Seanad debates

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Departmental Schemes

12:00 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for affording me the opportunity to speak on the streetscape enhancement scheme in the Chamber. I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. I was pleased to see in September that Kildare County Council had been successful in securing funding from the Department of Rural and Community Development through the 2021 streetscape enhancement measure. I was especially pleased to see that four lovely villages in my own local area were accepted by the scheme, namely, Castledermot, Ballitore, Monasterevin and my own home village of Rathangan.

This is a good scheme. It offers many small rural villages, not just those in Kildare but all around the country, an opportunity to access Government funding and use it in a way that is community focused and will benefit the entire area. A scheme such as this is needed in rural areas. The Minister of State will have heard me saying before that the Government must support rural Ireland both to develop its own way and, of course, to attract new residents and businesses. A scheme such as this, when it is fit for purpose, will result in a more attractive environment that residents, visitors, shoppers and businesses alike can enjoy. However, the deadlines and the practicalities in accessing such schemes must be logical, user-friendly and accessible.

When we devise schemes that are intended to be accessed by the general public, the deadlines and requirements need to be achievable. The turnaround time that was required to apply for this scheme deterred many people in Castledermot, Ballitore, Monasterevin and Rathangan from availing of this funding. As a Member of the Oireachtas, I was first notified of the scheme on 25 August. The closing date for receipt of fully completed applications was 5 p.m. on Tuesday, 7 September 2021. The following is what was required for a complete application: photographs of existing buildings; photographs of an example of what the new building facade would look like; maps identifying the location; records of protected structures' numbers, where relevant; exact details of work proposed, including a copy of relevant, plans, designs and specifications; indications of material type and colour; two written quotations for proposed works from builder contractor; one written quote for materials if the grant applied for was under €5,000; and three written rotations required for contracts above €5,000. All of the above was to be completed in just two weeks.

I appreciate that the closing date for applications was pushed out to 17 September, but that extension was not announced until 3 September. This meant that anyone who had not applied due to time pressures had lost another week. In addition to this, in order for an applicant to draw down the funding, works needed to be completed by Sunday, 31 October 2021, just three weeks after the cut-off for applications. It is practically impossible to get anybody to do any work for the smallest thing within a home. This is just ridiculous. I put it to the Minister of State that we are discouraging applications to good schemes by putting incredible pressure on business and property owners to provide a plethora of information and to complete works in a short time.It is simply not achievable. Only seven applications were received from the four towns I mentioned, and those applicants were not certain that it would be possible to get the works required completed in time. Is the Department planning another streetscape enhancement scheme? If so, will the Department learn from the haphazard approach adopted this year and support applicants in a way that will enable them to avail of the scheme?

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am here on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Heather Humphreys. I am glad the Senator supports the revitalisation of towns and villages and helping people to work from home. It is Government policy to do that. We agreed it last summer. The Senator is raising the practicalities of the short time permitted for the submission of applications, the great amount of detail required, including quotations, and the need to complete the works quickly. Those aspects provided practical problems. I can see that and I will relay the Senator's observations to the Minister.

The streetscape enhancement measure fulfils a commitment in Our Rural Future to provide funding to support the upgrading and enhancement of shopfronts and street facades in rural towns and villages. Many actions and commitments across all of Government are contained in Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025 and those aim to make rural Ireland a more attractive place to live and work. The streetscape enhancement measure was introduced this year by the Minister. It is designed to make around 120 rural towns and villages more vibrant and welcoming places for locals and visitors alike. Property owners across the country are being part funded to undertake a range of eligible projects. The types of projects eligible include the commissioning of murals; the painting of buildings and shopfronts in vibrant colours; the upgrading or restoration of historic shopfronts; the provision of street planting, shrubbery, trees, flower boxes and the installation of street canopies and street furniture; and the decluttering of streetscapes through the removal of unnecessary signs or wires. The wide range of possible projects that could be funded was designed to ensure that the available funding would have the widest possible impact across our rural towns and villages. Measures are being delivered by the local authorities on behalf of the Department of Rural and Community Development, with considerable discretion being provided to each local authority to design the scheme to meet the needs of their area.

Given the concerns raised by some property owners regarding the timelines for delivering these projects, the Minister recently announced an extension of the original deadline for the completion of works until the end of the year. I understand that the local authorities were consulted regarding this extension and that they were informed of this change at the end of last week. I am confident that this extension will alleviate much of the pressure on property owners and facilitate the full delivery of the works planned under the measure. In addition to this extended deadline, I understand that local authorities were also provided with further flexibility regarding how they manage the scheme locally and in respect of subsequent reports on the outcomes to the Department of Rural and Community Development next year.

We have all seen the huge success of those towns around the country that have invested in recent years in improving their streetscapes by painting buildings in vibrant colours, upgrading and restoring traditional shopfronts and removing unnecessary clutter from the main streets. The funding available under this measure will help to replicate this kind of success in rural towns and villages across Ireland. It provides a real opportunity for local authorities, businesses and property owners to work together in adding colour and vibrancy to our rural towns and villages. There has been a very positive response to this new initiative and I have no doubt that this funding will impact greatly on the appearance of our towns and villages. I understand also that a decision regarding a further round of funding in this regard will be considered alongside other town and village investment priorities next year and will also draw on the experience derived from this year's scheme.

I look forward to seeing the impact of this year's initiative on our towns and villages in the coming months and I am confident that this will be a highly visible example of how Our Rural Future is delivering real benefits for rural Ireland.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the extension. I noticed a press release an hour before I came in here announcing its granting. It is welcome, but the constant changing of the goalposts is not acceptable. My concern is that there were seven applicants from four vibrant areas. There should have been many more, and several people to whom I spoke did not submit an application because they knew that they would not have been able to get the works completed by the original date. To a certain extent, therefore, those people are being discriminated against now. If they had realised that there was going to be an extension, then they would certainly have applied.We must address that.

I appreciate what the Minister of State said about vibrancy, etc. I invite him to visit south County Kildare to see the results of these four applications. However, we should not be in the position of looking for and welcoming an extension. When these plans are put in place they must be realistic. They must have smart goals. Local authorities should have more flexibility. I appreciate the Minister of State's comment that they will have that. That is good news as well.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I take the Senator's point about changing timelines and how they may have dissuaded applicants and I will take those back to the Minister. I thank her for her invitation to visit south Kildare. I recently bought a renovated electric car from a company called Range Therapy in Narraghmore, outside Kilcullen. It took a very old electric car and upgraded it by adding extra batteries. It is a business that is involved in the circular economy and I compliment those involved on that. I would be very happy to visit south Kildare. I am responsible for the national broadband scheme, for example, and am keen to go to areas that Oireachtas Members may wish me to visit.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State. I would say the invitations are in the post at this stage.