Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Rural and Community Development: Statements
Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak today on the work being carried out by my Department. At the outset, I acknowledge the work of my predecessor, the former Minister, Deputy Ring. It is worth remembering that when the Department of Rural and Community Development was established back in 2017, it did not even have a building to call their own. What was achieved by the Minister, Deputy Ring, and his officials in the three years since means there is now a well-run Department in place delivering real and tangible benefits to rural communities throughout the State.
When I was appointed as the Minister in June, I was determined to build on that good work, and that is why I maintained the Department of Rural and Community Development as a stand-alone Department separate from my other brief with the Department of Social Protection. There are of course strong synergies between the two Departments, particularly when it comes to programmes like community employment, Tús and the rural social scheme, which do such fantastic work in local communities throughout the country. I, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, will look to strengthen that work further by bringing a more joined-up and co-ordinated approach to the two Departments' work in that area.
There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives, including how we socialise, how we work, how we study and how we interact with others. The crisis has also reminded us of the value of communities working together to support each other and helping the most vulnerable in our communities. The Covid-19 crisis has also shown us that we can adapt to difficult situations and be innovative in how we approach things. It has given us an opportunity to revalue the importance of rural economies to our overall national development and to reimagine the potential for what rural Ireland and its people can achieve.
There is no one size fits all when we talk about rural Ireland. Different places have different strengths and different needs. Some rural areas are close to large urban centres and others are very remote. The offshore islands have their own unique needs because of their peripheral nature, but they also have great strengths. Recognising and realising the different needs of our rural communities will be a key focus of the new rural policy I am currently developing. This policy will build on the progress achieved through the action plan for rural development, which concluded in 2019.
As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis and look to the future, my message is simple. Rural Ireland must be a central part of our national economic and social recovery. When we talk about recovery, we need to ensure that it is a balanced recovery that reaches all parts of our country. The new rural policy will address the impact of Covid-19 on rural areas, but it will also be forward-looking and ambitious and seek to realise opportunities for rural areas.
It really is time to reframe the narrative around the rural-urban divide. Our national recovery requires a holistic approach, involving the contribution of both urban and rural areas. With a country of our size and with our strong dependence on sectors such as agrifood and tourism, the separation of urban and rural in our language is no longer helpful. The two are interdependent and we need to recognise that. The process of developing the rural policy has included a wide range of consultation events with key stakeholders, including Departments, State agencies, rural stakeholder groups, young people and the wider public.
The inputs from these consultations are being factored into the drafting of the policy.
I am also engaging in a series of bilateral discussions with other Ministers to ensure the new policy reflects the whole-of-government response needed to drive forward ambitious and positive change for rural Ireland in the years ahead. I hope to be in a position to bring the final policy to the Government for approval in the near future and I would welcome Deputies' views over the course of this debate on what they believe is needed in that policy.
One of the key areas of focus in the policy will be ensuring we can maximise the huge opportunities that remote working presents for rural development. Remote working, or connected working as I call it, will be a game changer for rural Ireland. Last year, remote working was just a concept or an aspiration. Now, because of Covid, it is an everyday working reality for thousands of workers. Major companies like Indeed and Microsoft telling their staff that they can work remotely for the long term highlights the potential for rural development.
This week marks one year since the national broadband plan contract was signed. Nobody is questioning now whether it was the right decision to sign that contract. The national broadband plan is the single biggest investment in rural Ireland since electrification and the Covid pandemic has proven beyond doubt that the decision to sign the contract last year was absolutely the right call.
There are benefits across the board from remote working. People can live and work in their own locality and access more affordable housing. Less time spent commuting means a better work-life balance and is also positive for the environment. As I have said before, the reality is that an office worker with good phone and broadband coverage can do the same job in Ballybay as in Ballsbridge. As a Government, we need to seize the momentum around remote working now. My Department is investing in the development of remote working hubs through schemes like the €1 billion rural regeneration and development fund and the town and village renewal scheme. Investment in co-working facilities is also important because not everybody wants to work from home permanently.
We will also have 200 broadband connection points up and running by the end of this year and that will increase to over 300 by next year. My Department is working with the Western Development Commission to build an integrated network of remote working hubs along the Atlantic economic corridor, from Kerry to Donegal. The Western Development Commission has identified and mapped more than 100 remote working hubs that will serve that region. I want to see that work spread countrywide in order that we can map out all of our remote working hubs across the country. We need to know which ones are working well, which ones are underutilised and most important, we need to raise awareness of what is available. My vision is that at the end of that work we will have a mobile phone app that people will be able to use to identify a remote working facility that is available for them to go and work at, no matter where they are in the country. An interdepartmental working group, chaired by the Secretary General of my Department, has been convened to progress that work as a matter of priority.
As many Deputies will be aware, there is a vast array of funding streams and supports available from my Department. A total of 139 projects have been approved for funding of €166 million under the rural regeneration and development fund to date. These are large scale, often multimillion euro, projects which will deliver significant impacts across rural Ireland, supporting sustainable communities, economic development and job creation. The closing date for the third call for category 1 large projects under the rural regeneration and development fund is 1 December 2020 and I look forward to announcing the successful projects in 2021.
The town and village renewal scheme has proven to be an extremely effective and popular support since it was established in 2016, with almost 1,200 projects approved to date for funding of over €78 million. Funding of up to €200,000 is available for projects under this scheme and successful projects can range from the development of digital hubs, which I mentioned earlier, to works to improve the public realm.
The outdoor recreation scheme provides funding for the development of greenways, cycleways, walking trails, blueways and other important recreational amenities. This scheme has an annual budget of €10 million per annum, with a further contribution made by Fáilte Ireland. The pandemic has awoken an interest in people in getting out and exploring our great outdoors. That is something on which I want to build further and I was pleased to secure an additional €2 million for the outdoor recreation scheme in budget 2021.
CLÁR is an investment programme for small-scale projects in rural areas that have suffered from depopulation. It is a hugely popular scheme and since 2016, funding of over €36 million has been allocated for over 1,500 projects in CLÁR areas. The CLÁR budget has been increased to €5.5 million in budget 2021.
The community enhancement programme provides small capital grants to community groups to enhance facilities in disadvantaged areas. That scheme is administered by local community development committees with support from the local authorities.
The local improvement scheme, LIS, provides funding for improvements to private and non publicly maintained roads. The scheme was reintroduced in 2017 and since then €58 million has been allocated to over 2,300 projects, which have benefited over 10,000 landowners and residents. The LIS allocation for 2020 was €10 million, but I have secured an extra €500,000 for the scheme next year.
Under the LEADER programme, €250 million has been provided since 2016 to rural projects focused on economic and enterprise development, job creation, social inclusion and supporting the rural environment. As of 1 November, 3,530 projects with a value of over €139 million had been approved for LEADER funding. As Deputies are aware, the current LEADER programme comes to an end this year and the programme for Government includes a commitment to prioritise a State-led programme to bridge the gap between the current LEADER programme and the next EU programme. An extra €4 million has been provided for LEADER in budget 2021 to bring the total allocation for next year to €44 million. This allocation will be used to fund a combination of existing projects as they come to completion, as well as for new projects to be approved under the transitional programme. The funding will also support the administration costs of local action groups, which deliver the programme locally, in closing out the existing programme and delivering the transitional programme. The details of the transitional programme are currently being finalised and I hope to be in a position shortly to announce the full details of project and administration allocations under the programme.
That is a brief overview of some of the main funding streams available from my Department. The grants available can range from a few hundred euro under the community enhancement scheme right up to several million euro under the rural regeneration and development fund. One thing I would like to hear from Deputies during this debate is whether they feel there any gaps in our supports. If, for example, they are hearing about good projects in their local areas that just cannnot find a suitable funding avenue, I ask them to let me know because I want to ensure our schemes meet the needs of communities on the ground.
My Department is responsible for the public library service which has over 330 branches. Public libraries have provided a brilliant service since the onset of the pandemic in March. My Department funds a libraries capital programme that will invest €29 million in 18 projects, as well as the My Open Libraryservice between 2016 and 2022.
Building on the success of the existing libraries capital programme, my Department approved €3 million in funding in September for a small-scale capital works programme to support local authorities to adapt their public libraries to comply with the Covid-19 public health guidelines. I have recently approved €713,000 for specific library supports for marginalised, socially excluded and disadvantaged communities. My Department has provided €400,000 in funding to purchase additional e-books and e-audiobooks to meet the rising demand for online services. Usage is now at unprecedented levels with e-book loans having increased by 122% and e-audiobook loans increasing by 111%. While these services are highly valued by library members, naturally, they are looking forward to when they can return to their local library again when restrictions allow.
My Department was centrally involved in the Government’s community call initiative. This was an unprecedented mobilisation of national and local government, along with the community and voluntary sector, to support vulnerable people in our communities. Community call has brought in a new way of working, a renewed shared purpose and collaboration between volunteers, local and national government, as well as the community and local development sector.
The past few months have been a difficult time financially for community and voluntary groups. In response to this, the community and voluntary sector Covid-19 stability fund was a targeted cash injection for organisations and groups delivering front-line services to the most at need in our society, as well as those in danger of imminent closure due to lost fundraising or traded income as a direct result of restrictions to counter the spread of Covid-19.
Four tranches of successful applications have been announced, allocating funding of over €30 million to 568 organisations. This funding is now supporting the delivery of many critical front-line services in every part of the country. A decision will be finalised shortly on the distribution of an additional €10 million allocation. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O’Brien, will speak later on all the good work taking place in the Department on the community side.
Many initiatives are being undertaken by my Department to support rural Ireland and our community and voluntary sector across the country. I am glad to have had the opportunity to outline some of our work today. Rather than just having statements for the sake of it today, I would like to use this as an opportunity to hear the feedback from Deputies on what they feel is working well but also what areas on which we can improve. Are there any gaps in our funding supports? Do we need to change the areas of focus for some of the schemes? I am happy to hear any constructive ideas that Deputies might have around the new rural policy. I look forward to hearing constructive and positive feedback from Deputies. I want to work with Deputies on this because I certainly do not have a monopoly on good ideas. The time in this House can be used for the benefit of the people of rural Ireland. I would like to hear about issues and ideas around remote working. Can we improve on the schemes? What should be the priority? What ideas do Members want to see progressed in the new rural policy, such as town centres? There are many areas on which we can have a good discussion.
I thank the Minister for her statement. It is a welcome opportunity for this debate at this time in the context of Covid and Brexit. I acknowledge the work the Minister, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, have done since they took over. I also acknowledge the work of her predecessors, my constituency colleague, Deputy Ring, Deputy Ó Cuív and Pat Carey who served in Departments which laid the foundation for much of the work the Minister is now doing. I acknowledge the work of her civil servants, predominantly based in Ballina, my home town, who have worked extraordinarily hard with the Minister and her predecessor, Deputy Ring, to respond to the various crises over the past several months and who have put in place a Department responding to many of the challenges we face.
One of the best things the Minister could do for rural development is to reinstate the policy of decentralisation and to get more people to work outside of the capital in rural communities where they, particularly those in the Department of Transport, could experience the day-to-day challenges of life in rural areas.
The new rural policy will be welcome. It will take in the lessons we have learned from Covid but also from Brexit. The Copenhagen Economics report on Brexit stated there could be between 17,000 and 30,000 fewer jobs in our food industry depending on the severity of Brexit. An IBEC report from 2017, which still holds, stated rural areas are more than five times more reliant on Brexit-exposed jobs than urban areas. While considerable advantages have been shown during Covid, there are considerable challenges. The sectors which face the biggest post-Covid challenges in tourism and retail are predominantly based in rural areas. For many people, tourism is the anchor of their rural economy. We will have to respond quickly and comprehensively to rebuild that.
As well as the new rural policy, there is the national plan review. All the initiatives in her Department outlined by the Minister are welcome. We have to make big ticket investments in terms of infrastructure across rural Ireland, however. This would send a signal. Those big ticket investments would include further support for regional airports, including Ireland West Airport Knock, which I know got support last week. This time last year before Covid, we were talking about building a strategic development zone around the airport and exploiting the industrial and employment advantages for an area that suffered significant employment damage for many years.
The western rail corridor would result in putting freight and passengers back on track, while making public transport an attractive and feasible option. There are various regional and national roads with the Atlantic economic corridor. The Minister referred to it in the context of broadband connection points. However, the Department needs to lead a strategy for developing the Atlantic economic corridor as a counterweight. This would take the pressure off accommodation, infrastructure and public services that were so apparent until Covid began. That is an area the Department can re-energise as we redevelop the Atlantic economic corridor.
The new action plan for rural development needs to look at the benefits of homeworking. NUI Galway, with the Western Development Commission, did an interesting survey which showed that 94% of respondents want to continue to work remotely some, or all, of the time after the Covid crisis. The Minister made the important point that not everybody wants to continue to work at home. Instead, they want to go to a place of work with collegiality, as well as the separation of work from home. The connection of innovation centres, broadband connection points and a support for communities to develop that kind of location is absolutely essential. Those who participated in the survey had not previously considered homeworking. More importantly, when we see employers giving homeworking as a choice because they had no option and realised that it works, then there are significant opportunities there for the west coast.
The broadband issue continues to be a major bone of contention. The Minister does not need to be told that, coming from a rural constituency.
The urgent roll-out of the national broadband plan is crucial. There cannot be any delays. We must also look at the existing providers, particularly Eir. I know the Ceann Comhairle is fed up with Topical Issue matters related to Eir, but the roll-out of broadband is causing huge aggravation in rural communities. There must be far more co-ordination with Eir on the roll-out of the national broadband plan. Neighbour is literally pitted against neighbour in the roll-out of broadband. That is not the way to do business. It cannot be allowed to continue. Home working and homeschooling have shown the deficiencies of broadband, but the opportunities are there. We need better co-ordination and greater ambition in the roll-out of broadband facilities.
The Minister mentioned several schemes. I welcome last week's announcement of 100% funding for greenways. A lot of the Minister's schemes depend on funding from local authorities. Local authorities have just come through a very difficult financial period. I compliment the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on responding to this with a 100% rates remission. Any local authority that is considering reducing services should reconsider in light of the Government's investment in local authority finances. However, cash resources will be scarce for the foreseeable future. I ask the Minister to have regard to local authorities' ability to invest in Government funding programmes and consider a model of 100% Government funding for some key projects.
All rural communities throughout the European Union are suffering in similar ways. All of the difficulties and challenges that we face, including those related to depopulation, services and infrastructure, could be addressed on a pan-European basis. State aid rules must be revised to allow Governments to help rural communities to repopulate, invest in infrastructure and support businesses without contravening them. I refer in particular to small local businesses. There will be an appetite for such a revision throughout Europe.
