Thursday, 11 July 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
The question is around the targets that have been reached and the implementation of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, report. There was considerable razzmatazz about the CEDRA report. Much of what is in the report is supported by everyone in the House and across the country because it sets out broad objectives on what needs to be done in rural Ireland. The report looks at the opportunities that exist in rural Ireland. This is something we need to focus on more and more because the places that have the least are the places with the most potential. It requires investment and a particular emphasis. I want to try to tease out with the Minister what progress has been made. As we know, the man who was spearheading the process has stepped to one side for whatever reason - we are not going to get into that today. The core of what CEDRA is about needs to be implemented. If it is implemented, then we will be moving forward.
I thank the Deputy for the question. The Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas was established in November 2012 as an independent expert group to examine and report on the medium-term economic development of rural Ireland to 2025. The CEDRA report was published in April 2014. The priority recommendation made by CEDRA was the need for a joined-up approach to rural development across Government led by a Cabinet Minister. The 2016 document, A Programme for a Partnership Government, included a commitment to appoint a Minister and Department to provide greater political co-ordination of the work of other Departments in relevant areas that impact rural Ireland. The assignment of these responsibilities initially to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in May 2016 and the establishment of the dedicated Department of Rural and Community Development in July 2017, as well as my appointment as Minister, have addressed this priority recommendation of CEDRA.
The Government Action Plan for Rural Development, which was published in January 2017, builds on and goes further than the CEDRA report in that it seeks to address not only the economic development of rural areas but also seeks to support the social and cultural development of rural communities throughout the country. Many of the recommendations in the CEDRA report that had not yet been implemented were integrated into the action plan. My Department recently reviewed all of the recommendations in the CEDRA report and found that the vast majority of recommendations have either been implemented, where feasible, or are being addressed through the Action Plan for Rural Development or other Government initiatives. The review that details the status of each recommendation is available on the www.gov.iewebsite.
I accept that the setting up of the Department was one of the key recommendations of the report. However, many of the other recommendations in the report have not been addressed to the level envisaged in the CEDRA report. This is evident when we look at the issues of housing and investment in rural Ireland. My colleague mentioned how many of the jobs outside of Dublin are only just outside of Dublin. Many of the jobs are still in the big towns and centres. The more rural and isolated areas are still very much left behind. In fairness, the Minister recognises that we have a great deal of work to do. We need to work together on that.
One relevant example is something I have mentioned to the Minister on several occasions, that is, the issue of housing in every town and village in the country with fewer than 700 or 800 people. Half of the houses on the main street lie empty. The people who own these houses have a liability, not an investment or anything they can make something out of. They need some help to turn this around. The suggestion that there will be some plan does not given them the help they need. In effect, they need seed capital in order that they can develop and bring life back to those areas. It is similar with developing new sectors in agriculture. No new sectors will develop unless there is someone to pull them together. I believe the Department is crucial efforts to make that happen.
What Deputy Kenny says is correct. Yet, the Central Statistics Office figures show that employment is growing throughout the country, including outside of Dublin. I gave the figures on the increase in the previous reply.
Other initiatives we have looked at include the town and village scheme, the outdoor recreation scheme, the CLÁR programme and the rural regeneration scheme. The Deputy made a valid point about the towns and villages where we have dereliction. I set up the pilot scheme. I will be answering a question later on the matter. I set up the scheme to see what we can do at Government level to support people who, as the Deputy noted, already have investment in rural Ireland. That property is there. We need to give them an initiative. This is something I will be talking to the Minister for Finance about. The existing schemes are not working. If they were working they would be drawing down funding. They are not working and there must be some reason why they are not working. We need a mix. We need a little grant aid and some taxation. The schemes in place at present are not working. We want to do something. That is why I picked the six pilot towns. They have come back with an initial report. I hope to have the full report published between now and the end of the year. The initial report and some of the suggestions we have are very interesting. We need to deal with that problem because it is one of the big problems.
The issue of housing is one of the key issues the Department can address. An agriculture scheme was brought out recently whereby a small amount of Government money was used to leverage a greater loan at a lower interest rate that people could access. One of the problems is that many of the people who own these properties cannot get a loan anywhere because they are already in debt for other properties they may have. They may have a house somewhere else or have perhaps inherited a property in a town but they can do nothing with it - it is a liability. We need some mechanism outside of the formal structure. The banks will not give them money. Some way has to be found to help those people to get that going.
Another issue I wanted to bring to the attention of the Minister is the issue of alternative sectors, especially in agriculture. These require co-operation across Departments and agencies. One of the things we are all talking about is plastics and the green economy. We hear how plastics are poisoning the country. If we are going to change that we need to come up with biodegradable plastic. Farmers have an opportunity to grow the product and turn it into plastic but that will not happen by a handful of farmers getting together and deciding to do it. They need to have a sector developed. The various agencies will have to come together to set that up. It cannot happen by our waiting to see whether it will happen or by leaving it to the markets. Someone somewhere has to pull it together.
Deputy Kenny has raised this question on several occasions and he is right. He commented on dereliction in towns and villages. I will talk about this to the local authorities and state agencies. Every time they come seeking a new development or building, the first place they look at is a greenfield site. It is time for the councils and State agencies to start looking at towns and villages to see where they could put libraries. It need not always be out in a greenfield site. Why can they not come into these towns? If properties are derelict, why can they not buy them? If there is no title on them they should be used under the Derelict Sites Act. They have a responsibility as well. One thing that got us into a great deal of trouble was planning in towns. Shopping centres were brought outside towns and this killed the town centres. One town in which this did not happen is my home town of Westport and it works well. The local authorities have a part to play.
We have the LEADER programme to nurture job creation and ideas in farming. There will be new initiatives to encourage people on climate action.
We have to encourage people. We have to provide grant aid and assist and help them. There are great people out there with great ideas. We can see the initiatives they are setting up in every corner of the country. We sometimes forget this because they are indigenous industries, and we do not give them credit. If they are multinational companies, they are great people, but our own people are great too and create a lot of employment and jobs.