs in those areas are absolutely critical for the maintenance of the local teams, be they football, soccer, cricket or rugby, for the maintenance of the shops, churches and schools. Those jobs are critical. It is also critical to ensure that rural people can get planning permission in rural areas. I have always been an advocate of that. An Taisce even wrote a letter to the paper condemning me one time but I still stand with rural people.
There is also a need for extra money for the community services programme, which supports 400 businesses, with half of these jobs in rural areas. Much could be done with just €5 million added to that scheme. Another constraint of growth for SMEs in rural Ireland is poor Internet access, as my colleagues have mentioned. I am told the Internet turned 30 recently, but few would know it in rural Ireland because their Internet, like the Government’s broadband, is moving at a snail’s pace. We would ensure connectivity in both broadband and mobile phone coverage by creating new digital hubs in regional centres - the one down in Cork is a great example - and prioritising the roll-out of the national broadband plan, especially for small and medium businesses, which are the drivers of employment in the economy. There are areas of north and central Westmeath such as Ballymore and Streamstown which are hugely deficient in terms of broadband provision. It is impacting on their ability to create jobs there.
Pubs up and down the country are also closing their doors, which is ripping the heart out of rural Ireland. I am a Pioneer but nevertheless I see their importance, for example for people meeting to play cards.
There are no community facilities in many rural areas. People of all ages meet up to play cards, or visit the local pub and chat. The opportunity for that type of activity is fast receding. People cannot just pop down to the pub for a few pints and take the bus home, as they can in the cities. Publicans and patrons struggle to get taxis to serve rural areas, which is understandable from a purely commercial point of view. With petrol costs, the fares may simply not be viable from the drivers.
In 2013, the Labour Party introduced the rural hackney scheme to serve isolated rural villages. Since then no concrete action has been taken. I am aware that a pilot scheme is in place, promoted by the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Griffin. Resources will be required to expand that scheme. A simplified and reinforced version of the rural hackney scheme would provide subsidies for operators in isolated rural areas and ensure tenders and start-up grants where no service currently exists. Insurance premiums are another price pressure for drivers, so a revised scheme should promote pooled group insurance to reduce the costs. The State should step in and ensure that vehicles are properly taxed so that people can be taken to and from those areas.
The closure of 159 post offices is another example of rural Ireland being left behind. Every single one of those closures represents not only job losses but the loss of an aspect of community life. However, it is true that many people close those facilities themselves when they are not being used. People are also helping to close rural shops by not using them. It is okay using Lidl and Aldi and other shops, but then protesting when rural shops close when using those big shops contributes to the closures. People better wake up and contribute to the vitality and sustainability of those shops. By closing post offices, attached shops become unviable, and when the shops close, the community is diminished as people lose places to meet and socialise.
There is a need for a review of the long-term and holistic impacts of policies on rural life, not the current short-term focus on cost savings. We need a cost-benefit analysis and evaluation of those policies. On the particular case of post offices, the Labour Party previously proposed a mobile postal service for rural villages. By covering the areas that four or five post offices used to serve, it could be an economically viable service while ensuring that rural villages are not cut off. A properly resourced mobile service could serve places that have not had a post office for years.
Old age dependency is rising at a faster rate in rural Ireland than in urban areas. This has increased the demand for healthcare services and the workload for our rural GPs, who themselves are getting older. At the same time it has become more and more difficult to attract younger doctors to country practices. As older practitioners continue to retire, large areas of the country are at risk of being left without an adequate GP service. Supports for GPs have been cut, and that has to stop. This vicious cycle cannot continue. We would introduce a regional quota and scholarship scheme to help recruit and successfully retain young doctors in rural Ireland. We would also promote the continued development of primary care centres in rural towns. These centres have additional medical staff and can provide enhanced services, but they also take the pressure off individual GPs as multiple doctors can operate in the same larger centre and share the workload of evening and weekend work. With our ageing population, there is a need for more old age specialised care, including nurse-led services to help people manage their medication or monitor their conditions, and we propose emphasising old age care in primary care centres to meet this growing need.
Our farmers are also getting older. More than half of them are aged over 55. Working alone can lead to serious risks for farmers, with 14 farmers aged over 65 killed in farm accidents in 2017. At the same time, the number of people farming under the age of 35 has fallen, from 8,200 to 7,100. Without generational renewal, this places the long-term viability of many small Irish farms at risk. We would maintain funding for farm safety measures under the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, beyond the 2020 deadline, with earmarked funding for young farmers. The early retirement scheme, which operated up until 2008-09, should also be reintroduced. This would not only provide older farmers with a more secure pension in their old age but would also promote increased pathways for younger farmers. Older farmers have also been the target of thugs who target isolated homes before speeding away. In 2015, we piloted a closed-circuit television, CCTV, scheme in Dunmore, County Laois, to begin combatting rural crime and to increase road safety. No progress has been made since, despite a continuous surge in rural crime. The roll-out of CCTV in rural areas has been continuously delayed due to the Minister’s failure to clarify the issue relating to data management. This Government needs to cop on and take some responsibility and stop blaming local authorities. Labour would legislate to roll-out a national, streamlined programme of CCTV installations on motorways and other blackspots to deter rural crime and promote road safety.
Illegal dumping is another crime at epidemic levels in rural Ireland, with farmers often suffering from fly-tipping on their land. The Labour Party would create a new community warden role, with the power to issue fines, whose responsibilities would include monitoring illegal dumping and identifying those responsible.
No debate can be complete these days without a mention of Brexit. A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for the agrifood sector, which is the largest indigenous sector and one of the most significant employers in rural communities. The Labour Party argues that the EU state aid limits should be relaxed, and that the EU's European globalisation adjustment fund should be made available to support the agrifood sector in the case of a no-deal or soft Brexit. In the immediate term, farmers are still suffering from the sterling exchange rate and the fall in commodity prices. We need clear mechanisms to support farmers through this period of crisis. Labour is committed to a new round of the agriculture cash flow support loan scheme to provide low-cost finance to farmers. We must also establish a farm income diversification task force to help farmers develop alternative ways of generating incomes from their land, with supports to achieve this, including from the CAP. A number of my colleagues in the Labour Party are from rural constituencies, like myself.
Transport is important in rural areas to combat rural isolation. There is a railway station at Killucan which is on the Dublin-Sligo line. It has been closed since 1963 after operating for 115 years. Reopening it would cost €3.5 million, mostly due to the need to install the modern dual platforms required. Trains have to stop there every day as it stands. Its reopening would be of major assistance to many local communities, the citizens of which face one and a half hour journeys each way to get to work. It would make a major contribution to carbon reduction and help the environment. Some 10,000 people live within 5 km of the station. The population has quadrupled in this area in the past number of years. Up to 50% of funding could be available from the rural regeneration fund and the Border, midland and western, BMW, funding. We should be able to access that funding. Rural transport is important, and rural people are treated like Cinderella in that regard. I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to the need to provide grant aid for transport in rural areas.
I regret that we are only making statements on rural development. I would prefer it if we were considering the schemes the Government has rolled out, deciding on the action plans for every six months and considering how we are going to comply with them. I acknowledge, as other speakers have, the passion and honesty of the Minister. However, there is a lack of an overall integrated plan and a sense of urgency. As the Minister said, our towns and villages are at the heart of our rural communities and should be places in which people can live and raise their families in high-quality environments. I could not disagree with him. I represent Galway west and south Mayo, encompassing both a city and rural areas. Inisbofin and the Aran Islands, Connemara with all its variation from Clifden to the Irish speaking area, right over to Kilmaine and Shrule are all in my constituency, and I have witnessed decimation of those rural areas. I acknowledge the positive schemes the Minister has put in place.
Tomorrow I will attend the Committee on Public Accounts. I read the agenda, and a sentence jumped out at me, which said that from a governance and planning perspective, good policies start with good data. Good data are the lifeblood of decision-making and the basis for accountability. That is what is missing here. We either have the data and do not act on it or we do not have the data. We have the data for islands.
A review was carried out in April 2017, illustrating my point that there is no sense of urgency. It was a very good review, involving full consultation with islanders all over the country, but it was not published until pressure was put on the Department by my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, and myself. It was finally published at the end of last year. Within that report there are 11 major findings and 71 specific recommendations. One of the recommendations is that any actions taken by the Government should be island-proofed and rural-proofed. That was included in the programme for Government but it has never been acted on. We had a very good review but there was no sense of urgency to implement it, and it had to be extracted from the Department. I acknowledge, as Deputy Martin Kenny said, that this is not just a problem with the Minister's Department but rather applies across the Departments. The islanders came forward and said to the Department of Health that action was needed. This Government has no policy for islands whatsoever. It did not act on this report.
More than 2,846 of them are residing on the islands. We have a number of islands but not all of them are inhabited. Eighteen are singled out because they have no bridge or land connection.
