Other Questions

Post Office Network

Brian Stanley

Question:

23. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the progress that has been made in implementing the recommendations of the Kerr report; and the immediate actions being taken to preserve the post office network here. [32042/16]

I want to ask the Minister about the progress made in implementing the recommendations of the Kerr report and the actions being taken to preserve the post office network. We know that the current model has to change. Post offices must be made viable. I would like to hear the Minister's response to my question.

The post office network business development group, chaired by Mr. Bobby Kerr, was established at the end of 2014 to examine the potential for new and existing government business and commercial business that could be transacted through the post office network, and to identify new business opportunities for the network.

The final report of the group was published in January of this year and made a number of recommendations to support the future sustainability of the post office network, including network renewal. On foot of this report, a post office network renewal implementation group was established to progress the recommendations arising from the report of the business development group.

The post office network renewal implementation group is independent and is also chaired by Mr. Kerr and includes representatives of An Post and the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU. The group has been examining issues such as the number and spatial distribution of post offices, branch modernisation, the streamlining of products and services, postmaster payments and contracts, and training and qualifications for post office employees.

Some of the issues under consideration are quite complex in nature. Both the Minister and I have met Mr. Kerr and members of the implementation group on a number of occasions over the past few months. The implementation group is nearing the conclusion of its work and its recommendations will be issued to the board and management of An Post in the next few weeks. It will be a matter for An Post to consider these recommendations and to bring their proposals to the appropriate Ministers for discussion.

Separately, I established the post office hub working group in July this year to identify potential models under which the post offices could act as community hubs, especially in rural areas. The group has recently concluded its talks and is currently finalising its report. In addition, my officials are also examining the potential for the post office network to deliver other services including motor tax and financial services. I intend to report to Government on these issues in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I welcome the initiatives he mentioned. The Kerr group has come out with recommendations and they are being examined but time is of the essence. Unfortunately, the post office network is not in a good place. It is reckoned that 500 post offices are not economically sustainable and that has to change. The only way it can be changed is through broadening the range of services available through the post office network.

I welcome the hub working group as well. The Minister of State set out three recommendations in the House last week. The first two - the shared value post office system and the co-operative model - are well worth examining but there is a question over the mobile recommendation. I am not too sure whether that would work. However, the range of services needs to be broadened to make the post office network viable. What can be done immediately, given an interim solution is needed? If not, the network will lose more post offices.

The post office network is probably one of the most important retail networks in the State. There are approximately 3,700 people working in it and 99% of all addresses are within 10 km of the network. It is massively important but a few weeks ago, Mr. John Daly, director of retail operations for An Post, appeared before my committee and he stated that 500 post offices are not economically viable. Using the yardstick of economic viability, they do not have a future. Another brutal statistic was reported in the past week. Only 37% of farms are economically sustainable. Those two statistics shed massive light on the damage that has been done to rural society in the past number of years. How can the Minister of State ensure that post offices become economically viable?

The Government does not own the post offices. The network is operated by An Post and there are 1,131 post offices nationwide, 51 of which are operated by An Post. The remainder are run under contract to the company. The two working groups I mentioned are working to try to do exactly what the Deputies want. They are examining ways and means to sustain as many post offices as possible. The Government will not close post offices because it does not have control of them. That is up to An Post. Mr. Kerr has a report, which is almost concluded. He will make recommendations to An Post, which will then go to Government and the Government will then have to make decisions. Deputy Stanley is correct that there are a number of options on the table but it is like any process. I do not like some of the options that An Post and the IPU have and they do not like some of the options that I have put on the table for them. The negotiations are over and we are drafting a report and seeing whether we can reach agreement between An Post, the post offices and the Government. When we get the report, I intend to go to Government to see what we can do to help rural post offices to deliver other services, including motor tax and banking services. We are trying to do whatever we can. I am on the same side as the Deputies. I have commissioned a report and I am trying to do the best I can to keep as many as possible open.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The key concern is that while there is movement, the process could be dragged out, particularly when groups have to meet and draft reports. I take on board that the Government does not own the vast majority of rural post offices. It is important that the report and proposals of the implementation group are refined and agreed and then implemented as soon as possible along with the recommendations from the post office hub working group. It is essential that this be done quickly. There is a major opportunity because of the withdrawal of banks from rural areas. They have pulled out of small towns and even some sizeable towns in provincial areas. The banks are not providing face-to-face services, which is driving small business people crazy, not to mind creating difficulties for the elderly and people with disabilities, but this provides an opportunity. That gap needs to be filled and the post office network is ideally placed to do that and provide a community banking sector.

