Thursday, 5 November 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Community Development Initiatives
5. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the steps she will take to encourage and promote remote working; if additional funding was secured as part of budget 2021 to support this work; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34024/20]
Remote working has very much come to the fore because of Covid-19. It was always very much in consideration but it now needs to be accelerated, particularly in rural areas. What steps has the Minister taken to encourage remote working? What additional funding has she secured as part of the budget to support this work so rural community centres and even urban community centres that can be adapted for remote working may become enterprise hubs in their own right?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The increased shift to remote work in the past six months as a result of Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to reimagine the possibilities for a greater regional distribution of jobs and to support better quality of life for many who previously spent many hours on long commutes. Remote working has the potential to transform rural areas, allowing people to build careers in good-quality jobs while continuing to live closer to home. It also provides an opportunity for those who moved away from home for work reasons to return to their roots to raise their families.
Since 2019, my Department has been working with the Western Development Commission, WDC, to build an integrated network of remote working hubs along the Atlantic economic corridor, AEC, from Kerry to Donegal. The WDC has identified and mapped more than 100 remote working hubs that serve that region. The approach to building this network and shared back-office services will serve as a model that can be replicated in other parts of the country. Budget 2021 allocated an additional €5 million to my Department to support the expansion of the AEC hub network model into a national initiative. An interdepartmental working group, chaired by the Secretary General of my Department, has been convened to make progress on this work. My Department invests significantly in remote working facilities through programmes such as the town and village renewal scheme, the rural regeneration and development fund and the libraries programme.
In the constituency I represent, covering part of Limerick and north Tipperary, including Newport, Birdhill and Ballinahinch, this is a major issue on the ground. Can the Minister tell me what community centres have already been allocated funding for the broadband upgrade? What can community centres in the constituency of Limerick City, which covers east Limerick and north Tipperary, including Newport, Ballinahinch and Birdhill, do to make an application to access funding from the Minister's Department to facilitate remote working? I want people be able to go to towns such as Castleconnell, Murroe, Caherconlish and Newport to work remotely in their local community centre, where they know the people. It is a return to a very good model, which involves living and working in the community and rearing one's family there. What can people in Limerick and north Tipperary do to gain access to funding to facilitate the creation of remote-working enterprise centres in local community centres?
We will have 200 broadband connection points rolled out before the end of this year, and the remaining 100 or so will be rolled out by the first half of next year. We are rolling them out as quickly as possible. The way it works is that the broadband officer in the local authority identifies certain communities that have poor-quality broadband. We have worked with Vodafone and National Broadband Ireland to install high-speed broadband in the relevant community centres. I now have the funding. I want to make sure that if a community hall needs to install some equipment, such as a desk or two, fit out a room or do something that improves its quality, we want to work with it. We have been rolling out the initiative, working with the local authorities so they will be able to identify changes that need to be made. It will not involve big money. We would like to be able to help in this regard. In addition, there is the initiative concerning remote working or co-working spaces in towns and villages.
Could I follow up on that? A major issue in rural east Limerick and rural north Tipperary is that Eir might have broadband available at both ends of a road but no coverage in between. I ask that local authority broadband officers take into account in their analysis and appraisal the locations that cannot access broadband but where it could be made available in the local community centre. In this way, the centre would qualify under the scheme on the basis that there are areas nearby that do not have access to broadband. I ask that the criteria be expanded. The measure is very welcome. When does the Minister expect to have the scheme up and running so relevant communities can apply for broadband in their community centres through their local authorities, such as Limerick City and County Council and Tipperary County Council?
I take the Deputy's point on where there are gaps in coverage along roads. This is being examined under the national broadband plan. The types of areas in question are identified as areas that need attention.
The local authorities are certainly working with communities across the country. They are happy to work further with them. If there are other connection points that we need to consider, I will be happy to work with the local authorities in that regard and get feedback from them.
Let me state what the €5 million is for. We need a mapping exercise because we need to find out where all the hubs are and account for the broadband connection points. There are all sorts of names in use, including "co-working spaces" and "digital hubs". We are going to put them all on one big map and see where the gaps are. We will also be able to provide a platform or app so a person will be able to find out where remote working is possible in his or her local area. We are considering town and village renewal in the sense that there might be a premises in the middle of a town suitable for a co-working hub. I am very keen to have the hubs in the middle of towns because it revitalises them. If a community centre needs to buy a desk or kit itself out, that will not be a problem; that is what the money is for.
May I mention the "D" word, namely, decentralisation? It has been out of favour. Previously, decentralisation involved moving whole sections of Departments, but my idea involves a different type of decentralisation. Working from home is fine for many people, but people need socialisation at work. It is also important for the workplace. Instead of bringing people back to their parent Departments, could there be Civil Service offices, perhaps in premises currently held, where people from different Departments could work and be overseen by a principal officer? People all over the country could work remotely near where they wanted to live. Has there been any discussion on this suggestion, including with the OPW on utilising underutilised properties in the new regime? The post-Covid world will not be the same as the pre-Covid world.
I agree. For that reason, there will be a focus on remote working under the rural development plan. Co-working is better because people need social interaction. I have already spoken to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, about co-working spaces specifically designed for public servants so that they can go to towns with facilities that have been kitted out with, for example, the right Internet connections and IT security, and are good work environments. Public servants could have the contact they need because I do not believe that working from home all the time is a good idea. People need to get out. It would also encourage creativity and connectivity between different Departments and ideas could thrive.
I could talk all day about the Annaghmakerrig centre in County Monaghan. The guy who left it to the arts placed one condition on it - the artists could go about their business on their own all day, be it writing books, painting or whatever, but they had to have dinner together in the evening. A connection whereby people sit down together and have a bit of lunch or a cup of coffee allows an exchange of ideas and encourages creativity.
I would like to think that if we design such facilities, we could also have a space for an artist. We will work on these matters.
There is nothing stopping people from multiple Departments going to the same building if the broadband connection is good. Remote working is great and co-working is the key.
I will finish on this point. All politics are local. Murroe is in my constituency. It is the home of Glenstal Abbey. Murroe has the Muintir na Tíre Hall, which was founded by Canon John Hayes, who promoted the idea of people working and thriving in their communities. I am not saying we are going back to that exactly, but we are going back to it in a digital age. It should be supported. We have to think outside the box and it is a good initiative.
I have discussed this matter with the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. He and I are committed to working on this initiative so that public servants can access good-quality facilities in locations across the country. It is the right thing to do. It will help towns and villages that are crying out for workers to revitalise them.