The report found that we had failed in the existing healthcare services. It expressed concern over the lack of contingency and forward planning. Among the recommendations, it suggested that Government policy should be island-proofed, and that a national forum be convened and tasked with implementing the recommendations of the report. It makes practical suggestions that the Health Service Executive should review its primary care facilities on the islands and prioritise its capital plans to include purpose-built premises. All Health Service Executive premises should be fit for purpose. In my area, Inishbofin has been crying out for a health centre for a long time. We have asked repeated parliamentary questions about that and at this stage I almost despair. It has a health centre that is not fit for purpose and yet we want the islanders to live there. A primary care centre is the most basic necessity. The same applies on the Aran Islands.
That is just one example. If the Government were serious about rural development it would proof all its actions to ensure they did not have a detrimental effect. The closure of post offices is a case in point and Galway was particularly affected. I do not hold with the argument that has been made that people have caused the post offices to close; it was a Government decision. In Indreabhán, tá siad le ceangal ansin. Tá na daoine feargach go bhfuil an post office dúnta. They are very cross. They supported the retention of the post office in Indreabhán; they appealed the decision and were not successful. That is just one example. In Galway alone, 18 post offices - the highest number in the country - were closed under that scheme. There was no proper independent appeal system and we could identify no criteria to indicate it was done properly. I know the Minister agrees with what I have said about post offices which are at the heart of the community, but one after another they have closed.
I talked to the Minister earlier in the week about the pilot scheme to encourage residential occupancy in town and village centres, which is a very good scheme. I praised it. The Minister and his officials picked out six towns, which I welcome. However, we are missing the criteria the Minister used to pick those six towns as opposed to six other towns. I accept that he cannot pick every town, but we need an open and accountable way.
What jumped out at me were the Gaeltacht areas. We know that they are in serious difficulty with laghdú leanúnach ó thaobh daonra de. An tseachtain seo, san Irish Times, luadh siad léacht a thug an tOllamh Ó Giollagáin i mBéal Feirste ag cur síos arís ar chomh leochaileach is atá an teanga. The Irish Timesquotes a speech Professor Ó Giollagáin gave in Belfast. He appeared before the Comhchoiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus na nOileán. He pointed out the significant population decline in Gaeltacht areas and how we have reached a tipping point. We are at seven on a UN scale and if we reach ten, the Irish language will be gone other than for decorative purposes.
I have a particular interest and passion in the Irish language which is a lifelong learning. While the pilot scheme to encourage residential occupancy in town and village centres is very good, there is no recognition of the urgency of doing something like that in Gaeltacht areas. I would like to go into it in more detail but I cannot because of time limits. I appeal to the Department to be ag obair as lámh a chéile leis an Roinn Cultúir, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta to look at the Gaeltacht areas. When the analysis from the pilot scheme is published the Minister should provide the criteria on a factual and scientific basis so that we can see that he is committed.
On Friday a conference will take place on Inis Meáin with participants from all the islands. Every year we go there and we hear the same questions and problems coming up. Without their voluntary work and without the work for which they are not paid very well, there would be no life for rural Ireland and islanders. I think the Minister would appreciate that. That is not a sustainable way to proceed. We need a Government policy that realises the value of keeping rural areas vibrant. Carrowroe in the heart of the Gaeltacht has no hotel. Carna could do with being developed. The same is true on the other side of the county in Kilmaine and Shrule. When we stood for election in 2016 we promised that we would highlight what was happening in rural areas. I am from Galway and I welcome the development of Galway but it must be done in a sustainable way and certainly not at the expense of Kilmaine, Shrule and Carna.
I had the privilege to work in a different capacity in Ballinasloe years ago. That town, which is outside my constituency, has a harbour and a railway station. Why is the Government not picking that town to develop? Why would it allow that town to go under when it is on the railway line to Galway and people could sustainably travel into the city?
There are issues with broadband and rural transport. With the absence of connection, we are forcing people into towns and forcing them into cars. Everybody has admitted that Galway city is at breaking point with traffic. We need to stop encouraging people coming into larger towns and make it sustainable for them to live in smaller towns and villages.
I am happy to speak on this important issue. Like others I compliment and congratulate the Minister. I know where his heart is on this issue. I know he was robust when he was in opposition and I know he was glad to get the portfolio he has. He is doing his best with it. I want him to be honest with us.
I have one ceist before I start. I hope he got some treatment from his local vet for the dog at home that is always scratching. The dog probably has mange. The Minister could use DDT and other things on him if he is not in a healthy state. I would not like to keep him scratching all the time like the Minister said one day in the Dáil. The Minister should bring him to the vet or else bring him to Knock to get him blessed.
I start by acknowledging some of the positive outcomes for rural development that have happened recently. I warmly welcome the announcement that ten community-based enterprises in County Tipperary are set to receive grants totalling €682,000 under the community services programme, CSP, which has been a wonderful programme for many a decade. I salute the manager of CDA in Cahir, Helen, who retired recently. She did a great job. I was absolutely delighted that the magnificent work being done by these Tipperary enterprises has been acknowledged and that further support is now being given. They did not get that support by accident and had to make great efforts with an application process and have everything put forward on paper and a good plan and indeed a vision to keep their communities going. They then went through all the hoops and got through. I wish Nellie Williams, the acting chair who is sitting in for Helen, well.
Among those receiving grant support is Cahir Developments Association Company which is set to receive €43,232. Money could not be better spent. It does great work in those communities. It provides employment opportunities with training facilities to upskill for other work.
John Delaney visited Cahir Park AFC recently. Members of that club asked me to compliment him on the support he gave it and other clubs in Tipperary. It is easy to kick a man when he is down; I will not get involved in it but we must praise the bridges we go over. Cahir Park AFC will receive €92,399, while the Millennium Family Resource Centre in east Tipperary has been granted €72,266. Sr. Patricia and her team there are splendid. They work on a wide range of services that are expanding all the time to the benefit of the more vulnerable and people who have been left behind by the State, the HSE and other development agencies that are not doing it.
Other recipients include the Slieveardagh Rural Development Limited which received €40,000. Tipperary Midwest Radio Co-Operative Society Limited received €92,000 and Tipperary Technology Park Company received €72,000. I have fought with the Minister week in, week out to look after Tipperary town and that goes some way because that community radio station does tremendous work.
This kind of support is very welcome, especially given that the CSP is designed to support community companies and co-operatives to deliver local social, economic and environmental services that tackle disadvantage.
We must tackle disadvantage any time we get the opportunity.
We need far more of this kind of grant distribution for projects in rural Ireland to address the historical legacy of severe under-investment by this and previous Governments. The funding that is now being delivered is only a catch-up with respect to the massive cuts to rural Ireland in recent years. The Minister might not have been present at the talks on the formation of a Government but Deputies Michael Collins, Michael Healy-Rae and I and our Rural Independents Group fought very hard to have all legislation rural-proofed. The Government committed to doing that but, sadly, it is not doing that. We can see that with Thurles post office, which is a viable post office in a town that has been hammered since the beet factory and Erin Foods closed. There was no bypass for the town and there are many other problems but it had a good post office. The people have an affinity to it and there are good staff working in it as well. We have the 2020 programme and €8 million is being spent on a square, which is famed in song and story. Bunaíodh an Cumann Lúthchleas Gael ansin. The post office is being taken out of the town and being moved to a shopping centre to suit big business. It is the interests of big business again against the daoine beaga and the siopaí beaga. The ratepayers and taxpayers who need to be supported should be supported. Ní neart go cur le chéile. It is daft. We have a Minister, Deputy Bruton, who, unlike the Minister present, will not meet anybody. He is like the high priest. It is not his problem. He is a 99% shareholder on behalf of the taxpayers of the country but he does not want to meet anyone. He says it is a commercial decision of An Post. That is bunkum and baloney. The Government is in charge, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is in charge and a wrong decision is wrong regardless of where it happens. He must wake up to that fact and stand with the people in Thurles who want their post office to remain in the town.
As I said, the funding being delivered is only a catch-up. For instance, in terms of cuts to LEADER funding, the total Local Government Fund allocation for all councils in Tipperary suffered a reduction of €6.8 million across all councils in the county as recently as four years ago. That was when we had councils before they were attacked by Big Phil the destroyer and abolished, which unfortunately was supported by the Minister. The LEADER funding for rural communities throughout the country has been dramatically cut for the period 2014 to 2020. The Minister's spin machine might say otherwise but he will know that is right. The funding in question has been cut by 43%, which means that towns and villages in rural areas will lose services relating to childcare, rural transport and supports for start-up businesses. The Minister and his colleagues backed the Minister, Deputy Ross, and his punitive legislation to destroy rural Ireland and the lifestyles of rural people. The rest of our colleagues sat on their hands and let them pass it. The Minister, Deputy Ross, could not do the damage himself, so the Minister and his colleagues helped him. Bhí siad ag cabhrú leis gach lá. The Members on my right agreed with him. Now they are all giving out it now that people cannot go out anywhere. They are locked in their homes. The funding for the rural link service has been increasingly cut. An amount of €376 million was allocated under the programme for the period 2007-2013 but under the 2014 programme it was shown that for the period 2014-2020, the allocation is only €220 million. That is a cut of more than €150 million.
