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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Vol. 983 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

National Broadband Plan

Dara Calleary


26. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of discussions he has had with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment with regard to broadband provision in rural communities, including the role of his Department in the national broadband plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23010/19]

The national broadband plan, if properly implemented, has the capacity to be a game changer for Ireland, offering economic opportunities and also offering opportunities for people to come home and work from rural locations for companies based in bigger centres. There are many caveats to the plan and my party has many concerns. What specific input does the Department of Rural and Community Development have into the plan in terms of rural areas? Will those areas be prioritised as they are the areas that need the plan most?

I thank the Deputy and I am glad he raised the issue; as a rural Deputy it is very close to my heart. As Minister of State with responsibility for community development, natural resources and digital development, I work across both the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I also chair the mobile phone and broadband task force which was established in 2016 to identify and overcome obstacles to mobile phone and broadband services.

As someone who comes from a rural area, I am keenly aware of the importance of access to high-speed, high-quality broadband services in rural areas and I engage regularly with my ministerial colleagues in both Departments to find ways to remove barriers to the roll-out of telecommunications infrastructure.

The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has overall policy responsibility for the national broadband plan. However, the Department of Rural and Community Development works closely with that Department and with local authorities to help prepare rural communities for the roll-out of high-speed broadband.

The mobile phone and broadband task force, which is co-ordinated by officials of the two Departments, has successfully addressed a number of complex issues over the past three years, many of which will facilitate the roll-out of the national broadband plan when the contract for the State intervention area is signed. Quarterly progress reports on the work of the task force are published on the websites of both Departments, with the most recent report covering the first quarter of 2019.

The Department of Rural and Community Development also supports preparations for the roll-out of the national broadband plan through the network of broadband officers located in each local authority. The broadband officers are co-funded by the Department and provide a vital point of contact for industry and the public regarding telecoms issues.

The broadband officers are also leading on the development of digital strategies for each local authority. These digital strategies will enable communities to make full use of digital technology in their daily lives and will be particularly beneficial when the broadband plan is rolled out.

I said this is a potential game changer and a proper roll-out of this plan for many areas might be the last chance saloon. The Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment said at the end of April that after year ten of the national broadband plan all premises in the intervention areas will have access to high-speed broadband. The Government in its PR said seven years. Is it ten or seven years?

The Minister of State spoke about the role of the broadband officers. Some of them are doing excellent jobs. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, and I have a very good officer in our county. However, in response to a parliamentary question, the Minister of State advised that many of them - I believe the figure was 18 - had not responded or co-ordinated their activities with the Department. Has that situation improved? Did the Minister of State follow up with those reports that were outstanding?

When does the Minister of State expect the contract for the national broadband plan to be signed? What are the consequences and penalties for the operator if the operator does not deliver to rural communities, in particular, within a certain timeframe?

I have responsibility for the broadband officers who are working very hard. I think what the Deputy is referring to is when they were asked to provide some information on black spots and some of them did not respond. However, at the time they were only just in office and some of them did not know their full role. Since then ComReg has published the map that shows the black spot areas. I have met all the broadband officers and the local authority chief executives on a one-to-one basis since I came into office. I have also met them on a number of occasions at different meetings they have had. I am very happy that the broadband officers are working to ensure that their rural areas are ready.

The national broadband plan is to ensure that the 1.1 million people who are mainly living in rural areas will receive an equality of service in the next seven years when the roll-out happens. The Deputy asked when the contract would be signed. The conditions are being progressed at the moment and I expect it to be signed before the end of this year.

Go raibh maith agat.

The broadband officers have also identified 300 broadband connection points to be prioritised-----

The Minister of State will have another opportunity.

-----to provide access for rural people on an interim basis.

There will always be another minute.

I ask the Minister of State to confirm again when the tender contract will be signed. Given that the contract has yet to be signed, I suggest that the Minister of State and the Minister work to ensure that local companies and local tradespeople are involved in the roll-out of the project to provide employment opportunities.

If this is done properly - I always add that caveat, as we are still sceptical - it will represent a major infrastructural investment in many communities across the country. That investment should be aligned with employment opportunities for locally based companies. In designing the contract over the next few months and then rolling it out, will the Minister of State in his roles in the Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and Rural and Community Affairs try to ensure that small businesses located in rural areas get a part of it and an opportunity to deliver services in their areas as opposed to what normally happens, that being, large outside contractors - sometimes, they are not on the island - taking all the work with no local return?

