Thursday, 5 November 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
2. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she has considered establishing co-working spaces in rural areas to facilitate persons working remotely and keep them in their communities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34163/20]
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue which is something that I have a keen interest in.
While many people are currently working from home to reduce the spread of Covid-19, recent research by the Western Development Commission, WDC, and the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, has highlighted a growing interest from people in continuing to work remotely in the longer term, at least part of the time availing of co-working facilities.
Remote working has the potential to transform rural Ireland, allowing people to pursue careers in good quality jobs while continuing to live in their home place. It also has the potential to encourage more people to move to the regions to provide increased trade for local businesses and to revitalise our rural towns.
Over the last number of years my Department has invested significantly in remote working facilities through programmes such as the town and village renewal scheme and the rural regeneration and development fund. My Department has been working with the Western Development Commission to develop an integrated network of remote working hubs along the Atlantic economic corridor, AEC, region from Kerry to Donegal, with shared back-office services. The WDC has identified and mapped more than 100 remote working hubs that serve that region. In addition, since 2016 my Department has been working on the broadband connection points, BCPs, initiative, which is now rolling out countrywide. Many of the BCPs will be in a position to provide remote working facilities in isolated rural areas.
An additional €5 million was allocated to my Department in budget 2021 to develop a national network of remote working hubs based on the AEC model as well as to upgrade existing facilities and BCPs throughout the country.
An interdepartmental working group chaired by the Secretary General of my Department has been established to progress this project.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I welcome that the interdepartmental group has been established. Can the Minister give me some more information as to when she expects this group to come back to her as to how we roll out the remote working hubs? I welcome the €5 million that was announced in the budget which will really make a difference. It will allow people to remain and work in their communities and to spend in the local economy. It will also significantly reduce the commuting of people out of their areas to bigger urban areas for work.
The Minister may be aware that the regional assemblies together published a report last month identifying how one in four private sector workers could be targeted for remote working. That would of course be a much larger figure when it comes to public service workers. What these assemblies have found is that over 40,000 people in the west and north west alone, private sector workers, will be in a position to work remotely. This means 40,000 less commuters and 40,000 more people at home in their areas spending locally. The concern is that while we have funding, we need a strategy urgently so that we are not just investing in hubs but we have a strategy for this. My question therefore relates to the interdepartmental group.
The interdepartmental group has had its first meeting which I attended as I wanted to show the importance that I place in ensuring that we grasp this opportunity. As the Deputy and I am aware, remote working was a concept and aspiration this time last year. In fact there was a Cabinet meeting that was specifically looking at jobs and a big part of that was trying to get companies and people interested in remote working. Covid-19 has given us this opportunity which we really need to grasp and run with to ensure that the right strategy is in place for it.
The working group has had its first meeting and has a body of work to carry out and I assure the Deputy that we are doing everything we can to ensure that the group reports back to me as soon as possible. There are a number of things it needs to do including research work.
I would greatly appreciate if the Minister could give me figures as to how many remote working hubs could be established with this €5 million and if the group could look at the use of the already established premises that are perhaps vacant, or even the use of community centres as these hubs could act as a source of income for them. We know that many of them are struggling right now, especially in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is a commitment to broadband in the programme for Government that does not necessarily fall under the Minister's remit but it is to accelerate the roll-out of broadband in rural areas. We could really do with seeing a plan on how we intend to accelerate that roll-out because it is so important. So many people have struggled during Covid-19. While it has been great that they have been able to work from home they have struggled in respect of broadband. We also know that children of school-going age have struggled with this.
On immigrants coming home, in my small village and on our road a house has not been built since I was a child. Three planning permissions have been made by people who are coming home, are able to work from home and build a life back where they grew up. That is so important.
I wish also to note that Arranmore Island has a new digital hub and it is the first to be established on an island off the coast. Is there any intention to roll out further such facilities in respect of our islands?
I thank the Deputy. My Department estimates that there is likely to be in excess of 350 hubs in operation across the country. Validating the number of hubs is one of the first tasks of the interdepartmental group which, as I said, is being chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. A number of other Departments are involved in that group.
This group will focus on collecting the data on the number of hubs that are in operation and it will be building a composite map of networks. This work is expected to be concluded in early to mid-2021. I take the Deputy's point on the islands. Some very good work has been undertaken on Arranmore Island in increasing its conductivity. I want to see more such focus on the islands because there is no reason why one cannot live on an island and work remotely for a multinational enterprise. This is now possible and this is a great time to capitalise on the opportunities that we have.