On a separate issue, and I respect this does not come directly under his Department, but indirectly it affects rural Ireland, I refer to the Brexit loan scheme. As of Friday, 22 February, a total of 462 eligibility applications have been received for this €300 million scheme, according to Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Of the 462 eligibility applications received, some 413 have been approved, with ten ineligible. The total number of loans progressed to sanction at bank level is 81, with a total value of €17.3 million, 13 of which relate to food businesses with a value of €4.2 million. Everything is strangled in bureaucracy, red tape and officialdom. We cannot breathe with it. Small businesses cannot survive with the burden of it. What is frightening is the way in which it speaks to the operation and delivery of these kinds of schemes. There is great fanfare and big budgets but the payment rates do not match approval levels. Perhaps the Minister might comment on any blockages he has identified in terms of what it is that delays access to funds or grants in his Department.
I also want to raise rural crime. As the Minister will be aware, this is a pressing issue. The Rural Independent Group's motion on rural crime was passed by this House. All of us who live and work in rural communities are only too aware of the concern that continues to exist about what in many respects is an becoming an increasing problem. While we accept that some very productive efforts have been made such as the introduction of Operation Thor, we remain deeply troubled at the lack of co-ordination in tackling the issue.
Last year, when the ICSA was before the Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development, it referenced a number of reports it had published on agricultural crime in conjunction with Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT. The reports were authored by Dr. Kathleen Moore Walsh and Louise Walsh of WIT. The reports were based on sample surveys of 861 farmers across Ireland as well as householders and they make for stark reading. The first report outlined the following figures: of 861 respondents, 66% had experienced some form of crime which impacted them on their farms and 41% of respondents had been the victim of a crime more than once. The second report quantified that the average value of the theft on farms and rural households was €1,815 and that incidents of vandalism and criminal damage cost farmers and other householders an average of €360. That is not right or fair. Those people are entitled to live their lives with some degree of security and safety. Crime does not get reported to insurance companies. A total of incidents of theft and 348 incidents of vandalism, criminal damage or trespass were not reported to the insurance companies. The third report, however, showed that farmers were also reluctant to report crime to the Garda. That is very worrying because we do not have enough gardaí. We do not have enough in Tipperary, which is one of the worst counties in the country. A total of 45% of respondents did not report incidents of agricultural crime to the Garda. The reasons, according to the ICSA and the authors of the study, can be summarised as a sense of hopelessness that anything could be done. Imagine people living in rural Ireland believing that. The Minister should know they are out in west Mayo as well where I visit the odd time. In fact, I am going to Castlebar this weekend to support my daughter in a novelty act in Scór and the Newcastle rinceoirí dancers as well. We might see him there in the Travellers Friend. He might drop in to say hello but the Minister knows what is happening before our eyes. Rural Ireland is being stifled-----
I will inquire about the Minister. He need not worry. I will be checking all those six towns he was talking about, na sé bailte. Cá bhfuil na bailte sin? Are they all in Mayo? I hope not. I know the one in Doon will be, That is why I have called for the creation of an interdepartmental rural crime task force to deal with the crime that is going on which is causing people to live in fear. People's health is affected if they are living in fear and it is not acceptable. Mar a dúirt an tAire, is tosach maith é sin. There is a lot of work to do. Rural proofing of all legislation must happen. It is not happening and the Minister has to ensure it happens.
The Irish proverb - ar scáth a cheile a mhaireann na daoine - people live in each others shadows, was certainly true of rural communities in the past. We saw the importance of meitheal, neighbours looking out for each other, with a deep sense of who they were, where they wanted to be and with a vision to better one another's quality of life. However, despite all the modern technological advances, whether they be in transport or communications, in our busy modern world the shadow that is growing darker is rural remoteness from central services. If I had one ask, it would be to address the issue of no-speed broadband. Some 500,000 households are waiting on services. Broadband was planned to be rolled out ten years ago. The national broadband plan, NBP, was amended in 2012 but still half a million homes are waiting for the service. In addition, there is poor mobile phone coverage in my community, particularly in remote areas such as Cooley Peninsula, which causes major problems and impacts on people's daily business with such intermittent coverage. Along the Border region, there is the issue of call dropout, especially if one is lives in a coastal region or is business that involves crossing the Border.
Curtailment and the axing of post office services, bank facilities, health services, GP services and Garda presence have been the order of the day. We in this House need to commit to no further stripping or depletion of our rural communities.
Rural isolation with the decline in pubs and other facilities have created a remoteness and additional mental health problems and loneliness. The massive imbalance in investment in economic growth and the growth concentration in the greater Dublin area and urban centres has meant that many rural areas in Ireland are on a much lower rung of that economic development ladder. While my region has benefitted greatly from job announcements, the fact that 50% of IDA Ireland site visits are still in the greater Dublin area is worrying. I want to see particularly in my region more support for the promotion of the M1 corridor, highlighting this region's attractiveness in its proximity to three airports, rail services and seas ports and the fact that we are an equidistance between Belfast and Dublin city.
As others have mentioned, it is essential that no curtailment occurs in community employment schemes, Tús and the rural social scheme. In fact, they should be enhanced to ensure that where little work opportunity exists, the skills and opportunities in our rural communities are enhanced and the people get the opportunity to avail of these schemes which are often the largest employer in rural communities. The contributions that are given to the Tidy Towns, clubs and organisations have been recognised but they need to be further recognised. In fact, with regard to the issue of disability in all our communities, particularly rural communities, people need to be located close to where they can get gainful employment and recognition. Furthermore, there is the whole issue of people in their late 50s who, having probably given themselves a hard time, need to go into pre-retirement mode and to give their skills at a slower pace to their communities. One instance of this are the men's sheds, which are a prime example of self-help and which need to be further expanded.
We have many excellent schemes. While I laud the Minister for those he has produced, the process is often far too cumbersome for small businesses, self-help groups and others, who find it too difficult to negotiate the schemes. We have already highlighted the underspend in the LEADER programme. In my own community only 19% of the money available has been spent, which equates to approximately €1 million of the €6 million available. That is testimony to the fact people find it difficult, so we need to map out a simpler way for people to access this funding.
While I do not want to refer to the whole issue of reducing rates in small towns and villages to encourage re-enhancement of those places, I could go on about vacant dwelling houses, which I have often spoken of, and equally the need to be more proactive in regard to rural one-off housing. We could look at the issue of providing planning permission for eco-friendly buildings. We know of the decline in farm incomes and the issue of rural crime, which has been mentioned. The Government action plan for rural development is the fourth rural plan in 33 months. While these reports are all well and good, we need real action on the ground, with proper long-term vision and planning to halt growing depopulation.
The communities of rural Ireland continue to struggle with the disparity of the two-tier recovery which has been presided over by successive Fine Gael-led Governments during the past eight years. Rural Ireland delivered a very clear message to Fine Gael following the 2016 general election as the people stated in no uncertain terms that the so-called recovery was not being felt in the regions. The people of rural Ireland face a litany of problems in their daily lives, with stripped-down services, bank closures, post office closures, Garda station closures and the ever-present threat of rural crime. We are simply not in the same ballpark as the cities when it comes to service provision, infrastructure and basic supports.
At a recent event in Carlow, in which Vodafone and SIRO were launching their latest gigabit hub as part of an initiative to roll out remote working hubs in the south east, data was revealed which showed that 22,000 commuters leave Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford a day to travel to work in Dublin in their cars, on buses and on trains. This is an important statistic. We can be certain this is a common trend in many other counties that are within an hour or two of Dublin. I have two points to make. The first is the need for additional capacity on our rail and bus services which accommodate commuters in their daily trip to and from the capital. We also need to ensure there are adequate broadband services on these methods of travel to allow our commuters the opportunity make their commute more productive, be it getting ahead of the day's emails or researching a presentation they may have to make later that day, and so on. Second, I took a drive through Edenderry, County Offaly, recently for the first time in years and I was very encouraged to see something of a rejuvenated town centre. Previously boarded-up shop fronts and abandoned buildings were now bustling new businesses, such as food outlets and small niche shops and businesses. This is due to the fact people are working in Dublin and brining something back to the area. We are in the midst of a rental and housing crisis and I believe people who find themselves priced out of the Dublin house market are flocking to our so-called commuter towns and villages. Again, this reinforces the need for additional capacity on our rail and bus services to be addressed, but it also represents an opportunity for commuter towns in rural Ireland to attract more people, increase population and boost their local economies. It is something the Government should seek to capitalise upon.