Something the Deputy said is worth repeating, namely, that the national broadband plan is the single largest investment in rural Ireland since rural electrification. That took 40 years, by the way. We will roll out broadband using current technologies over the next seven years, but it will also be maintained and future-proofed for the next 35 years. I am proud of this investment, as is everyone in rural Ireland because we have been left behind for so long. The broadband officers, my Departments and the Ministers, Deputies Ring and Bruton, are working to ensure that everyone will benefit from this as quickly as possible. Like every other Deputy who lives in rural Ireland, Deputy Calleary knows that there must be broadband and proper connectivity. In addition, it will not be 30 Mbps. Rather, it will start at 150 Mbps and increase to 300 Mbps. That will be a game changer for rural Ireland.

National Indemnity Scheme for Landowners

Martin Kenny


27. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the national indemnity scheme that he announced to indemnify private landowners in areas not covered by the approved trails in respect of the use of their lands for recreational purposes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22753/19]

The Minister is aware that many walkways around the country are under pressure due to difficulties with landowners and so on. The Minister announced earlier this year that he would put an indemnity scheme in place for the owners of land beside walkways so that, if someone wandered onto their land, it would not be an issue if that person got hurt and took a case. We have heard much about cases in the past week or so. A great deal of the conflict could be resolved if there was a proper indemnity scheme. I would like clarity in that regard. When will the scheme be in place, who will have cover, how will it work, and will it be for marked ways only or will other walkways be covered? How do we ensure that the tourism potential can be unlocked by having this in place early?

The Deputy has posed his question.

This is the end of May, when such a scheme should already be in place.

Sport Ireland Trails, formally the National Trails Office, holds an insurance policy covering approved national way-marked ways and looped walks to protect landowners against claims for loss or damage from recreational users of those trails. The insurance policy covers trails that meet a specified standard and includes all trails currently included in my Department's walks scheme.

As the Deputy will be aware, my officials have been working to develop a national scheme to protect private landowners in upland areas from possible claims from recreational users while on their lands. My Department has been advised that the introduction of any such indemnity scheme would require legislation. My officials met the Attorney General's office recently to explore the various options open to the Department and to identify the precise legislation that would be required to implement an indemnity scheme. This is a complex issue, as it is not possible to define trails on hills and mountains in the same manner as the way-marked trails and many of the lands are commonages.

The legal rights of landowners must also be respected by any scheme while at the same time trying to maintain access to these lands for recreational users on a permissive basis. My officials will continue to work to resolve this matter. In the meantime, I will shortly announce the details of a new mandate for Comhairle na Tuaithe, the Countryside Council, to help strengthen the development of the outdoor recreation sector generally and to realise the potential of outdoor activities for the benefit of rural communities.

The Minister is saying that this must wait for legislation to be in place. That is a problem, though, as we all know how long it takes to get legislation through the Houses even when it is clear cut and easy. The Minister gave people a great deal of hope a few months ago when he stated that he would put a scheme in place. That was ill-thought out, given that there was no evidence that the proposal could be introduced quickly. People I have spoken to around the country, in particular people in the tourism business, tell me they are hoping to see more tourists visiting. Many tourists who are interested in walkways and in using our mountains are visiting Ireland, but the Minister is now saying that the hope he gave to the many parts of rural Ireland where that potential lies must await legislation, which will take a very long time. This will cause a major difficulty.

Is there an alternative way to do this? Has any alternative been considered? We must put something that works in place quickly. The issue of legislation just blows this out of the water.

The Deputy has asked his question.

I had a list of questions that I was going to ask the Minister about how the scheme would provide coverage and who it would cover, but if he is telling me that legislation will be needed, we are just wasting our time, as it will not happen.

I am keen to introduce some form of protection for landowners. Like me, however, every Deputy across the floor knows that that must be done through legislation. Let us not pretend that a scheme can simply be introduced. If it were that easy-----

Why did the Minister not say that six months ago?

The Deputy will have another opportunity to contribute.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. If it were that simple, it would have been in place for the past 20 years, but it is not that easy or simple. We must introduce legislation. We are holding discussions with the Attorney General. We are also examining other ways of doing this. This is a significant decision. We are trying to protect the landowners and I want to ensure that we get this right. This legislation was included in the list of promised legislation that was published earlier this year. It is my job to ensure that the legislation I introduce is correct. If we can put a scheme in place without legislation, that will be fine. We are considering all alternatives, but I must take the advice of the Attorney General. I do not want incorrect legislation to be introduced and lead to difficulties in the courts, as happened in the past. We are in talks with the Attorney General and the State Claims Agency.

