Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
10. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the roll-out of an integrated national network of 400 remote working hubs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27969/21]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 41 together.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. Remote working has the potential to transform rural Ireland, allowing people to build careers in good-quality jobs while continuing to live closer to home and to generate increased economic activity in our rural towns. The commitment to establish a comprehensive and integrated network of 400 remote working hubs is a key plank in the Government's new rural development policy, Our Rural Future.
An interdepartmental working group, chaired by the Secretary General of my Department, was established last October to oversee the development of a national hub network. After undertaking an extensive discovery process, the working group provisionally identified more than 400 hubs across the country. As the lead agency building the network, the Western Development Commission, funded by my Department, the Department of Rural and Community Development, has now engaged with, surveyed and mapped more than 300 of these hubs.
My Department and the other members of the interdepartmental group are engaged in the establishment of an integrated network of these remote working facilities with shared back office services and a common booking platform for hub users. I look forward to launching the national network, which will operate under the connected hubs brand, later this month. Our ambition is for the national network to have at least 40 hubs using the shared platform at launch and more than 100 on board by year end.
In addition to the supports and tools being developed under the national hub network programme, I have allocated €5 million to fund a connected hubs call under the town and village renewal scheme this year. This initiative will provide funding to support small-scale capital works in existing hubs and broadband connection points.
The type of things we want to support with that €5 million call are the insulation of pods; access control and security systems in existing hubs; the conversion of existing open-plan space to pods; perhaps the upgrade of meeting rooms; upgrading disability access; external signage; in particular, IT network upgrades in terms of wiring and access points and to make sure we have a secure control system; innovative measures to assist existing hubs to deal with Covid-19 challenges; and promotion and marketing campaigns to raise awareness of improvements made to drive increased hub usage.
We have mapped out 326 hubs and another 43 are in progress, so we will soon have close to 400 hubs mapped out. That is a mixture of private sector hubs and local authority and public sector hubs. We have been working with local authorities and communities throughout the country in developing these facilities. We want to improve the facilities which are there and encourage more people to take up the option of working in a co-working space.
We all know Covid-19 has taught us one thing, that we can change and have a better quality of life and we do not need sit for hours in traffic when we can work from home. A co-working space is a better place to go, so we have identified this network of hubs and we want to facilitate people. They can go online and book their hub and there are advantages to the hub operators engaging with us in this process.
The 326 hubs which have been mapped out are welcome. Obviously, things are progressing quickly, which is welcome. Is the detail on the locations mapped out published, or when will it be published? If 100 hubs are expected by year end, when will the detail of the locations of those hubs be known, so local communities and workers can plan? It is hoped workers will be going back to the office this year or be making a decision on how they will work, in terms of doing it remotely two or three times per week, or whatever way they want to do it.
Are any of the hubs which have been mapped out on our islands? Can the Minister provide an update on the use of rural pubs or other buildings? Has there been continued engagement on the use of pubs, in particular?
I thank the Minister for her tremendous work in the rollout of the remote working strategy. We need to maximise the opportunity and momentum which presents itself to rural Ireland in making our remote working network a reality. I thank the Minister and welcome her allocation of €5 million last month for the development of Ireland's national hub network. This funding will go a long way to putting in place the infrastructure to build on the planned rollout of the national broadband.
Remote workers require much more than greater infrastructure, alongside the high-speed broadband. Some people are happy with the options of hot desks shared between multiple users, but others require a more dedicated private setting and office space. I am talking about those who want to remain as long-term remote workers. I welcome the Minister's initiative in this space.
In answer to the question raised, we have mapped out these hubs and will have 100 by the end of the year and possibly more. I will be announcing them next week.
I look forward to visiting County Mayo next Monday to launch the national hub network in Swinford, when I will also be officially opening the new Swinford digital west hub. I am delighted my Department has been able to support the development of that hub under our rural regeneration fund. An 18th century courthouse has been refurbished into a hub, so not alone is the fund supporting remote working and enabling people to work locally in the west, it is giving an old building a new, 21st century use.
As regards Deputy Kerrane's point, only a few weeks ago I was delighted to attend virtually and officially launch the Roscommon broadband connection points, BCP, network, and as part of that I also officially launched the new digital hub in Tulsk.
Regarding the hubs that have been mapped out, I ask the Minister to come back to me on whether remote working hubs have been identified on the islands off the coast. The use of pubs was also a big part of the rural action plan. Has there been continued engagement on that?
I am delighted to hear that the Minister will visit Mayo next Monday. The digital hub being established in Swinford is evidence that the Government is delivering for rural Ireland. It is a fantastic project and will be of major benefit to the town and the community. The Western Development Commission has done amazing work throughout the Atlantic economic corridor in mapping the remote working hubs available.
To answer Deputy Kerrane's question, Clare Island has a broadband connection point. I had the pleasure of visiting the island, where there are a number of remote workers who can work in a professional manner within the community centre and do not have to travel long distances or commute to the mainland. That is fantastic news for the islanders, as well as for rural Ireland and west Mayo. I look forward to the Minister's visit to Swinford next Monday for the roll-out.
As the Deputy said, there are remote working hubs on the islands. When I launch the network on Monday I will outline all the details of the hubs that have joined it. We wanted to do a full and detailed mapping exercise and we funded the Western Development Commission to identify where all the hubs are. We will then be able to see any gaps and work on them. Some 100 hubs have signed up to the network, which means that if people need a space in a particular part of the country they can log onto a website and book a desk there for half a day, a full day or even a week. When travelling the Wild Atlantic Way, they could spend half the day working, if it suits, and the other half on leisure activities. It is about getting that balance so people can work remotely in a place that is safe. This is the game changer we all need for rural Ireland.