Deputy Tóibín is a good chairman of the regional development committee and when An Post representatives appeared before it, they said they hoped to have the basic payment account open in the first quarter of next year. I welcome that because that is vital. It is important that the network has the cards and people will be able to use them. They are also talking about doing deals with other commercial companies but I will not go into that now. The delivery of services such as motor taxation will be vital. We will revive as many post offices as possible and put any other government business we can their way. An Post stated at the committee that 500 post offices are currently not viable. Everybody is working to try to make as many of them as viable as possible. I do not know how many we can save. I will do everything in my power. I am only trying to support the post offices in every way I can and I hope the post offices, An Post and the Government will all respond to see what we can do to save them.

Rural Economic Development Zones

Martin Heydon

Question:

24. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the status of the rural economic development zones, REDZ programme; when she expects to announce successful applicants under the programme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37212/16]

The question has been overtaken by events, as the Minister confirmed the REDZ allocations yesterday. I was particularly pleased to welcome the allocation of €100,000 to the tanyard project in my local village of Ballitore in south Kildare. This funding is in addition to the €25,000 allocated to Ballitore earlier in November under the town and village renewal scheme. This is positive news for the village and will allow the hard working Ballitore tanyard committee to proceed with its plans to refurbish the tanyard and make it a focal point for the village. The proposed project will result in the tanyard buildings being converted into a theatre performance space with meeting rooms, and toilet and kitchen facilities. The buildings date back to 1801 and sit in the heart of the village. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline in her response the next steps in the drawdown process for committees such as that in Ballitore, which are anxious to get working on their projects.

I launched a call for proposals under a new phase of the REDZ initiative on 21 September this year.

Following an assessment of the applications received under this call, I announced details of 41 successful proposals which have been allocated funding of just over €5.3 million in total for REDZ projects across the country yesterday.

REDZ are functional rather than administrative areas that reflect the spatial patterns of local economic activity and development. The central objective of the REDZ model is to utilise the synergies and interdependencies between rural towns and their outlying areas to generate local economic activity. One of the strengths of the REDZ model is that it encourages local authorities and other stakeholders to work across administrative boundaries with neighbouring counties and throughout their own region. The 2016 REDZ scheme, which I announced yesterday, is providing funding for projects of differing scale and ambition that share the mutual objective of supporting economic development in rural areas. The scheme also encourages collaboration between local authorities on larger projects. The projects approved represent a diverse range of ideas covering the length and breadth of Ireland and display a commitment to collaborative working to address the challenges facing rural areas. It is interesting that the project the Deputy mentioned in his area - Ballitore Tanyard development project - got some funding from the town and village renewal scheme. It has now been able to benefit from another €100,000. It is a project that is very close to the Deputy's heart and he has spoken to me on a number of occasions about it. It is certainly a very worthwhile project and it encompasses a whole range of different aspects in terms of theatre performance space. Deputy Shortall mentioned previously the lack of studio space. These types of projects can accommodate that.

I thank the Minister for her response. Ballitore is a very good example of a rural village that will benefit greatly from the REDZ scheme funding. The Tanyard has the potential to become a social and economic hub of activity for Ballitore and its rural hinterland hopefully bringing employment opportunities in tourism, crafts and retail. I will invite the Minister to come down and visit the site at some stage and hopefully meet with the committee because the Tanyard is situated in the heart of the village. It is a spot that in most villages is occupied by a local church or school. There are neither of these in Ballitore and it has suffered because of that. Ballitore is a village that used to be thriving with a lot of businesses in it but it has seen decline in recent years and some challenging demographics. It is a key area that needed this type of intervention. The Ballitore Tanyard committee has retained strong links with other community groups in the locality so this project now has the potential to revitalise an entire village. I ask the Minister to provide a bit of detail about the drawdown and how a committee like the Tanyard committee can move forward.

Regarding the REDZ programme I have given the local authorities funding with the approval of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The local authorities are empowered financially to start the work immediately and the Deputy should contact his local authority to ascertain when the work will commence. The money is available; it is there for them to start the work immediately on this project and I would like to think it will be started soon.

