Seanad debates

Wednesday, 21 May 2003

Rural Development Policy: Statements (Resumed).

 

10:30 am

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Fáiltím roimh an Aire. Bhí sé anseo ag labhairt ar an ábhar seo agus bhí an-díospóireacht againn an lá sin. Tá an-áthas orainn anois go bhfuil sé in ann teacht thar n-ais chun labhairt linn arís. Níl aon-amhras faoi ná go bhfuil an-bhéim ar an ábhar seo le cúpla bliain anuas agus tá an-chuid díospóireachta faoi agus as an díospóireacht sin, tá meon dearfach ag teacht ar mhuintir na tuaithe agus cad é tá ag teastáil uathu maidir le hinfrastructúr de. Ní raibh éinne sa díospoireacht sin a bhí níos dearfaí ná an tAire Stáit féin.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I believe the Senator has spoken in the debate already. We have checked the Official Report.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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I was given to understand that we could have a lengthy discussion on the matter. Does it not still apply?

Acting Chairman:

It is not the normal procedure in a resumed debate for a Member to speak again.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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The Leader gave us the impression that—

Acting Chairman:

I accept that. However, I do not wish to create a precedent due to omission. Will the Senator, as Fianna Fáil spokesperson, simply welcome the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, to allow the debate to continue?

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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And leave it at that?

Acting Chairman:

Yes, the Senator can add a few words, if he so wishes.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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If we are taking it that I have made my contribution already, that is fine. I welcome the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív. This is a subject close to the hearts of many and which is raised regularly on the Order of Business, including this morning. When Senator Glynn requested this debate initially, it was evident that many wanted to contribute. Under the direction of the Acting Chairman, perhaps that is all I should say.

Acting Chairman:

We have to make it clear that no precedent has been created by a slight omission or misunderstanding. The advice given to me is that when a Member speaks in a debate, he or she cannot speak again when it resumes. Senator Ó Murchú has, by omission, spoken on this matter again. It will not apply to any other Member. Otherwise, debates could continue indefinitely.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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Is this a different debate?

Acting Chairman:

No, it is a continuation of statements on rural development policy. It is a resumption of a debate that was adjourned. The advice—

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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What was the previous title? There is a different title this time.

Acting Chairman:

It is the same title: statements on rural development policy (resumed). Those who have already spoken in the debate will not and cannot be allowed to speak again. Otherwise, a debate could continue indefinitely.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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On a point of clarification, has the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs spoken?

Acting Chairman:

The Minister opened the debate and will reply at the end. To clarify the matter, the debate commenced on 18 February. Only those who have not contributed can speak today.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Tá mise sásta leis sin. While I have no problem with this ruling, it was my understanding that because they were statements, there would be an opportunity for Members to address the issue again. While the Acting Chairman's ruling is fine, it may be necessary to acquaint some of our colleagues with it in order that they can become available to participate in the debate.

Acting Chairman:

Unless I receive further information from the Clerk of the Seanad, I must proceed on the basis of not allowing a Member speak a second time. If I receive information to the contrary, I will announce it to the House. Is that fair?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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Yes, that is fair. It is protocol.

Acting Chairman:

It is over two months ago since the debate commenced. I have checked the list of previous speakers. Senator Glynn did not speak previously and will be called after Senator Paddy Burke.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, back to the House. There is some confusion about the procedure for this debate on rural development which commenced some time ago. There was a substantial number of speakers on the last occasion. Perhaps Members had looked for extra time and some did not get a chance to speak.

This is a good day to resume the debate as we have already debated the national spatial strategy, decentralisation and the strategic rail review. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has articulated some concerns in recent months with regard to planning and development in rural areas. Every Member of the Oireachtas, with other public representatives, has great difficulty with the heading rural development policy. What does "rural development" mean?