Tá a lán de na ceantair Ghaeilge i gceantair thuaithe agus tá sé tábhachtach go ndéanaimid gach iarracht cabhrú leis an nGaeilge ag an am seo. Most of our Gaeltacht communities are in rural areas and are facing particular population challenges. I welcome the fact that the Minister is involving other Ministers in this. The former Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, and I used to spar at question time in the previous Dáil. One thing we agreed on was the siloed approach in so many areas of the Government's work. For want of a better phrase, too many Departments dump all of their rural and community work on the Minister's Department. That is simply not on. Every Department has a role to play in rejuvenating our rural communities. It should not all be left to the Minister present and the Minister, Deputy O'Brien.
In the area of education, we have to look at the rules around schools and the pupil-teacher ratio. That must once again favour and protect rural schools. A school is the heart of a community. Rural communities can build out from there. I have already referred to local government issues. In the area of transport, Local Link services need more support and better co-ordination. The physical investment we are now seeing must be reflected in our local and regional roads. The local improvement scheme, LIS, is excellent but it is choked by bureaucracy. It should be freed up and the power to decide where the funding goes should be returned to local councillors rather than staying with the Department of Rural and Community Development. The Minister is busy enough without having to decide what bóithrín in what county should get funding. I call on the Minister to give local government the authority to spend the money. It will spend it well, as it always has.
The Minister mentioned town and village renewal, which is crucial. We are all seeing the death of towns and villages. We need to examine the planning laws with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, to see why towns and villages have so many empty buildings that could be used as accommodation to address our housing crisis. The upstairs spaces in many business premises could be rejuvenated as community facilities. If combined with proper public transport and proper investment in schools, that would have a serious effect.
We could speak about this issue for many hours, but the Minister will be bringing the plan forward. I ask her to engage with us all on it. Equally, these issues challenge us to engage with her Department. I wish the Minister continued success. She will have our support. The ideas we can bring to this debate are crucial. I thank the Minister's Department officials for their extraordinary work during an extraordinary year. Let us hope we can build on the lessons we have learned in 2020 to lay good foundations for the years ahead.
I welcome the opportunity to speak during these statements. The primary objective of those of us who grew up and live in rural areas is to see those communities thrive. We must protect and sustain the rural life that so many people enjoy so they can live, work and raise their families there. We must ensure that future generations can live and work in our rural towns and villages. The schoolgoing children of today should not be forced to emigrate after school or college, as many of my generation were. Workers should not be forced into their cars to commute for hours on end or forced to move to urban areas to pay huge rents and work just to live.
For many years the options for young people and families have been to emigrate or to move to Dublin. In the end it comes down to investment. There must be equal investment east and west, North and South. In many cases that is what has been missing for decades. The Minister spoke earlier about balanced recovery after Covid-19. That is so important. We have to recognise that there was no such balanced recovery in many towns and villages after the 2008 recession. Post offices, schools, Garda stations and businesses have closed, services have been stripped and moved to bigger towns and main streets have become derelict. Many of the jobs lost at that time were never replaced and the investment needed to reboot our towns and villages was not forthcoming.
That fact is proven by the European Commission's downgrading of the northern and western region from a developed region to a transition region. This region is regressing. It is falling behind the other regions. That is because when it comes to investment, the west and north west of Ireland have been at the bottom of the table. This region has been at the bottom of the table when it comes to infrastructure, health, third level education and commercial activity. Disposable incomes in this region are far below the national average and those in other regions. These are the enablers that will improve people's standards of living. That must be addressed. The Minister has outlined the many available funding streams, which do make a difference. However, we need far more investment to bring the west and north west back to the status of a developed region. We have a regions problem. The European Commission has told the Government as much. Furthermore, a recent study on the EU's lagging regions, commissioned by the European Parliament, has found that the west and Border region should be reclassified as a lagging region because of its extremely low growth, which diverges from the rest of the State. That is quite alarming and it must be addressed.
I have said this to the Minister before and I will say it again. Sustained positive discrimination is needed to address the inequality that is growing year after year and leaving the western region behind. I commend the Northern and Western Regional Assembly which has brought forward a comprehensive plan to take advantage of the fact that the northern and western region will now qualify for European co-financing rates of 60% for the period from 2021 to 2027. That means the EU will contribute €60 for every €100 invested by the Government in that period. We must grasp that opportunity to tackle this widening inequality.
We have yet to see the new rural development action plan. This was due to run from 2020 after the last one finished in 2019. This year, 2020, is nearly over. I really do not like the phrase "near future" because it really does not narrow things down. We need to see that plan. I have spoken to the Minister about one of the main objectives of the previous plan, namely, to support enterprise growth and job creation in rural areas. The key target of that action plan was to increase the number of people in employment. I know from a recent reply to a parliamentary question that, between 2015 and 2019, employment in the regions increased by 222,400 outside of Dublin.
As I said, that is welcome. Job creation is always welcome but the Minister could not provide a regional breakdown in that regard. This needs to be rectified in the next action plan. We need to see targeted job creation and to see the results of it because "outside of Dublin" leaves 25 counties in the South in respect of which we do not know where job creation is happening. I ask that in the new action plan we see far better targeted job creation and the results to show us where we are at come the end of that plan. If we are to develop and sustain our rural communities, we need jobs. One positive that we can take from Covid is the increased number of people who have been able to work remotely over the last few months. That is really positive. It is another opportunity for rural towns and villages that we have to grasp. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-imagine how we work and it will be of huge benefit to workers, their families and their local economies. The regional assemblies of Ireland recently published a report which shows that one in four private sector workers could be targeted for remote working. In the west and north-west alone, there are 40,000 such workers. This means 40,000 fewer people commuting and at home in their communities spending in their local economies. This number is much higher when the public sector personnel that are working remotely are added. Remote working hubs and co-working spaces can transform rural Ireland. The Minister referenced the interdepartmental group that has been established. I hope there is a speedy timeline for it to report to the Minister. I welcome that work is under way. It will be extremely positive for us, for our generation and generations to come.
I also want to make reference to broadband and the commitment in the programme for Government to accelerate the roll-out of broadband in rural areas. How is that going to be achieved? It would be helpful to see a plan on how that acceleration will happen. We all know that there are many homes and businesses that continue to have major difficulties when it comes to broadband. We have seen these difficulties most recently in the context of marts having to operate online because of Covid restrictions. This has created problems for marts and for buyers. This is really worrying at a time when farmers' income is already on the floor for many. We also saw it back in March in the context of the only option for children being to go online to learn. I would welcome more clarity in regard to the acceleration of broadband provision and how that is going to come about.
There are two other issues I want to mention briefly. These are issues that affect people living in rural Ireland that are constant and have not been addressed but can be addressed. The first issue is school transport. I appreciate this does not come directly within the remit of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, but in the context of the whole-of-government approach about which she spoke earlier we need to look at this annual problem. The problem has been further increased this year because of Covid but it exists year-on-year. The Department of Education needs to work with the Department of Transport to reform school transport for children. I am still being contacted by parents in my constituency who have not been able to secure places on buses for their children. In areas where LocalLink operates consideration should be given to it being allowed to transport children to school to and from housing states in the morning and the evening. This proposal was raised with me at my local family resource centre. This would be of benefit to children when it comes to their attendance at school. In areas where a LocalLink service is operating this idea should be examined.
The other issue is illegal dumping, which is an issue all of us here hear about all of the time. It is a blight on our rural towns and villages. Again, this is an issue that has not been resolved. The issues arising in the different areas vary greatly but the fines are not working. I think the current fine is €150. Addressing this issue requires a whole-of-government approach with various Departments. We also need to engage with local litter wardens on how we can resolve this problem. It is a real shame. It causes a great deal of frustration for people living in rural areas when they see it constantly.
It is disappointing that "the Islands" has been dropped from the Department's title. We have an awful lot of work to do. As somebody who does not come from an island off the coast of Ireland I am mindful of the serious engagement we need to have with people who call the islands home. I hope that we can do much of that work through the line committee. It is important when speaking about balanced recovery and east and west that we remember the people on the islands and the need to sustain their livelihoods there as well. I know that is something the Minister will appreciate.
We should remember that there are many positives even though we are in the midst of Covid. I read in an article in The Irish Times at the weekend that in my home town of Ballaghaderreen five new businesses have opened or are about to open. That is positive. As we approach Christmas, it is important that we remember businesses across the country in our rural towns and villages. We need to support them through Covid to make sure that we can rebuild after Covid and going forward. We need to make sure that the mistakes of the 2008 recession are not repeated. This means taking full advantage of the EU regional funding for the west and the north, taking full advantage of remote working opportunities, tackling those issues that are ongoing around school transport and illegal dumping. There are other issues. So many people want to live in rural communities. Many of our emigrants are coming home to live and work in rural communities. We need to do everything possible to make sure there are opportunities in our rural towns and villages to allow that to happen.
The community and regional development of rural Ireland must be prioritised and well-funded if we are serious about protecting and sustaining our rural communities. The recent closure of post offices, rural Garda stations and the decline in funding in recent years, combined with villages losing their parishioners to emigration, sadly, has taken its toll on rural Ireland.
The Government's funding commitment to the new rural regeneration fund is a step in the right direction. However, some of these grants apply to a population of 10,000 or under. This means slightly bigger rural market towns, although they contain areas of disadvantage and deprivation, are over the threshold. This anomaly must be addressed. LEADER funding is a vital cog in the development of our rural communities. There is need for re-examination of the cluttered bureaucratic system which favours those who are well-equipped to handle the paperwork over those who are not. This applies in particular to community volunteers involved in the social inclusion projects. They are often overwhelmed with the amount of complex hoops they must jump through to get a small project off the ground.
Community employment, CE, schemes offer vital support to local communities. This should be an area of most concern to the current Government. Insurance and ever-increasing heating and lighting costs have put a tremendous strain on community centres, community services, community enterprises and, in the main, community managers, some of whom after 20 to 25 years service are not entitled to a pension. The cost of the recent increase in the minimum wage was also passed on to community centres, which resulted in reduced hours for CE employees, or worse still, some being let go, which is the direct opposite of the purpose of the scheme in the first instance.
It will come as no surprise that I am also raising the impact of Covid-19 on rural Ireland. This pandemic has changed the way many people work on this island. People had to adapt quickly to create home offices and new routines of childcare, among many other balancing acts. However, the experience of working from home is more difficult for many people in rural Ireland, in particular in Wexford, due to inadequate broadband provision. I was concerned to read in a reply to a parliamentary question to my colleague, Deputy Ó Murchú, that of the 68 public broadband points connected none is in Wexford. I know there are some connection points planned for the county but can we expect any of them to be operational before the end of 2020? I note the Minister's recent announcement of remote working hubs for rural areas. This is, of course, a welcome idea but there are many areas in Wexford that will not be served by these hubs and where people cannot get basic broadband services into their homes. This needs to be dealt with as a matter of priority.
I have no doubt that other Deputies will agree with me that the major issue is the daunting threat of Brexit. Last week, I spoke in this Chamber on the issue of Brexit and in particular Rosslare Port. It is a very important issue that I fear is being overlooked. In preparation for Brexit and a subsequent increase in customs control, staff and traffic at ports, a traffic management plan has been devised for Dublin Port and its surrounding areas but as far as I am aware a similar plan has not been made for Rosslare Port and the surrounding areas.
I know this issue is not within the realm of the Minister's Department per se, but it is an example of rural Ireland being overlooked and I urge her to follow up on the issue with her Government colleagues to get it addressed. It cannot be accepted that the community of Rosslare is subject to massive traffic disruption because it was not given the same thought and planning as urban Dublin.
Finally, it is part of the remit of the Minister to support sustainable communities across Ireland and to protect rural communities from climate change. One area that is certainly not sustainable is the continued flooding in my town of Enniscorthy. The people of Enniscorthy have endured extreme hardship. Floods have occurred there in 1924, 1947, 1965, 2000, 2015 and in June of this year. The flooding is further crippling businesses and homeowners already under severe pressure from the prospect of another bad winter. There have been long-promised flood defence schemes but, unfortunately, there has been delay after delay. A scheme is currently awaiting sign-off by the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. I urge the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to follow up on that with him as a matter of extreme urgency.
The life experiences of communities in rural areas such as my county of Wexford must be listened to by the Government as the experience of living and working in these areas is often very different from that in urban cities and towns. Smaller towns and villages offer so much by way of growing businesses, exceptional tourism and hospitality opportunities and contributions to the community through sports and the arts sector. We must continue to support them. We must address the inequalities they face compared with bigger cities and ensure they can continue to contribute to our economic and social lives and the culture of the nation.
Covid-19 has affected every single walk of life since last March. When society practically shut down eight months ago, we entered the land of the unknown. Natural human interaction that we took for granted was no longer possible. We needed to try to find a new way of interacting. It was no longer possible to attend workplaces or school settings. At some stages, we could no longer fly, drive or even walk to meet our families. The possibility of attending sporting or music events was removed. This was all due to the threat of the virus.
Technology stepped into the breach, and thankfully so. I doubt many or any of us just those few months ago had ever heard of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts or other similar virtual forums. What I am getting to is that whenever our basis of humanity was removed or threatened by this global pandemic, the only mechanism that allowed us to continue our lives with some sense of normality was technology. However, the issue is that if ever the technological divide in Ireland manifested itself and showed how wrong and problematic this divide is, it was during this Covid-19 crisis.
A year ago almost to the day, on 19 November 2019 my constituency colleague and then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, announced a €128 million broadband investment that would connect 32,000 homes and businesses in Donegal to a high-speed fibre optic broadband network. Many people would have loved to have had such a connection in recent months.
I wish to touch on my county's experience with the Eir contract under which the company was contracted to reach out to another 300,000 homes. Lines were drawn in rural communities outside of towns. These were cruel lines. I have lost count of the number of families my office has dealt with that were just outside the lines. They were looking at their neighbours who gained this absolutely essential access to broadband. It is almost comparable to the electrification of the country back in the day it is so vital in the modern age. Those families were looking at other houses not too far away from them that had gained access, but they had not. That was so cruel. We must deliver this plan.
The House is only too well aware of the problems successive Governments have had in rolling out a national broadband plan. Indeed, we in Sinn Féin had our concerns about the current national broadband plan and we put them forward at the time. That said, we are where we are. The irony of Covid-19 is that although technology went some way to eradicating some of the problems the virus threw at us, the virus also inhibited and affected the roll-out of the current broadband plan. It is now behind schedule. We are at a point where it must be taken as a matter of the utmost seriousness and a priority for the Government. Rural Ireland can no longer operate without a connected broadband infrastructure. For far too long, rural Ireland has been operating with one hand held behind its back when it comes to broadband and, dare I say, there has been no spark from far too many Governments when it came to levelling the pitch. I can tell the Minister that it is unacceptable and will not be accepted for any considerable period into the future.
It is my belief that the success or failure of the roll-out of the national broadband plan will be a litmus test for the Government. Life has changed as a result of Covid-19. Patients are accessing medical appointments through a laptop or mobile phone screen. Students in school or college are doing their lessons online. Increased numbers of people are doing their shopping online and banking is carried out almost exclusively online. None of these necessary life actions can happen without quick, secure and affordable access to broadband.