Of course, it would be better if we had fewer people commuting to Dublin from rural areas for work but that is not the current reality. We do not have equal employment opportunities in our regional towns and villages for young working parents and families who, in turn, are forced to spend two, three or four additional hours a day away from their young children, travelling to and from work. Infrastructure is the key factor. We will never revitalise our rural towns and villages unless they have an equal platform of broadband and connectivity services which they can rely upon. We cannot encourage a person to set up or expand a business in his or her locality and create jobs when competitors in Dublin or Cork are streets ahead simply because they can avail of decent broadband and phone signal. I hear this on a regular basis from people who want to live in my parish. Some of them came to me lately and asked me what is the speed of broadband there. They are working in Dublin but could do their work from my parish, but because the broadband speed is not good enough, they cannot build. It is very important to rural Ireland that we get broadband rolled out as soon as possible.
A recent parliamentary question response from the Minister, Deputy Ring, revealed that in Carlow alone, which is not a huge county in terms of surface area, there are 36 mobile phone blackspots. We have to facilitate enterprise and entrepreneurship in our rural towns and villages because this is what creates jobs and stimulates local economies. People employing, working and spending in their locality is what develops a region. Broadband is the key. No matter what way we spin it, the national broadband plan has been an unmitigated disaster. Over 500,000 rural households and businesses will still have to wait until 2023 at the earliest for State intervention to receive moderate speed broadband, over ten years on from when the national broadband plan was first launched in 2012.
Rural SMEs are also being crippled by excessive commercial rates and unpayable premiums for business insurance. The Government has taken a snail’s pace approach to these issues, in particular by commissioning report after report and setting up various working groups which are nothing more than toothless tigers. It is time for rates to be looked at again as many people are being crippled by them. Rates should be based not alone on the square meterage but on turnover and ability to pay. The rates system is outdated and the Government should look at it. If our party comes into government in the next couple of years, we will look at rates again and have a better and fairer system for SMEs to keep them going.
I sat here and listened to some of the debate on rural Ireland, and I am not surprised by the comments of some Members of the Opposition. When we look at our Independent colleagues in the House, their stock in trade is to come out with lines that are not technically true around rural Ireland and to continue to talk rural Ireland down. They say rural Ireland is dying and the people are leaving in their droves, which is inherently untrue. However, they do not let the truth get in the way of a good story. To my mind, I do not see too many Independent Deputies who genuinely want to see an improvement. They thrive on trying to talk down rural Ireland, and there are not too many exceptions to that.
I was struck by the comments of Deputy Micheál Martin at his Ard-Fheis, where he talked about a community services guarantee. We have not heard anything about it since and I am not sure what it involved. I think the general principle is that if Fianna Fáil was in power, it would guarantee services, irrespective of whether anyone uses them or not. That is not much of a way for us to go. If we had that process back at the time of the milk churn, we would have never moved on to the milk lorry or the pasteurisation machine. If we had it at the time of the fax machine, we would never have moved on to email, and so on. What we need to do is change the narrative. We need to discuss what it is that people feel they are lacking in rural Ireland.
Let us talk about the facts. We have more people living in the rural Ireland than we have ever had since the time of the Famine. What is it that they want in regard to services? I will give some examples. Two of my nearest post offices in the villages of Moone and Narraghmore closed in recent times, as the Ceann Comhairle will be well aware. Many people contacted me and expressed their concern about this. They told me the post offices were the focal point of the community, the spot where they meet their neighbours and where they find out what is happening in their community. Nobody asked me where they would buy a stamp because these people are not sending letters in the same way anymore and they are not buying stamps. Let us talk about the fact people are feeling a sense of loss but let us not guarantee a post office service if nobody is using the post office in the area. There is a reason the next generation of postmasters did not take over those post offices.
They did not offer an income because people were not using the post office service in the same way. Community development associations have come together in Narramore and Moone. A remarkably positive cafe has been developed in Moone. Local people volunteer in the cafe and a not-for-profit community shop. It is thriving and has had to extend its hours. The people who volunteer there, predominantly retired people, get such a kick out of it and are looking to open for more days because they enjoy it so much. I was delighted to have the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Griffin, there recently. I would love the Minister to come down to see it as well, because it is an example of communities taking on these challenges. That community has not even had the opportunity to apply for the town and village renewal scheme yet. Those projects have been accomplished through some local fundraising and the local property tax. This is where links with local councillors and local authorities and the proper use of local property tax, which is local people's money spent locally, can be beneficial.
Up the road in Narramore, an €80,000 town and village renewal grant will be used to develop the old hardware shop into a market, community shop and cafe area. This is again a local community that is not sitting back and feeling sorry for itself but proactively going about its business with the assistance of the State and the local authority through the area's local taxes. That is the direction we need to go. We need to empower local authorities to bring themselves on, and that is how we do it.
Rural planning is an area about which the Ceann Comhairle is particularly passionate. We have challenges in Kildare regarding one-off housing. We share the frustration with how Kildare County Council addressed it. At the same time, I deal with many constituents who do not necessarily need to live on the family holding but are looking for a one-off rural house because they want to live close to their family network and community. These people come to me around the time they are starting families. They want their kids to go to the same local primary school they went to and to have the same opportunities to play for the local GAA or soccer club. They want the support of local family members. As I have learned myself in recent years, when kids come along being close to granny and grandad and aunts and uncles is important. Objective 18b of the national planning framework, the development of serviced sites, is a key component of that. Some people will need to live on the family holding. Our national policy and county development plan supports that, as it should. Serviced sites are important for those who do not need to do so but want to live in and sustain those rural communities. We need local authorities to take a proactive approach to this, and services like Irish Water play an important role. That is a key component to maintaining the numbers in our schools and the fabric of those rural communities. Not everybody needs to live in those areas, but a lot of people will be looking to build there because of the free sites. If we can locate affordable serviced sites within the towns, rural nodes or villages it will address a lot of those challenges. It will give people another option beyond living on the family holding.
I have been a passionate advocate of Local Link and what can be offered through rural transport. As party chairman, I proposed the extension of evening and weekend routes on behalf of Fine Gael. While that has been very successful and I hope that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, will extend it in the coming weeks, I was trying to show the potential of our rural transport network. Rural buses offer massive flexibility, whether they operate in a linear route like we have in south Kildare or through appointed collection routes. Moreover, the flexibility offered by rural taxis, hackneys, Uber and the Minister of State's lift scheme should come under the umbrella of Local Link. We should link our Local Link services to our local authorities much more closely. In Athy, our local councillors have allocated some of the local property tax money towards bus stops for those areas.
I will also address rural crime. We will hit the target Garda strength of 15,000 by the end of next year, which is important. We are currently at 14,000. As we increase Garda strength we will have better support in securing our rural communities. In Kildare, there are a lot of issues regarding the ease with which criminals who are not from our area can access the area or get away easily, particularly with the motorway network of the M7 and M9. CCTV systems have massive potential. Having worked through the bureaucracy and red tape of the earlier stages, we have now moved to a new phase. Community CCTV on our motorway network junctions is a key component of that and an obvious way to help secure our communities in conjunction with local policing committees and local authorities. Everything I propose is linked to our local authorities and empowering them to support local communities even more.
As a mixed-enterprise farmer and a member, along with Deputy Neville, of the Joint Committee on Climate Action, I was delighted that we were able to rectify some of the aspersions cast on the Citizens' Assembly report on climate action, particularly in the area of agriculture. Agriculture has significant potential and a positive role to play in developing carbon sinks and the sequestration of carbon. During the recession, Deputy Michael Noonan's budget speeches in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 had such a focus on the agriculture sector. The Government recognised the potential of the agriculture sector to lift our country out of recession. The agricultural sector and community were not found wanting in meeting that challenge, and I have no doubt that they will not be found wanting as we address climate change in a significant way. In turn, this will help to sustain and develop our communities, as can be seen in the roll-out of the community energy schemes through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI.
Tourism is another area that has experienced benefits and contributed to the increase in employment. It was another area that was examined during the recession. The Minister played a key role in his previous portfolio. Through Government initiatives like the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East, tourism has helped to drive employment in those key areas. That is why we have seen such an increase in employment in all regions.
Regarding health, so much investment has gone into primary care centres. The latest one to be delivered in south Kildare is in Athy. It was great to have the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, there recently to lay a block on an €11 million investment that will not just benefit the town of Athy but all of south Kildare. I hope to see KDOC offer a clinic there so that people all across south Kildare do not have to travel to Naas for the services and supports that will be available. This will help to take the pressure off our acute hospital system and locate our health services in the community, where they should be.