In recent years there has been a rapid decline in many rural areas. While there is a great argument for the building of houses in such areas, they remain in decline. I shall provide an example. During the past five to six years, Mayo County Council received 16,500 planning applications and granted 15,000 planning permissions. That does not take into account those planning applications that have been withdrawn for one reason or another and those from people who received word in advance that they would be refused and withdrew their applications. Of the 15,000 successful applications, 10,000 new houses were built in rural areas of County Mayo. From the 1996 census of population to the 2001 census of population, the population declined by 2,500. This is a frightening statistic. The local authority granted 15,000 planning permissions, 10,000 new houses were built and yet the population declined by 2,500 over the five-year period.

Nobody seems to know the reasons for this decline. One is that some of the houses to which I refer are holiday homes and are unoccupied for long periods. Other factors are that people are moving into towns and that younger people may have taken up summer jobs, etc., and may have been residing in the towns on the night the census took place. By any standard, it is a significant drop in population in a rural area – particularly when one considers that 10,000 houses were built. I do not know the answer in terms of reversing the decline in rural areas, but something needs to be done.

The Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Deputy Parlon, was here earlier for a debate on the decentralisation programme. I hope that programme and the strategic rail review, which we debated earlier, will reverse the decline in rural counties and achieve balanced regional development.

The Government will have to consider providing rail links along the west coast from Sligo to Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford. Other Members are seeking rail extensions to Shannon and Letterkenny. The services have got to be provided in order to attract people to those areas and thus maintain a balance on the east and west coasts.

While we should consider the population decline in rural areas, Government policy favours more densely populated urban areas. That is also the policy at local authority level, where county and town development plans are put in place. Government policy is for higher population density. While this will work from the point of view of footpaths, public lighting, sewage facilities and so on, it may not be best at the end of the day. If there are to be greater urban populations there will be a decline in local post offices, shops and pubs in rural areas. The Government will have to put a policy in place to help fight the decline of small rural villages.

The GAA has done great work in the past in holding rural areas together. However, it is fighting an uphill battle in many areas because to run a rural GAA club – whether football or hurling or, indeed, both codes – costs between €50,000 and €60,000 annually. Given the declining population, there will be an even greater strain to raise resources to fund local clubs which are the life and soul of rural areas.

The Government will have to take a lead in regard to the planning aspect. If we are to go down the road of no rural housing and where everything will be in towns and cities of higher population densities and higher growth areas, that will be to the detriment of rural communities. There will have to be a better balance as between the east and west coasts. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I thank the Leader and our spokesperson, Senator Ó Murchú, for making the necessary arrangements. I also thank the Minister for being present.

The Government's commitment to rural areas is clear and is underscored by the creation of the Minister's Department last year. The CLÁR programme also emphasised our commitment to rural development. The issue of rural development is critical to our country. As the Minister said in February, working in the area of rural development can be frustrating, although the rewards can be incredible.

The proportion of the population of areas outside the five main cities fell to approximately 40%, or 1.5 million people, in 2000. The population decline in rural areas is a massive challenge to all of us. Those of us who are members of local authorities have tried, through our county development plans, to address the concept of rural housing. In doing so, we have been conscious of the difficulty in terms of the decline in population as it affects the GAA teams. We have a situation where a number of clubs have to come together to form a team and where schools, post offices, churches and Garda barracks have closed. These are all signs of a declining rural population.

In the case of the area I represent, north Westmeath, and, in particular, the Finnea area, the decline in recent years has been evident in the context of the numbers attending the school, the local GAA club and so on. The attitude of certain entities at national level vis-à-vis An Taisce and the difficulties that obtain in respect of the concept of rural housing has not counteracted rural decline, rather it has contributed to it in a major way. Those who know absolutely nothing about local democracy tell us what we should do in the context of rural development. Some proactive measures have been taken and we welcome them. One such measure is the national spatial strategy which will seek to revitalise and regenerate rural areas. It will also provide an impetus for new sustainable development and job prospects for those living there.

When we think of rural areas, we think of agriculture and farming. I welcome the fact that the national spatial strategy acknowledges the importance of the agri-sector to the economy. This sector is obviously important in the context of agri-tourism. We acknowledge the input made by that sector and its the encouragement to people to visit rural areas and spend their holidays there. It is also realistic in its assessment that agriculture is changing and that new efforts are required to find alternative sources of employment in rural areas.

