Seanad debates

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Employment Support Services

9:00 am

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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I want to talk to the Minister of State about the newly found localism that Covid has brought about. It is a positive move. Owing to the travel restrictions, people were forced to stay within a radius of 2 km to 5 km but a side effect was that they discovered what was under their own noses and grew to appreciate it more. We were moving towards a sense of that anyway because of concerns over sustainability and because people were sick of their lifestyles, always being on the go, congestion and chasing their tails.In many families the Covid pandemic brought about another way of doing things. It was not for everybody, particularly people who are working from home in cramped rented accommodation. For many people a new localism is a positive thing.

We have responded to this. The rural strategy has been launched. The Government has acknowledged the opportunity for people to choose where they can live. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has delivered a legal framework on the code of practice to disconnect and we will see further funding in budget 2022. We have the national broadband plan and the connected hubs network. We are making an effort for our towns and villages to become more attractive places to live. We have increased services to cope with the population shift. Therefore, we have a strategy.

However, what about our suburban and urban villages? The legal framework applies and the national broadband plan applies, but we do not have the same opportunities when it comes to co-working hubs. There are many opportunities for people to open hubs in rural areas, but not the same opportunities in suburban areas and urban villages. The lifestyle pressures are slightly different for suburban and urban areas, but they are just as real. For instance, in the area where I live, in places like Ongar, Blanchardstown village and Castleknock, people do not have the space for home offices.

The Government wants to encourage spending in the local economy. We do not want people to be working from home all the time. We want to see them in our main streets and getting the benefit of that. We need to think of all the families who live in suburban areas and the parents who would benefit from working closer to home. The pandemic has shown us that there are more ways of doing things. For many people the one-size-fits-all approach to working in an office it is not feasible for everybody, whereas remote working gives flexibility to more people.

Funds are available for people who want to open co-working hubs in rural places but there is very little when it comes to suburban and urban areas where I live which would really benefit from them.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Currie for raising this timely matter. I apologise on behalf of the Tánaiste who cannot be here this morning. Co-working hubs are becoming increasingly relevant as a result of the Covid pandemic. They have brought great benefits to people's lifestyles, allowing them to spend more time with their families and their communities.

As our country continues to navigate through the Covid-19 pandemic, remote working and measures to support remote working have become more important than ever before. This is reflected in the programme for Government, which contains commitments aimed at facilitating remote work across Ireland in recognition of the fact that remote work can provide benefits in terms of regional development, climate action and work-life balance.

In January, the Tánaiste published the national remote working strategy Make Remote Work, the objective of which is to ensure that remote working is a permanent feature in the Irish workplace in a way that maximises economic, social and environmental benefits. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, in concert with its enterprise development agencies and other Departments, is actively working to support the implementation of this strategy through the progression of actions over the course of 2021, overseen by an interdepartmental group. Future investment in remote working hubs and infrastructure in particular in underserved areas will underpin the development of the national hubs network over the coming period.

To build on the capacity of enterprise centres, incubator hubs and shared office space to offer remote working facilities, a central objective of Enterprise Ireland's regional strategy, Powering the Regions, is the Worksmart Challenge. This challenge aims to support 10,000 co-working and incubation spaces regionally over the coming years.

Enterprise Ireland's open regional development feasibility fund is available to promoters looking to scope out and investigate the viability of larger full-scale projects such as remote working hubs. A feasibility grant of €15,000, or 50% of eligible costs, whichever is lesser, is available to qualifying applicants meeting the required criteria.

An additional €5 million has been allocated to the Department of Rural and Community Development in budget 2021 to support the development of a national hubs network as well as to upgrade the existing facilities throughout the country. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, recently announced that €75 million has been awarded for 24 projects under the rural regeneration and renewal fund with significant investment made in remote working hubs under this call.

Furthermore, the 2021 town and village renewal scheme will place particular emphasis on projects supporting remote working and enhancing town living as outlined in Our Rural Future - Rural Development Policy 2021-2025. The maximum grant available is being raised this year to €500,000. The scheme will support these objectives and will encourage more people to return confidently to town and village centres to work, shop and socialise. Through these initiatives, the Government is striving to develop a landscape in which employers and employees can reap the potential benefits remote work has to offer.

I acknowledge the Senator's concerns that there may not be enough focus on urban and suburban areas which would also have alleviated traffic congestion. Sometimes it can take as long to get from a regional county to Dublin as it can to get from the suburbs into the city centre. I will bring the Senator's concerns to the attention of the Tánaiste.

Photo of Emer CurrieEmer Currie (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State. I feel that suburban and urban villages are being left behind. We are doing all this amazing work and we have set out the strategy. Suburban villages such as Ashtown, Ongar and Blanchardstown would really benefit from this. I know there are concerns about city centres, but it is a different thing. We are afraid of the worst-case scenario when the horse has already bolted in terms of the effect that the pandemic has had. We need to be thinking about a dynamic recovery for our city centres and we can do that but we also need to carve out a space for our suburban and urban villages.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I again thank the Senator for raising the matter. I will bring it to the Tánaiste's attention. In my county I have seen the improvement in people's lifestyles, the socioeconomic and environmental benefits of people being able to work from home and not having to commute long distances. They can benefit from remote working hubs and we are looking to develop more of those in County Wexford. I agree that everybody should be able to avail of the socioeconomic and environmental benefits of remote working hubs, either in rural areas or in more suburban areas of Dublin. I will bring those important matters to the attention of the Tánaiste and ask him to come back to the Senator on the matter.