Dáil debates

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Rural Schemes

3:55 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate being given the time to raise this important issue. The indicative LEADER budget for 2023 is €180 million for the period 2023 to 2027. The new programme is €36 million per year, as opposed to €50 million. No matter how we dress this up, that is a reduction. The Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, made a submission to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine because it is the formal managing authority for the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and, therefore, LEADER. In effect, the Minister in the Department of Rural and Community Development is responsible for the LEADER budget. That is why I want to know why there has been a reduction and what we can do about it.

This unnecessary cut will have real effects on local businesses and communities in my constituency and elsewhere. There are solutions if the Government is prepared to look at them. This is about rural Ireland. For three decades, the programme delivered by local development companies has brought much needed jobs to rural areas and developed rural communities. The aim behind the LEADER programme for the period 2023 to 2027 is to continue to support a community led local development approach to rural development. We cannot do that if we are reducing the budget.

We need to work together to assist enterprises and communities in rural parts of Ireland, like my area, Carlow-Kilkenny, to improve the quality of life and economic activity. Can we consider how this funding could be used to drive bottom-up community led investments to create and maintain enterprise in rural Ireland? If we set this budget in stone, we will deprive rural communities of critical capacity building supports and funding for vital enterprise, tourism and community led development. What we are doing will also conflict with the national rural policy, Our Rural Future, which is specifically linked to the LEADER approach.

Can the Government please take another look at the numbers? The Minister of State will say that there is no reduction, but that is not what those living with the programme are telling me. What is the process and delay in the report of the review of the local community development committees, LCDC, structures? That report will enable the Government to deliver on its programme for Government commitment to empower independent local action groups to deliver the new programme in the period 2023 to 2027.

I also want to ask the Minister of State about the process. I have spoken to many different groups. I have heard from several different groups that there is a lot of red tape in applying for LEADER funding. It has become a major issue. I understand we have to have transparency - everyone agrees with that - but there are definitely issues in applying for funding. I ask that this be changed because it is an obstacle to communities applying. I ask that the matter be addressed.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The LEADER programme has been in operation in Ireland for 30 years. To mark this anniversary, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, recently launched the national rural network networks booklet of LEADER case studies. Case studies are excellent examples of the impactful and innovative initiatives that the LEADER programme has delivered across Ireland in that period. In recent months, I have visited a range of projects and initiatives in communities across Ireland and have seen first-hand the great work being delivered by LEADER groups.

The Government clearly recognises the vital role that LEADER plays in delivering high quality rural development projects at local level and will continue to support investment in rural Ireland. In the 2014-20 CAP programme period, €250 million was allocated to LEADER. For the period from 2021 to 2027, the funding allocation will be maintained at €250 million. This comprises €70 million provided for the transitional period from 2021 to 2022 and the recently announced indicative allocation of €180 million for the period 2023 to 2027. The maintenance of €250 million in funding from the 2014-20 period is evidence of the Government continued support for the LEADER programme. I am aware that the €70 million made available to LEADER groups in 2021 and 2022 has already supported a range of new projects approvals and expressions of interest for new projects remain open across LEADER areas.

In discussing the issue of investment in rural development, it is also important to take account of the record levels of investment across a range of schemes and initiatives. For example, a range of schemes have been implemented in recent years such as the rural regeneration and development fund, the town and village renewal scheme, the walks scheme and outdoor recreation infrastructure. Local development companies have been involved in the delivery of some of these schemes, as well as maintaining their role in respect of LEADER delivery. Their involvement in this regard has been very beneficial and is very much appreciated.

Budget 2022 also saw increases the secured in all of the Department of Rural and Community Development's rural schemes and the national development plan, NDP, outlines a clear commitment to a continuation of investment in rural Ireland as a matter of priority. Capital funding allocations for the Department have significantly increased,, from €88 million in 2018 to €205 million in 2025 under the NDP.

