Thursday, 15 October 2020
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
5. To ask the Minister for Trade, Enterprise and Employment the measures he will take to ensure the viability of businesses and SMEs in the regions post-Brexit that will deliver a fair distribution of investment in jobs in the regions. [30478/20]
I ask about the measures the Minister of State will take to ensure the viability of businesses and SMEs, particularly in the Border region post-Brexit, and to ensure there is a fair distribution of investment in the region.
I thank Deputy Harkin for her question and I assure her we are focused on balanced regional development and protecting the viability of businesses and SMEs throughout the country. This was the case generally even before Covid but it is certainly the case in relation to Covid and Brexit, which is coming down the tracks. We have taken a strong regional approach over the past seven or eight years as Fine Gael has been involved in various Governments. The statistics show the majority of jobs, more than 65%, are created outside of Dublin and in the regions. That is a constant aim and something we can never take for granted so we are constantly focused on pushing jobs out to the regions. Project 2040 and the long-term plans therein are about regional balance and investment for jobs in all sectors and services.
My Department and its agencies assist enterprises of all types and sizes in Ireland, and of all ages, to return to Deputy Mattie McGrath's point. This includes access to finance, management development, mentoring, business development programmes, market supports and trade promotion. In addition to the regional focus of the enterprise agencies and the network of local enterprise offices, LEOs, nine regional enterprise plans for the period to 2020 were launched in early 2019, building on the previous regional plans we had, and they are currently being implemented. These plans were developed by regional stakeholders and overseen by my Department. It is a bottom-up approach involving local players in collaboration to bring forward the best ideas and projects we can fund at a national level.
In preparing for Brexit, the Government has introduced a range of measures to assist businesses and SMEs, including Brexit checklists and advisory tools, direct grants and loans. For example, Enterprise Ireland are running an online customs insights course and will launch a new Brexit readiness checker, while the new €2 billion credit guarantee scheme is the largest guarantee scheme ever provided for Irish businesses. These measures ensure there is financial assistance and advice available for Irish businesses as they resume trading and rebuild through Covid and Brexit. The supports are available through our LEOs, Enterprise Ireland and the other agencies in our Department.
The regional enterprise development fund is currently funding 68 projects across all regions to a value of €100 million and the Border enterprise development fund is funding 11 projects in the Border region to a value €17 million, trying to target the resources where, as the Deputy rightly says, they are needed. In addition, 12 projects to the value of €4.6 million have been approved under the regional technology clustering fund. These projects will enable regions throughout Ireland to build enterprise capability and capacity in a post-Brexit environment.
I thank the Minister for his response. He said clearly there is a balance of development across the regions but does that explain why the European Commission has downgraded the Border and the northern and western area from a more developed to a transition region? That happened because the growth is not there, including in jobs. For example, the growth in high-value jobs in the north and west was 5.4%, whereas in the east and midlands it was 17%. The average wage is about €7,000 less. We do not need to hear more of the same. We need to see new innovations and actions to deliver that balance of development.
I agree that we do not need to hear more of the same and I constantly try to put out the view that people in here talk down rural and regional Ireland, though there are many opportunities and supports. The whole design of having the regional enterprise funds and regional plans is to tap in to the entrepreneurial spirit of those regions and get collaboration across State agencies and, more important, across the business community in those sectors. I have been involved with them in my previous time in the Department. There is much opportunity in those regions. It is fair to say that our efforts in the past seven or eight years have tried to redress a regional that happened for many years before that, probably for 30 or 40 years. Since 2014, 2015 and 2016 the focus has been on the regions and on direct investment there.
It is having positive results and I will give an example. In quarter 1 of 2015 in the Border region, unemployment was at 15.9%. By quarter 2 of this year, it was down to 5%, though it has been affected by Covid since then. In the midlands region, it was at nearly 15% and it was down to just under 6% earlier this year. We recognise that the past six or seven months have changed that picture and we have to refocus our minds but there has been a good deal of success. I said in my opening comments that I would not take that success for granted. There is much work to do to make sure it is sustainable growth and to create sustainable and high-end jobs in those regions. We are happy to work with the Deputy on that.
It is better to look to the future than the past. In that context, because we will now be a transition region, we have an opportunity for European structural and investment funds. That means there can be a better co-financing rate. Will this Government ensure the highest possible co-financing rate of 60% vis-à-vis40% elsewhere? Will it look at integrated territorial investment? That has been applied across the EU to EU cohesion funds very successfully. Will the Minister of State commit to that and ensure the regional assemblies are the vehicle through which this growth can occur? That will be crucial over the next five years.
I welcome the involvement of the regional assemblies which have a very active role to play. We engaged with them quite a lot in the development of Project 2040, the national development plan, and the national planning framework around that to guarantee that those regions have long-term plans. I have said before in these Houses that if we are to permanently address an imbalance in regional development, it will not happen in one or two years. It will happen with sustained investment over a 20 or 30-year period but we have to have plans to match that. That is why, under Project 2040, they are 20-year plans with long-term commitments. In the budget announced this week, there is a capital spend of more than €10 million with a regional focus. We are investing the capital to match the plans and ambitions.
As a Department, we will work with all to maximise the drawdown from European co-funding initiatives. There is money set aside in our budget plans for more investment in the regions in our baseline funding and in the recovery fund we can draw on next year, with an extra €30 million available there for regional enterprises and supports. We are committed to doing this and will work with anybody who wants to help in that mission with a positive agenda. I agree with the Deputy that we should look forwards, not backwards.