I want to resolve this matter. It is important that no farmer or other landowner ends up before the courts without the protection of the State. If landowners are allowing people to go through their lands, the State must protect them however it can. In whatever legislation or scheme I introduce, I must be careful to protect them. They are the owners of the land and they are No. 1.

I thank the Minister, but he will have a further minute later.

I accept that, Minister, and I am not saying that it is not the intention. The difficulty is that, when the Minister announced the scheme, he did not say that it would need legislation. People believed the scheme would arrive sooner. However, that is as may be. The greater issue in many areas is the question of the controls that are in place in respect of walkers using lands. A man told me a couple of weeks ago that, when people came to walk through his land, someone would just pull up in a car, open the boot, three big Labradors would jump out and away they would go. Some kind of rule needs to be in place. Most of this is happening in mountainous areas where there are sheep. The landowners are concerned that dogs are worrying their sheep. The dogs may not attack the sheep, but that they are there barking and howling and running up and down through what is essentially open countryside is causing a major problem. A tighter regime needs to be put in place to ensure that landowners feel protected. Ultimately, they are concerned about their livelihoods. Farmers also use commonages to graze sheep so that they can make a livelihood. If landowners are put under threat, the Minister will encounter major difficulties in trying to open up such areas.

The Countryside Council has representatives of landowners and a number of organisations, including farming organisations. It will meet again next week. I expect that it will assist me on the question of legislation in whatever way is necessary. My first priority is the landowners. They must be protected.

The Deputy was right to raise the example of people letting out their Labradors or other dogs, but there is separate legislation to deal with that situation. Such people should have respect for those who are allowing them to go through their lands. My priority is to look after the landowners. They are the people who own the land and have the rights. They are the ones whom I want to protect.

I want to open the walkways.

I want to open the trails. That is why my Department and I have put substantial money into the outdoor recreation scheme. These schemes are working well. They are good for the communities and tourism and for the well-being of people. They cost nothing. That is why this year we have doubled the funding for the walks scheme from €2 million to €4 million. I want to ensure that we reward the people who deserve to be rewarded.

Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme Funding

John Curran


28. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if the level of funding being made available under the social inclusion and community activation plan, SICAP, will be reviewed in view of the fact it has been at the same level since 2016 and is anticipated to remain at this level until 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23011/19]

SICAP is funded by the Department. In 2016, the amount of funding allocated was in the region of €37.5 million. For 2018 and 2019, the figure is €39 million. The projected figures from the Department for the years to 2022 suggest that it will remain at €38 million. In light of the programmes underpinned by this funding, will the Minister review the amount of money involved? Given the need in the communities, the programmes underpinned by the funding would effectively see cuts if funding were to remain at the same level when everything else is growing.

Data on funding allocated to SICAP since it began in April 2015 was provided to the Deputy in Parliamentary Question No. 279 tabled on 18 April. The allocation shows an increase to €38.03 million in 2018, up from €37.44 million in 2017. The 2019 allocation remains the same as in 2018.

Funding for SICAP from 2020 onwards is subject to the budgetary process. I assure the Deputy that I will review the level of funding of all programmes each year as part of the budgetary process. It remains my intention to continue to prioritise funding for SICAP.

I recognise the vital work of the programme in helping so many individuals by improving the life chances of those who are marginalised in society, living in poverty or unemployed.

SICAP also supports collective community engagement and the development of more sustainable and stronger communities. This is done through providing direct supports to local communities and developing the capacity of local community groups to ensure they can better engage with other groups, actively improve the lives of people in their communities and start to address the social exclusion issues that affect them.

SICAP funding underpins a range of programmes dealing with disadvantaged children, families, young people and communities as well as low-income workers and so forth. We know at whom the programme is targeted.

The Minister indicated loosely that he will see what is available during the budgetary process. That was not exactly what I asked. I asked him to do it the other way around. What is the level of need? What level of funding would be required to deal with the level of deprivation we have across the programmes underpinned by SICAP? I say this seriously because several programmes dealing with our disadvantaged communities are not seeing annual increases in line with other Departments. Our disadvantaged communities are not seeing the level of funding increase.

Let us consider the Minister's funding. What was known as the revitalising areas by planning, investment and development or RAPID programme has become the community enhancement programme. We need to target funding where there is deprivation, drug abuse and issues relating to our most disadvantaged communities, but funding for these areas is not increasing. Rather than simply engage in the budgetary process, I am asking the Minister to review the adequacy of funding of the programmes.

Funding of €119 million has been provided over three years, including €38 million this year. That is a substantial amount. I would not like the Deputy to think that it is not. My capital budget is €80 million. A total of €38 million is going into SICAP. I agree with Deputy Curran because he is talking my language. I would like to see the figure doubled if I had the money. I will be looking at it. I will be talking to the Minister for Finance and his Department in the coming months about the budgets for the years ahead. I will see if I can find extra funding.