It was interesting to see that Ballitore was the first planned Quaker village in England and Ireland and remains one of the very few in Europe. I was in Philadelphia for the Famine commemorations and one of the Quakers there received an award because of the huge contribution the Quakers made to famine relief during the famine. It is interesting to see that Ballitore was the first planned Quaker village in England or Ireland.

Is the Deputy happy with that reply?

There is real tourism potential here. The Minister has spoken about the Quaker and heritage element to this. Ireland's Ancient East is what we have in the east of Ireland now and I can see how the likes of Ballitore can nestle right into the heart of that. I acknowledge the role of the officials in Kildare County Council and in particular our local area manager, Joe Boland. Both myself and Councillor Ivan Keatley, the Mayor of Kildare, will continue to work with the Tanyard committee, as other local councillors will. This is phase one of a larger scale project and we look forward to working closely with the Department to see this money is well spent and to show exactly what the REDZ can do.

That is exactly what the REDZ programme and the town and village enhancement programmes do. They work with local communities and local authorities. It is about identifying the projects that will best benefit from funding and how the communities can build on their strengths. The Deputy and I know, coming from rural Ireland, that there is huge energy and commitment in rural Ireland. This is about helping rural Ireland with funding to develop these projects which will bring long-term economic benefits in terms of tourism and heritage. That is the aim of this investment. That is what we want to continue to build on.

Hare Coursing

Clare Daly

Question:

25. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs when the recruitment of additional conservation rangers to monitor animal welfare issues at hare coursing events is likely to take effect in view of the fact that the new season is under way. [36868/16]

This question comes against the backdrop of the fact that the coursing season has been under way since last month. Last year, National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, officials only visited 17 of the 75 official events. When I asked the Minister of State about it last month, he told me they had not inspected any official events at all this season, pointing out that only eight had taken place. I remind the Minister of State that is eight out of 70 which is over one tenth of the coursing calendar. When will the Minister of State recruit extra NPWS officers to monitor hare coursing events?

I am advised that the recruitment campaign for conservation rangers was advertised by the Public Appointments Service on 11 November 2016, on www.publicjobs.ie, and is open for applications until 1 December. It is anticipated that the first tranche of appointments - up to six in total - will be made from the newly formed panel during the first quarter of 2017. The successful candidates from this competition will be deployed throughout the country and will undertake the full range of duties associated with the role of ranger. Further appointments will be made from the panel, as required, subject to the required pay and other resources being in place. The panel will remain in existence until the end of February 2019. The competition is open to all members of the public.

As the hare coursing season for 2016-2017 extends from the end of September 2016 to the end of February 2017, the first tranche of additional conservation rangers may not be in situ by the end of the hare coursing season. However, I am confident that the 64 rangers currently employed by my Department will be sufficient to meet the requirements arising in this area for the current season.

Issues relating to animal welfare are the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

It is very unfortunate that we have received confirmation that the new officers will not be in place. I disagree with the Minister of State. The existing NPWS officers are incapable of covering the events and we know that because the statistics prove it. There have been a number of very disturbing incidents already this season. Last month in Loughrea in Galway online footage showed a hare trapped, pushed and pinned to the ground by dogs before a courser runs in to pull the animal's battered body away. In County Offaly, there is online footage of a hare being hit by dogs, pinned to the ground and subjected to a long battering. In County Limerick, only last week there was an appalling incident of a hare hit by two greyhounds, desperately trying to escape, caught, mauled, pulled away by grown men, taken and thrown into a wooden box in the middle of the field. In Rathdowney, there were horrific revelations that three dogs broke into the hare coursing compound and mauled and butchered about 78 hares in the course of this week alone with the dogs having to be put down. This is an industry out of control. It is derogatory to call it a sport. It is barbarous and needs to be regulated. If we do not have extra officers employed to deal with broad functions, we need to have them diverted to this area urgently.

When the Deputy raised this issue last month, I went back to the Department and said I wanted these jobs advertised. I made sure they were advertised. To be fair to our rangers, we have a shortage of staff. We had over 3 million visitors into this country last year and these rangers have to deal with habitats, protected species and all sorts of work. They need the rangers. On the issue the Deputy raised about the cruelty to animals, officials from my Department attended both of the meetings that the Deputy talked about. There is footage there of what actually happened and there will be discussions with the coursing club about this.

I am giving Deputy Clare Daly a commitment to the effect that when the report is finalised, we will give her a copy of it. My officials were there and they witnessed what actually happened. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has responsibility for welfare issues.

