Wednesday, 4 December 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Rural Development Policy
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for choosing this Topical Issue matter and thank the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, for attending to take the question.
The issue I highlight arose from a public meeting held in Newmarket-on-Fergus on the evening of Monday, 2 December. It was attended by all the local Members of the Oireachtas - Deputies and Senators - and the local county councillors, as well as the Garda inspector at Shannon. It was well attended, with more than 700 people, and was a call to us as Members to highlight the issues facing villages such as Newmarket-on-Fergus, which is a case study of what is happening to many villages and towns throughout Ireland. Newmarket-on-Fergus is a town close to Shannon and Ennis that has been bypassed by the M18 and it should do better than it does, which is the point people wished to highlight to the local Oireachtas Members. The problem is mirrored throughout rural Ireland.
The issues raised included the lack of basic services, amenities and facilities in the village; the fact that all the shops and many pubs have closed; the poor streetscape; and the lack of proper lighting, footpaths and public transport. Anxieties were also raised about policing services not being visible or being at a remove from Newmarket-on-Fergus. The town has a small station, which is manned infrequently for a few hours per week, and the policing service comes from Shannon. The issues in that regard were the lack of visibility of gardaí on the ground, a slow response time when the Garda is contacted, and a great deal of anti-social behaviour and illegal drug-taking. There is great concern that such activity is happening in a small village. There has also been a loss of GP services. A long-standing GP in Newmarket-on-Fergus retired last May but a replacement has not been found, which is a source of great anxiety for the community because people have to travel to Shannon or Ennis for a service. There is a lack of support for the public health nurse, the community intervention schemes, and home helps and voluntary groups in general. The loss of a GP is a substantial issue.
The story is familiar throughout Ireland and demonstrates how easily the fabric of a rural society can unravel. Newmarket-on-Fergus has benefited from supports from the Government and from the town and village renewal scheme, through which it received €200,000 in 2017. It received €500,000 from LEADER and €200,000 from a local philanthropic fund - the Tomar Trust - and it produced €300,000 of its own money to build community services in the area. Obair, the local community service, provides services from the cradle to the grave, including elderly services, unemployment services, a community crèche and meals on wheels, the last of which extend throughout south Clare, to Quin, Durra, Newcastle, Bunratty, Kilkishen, Kilmurry and Sixmilebridge. It is an extensive service that radiates from the town centre and the funding for it was welcome. It has a community café and educational courses.
Newmarket-on-Fergus has received substantial funding. Nevertheless, the issues raised on Monday night were cross-departmental. They spanned health, transport, housing, justice and education, and how the town interacted with the county council. The residents highlighted that while they have been given support, there is much more they could do if they were given additional supports. Not least in respect of policing, medical services and the upkeep and structure of the village, they believe that a great deal more could be done for them.
We appreciate the voluntary work that is done and the services provided in rural Ireland by voluntary groups. Without them, there would not be many of the services. The Deputy's question was general but he also focused on Newmarket-on-Fergus, which is fine.
There is no doubting the challenges faced by rural towns and villages, especially in the face of a changing retail environment and as people move away from town centre living. The Government is acutely aware of the need to support and revitalise towns and villages. This is a central objective of our investment in Project Ireland 2040 that is being backed up by an investment of €1 billion under the rural regeneration and development fund. It is worth highlighting the significant investment taking place in towns and villages and the many positive stories emerging throughout the country.
Since 2016, I have announced €68 million for more than 830 projects under the town and village renewal scheme, the sole purpose of which is the revitalisation of towns and villages. This year alone, I have announced funding of €15 million for 156 projects under the scheme, six of which are based in County Clare and will receive funding of more than €720,000. I have also approved funding of €86 million under the first call for proposals under the rural regeneration and development fund. Last month, I announced the successful projects from the second call, with 26 projects approved for funding of €62 million. In total, I have announced funding of €9.2 million from the rural regeneration and development fund for ten projects located in County Clare. This is a considerable investment in our towns and villages that will have benefits for decades. We are also focused on identifying policy solutions to the challenges facing our towns and villages. For example, my Department has supported a pilot scheme to encourage six rural towns and villages. Funding has been made available to each of the towns to assist in developing innovative proposals to encourage town centre living. It is envisaged that the lessons learned through the pilot scheme can help to inform the approach to supporting and investing in rural towns and villages in the future.