That summarises a couple of areas that have come to my mind in the short time I have had to speak. Rural Ireland is alive and well. Rural Ireland has more people living in it now than it has had since the Famine, but they are living their lives differently. We need to have a fair, honest and reasonable debate in this House about how best to support individuals and communities in rural Ireland in living the life they want. We should try not to deal in lazy narratives or simply try to protect everything. People are inherently not fond of change. When it comes, it brings challenges because people change their behaviour. We will serve those last houses that have not got rural broadband. We will do it with an ambitious and significant investment in rural Ireland. Let there be a warning however, and let us be honest with people. If residents get high-speed broadband to their houses, that will give them the capacity to have Tesco deliver to their doorsteps. It will give them access to post office services, banking services and all the online shops. They are the services that will be lost from town centres if we do not use and support them. People need to be aware that they should use their local services. If they do not, they will lose them and it will be hard to get them back. We need to have a conversation about supporting our local small businesses and communities and encouraging people to use those services, but to do so in the way that they want.
I live in rural Ireland. I love rural Ireland. It is a way of life that I was born into and grew up in. I have witnessed a significant decline in opportunities in rural Ireland, a total change in the environment compared to 20, 30 or 40 years ago. An awful lot of it is down to the organisation of our people. If someone needs a job they have to go to where the jobs are. The biggest problem in rural Ireland is a lack of meaningful jobs. Government policies have always been driven by the need for everything to be bigger and better. I refer to the dairy co-operatives and how the service they offered to rural Ireland changed with public limited company, PLC, structure. Profit, profit, profit is preferred to sustainable communities.
I was involved in the fishing sector for a good part of my life. Two dozen boats practically own a national quota. That is wrong. That is driven by Government policies. The farming community is continuously in decline. The family farm, which was a large, sustainable part of our communities, has been reduced by well over 60% in the past 15 or 20 years. If someone wants to survive and prosper in rural Ireland, he or she must have more land, more cattle, a bigger dairy quota and a bigger quota for everything.
Deputy Heydon stated the population in rural areas is increasing. If that is the case I must be from outside rural Ireland. I have visited coastal communities from west Cork right up to Donegal. Probably the best example I can give to illustrate my point is from south Kerry. I refer to Valentia Island, Waterville, Cahirsiveen and all along that part of the coastline. They were once traditionally strong areas for the GAA but they are no longer capable of fielding a football team. The Valentia Young Islanders team has a great tradition. The great Mick O’Connell came from there and provided a great example. The team has players aged 46 and 48 in order to field 15 players. Along with other clubs it made a request to the county board to play 17 year olds in order to field a team but they are not allowed. Now, teams are being amalgamated. That is an indication of the pressure on rural communities.
The consequence of not having sustainable jobs and incomes is that young people leave. They go to Australia, England and America to seek out employment. They also go to Dublin. Many tradespeople are working in Dublin and Cork but they are not working in the areas they come from. Again, that is because there are no sustainable jobs that allow them to live and work in their communities. When that is the case, communities do not have spending power and the consequence of that is that small shops and businesses close. The latest phenomenon is the total decline in public houses. Much blame has been laid and much capital was made here about breathalysers and suchlike, but it is about much more than that. It is about being able to afford to go out and socialise in one’s community and people do not have sustainable jobs and incomes.
Transport is another significant issue. There is no public transport in most rural areas. The recent Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill has had an effect on learner drivers. Young people from the age of 17 who have a learner licence cannot get to work. They might have borrowed money for a car and paid colossal insurance of €3,000 or €4,000 and they might work for €350 a week and try to pay it back from that. In order to get to work they have to get their mother or father to accompany them. That is an absolute disaster. They might only have to drive 15 or 20 miles and there is no public transport. Their father or mother might be otherwise engaged and not in a position to get them to work. That is a major problem. Rural areas are turning into holiday areas for people who have holiday homes there for a couple of months of the year, for example in June, July and August. That brings some money into the economy. Until such time as we can provide real jobs in rural areas then that will continue to be the case.
I was rapporteur for a committee in a previous Dáil and we produced a paper on how to sustain rural Ireland. The Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, report followed that. The commission was chaired by Pat Spillane. It is a good report with many good recommendations but it is just sitting there and nothing has been done from it nor from the committee’s report in which I was involved.
The question is how we turn things around. I appreciate the money being invested by the Minister, Deputy Ring. I read his speech which I was not present to hear. I appreciate that efforts are being made to put money into rural areas but it is only patching the situation. There is no point in saying otherwise. Unless we get real jobs for young people so that they are prepared to stay and to live in, work in and be part of their communities then all we are doing is patching over things. I accept there is goodwill involved but that is not sustainable in the long term.
Another major issue, which I expect the Minister’s community has come across as well, is difficulty getting planning for people on their own farms. People on small family farms try to get planning for their son or daughter so they can live there but they are coming under considerable pressure. In some cases, one can do it as there is a provision in some county development plans that all things being equal they will look favourably on applications from someone who has a tie to the community and is from the community who wants to build on his or her father’s or mother’s land. However, it is difficult to get the applications over the line.
Every single Department should rural proof its policies no matter what legislation is enacted. Consideration should be given to rural proofing any measures coming through this House from any Department in order to sustain rural areas. Rural Ireland as I knew it and probably as the Minister and other Members knew it has changed. It is not for the better.
Areas are becoming more barren due to the ageing and declining population in rural communities and the fact that no sustainable jobs are locating there. The Government and the Dáil as a whole, including the Opposition parties, must come up with policies that will reverse that. We must work together to bring that about. My party is very committed to that aim. Deputy Pearse Doherty, the spokesperson on finance, is from a coastal community, as am I, Senator Mac Lochlainn and others. We are very well acquainted with the situation. We tried to get the Island Fisheries (Heritage Licence) Bill enacted to help offshore islands but it is just sitting there. The Bill was passed through this House but it is not going anywhere. It is being blocked by Government policies. It would have provided some sustainability in the fishing sector for people who live on offshore islands. If we allow the situation to continue it will get worse. We must try to change things.
I welcome the efforts the Minister is making in providing funding for sustainable rural development and jobs, giving grant assistance to people who create employment in rural areas, and the roll-out of broadband and fibre optic that is becoming more prevalent. I am in the House for 17 years and in that time I have seen the situation deteriorate. There has been much bluster and commentary about rural Ireland but very little, if anything, is being done about it.
I was struck by what Deputy Ferris said about rural Ireland. I emigrated during the recession and back then in 2010 and 2011 there was no hope anywhere in rural Ireland. When I see how it is today I think the situation has improved compared to where it was seven or eight years ago. We have come out of the recession.
I have listened to many political statements in the past hour and I would like to take the politics out of the debate for a moment. Rural Ireland was haemorrhaging at times during the boom. Post offices and small shops were closing during the boom. The reason they were closing was due to the development of technology, which has started to centralise all goods and services. The paper trail has become an electronic trail. Email has replaced the letter and websites have replaced the local shop. We must do what we can to protect local shops but we must also face the fact that technology has centralised everything and is continuing to do so in terms of urbanisation.
The development of the motor car has had an effect on rural Ireland. One can travel for longer and more comfortably than one could 30 years ago. The roads are also in better condition than they were. We must face facts. We must grapple with the changes and challenges in rural Ireland.
Moving on from what Deputy Ferris said, the next phase for us is to analyse rural Ireland. Instead of talking about it as a single entity the question is whether we should talk about areas that are close to cities. Do we talk about counties that do not have a specific urban centre but have a number of market towns? Do we talk about coastal areas? Do we specify rural Ireland and break it down into categories? I do not think we are doing rural Ireland a service by talking about it as a single entity. That is the next phase.
I recognise the achievements that have been brought about as a result of the Government's policy on rural Ireland. That is what brings us to these next steps. Some years ago we faced many more challenges in that regard. However, I refer to the €2 billion that is being invested, the town and village renewal scheme, the LEADER funding, the outdoor recreation scheme, CLÁR, the local improvement scheme, the social improvement and community activation programme, SICAP, the community enhancement programme and the senior alert scheme. Other initiatives include a new library strategy, the Tidy Towns competition, agricultural shows, walk schemes and the Men's Shed initiative. There has been a plethora of grant-aided funding across different sectors in rural Ireland.
I will give the example of the place I come from, Kilfinny. It had a small school - there were five in my class when I was going to school - a small church and a hall. During the recession, that place, like every other place, faced huge challenges but the people in Kilfinny came together. I refer to the development of a community childcare crèche which has now become a feeder to the school. The school is increasing in numbers. The people got together in respect of a local GAA club and soccer club. Six or seven years ago the soccer club did not have an underage team. There are now 137 children signed up to the team. This is a place where there is no town as such. It is just a rural area but the people were empowered to come together to create that. We need to continue to foster that and empower people to take the chance.