Obviously, I am pleased that we are recruiting new officers. I am unsure at which two of the three events to which I adverted officers were in attendance, but I am pleased we will get the report. It is a change from the answer on the previous occasion. In that vein, I am appealing to the Minister of State in light of the revelations about the events that occurred in Rathdowney this week and the horrific plight of the hares. There are stories of 78 hares being mauled, utter carnage and three dogs having to be put down. Will the Minister of State have this matter investigated by National Parks and Wildlife Service officers?

I understand the scheduled coursing meeting for December has now been postponed. Shockingly, it has been rescheduled for January. How in God's name could a coursing club allow something like that to happen? It did not have its hares protected properly and it allowed the dogs to carry on that activity. I am calling on the Minister of State to have this matter investigated and to have the licence withdrawn if the stories are verified. It would send an urgent signal to show that these issues have to be addressed. This is a protected species and it has been undermined by the barbarity to which I refer. This issue is well past its sell-by date and it needs urgent attention.

My Department officials were at the coursing and they have footage. This is being investigated. They will be speaking to those involved.

Some clubs have broken the laws. Last year, sanctions were issued to two clubs, those in Thurles and Doon. The Doon meeting was eventually cancelled. I gather that other coursing events have been cancelled as well.

Deputy Clare Daly is aware that the rules and regulations apply to the actual events. Various rules and regulations have to be obeyed by the coursing clubs. If they do not, they will not get licences. I will ensure that the Deputy gets a copy of the report on the cases she mentioned when it is completed.

Heritage Council Funding

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

26. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to set down the funding available in the Estimates for 2017 to the Heritage Council for the preservation and conservation of built heritage; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37353/16]

I have looked at the Estimates for the Department for this year. A total of €1 million is allocated for 31 administrative areas for built heritage capital. This equates to €30,000 per county, which is totally inadequate. People have protective orders put on their buildings. These building are seriously expensive to maintain and there is no assistance from the State. It is all on the downside for citizens who are unfortunate enough to wind up as custodians of protected properties.

My Department's allocation to the Heritage Council in 2017 will be €6.254 million, subject to final confirmation in the Revised Estimates. This amount excludes any contribution from the environment fund, which has yet to be decided with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The contribution to the council from this fund amounted to €748,000 in 2016.

Following from increased funding in 2016 for the Heritage Council's current overall budget of €5.243 million, excluding the environment fund, I have secured an additional €1 million in capital funding for the council in 2017 to assist in a dedicated programme to deal with historic towns and their role in regional and rural development. This follows on from the successful historic towns initiative pilot delivered by my Department, in collaboration with the Heritage Council and Fáilte Ireland, in 2012 and 2013.

While it is primarily a matter for the Heritage Council to decide how its funding should be allocated across the range of programmes it supports, my Department will continue to work closely with the council to ensure continued investment is appropriately targeted in the built heritage area having regard to competing priorities for the limited resources available.

The Deputy will appreciate that the scope for funding for the conservation of the built heritage is constrained by the significant pressure on the public finances. Nonetheless, I keep the competing priorities in respect of the preservation and enhancement of the national heritage under ongoing review having regard to the resources available to my Department.

Funding for the protection of built heritage will also continue to be provided by my Department via a number of schemes, including the successful structures at risk fund and the built heritage investment scheme, which is directly administered and delivered in tandem with local authorities nationally.

What is the total sum, between the Heritage Council, the Minister's direct funds and every other fund the Minister mentioned in her answer? Off the top of my head, I figure it is approximately €3 million. There are over 30 authorities. That gives the Minister approximately €100,000 per authority. That is totally inadequate and the Minister knows it.

We face a major challenge in this area. In law and regulation, we raise the bar higher and higher in terms of the standard to which we want people to conserve property. On the other hand, we are not willing to provide the finance. Does the Minister accept that, as a consequence, the effect of conservation has actually begun to bring us backwards? Properties are deteriorating because the owners cannot afford to do anything with them and because the State cannot provide the money to assist them in reaching the incredibly high standards that have, quite rightly, been put in place. One can reach those standards, provided one has the money to do so.

The Minister is suggesting that the Heritage Council can divide the funds. That is fine. To be honest, however, it is a little like the loaves and the fishes. Those involved would want a miracle to divide the funds in any meaningful way or to make any impression on the challenge to our built heritage.