I ask the Minister to convene an implementation team within her Department, if such a team is not already in place, to work directly with National Broadband Ireland to get the roll-out of broadband back on track, to speed it up if possible and to allow my constituency of Donegal and all other parts of rural Ireland at least to have an even hand when we are fighting for jobs, investment and tourism. To finish as I started, rural and community development is impossible into the future without access to broadband. I urge the Minister to let this be her legacy in the Department for which she has responsibility.
I am sharing time. My Fine Gael colleague is not here at the moment.
Those are the people who the Department supports. Charities, social enterprises, community organisations and the volunteers who assist with these supports are an integral part of the fight against the pandemic. A key priority for me now and into the future will be the continued implementation of the community and voluntary sector strategy, Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities, which will be key to strengthening the community and voluntary sector which has shown its valuable contribution to all aspects of society throughout the pandemic.
As a result of the partnership approach adopted and the increased funding provided by the Department through the past three years to the community and voluntary sector, we were well placed to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges presented to our vulnerable and older citizens during Covid-19. For the past eight months, community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises have played a significant role in delivering vital services to those most in need. I wish to mention some of the ways in which we, as a Department, were able to support them to do this.
First, there is volunteering. There is a fantastic record of volunteer work in Ireland and the Department has continued to invest in volunteering support infrastructure in recent years. This investment really paid dividends in our response efforts as volunteers have been very much to the forefront of the community response to the pandemic. In order to meet the significant extra demand on resources, my Department provided additional funding support to volunteer centres through Volunteer Ireland. Our investment in volunteering infrastructure continues. We are in the process of upgrading several volunteer information services to full volunteer centres which will be operational next year. The areas involved are Leitrim, Laois, Offaly, Roscommon, Waterford and Wexford.
Some 17,000 volunteers have registered with volunteer centres since the outbreak of Covid-19. Drawing on this significant response, a permanent volunteer reserve in each local authority area is under consideration, aimed at managing and co-ordinating our volunteer response in an impactful and targeted manner. I am pleased that after extensive stakeholder consultations, my Department has prepared a draft national strategy on volunteering which will shortly go to the Cabinet for consideration. This strategy will provide a roadmap for the way forward for volunteering and how the Government supports volunteering.
I wish to acknowledge the work of public participation networks, PPNs. They have played, and continue to play, a key role in the Community Call initiative. PPNs are working together with local authorities in carrying out initiatives on their own to help vulnerable people in their localities during the pandemic. The Department has overall responsibility for oversight and development of the national PPNs. PPNs are the main link between local authorities and the three pillars of the community and voluntary, social inclusion and environmental sectors in their areas. The Department will continue to support and develop PPNs in order that they can continue to facilitate participation and representation of communities on local decision-making bodies in a fair, equitable and transparent manner. The PPNs are launching their annual report tomorrow, which will include lists of the activities they undertook in 2019. I urge all Deputies to look up their local authority areas and see the level of activity that has been ongoing by the PPNs. Some 15,600 voluntary groups registered with the networks in 2019. They are the GAA of the community and voluntary sector, reaching into every community in the country. These figures are a great indicator of the vibrancy and energy of the community and voluntary sector in Ireland, especially at local level, and the role played by PPNs in local policymaking and networking.
Members will be pleased that the seniors alert scheme has continued to grow from strength to strength. There are now over 73,000 people availing of a personal monitored alarm, enabling them to live securely in their homes with confidence, independence and peace of mind. The seniors alert scheme is a great example of how we used an existing scheme in a proactive and innovative way. We reached out to all participants in the scheme through the monitoring services for their personal alarms to see if they were all right and if they needed any supports or help, and to arrange for additional supports to be provided through a partnership with ALONE.
I wish to flag that the Department is drafting a Bill to amend the Charities Act 2009. This legislation is designed to strengthen existing supports and to increase public confidence in the charities sector.
I will briefly discuss my social inclusion remit, which reaches into the Department of Social Protection in the area of inclusion. There has been enhanced co-operation between Departments regarding the social inclusion roadmap, which helps to provide a structure for the various social inclusion and poverty reduction approaches in each Department's strategy. I will press ahead with the implementation of this roadmap and do all in my power to help to bring about a more equal society. We plan to initiate some work in 2021 on tackling food poverty. I chaired the first meeting of the interdepartmental monitoring group on the social inclusion roadmap this day last week. All Departments attended and the engagement level was particularly encouraging.
I pay tribute to the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, which is the Government's main social inclusion programme. During the pandemic we have had to be as flexible as possible to enable the local development companies, which are funded under this programme, to continue and strengthen their work with the most disadvantaged in society. In 2019, SICAP supported 2,636 community groups and 30,000 people. I acknowledge the work of all the local development companies in looking out for the most vulnerable during the pandemic. I am glad to announce that we will be piloting a set of new community development projects in 2021, with a view to growing the space and capacity for community-led development. It is hoped that some of these projects will have a climate action character based on the principles of social justice.
In terms of supporting social innovations through our social enterprise policy, our partnership with Rethink Ireland is key to addressing emerging social, economic and environmental needs in a sustainable manner. Rethink Ireland, formerly known as Social Innovation Fund Ireland, has overseen a fund of over €60 million in social innovation support, in combination with philanthropic donations on a matched-funding basis.
I wish to refer to the work of the community services programme, CSP. The Department currently supports more than 420 community organisations under the CSP to provide local services through a social enterprise model. In response to Covid-19, the Department put in place a €1.2 million CSP support fund for 2020 which provided additional funding to many of these organisations, ensuring that they could pay their full-time CSP-supported employees a maximum of €350 net per week, with a proportionate amount for part-time CSP-supported employees. To date, funding of approximately €1 million has issued to 365 CSP-supported organisations that are most in need, supporting over 1,400 full-time equivalent positions. Pobal, which manages the programme on behalf of the Department, has undertaken a detailed review of the financial position of all the CSP-supported organisations, as their ability to generate income has been greatly hampered by the pandemic. The outcome of this review will inform decisions regarding any additional supports that might be required by these organisations. The Department should be in a position to make an announcement on the matter in the coming days. In addition, the Department engaged Indecon Economic Consultants to carry out a review of the CSP. The report was published with a high-level action plan in September. The Department and Pobal have now commenced work on restructuring the programme, which is expected to be complete at the end of 2021.
I am delighted that the Department is a key partner in the PEACE programme and is currently co-designing, with Northern Ireland Departments and the Special EU Programmes Body, the new PEACE PLUS programme. It is expected to provide over €650 million to Northern Ireland and the Border counties. This funding is vital if we are to build strong, resilient communities in a post-Brexit environment and it offers great opportunities for the region.
I refer to the announcement last week of the 2021 action plan for the Dormant Accounts Fund. The fund's objective is to address economic, social or educational disadvantage and to support people with a disability. The 2021 action plan allocates funding of €51 million to 46 measures to be delivered across ten Departments, which indicates the need to ensure that tackling issues of social inclusion is a cross-departmental task. I will be examining ways to enhance the impact of the fund in 2021.
The Department will continue to work with our various community and voluntary sector partners to prioritise marginalised groups and those most impacted by Covid-19. We look forward to supporting new initiatives in 2021 that will ensure further community-led development at local level across the country. We also look forward to working co-operatively to tackle disadvantage and inequality.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, for facilitating this debate on rural and community development. Revitalising our communities will be more important than ever in the months ahead, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise some important issues in this regard.
First, I welcome the appointment of the new board to the Western Development Commission last week. The commission does excellent work in economic and social development in the western region. I wish the incoming board every success in progressing its objectives. I was particularly impressed by its "More to Life" campaign in recent months, which highlighted the benefits of living in the west of Ireland, including the high quality of life and the lower costs of living compared to other parts of the country. Part of the campaign included some incredibly emotive videos demonstrating the best the west of Ireland has to offer and how it excels as a place in which to live and work. At a more strategic level, it is important that the commission is fully supported in progressing the vital Atlantic economic corridor initiative. It might also be useful to consider an expansion of the DigiWest Hub Project to provide local work spaces with high-speed telecommunications. The courthouse in Swinford is one project in receipt of funding for development as a hub. It might be useful to provide an update on the project and whether it can seek further funding.
With €341 million allocated in budget 2021 to community and rural development, it is clear that the Government is serious about its commitment to rural towns, villages and communities. In terms of local community development committees in Mayo, there are a number of implementing partners such as the South West Mayo Development Company located in Newport and Balla and the Mayo North East Partnership Company in Foxford. There is also the work by Moy Valley Resources IRD in Kiltimagh. I raised this issue with the Minister recently during Oral Questions, and I welcome her commitment to ensuring there is a transitional LEADER programme when the current 2014 to 2020 programme concludes. It is important to recognise her work today, while we ensure continued funding in the years ahead.
Another Member of the House invited the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to Ballina to meet her departmental officials who are based there and administer the programme. I, too, extend the same invitation when it is practical to do so, and invite her to visit Castlebar and other areas of the constituency where funding from her Department is being put to good use.
One example I wish to highlight, as construction of the extension nears conclusion, is the Castlebar voluntary social services. It was a recent recipient of more than €41,000 in Covid stability funding and has been doing phenomenal work in recent months, especially on the meals on wheels programme. Once completed, its new and improved facility will be state of the art. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, visited the service in 2016. I hope a Minister can visit the new building once it is complete to see the results of what I consider to be a regional centre of excellence and a leader in this area.
I also wish to raise the issue of the 2020 town and village renewal scheme and the accelerated measures in response to Covid-19. It is welcome that local authorities can seek up to 90% grant aid on projected costs up to a maximum level of €25,000 per project, with the possibility to increase that to €40,000 per funding round for high-impact projects. This has enormous potential to deliver public funding to the real economy in communities where even some basic works to widen footpaths or erect new street lighting can make an incredible difference to local residents. I note that at least 15 projects in Mayo have benefited so far this year, with funding of more than €460,000 under these supports. I hope to see many more such projects, as the funding also benefits smaller communities with projects, for example, in Killala, Crossboyne, Knockmore, Lahardane, Bofeenaun, Islandeady and Parke, as well as tranches of funding for large communities and towns.
I am pleased to be here to speak on rural development and rural Ireland in general. People often talk about rural Ireland being left behind and yet we are conscious that people who live in rural communities enjoy and treasure the communities in which they live because they feel supported and they have achieved so much, often in spite of investment rather than because of it and, likewise, often in spite of the way the Government has left them as an afterthought rather than because of what the Government has done for them. There is an opportunity as we move forward.
The Covid situation has emphasised the point for many of us that people can work outside of the big cities and people do not need to travel to the centre of the universe to do everything. If we can have sufficient broadband in place, efficient telecommunications infrastructure, good roads, good places to live and a healthy community, then people do not need to go to urban centres to survive and to function. The answer to all of this is for the Government to invest in rural broadband. We have been crying out for it for years. Unfortunately, many people are disillusioned about the possibility of the Government delivering on its promises. That is the case in the area I come from, Leitrim, and in north Roscommon or other very rural areas. People have very little faith in the Government delivering broadband in a timely manner that will make a difference to their lives now. That is what they need to see happen.
We also need to look at a number of other issues. I refer to the support for small business and small enterprise. Some great work is done by the Department, such as the LEADER fund that has been trying to get small business going in rural areas. However, it does not do enough of it. There is not enough support in place. I spoke to a person in business recently who told me that they tried to be successful and to promote a project, but they were told not to go to the body concerned with half-baked projects. The difficulty is that there is nowhere to go to develop and to grow projects into something that will work, in particular when they are in a rural area where the infrastructure is not in place.
The quality of life is excellent. People who live in rural areas are very grateful for their lifestyle, yet so much of the trend seems to be to push people into urban settings and more congregated settings. For someone like me or many others who live in rural areas, we see that there is an awful lot of backward thinking in that respect. Ireland is unique in Europe in that so many people live in dispersed rural communities. They work and live very well together. They have a great lifestyle and we need to do everything to make sure that they can continue to do that. In so many rural areas people cannot get planning permission to build a house. It is totally ridiculous, yet we are forcing people into urban centres where there is congestion and there are many social problems and other issues that arise from being so congested.
We must also focus on rural tourism in particular and put adequate infrastructure in place in areas where we do not have other industries. Tourism is an industry that can be made grow and can develop jobs for people in local, rural economies. We must be very conscious of rural towns and villages. Probably half the buildings are boarded up in numerous towns throughout my constituency. The buildings are in ruins. The people who own them do not have the money to do anything with them. In fact, rather than being an asset, they are a liability. In spite of that, the Government refuses time and again to do anything with respect to putting a grant scheme or other measure in place to incentivise people to bring those buildings back into use as homes. Houses are one of the things we are also missing in many parts of rural Ireland where there is also a significant housing crisis. The advantages of living in rural Ireland can be explained to people. The possibilities are there, but the Government must put the emphasis in place to ensure it delivers for people.
Another issue that has been overlooked for a long time by successive Governments is probably a reflection of the permanent government's attitude to rural Ireland. I refer to the treatment of children going to school. Such children cannot get a school bus. In my view, it should simply be part of free education that one can get a bus to school, yet children have to pay for the bus, to go a certain pick-up point to get it, and if there is not a certain number on the route then a bus will not be provided and, if a child is not going to the nearest school, he or she cannot get a bus. There are all these obstacles and rules put in place to ensure that people cannot get access to school transport. In the view of most who can stand back and look at it, there are a whole set of circumstances to push people out of rural Ireland and to get them all to live in towns and not to live in rural areas anymore. It is just a reflection of that mindset and that needs to change. The Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who in fairness is also a person who comes from and lives in rural Ireland, need to look at this. They need to challenge seriously the mindset that says urban is better and rural is worse. The way to do that is to put the infrastructure and funding in place to deliver for people in rural Ireland.
It is so important that the approach to community and rural development is done with accessibility and climate action at the heart of it. Rural communities need to be consulted to best establish how this can be done. I will start with climate action and move on to disability.
The only way we can get public support for real climate action is by communities wanting it and feeling a part of it. Therefore, the only way we can succeed in the face of climate change is if climate action helps communities. To find out how we do this, needless to say, we must speak to those communities. The Government narrative for too long has suggested that climate action will negatively reshape rural areas. In particular, we hear that in regard to it negatively reshaping agriculture. The result is that the very communities that will be the most severely impacted by climate change are the ones that are most scared of climate action. Coastal communities are even more at risk. We talk about climate change like it is something in the distant future, but in areas like west Cork we are already seeing and feeling the devastation caused by climate change. Since the summer, so many areas of west Cork have been flooded after repeated extreme weather events, and that was before we even got into the winter storm period.