Another person came in and bought the local pub, which was on its knees, with only five or ten people going in at the time. That is no disrespect to the owners. They were in the latter years of their career. They came in and took the chance. That is now a booming restaurant and pub. They have moved with the times. That is what happens when we empower people and help them to do that.
We need to start thinking differently about rural Ireland. We can be as political as we want. I could throw stones at Sinn Féin and talk about Northern Ireland. I could throw stones at Fianna Fáil regarding the recession and what happened beforehand. I know that stones could be thrown back at the Government in respect of two-tier economies but let us remove the politics out of the debate for a moment and think about it critically in terms of coming up with solutions.
The solutions I want to offer tonight would be to analyse rural Ireland in terms of those different areas, given the achievements we have made already. Sports capital funding is going into rural Ireland. To be colloquial, we opened the West Limerick Drama Festival about two months ago. That hall was developed and it is now like a theatre. It is like the old days where we had the cinemas inside the different areas. There are seven or eight drama groups across County Limerick. That is how rural Ireland is coming back. That is how people are coming together. It is in a different format and the grants that are coming off what the Minister, Deputy Ring, has delivered is achieving that.
Granagh is a small rural community. Ten nights in a row the hall in Granagh was packed with people attending a community play. That is because the hall has been developed into a theatre in which we can get the sound, the vision and everything else. People want to come and pay to see that.
Those are just a few of my ideas. I thank the Minister for visiting the constituency recently to see the Sailors Haggard memorial in Clarina.
I too want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy Ring, for the hard work undertaken by him on the newly-formed Department of Rural and Community Development and its staff in supporting and enhancing rural Ireland since its establishment in 2017.
The task of creating a new Department and focusing it in a timely manner in order to have a real, tangible benefit in rural Ireland has been a difficult one but it is something which has been achieved all the same thanks to the efforts of the Minister and his team. They took on the task of improving a community that had been heavily impacted by the economic recession and, as a Government Deputy from a rural constituency, I believe they have done a good job thus far. However, have we got to the bottom of every issue affecting people who live in rural areas? We certainly have not, and there is much work yet to be done.
Those Members in the parties opposite rightly and consistently highlight the serious problems people living in rural Ireland face in our constituencies on a daily basis here in this Chamber and in their local media. It is clear for all to see that we still have a long way to go towards addressing all of the problems facing rural Ireland, be it broadband, beef prices, roads, Brexit, rural isolation and much more.
However, while those of us on this side of the House can acknowledge this reality, we never hear anything from the Members opposite about how the positive developments and schemes implemented by the Minister and his Department since 2017 are actually having a positive effect and helping people come back to live and work in rural Ireland. We never hear anything about any of the positives from the spokespersons of the parties opposite. Instead, we only hear negative comments from the Opposition and, unfortunately, sometimes that narrative sticks and spreads.
Fine Gael, and the Minister, Deputy Ring, in particular, have overseen the reintroduction of many rural schemes that had to be closed in previous years because of the political negligence of other parties. Despite the positive impacts those schemes are having, we never hear those who criticise the Minister's effort welcoming the reintroduction of schemes such as the local improvement scheme or the increased investment in the outdoor recreation scheme. We do not hear them mentioning the millions of euro that have been allocated nationwide for the new town and village renewal scheme. We do not hear them welcoming the increased funding for the CLÁR programme or the rural regeneration scheme.
All of that has all been achieved due to this Government's management of the economy. Nonetheless, it pleases me to see those who are always so critical of the Minister, Deputy Ring, and the Government turn up on the day that funding is being announced or a sod is being turned. When one goes to a photo shoot they would knock one down.
-----although they never miss a trick, fair play to them.
In my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, planning applications have increased, new house completions are up, unemployment is down and tourist numbers are up thanks to the Wild Atlantic Way. Some 1,450 new jobs in Sligo were announced last year. Regional and local road funding allocations are higher than they were previously. We have seen construction commence on the long awaited N4 and the western distributor road at a cost in the region of €100 million. Deputy Scanlon mentioned that many times in the past.
The Minister, Deputy Ring, has ensured the development of an international mountain bike facility in Coolaney, in County Sligo, on which millions of euro are being spent. We have more walking trails and hikes than ever before thanks to the Minister's outdoor recreation scheme and Sligo County Council staff. We have seen the creation of the Blue Way in Drumshanbo. Those are a few examples of the amount of money that has been spent in my constituency.
Rural Ireland is in a better place now than it was in 2011 when we picked up the mess left before us. Rural Ireland is growing. It has its problems but we are the only party with a plan in place to ensure its future development and with the Minister, Deputy Ring, at the helm, we are guaranteed that rural Ireland's place at the Cabinet table will not be forgotten.
It is only right and proper that we acknowledge the work that has been done. At many meetings on many occasions in the past the work the Minister is doing in looking after rural Ireland has been acknowledged by both the Fine Gael Party and various other Opposition parties. Long may he continue to do that. I know that is what he will do in the years to come.
Some of the comments were shocking but I have enormous respect for the Minister, Deputy Ring, because when I approach him about issues in my constituency he responds, usually in a positive fashion. It has been said repeatedly this evening that he certainly has a passion for rural Ireland and wants to improve matters. My colleague, Deputy Scanlon, other Members and some of our local authority members always welcome positive announcements, as I did in my own county in terms of towns like Boyle and other places, in recent times. The Minister travels through the town of Strokestown on many occasions but we will be looking for a few more bob from him down the road.
In fairness, there are many issues against rural Ireland. I am sure the Minister has listened to so many of them at this stage he does not want to hear too much more of it this evening. I acknowledge that many factors have changed and I will not dismiss everything about the Government and what has not happened in rural Ireland. I take the good with the bad. There have been some positive developments and some disappointing ones. There is no doubt that rural Ireland is under enormous pressure.
There is no point in any speaker here giving the impression that all is hunky dory and that we do not have a crisis. If one travels through my town or Strokestown this evening one will see the reality of so many vacant buildings. The Minister acknowledges this. We must repopulate those towns and villages. There must be footfall. If there is no footfall businesses cannot survive. Out of town shopping centres have done enormous damage to towns and villages. Online shopping is also a major issue. It will close down more businesses.
Another thing that has done a great deal of damage, and I have spoken previously about a financial solution to it, is bypassing many of our towns and villages. It has been an absolute disaster. We have to upgrade our roads and people in the west of Ireland must be able to get freight. We need to have the N5 and the M4 roads, and I am not objecting to that. However, this House has never addressed the situation by looking at a scheme to invest in the towns and villages that are left behind when they are bypassed. If one has a hardware shop, a pharmacy or a supermarket one will survive when the town is bypassed, but if one has a filling station, a restaurant or a newspaper shop one will not. We have seen that in Ballaghaderreen and other towns. We need a scheme that enables investment with the local authority. There could be a tourism product in the town or village so let us be able to invest in it so the town or village has a future.
According to recent statistics there are approximately 600,000 people living in towns that have between 1,500 and 10,000 residents. That is a large number of people for rural areas. As the Minister has often said, there is an imbalance in the population growth in this country. There is huge population growth in the east and poor population growth in the west. We have a solution, which is that we must increase our investment in the west of Ireland to get rid of that imbalance. I listened this morning to a report on research which found that 150,000 more people will reside in Dublin in the next three years, and it is already bursting at the seams. The reality is that we must draw more business to the west and the midlands. We must give incentives to business. The Minister knows this and is quite passionate about it. As has been said repeatedly in this debate, we must get jobs into the region.
Our region was very lucky for many years. We had Bord na Móna, the ESB and we had the Burlington industry in Clondra, over the bridge in Termonbarry, which employed 1,000 people. Glanbia was in Rooskey and employed more than 600 people. We have lost all of them so the area must get investment. The Minister will agree that Ireland's Hidden Heartlands will be a very important feature in developing our part of the country. I am glad there is investment in that and that there are four or five workers employed in it. We must tap into that and develop tourism. We must take in the Center Parcs and the developments on Sliabh Bawn and other places. We must sell tourism because that is what the reality will be for many parts of rural Ireland. It will be a massive challenge but we must do it.
I acknowledge there is investment and a great deal of support. The Minister has thrown himself into this and he does a good job. I have quoted a figure on many occasions here in the past in respect of one of the problems in rural Ireland. It is that in my county up to 900 people per day get on a bus, into a car or onto the train to travel to Dublin. Many of them, including members of my family, leave at 4 a.m. and get home at 9 p.m. It is not a family life. We must give incentives to get jobs in rural areas.
The Minister is a rural person from the west of Ireland and there is no doubt he knows the exact problems facing rural Ireland. I can only describe him as a Deputy Ó Cuív, part two, because he has continued some of the good schemes that Deputy started, such as the CLÁR programme and so forth. There is no question that it is making a difference.