None of us can pretend that a small farm can support a family in the way it did in the past. The Minister is right to emphasise the need for diversification in rural areas. He is also correct to emphasise the liberating effects of technology and how we are bringing the world to people and how this is having a significant effect on population decline. It is encouraging that the Minister hopes to be proactive in encouraging rural development and the necessary infrastructure should be put in place to promote it.

We pay tribute to the members of local authorities. They have organised water, sewerage and other schemes which complement the concept of rural regeneration.

If we are to be effective in meeting the challenges posed by population decline we must realise that rural areas are not isolated and can only survive in partnership with urban areas. Rural and urban centres must complement each other and work in tandem. Rural areas need to utilise and develop economic resources while taking advantage of strong neighbouring urban centres. Small townland villages in rural areas have potential, which can be realised by ensuring good communications between town and country. We must ensure that rural areas have the ability to exercise their advantage in terms of lower costs and quality of life. Difficulties have arisen in this regard in terms of getting planning permission for developments, especially for isolated rural housing.

Gaeltacht areas are close to the Minister's heart. Senator Ó Murchú also has an abiding interest in them. The decline in the Gaeltacht areas, including the number of Irish speaking people, is a cause of concern. However, there are indications of a renaissance, athbheochan, in the number of people with an interest in speaking as Gaeilge. The Minister should continue to consider the concept of establishing new Gaeltacht areas which will allow for an established presence of those with an interest in carrying on their daily lives through the medium of Irish.

Traditional rural-based jobs in agriculture, forestry and fishing will continue to have a strong role. There needs to be effective agriculture, marine and natural resources sectors, together with the contribution of significant developing sectors, such as a tourism.

Women who choose to work at home form part of an under-utilised resource in my county, east Galway and other parts of the country. We are proud to have a facility at St. Thomas's Hall, Rathowen, County Westmeath, compliments of the local Church of Ireland community to whom we are thankful, which provides computer courses to women who work at home. There are many positive elements in rural areas on which we are not drawing in the way we should.

An Post has attempted to replace the traditional postman with a bit of tin in the form of a square box which it calls postboxes. Other people call them by a different name, but the conventions of parliamentary language precludes me from using it. It has been established that the postman is the only human life that many old people in rural areas see from one day to the next. In that context, they provide a social service in addition to delivering post. Following the closure of many post offices, an analysis regrettably found that rather than use the facilities on offer, many people travelled to the local village or town to draw their pension to maintain confidentiality and anonymity. Despite this, a message should go out from this debate that where there is a regeneration of the population in these areas, An Post will not be found wanting in providing a post office facility to access postal orders, pensions, television licences, etc., but which would also act as a one stop shop for additional services and facilities.

Táim fíor bhuíoch don Aire agus don tSeanadóir Labhrás Ó Murchú as ucht seans a thabhair dom an óráid seo a thabhairt ar rural development. I ask the Minister to consider providing whatever resources he considers necessary to help rural populations, an area in which he has an abiding interest and in which he has proven his worth. We also owe it to the language that the Minister should consider establishing new Gaeltacht areas where it is possible to do so.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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Any opportunity for the House to discuss rural development or the lack of it is to be welcomed. It would be impossible to consider rural development without giving due regard to those who live and work in rural areas and ensuring that their interests and well-being are looked after. Given that every aspect of rural development is at the mercy of the Government, which offers incentives with the one hand but removes them with the other, what does the future hold?

Senator Glynn outlined a large number of services that have been cut or dismantled in the midlands region, which is indicative of the Government's failure to address the problems of rural development. In my County Longford, ten group water schemes have been approved, some for the past three years, yet the Government has failed to provide funding to get them off the ground. Half a dozen applications for group sewerage schemes for smaller villages in the county have been with the Department of the Environment and Local Government for a number of years awaiting approval. The Government is failing to deal with this. There have also been cutbacks in the local improvement schemes, which are beneficial to rural areas, especially to those in the farming community or who are living at the end of laneways.

Tourism has a great potential to expand and develop in the midlands. There are many fine lakes on the River Shannon and there are other fine rivers in the region, yet there has been a failure to secure funding from any Department to improve access to these waterways. It is important to provide those funds.