I accept that there are challenges. Work has continued under the built heritage investment scheme. I launched a new €2 million scheme for the repair and conservation of protected structures on 21 October 2015. The scheme operated this year via the local authorities on the same basis as the successful built heritage job leverage scheme that ran in 2014. The scheme is expected to support a significant number of projects throughout the country and will create employment in the conservation and construction industries. We have the structures at risk fund as well. Financial support is also being provided by my Department through the structures at risk fund to enable conservation work to heritage structures in private and public ownership which are protected under the Planning and Development Acts and which are deemed to be at significant risk of deterioration. The fund is administered through the local authorities and seeks to encourage the regeneration and reuse of heritage properties.

Section 482 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 is also relevant. Under the terms of the Act, owners or occupiers of approved heritage buildings or gardens can apply for tax relief in respect of expenditure incurred on repair, maintenance and restoration on condition that the properties are open to the public. In order to be approved for this relief, a building or garden must be intrinsically of significant scientific, historical, architectural or aesthetic interest. Reasonable access to the property must be afforded to the public as well.

I have never favoured tax relief because it favours those who have an income that requires them to pay income tax. The Minister has thrown out figures like snuff at a wake. Has someone in the Department added up all the sums? I have suggested to the Minister that she has provided a total of €3 million or €4 million for 2017. Can she tell me the total once everything is added up? How much will be available to the Department next year for built heritage? Has the Department any indication of the figures provided, either directly or through the Heritage Council, in respect of the number of heritage buildings in public and private ownership that are at risk? If we had those two figures, then we could calculate how much to allocate to each area next year.

I simply do not have a total figure before me.

Will the Minister send on the figure to me?

I do not have time to add it up but I will provide Deputy Ó Cuív with the figure.

Let us be clear: the Heritage Council got a 19% increase in funding this year. That is the largest increase in funding the council has received in a long time. The council very much welcomed the increase.

I want to build on the initiatives already announced, including the towns and village regeneration schemes and other schemes because much of the funding has gone into heritage buildings. A considerable amount is available. The Leader programme allows for investment in heritage buildings as well.

It has been very successful, as the Deputy knows, in developing community projects, many of which involve old heritage buildings that are very worthy of investment. I want to support our heritage because it is absolutely vital and so much a part of where we are and our sense of place. As I said, I was delighted to be able to increase funding for this area for this year. As the economy continues to improve, it is my intention that we have more investment in our heritage.

Will the Minister communicate to me the two figures I asked for?

The first is the total for built heritage. The second is the number of buildings at risk.

I hope the Deputies will write to one another and that the matter will be sorted out. The next question is in the name of Deputy Burton. I understand Deputy Penrose will take the question on behalf of Deputy Burton. Everybody can agree to that.

Rural Development Policy

Joan Burton

Question:

27. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs when a co-ordinating unit to work with communities to develop co-operative structures to keep vital local services in place and to retain and develop vibrant local enterprises will be established, as promised in the programme for Government; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37032/16]

In the context of the significant challenges facing rural Ireland and the need to protect and promote the provision of services in rural Ireland; in the context of the recent report on broadband coverage which illustrated the urgent necessity to provide broadband infrastructure and coverage to sustain and develop rural areas such as Legan, Carrickboy and Keenagh in County Longford, and Ballynacarrigy, Milltown, Ballymore and Streamstown, County Westmeath; and to develop and sustain our post office network, what steps are being taken at Government level to give a positive signal to rural dwellers that they are not being forgotten about?

I did not catch all the names of those towns. Maybe the Deputy could say them to me again.

I most certainly will.

A dedicated co-ordination unit has been established within my Department and is currently working on finalising an action plan for rural development, which will act as an overarching structure for the co-ordination and implementation of initiatives across Government and which will benefit all of rural Ireland. The implementation of these initiatives will contribute significantly to the protection and enhancement of local services and help generate increased economic activity in rural areas.

The objective of the action plan is to bring a joined-up approach to the implementation of policies that affect rural communities. We will work right across Government to ensure that the actions included in the plan improve both the social and economic fabric of rural Ireland. I will publish the action plan before the end of the year.

