Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Community and Rural Support Schemes: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his comprehensive report on all the schemes and budgets within his Department. I live in rural Ireland and will have to be a little bit critical. Great efforts are being made and money is being spent but there is a lot more to be done. It is an area of the country in desperate need of progression. Throwing money at an issue may not always be the solution and we have to involve the people who live in these areas. The best example, which we learned through progressive governments and regimes, is in our health service and we spend so much on it. It is not all about money and we need to get down to the fabric of the make-up of rural Ireland. We need to include the people of rural Ireland. Some of the schemes the Minister of State mentioned are good and helpful but may not always touch the nerve centre where they are needed.
Rural communities are struggling with stripped down services. Bank branches, post offices and Garda stations are closing and there is an ever-present threat of rural crime, which is a major issue, and something that calls to every neighbourhood in rural Ireland. The threat of crime needs to be addressed.
The Government's record is one of stripping away at rural Ireland’s existence, leaving massive deficits in terms of service provision, substandard infrastructure and reduced supports. Meanwhile farm incomes have been hit by severe price volatility across all sectors, jeopardising the family farm as the basis of Irish agriculture, while, as we all know, Brexit presents an existential threat to sector. The reality is that Government decisions are damaging the attraction and viability of living and working in rural areas.
An issue I have raised before, which may not be under the remit of the Minister of State's, is that there seems to be a concerted effort to avoid giving planning permission in rural areas. It may not be under the Minister of State's remit, and it may not be Government policy, but, from talking to my colleagues in different counties and in urban areas, for some unknown reason, it seems to be increasingly difficult with more barriers being put up for one-off housing in rural areas. We can talk all day long about funding and the fabric of rural Ireland but if people cannot live there, that is the kernel of the issue. We need to keep people in rural Ireland and facilitate people who are there. People are the solution to every problem. There seems to be an almost concerted effort to avoid giving people the chance to live in rural Ireland.
A two-tier recovery has developed in this country, whereby growth is concentrated in certain areas, especially in the larger cities. The European Commission has confirmed that "regional imbalances across the country remain in investment, economic growth, competitiveness and innovation". Some 45% of Irish GDP is concentrated in Dublin, while the greater Dublin area accounted for over 60% of total employment gains nationally in the 12 months to September 2018.The economic recovery in this country is centralised, with even the Minister for Rural and Community Development saying that Ireland is imbalanced. This is a de factoacknowledgment that the Government is failing rural Ireland. Shockingly, more than 500,000 rural households and businesses will have to still wait until 2023 at the earliest for State intervention to receive moderate speed broadband. That is more than ten years after the national broadband plan was first launched in
2012. The ultimate test will be what additional new funding will be ring-fenced for this plan and for delivery. Yet worryingly, a tender has yet to be awarded for the national broadband plan, with serious questions surrounding the whole process.
Meanwhile, the LEADER rural enterprise funding stream has seen its budget cut by €150 million. It has proven to be a bureaucratic mess for many LEADER companies. It is a damning indictment that out of a €250 million funding allocation, 85% of the total LEADER funding remains unspent after year five of the 2014-2020 programme.
In the confidence and supply arrangement to facilitate a minority Government, Fianna Fáil responded to the needs of rural Ireland and extracted policy commitments to be implemented over the Government’s term in office. Examples of this include developing new community development schemes for rural areas. Achievements to date include the reversal to cuts made to the farm assist scheme, increased rural social scheme places as well as the reopening of the CLÁR programme and local improvement schemes.
In the budget 2019 negotiations, Fianna Fáil successfully campaigned and got agreement from the Government for €48 million in additional areas of natural constraint, ANC, funding in 2018 and 2019. Funding alone is great but may not always be the answer. Rural people are very versatile, innovative and passionate and sometimes they just need leadership and direction. What I am going to say may sound like a contradiction but we have to be cognisant of how we spend money in rural Ireland and of the effect some of the projects we spend it on will have. In my term on the council, I spent a long time fighting for broadband and for a RuralLink transport system, both of which were delivered. I am not taking the credit for that. However, I live in a small town which is seven miles from a bigger town and while RuralLink is providing a great service, it has backfired in that it is drawing people from the smaller town to the bigger town in order to do their shopping. I do not know how we will overcome this problem. It is a service that is needed but it is having the opposite to the desired effect or outcome we wished for when we looked for it. We can fight and argue all day about broadband its associated problems. However, broadband in rural areas is a necessity for people to do business but by installing broadband, we are opening up a worldwide market for people to do shopping, etc., so we are going to have to have a plan B there to protect the small shopkeepers in rural Ireland. It is a catch-22. They are necessary commodities and services but we need a plan to run alongside them so they become part of inclusion and are of benefit to the rural area without hindering them in certain ways. There should be a bit more joined-up thinking in regard to schemes and the money being spent in rural Ireland. We must include people by providing them with services and schemes which are beneficial to them. As I said, the most important aspect of reviving and revitalising rural Ireland is facilitating people to live in rural Ireland.