Senator Glynn referred to the installation of rural post boxes. The regulator is to be complimented on the stance she took last week. It is a waste of money for An Post to proceed with its plans in this area. The maintenance of the current postal service is important to rural life. These and other developments, such as the closure of small Garda stations and small schools, which have occurred over the past 20 years are to the detriment of rural areas. The Minster should address this issue as soon as possible.

The Government has reneged on its commitments to rural Ireland. Essential budgets covering every aspect of community life and development have been slashed across the country. Rural affairs have been treated with appalling disregard, despite the promises made in relation to rural Ireland in the 2002 programme for Government. Did they end up on the cutting room floor as an example of the Government's duplicity?

Budget 2003 saw far-reaching cutbacks in areas where the Government had pledged there would be none. These cutbacks strike at the heart of rural life, rural development and the people who live in rural areas. Not everyone felt the riches of the recent economic boom and the growth of the last ten years has led to some decidedly uneven development. Rich areas have grown richer while poorer ones remain stifled by lack of infrastructure, employment, educational resources, housing, medical facilities, etc. Inevitably, many rural areas have fallen behind. The western development fund has been slashed by 69% and the rural affairs budget has been cut by a staggering 26% from €52 million to €38.5 million. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, made a great public fuss of the presentation of his CLÁR programme, but he has slashed its budget by over 25%.

The national spatial strategy initially appeared to offer a lifeline to rural development, but it is nothing more than a headline-grabbing exercise and another under-resourced white elephant. The midlands triangle of Mullingar, Athlone and Tullamore does not even have a decent road connecting the three towns and the National Roads Authority says no funds are available to develop secondary routes. New motorways to serve some of the strategy's hubs have been shelved by the Minister for Transport for a further three years. The Government is attempting to buy time, but what time is available to rural communities?

In the 2002 programme for Government, a number of promises were made to rural Ireland, but they have not been acted on. The Government promised to improve significantly transport services in the regions, stating that it would ensure that every county had a comprehensive rural transport initiative in place. It also promised to embark on a new initiative to further develop localised bus services in rural areas. On foot of these promises, the rural affairs budget has been cut by 26% from €52 million to €38.5 million. With the exception of the Ennis information town project, of which nothing is heard now, there is a massive digital divide between urban and rural areas. While Dublin is racing ahead in respect of high technology, the rest of the country is limping along behind.

The heart of rural Ireland – its farming heritage – is threatened by a climate of uncertainty and mistrust. We witnessed the farmers' protest immediately after Christmas. Farmers are being driven off the land as farming incomes fall and the expected support from the Government fails to materialise. The costs of production have risen, irrespective of enterprise, and young people are adopting a negative attitude to careers in farming. Irish farming faces further uncertainty under the Fischler proposals. Will we stand back and allow our rural farming communities to be destroyed? Will anyone be left to produce Irish food within ten years? These are serious questions and they must be addressed.

Does the Government care that the essential lifeline to rural Ireland which An Post's home delivery service represents is under threat? What is it doing to protect the infirm and elderly in remote areas who will be most affected by the proposal to end door-to-door deliveries? This action will have far-reaching effects that will not be felt in urban areas. As the haemorrhage from farming continues, life for those who are left becomes more isolated than ever. Does the proposed development of necessity mean taking a number of retrograde steps, while making what may be unsustainable plans for advancement? Does the Government care about the future of the Irish language, something which is supposedly a core value of Fianna Fáil? It must not, given that the Gaeltacht budget has been slashed by 22% while that of Údarás na Gaeltachta has been reduced by 22%.

The population of rural Ireland is in decline and some areas have seen a fall-off of 50% over the past 75 years. The vicious circle created by the withdrawal of services as population declines pushes more and more people to look for a better life elsewhere. A large number of schools are at risk from population decline in rural areas. One need only look at the recent census of population in County Longford, where the population is falling and migration rates are the third highest in the country.