I like this scheme. SICAP deals with disadvantaged areas. In the last round, a total of 110,000 people were dealt with and supported on a one-to-one basis. Some 29% lived in disadvantaged areas while 47% were long-term unemployed. I will outline some more figures. People gained a great deal of employment from the one-to-one assistance and they created employment. We dealt with young people and Travellers. We dealt with people who needed more education. Deputy Curran is correct in stating that SICAP is a great programme. I would like to see more funding for it. My plan is to ensure that the people in disadvantaged areas are looked after. We have seen €119 million over three years. The figure of €38 million per year is a substantial amount of money to be putting into these programmes. Of course I would like to have more.

I agree with the Minister that it is a substantial amount of money but it reflects the scale of the problem. It is not long since the Government recognised that places such as the north-east inner city required additional funding such was the level of deprivation and intergenerational neglect over a long period. This is not about casting blame at one Government or another; it persisted for generations. The Minister states that €119 million over three years is substantial but the problem is that SICAP has to be matched with the other funding programmes. It needs to grow and to be measured by the element of need in those communities. In parallel, as I have informed the Minister previously, there must be targeted funding that should and could have come through RAPID, but that is no longer available in the sense that it has now become a community enhancement programme and has a far broader remit. Our drugs task forces have seen no increase in core funding. These are not all in the Minister's Department and I am not blaming him for this but we need a joined-up Government approach across all Departments to deal with the issue of significant and sustained disadvantage in particular areas. The Minister needs to ensure that SICAP grows significantly because the issues the programme deals with are as great today as they ever were.

Deputy Curran speaks about this every time he is in the House and he is right about inner city Dublin. We have put €5.5 million this year on top of other funding as part of SICAP. That is joined-up thinking because there was a specific problem there that we dealt with. I hope we can run other pilot schemes. There is no doubt that the funding we put in place for inner city Dublin has really worked.

Let us consider some of the figures again. Some 15,923 people set up new businesses. Some 1,695 people from SICAP got into full-time employment. We dealt with 12,473 young people who were not employed. We are bringing together and working with local community groups. Deputy Curran is quite correct in that many of the schemes are tied in with SICAP, but SICAP is different because it deals with individuals and specific problems. It deals with different areas, including those relevant to Travellers, Roma and people who need further education. It is about giving people a chance in society. If we create the jobs we are creating and give people a chance and opportunity, then the programme works well. It does not matter to me whether we do it for one, 100 or 1,000 once we save one, help one or help numbers of people. The programme will certainly get people back into the workplace and society.

Sometimes I listen to people in rural Ireland talking about the difficulties we have. Sometimes I wish some of these people would go into the inner city in Dublin and other inner city areas to see what is going on.

Rural Regeneration and Development Fund

Michael Collins


29. Deputy Michael Collins asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if County Cork, in particular west Cork, will receive a fair share of funding in the next round of rural regeneration and development funding in view of the fact that in the second round of rural regeneration and development funding announcements, west Cork was passed over and received no funding for community-type projects even though projects were ready to go or shovel-ready. [22899/19]

In the second round of rural regeneration funding announced in February of this year, west Cork - and Cork in general - was passed over and received little or no funding for community-type projects even though some were shovel ready. Will Cork county, in particular job-starved west Cork, get a fair share of funding in the next round of rural regeneration funding?

The rural regeneration fund seeks to support ambitious and strategic projects that have the potential to transform rural economies and communities. The Government has committed €1 billion over ten years to the fund. A total of €315 million is allocated to the fund for the period 2019-22.

The first call for applications to the fund closed in September 2018. There was a large response to the first call with 280 applications received. On foot of the first call, a total of 38 successful category 1 projects and 46 category 2 projects were announced, with funding of €86 million provided from the fund to support projects worth €117 million.

It is worth noting that calls under the fund are determined on a competitive basis and not all projects that meet the requirements may be funded. In that regard, all applications to the rural regeneration and development fund undergo a detailed evaluation process. This involves assessment by my Department and oversight by an independent project advisory board established to assist in making recommendations on the suitability of applications for funding.

Under the first call from the fund, I announced funding of €4.4 million for eight projects located in County Cork. Among these projects was the development of a multi-purpose flood-lit all-weather facility in the village of Banteer. The facility will be available for use by the community throughout the year. Another project involved the relocation, restoration and fit-out of a heritage building in Kinsale town centre as the new library for the town. A further project involves development of an international standard mountain bike trail in the Ballyhoura region. The new trail will provide recreational, health and tourism benefits. Other projects include the development of regeneration strategies for the towns of Rathcormac and Ballydesmond.