Deputy Heydon mentioned post offices and how things move on and change. That is true but a number of post offices should not have been closed. I refer to the post office in Gurteen, County Sligo. It fulfilled all the criteria that An Post used for the sustainability of post offices, yet it was shut. That is wrong. Six or seven other post offices around that area closed and nobody could complain or say a word because the business was not there. However, there was business in Gurteen. There is a population of 512 and there were 1,300 transactions a week. It fulfilled all the criteria so we must be careful in that regard.
There are many buildings in the towns and villages and there is much talk about the shops. Everybody wants Lidl, Aldi and Tesco but, unfortunately, there is a price to pay. The people paying the price are the small businesses in the towns and villages whose shops are closing. However, there are many properties available and I believe we should introduce some type of rural regeneration scheme, similar to the rural renewal scheme, whereby if people invest in a property, particularly if it is for rental, they will get a tax free allowance for that investment. It would not cost the Government a cent. The allowance would be in place over ten years. It worked previously and I am sure it can work again.
With regard to farming, the agriculture committee had a meeting with the Irish Natura & Hill Farmers Association, the ICMSA, the IFA and other groups yesterday. It started at 3.30 p.m. and continued until 9.30 p.m. I am not a member of the committee but I attended the meeting to listen to the concerns. There is no doubt there is a very serious problem in the beef sector. We must seriously examine supporting the suckler farmers. If we do not, they will be wiped out. It is that simple.
Another issue is rural planning. Anybody planning to build a house in Leitrim at present must invest approximately €50,000 to get a sewerage system that will work for the house. I believe there are other ways of dealing with that. If people were allowed to build big tanks there are plenty of people who can empty the tanks and have the content discharged into a proper facility owned by county councils. They are in place and can be used. It would allow people to live in the rural areas where people are needed to keep the local school or shop going.
On local roads, the Minister reintroduced the local improvement scheme, which is very important. The people living on a little boreen are as important as the people living on the N4 or the N17. I am glad the Minister reintroduced it and more funding should be put into it. People need the roads. There is a little more funding for the Class 2 and Class 3 roads but a great deal more is needed to bring those roads up to standard.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. Most Deputies cannot hit the Minister too hard. One thing I can say about him is that if he has money he will spend it. The problem is that he has the biggest part of the country to look after but, unfortunately, his Department does not have the biggest budget.
Under the programme for Government in the past couple of years the local improvement schemes have been a great help to rural Ireland. The town and village scheme has done good things. The Minister has also taken an interest in the Tidy Towns. There are many volunteers involved. There are issues that have arisen at present but we must all address that together. Rural regeneration and the CLÁR programme have been good. All those schemes are doing good in various parts of the country. There might be a fight for them because there is not a big enough budget for them, but anywhere they have been implemented it has helped rural Ireland.
Many towns in the country are looking better, in fairness. Some towns have fallen back and we must find the reason for that.
The funding for the food hubs has been great. The Wild Atlantic Way and tourism ideas are welcome. If we are to solve the problems in rural Ireland, it will not be done solely by the Department of Rural and Community Development. The first thing for which the Minister should be given authority, and I would back it 100%, is for rural-proofing other Departments' decisions. The reason is that decisions made in other Departments can have catastrophic effects on rural Ireland and the Minister has no influence in respect of them.
We saw two weeks ago that small towns that are not connected to Irish Water do not have a community sewerage scheme. I ask that the Minister ensure funding is given, be it by his Department or some other Department, to those small towns, and we will back in 100% in that regard. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government will not provide funding at the moment unless there is an Irish Water scheme in the town. Building will not be possible in those areas because of the restrictions imposed.
I have asked Minister before about a grant system for the towns with a population of 500 or less, and, in fairness, I know he is looking at it. Sometimes they feel left out if they do not receive anything when applications are made by the larger town. I ask the Minister to consider that.
LocalLink is a help in rural areas but another Minister brought in measures in the transport area which have brought in pubs in rural Ireland to their knees. I have said time and again that communities need to be given the option of buses or Uber, about which everybody is talking. If it is a one-horse town with one pub, the pub should get a rebate if it drops people home because the pub needs to survive and it is needed in the locality. In some villages, there might one pub and one shop and they are the heart of the community and keep it going.
It is very important we need to keep the small rural schools up and running. The measure we want to implement do not just concern the Minister's Department, and I will not find fault with him. What I am saying is that other Ministers must step up to the mark. If not, the Minister must be able to veto what they are doing. We know the population in parts of the country is getting older. Some of those people will need a one-bedroom house in a small village and that needs to be put in place. We also need to replace them with people and provide incentives. We need to look at a tax incentive to get people to live in rural Ireland. We need to look at rates for businesses and provide incentives to businesses to ensure they remain, even though they may not have the throughput found in other areas.
We have seen that TEN-T projects have not been implemented yet even though it is in the programme of Government. That is the job of the Minister, Deputy Ross, but he does not seem to know how to write to Europe about it.
On infrastructure, the new road from Dublin to Galway, with the extension to it, is a great road, and let no one deny that. We need a road to Letterkenny and to join the N5. The links need to be joined. The Cork to Mallow road needs to be done. The better the infrastructure, the more accessible the country becomes.
We need to ensure the broadband issue, which is the responsibility of another Minister, is resolved quickly. If the proposed carbon tax is brought in, it will affect the people in rural Ireland who are driving to work because there is no CIE bus, Luas, tram or all the lovely things one has in the big cities.
I hope we, in rural Ireland, are not paying the price in terms of the cost of the children's hospital. I refer to mental health services, daycare centres, hostels and the Rosalie unit in Castlerea and what was said about it today. We need to ensure the facilities in towns are kept in towns to give people opportunities.
Another Minister who has a part to play in terms of rural Ireland is the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Minster, Deputy Ring, and I come from counties with many small farms. We see 80% of the money going to 20% of the farmers. A new Common Agricultural Policy is coming in and we need to ensure the family farm is protected. For those who have come out of the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, there is no environmental scheme to go into for at least another year or two years. This is the type of magic bullet that would help farm families to survive in rural Ireland instead of parents getting old and youngsters asking why they would farm because it does not pay.
We need to concentrate on the suckler herd and the beef to ensure we keep people on farms and encourage young farmers. As Deputy Scanlon pointed out at yesterday's meeting, we need to ensure we encourage youngsters back to the land and not back to a country where some parts of it are heading towards landlordism.
If people live on a road over which Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, is in control, they might as well throw their hat at trying to get planning permission. If they do not propose to exit the property using their parent's driveway, they have no hope at all. It is getting stickier to get planning permission for one-off houses. Someone has to call a halt to this.
We need water schemes. A three-year plan for group water schemes is being examined. I was in Galway the other day and was told there is no funding available until that three-year magic bullet, or plan, is brought forward. There must be money there for somebody who faces an emergency. There is nothing wrong with the new subsidies - I am not criticising them - but we need to ensure we are not wasting water in respect of upgrades.
There are housing problems in certain parts of the country which need to be addressed. The Minister must rural-proof the proposals of other Ministers because he comes from rural Ireland. Unfortunately, some people - maybe senior civil servants - do not understand there is more beyond the M50. There is a lovely part of the country which we call rural Ireland. One could not live or rear children in a better place. It is the best part of the world in which to live. There are things we do not have that others have. However, we can make it better by working together but we must understand how to make it better. During the discussions on the programme for Government, I emphasised that we need all Departments to listen to the Department of Rural and Community Development and to address the problems in rural Ireland. We will not solve it by going down the road we have travelled for the last 50 or 60 years. If we look at the figures and at the flight from the land, it tells its own story. We had 300,000 farmers in the 1970s, when the joined EU, but we have 130,000 farmers now. We need to ensure we make things attractive. In fairness to the Minister, he will do that if given the money, and I will back him 100%.
I am happy to speak tonight. A number of Departments were mentioned over which the Minister does not have jurisdiction. The reason all those Departments were mentioned is that we could not have a stronger advocate for rural Ireland in Cabinet than the Minister, Deputy Ring. Much is expected of him and he is delivering. We can see the work he is doing rural-proofing the policies of every Department. In the current year, he secured a 25% increase in his budget from the previous year. That is the biggest increase in any Department. Given the pressures on housing and health, that is a serious achievement by a Minister in a new Department.
He had to deal with all the various different challenges of that new Department.
It is important to note in this debate that the Government has a significant plan. It is called Project Ireland 2040 and it aims to put in €1 billion of growth over the coming 20 years with half of that growth placed outside our five main cities.
It is also significant to note the extraordinary extra funding that has been allocated by Government. A total of €1 billion has been announced for the rural regeneration scheme over the coming ten years that will be channelled down into the most rural communities. A total of €24 million has already been announced for 18 communities this year and a further €13 million is to be announced next year. There is €2 billion for urban regeneration over the next decade for towns with a population greater than 10,000. We have seen major announcements that are impacting on towns in need of an incentive. Such towns need to be lifted with funding to encourage people and communities to act.