Sustainable development needs to be central to rural and community development. This has to happen across a range of areas. Ireland needs to fulfil its international emissions targets and we need an overhaul of the proposed climate action Bill, which has been deemed too vague and lacking accountability by climate scientists and legal experts. As An Taisce has argued, any serious climate legislation needs to have clear-cut obligations on the Government to meet our international climate commitments annually as well as consequent accountability for failure to do so. We need a whole-of-government approach. The Department of Rural and Community Development should play a key role. Departments and local authorities have to engage more with communities to develop viable solutions for each area. A one-size-fits-all approach simply will not work. Building on schemes such as CLÁR and the walks scheme, the Department, in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, should initiate a climate action programme to enable each community to decide how it can best mitigate against climate change. Transition towns, such as Kinsale, have established models that can help direct these types of initiatives. Too often, policies are punitive rather than empowering. Funding from the Department must be based on sustainability that can future-proof rural areas and encourage practices that enhance the natural environment. All schemes and programmes, including the transitional LEADER arrangements, should emphasise providing sustainable development and job creation.
I am a member of the new Joint Committee on Disability Matters. One of the main aims of the committee is to ratify the optional protocol of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
This will mean the State can be held accountable for denying people their right to exercise their rights under this convention. For too long people with disabilities in Ireland have been excluded from being able to exercise their rights. Any future community development must be done in a way that does not exclude people. Every town plan, and every village and urban development needs to ensure accessibility from the outset.
The absence of audible pedestrian crossings is impacting people with visual impairments. People from Bandon, Clonakilty and other areas in west Cork have contacted me. The recent urban regeneration in Clonakilty created new access issues. I recently spoke to a constituent in Ballydehob who cannot bring her mother, who is in a wheelchair, around the village because the footpaths are unsuitable. There are many more examples like these. These are all issues that can be easily resolved with proper consultation and proper planning. Planners, architects, and engineers should be required to engage with expert groups, such as the Irish Wheelchair Association, the National Council for the Blind, the Disabled Drivers Association and community-based access groups to ensure priority areas of need are addressed promptly and effectively.
The expertise of the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design at the National Disability Authority needs to be utilised more in the planning, modification and building of our cities, towns and villages. It has the tools and policies to help ensure we build environments that are accessible and used to the greatest extent possible by people regardless of age, size or ability. The Minister needs to ensure that all funding from her Department for town and village developments has built-in mechanisms to guarantee accessibility and involvement of expert and local groups for people with disabilities.
Community involvement and empowerment are key to ensuring both climate action and disability matters are at the heart of rural and community development. There is a lot of reimagining of our communities and public spaces as a result of the pandemic. There is an opportunity to employ artists and creators to act as facilitators in towns and villages to help imagine new solutions and to liaise with the groups I mentioned to address accessibility and climate action. Many of these practitioners, who have been severely impacted by Covid, have the skills to consult and help different groups in communities to set out a new vision for their areas. We should use their expertise and give them work while also empowering local populations to create communities that are accessible and environmentally sustainable.
I will not go into broadband because most other Deputies have. During the pandemic it is so important that people in rural areas have the opportunity to work from home.
I am sharing my time. We need a vibrant rural life where families can live and work locally in sustainable communities. I take the opportunity of a debate on rural development to welcome US insurance company, Unum's, expansion of its technology centre of excellence in Carlow. Unum has been a big success for Carlow since it set up here in 2008. It currently employs 150 people and today it announced an additional 50 jobs for Carlow. This is a great boost for the south east. Unum is the largest tech employer in Carlow and it has developed strong ties with IT Carlow, from which it employs many graduates.
This expansion has been supported by the Government through IDA Ireland for many years. I have been calling for IDA Ireland to deliver foreign direct investment for rural areas like Carlow. I hope we will see further investment secured in the future. Carlow is situated close to Dublin with a fantastic road network and has so much to offer. I welcome the additional €23 million for rural and community development which I know places particular focus on supporting rural communities impacted by Covid-19. I particularly welcome the investment of €20 million in town and village renewal in 2021. Villages in my area, such as Newtown, Bennekerry, Rathvilly, Bagenalstown, Fenagh, St. Mullins, Myshall, Tullow, Duckett’s Grove and Borris, all form an essential part of rural Ireland and need funding. I know funding is available and I hope it will be accessed.
The funding announced for CLÁR a few days ago was a bit disappointing. I can only speak of my own local authority. My understanding was that CLÁR had €5.5 million. Carlow County Council had applied for ten projects, of which only two were approved, which is very disappointing. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, spoke about the population criteria for CLÁR, which need to be changed because many of the projects were refused because of population size.
I raised the issue of investment in digital hubs and broadband connection points last week. I welcome National Broadband Ireland's investment of €32 million for a new high-speed fibre network in Carlow. It will access the hubs and connection points to become a focus for communities to enable workers and students to work remotely.
The current pandemic crisis has brought to the fore our core values, the essence of our community, and what services the State provides when all life is stripped back to the very basics. The post office network has proven to be essential to our very existence. During the lockdown, the post office network provided essential services. It was one of the few State-owned assets that kept money circulating in our local communities. We can no longer ignore or pay lip service to the realities of the financial gravity in which post offices find themselves. In the next eight months approximately 600 local offices will face significant downward revision in income that will make them unviable. Owing to their community and social value, post offices, so visible during the pandemic, must be recognised and protected. Many people have contacted me on this. The post office is the life and soul of a community.
I welcome the €5.1 million to increase the level of volunteering in the country and to match volunteers to organisations needing assistance. This is the best way to show our appreciation for all those volunteering during the Covid pandemic, especially in County Carlow. This reflects all the great work that has been done. Volunteers represent the best part of us, and this is exactly the kind of investment we needed. We need to be very practical here. Rural areas need to survive. At the best of times before the pandemic we were facing challenges, but Covid has brought extra challenges for which we need to get funding.
I return to the post offices. We need to play a role in keeping our post offices open. That is the biggest challenge we have, and we need to ensure we do that.
I thank the Minister for giving us an opportunity to speak about the important issues facing rural and community development. As somebody who was born and raised in a community in a rural area in east Cork in Killeagh in the Youghal area as a child, I am very passionate about ensuring we make our rural communities more sustainable. We need to focus on rural development in rapidly changing times, particularly given some of the very significant issues facing so many families in rural areas.
Earlier today the Joint Committee on Transport and Communication Networks heard about the broadband connection problems facing families with adult children who lost their jobs and decided to move back to their rural homes rather than attend physical lectures because of Covid-19. Many people are struggling with broadband connections. The problem is multifaceted, and we need to approach it in a cross-departmental fashion. The Department of Rural and Community Development has specific oversight for issues facing rural communities and the welfare issues of people in rural areas. We need to improve how we communicate the roll-out of rural broadband and the Minister of State should place special focus on that.
The important thing is to give people clarity. Many people approach me under the impression that their local Deputy can intervene in the roll-out of broadband connections to individual homes, which is simply wrong. None of us has that ability. However, we should be able to give an accurate answer to our constituents who want to know for certain when they will be connected to the national broadband network, which is critical.
I will use the latter half of my contribution to outline my very strong feelings about the opportunities our smaller towns have, including Midleton, Youghal, Mallow, Fermoy, Mitchelstown and Cobh. They have public libraries in most cases, but the services being offered by their libraries could be greatly expanded.
Universities and colleges across the country provide students with the opportunity to sit down and study in an appropriate space with others who are trying to achieve the same goal in terms of furthering their education. A direct support mechanism for local authorities, through the Department of Rural and Community Development, would be greatly beneficial and would facilitate the upgrading of libraries all over the country, including in Cork East which I am very honoured to represent. Such support would allow for an increase in the amount of space available to those who are studying, including adults engaged in further education. A home is not always a suitable place to study, particularly if it is small or occupied by numerous people. It is very important for people to have some peace and quiet when they are trying to study and we must be conscious of the fact that not every family has that luxury. We must be balanced and fair in our approach and try to ensure that all citizens have equal access to facilities that will enable them to further their education. We must support them as a State.
I am very passionate about a particular project in Midleton. The library in Midleton is in a beautiful old building on the main street. We have been trying for a very long time to get funding for Cork County Council which has put wonderful plans in place, through its librarians and staff on the ground, for the library. There is an abundance of space available in that library which could provide community facilities and study spaces for students from Midleton and the surrounding region. In Youghal we also have an almost shovel-ready project for which we are trying to secure funding for the local authority. The Department of Rural and Community Development is better suited than any to step in and work alongside other Departments to come up with a comprehensive plan to improve education in rural communities and in that context, one very readily available asset is the public library. We must make sure that our public libraries and other public and community spaces have access to high-speed broadband.
Having strong, progressive policies that have been developed with a ground-up approach, backed up with resources and appropriate schemes are key ingredients in addressing the issues of rural depopulation and decline, bringing us to a place of positivity and growth in rural Ireland. The rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, offers the opportunity to rural towns and villages to realise their potential and dreams. This week the Burren Ecotourism Network in north Clare was recognised as a global leader in sustainable tourism by Lonely Planet. This is a serious achievement and I congratulate all involved in this innovative initiative. Work-life balance is a key consideration for the 21st century workforce. The RRDF has facilitated the development of a cutting edge digital hub in north Clare in the town of Ennistymon. This flagship project taps into work-life balance requirements, enabling people to live and work in a spectacular location, as recognised by Lonely Planet. This particular project was jointly funded by Clare County Council and has transformed an unused 9,000 sq. ft building to provide opportunities for private enterprise, public services and tourism information while also providing businesses with access to hot desk facilities and high-speed broadband connectivity.
The town and village renewal scheme has provided a serious injection to small towns and villages throughout the country since it was reintroduced by the former Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, in 2016. Our towns and villages are the heartbeat of rural communities but many are still recovering from the last recession and have now been hit by the fallout from Covid-19. The Minister's establishment of the accelerated measures strand of the town and village renewal scheme has made a real difference and given towns and villages a much needed lift in these extraordinary times. The outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme is another wonderful funding opportunity for the development of new and existing outdoor infrastructure in rural areas such as cycleways, walking trails and blueways. Last year €500,000 was allocated by the Department to further develop the Lough Derg blueway in east Clare to provide a pathway along the verges of the R465 from Bealkelly just outside Ogonnelloe to Tuamgraney, joining the pathway already developed from the town of Killaloe. This vital funding will help to unlock the tourism potential of this beautiful part of County Clare, attracting walkers, hikers, day visitors and overnight tourists and giving a boost to the local economy.
The LEADER programme is another flagship funding stream for rural Ireland. The Clare Local Development Company is responsible for the roll out of the programme in County Clare, helping to deliver vital projects such as the Tradaree Food Hub. This landmark project is the brainchild of Obair in Newmarket on Fergus and it has been an absolute pleasure for me to work with Obair over the past number of years on it. LEADER funding of €500,000 helped to make this development possible, bringing a vacant building in the heart of the village back into use, providing an expanded meals on wheels kitchen and service, a training centre for chefs, incubation units for start-up indigenous food producers and a drop-in centre for the youth of the village. The LEADER programme supports thousands of jobs in rural Ireland. One particular commitment in the programme for Government needs to be honoured. It is important there is engagement and clarity is provided by the Department on the delivery of an interim national rural development plan and on the shape of the new LEADER programme for 2023 and beyond.
Many villages throughout rural Ireland are being held back because they do not have basic wastewater treatment systems. There are numerous villages in County Clare where this is the case, one of which is Broadford. A new wastewater treatment system is fully designed for Broadford, land has been acquired and the project is fully supported by the local authority but there is no funding mechanism to advance the scheme. Irish Water does not want to know and neither does the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage or the Department of Rural and Community Development. I ask that both Departments come together to devise a scheme, in tandem with Irish Water and local authorities, to provide proper wastewater treatment facilities in rural towns and villages.
I have already spoken to the Minister of State about supports for community centres. Obviously, I welcome the stabilisation fund for those that received a significant amount of funding from Pobal but we need to look at many of these facilities from the point of view of the money that will be lost in the context of the social economy. I know that work-arounds and solutions have been sought through the likes of the Louth Local Community Development Committee but we need to ensure that all these things happen. We are all aware of the fabulous work that was done through community centres and community groups before this period, much of which has continued during this period.
In terms of community development, we need to take a more holistic look at the entire situation. We need to determine what is needed by way of youth services and how they interact with the Department of Justice, An Garda Síochána and so on. We often talk about issues within silos and later we talk about community policing. I presume that debate will veer into a discussion of the particular difficulties in urban settings but community development needs to be wedded to the work being done by the Department of Justice and gardaí around things like family intervention, for example. Basically, we need a whole-of-government response.
I agree with others who have spoken about the need for broadband in rural areas. We all wanted and needed high-speed broadband before the pandemic but obviously since then it has become an absolute requirement for individuals and companies. We realise that in some cases, areas will not be reached. We will exert as much pressure as possible on National Broadband Ireland, NBI, to accelerate the roll out. A number of Deputies spoke earlier today at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications Networks and welcomed the fact that NBI will be sharing information and updates as it carries out its work.
At this point in time, National Broadband Ireland has 200 broadband connection points in place. However, a reply I received to a parliamentary question on 30 October indicated that only 59 of the then 187 publicly accessible BCPs were live. When I queried this with National Broadband Ireland, the reply was that it relies on third-party vendors and, to a degree, the Department to ensure the BCPs are rolled out. The company also told me that it was willing to look at further locations, including schools, which would be suitable for the roll-out of remote working hubs. Those hubs are an absolutely fabulous idea but they need to be put in place. There is an opportunity to achieve the best of both worlds out of this initiative.
One of the few wins from the Covid pandemic is the fact that not as many people needed to commute. That is brilliant for people who have access to broadband at a particular level and where it suits them to work from home. However, people still need a social outlet and the wins one only gets from a workplace situation. Remote working hubs can fulfil that purpose by having people from a number of companies, possibly including public service staff, provided with a decent working location and a set-up that includes a broadband connection, suitable workstations and whatever else is necessary. This would allow people to work in Dundalk, for example, instead of having to travel to Dublin. There are huge savings in such an arrangement from a climate change point of view and in terms of work-life balance. Combined with that, people would also have the social outlet of interacting with real people as opposed to occasionally seeing them on Zoom. As we have all discovered in recent times, there are sometimes problems with the audio in online meetings and one cannot hear what is being said.
The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, need to consider how hubs can be established in areas that are accessible and suitable, particularly in locations where there may be a delay in the roll-out of broadband. There are multiple locations that would meet those criteria. I gave the example of Dundalk, where hubs could be set up in suitable industrial units located near the town. In some instances, we may need to look at locations in town centres. The nature of towns has changed in recent times, with the closure of many businesses. If we could introduce a greater amount of footfall, it would be utterly beneficial for the towns in question. We need to see how this can be done as soon as possible.
As I said, there must be a more holistic approach to the whole area of community development. We need to look at how funding is accessed, whether under the LEADER programme or in terms of the funding for which local authorities apply to different Departments. At this point in time, we need a streamlining of the process. A huge amount of time and many resources are being wasted when public servants have to apply to have applications determined by other public servants. There is a loss of efficiency in the system that needs to be sorted out.