The second call for category 1, shovel ready applications to the fund is now open.  Applicants who have been unsuccessful in the first call may reapply for the second call. I want the Deputy to listen to my next point because he always complains. In 2018 and to date this year, my Department has provided €27.75 million in funding to Cork. The Deputy might be parochial but I am not.

I reject what the Minister said. I do not always complain. I have praised the Minister on many occasions - possibly more than I have praised most of his ministerial colleagues. When the Taoiseach launched this fund, he stated that it was set up to create jobs in rural Ireland. Those 48 projects in Cork county applied for funding in the second round in February. From what I gather, €276,000 was allocated to the whole of Cork county. The Minister can juggle figures all day long but those are the facts and they speak for themselves. The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has a budget of €363 million, which it deserves. It receives a massive amount of money from rural regeneration funding, as does Coillte, while community and voluntary organisations in west Cork - be they in Schull, Clonakilty, Innishannon, Bandon or Dunmanway - spent €500,000 of their own money and had projects shovel ready but they did not get funding. Those groups whose projects were not shovel ready did not receive any advice. The Minister should not throw dirt at me across the floor of the House. These are the facts and the facts speak for themselves.

I know that many people in west Cork object to a lot of things when they happen. I will give the Deputy the facts. Kinsale Library was funded, as was Banteer Community Sportsfield. Unsuccessful projects included those in Ballyvourney, Bandon, Macroom and Bantry, which were not shovel ready, while the Kanturk link road, Schull harbour, Ballinspittle and Skibbereen did not score well compared with others. Successful projects in category 2 included those relating to Ballydesmond and Ballyvourney. The development of the rural digital innovation hubs across the country will benefit west Cork. There were unsuccessful projects that did not score well in comparison with others. The evaluation board brings the schemes to me and I make the decisions. Some of these projects did not make the cut because they were not shovel ready or did not score well enough.

What does the Minister consider to be a shovel ready project? These projects are getting no advice as to where they stand. They are submitting the applications and I am talking to the groups. There is no communication from the Department from the day those applications arrive to the day the projects discover that they have not been successful. Yes, Kinsale received funding during the first round, something for which I congratulate and thank the Department, but west Cork has been completely omitted since then. A total of 48 projects received little or no funding in the second round. The amount involved, after so many millions had been spent throughout the country, was €276,000. Why was proper advice not given to these communities? The Minister should remember that these are community and voluntary groups. They do not have €363 million like the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the budget of which the Minister tops up, or Coillte, the budget of which is also topped up. These groups have received no advice and the Department or the local authority should come back to them and explain matters. I am concerned that this matter is turning into a political football. Local community and voluntary groups are being overlooked and Ministers can wag the tail of the Government. We must turn it around. This funding was meant for rural projects but it is not being delivered in rural areas. Six Fine Gael councillors ran in west Cork but only two got across the line thanks to the Government. They are great people but the Government let them down in the Clonakilty-Bantry electoral area. West Cork has had it with the Government, not with me.

One thing the Deputy must do is respect the clock.

There is one thing about them, which is that, unlike the Deputy, they did not object to everything that went into west Cork. I will put this on the record-----

On a point of order-----

There is no point of order.

The Minister is-----

I will suspend the House. The Minister has one minute-----

What did I object to?

I will suspend the House.

I apologise but the Minister made an allegation against me-----

The Deputy can deal with that at another time.

I want to tell the Deputy what shovel ready means. It means that the project is ready to go when it gets the grant aid. The county council sent us an application for a project and told us that it would be ready in the fourth quarter so it wanted us to allocate money for a project that would not commence until December of next year. That is not shovel ready. Shovel ready means that a scheme can start the minute the funding is granted. Any of the projects that were shovel ready were considered by the evaluation committee.

The Deputy does not like facts but I will give him the facts. My Department has allocated €27.75 million in funding to Cork in 2018 and to date this year. That is a substantial amount of money. LEADER, the town and village renewal scheme, the outdoor recreation scheme and the local improvement scheme and many other projects in Cork were funded by the Department. I reject what the Deputy says about this scheme. An evaluation committee composed of highly qualified people makes the decisions. The Deputy listens to the local authorities telling him that projects are shovel ready when that is not the case.

Forty-eight projects were rejected. That is a fact.

Do not invite interruptions.

Questions Nos. 30 to 32, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.