Population decline threatens our secondary schools and results in amalgamation in many towns. There is a disturbing level of long-term unemployment and graduates are lost to the region due to the lack of job opportunities. It is essential that we improve rural infrastructure in order to offer an attractive, viable alternative to urban dwelling, rather than drive people off the land, out of rural communities and away from what they often see as a sinking ship. To achieve population increases, we must develop and diversify the rural economy and provide appropriate services and infrastructure. We must work to halt and reverse the trend of decline in the rural population.

In practice, rural development policies are implemented at national and regional levels. It is imperative that policy-makers are aware at all times of the likely impact of all policy proposals to improve the economic, social, cultural and environmental well-being of rural communities.

I hope the Minister takes note of the contributions made by Senators. It is important to develop infrastructure in rural areas. Hopefully, the Minister for Finance will provide adequate funding to the Minister to allow him to provide his Department with the resources it needs.

Photo of Francis O'BrienFrancis O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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It gives me great pleasure to welcome the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, to discuss the important issue of rural development. It is encouraging to see that rural development initiatives still feature prominently in the policies being implemented by the Government. Senator Bannon is wrong to say that it has been forgotten. I assure the Senator that rural development will not be forgotten.

I come from the Cavan-Monaghan constituency, where rural development measures are extremely important to counterbalance the disadvantages of being close to the Border. The latter has created difficult economic conditions.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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That part of the country benefits from North-South funding.

Photo of Francis O'BrienFrancis O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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My own area of Latton in mid-Monaghan and the neighbouring areas of Carrickatee and Tullycorbet have derived considerable advantages from the CLÁR programme of support measures introduced by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. A great part of the rural localities of counties Monaghan and Cavan could be put forward as a template of the type of area the CLÁR programme was designed to benefit. The trend of depopulation has caused the rural landscape of the constituency to undergo an inevitable and sad decline. When the numbers living in an area are reduced, it is not long before its economic health begins to suffer and the provision of transport infrastructure and other services to such an area becomes difficult to sustain.

CLÁR has focused on many ills created by rural depopulation and has, to a large extent, been successful in putting forward remedies. County Monaghan recently received substantial funding for its non-national roads through CLÁR resources and funding of this level is extremely welcome. Monaghan County Council has long argued the case that the extremely high level of road mileage that comes within its ambit of responsibility has never been adequately recognised by those who operate the purse strings of the Department of the Environment and Local Government. Any additional funding such as that which has been forthcoming from CLÁR is, therefore, appreciated and is always put to productive use.

I encourage the Minister to continue with the CLÁR programme and to be attentive to the representations made to him by public representatives from counties which it covers. Such a programme should keep its methods of application as flexible as possible. I hope the Minister will continue to be receptive to suggestions from politicians and community interest groups in the counties concerned. The decline of their traditional areas of agriculture, upon which Ireland has depended for so long, also brings the issue of rural development into sharp focus. Involvement in agriculture calls for a change of approach and emphasis. The young Irish farmers of the 21st century will have to display the ability to adopt the imagination to steer their activities into a new and ground-breaking areas. It is on behalf of those young farmers and the farm families that I appeal to the House.

There are severe restrictions in operation in County Monaghan with regard to the development of houses in rural areas and I am sure other rural locations experience the same problem. There are important environmental principles to be borne in mind when planning applications of this sort come under consideration. However, those principles should not be set at such a level of importance that they prevent the development of housing in rural areas. Many farmers want to see their sons and daughters live on or close to their holding. This type of development is vital if the family farm unit is to continue to be viable and if our rural communities – which are already suffering from depopulation – are to remain able to sustain themselves. No one is arguing for large-scale housing development to be allowed to overrun the countryside, but surely there is scope for sufficient flexibility in the application of planning legislation to allow for some degree of sensible rural housing development that contributes to carrying on family farms and lends vibrancy to our smaller centres of population.

I thank the Minister for coming before the House to take this debate, because the day we forget about rural areas will be a sad one for this country.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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On a point of order, I was unaware of the protocol in respect of this debate being resumed. It is such an important issue that the debate could have recommenced under a different heading. Planning and rural development are not static. Rather, they have changed to a large degree since February and our contributions and input are vital. Will the Minister revisit this issue before the end of this session, because many county development plan reviews are underway?

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I second that invitation.