I have already started to put practical schemes in place to help local communities through the roll-out of a suite of initiatives, such as the town and village renewal scheme, the expansion of the REDZ initiative and the reintroduction of the CLÁR programme. My Department is also working directly on proposals for the renewal of the post office network as well as measures to facilitate the roll-out of high-speed broadband in rural areas once Government contracts are awarded next year under the national broadband plan.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I listened carefully to Pat McDonagh, chief executive of Supermac's, this morning. He spoke glowingly about the 700 jobs coming out of Dublin but said at the same time that 700 jobs will probably be lost across rural Ireland. In that context, is it not fair to say that specific tax incentives to help young entrepreneurs and innovators to get off the ground are extremely important, that measures such as rates abatements for industry getting off the ground are important and that the full tranche of recommendations of the Spillane report should be implemented? I see the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, here. Can the Minister give me any indication as to the status of the post office hub working group the Minister of State chairs? I have no doubt about the lack of speed, but are we close to getting any recommendations from that source?

Deputy Tóibin indicated. Does he want to make a brief comment?

I want to contribute to this question because a couple of major trends are happening at the moment. The first is Brexit, which, with the change in the value of sterling, is pushing many more people north of the Border to make purchases. It is also making online sterling purchases far more competitive. In this State, about 35% of purchases have moved online, which means that retail is under fierce pressure in this State. Of all online purchases, 70% of the money goes out of the country. Last year, €8 billion was spent online in this State. For years there was a problem with grants to retail because it was felt that if one gives a grant to a retailer, it displaces another retailer up the street. However, the truth of the matter is that, between people travelling and e-commerce, this is not necessarily the case. These people are in competition-----

-----with online and international retailers. Will the Minister consider a project which would put retailers nationally online via e-commerce? There is a system of e-vouchers but it is far too small and not comprehensive enough. A project needs to be rolled out by the local enterprise offices, LEOs, which would put towns online in their entirety.

Unemployment is down again today. The figures show that it is at its lowest in eight years, at 7.3%. Like Deputy Penrose, and as a rural Deputy, I want to see jobs in rural Ireland. Jobs are being created in rural Ireland, and we want to see more.

Regarding broadband, as the Deputy knows, the national broadband plan is being rolled out. The plan falls under the remit of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten. My job is to work with local authorities and get them "broadband ready" so that when the national broadband plan is rolled out they will be able to allow a seamless roll-out in every single county and there will not be barriers or issues around planning, levies and all sorts of matters that can slow things down. It is important that when the national broadband contract is signed, it can go ahead as quickly as possible. I believe that broadband will be a game-changer for rural Ireland.

Deputy Tóibín is absolutely right about retailers nationally. I have been meeting the local authorities and have asked them to work with the LEOs to educate retailers on establishing an online presence because Google is the first place one goes when one wants to buy something. It is therefore important that local retailers have an online presence. If one can buy something locally, the chances are one will do so. However, one needs first to see that it can be bought locally, and the only place people now look - I know we all do it - is Google. We Google everything, so an online presence is important. This is something on which I want to work with all involved.

Our time allocation is almost gone, but it is only fair I let Deputy Penrose contribute a final brief comment.

The provision of the post office network is especially important in communities right throughout the country. More services, particularly at Government, State and semi-State level, should be provided. The Minister of State, Deputy English, is chairing the post office working group. When is it likely that models which could act as economic deliverers of social activity in the community, especially in rural areas, will be available?

As the Deputy knows, the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has established the post office hub working group to identify potential models under which the post office could act as community hubs, especially in rural areas. This group has identified three potential options around the hub concept, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, expects to be in a position to report back to Government on the work of this group during December, in the next number of weeks. There is another report, namely, the Bobby Kerr report, on the network renewal implementation group. That report will also be to hand shortly.

Natural Heritage Areas Designation

Mick Wallace

Question:

28. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the reasons for the planned de-designation of 46 raised bog natural heritage areas; her views on the potential environmental impacts of the de-designation, as highlighted by environmental groups such as An Taisce; if she will provide details of her Department's role in carbon sequestration in peatland areas; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [37390/16]

Despite the notable lack of prominence given to environmental matters in the programme for Government, there was a promise to publish new legislation to de-designate 39 raised bogs in natural heritage areas and partially re-designate seven raised bogs. The legislation, as I understand it, is formulated in such a way as to enable turf cutters to move from more important bogs to less important bogs in terms of conservation. According to An Taisce, a series of such decisions in recent years treats science as capable of being bargained away, traded against or balanced against other factors. Does the Minister have any concerns about the potential environmental impact of the de-designation, as highlighted by An Taisce?