I want to focus in my contribution on the community sector and how it has impacted on working-class communities in my constituency and throughout Dublin and other cities. If we look back to the recession in 2008 and the cuts that followed, we can see and track how the dismantling of community development, anti-poverty and equality sector funding was very disproportionate. The severe cuts that were made by the then Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition were estimated to be 35% for the community sector as against 7% in most other sectors. In a 2013 report, Dr. John Bamber estimated that the decrease in funding for community development was as high as 41%. Community development projects and other local development programmes were ordered to desist from campaigning and advocacy.
One of the core principles of community development work is collective action. As working-class communities began to find their voices, come together against poverty, marginalisation, exclusion and injustice, and become more politicised, successive Governments involving Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Green Party, under the cloak of austerity and realigning the community sector, saw the opportunity to decimate the sector and completely disable it in its brief of facilitating the participation of disadvantaged communities in decision-making on issues that affected them the most. In 2009, without warning, 19 community development projects were closed down. Local project structures were taken over and colonised and local project workers were removed. The language of community development was still used but it now referred to what was primarily, and still is, a market-driven work activation and training programme that has, in effect, destroyed grassroots and local community development projects.
The rhetoric of value for money and accountability are key narratives of the Government. The systemic destruction of the sector was politically centralised and aimed at disempowering working-class communities and the anti-poverty and equality sector. I cannot emphasise enough how this systemic destruction of the vision of solidarity and equality sent a strong signal that the voices of poor, working-class communities no longer mattered. It likely put paid to a real opportunity to contribute to working-class politicisation in a very meaningful and organic way. Lots of people became politicised through their engagement with community development projects, and those projects provided opportunities for many people locally. Senator Eileen Flynn is a fantastic example of somebody who came from huge disadvantage, succeeded in getting an education and, through her work within the Traveller community, went on to involvement in national politics.
We need to rethink the whole idea that community development is just about delivering cost-effectiveness, training and giving employment in the sector. It is about much more than that. If community development does not relate to the grassroots, does not engage with the community and is not community-led, then it is really failing. Many of us in this House can offer testament to that in respect of the more disadvantaged communities in our cities and towns. In conclusion, while I acknowledge the very serious issues facing rural Ireland at this time, there are also very serious issues in our urban towns and cities.
I am sharing time with Deputies Christopher O'Sullivan and Cahill.
It is just over a week since Joe Biden was declared President-elect of the United States. The Clare Echo, a free sheet newspaper in my home county of Clare, ran a very witty headline regarding the election which trended nationally. The headline read: "West Clare hotelier loses out in US Presidential election." Truth be told, while we certainly appreciate everything the President, Donald Trump, has done for Doonbeg from a business point of view, we look forward at a political level to some of the positive changes that will happen in Irish-US relations and international relations over the coming months.
The reason I mention Donald Trump is that, for a long time, his suggestion of building a wall along the Mexican border meant it became a sort of joke back home that he wanted to build a coastal defence around the sand dunes in Doonbeg. The world and its mother ridiculed that project even though it is, in fact, absolutely essential. There were people from newspapers and radio stations in the US telephoning residents in Doonbeg asking for comments. They wrote humorous, jovial and sometimes insulting articles about the famous, or infamous, coastal defence system in Doonbeg. As I said, that defence is absolutely essential. President Trump or no President Trump, the Atlantic Ocean is eating away the sand dunes of Doonbeg. Something similar is happening just a few miles up the road in Milltown Malbay, where a shale cliff face is also being eroded by coastal waters. Regardless of who is in the Oval Office, the State has an obligation to protect its coastline from being eaten away.
Erosion is decimating farmers' livelihoods and it is encroaching closer and closer to people's homes. I ask that the Government prioritise those vital coastal defences in the coming months.
I will now raise the issue of unsewered villages, of which there are quite a few in County Clare. I recently explained this to a Dublin Deputy who is familiar with the state-of-the-art mains sewers that operate here in the capital. In many villages in County Clare, and throughout rural Ireland, there are still unsewered villages where, when one flushes a toilet, it flows out into a gravel pit or drain and ultimately ends up in the lake or stream that provides drinking water to that same population. Such villages in Clare include Broadford, Carrigaholt, Doolin, Cooraclare and O'Brien's Bridge, right down by the River Shannon which has no sewer and where flushed matter goes straight into the Shannon. Broadford has been mentioned in the Chamber quite a number of times. I ask that a mechanism be devised to fund such sewerage schemes. Right now, Clare County Council is preparing a brand new county development plan and there is every risk that lands zoned in villages such as Broadford, Doolin and Carrigaholt will be stripped of that zoning because they are unserviced, that is, they do not have mains water or sewerage. If those zonings are removed, they will have no chance of survival. It is absolutely crucial that this essential sanitary infrastructure is delivered in those villages.
The very last point I will raise relates to transport in County Clare. We rely very heavily on the Local Link service, which was provided by Clare Bus for many years. There has now been a dispute regarding a contract this company had with the National Transport Authority, which has had to go to mediation. I have tabled various parliamentary questions on the matter. It is still not fully resolved but it is progressing. Meanwhile, there is a deficiency in public transport in the county. I have long campaigned for a bus service to operate in and around Ennis town. There are certain commitments in that regard. We need to see them delivered. Money was also laid out in this Government's July stimulus package to provide for an enhanced bus service from Scariff town to Limerick city. I would very much like to see that essential rural link provided for the people of that town.
It is great to come up to Dublin and to see the DART, the Luas and every form of fancy modern public transport operating in and around the city. We do not enjoy those luxuries in Clare but we depend on the Local Link service, which must be enhanced.
I have very little time, approximately four minutes, while there is a wide range of issues I could talk about in respect of community development. I very much welcome the announcement of the massive allocation of funding for community development in the recent budget. I will, however, focus on funding for communities in particular. What I mean by this is that this significant allocation of funding must now filter down into the local communities and to the community and voluntary organisations. That is absolutely vital.
I will provide an example. The stability fund is very welcome. These community groups have been starved of funding because they relied on events taking place in their halls or on fundraisers, which cannot now happen. As a result, the stability fund has become an important way to protect their incomes. Many community groups, however, have been disappointed and have not yet availed of funding. I urge the Minister of State to announce another tranche of funding under the stability fund so that we will not have as many disappointed groups. I am thinking of great community groups such as those which run Lehanmore Community Centre on the Beara Peninsula and its close neighbour, the Allihies Community Centre, which have been unsuccessful so far in applying to the stability fund. I would love to see another allocation of funding under this fund.
I will go from one end, the stability fund which provides smaller amounts of funding, to the other, the rural generation fund which provides larger amounts. This is a vital source of funding for community groups and large-scale projects in regional areas. I am not asking the Minister of State to assess any projects but there are two about which I want to talk to him and on which I seek clarification. There is a brilliant project in west Cork in my constituency, the development of Schull Harbour. Cork County Council has submitted applications for funding for this project two years in a row but it was turned down both times. The sad and concerning thing is that, because of the multiple unsuccessful applications, Cork County Council may not submit another application. One of the reasons it is giving is that the planning permission in place for this project runs out in October 2022. That is two years from now. If funding was granted, although I am not assuming it would be, the work could begin. Cork County Council, however, is concerned that the planning permission might run out midway through the works.
Will the Minister of State provide clarification in that regard? I am not asking him to approve an application; there is not even one on his desk. Instead, I am asking him to clarify whether the project would be considered a qualifying application. Planning permission is in place for this incredible development which would absolutely change Schull and the surrounding region. As the Minister of State may well know, we have an unbelievable coastline which features beaches, headlands and islands. The one criticism we get is that we do not have the right infrastructure in place. This is a shovel-ready project which has planning permission and foreshore licences in place. It just needs to get the nod. Again, I am not asking the Minister of State to approve funding. There is not even an application on his desk. I am just asking him to clarify to Cork County Council that it would be a qualifying applicant.
While I am on the topic of the rural regeneration scheme, we need to see successful projects in the region. It is not the Minister of State's fault - he is only new in this position and I have been in mine only since February - but applications made to the rural regeneration scheme in respect of Cork South-West have been unsuccessful year after year. So far, there has been only one successful application in the constituency. That is not a very good return. We need to look at that again. There are some very valuable and important projects out there. For example, there is an incredible ongoing project in Bandon to establish a playground. Bandon is a great town. I am not sure if the Minister of State is familiar with it. It has a lot going for it. It has a big population but it needs amenities. A playground for Bandon would be a game-changer. That is an application which will be coming across the Minister of State's desk. I just wanted to make those points. We need to see that community funding filter down to the communities.
I will address rural and community development. I represent a rural constituency and, in the short time available to me, I will raise a few major issues regarding the need for investment in Tipperary. The first issue I will talk about is the urgent need for a link road for Tipperary town. The chamber of commerce has spearheaded a coalition of other local groups which has highlighted the great issues facing Tipperary. Jobs4Tipp, the recently formed task force, March4Tipp and other such organisations have come together. The town is on the N24. Post Brexit, it will be even more severely choked with traffic. This road will be the major route from western Ireland and the mid-west to the ports of Waterford and Rosslare. It is often stagnant because of the traffic congestion in the town. The town urgently needs a relief road. I urge the Minister of State to consider this. There are plans for major infrastructure between Oola, Limerick Junction and Cahir. Unfortunately, this is still in pipeline, although it will come in time. If Tipperary town is to survive commercially, however, it needs a relief road immediately. The town speaks with one voice in this regard, as do all the public representatives in the area. The town has to get this if its economic life is not to be strangled.
I will speak on a number of other issues in my county. I proposed a greenway between Nenagh and Dromineer a number of months ago. I have been working with locals for some time in respect of this proposed greenway which would link the town of Nenagh to the lakeside village of Dromineer. There is an enormous appetite in the area for this project to be developed. Dromineer is on the shores of Lough Derg and is a popular tourist destination. Nenagh is one of the largest urban centres in Tipperary. There is major potential to link the two. It is only an eight-mile route, but it would have a great infrastructural benefit both for tourism on the lake and for the town of Nenagh. There is already a recognised walk in the area which covers 80% of the proposed greenway. I urge the Minister of State to take this on board as the project would be of great benefit for tourism and for the town of Nenagh.
The Ballybrophy rail line also needs to be utilised. There is serious untapped tourism potential in the Nenagh area. This line links Nenagh to Limerick, Cork and Dublin. There is major potential to attract tourists to Nenagh, who could spend a number of days in the area and avail of the greenway and other holiday amenities. I have already contacted the Minister for Rural and Community Development about funding for this. This is again a project which would have great benefits for the rural constituency I represent.
There is also great potential for a greenway from my own town of Thurles to Holycross. As it would run across a lot of public land, it would be easily achieved.
It could go through the Cabragh wetlands, which has unique features that people come from all over the country to see. A walkway from Thurles to Holycross would be roughly four to five miles long. There is huge potential there.
Community allotments have a huge part to play in communities as well, both from a physical aspect and from the point of view of people's mental health. Retired people and people with a bit of time on their hands find these most therapeutic. I have been involved with the Nenagh Community Allotments group in recent months and it has had to relocate from one location to another. It finds it hard to get any funding to help it along the way. It has to get a new water connection and it also faces other relocation expenses. A small bit of funding for these allotments in all parts of the country would have huge community benefit. It is a growing phenomenon. It had been in the large urban centres before but it has spread countrywide. I urge the Minister of State to provide funding for these allotments. We have it for other community groups and initiatives but allotments, unfortunately, do not have any sources of funding available to them. I ask the Minister of State to consider those organisations for funding as these are real community developments at the heart of our communities. I urge the Minister of State to consider these proposals.
Sometimes people forget just how diverse Dublin is. It is not all city, although that is a significant part of the county. North County Dublin covers a huge area and it has some significant towns in Swords, Balbriggan, Skerries, where I live, Rush and Lusk to name a few. These towns are different. They have their own characteristics and charms and they are all unique in their differences and needs. Around many of these towns are the coast and farming lands. In many ways, north County Dublin is the same as most of the regional counties and areas that Members are elected from.
In Swords, for example, one of the greatest problems we have with development is a lack of school places at primary and secondary levels. School planning is one of the most straightforward and easy things to get right, but across north County Dublin it has been a disaster. I have often said in the Chamber and to local people that as sure as night follows day, if houses are built and young families move in, one can bet that children will follow and they will need to go to school. I do not know why the Department of Education continually gets surprised that the kids who are in primary school will find themselves needing to go to secondary school. As I said, as sure as night follows day, that will happen and yet, year after year, I find myself engaging with the Department and the Minister for Education to advise that yet again we have a problem. We have children who go to feeder schools and they are denied access to the secondary schools of their choice because of the lack of places. Those who cannot get into those feeder schools are on the back foot from the beginning. The damage and difficulty this is causing to children and their families is untold.
Other issues that need to be addressed across Swords are broadband, connectivity and better transport infrastructure. Many people in Swords, when we are not in a pandemic, travel to Dublin city centre for work. These workers can end up sitting on buses for more than an hour to get into the city due to congestion on our roads and the lack of a rail link. In some instances, we see there are not even enough buses for them. The problem many of these workers are facing, as they work from home, is a lack of broadband infrastructure. Despite being a huge town, there are many areas of Swords that do not have decent broadband. If we want to see community and regional development, this matter has to be addressed.
Balbriggan also has many of the Internet connectivity and transport issues mentioned above. We have a train into Dublin city centre but the town should be connected by the DART. Bringing the DART out to Balbriggan would open up the town and provide so many opportunities and benefits for workers and those living there. The bridges were raised more than ten years ago to facilitate the DART and yet we are still waiting. Balbriggan also needs a lot of investment in community and sports facilities. There is a huge young and diverse population in Balbriggan. It is what makes the town great. However, these young people need resources to keep them engaged and occupied. Whenever I speak to people in Balbriggan, they often point across Dublin Bay and they say that people want for little in other parts of County Dublin. In many ways, this is true and the town needs investment. We need more floodlit Astroturf football, GAA and rugby pitches. We need funding for boxing and mixed martial arts. We need investment for our great football, GAA, rugby and cricket teams.
Doubtless the growth in north County Dublin brings the difficulties that I am sure are present in all of our big towns across the State. Towns clearly need more gardaí and these resources have long been needed. We need to see gardaí on the streets and we also need to see a different form of policing, not the old traditional type. Balbriggan is a diverse town and the police force there needs to reflect that diversity. In my town of Skerries we badly need an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit for a secondary school, and again this is something that is very predictable but for some reason is not addressed. In Rush, Lusk, Donabate, Malahide, Portmarnock and other areas, the needs are broadly similar. Investment in broadband connectivity and increased public transport investment, particularly in rail, would be transformative. There are places such as parts of Balrothery, Seaview Park, Tower View Heights and the Burrow area around Portrane that are almost broadband black spots. If we want community and regional development, these areas need that connectivity.
As with other areas, school places and additional investment in sports and community facilities would be of huge benefit to towns such as Rush, Lusk, Donabate, Malahide and Portmarnock, but it is about matching investment and resources to population growth. It is not rocket science. If large housing estates are built and young families are moved in, as sure as night follows day crèches, schools and pitches will be needed. For some reason, we seem always to be playing catch-up in north County Dublin and that is not good enough. People deserve to have that level of respect and investment.
