Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
11. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of her work towards remote working as per the Our Rural Future - Rural Development Policy 2021-2025 document; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27844/21]
My question follows on from those of Deputies Kerrane and Dillon. What is the status of the Minister's work on remote working, as per the Our Rural Future rural development policy? I refer in particular to the commitment to have 20% of the public sector workforce working remotely or from home by the end of this year.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Our Rural Future, the new national rural development policy, is an ambitious blueprint for rural development in Ireland over the next five years that has the potential to have a transformative effect on rural communities. Through the policy, the Government has a vision to breathe new life into rural areas, with a focus on improved connectivity facilitated by the roll-out of high-speed broadband and the opportunities that presents for remote working. This will enable a more connected, cohesive society with more people living and working in our rural towns and villages.
While Our Rural Future complements the ambitions set out in the Government's national remote working strategy, for which the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has lead responsibility, it also contains a number of measures specifically for delivery by my Department. A number of these will be referenced in the Our Rural Future 2021 work programme that will be published shortly, including the €5 million connected hubs call, which was launched on 29 April. This initiative will support and complement the development of the national hub network, which is another key action in Our Rural Future and the national remote working strategy. My Department is also investing heavily in remote working infrastructure through the €1 billion rural regeneration and development fund and the 2021 town and village renewal scheme. My Department will continue to work with colleagues across government to ensure that the potential of remote working is realised in line with Our Rural Future and the national remote working strategy. The Deputy represents a Dublin constituency but I know he is very familiar with rural areas in County Cavan and can appreciate the difference this will make to rural areas across the country.
I assure the Minister that my cousins in Cootehill, Ashfield, Newbliss and many other places will understand the importance of this proposal. While I represent a Dublin constituency, it is one that includes a large swathe of a rural area throughout the Dublin Mountains. The programme the Minister is championing is important to the revitalisation of every aspect of rural Ireland, be that in Dublin, Monaghan, Cavan or any of the townlands previously mentioned. The crux of the matter for those of us representing Dublin constituencies is that there are reasons, both selfless and selfish, that we might want to see this developed in all rural areas. The possible transformative revitalisation to which the Minister referred may succeed where aspects of the decentralisation policy failed. What sort of efforts are happening on a cross-departmental level to ensure this change is led by the public sector?
As part of the programme for Government we have committed that 20% of public servants will be allowed to work remotely. However, we can be much more ambitious than that because if Covid has taught us one thing, it is that remote working works. It reduces people's commute, improves their quality of life and is good for the environment. Sometimes working at home all the time can be quite lonely and that is why the Government has invested heavily in co-working spaces. Those spaces have two roles. We have identified a considerable number of derelict buildings across the country. County Donegal recently benefited from an €18 million allocation of funding to develop an old cinema that was going to ruin, as well as a department store. There are many opportunities in that regard.
I reassure the Minister that there is much excitement in Newbliss regarding the renovation of the building mentioned. As someone who represents a suburban constituency, it struck me that since the outbreak of the pandemic I am the only person on my suburban street of 40 homes who has been regularly travelling into the city centre to work. The vast majority have been working from home in a blended manner and many look forward to the opening of a remote working centre in Stepaside in the coming months. While we are only 11 or 12 km from the city centre as the crow flies, at the height of rush hour traffic people might lose 45 or 60 minutes of their working day in the car, on the Luas or on the bus. I ask the Minister to provide a little more detail on how we are going to ensure that all of Ireland, whether suburban or rural, has its infrastructure and broadband needs met.
The Deputy will appreciate that, as Minister for Rural and Community Development, my priority is how we can enhance our rural towns and villages, which he will acknowledge have faced many difficulties. There has been significant investment in this area and remote working will be a game changer for them. However, there has also been major investment in urban areas and in libraries. Many libraries also have co-working spaces in them. This plan is about using all our public buildings to maximise the benefits for the community, whether that be co-working spaces or the other facilities libraries provide. The library in Stillorgan has had funding approved and there are opportunities to include a co-working space in that development. It is about working with local authorities and communities and coming up with the right solutions to suit those areas.