The Review of Raised Bog Natural Heritage Area Network, published in January 2014, concluded that Ireland could more effectively achieve conservation of threatened raised bog habitat through focus, protection and restoration of a reconfigured network. This will entail the phasing out by 1 January 2017 of turf cutting on 36 existing natural heritage areas, which will remain designated.

This includes seven sites to be divided, with part to be conserved and part de-designated. There will also be complete de-designation of 46 natural heritage areas, including the relevant areas of the seven sites to be divided, where it has been judged that their contribution to the attainment of the national conservation objective for raised bogs is expected to be marginal and restoration would be prohibitively expensive for the conservation benefits achieved. There will be designation as natural heritage areas, NHAs, of 25 currently undesignated raised bogs that are in public ownership or in respect of which there is reduced turf cutting pressure.

The purpose of the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 is to provide for the implementation of this reconfiguration. The Bill is scheduled for Committee Stage in the House on Thursday. The role that peatlands play in carbon sequestration is recognised in the national peatlands strategy, which was published this year. Officials from my Department are engaging with other relevant Departments in exploring the potential of wetlands, particularly restored peatlands, to perform carbon storage and sequestration functions that can assist in achieving Ireland's greenhouse gas reduction targets.

The 2011 bogland report by the Environmental Protection Agency noted 10 million tonnes of annual emissions from peatland degradation and burning, equivalent to Ireland's annual car emissions. We all know that there are many jobs tied up in peat and turf in the midlands now but we will not be able to continue burning peat like we are now. Is there any Government plan to start a job creation programme in the midlands designed to replace those currently involved with the climate-damaging extraction of peat? Is there any long-term plan for creating jobs that will eventually replace those currently tied to the peat industry?

In November 2015, the European Commission approved funding for a €5.4 million project under the EU LIFE 2014-2020 programme for the restoration of active raised bogs in 12 special areas of conservation, SAC, sites in Ireland. This project will operate for five years and it commenced in January 2016. It is being implemented by a project team that will work closely with local communities and stakeholders. In advance of the restoration works commencing, there will be community awareness and an education element to this project.

The main objective of the 2014 NHA review was to consider how the network could contribute to our conservation objectives for raised bog habitats while avoiding unintended impacts on the traditional rights of landowners and turf cutters while minimising the cost arising from compensation payments. The reconfiguration of the raised bog NHA network, which the Bill will facilitate, is based on sound scientific evidence and will have a positive impact on the network. This de-designation of bogs proposed in the legislation will have a better outcome for both turf cutters and the environment.

The Minister did not really answer my question about job creation. Currently, Bord na Móna harvests 4 million tonnes per year. It was originally set up to look after the bogs but it is destroying them. Since 2011, we have subsidised peat-fired power generation to the tune of €500 million, which is a lot of money. Surely there must be some long-term planning to get away from extracting peat from the ground, as it is probably the most damaging act to the environment in the country. Has any thought been put into subsidising domestic users in the region who switch to wind turbines? Currently, they are more or less being told that we have always cut turf and we will cut it forever. At one point, people used to have slaves but they are not allowed to have them any more. It is not good to take the turf from the ground but we do not want to make jobs disappear all of a sudden and we do not want people to be without heating. We must engage in some long-term planning to deal with the challenges involved.

The Deputy mentioned Bord na Móna but that is under the remit of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, and his Department. I can raise the matter with him. The regional action plan for jobs outlines a number of initiatives to create employment in rural areas. With the Bill referred to in my reply, I am trying to find a balance that ensures an appropriate network of NHAs that would better contribute to the protection of raised bog habitats and related habitats and species as required under the EU habitats directives and the Wildlife Acts. I am trying to create a better outcome for turf cutters and, most importantly, for the environment.

Údarás na Gaeltachta Funding

Thomas Byrne

Question:

29. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the costs incurred by the State in terms of grants, rent abatement and clean-up costs associated with a factory (details supplied) in County Meath. [37410/16]

Is oth liom go gcaithfidh mé an cheist seo a chur ar an Aire Stáit inniu. Nuair a seoladh an monarcha seo i mBaile Ghib bhí ionadaithe ón Roinn agus, measaim, an Taoiseach ann. Bhí a lán daoine á chéiliúradh nuair a bunaíodh an monarcha seo, ach tá sé go léir tar éis titim as a chéile. Cé mhéad airgead ar caitheadh ann? An bhfuil aon phleananna ag an Roinn chun postanna eile a chur ar fáil sa mhonarcha?