We read in today's newspapers that there is a huge question mark over the future viability of Dublin Zoo. The Minister of State might be a bit surprised that I am talking about Dublin Zoo when we are talking about community and rural development, but it is hard to believe that something as iconic as Dublin Zoo is under threat. It has a phenomenal number of visitors every year. I bring my family there every year or maybe twice a year and a lot of us would bring our families there on the run-in to Christmas for the lighting display it would have.
This is typical of many tourism operations throughout this country and of many businesses in the hospitality sector, which are on their knees. There is an opportunity for us to give a real injection to those sectors. I know the VAT rate has been altered and we had the stay and spend scheme that was announced during the summer. These measures are all welcome but the difficulty is that because of the lockdown, the stay and spend scheme is pointless. Some €140 million has been set aside for that for next year, with another €130 million being set aside for it for the year after. While the money for the year after might be drawn down, it will not be drawn down next year because we will not see the spend from October until Christmas.
I want to propose to the Minister of State that we would use that €140 million that will not be spent this year and that will not be drawn down next year in tax refunds to establish a gift voucher guarantee scheme for the tourism and hospitality sectors in particular. This would allow people, between now and Christmas, to purchase a gift card for Dublin Zoo. No one is going to buy a gift voucher for Dublin Zoo now if we do not know if it will be open in six months. The same goes for many tourism and recreation facilities which have a question mark hanging over them. The Government should use that €140 million as seed capital to guarantee that the Government will refund any voucher for a business that happens to close in the next 12 months. That would bring a huge injection of funds into the tourism and hospitality sectors this side of Christmas. It would help to maintain those businesses until they have the opportunity to reopen, we hope in the new year.
It would also ensure that Irish people would holiday at home next year. The key thing we must do to ensure we can recover from the impact of Covid-19 is to actively encourage people to holiday at home next year. In my constituency and my county, we are in the process of developing the Hidden Heartlands tourism brand. We will have the Shannon master plan, which will be published in the next couple of weeks and the Beara-Breifne Way master plan, looking to be Ireland's answer to the Camino, and running from west Cork, right up through the middle of the country, through east Galway and Roscommon, to Blacklion in County Cavan, and hopefully continuing on to the Glens of Antrim. We also have a master plan for Rathcroghan, the home of the festival of Hallowe'en.
If we do not have a comprehensive tourism offering and local facilities, however, such as Strokestown Park House, King House and the Arigna Mining Experience, people will not come and stay in our region. It is vitally important that we give people the opportunity to support those businesses between now and Christmas by being able to purchase a gift voucher, and be sure that gift voucher can be redeemed or refunded should there be a threat to a business. I hope the Minister of State will be able to look at this proposal seriously. If an iconic facility such as Dublin Zoo is under threat, then many businesses around the country are in a similar situation.
The other issue I will raise with the Minister of State, with his Green Party hat on, concerns the fact that when I was the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, with responsibility for energy policy, I signed up to a commitment at EU level, under the EU renewable energy directive, that would allow people who generate their own electricity to get paid when they bring that electricity onto the grid. I did that against the advice at the time from my officials because I believe this is the way we need to go to encourage people to produce renewable energy in their own homes and communities and export it onto the grid.
I believe we should establish a pilot scheme given the huge amount of roof space we have available in the agricultural sector in farmyards across the country. I refer to stress-testing that microgeneration scheme, seeing how it can work and ensuring that it is robust. The farming community is the ideal community in which to pilot that initiative. The State and taxpayers have already funded the upgrading of the electricity infrastructure into farmyards across this country, including the provision of three-phase electricity. We should sweat that asset and maximise it to its full potential.
When we talk about regional development, the programme for Government is laced with the issue of regional development. I want to bring that closer to home and comment on what is actually happening. If we take the north and west region, which consists of eight counties, namely, Galway, Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, it has the highest level of regional inequality in Europe. That information is coming from the European Commission. The EU Commission has also noted that Brexit will worsen that situation. This inequality is most stark when we consider that the per capita GDP contribution in the west and Border region is €28,000, while in the east and south it is €70,000. The west and Border region has been redesignated and downgraded from a developed region to a region in transition by the European Union. We have been notified that the west of Ireland has been downgraded.
This reclassification offers us an opportunity, however, because the co-financing rate goes from 40% to 60% for the north and west from 2021. For every €100 in co-financing for which we apply in respect of structural funding, therefore, we will get €60 back from the European Union. On top of that, the European Parliament recently published a review of industrial policy across the EU, highlighting the north and western region in Ireland as a lagging region. What are we going to do about this situation and where are the problems? First, the towns and villages across the west and north west are devoid of sewerage schemes and proper water. We cannot grow these towns and bring young families in to live in them because there are no incentives to do that. We are all hell-bent on building new houses all over the place while we have many houses vacant. We must do something at Government level to sort out that.
I am disappointed the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, states that it is not his problem but one for the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, to sort out. In that regard, will the Minister of State here find out for me where is the report that was done on six towns in a pilot scheme to see how we could regenerate them? That pilot plan was put in place by the then Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, and me when we were in Government. The findings of that report were with the departmental officials and I would like to know where that is at now.
I also note that the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has made strong and positive remarks concerning the western rail corridor and rail industry in Ireland. He is passionate about the fact that we need to develop the regions by having a proper rail network. I support him in that, and I support the Government in its actions to get that sorted out. We must create connectivity between the north west, including Ballina and Westport, down through Claremorris and Tuam, up to Sligo, down into Limerick, out to Shannon Foynes Port and then down to Waterford Port. We also need to improve our commuter services. If we are to create a region which can compete with and be as attractive as the east, we must do these things.
This is the concept of the Atlantic economic corridor. Has the Atlantic economic corridor task force group met since the Government was formed? We have potential in the region to highlight offshore energy and the benefits of the sea which we have at our backs. I refer to technology. For example, we have one of the global leaders in the development of the autonomous car based in Tuam, where more than 1,000 people are working. We must, however, ensure we create more of that type of industry in the regions. We also have the potential to grow agri-tech businesses in the regions. As Deputy Naughten said, we also have the Wild Atlantic way, Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, but what we need to do right now is to support that industry. The national broadband plan is also being rolled out, despite the best efforts of many politicians in the last Dáil to stop that.
Regional Ireland is with us and it is part of us. It is an area in transition. We have the potential to gain a great deal of funding from Europe. We must have the vision and the concepts that ensure we create a region which people will see as attractive to work in, live in and to raise their families in. We have it, and we must ensure we are courageous in our decisions. If we are to do a cost-benefit analysis in respect of every little thing which we do, we will do nothing. We must have vision, strength of mind and we must look at examples of things such as Ireland West Airport Knock, which would not exist without courage, without vision and without the guidance of many people locally. There is a great onus on the Government now to ensure this region does not further lag behind, as has been stated and notified officially by the European Commission to the Irish Government. We must ensure, post Covid-19, as well as during our Covid-19 period, that we invest and not just talk about it or produce plans. At this stage, we must have action and implementation of the plans which exist. We will then have a better balanced economy right across the country.
A few jokes were made to me from one or two other Deputies about how there is probably not much rural development happening in Dublin South Central. This is, however, a session on rural and community development, and at the heart of that are the same fundamental principles. Community development is about the empowerment of local communities, be they geographic or based on identity or interests. This concerns strengthening the capacity of people as active agents and active citizens through their networks and the institutions which are available to them.
During the early 1990s we in this country had what was described as the flagship of Europe in terms of community development and anti-poverty work. Two strands were working in co-operation. There was a locally focused, community-driven process that was grassroots and bottom up, and there was a centralised, Government-led approach. Over the years we have created a major imbalance and have moved away from the local grassroots focus to an overly centralised, overly prescriptive and overly prescribed system that provides community supports for people, not working with them. This shift has been to the detriment of the definition of community development I spoke of earlier. This move happened long before the recession. We cannot simply blame the recession for cutting local services. The move away from the local to the central was already happening.
Yes, the amount of money we put into services is important, and we need to spend on community development services, but how we spend that money and how it is given is just as important. We need to be putting it into the grassroots and allow communities to spend the money themselves on the problems they identify, instead of an overly centralised, overly prescriptive and top-down approach. We need to be doing things with communities instead of for communities.
Essentially, the system we now have is the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, model. Recent studies by the ESRI on SICAP have highlighted the top-down approach and this overly restrictive and overly bureaucratic approach. We look at quantitative outputs instead of qualitative outputs. We measure numbers and tick boxes instead of looking at the empowerment of the communities and the strengthening of the capacity of local groups to address their own problems themselves, which has a transformative effect beyond what we initially put the money into. It builds that capacity to look at problems that come next, and the next problem and the next problem. We need to move away from that system and get the balance right. We need to look at ways we can empower communities more. I welcome the Minister of State's comments earlier when he spoke of moving to the community-led community development model. That is how it was previously when community development worked best in the State and when it was a leader across the European Union. We need to get back there again. I am hopeful and I have great faith in the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien, to deliver the change we need.
Bhí an-spéis agam sa mhéid a bhí le rá ag an Teachta romhaim. Tá cuid mhaith den cheart aige. Mar, ar ndóigh, tá ollfhadhbanna sna cathracha, go mór mhór i a Dháilcheantar féin. Before the Deputy leaves, I would just like to say that I listened very carefully to what he said, and he is absolutely right that there are mega-problems in our cities based in the communities.
The Oliver Bond flats were prominent in the news recently. I know that complex quite well. I have a very good friend down there, a lady called Liz O'Connor, who I got to know when she was on the area implementation team, AIT, when we had the RAPID programme. The idea of RAPID was to put the people who live in the local authority estates at the centre of development. When I was Minister, twice a year we used to have a convention in Pearse Street in Dublin of all community representatives from the AITs around the country. These were the people who lived the experience, not all the professors and all those who lived in much more affluent areas. These were the people who lived in the communities, dealt with the drug problems, lived with the antisocial behaviours, and tried to raise their children and progress them on to better things against the odds.
I fully agree with the Deputy that one of the greatest mistakes that was made in 2011 and 2012, was to abolish the RAPID programme because it was not costing anything. I have a suspicion that the programme was not too well liked for the reason that we had set very defined boundaries, based on Trutz Haase's analysis of the most deprived areas in the country, every one of which were urban areas, and we made sure the money was spent within them. Of course, when they got rid of the boundaries and the AITs it was easier to spread the money around outside of those areas, even though everybody who knows anything about these areas realises they are the areas with the most severe problems in the country.
I have always believed that urban deprivation, where we push more and more people unnecessarily into cities, many of whom do not really want to be there, is the flip side of the issue of rural depopulation. When I walk the houses of rural Ireland I find there are some exceptions. Where there is relatively good housing and good conditions there is relatively little antisocial behaviour and there is good community life, but the only problem is that all the young people are gone. When one does an age analysis of these communities, one finds a very narrow number of people living there full time who are between 18 and 30 years of age, and it widens, going up instead of narrowing. We need to tackle this unnecessary movement of people whereby we have under-utilised facilities in one part of the country while in other parts we are pushing people in and cannot keep up with demand for schools, social services and medical services.
In the few minutes left to me I want to address what is our vision of rural Ireland. I have noticed that for the past ten years every time we talk about rural Ireland it seems to only consist of towns and villages. Every reference to the rest of the people, 30% of the national population, is to those who live in the periphery or in the hinterland, as if they did not live in real places and as if they were not part of a real community. Any of us who have experience of living in rural areas know that sometimes those communities are far stronger. I have lived in both. I spent my formative years in Dublin and I have lived my adult life in the country. Years ago I was a Minister in the Department with responsibility for community and rural affairs. The Department is a very fine thing but it only touches the tip of the iceberg of the problems of rural Ireland. We were told of a budget today of some €190 million. Rural Ireland needs the exact same services as the rest of the country. It needs health, education, roads, sewerage and all the rest. In reality, the shots are really called by the other Departments.
We first need to decide on what our vision is. Do we want a peopled countryside with a balanced population or are we happy with a dying countryside with only old people left and all the young people gone away? Covid has shown us two things, one of which is to give people the opportunity and the basic facilities, and the right to build a house. They will flock back in good numbers. We need to get that basic, philosophical point established. Do we want a purely gentrified countryside with no businesses in it? Do we ban all of those businesses by saying they have to be in the towns and that a few craft businesses will be allowed as a little concession, but just small little things and not any serious businesses? The businesses in my community employ hundreds of people, and why not? If one tried to put the businesses near me in the city or in the town people would be giving out and would oppose the plans. Where we live, in some of the most scenic parts of the country and with the hidden gem of the Joyce country, there is also major industry.
We need facilities. I will mention something that is not in the lexicon at the moment. I built a number of greenways. I started the greenway thing when I was Minister but in rural Ireland a greenway is for recreation. I walk more than most. So far this year I have averaged 10 km every day. That includes good days and bad days, so some days I am doing up to 20 km and some days I might only do 4 km or 5 km. Is anyone really suggesting to me that, since I live 32 miles from Galway city, when I go to Galway I should hump my overnight bag and my two or three briefcases, put them on my back and hike it to Galway? I need roads. The first thing one finds in rural Ireland is the LIS road. We use local roads, tertiary roads, the county regional roads, then the national secondary routes and eventually the primary routes. We need safe ways of getting from place to place.
We need water in the remaining houses that are dependent on private supplies, which are variable and are not as well tested or as good as a public supply. A small number of these remain to be done. We had a great scheme under the CLÁR programme and were tackling them rapidly. That problem could be eliminated in the country but the scheme was pulled. We need sewerage facilities in the unsewered villages. We are always talking about people settling in villages but how can they settle in an unsewered village?
It is ironic that building in cities, maintaining buildings, knocking them down, rebuilding and regenerating is much more expensive per head of population than in rural Ireland. Usually, when people build in urban Ireland they are using the existing road and electricity is pervasive so it costs half as much to connect through the local supply passing one's house. In rural Ireland, one pays to connect the water and if a person does the bit of his own land himself, he still has to pay €300 per metre for the bit of the road if he cannot get it outside his gate and so on. When people build, there is no huge infrastructural cost to the State. However, massive amounts of money are being given, necessarily, in cities to provide the basic infrastructure to allow houses to be built. We need a real debate, not one with the leprechaun view of rural Ireland that sees it as a pretty place for people to go on their holidays and to look at some of the remaining natives and say how quaint they are. We are living, vibrant communities with young people who are as smart as in anywhere in the country. People should have a choice about where they live. It should not be dictated by Europe or the Dáil but should be something people have a basic right to decide.
I thank the Minister of State for his report earlier and for the open way we have engaged with each other since his appointment. I look forward to community-focused feedback. There will be times when challenges need to be addressed. While listening to the debate over the past few hours I was interested in and impressed with some of the comments about community development because they fit into my view of it. It is something at which I have worked for more than 20 years, both as a community representative and in my work with the HSE and Tusla.
