Thursday, 15 July 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
87. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development if progress has been made on establishing a community ownership fund to help communities groups purchase or take over local community assets for community use; if potential State-owned properties in rural towns and villages have been identified, as committed to in Our Rural Future; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38458/21]
This question asks the Minister about progress on a number of commitments in Our Rural Future. One is the establishment of a community ownership fund to help community groups purchase or take over local community assets for community use. It also asks if potential State-owned properties in rural towns and villages have been identified to date.
Our Rural Future aims at reimagining rural Ireland by revitalising towns and villages and getting more people to live in, work in and enjoy rural areas. It notes that Ireland's overall economic and social well-being depends on the strength of the recovery in rural areas. It also recognises the centrality of communities in delivering on this ambitious new vision. The policy commits to enhancing community benefit through building empowered communities, developing social enterprises to create jobs and generate community impact and exploring new approaches to community benefit such as community ownership.
Our Rural Future is a five-year policy, with measures to be delivered over its lifetime. As such, my Department's approach to implementation is based on a series of annual work programmes, with associated monitoring and reporting structures. My Department, in co-operation with other relevant Departments, plans to begin the examination of the potential for a specific community ownership fund as part of the 2022 work programme. However, a number of actions are already happening across government that support the ambition of this measure. Communities can already access some existing funding streams to bring vacant buildings back into use as multipurpose or enterprise spaces and-or for residential occupancy, for instance, under the town and village renewal scheme, although this is not the only purpose of that scheme. Likewise, LEADER can, in specific cases, be leveraged to support the acquisition and repurposing of local community assets. As with all the measures contained in Our Rural Future, progress in relation to this recommendation will form part of our ongoing monitoring and implementation structures.
Will the Minister outline how she envisages the community ownership fund will work? I appreciate it is in the work programme for 2022.
I speak in relation to vacant buildings in the possession of the likes of the Office of Public Works, OPW. There are 75 of them in the State that are currently vacant and many of them are former Garda stations. Some will be auctioned off this month. These vacant properties lie in rural towns and villages throughout the State. I know the OPW has made the list available to the Department. At what level has she examined that? Has she considered options for using the vacant properties? They should be used within the community as much as possible rather than being auctioned off to the highest bidder. What engagement has she had with the OPW on this? Would she consider using those vacant properties?
The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, and the OPW are looking at how they can identify suitable State-owned properties which are no longer being used and could be passed over to the community. It could be, for example, an old Garda station lying idle. Rather than letting that property fall into disrepair, why not give it to the community? Through schemes like the town and village scheme, communities can get funding to renovate such properties for their own purposes. We need more joined-up thinking on this. I do not want to see buildings falling into disrepair when they could be used for good purposes.
Local authorities can be used. My local authority in Monaghan is good at working with communities to identify such properties. The local authority might buy the property and lease it back to the community. There could be a long-term lease. There are a number of options. I believe we can get the right solution. It is about stakeholders coming together at grassroots level and coming up with ideas. When such a property is identified, it is fine and well getting it but something is needed in it that washes its face in terms of running it.
The list of 75 vacant properties in the possession of the OPW went to the Department. Has the Minister had any engagement with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, or the OPW on the use of those properties for community purposes in rural towns and villages? Some of them are going up for auction this month. That is regrettable, especially if some level of engagement between the Department and the OPW or the Minister of State has not taken place. A number of the vacant properties are under consideration by the local authorities, including some in Roscommon and Galway, but some in other areas are going up for auction. Has the Minister engaged with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, or the OPW on the list of 75 vacant buildings which, as the Minister of State indicated, has been sent to her Department?
I have had engagement and meetings with the Minister of State on the issue of properties. Some of these properties could be acquired for remote working hubs or a number of other uses. It is up to local communities and local authorities to work together. When they make propositions, I am never found wanting. Good projects always get funding and different streams of funding are available.
The Deputy raised an issue about the community ownership fund. The idea came from the UK, where a £150 million community ownership fund has been introduced. It allows communities to get grants of up to £250,000 in matched funding where they want to take over a facility at risk of being lost and run it as a social enterprise or co-operative model. Our Rural Future contains a five-year strategy so we cannot do everything in year one but we will look at this as part of our 2022 work programme.