Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Action Plan for Rural Development Implementation

Dara Calleary

Question:

1. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the progress made regarding the implementation of the Action Plan for Rural Development to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30891/19]

I know I will get one version from the Minister, Deputy Ring, which will be different to the reality on the ground but perhaps we will have a discussion on the real activities in the Action Plan for Rural Development. I know the glass will be half full, as it always is with the Minister. Let us give it a go.

The Action Plan for Rural Development was published in January 2017 as a whole-of-Government initiative to support the economic and social progress of rural Ireland.

Progress reports on the implementation of the action plan are published twice yearly on the gov.ie website. The most recent, Fourth Progress Report, was published at the start of July. It shows that 268 of the 277 actions reported on were either completed on schedule or substantially advanced.

The cross-departmental approach of the action plan is benefiting rural areas in many ways. For example, since 2015, there has been an increase of more than 146,000 in the number of people employed in regions outside of Dublin, surpassing the Government's target of 135,000 extra jobs by 2020. Last year, more than 60% of the new jobs created by Enterprise Ireland client companies were outside the Dublin region and 58% of employment in IDA client companies is now based outside of Dublin.

The level of investment being made in rural Ireland is also unprecedented. Thousands of projects have been supported by my Department alone since the start of 2017, with further investment across Government also benefitting rural communities in areas such as agriculture, fisheries, tourism and transport.

The progress made under the action plan has been further built on in Project Ireland 2040, in particular through the rural regeneration and development fund, which will provide €1 billion in investment in rural Ireland over the period 2019 to 2027. To date, €86 million has been allocated from the fund to 84 projects. The action plan will continue to be delivered through to the end of this year. My Department is currently working on the next phase of a rural development policy to succeed the action plan. A number of consultation workshops have taken place around the country to obtain stakeholder input to the development of this policy. I have also invited the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development to provide an input on the new policy.

I should have organised the cheerleaders and the brass band, because I knew what was coming. The reality is that 3% of the €21 million allocation for the town and village renewal scheme in 2018 has been spent, 20% of the 2017 budget remains unspent and a quarter of the CLÁR budget for 2018 remains unspent – I have not even got to 2019. We still have difficulties with the LEADER programme where 76% of the budget remains unspent. We are mid-way through 2019 in a programme that was officially due to end in 2020, albeit with extensions. There have been announcements and the Minister has outlined job creation figures but how many of the jobs are at the minimum wage? What is the spread of those jobs? "Outside Dublin" could mean Drogheda or across the M50 and in places very close to Dublin. Are the jobs spreading to the west and beyond Galway? How many IDA visits were there this year in County Mayo? There were very few compared to the rest of the country. It is great to tick boxes and lists but the reality on the ground is that many of the schemes the Minister is announcing are not being delivered. We have had the discussion about the difficulty with the delivery of schemes. What are we going to do about it, rather than continuing to talk about it?

I know the way Deputy Calleary likes to use the figures against me. I listened to him and his party say all last year that I would not spend my departmental budget. I wish to put on record today that I listened to it from January to December and I never once heard any of them say well done. A total of 99.9% of my spend in the Department was spent last year.

Deputy Calleary referred to the LEADER programme. It is ahead of progress. The town and village renewal scheme is going better than it was. I have allocated the funding. The Deputy knows that I cannot allocate the funding until the projects are completed by the local authorities. They have to put their hands up as well. Elected representatives on local authorities should be accountable in that regard.

A total of 60% of new jobs created by Enterprise Ireland companies in 2018 were outside of Dublin. Deputy Calleary cannot pick holes in the figures by saying they are beside Dublin: they are outside Dublin. A total of 58% of IDA client companies are now based outside of Dublin. Unemployment is down from 15% to 5%. People are working. The one thing Deputy Calleary and I saw, along with every Deputy who was out canvassing in the recent local elections, is that it was hard to get people at home as more people were at work.