Two things have been focused on today. One is community development, where it is going and where we want it to go. We have to look back before we go forward. The strongest time for community development was when we had people working in the community who were rooted in their communities and working from them. Unfortunately, there is now a retrenchment into bigger projects. I will give an example. In Dublin 15 we had community workers who worked directly in offices in the community centre. Some of them lived in the area and they all either drove or walked to the community centre, worked out of it and engaged with people every single day. That was an important piece of that community development and that has been lost in the past ten years or so. We also had local management committees of local people who directed the work of the community development workers and those have been lost as well.
I will give another example. I was a community representative for many years on the local drugs task force and we also had a community development worker on that task force. At the beginning, way back in the late 1990s when we established the local drugs task forces, we had huge amounts of energy and co-operation with both voluntary and statutory services. However, three of us resigned from the task forces in the past few years on the basis that the community is not being listened to. Sadly, Fergus McCabe recently passed away. He was an incredible advocate for community development but even he, and the CityWide project he was involved in with Anna Quigley, was utterly frustrated with the lack of community engagement from the statutory organisations, particularly the HSE. That is something that needs to be addressed. We need to get back to the community, to engaging with the community on the ground and working from the bottom up. That is the essence of community development. If we do not have that, we will have development but we will have no community. That needs to be addressed. If we can focus all our energies on that in the next number of years we can make significant changes to our communities.
I will mention this very quickly because time is pressing on. There has been an announcement regarding mutli-annual funding, which will be very welcome. As I have said previously, the community, charity and voluntary sectors need time and certainty to plan into the future.
The full cost of the delivery of services is another important aspect. Many community services are delivering a quality service but they are not getting paid the cost of the delivery of that service through their funding. Staff members are taken on at the same pay scale as that of the public service, yet when the cuts came during the recession, they were the first people to be cut, by up to 30% or more. They still have not gotten their money back, while the public service is getting full restoration of pay. That absolutely needs to be worked on.
On the community services programme, it is wrong that people are getting paid less than the minimum wage. We need to pay people. We need to give them money and enough funding to ensure the minimum wage. If there is an excess or a profit from a project, it should be used to get them up to the living wage or it can be put directly back into the community because these are all non-profit organisations.
If the Ceann Comhairle will indulge me, I will finish with a few statistics. They are important in terms of the amount of money we are talking about versus what is being delivered. There are 29,000 non-profit organisations and 60,000 volunteer board members, with a turnover of more than €14 billion. The sector employs 189,000 people and the direct and indirect value of the work of community and voluntary groups is valued at €24.5 billion. Next time we are doing budgets, can we please take those statistics into consideration?
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae was unable to make it so we have four speakers. I am delighted to be able to speak on this issue tonight. I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well. We need to go back to the communities and get boots on the ground. The dismantling of the LEADER programme was an abject failure and a deliberate attack by the Fine Gael Government of that time. The former Minister of State, Tom Hayes, and the former Minister, Phil Hogan, once told me that communities were getting too big for their boots. Now we have a mess. The Government threw everything at the top and nothing at the bottom.
I want to raise an issue about Newcastle Muintir na Tíre, a wonderful community group led by Marian O'Dwyer, with some great applications for funding. It was successful in getting €190,000 to extend its community hall and make it more usable. Before Covid, it was quite busy, used daily and nightly, and the community wanted to put in more meeting rooms. It was approved for €139,000 under the 2019 town and village renewal programme. However, it had to make up 20% of that funding, €35,000. In the 2020 renewal programme, the local community has to make up 10% of the funding. It is finding it extremely difficult, however. It simply cannot make up the €35,000 as it cannot fundraise with the present crisis.
The group is now in danger of losing this funding. Will somebody in the Department do a Zoom meeting with the group? There are many more communities in the same situation. Surely a bit of flexibility with this year's guidelines can be shown because of Covid. The group in question was ready, willing and able to do it. It had contractors, planning and everything else in place. The whole project could fall, however, because of the inability to fundraise.
The 2040 national development plan must be changed because it involves herding all of the people into the cities. We are now doing our new county development plan in Tipperary. I compliment Marian O'Dwyer and Councillor Máirín McGrath for putting in a detailed submission to our county development plan. The 2040 national development plan is overarching and will be the ruination of rural Ireland. It has to be dismantled and derailed. We have very few railways left but this train must be taken off the track, whether it is through hijacking it. It has to be hijacked because we need to get back to basics to allow communities and people live, work and see their families grow up in rural Ireland. There are problems with homelessness in the cities because houses cannot be built. In the country, people want to build, are able to build and will build. We have to change the 2040 plan because it is overarching and crippling all county development plans. It is a monster.
What is rural community development? It is vision, which the Government seems to lack. It is infrastructure, which the Government has never invested in outside of the cities. It is water and sewerage services, broadband and ESB connections for industry in rural areas. It is compulsory purchase orders for vacant and derelict properties which are included in the results that we have for infrastructure. It is connectivity in the rural areas for working, for school, for commuting and for basic shopping. It is the right to build a house in the area from where one comes.
If one builds a house now in a rural area, one pays huge fees. What is on the list from the county council planning permission? It is a charge for infrastructure. That money does not go back into our areas, however. It goes back into areas where the Government wants more population.
If Covid has shown the Government anything, it has shown that it forgot to invest in rural areas. It has shown that it has put all investment into the likes of Dublin while making people in rural areas travel to Dublin, which in turn has poisoned the air there. The Government must invest in infrastructure in rural Ireland and change the 2040 plan which the previous Government voted to implement which will stop people building in their own areas. We must change the 2040 plan. The Government must wake up, get vision and listen to all the Independents who have been shouting it from the rooftops.
I came from the community sector myself. With no disrespect to the Minister, the Government relegated the Ministry for rural affairs when it put it on top of social protection. It has got lost. No one could argue that point when it was a stand-alone Ministry. It had a stronger clout with regard to delivering for the people of rural Ireland. No matter how good she is - we have many debates down through the years in committees - she cannot be good enough to run two portfolios.
That is the way Fianna Fáil has looked at the rural portfolio. This is not the first time it kicked rural affairs or rural development down the Swanee. Deputy Mattie McGrath is correct about how LEADER funding was lost. In 2016, when there were discussions about forming a Government, Deputy Micheál Martin was looking for our support. I certainly felt he was supportive of putting LEADER funding back to the way it was, namely, community driven. Now it is politically driven and it is a disaster. It does not deliver to local rural communities when it used to be a programme with the best delivery.
On the rural regeneration fund, I have to speak on behalf of the people of the Cork South-West constituency. Over the past several years, only one project in Kinsale has received funding from this. That is scandalous. We had a shovel-ready project, the Schull harbour development project, about which I spoke with the Taoiseach yesterday. There could not be a better project. It fitted the bill perfectly. What happened? Nothing. There needs to be an independent inquiry as to why that did not happen if there is any bit of honesty in this new Government. Someone along the way pulled the plug when there were aspirational projects around the place that were nowhere near shovel-ready that got millions of euro. Why was the Cork South-West constituency left behind? That is why I am looking for a task force for the constituency.
The stability fund for community voluntary groups is not enough. Groups either get nothing out of it or just €1,000. While €1,000 is nothing to be snuffed at, in these times more is needed. I spoke recently to the leaders of the Red Cross in Clonakilty. It has lost its training centre and ambulance store in Clogheen, Clonakilty, because it does not have funding. Funding is not getting to those on the ground and the people who need it. This is why we need a stand-alone and strong Minister for rural affairs.
Since I came up here five years ago, I have listened to how broadband is being rolled out. We have another new broadband plan but it has not hit Kerry yet. They must be rolling it out around the Curragh now because we seem to be as far away as ever from getting broadband in Kerry.
Mobile phone coverage is a disaster in many parts of County Kerry. If one got off the plane in Farranfore, when the planes were running, there was no coverage on any of the three roads out of the airport. Places like Mastergeehy and Kilcummin have no broadband.
The Minister referred to the local improvement scheme, LIS, earlier in her speech. I must remind her that it is not for private roads as such. It is for public roads that were never taken in charge by the county council. In Kerry, we have 750 applications for the LIS but we got €700,000 this year which did only ten roads. There is a savage number of roads on the list. With that funding, it will be 40 or 50 years before the LIS list is wiped out in Kerry. Will the Minister give enough for 100 roads? The people in rural Kerry are entitled to a good road to their doors, the very same as the people in Dublin 4.
We are only going to build 13 rural cottages in Kerry from 2016 to 2021. That is a crying shame. When I raised it with the Minister of State, Deputy English, and Kerry County Council, one blamed the other. The fact remains that 13 rural cottages in five years is not fair play.
I call for more rural transport and for Bus Éireann to put in place new early and late services from Kenmare to Killarney. The Government talks about people using public transport. Now is the time. The Green Party is in power and this is what it is spelling out. We want two more bus runs from Kenmare to Killarney early in the morning and late at night.
The Government should put its money where its mouth is. These buses will not run without money.
Group water schemes are in serious trouble. They are not getting funding. The grant for the treatment of wells was reduced by more than half, from €2,200 to €1,000. How is that fair play? I have the utmost respect for the Minister and I wish her well. I want to thank the former Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Michael Ring, for bringing back the local improvement scheme. I call on the Minister to give proper funding to it. As I said, people in Kerry are as entitled to good roads as everyone else.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. We could have a wide-ranging discussion about rural Ireland and communities outside the large urban centres. We have to look at the possibilities and the achievements that are found within those communities. We must ensure that our agriculture industry thrives and continues to be one of the major driving forces in rural Ireland. We want to make sure that this industry, which is heavily regulated, is encouraged. Whatever the outcome of negotiations across the water or in Europe, our agriculture industry must remain one of the major stakeholders in rural communities.
Yesterday there was a debate at the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine on the shambles that is the forestry industry. It is a challenge to get any licence application through the Department. Urgency is needed there because that industry accounts for a great deal of employment. Many ambitious ideas concerning afforestation and neighbourwood schemes are coming from rural communities.
Broadband will be one of the great enablers of rural Ireland. I spoke to many people from across my constituency today, people who live in close proximity to large towns and people who live in rural communities. Questions about broadband invariably arose - what type of connection a constituent has, who their service provider is and what is happening with it. In the past few days the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Robert Troy, exposed Eir's customer care, which is an absolute shambles. We hope something will be done about it. Over the years many Ministers have promised that broadband would be rolled out. It is the great enabler and the great leveller. In the past eight or nine months, Covid-19 has shown what generations of politicians have been trying to impress on a State that is unwilling to listen. There are huge possibilities within rural communities. People in various industries, not just the State bodies, are working from home. People in the remotest parts of my constituency are able to communicate with others throughout the globe. I take pride in hearing people say they can conduct their business just as effectively from their own kitchen table. We have to accept that and build on it. That is the how we can build up rural Ireland.
In recent years many people have lived in cities for a time and returned to rural communities to raise families. They do this because they know the positivity and community spirit there. They know the quality of the educational services. That is vitally important. It has been put to the test and shown by Covid-19. Small communities have been very good at looking out for one another. It is vitally important that we build on that.
I wish to raise the plight of stand-alone community centres, as well as those attached to GAA clubs. They have developed in small communities over the years. They offer activities every year to raise funds for insurance, to keep the lights on and to keep the community going. They cannot run them this year. It is vitally important that a scheme is designed to assist organisations that are trying to keep community halls going. The Government must make funding available in 2020 or early 2021 to fill this gap. I have worked with many of these small communities to build up their halls and draw down various funding streams. No activities are taking place now and they therefore have no income. I refer particularly to smaller clubs, groups and voluntary organisations not attached to the main GAA clubs. In normal times they might hold a table quiz to raise €2,000 or €3,000 to meet their running costs. They must be protected.
There has been much discussion of sewerage and water. The group water schemes and group sewerage schemes that operated ten or 15 years ago were great schemes. Grants were available to communities designated under the CLÁR programme. With the advent of Irish Water, those group schemes are no longer available. They would be great enablers of towns and villages. People could come together and draw down funding to extend group sewerage schemes and CLÁR infrastructure. This has been done in many towns and villages in my own area in recent times. This approach should be considered again as a way to tie areas to the main sewers and enable communities to build again. This is vitally important.
Many of the local community development committees, LCDCs, will come to the end of their programme on 31 December. Some of them have committed money to certain projects which will not be completed by the end of the year because of various challenges connected to planning or the construction industry ceasing work for several months because of Covid-19. I ask the Minister to make sure that any funding committed to LCDCs is rolled over into 2021. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that if she contributes again at the end of the debate.
I have spoken to the Minister previously about rural post offices. There is scope to re-examine their role and site digital hubs alongside them. This would be an innovative move. I have submitted a proposal to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and to other Ministers to try to build consensus around it. It is vitally important that the post office is seen as a vital component of the community. We should install digital hubs with desks where people can work. Many people in rural communities would like to separate their work from their homes. They would like an alternative to travelling into cities. This is the opportunity. It should not be missed. The State should back this effort in a very meaningful way.
I would also like to discuss planning, from the national level to the local authority level. We need an incentive to get people into rural communities. Many rural communities are building. People see them as attractive places to rear families. We must not urbanise everything. That is not the way forward. There is scope for rural planning in any of the ideologies we may hold. It is compatible with environmental concerns. It is vitally important that we look at rural planning and encourage as many people as possible to live in rural communities. In the clear, cold light of day, Covid-19 is prompting people to look for the best way to protect themselves and their families. They are looking away from large urban centres towards the real options offered by rural Ireland.
Not only in Ireland but across the globe there is a real and imaginative look at this. The Government and this Parliament should do all they can to make sure that we embrace and diversify into it.
I am Chairman of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters. It is important that rural communities are engaged in making sure they are as disability-friendly as possible. Over the decades, various governments, Ministers and organisations have built the great Tidy Towns competition which has led to fantastic achievements. The Government should consider incentivising a competition to bring about an inclusive society programme through which people can embrace disability and communities can be the best they possibly can in regard to disabilities. There is a real opportunity to incentivise stakeholders of all types to come together to develop and support an inclusive society programme led by the Government.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on rural and community affairs. We are less than two weeks away from, we hope, exiting level 5 lockdown restrictions. There are 11 hours scheduled for statements in the Dáil this week, all of which statements are on important issues. I will speak on all of the issues, but when I do, I will be speaking about Covid. We cannot discuss the issues that are facing and challenging our citizens today without talking about Covid into the future. It is disappointing that time was not scheduled this week in the Dáil to debate what may happen on 1 December for the remainder of December and for the 12 months after that. Deputies want to discuss this issue and so a debate should be scheduled.