At present, preparations for the design of the range of schemes that will make up Ireland's new CAP strategic plan are well advanced. The total funding available for this package of schemes for the period 2023 to 2027 amounts to €9.8 billion. The total funding for these essential schemes for the 2021-27 period increased by 30% over the 2014-20 the CAP period, representing a clear commitment to rural Ireland by the Government.

A national public consultation process on the new CAP strategic plan was recently put in place by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The consultation process ran for a month and closed on 8 December. I understand a number of submissions were made regarding the new LEADER programme as part of this process.

Such stakeholder consultation will remain a central element of the design of the new LEADER programme. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, met with all the representatives of the Irish Local Development Network ILDN, on 2 December to discuss a wide range of issues, including the LEADER programme. Further meetings are scheduled with the ILDN this week at official level as part of this continued direct engagement.

I am confident that the Government's ongoing commitment to rural Ireland and its continued commitment to funding the great work being done by LEADER groups across the country will help to deliver on the range of actions for our rural communities into the future as set in the Government's ambitious rural development policy, Our Rural Future.

4:05 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State.

I feel there is a big communication issue. I welcome the further meetings scheduled with the ILDN this week. That is so important. I am getting different figures from what the Minister of State is giving me.

I welcome the commitment from the Government to invest in rural Ireland. I see in my own community in Carlow-Kilkenny the community spirit that this important funding has brought. However, we need more communication and information on it. There is definitely a breakdown there. I ask that the Department would conduct an information campaign. I am aware that the Minister is speaking to all the different stakeholders but there are definitely concerns. I am hearing them on the ground. I ask that there be more engagement and that we have more information. The Minister of State said that there is a 30% increase in funding. I welcome that but, as I said, I need to get more clarification on the figures. Overall, we must welcome any funding that is brought into rural Ireland, including my own area. We also have to make sure that this delivers and that there are never cutbacks here.

I will ask the Minister of State about the application process. That is an issue that has been raised with me when one is applying for funding. I would ask that the Minister of State engage and see what can be done on that because there is a lot of red tape. I would ask for a commitment that that be addressed.

I welcome the fact that the submissions have been made. I note December is the time that everything is brought back to the Department and will come back to all the different stakeholders.

I would repeat that information and communication is the real issue when we are talking about rural Ireland. This must be addressed and maintained.

I will welcome any funding that comes to rural Ireland, particularly to my own area in Carlow-Kilkenny. I noted we were down slightly last year and I would ask that the Minister of State address that as well.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue here today.

The LEADER programme has been a very successful initiative for 30 years in Ireland. I am in no doubt that there is real value in the continued support for bottom-up locally-led initiatives that address the needs of communities all across the country and this is the hallmark of the LEADER approach. In fact, this direct link to local communities is also central to the mission of my Department and to Government's vision for rural Ireland, as outlined in Our Rural Future.

Local development companies play a central role in delivering LEADER and a range of other rural development and community initiatives run by my Department and the benefits of this role are well recognised. In recognition of this, the Government has committed to continue the support for the LEADER programme by way of the allocation of €250 million over the period 2021-2027. LEADER will thus continue to be a vital component of a well-funded CAP strategic plan in the coming years.

As preparations continue for the development of the CAP and LEADER programme, I can assure the Deputy that direct and meaningful consultation with the key stakeholders will form a central part of that process. Following on from a recent national consultation process on the CAP strategic plan which was launched by my Government colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, it is intended that a draft of the plan would be submitted to the EU Commission early in the new year. There will then follow a process of intense negotiation and discussion with our colleagues in the EU Commission in order to finalise the details of all the schemes in the strategic plan, including LEADER. Stakeholders such as the ILDN which are central to LEADER delivery will continue to be consulted with as this process develops.

I am confident that our new CAP strategic plan will deliver real and meaningful support to communities across rural Ireland. Within this, the significant national and EU funding which has been allocated to LEADER will ensure that we can build on the benefits that LEADER has delivered all over Ireland in the past 30 years. I am confident that the new LEADER programme will continue to build on the great work of the past 30 years and play a central role in delivering on the Government's vision for rural Ireland, as set out in Our Rural Future.

I will take the Deputy's question about her constituency back to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.