Thursday, 17 December 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Urban Renewal Schemes
3. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she will examine providing a scheme to improve town centres in rural Ireland to tackle high levels of vacancy and dereliction in rural towns; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44386/20]
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Since 2016, my Department has been investing in the improvement of rural towns and villages through the town and village renewal scheme. A total of €78 million has been allocated through the scheme to date, and this investment has been augmented by the rural regeneration and development fund, which supports larger-scale town revitalisation projects.
The programme for Government includes a commitment for an expanded town and village renewal scheme to bring vacant and derelict buildings back into use and to promote residential occupancy. This follows on from the pilot initiative led by my Department in 2019 to explore how to encourage increased residential occupancy in rural towns and villages. An independent report on the pilot initiative highlighted the complexity of the issues that influence town centre living. It emphasised the value of developing a shared vision, or master plan, for individual towns as part of the process of counteracting vacancy and dereliction and making town centres more attractive places in which to live.
I secured an additional €2 million in budget 2021 as part of the expanded town and village renewal scheme. This will be used to support the development of master plans that will provide a vision for the future of these towns and villages. I anticipate that the plans will identify strategic actions tailored to address the vacancy and town centre living issues specific to each town. This initiative will be progressed early in 2021, and further details will be announced at that time.
This action is just one element of the Government's approach to addressing the issue of vacancy and dereliction as part of a new Town Centre First approach. An interdepartmental group has been established to progress this. As part of its work, the group will examine the suggested actions in the report on the pilot town centre living initiative. The group is chaired jointly by my Department and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and it is expected that it will bring forward proposals for the Government's consideration in the middle of next year.
That is really welcome considering what I read in the report produced following the pilot scheme for the town centre living initiative. The Minister will know there were a number of findings on difficulties tracing owners. Issues might arise where an owner passes away and there is no will. A number of such issues have been identified. Additionally, it was found there is a lack of finance available to renovate properties. I realise that there are local authority schemes but we really need to explore specific schemes to try to bring vacant properties in town centres back into use. Where there are difficulties with owners, we need to find ways around them. I welcome the findings in the report. I ask that some of the really good findings that would make a difference be considered. I look forward to seeing this.
On the town and village renewal scheme, how exactly does it work where towns have vacant buildings along the main street? What do towns and communities do?
The town and village renewal scheme very much has a bottom-up approach, as the Deputy knows. It is about working with the communities and local authorities to identify projects that will make a difference in their towns.
On vacant properties, I have the extra €2 million in the budget. That is to support the development of the master plans in about 50 towns and villages countrywide. It can be used to create the vision for the bigger projects. The Deputy will be very familiar with the Boyle regeneration project, for example. It has been allocated funding of €2.1 million from my Department's rural regeneration and development fund. Roscommon County Council partnered with the Boyle town team and Boyle Chamber of Commerce to deliver the Boyle regeneration project. It is a significant town regeneration project comprising a series of linked projects. It is part of the Boyle 2040 framework plan. Putting the plans in place gives one a vision to work to in order to make a difference for one's town.
I welcome that. It is so important. In Ballinasloe, County Galway, great enhancement works have been completed just recently. The streets are all looking really well. An awful lot of work has gone into the project but there is an issue with vacancy. We need to explore steps to address this. Where there are difficulties with owners, which is an issue nine times out of ten from my experience, we need to consider ways to get around them. I welcome the statement that the findings of the report will be examined. I look forward to seeing action in the new year.
The Deputy is correct about ownership. Sometimes it is difficult to find owners but it is important that local authorities use their powers to step in, if necessary, and purchase a vacant property compulsorily before it becomes an eyesore or danger.
I would like to see some of the extra €5 million made available under the town and village scheme this year to develop remote working facilities go towards renovating premises in the centre of towns that can be converted easily into working hubs. That is already happening in a number of locations.
The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has a big role to play also. In my home town, Clones, for example, there is a €5 million regeneration project going ahead in the centre. It is about bringing vacant buildings back into residential use. That, in itself, will bring life back into the town. A cross-departmental approach is important. It involves the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Department of Finance and my Department. We are working together on it. I take on board the points the Deputy makes.