Acting Chairman:

I hope the Senators' invitation will be considered by the Minister and the Leader of the House. I regret that we cannot allow second speeches on this matter. However, under another heading and at a later date, we will hopefully have an opportunity to discuss this important issue further. I call on the Minister to respond.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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When I went to look at my own notes on this issue, I realised how long it had been since we began this debate, which is a pity. Perhaps if we engage in this exercise again, it would be much better if we could run it over a short period. It is much easier to address the issues raised today, but other issues were raised on the previous occasion some months ago.

One of the first issues raised was the multiplicity of agencies and, as someone who worked on the ground, I concur with anyone who is confused about where one goes to seek assistance. One of the reasons my Department was set up was to try to deal with this issue and I am taking steps to try and bring coherence and simplicity in that regard.

With regard to wider issues beyond post-offices, one must ask whether we are going to spend our lives protecting that which will inevitably change or develop rural Ireland in a new way. The post office network is important, but change must take place. There will be fewer post offices because a large number of them are turning over less that €4,000 or €5,000 per annum and could not be made viable under current circumstances.

When this issue first arose, I was one of the first to put my head above the parapet. At the time, I said that I accepted change but not decline. I accepted that there might be fewer post offices, but I want those that remain to have a huge number of extra services so that they will become modern focal centres for the community. In that connection, I welcome the arrangement that has been made with a certain bank in respect of banking services now being available in post offices. I only regret that this was not done ten or 15 years ago.

We must always look at young people. During a debate on post offices, an argument was made that young people do not want post offices, rather they want ATMs. We must recognise that 70% of young people go to third level institutions and all of them acquire, almost on the first day of college, a card which they use to withdraw cash. I welcome the creativity of solving the problem, about which I had meetings with the bank federation just two years ago, of providing in-store ATMs in rural areas. There were good reasons the problem was solved in this creative way, rather than installing ATMs in walls. The cost of running and filling an ATM was the dilemma, but this has been dealt with because it is the sharp shop operator who will be responsible for filling the ATM. People will withdraw money and, if he is lucky, they will put some of it back into his till and he will then put it back into the machine. Therefore, the big cost associated with a conventional ATM will be tackled. Our focus should, in the first instance, be on development and, in the second, on dealing with problems in new and modern ways.

A large number of issues were raised in respect of infrastructure, which is the fundamental key to the future. I welcome, for example, the provision of welded rail, more or less universally, on mainline tracks. I have discussed with the chief executive of the Western Development Commission the possibility of having a co-ordinated approach to realising our dreams of opening up the western rail corridor – to which I am very committed and have been for a long time – decentralisation and spatial planning in the west. The west and rural areas in general are entitled to proper road and air services, gas supplies and so on. I will be making an announcement soon about rural broadband in connection with the CLÁR programme.

Rural health was mentioned. One of the major factors for mothers in the decision about where to set up home is the availability of health facilities. We are looking at innovative systems in this regard. For example, in recent years a facility was opened in Clifden where one can go in, have an X-ray, have it read by the doctor in Galway and receive the result over the telephone. A similar facility, funded through CLÁR, is planned for Belmullet and this will enable the people of that town to avoid having to go to Galway or Castlebar for their X-rays. With the co-operation of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, and the local health board, we have managed to arrange to have a doctor located on Inis Oirr, which was until now the most populous island without a resident doctor.

There has been much discussion about SACs, NHAs, planning and spatial strategy. I will spell out the truth once again. Despite popular theory, during my time in the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands – in fact, during the lifetime of the previous Government – no house for a rural family was refused solely on SAC grounds. Looking at a map of the SAC areas, it is easy to understand that. People complain that 60% of Connemara is designated SAC, but most of that is blanket bog and the tops of mountains, where people do not build anyway. The policy of the Department was always to facilitate family houses from an SAC point of view.

An interesting point was made today. How is it that we can grant 10,000 planning applications in Mayo and then find that the rural population has declined? A small amount of this is accounted for by holiday homes – other counties such as Galway have set their faces against granting permission for holiday homes – but the same thing is happening in the cities. How can we explain the fact that something like 53,000 houses were built in the State last year, while on the neighbouring island, with a population of 60 million – 15 times larger than population here – only approximately 120,000 houses were built during the same period? The reason was identified by a County Mayo man, Professor Seamus Caulfield, in a paper he wrote.

