Thursday, 11 July 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Action Plan for Rural Development Implementation
1. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the progress made regarding the implementation of the Action Plan for Rural Development to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30891/19]
I know I will get one version from the Minister, Deputy Ring, which will be different to the reality on the ground but perhaps we will have a discussion on the real activities in the Action Plan for Rural Development. I know the glass will be half full, as it always is with the Minister. Let us give it a go.
The Action Plan for Rural Development was published in January 2017 as a whole-of-Government initiative to support the economic and social progress of rural Ireland.
Progress reports on the implementation of the action plan are published twice yearly on the gov.ie website. The most recent, Fourth Progress Report, was published at the start of July. It shows that 268 of the 277 actions reported on were either completed on schedule or substantially advanced.
The cross-departmental approach of the action plan is benefiting rural areas in many ways. For example, since 2015, there has been an increase of more than 146,000 in the number of people employed in regions outside of Dublin, surpassing the Government's target of 135,000 extra jobs by 2020. Last year, more than 60% of the new jobs created by Enterprise Ireland client companies were outside the Dublin region and 58% of employment in IDA client companies is now based outside of Dublin.
The level of investment being made in rural Ireland is also unprecedented. Thousands of projects have been supported by my Department alone since the start of 2017, with further investment across Government also benefitting rural communities in areas such as agriculture, fisheries, tourism and transport.
The progress made under the action plan has been further built on in Project Ireland 2040, in particular through the rural regeneration and development fund, which will provide €1 billion in investment in rural Ireland over the period 2019 to 2027. To date, €86 million has been allocated from the fund to 84 projects. The action plan will continue to be delivered through to the end of this year. My Department is currently working on the next phase of a rural development policy to succeed the action plan. A number of consultation workshops have taken place around the country to obtain stakeholder input to the development of this policy. I have also invited the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development to provide an input on the new policy.
I should have organised the cheerleaders and the brass band, because I knew what was coming. The reality is that 3% of the €21 million allocation for the town and village renewal scheme in 2018 has been spent, 20% of the 2017 budget remains unspent and a quarter of the CLÁR budget for 2018 remains unspent – I have not even got to 2019. We still have difficulties with the LEADER programme where 76% of the budget remains unspent. We are mid-way through 2019 in a programme that was officially due to end in 2020, albeit with extensions. There have been announcements and the Minister has outlined job creation figures but how many of the jobs are at the minimum wage? What is the spread of those jobs? "Outside Dublin" could mean Drogheda or across the M50 and in places very close to Dublin. Are the jobs spreading to the west and beyond Galway? How many IDA visits were there this year in County Mayo? There were very few compared to the rest of the country. It is great to tick boxes and lists but the reality on the ground is that many of the schemes the Minister is announcing are not being delivered. We have had the discussion about the difficulty with the delivery of schemes. What are we going to do about it, rather than continuing to talk about it?
I know the way Deputy Calleary likes to use the figures against me. I listened to him and his party say all last year that I would not spend my departmental budget. I wish to put on record today that I listened to it from January to December and I never once heard any of them say well done. A total of 99.9% of my spend in the Department was spent last year.
Deputy Calleary referred to the LEADER programme. It is ahead of progress. The town and village renewal scheme is going better than it was. I have allocated the funding. The Deputy knows that I cannot allocate the funding until the projects are completed by the local authorities. They have to put their hands up as well. Elected representatives on local authorities should be accountable in that regard.
A total of 60% of new jobs created by Enterprise Ireland companies in 2018 were outside of Dublin. Deputy Calleary cannot pick holes in the figures by saying they are beside Dublin: they are outside Dublin. A total of 58% of IDA client companies are now based outside of Dublin. Unemployment is down from 15% to 5%. People are working. The one thing Deputy Calleary and I saw, along with every Deputy who was out canvassing in the recent local elections, is that it was hard to get people at home as more people were at work.
I introduced the outdoor recreation scheme and the town and village renewal scheme. I was in Drumshanbo the other day. Deputy Calleary saw the jobs that were created on foot of such schemes. It is not just a case of them being on paper or being announced by me: the jobs are created and the companies are in place.
A total of 70% of all jobs created last year were created in Dublin. It is not even that, as I am not even into that kind of thing. People who are based in Dublin wish to work from home. That brings me back to the national broadband scheme. I am sure we will discuss that later. If the Minister was Santy, the presents would be likely to arrive 24 months after Christmas. It would take them two years to come. He would announce them, tell the children they are getting a present but that they will have to wait two years because somebody else has to deliver it. Rural communities can no longer wait. The Minister saw the anger on the streets yesterday. Whether the schemes are co-delivered or not, they seem to be still choking in bureaucracy and mired in co-funding difficulties. Perhaps before the announcements are made we could ensure that everything is in place for the scheme to happen, including co-funding and planning permission. There has been progress regarding planning permission. In that way, when an announcement is made, a scheme will be delivered.
At the moment there are many announcements but little delivery.
I have to disagree with the Deputy. One complaint from the local authorities was that they could not progress schemes because they were unsure whether they had funding. I brought in the local authorities three years ago and gave them a list of what was coming down the line. They know now from year to year what schemes are actually coming.
Deputy Calleary knows it and I know it. He is the very person, to be fair to him, who would say it, as would his colleague and the Deputy from Sinn Féin, if I was allocating or giving money to the local authorities and they were not doing their job. Deputy Calleary knows how LEADER works. Any town in Ireland can get a grant from a LEADER company but the town cannot draw down that grant until the work is done. I have responsibility to the taxpayer. I have responsibility to Europe for the LEADER programme. I have responsibility to ensure the money is spent. By God, I have plenty of complaints - I deal with them on a regular basis - about LEADER companies that have not spent the money the way it should have been spent. We are getting cheques from Europe. Those responsible are coming in to check and see what is happening. The Deputy, the taxpayer, myself and the people of the country have to pay for it.
The schemes are in place and working but it takes some time for them to develop. One example is the rural regeneration scheme. We had shovel-ready schemes where we have grant-aided the money. Then, under the second scheme we gave local authority and State agencies, or whoever made the application, seed funding to get the applications up and running. That is what one has to do.
The Deputy should remember that we did not have money for many years and nor did we have these schemes for many years. The schemes are in palace now, as is the money. All I can say is that I am directing the local authorities. Some of the local authorities will be getting letters this week from me and they will not be Christmas cards. The letters will be telling them that the money they got in 2016 will be withdrawn because they have not spent it.