One of the first acts of Deputy Leo Varadkar when he was appointed Taoiseach was to appoint a full Cabinet position for rural affairs. When we see the various funding streams that have been reopened by this Minister we can see the worthiness of having someone of the calibre of Deputy Michael Ring in Cabinet. When he gets an allocation, he spends it and he ensures it goes to the right areas. He will not leave any money unspent. We can see this from the sports capital programme, which he reopened after a challenging period. When Deputy Michael Ring was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for sport, the country was spending 50% more than it was taking in. Yet, he got the scheme reopened in challenging circumstances.
We have seen 670 rural communities benefit through the town and village renewal scheme. A total of €53 million has been invested so far. The CLÁR programme has been reopened. In my locality, a rural area, Emper national school in Ballynacargy, Westmeath got a new playground. The sub aqua club in Mullingar got a new vehicle. Those in the club are first responders in difficult circumstances in our community. They got the chance to apply for funding to get a new vehicle, which was very welcome. The Minister, Deputy Ring, was at the heart of delivering that. We have seen 500 greenways, blueways and cycleways actively breathing life into our communities through the outdoor recreation and infrastructure scheme. A total of €32 million has been invested. A total of 1,100 rural roads have got key funding through the local improvement scheme. I was in Lismacaffrey at a branch meeting of Fine Gael on Monday night. There is a road there stretching for 2 km that was in seriously poor condition. Councillor Frank McDermott has been almost a generation elected in politics. He said that the past five years have been the most rewarding for him because the funding has come down to give communities a lift up. The road in Lismacaffrey has been fully resurfaced. There are several families living on that road. Under the previous economic shortages they would have been unable to get the capital to inject. What is more, the Minister put a cap of €1,200 on the scheme. He does not ask for a major contribution from families. They are incredibly proud of the infrastructure they have now in their locality.
We have €50 million approved for 1,500 LEADER projects. Let us consider our basic volunteers for our agricultural shows. A total of 1,200 have been appointed to a number of agriculture shows. We have €2 million for 120 agricultural shows throughout the country. Some 900 tidy town groups have received €2.7 million. Those are the most incredible genuine volunteers in our society. They give so much to improve our towns. We have a Minister who has vision. He can see where communities need a hand and a lift up. When we go through those towns and villages now we can see that people are proud to have their villages looking their best.
The senior alert scheme operates in the most rural remote areas. The scheme has been allocated €7 million for 2018. The most vulnerable people in our society get a chance to have the comfort of such a scheme.
Recently we have seen challenges facing rural Ireland. We hear people saying that retail is under significant stress. We are all aware of the challenges facing us in that regard. We can see the changing behaviour of people. Some €6.5 billion was spent online last year while €7.8 billion is projected to be spent online this year. Over 2.2 million Irish people are shopping online. That is because moods and behaviour have changed. This Minister is trying to meeting those significant challenges. When we talk about rural Ireland it is important to introduce balance into the debate. We need to look at all the equations and the choices people make. I live outside Mullingar in a housing estate with approximately 400 houses currently. I see delivery vans going in and out every day because of behavioural changes.
The Minister has been handed a portfolio whereby he has had to grapple with the legacy of towns that were gutted under the national spatial strategy, which was a strategy that failed. He had to deal with ghost housing estates. He sourced all those little funding streams to build life back into these areas. The Government has 60% of all jobs allocated outside Dublin. Again, this is important in terms of breathing life back into our rural counties. We went from a peak of 16% unemployment down to 5% currently.
We hear time after time that rural Ireland is in decline. Yet in the census in 2016 there were 1.75 million people living in rural areas. That is up from 1.5 million 20 years ago. The growth is incredible in rural areas. People need to acknowledge that and be fair about it.
We talk about our broadband coverage. In 2012 when the Government came to office some 30% of farms, premises, homes and schools had coverage. Now, coverage is up to over 74%. There has been significant improvement in that area and we have to acknowledge that.
One point I did not hear much on in the debate tonight was rural crime. It is incredible. When I was elected first in 2016 there was great concern in my locality and in the towns adjacent over rural crime. However, it has improved. I acknowledge that it is not perfect but it has improved because of the 2,200 new Garda recruits. The Garda force is up to 14,000. Operation Thor has had 9,000 arrests nationally and 240,000 crime prevention patrols have been undertaken.
This week the Government has signed a new general practitioner contract. Where is the mantra "No GP, no village" now? The contract is now signed and the IMO has welcomed it. We are now on an upward trajectory in terms of providing good healthcare in our community. GPs are now getting the reversal of FEMPI measures, which is important.
We have also reversed the cuts to farm assist. People are talking about agriculture tonight. Let us bring balance into the debate. The most vulnerable farmers in our society will benefit. We have reversed the cuts they faced under farm assist. While I acknowledge that not everything is perfect, the work currently being done by this Government is marvellous, on balance, when one considers the position that it has come from since 2011 and the road it has travelled. That road has included getting rid of the IMF and getting funding streams. Let us remember that many a Minister sitting on the opposite benches could not spend their budgets in times of unprecedented resources. Now we have a Minister who can spend his budget. He is in Cabinet and defends decisions. He is a voice for rural Ireland and helps to rural-proof decisions as they come through Cabinet. Anyone who is clued in on the ground can hear his voice because they see the decisions that come down and how they affect all strands of society. While one would acknowledge that not everything is perfect, the Government has to meet many challenges. We have come a long way in recent years and much of that is down to the Minister, Deputy Michael Ring.
First, as the Minister would expect, I will be clinical and fair about all things to do with this debate. The Minister knows the personal regard I have for him in his role. I need not go into it. My late father thought highly of the Minister and his work ethic and I am certainly not going to change from that tune.
However, we have problems in rural Ireland. I will be the first person to commend the Minister personally for certain actions that he has taken, but he got some guidance during the 74 days of negotiations for Government. The Minister, Deputy Ring, had myself and others, including Deputy Michael Collins, who is behind me, reminding him about the importance of the local improvement scheme. The Minister listened to what we said and he argued for the €10 million per year.
I certainly appreciate it very much and on behalf of the people of Kerry, I thank the Minister. We have been punching above our weight because we have an excellent county council, county engineers and local area engineers who spend the money that he sends to us. We spend it so quickly that we are able to put our hand out again and look for more. We will be doing that very soon and I hope that we will get a positive response. We are grateful for the money we have got, we have nearly spent it, and we will look for more. I ask the Minister in advance for that. If other counties cannot spend it, send it on to us and we will not let him down.
Great work is being done by voluntary groups. I want to highlight people such as the men's shed movement which is great in places such as Killorglin and other towns throughout the county that I represent. They do very well and provide a great use of people's time for a valuable purpose. I know that the Minister is very supportive of that movement.
We have problems that I want addressed. The programme for Government commits to protecting our post office network. As the Minister knows, I am disappointed that that is not happening and at the number of post offices that have closed. I am worried about the future of the network. I believe that the network is in a perilous state. If the protection of the social welfare contract is not assured for our post offices, what remains of our post offices would fall like a deck of cards. I have been continuously saying that since the first day that I came in here.
As a good local representative himself, the Minister knows the problems that we have with regard to people securing planning permission on their own land. It is not a sin for a person to want to relocate to a rural location. If a farmer is selling a site, it is not that he is selling a part of his farm but might be securing the future of his farm with the bit of money that he would get for the site. He might be able to build a slatted shed or to engage in reclaiming land that he might not be able to otherwise. He could secure the future of that family farm by selling off a site. It would bring new people into an area. We have to be more imaginative about such things.
We have to deal with the issue of serial objectors. We have them in County Kerry. The Minister has them in his county. We have them everywhere. They are people who stick their noses into other people's business for the sole purpose of being abnormal and horrible. As I said in Kerry County Council on every day that I was there, the majority of normal people go through their lives without objecting to anybody doing anything with regard to planning. I have no problem whatsoever with a person whose property is being affected or impinged upon by something higher or unwelcome in his or her locality objecting. Why in the name of God should any person have the right to object to something that has nothing to do with him or her? It does not make sense to me. Multi-million euro projects have been held up. We have them in Kerry at present. We have had them in Athenry and around the country. Serial objectors hunt much valued business out of our areas. They have hurt many young couples in particular. There are people in Kerry who seem to have a thing about hurting young couples and it breaks my heart when a young person comes in to tell me that a certain person objects to them. I know that that person will then take them to An Bord Pleanála and will do everything in the world to hold them up from starting their family and other personal matters. It is horrible. There are individuals who do that. It is not normal behaviour for an individual to have 20 objections going at the same time. That is a misuse of the planning system. I would be very grateful if a Minister in any Government, whether from Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, introduced legislation to tackle that type of behaviour. It would be great if we could get that going.
I was disappointed with the closure of Garda stations.