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Teachta Byrne as an gceist seo. Tá an freagra atá agamsa i mBéarla, toisc go raibh an cheist curtha i mBéarla.

I have been informed by Údarás na Gaeltachta that employment grants of €170,000 and rent subsidy grants of €41,631 have been paid to the company referred to by the Deputy. I have been further advised that Údarás na Gaeltachta has initiated proceedings against the company to revoke these grants. With regard to the building leased to the company, an tÚdarás has informed my Department that it has given notice to the company to vacate the building as the company was not complying with the terms and conditions of its lease. An tÚdarás expects to acquire possession of the building in the coming days.

An tÚdarás is also making arrangements for waste materials still remaining in the building and yard to be removed. The cost of this work is estimated at €40,000 and is expected to be completed before the end of the year. I am advised that an tÚdarás intends to pursue the company for the costs of this work, in addition to the costs of any other remedial works required for the building. In this regard, an tÚdarás intends to carry out any necessary works to the building to make it available to other companies that might wish to develop a business there and create employment opportunities for people from the area. I understand that Údarás has some inquiries currently from companies with an interest in that regard.

I am happy to speak as Gaeilge nó as Béarla but I will speak in English so other people may understand because this is such a crucial issue. These were jobs advertised by the Government and particularly the Fine Gael Party as high-tech jobs. I understood this to be a high-tech processing facility. It turned out to be a waste-collection facility and I was surprised that public money would be available to give jobs in what was basically a waste-processing depot. Essentially, rubbish built up on these premises over a very short period. The facility was announced approximately two years ago, up and running some months later and closed before the general election. It is over a period of a year or less that this money from the Department was dished out. Údarás na Gaeltachta dished out six-figure sums, with more to come, and it seems it was very easily given. I have seen some of the correspondence on the certification that had to be given for the jobs and it was extremely minimal. I have no doubt there were jobs there at one point - there is no question about it - but the information that had to be given by An tÚdarás by the company was the bare minimum.

I accept there has been a considerable amount of State funding allocated by Údarás na Gaeltachta to the company.

Unfortunately, despite the wishes and best intentions of Údarás na Gaeltachta, this company did not comply with the terms and conditions that were laid down. Any investment or grant of this nature has to go before the board of Údarás na Gaeltachta. Substantial information will be provided in respect of any application for funding and due diligence will be done. I understand the company had 23 full-time employees during 2015 - this means jobs were created initially - but that figure was gradually reduced to zero during the period from November 2015 to the end of February 2016. If the Deputy has any more questions, perhaps he will find that information will be forthcoming from Údarás na Gaeltachta. Obviously, the company did not or could not continue trading, for some reason. It is clear that the role of Údarás na Gaeltachta now is to get back that money. It has initiated proceedings and is taking back the buildings. It intends to pursue the company in relation to employment and rent grants and the amount of money that will have to be spent to remediate the buildings.

I hope a lesson has been learnt here. It is a very expensive lesson. I wonder whether the Department will investigate this matter. At the time, the Fine Gael Party locally was thanked by various people involved in the project for its assistance in this regard. This needs to be looked at more closely. More importantly, this premises needs to be taken over by Údarás na Gaeltachta and some other facility needs to be put in place there. The factory next door is operating fantastically and extremely cleanly. It has great relations with its neighbours. A good clean factory can coexist with neighbours and residents. However, the factory we are discussing was unable to do so. I appeal to Údarás na Gaeltachta to do as much as it can to get this place up and running again and to get back this money.

Údarás na Gaeltachta's aim is to get back all the moneys it invested. I am sure that at the time, the Deputy welcomed the 23 full-time jobs that were created.

I did not. I did not know anything about them. They were announced by the Taoiseach.

I am sure the company, everyone associated with Údarás na Gaeltachta and everyone else wanted that company to continue in operation. That is the reason the investment was made. The board decided in good faith to invest in this company on the basis of the documentation that was provided, but things did not work out, unfortunately. The jobs were lost and the number of employees was gradually reduced to zero before February 2016. Údarás na Gaeltachta is committed to recovering all State investment made in this company and to investing in the restoration of this facility so that other companies can come in and create jobs in the local area. I am sure that is what Deputy Byrne would like to see. It is what I would like to see. I will continue to liaise with Údarás na Gaeltachta in this regard. It will get back this money, invest in the buildings and encourage and liaise with other companies to create jobs in this area.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.