Seanad debates

Thursday, 6 May 2010

12:00 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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The matter I wish to raise concerns community enterprise centres. For many years they performed valuable work in their communities but many of them are now struggling to meet their costs and in keeping their facilities open. It is important the Government has some plan in place to support them.

From time to time Members get hung up — rightly so — about large employers in regions such as the Quinn Group. While I sympathise with and support Senator Wilson's sentiments about the Quinn Insurance workers, as raised in the last Adjournment Matter, it must be remembered that community enterprise centres provide as many jobs as that company does, albeit spread across the Twenty-six Counties. Up to 4,300 people are employed in up to 1,500 enterprises which are supported and housed in community enterprise centres, with over 13,000 jobs created in the past 15 years by businesses based in such centres. These centres are often a focal point for local businesses, ranging in size from large ones based in urban areas to smaller ones based in villages. They perform a valuable social role in provincial Ireland. Their facilities are often used by State agencies such as FÁS to provide training schemes in individual areas.

A recently commissioned report by the National Association of Community Enterprise Centres, Review of the Operation of Community Enterprise Centres 2010, highlights how occupany rates in community enterprise centres have fallen dramatically in the past two years. In February 2008, 56% of centres had a 90% occupany rate, which had dropped considerably to 22% two years later, a fall-off symptomatic of our current economic difficulties.

The report also found that only 50% of centres surveyed had received an operational subsidy from a State agency, while only 21% were in receipt of Enterprise Ireland operational grants, a surprisingly low figure. There seems to be no consistency in regulation of the sector between the various county enterprise board areas.

The report outlined a series of suggestions as to how the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation might help the centres through their difficulties. I hope the Minister of State will have some positive news in this regard.

Following the European Parliament election campaign, I am familiar with the work of the Arklow Business Enterprise Centre, in a town ravaged more than most by unemployment in the past two years. It is trying its best to provide a unique facility for start-up businesses in that employment black spot. Will the Government support this valuable indigenous sector? The small and medium-sized enterprise sector and indigenous industry will be pivotal in our economic recovery and getting us out of the mess in which we find ourselves.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator John Paul Phelan for raising this matter on the Adjournment which I am taking on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe.

Enterprise Ireland's community enterprise centre scheme has provided significant funding to facilitate the development of community enterprise centres aimed at providing a physical and human support network for emerging entrepreneurs and micro-industry at the community level. The scheme enabled entrepreneurs to establish, provide employment and grow their businesses in their locality.

Since the launch of the first scheme in 1989, a total of €60.4 million has been approved. The programme's impact is visible and has led to the development of 134 centres, of which 105 have been completed. The balance is either under construction or comprises recent approvals. A 2009 survey of the 105 built centres, which had a 95% completion rate, showed the 100 centres that replied to the survey are housing 901 companies providing employment for 4,870 people. A further 760 companies, employing approximately 2,900 people, have graduated from the community enterprise centres since the first centre was built under the 1989 scheme.

The term "graduated companies" refers to companies that have grown to a capacity that they do not require the guidance and management of their local community enterprise centre and are financially strong enough to lease private space. Some 56 of these companies have since become clients of Enterprise Ireland and 79 are clients of the county enterprise boards.

Several centres which were approved funding have yet to commence building works. In total, there is an estimated €6.15 million in capital grants to be drawn down in 2010 by approved applicants with further funding to be drawn down in subsequent years.

Support is also being provided towards the employment of business development managers for the centres whose role will be to promote and develop entrepreneurship in the wider community, along with supporting and advising in the development of businesses located in their centres. Support of up to 50%, or €50,000, whichever is the lesser, is provided towards the recruitment of a centre manager. Up to 26 centres have availed of this support to date but many have yet to draw down the funding approved.

Enterprise Ireland has also co-funded a postgraduate course in Waterford Institute of Technology in association with the development managers to aid them to scale up their business development skills and officially qualify them to aid small and medium-sized enterprises and micro-industry in their localities. This qualification is a postgraduate diploma in enterprise development and was rolled out in the academic year from September 2008 to June 2009. The agency is in discussion with Waterford Institute of Technology to roll out another course commencing in September.

The agency has also facilitated the establishment of a network for community enterprise centre managers, including the third level campus centre managers, in the community enterprise centres. These networks help to strengthen the overall community groups in the development of their centres, in the sharing of information, as well as in the achievement of scale in some of their activities to the benefit of the local communities.

Enterprise Ireland meets this network regularly to discuss the centres' sustainability, marketing and the best methods of attracting small and medium-sized enterprises and micro-industry at a national level. The agency will also contribute €10,000 each year to the National Association of Community Enterprise Centres for development of the areas mentioned.

The Minister is confident the activities being pursued by Enterprise Ireland, in partnership with the other key players involved with the development of the centres, will help to drive enterprise development in their localities. The agency will continue to work closely with the centres to ensure their continued success in creating employment in their local communities.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I do not know why there is a difference between the Minister of State's figures and mine. Perhaps his figures refer specifically to the 21% of centres which receive Enterprise Ireland funding.

I note the €10,000 grant to the National Association of Community Enterprise Centres. While I accept this is a time of scarce resources for the Government and choices must be made, the number one choice must be to sustain jobs and get people back to work. Job losses are not just a disaster for individuals and communities but also for Revenue in lost taxation and increased spending on social welfare. More investment in job protection and creation is needed and, in this regard, supporting the community enterprise centres would be money well spent. I ask the Minister of State to relay my thoughts in that regard to the Minister and the Department.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I undertake to do so. The community enterprise centre draws on the concepts of social entrepreneurship and social capital which were buzz words some years ago but are still relevant today. The Senator has acknowledged that there are priorities, but we would be foolish to ignore the benefits that have accrued in this area. I will relay these messages to the Minister.