I understand if bodies such as NPHET fear that a debate like that might undermine the public health advice. I understand that they have a responsibility to the public health, but so do we. We also have a responsibility to have a public debate on the issue. We cannot be held hostage to the fears of other groups when we should be debating what should be happening in terms of the direction for this country into the future. This is not just about Christmas, although that is important. It is about the next 12 months and maybe longer, but I hope not, in respect of which we might be facing into some form of Covid restrictions in this country. I hope we can have that debate scheduled for early next week so that Deputies can put on the record what they believe should be happening in terms of how we manage Covid into the future and the appropriateness now, given what we know of the pandemic and the virus since the first phase in regard to levels 4 or 5 of the strategy, of national lockdowns versus living with the virus rather than being defeated backwards into lockdown by it every few months.
When it comes to community development, there are huge opportunities here. I know that the Minister is aware of how small amounts of money to local communities can go a very long way. People are spending more time in local communities throughout the country and, as a result, they are noticing more about their local communities and they are getting involved. People are getting active and we should be taking advantage of that to make sure we get better outcomes for every community. For example, for some people the only option they may feel they have in a Covid world is either working at home or travelling long distances into the office in Dublin. We have an opportunity now for local and regional office hub spaces where people can go and work instead of having to travel all the way to the city centre.
We have a chance now for great village improvement schemes to be done with the consent and involvement of more people in those communities, if they get the funding. There are opportunities for enhancing the public realm and public spaces. In this city, we have private parks that are not public but they are in very public locations, both in the city centre and in our suburbs. Should those parks really remain as private parks? Should we be looking to use our community spaces to the best advantage of as many people as possible? We should be funding arts activities, local activities, local theatre and all other activities that can happen in outdoor space and structural environments where people should be able to enjoy their local area in a safe way. This is the type of area that I believe funding should be going into and I support the Minister in doing that.
I concur with what Deputy Eoghan Murphy said with regard to Covid and the necessity to discuss it. We do live in a parliamentary democracy and we do have to have debate. I appreciate that people do not like to be held accountable and that people sometimes think that undermines a message, but nothing undermines a message as much as lack of debate because people cotton onto that very quickly. That is what we have had in this House. Even in the context of rural development we need to discuss Covid. We cannot pretend that Covid poses the same risk in rural communities as it does in Dublin, just as we cannot pretend that it poses the same risk in Dublin as it does in greater London. Any pandemic, particularly a respiratory virus, is clearly going to pose a greater risk in areas where there is a greater density of population.
Covid and people working from home poses a huge opportunity for a change of mindset. There are many towns and villages that were once thriving commercial centres that are now dying. We can blame successive Governments, globalisation or whatever we like for this, but I think we need to move away from that to see what people want. There are a number of office blocks around here that are now empty as people are working from home. People are better equipped now to work from home once broadband is provided. I hope that the broadband plan will be rolled out as scheduled.
There are three particular villages in Clare that I want to mention that have been already mentioned by previous speakers, namely, Broadford, Carrigaholt and Doolin. These are very different villages but the one thing they have in common is they do not have a sewerage scheme. For this reason, Irish Water is not interested in dealing with them. Irish Water is upgrading existing sewerage schemes but it is not taking on new schemes. Broadford is ten miles from Limerick, so it is in a perfect position to grow. Carrigaholt is working to grow its tourism industry and Doolin has a very advanced tourism industry, but none of these areas have sewerage schemes. There needs to be a system put in place so that they can grow and have a sewerage scheme.
Some counties have spent a lot of their money on LEADER projects. A roll-over is needed and money is required for next year and the year after because the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, will be in 2023. I ask the Minister to prioritise that issue. I know from my engagement with people in Roscommon earlier in the week that that is a problem.
Broadband is welcome but we need to see it rolled out. The Minister comes from a rural area, as do I. If one is making cocks of hay in a field, the more people in the field, the quicker they will be made. We need to roll out extra people, as it were, although I know there are problems in that regard at the moment.
On mobile phone coverage, the current providers are basically giving the two fingers to a lot of people in rural Ireland. I welcome the town and village renewal scheme. It has helped. We can give out about measures but we also need to recognise initiatives such as rural regeneration. The more of that, the better for us all. There is a particular matter that I would ask the Minister to raise at Cabinet. I know from my engagement with different councils that there are issues with regard to the assessment of roads. The Minister and every other Deputy here knows that new roads are very important because we do not have adequate public transport. Some of the people in the Green Party might wish to live in a dream world. We will never have sufficient public transport such that we have only to put out a hand at our houses and a bus will stop and pick us up. In terms of the road analysis that is being done, they are making it harder to build roads. I ask the Minister to raise that issue at Cabinet.
I want to raise the issue of sewerage schemes under the previous Government, which was not the remit of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. In the counties where Irish Water does not provide services in a town there are group water schemes, especially in the west. If Irish Water does not supply the water to a county, it will not support a sewerage scheme. This needs to be addressed. I spoke to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about this a week ago and I spoke to one of his officials. They are aware of the situation. I hope they will come back with a solution. Previously a grant of €6,000 per house was available and people in the area would put in place the scheme and run it, probably more efficiently than anybody else.
Ballinasloe has water, broadband and sewerage services. It has everything going for it, including a motorway. There is a need for a task force in towns like that to bring them on. I would live nowhere else than rural Ireland. It is the best place to live and bring up a family. For all its faults and all of the criticisms of this, that and the other, I would not give it up for the world, in particular the tranquility. The old houses that were closed up in rural areas are being snapped up at the moment. We need greater positivity, to put in place the infrastructure, to get the meitheal going and to address the problems in the line of sewerage and so on and we will make it better yet.
I listened to the Minister's remarks about the various moneys that have been spent. They are all very welcome, but we must also look at regional spend. I have repeatedly quoted the report of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly which looked at regional imbalances. The report was produced on foot of the downgrading by the European Commission of the region's categorisation from a developed region to a region in transition. There are many statistics in the report. I do not have time to go through them now but they show the lesser spend per capita, whether in terms of health infrastructure or education infrastructure or per kilometre of local, regional and national roads. When we talk about spending, I believe we have to look at a balanced regional spend.
One way in which the Minister might help to deliver that balance of regional development is to involve the Northern and Western Regional Assembly as the lead agency in allocating the approximately €350 million which is allocated to the region under cohesion funds. It has launched the Let's Be More campaign to ensure more localised investment and more action to facilitate local entrepreneurship, research and development, etc. The Minister and I know that the centralised mindset has not delivered balanced regional development. I think we have an opportunity to change that now. The Government has committed to so doing.
I refer to the issue of the LEADER programme. The Minister stated that €44 million will be available next year to fund existing projects and develop a transition programme. That is good, but I am seeking clarity because, six weeks out from the end of the programme, the individual local action groups, LAGs, cannot plan individually from the point of view of administration, etc., because they do not know what their specific allocation will be. Has the Department done any indicative calculation or estimate for project payout in 2021 or for administration and animation in 2021? I am sure it has done so. When one adds those two figures together, what is left for the new transition programme that is planned? Of course, that is also a commitment in the programme for Government, which states:
We will support a LEADER Programme and deliver a Rural Development Programme which is led by independent Local Action Groups and supported by Local Community Development Committees.
I know from long experience in the European Parliament that it took the intervention of senior officials in the European Commission to ensure the tendering scheme for the current LEADER programme was open, transparent and equitable. The Government has committed to a LEADER programme led by LAGs. That must be delivered. Any review that is being considered must start from that principle and must not be used as a mechanism to dilute that commitment.
Deputy Mattie McGrath put it much more colourfully than I could when he stated that certain Ministers felt communities were getting too big for their boots. I certainly know that was true. Ireland's LEADER programme was assessed by the European Court of Auditors as being one of the best. What did we do? We largely got rid of community involvement. I hope the Minister will deliver on the commitment in the programme for Government and restore that community involvement.
I thank all Deputies who contributed. Although we do not always agree on everything in this Chamber, the interest in this debate shows that there is a strong passion on all sides of the House for rural and community development. As Minister, I have had the opportunity to witness at first hand the vision, commitment and energy which is present in communities across the country. Those communities, led by hard-working volunteers, deliver a significant amount for society. With the right supports and opportunities, I believe they can do even more. I am determined that all of the policies of my Department now and into the future will support that work.
I point out to Deputy Michael Collins that we have more schemes for rural Ireland than ever before. There is unprecedented investment going into rural communities through schemes such as the €1 billion rural regeneration and development fund, the town and village renewal scheme, the outdoor recreation scheme, CLÁR, LEADER, the community enhancement scheme and local improvement schemes. I increased the budget for the latter to €10.5 million. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae mentioned that as well. The Department of Transport and local authorities also have a role to play in local improvement schemes. The community services programme and many other funds are available.
What I want to see in respect of all of our funding streams is a ground-up approach. A top-down approach will not work. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to rural development. Every community is different and has its own unique needs. Our funding schemes need to be responsive and reflect that. I welcome the feedback from Deputies as part of this debate.
I will try to address as many of the specific points raised as I can. Deputy Calleary raised the issue of matched funding. This year, in recognition of the pressure on local authorities, we increased the grant rate under several of our rural programmes to 90% and, as such, there is only a 10% matched funding requirement.
Deputy Kerrane raised the issue of young people moving away from their communities to cities. The reality is that this trend is evident not just here in Ireland but across the globe, where young people tend to drift towards cities. There is a unique opportunity now to reverse that trend through remote working. I believe the investment the Government is making in the national broadband plan will be a game changer for rural businesses and communities and will mean Ireland is well placed to maximise the potential that remote working presents for regional development.
The issue of the accelerated roll-out of the national broadband plan was raised by many Deputies. I welcome the recent comments of David McCourt of National Broadband Ireland that the plan could be rolled out in five years. That is a very welcome signal because as far as I am concerned it cannot happen soon enough. It is one year since the broadband contract was signed. It is the biggest investment in rural Ireland since electrification. Nobody is questioning now whether it was the right decision to sign the contract. All anybody wants to know is when they are going to get the broadband.
In the meantime, my Department is rolling out broadband connection points, BCPs, across the country, 200 of which will be operational by the end of the year. Deputy Mythen asked specifically about Wexford. We plan to have ten BCPs operational in Wexford by the end of the year.
Deputy Mac Lochlainn referred to e-health initiatives. That is something I am looking at very closely. Under the BCP programme, we will trial several initiatives, including e-health, as well as education and training trials, art and culture trials and, of course, remote and connected working investments. The BCPs cannot simply be stopgap measures. We have an opportunity to establish long-term community assets that leverage connectivity for the public benefit. Working together, central and local government, communities and all Members of the House can make something special of the BCPs.
I welcome the positive feedback from Deputies with regard to BCPs. If Deputies are aware of good locations in their constituencies that may be suitable for BCPs, they can contact the broadband officer of their local authority, who will feed into my Department and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications because there may be scope to add further BCP locations next year.
Several Deputies mentioned the service provided by Eir. I hear about it daily in my constituency. It is not good enough and the company is going to have to up its game big time because at the moment it is letting its customers down. It is as simple as that. I know the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has made his view on that issue clearly known.
Deputy Dillon raised several local projects in County Mayo under the town and village renewal scheme. I hope to be able to announce the applications successful under this year's town and village scheme in December.
I assure Deputy Dillon that I would be delighted to visit my Department's offices in Ballina as soon as the restrictions allow it.
A number of Deputies raised the issue of job creation in rural Ireland. It is my intention that the new rural policy will contain a commitment to building on recent successes and will set ambitious targets in Enterprise Ireland's, IDA Ireland's and Údarás na Gaeltachta's enterprise strategies for job creation in the regions. I am engaging with the Tánaiste on that, and he is committed to job creation in the regions.
Deputy Cairns spoke about the challenge of climate change and the need for sustainable development. While these are challenges, it is important to point out that there are massive opportunities for rural Ireland in the green economy. For example, there are major job creation opportunities in retrofitting.
Deputy Cahill raised the issue of community allotments. That is another good idea. I support it, because that is how we will get ground-up, community-led projects that benefit the environment.
Deputy Carey spoke about the outdoor recreation scheme and the benefits it has brought to the Lough Derg blueway in his constituency. The outdoor recreation scheme is one of the best schemes we have. Funding has been provided for greenways, cycleways and trails throughout the country. There is a big interest in outdoor activity now because of Covid-19 and I am glad we have increased the budget for outdoor recreation to €12 million next year. Deputy Naughten mentioned the Beara-Breifne Way, and there are opportunities for that project to secure funding through the outdoor recreation scheme. I hope the local authority involved will examine that.
Deputy Murnane O'Connor raised CLÁR. The number of projects approved in each county varies, depending on the size of the CLÁR areas in each county. That varies a great deal. For example, Deputy Martin Kenny will know that all of Leitrim is designated a CLÁR area. On the other hand, Carlow has one of the smallest CLÁR areas in the country, with just over 20% of the county designated as such an area. My Department has commissioned an external review of how CLÁR areas are designated and this will be completed next year.
Deputies Canney and Carey raised water and wastewater services, as did Deputy Fitzmaurice. I will look into that and raise it with my colleagues in government. It is continually raised with me as an issue. However, we are talking about substantial investment in this regard, but I will discuss it with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. Deputy Canney also raised the town centre living report. The report was published on 22 June and is available on the Department's website. I have established an interdepartmental group to examine how we can progress the report's recommendations. I also secured an extra €2 million in the budget so we can expand the project to a further 50 towns.
A number of Deputies spoke about the importance of our front-line community development workers. I fully agree that they do fantastic work in local communities, but they have been impacted by the pandemic. We have sought to support them through the €35 million Covid stability fund, and I am pleased that we secured an extra €10 million for that fund in the budget.
Deputies Michael Moynihan and Mattie McGrath raised the issue of more funding for community centres. There is a €5 million fund that was introduced for community centres earlier this year, so perhaps they should check with their local community development committees, LCDCs. It is a matter of which I am very aware.
The compulsory purchase of vacant properties was raised by Deputy O'Donoghue. On this occasion, I agree with him. I have no wish to see properties becoming eyesores in our towns and villages. I will also raise the issue with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, as part of the new rural policy.
Deputies Michael Moynihan and Fitzmaurice spoke about the LEADER programme, as did Deputy Harkin. The Government is committed to a transitional LEADER programme and I am considering extending the closing date because a number of LEADER companies have requested it. They will not be ready for the closing date this year, when they cannot announce new projects. They want me to extend it for a couple of months, so I am considering it. I will announce the transitional programme and the moneys we have for it shortly. The LEADER companies need not worry. There is funding available. They have much work to do because there are still projects to be announced. They also have many projects that have been announced but the money has not been drawn down. There will be a great deal of work over the next year and a half in the LEADER companies to ensure that these communities are able to deliver the programmes for which they have received funding.
I believe I have covered many of the points raised by Deputies. I listened to what every Member had to say, lest any Member doubt it. I thank the Deputies for their constructive feedback which we will take into account when finalising the new rural policy. As we look beyond Covid-19, any recovery must be inclusive and benefit all communities. I am proud to lead the important work of my Department, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien. I am determined to maintain the momentum and to ensure we continue to deliver benefits for all communities. I had limited time to respond tonight, but I am happy to talk to Deputies at any time if they have ideas or proposals that could make a difference. I thank them for their contributions.