As for Newmarket-on-Fergus in particular, additional funds have been sought from my Department for a specific project that has significant potential for the community there. I have directly engaged with the group involved to explore the options available to it. The group is already in receipt of significant support through my Department, including grants of €500,000 from LEADER and €200,000 from the town and village renewal scheme. The group is also in receipt of €300,000 each year under the community services programme managed by my Department.
These are just some of the steps being taken by my Department and the Government. I assure the Deputy that I will continue to pursue all options available to me to support towns and villages throughout the country, including Newmarket-on-Fergus.
There is a recognition within the community of the support it has been given. The issues raised on Monday night were broader, relating to housing, justice, education and transport. The Minister was right to acknowledge the volunteerism in the town and in many communities. The voluntary organisation in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Obair, was set up 20 years ago and is a fantastic organisation. It has developed services out of the Tradaree centre, which is where most of the services I outlined are delivered from.
There is an issue with housing. There are up to 60 derelict buildings in the small town, yet a planning application has been submitted for a new housing estate. It would make much more sense if the derelict and vacant buildings within the village structure were supported to bring them to a level whereby they could be used as accommodation for families or single people, which would restore vitality to the village, rather than building a new housing estate, which would have to go through the planning process and jump through various regulatory hoops. A great deal of the vacant accommodation could be used to accommodate people rather than building a new estate.
Another issue raised was cross-departmental, given that it is under the remit of the Office of Public Works, Iarnród Éireann and Clare County Council. There was flooding on the rail line at Ballycar between Limerick and Ennis, which passes through Newmarket-on-Fergus. Flooding can interrupt services on the rail line for up to three or four months in a wet winter but it is an important component of the western rail corridor. The issue needs to be addressed, although there are turf wars among the State bodies I mentioned over which of them is responsible. Perhaps the Minister will consider that and bring it to the attention of other relevant Ministers.
I thank Deputy Harty for the spirit in which he raised this matter. I work across Government with all Ministers and have to make sure that all legislation and everything that happens at Cabinet is rural-proofed. The Deputy raised a valid point. I have to speak to the Department of Finance, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and the Government. We set up a pilot scheme for six towns to deal with vacant properties in towns and villages, which is a major issue.
A real difficulty for the retail sector in this country is online shopping. It affects retail, jobs and people. We are coming into the Christmas season and the busiest people all over the country will be couriers, which is having a major effect on our shopkeepers, jobs and rural services. My Department is examining this issue. I gave each of the six towns in the pilot scheme €100,000 and asked them to come back to me with suggestions and ideas. Even before that happened, I looked at a preliminary report. One issue was vacant houses, to which Deputy Harty referred.
Some people will not like what I am about to say. Many on the left think nobody should make a profit. If somebody has a property, there is nothing wrong with the State giving that person support to renovate it and make it available for rent. Some people do not support the ideology I support, but I believe that people are entitled to make a profit if they have properties. If we can encourage people in towns and villages, in particular, to make their properties available for rent, that would help the rental sector and revitalise towns. There is no point in pretending otherwise.
Retail will not return to towns and villages any day soon as long as people are shopping online. Millions of euro are spent online every year. It is a significant challenge for rural Ireland. The town and village scheme, outdoor recreation scheme, CLÁR programme and the urban regeneration scheme have revitalised many towns and villages and created many jobs. There are quality people in every corner of this country. I came into office in 2017 and since then my Department has invested €29 million in Clare alone.