We have a huge bulge of population at the family-forming age. We are now moving rapidly from having an average of five people per dwelling to the European norm of approximately three. The reality is that if we do not build many more houses in rural areas, we will inevitably have a decline in population. To freeze the number of houses in rural areas, as desired by some organisations, would inevitably mean a rapid decline in population, just as to hold static the number of houses in Dublin would result in a decline in its population. We can see at present that the population in the city area is declining – even though we are building quite a number of houses – because the number of people living in each house has declined. Years ago, parents lived in one house with six or seven children. Nowadays, people might have only two children or none at all. Students away at college might be occupying one house during the week and another at the weekend. If we do not build rural houses we will kill rural areas.

The issue of decentralisation was raised and I understand the Senators have been discussing this today. We are committed to it; it has to happen, in the interests of rural Ireland. Senator White mentioned that I said that somebody who comes from the city and settles in the rural community is more important than the multinational 40 or 50 miles away from that community. On the face of it, this seems an extraordinary statement. It was one I made consciously but carefully. All of the maps, spatial strategies and studies show that commuting distance extends to between 25 and 30 miles and beyond that the population does not benefit from industry. We only have to look at places such as Belmullet in County Mayo and Oughterard in Connemara, which are declining rapidly, to see this. People will not commute more than 25 to 30 miles, even when road conditions are good.

Senator Ulick Burke, referred to CLÁR and stated that I had made good use of it in my constituency. He has previously accused me of having a slush fund. Under CLÁR, everything is done by programme – in fact, the selection of projects tends to be done by county councils in the case of roads, Leader companies in the case of village renewal and so on – and not by me. All I do is to make sure that they adhere to the very strict criteria laid down and that it is all done impersonally. The Senator is absolutely correct: of course it is benefiting my own constituency. A CLÁR area benefits any constituency, because that is what CLÁR is designed to do.

There are areas in my constituency that are in decline – why should they not benefit from the CLÁR programme? Of course they benefit. I can also say, however, that Senator Burke's constituency benefits. East Galway has large areas in the CLÁR programme. I thought he would have the good grace to acknowledge that when I reviewed the CLÁR areas, not one townland or DED was added in Connemara, while, in most other areas, including east Galway, extra DEDs were added because the figures justified it.

Senator Bannon mentioned problems with group water schemes. Under the CLÁR scheme, we are carrying out top-ups to group water schemes and it is interesting to see which counties always seem to have the money to avail of these schemes. It is also interesting to see which counties never seem to be able to come up with their share of the money, no matter what we do or how much money we put on the table. My understanding of the operation of the group water schemes is that each county is given an allocation and that it is up to the local authorities, in conjunction with the local monitoring committees, to decide which schemes get preference in any one year. I suggest that the Senator return to his local authority and discuss what is happening.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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On a point of order, all of County Longford is not in a CLÁR area.

Acting Chairman:

That is not a point of order.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I was referring to schemes outside the CLÁR area in my county.

Acting Chairman:

That is not a point of order. The Senator should resume his seat.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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Ten schemes are awaiting approval from the Department.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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My understanding is that, in general, counties are given a group water allocation and it is the county, not the Department of the Environment and Local Government, that decides which schemes are given approval. The Senator should return to his local authority and ask what allocation it received this year and which schemes it, not the Department, will approve under that scheme.

The Senator also mentioned cutbacks in the western development fund. I wish to again clarify a basic fact. The fund was cut because last year the Western Development Commission failed to spend the money that had been allocated to it in the Estimates. It was allocated almost €6 million, but spent only €1 million and we allocated it some €2 million. I have had continuous discussions with the Western Development Commission. It now seems likely that it will exceed the expenditure of €2 million provided in the Estimates. I have made arrangements to give extra money to fund the extra projects that are likely to be drawn down this year.

The Western Development Commission has been asked to focus expenditure on areas of decline. I have told its representatives that I do not consider that the western development fund was set up to fund projects in Galway city, Castlebar, Ennis or Shannon because they are already growing. The purpose of the fund is to target areas of decline.

Senator Bannon mentioned a cut in the CLÁR programme. He also mentioned cutbacks in LIS. I understand, although I stand to be corrected on this, that the LIS budget is more or less static and that there has been a major increase in its budget compared to that which was available when we came into office in 1997. I further point out that the greatest problem in respect of LIS roads arises in the more depopulated parts of the country which are also, by definition, CLÁR areas. I have made arrangements, for the second year in a row, that for every €2 spent by the local authorities out of their LIS allocations in a CLÁR area, I will provide another €1 for additional road works. This should rapidly decease the LIS waiting list.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I was talking about Longford, which is not in a CLÁR area. I invite Members of the Oireachtas to visit Longford.

Acting Chairman:

The Minister should be allowed to continue without interruption. I do not want to have to move to suspend the Senator, but I will have to do so if he persists.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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The Acting Chairman is not behind in getting publicity.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator has done his homework. He will have noted from the Estimates – a matter which disappoints me – that the CLÁR allocation for this year was reduced from somewhere in the region of €12.9 million – which probably translates to approximately £10 million – to approximately €9 million this year. That is a disappointment. However, the good news is that by handling the funding in a clever manner, I will be able to do as much with it this year as I was able to do with the considerably larger sum last year.

The reason for this is easy to explain. At the end of the year, approximately €7 million was spent without matching funding, which is normally required under CLÁR on class three roads. However, all of the funding we spent this year was invested in matching schemes. With the nine, rather than seven, matching funding schemes this year, I am confident that Members will see as much work done this year as was done last year under the scheme.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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The magic wand is being used.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The position is similar in the case of Údarás na Gaeltachta. This is the challenge for me as a Minister. The economy is not expanding. Perhaps we became careless when money was plentiful and did not watch how it was spent. I have long been of the opinion – nothing will convince me otherwise – that the methodology employed by Údarás na Gaeltachta in respect of its buildings programme was incredibly expensive. It is sitting on approximately €150 million worth of property. I said to its officials that, in more constrained times, perhaps we could examine ways of having as much property available for industry in the Gaeltacht as we had before and add to it. However, we should not have to pay out the large sums of money we paid out in the past. In fairness, they sat down and worked this out with me. We will be able to have as good a year this year in Údarás na Gaeltachta, as we had last year, by way of innovative and creative ways of spending money on a smaller budget. This is what life is all about – getting better value for money.

An amazing feature of Government is that we have preached day and night about getting better value for money, but when a Minister does that, all people can talk about is the total spend; they do not consider the value delivered on the ground.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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Some €30 million has been squandered on the port tunnel.

Acting Chairman:

The Senator is tempting my patience.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Senators who contributed. There are major challenges to be faced in rural areas. There are some issues over which we have no control. For example, we have no control over world agricultural policy. We have an input into but no direct control over the European agricultural policy. It increasingly takes more land for farmers to earn an average industrial wage. The challenge, therefore, is that we want to maintain as many people in full-time and part-time agriculture as we can. That will mean considering new systems of agriculture and new products. However, that alone will not be enough to sustain rural areas.

The major challenge is to diversify the rural economy so that part-time farming is a real option in terms of the way forward for some. Large, non-farming communities in rural areas make a contribution to rural society. I live in the heart of rural Ireland and if I was to exclude the non-farmers in the area, there would not be much left in the way of social life in terms of local football teams, schools, etc. All I can hope is that we all meet this challenge. As Minister with responsibility for rural development, I will try to be as inventive as possible in tackling the major challenges that all western societies face. On a global scale, we could say that every society has for a long time been trying to meet the challenge of increasing numbers of people moving from rural living to urban living. I hope we become the country that eventually stabilises the rural population and, if we do, we will certainly be the first.

Acting Chairman:

On behalf of Members, I express our appreciation to the Minister for coming before the House on two occasions to debate this issue.

Acting Chairman:

Sitting suspended at 5.10 p.m. and resumed at 6.30p.m.