I introduced the outdoor recreation scheme and the town and village renewal scheme. I was in Drumshanbo the other day. Deputy Calleary saw the jobs that were created on foot of such schemes. It is not just a case of them being on paper or being announced by me: the jobs are created and the companies are in place.

A total of 70% of all jobs created last year were created in Dublin. It is not even that, as I am not even into that kind of thing. People who are based in Dublin wish to work from home. That brings me back to the national broadband scheme. I am sure we will discuss that later. If the Minister was Santy, the presents would be likely to arrive 24 months after Christmas. It would take them two years to come. He would announce them, tell the children they are getting a present but that they will have to wait two years because somebody else has to deliver it. Rural communities can no longer wait. The Minister saw the anger on the streets yesterday. Whether the schemes are co-delivered or not, they seem to be still choking in bureaucracy and mired in co-funding difficulties. Perhaps before the announcements are made we could ensure that everything is in place for the scheme to happen, including co-funding and planning permission. There has been progress regarding planning permission. In that way, when an announcement is made, a scheme will be delivered.

At the moment there are many announcements but little delivery.

I have to disagree with the Deputy. One complaint from the local authorities was that they could not progress schemes because they were unsure whether they had funding. I brought in the local authorities three years ago and gave them a list of what was coming down the line. They know now from year to year what schemes are actually coming.

Deputy Calleary knows it and I know it. He is the very person, to be fair to him, who would say it, as would his colleague and the Deputy from Sinn Féin, if I was allocating or giving money to the local authorities and they were not doing their job. Deputy Calleary knows how LEADER works. Any town in Ireland can get a grant from a LEADER company but the town cannot draw down that grant until the work is done. I have responsibility to the taxpayer. I have responsibility to Europe for the LEADER programme. I have responsibility to ensure the money is spent. By God, I have plenty of complaints - I deal with them on a regular basis - about LEADER companies that have not spent the money the way it should have been spent. We are getting cheques from Europe. Those responsible are coming in to check and see what is happening. The Deputy, the taxpayer, myself and the people of the country have to pay for it.

The schemes are in place and working but it takes some time for them to develop. One example is the rural regeneration scheme. We had shovel-ready schemes where we have grant-aided the money. Then, under the second scheme we gave local authority and State agencies, or whoever made the application, seed funding to get the applications up and running. That is what one has to do.

The Deputy should remember that we did not have money for many years and nor did we have these schemes for many years. The schemes are in palace now, as is the money. All I can say is that I am directing the local authorities. Some of the local authorities will be getting letters this week from me and they will not be Christmas cards. The letters will be telling them that the money they got in 2016 will be withdrawn because they have not spent it.

Deputy Kenny is next.

They will not like that. Deputy Calleary will be complaining during Question Time to me about it.

We have to abide strictly by the time. Deputy Martin Kenny is next.

CEDRA Remit

Martin Kenny

Question:

2. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development to outline the progress made and targets reached in the implementation of the CEDRA report. [30217/19]

The question is around the targets that have been reached and the implementation of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, report. There was considerable razzmatazz about the CEDRA report. Much of what is in the report is supported by everyone in the House and across the country because it sets out broad objectives on what needs to be done in rural Ireland. The report looks at the opportunities that exist in rural Ireland. This is something we need to focus on more and more because the places that have the least are the places with the most potential. It requires investment and a particular emphasis. I want to try to tease out with the Minister what progress has been made. As we know, the man who was spearheading the process has stepped to one side for whatever reason - we are not going to get into that today. The core of what CEDRA is about needs to be implemented. If it is implemented, then we will be moving forward.

I thank the Deputy for the question. The Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas was established in November 2012 as an independent expert group to examine and report on the medium-term economic development of rural Ireland to 2025. The CEDRA report was published in April 2014. The priority recommendation made by CEDRA was the need for a joined-up approach to rural development across Government led by a Cabinet Minister. The 2016 document, A Programme for a Partnership Government, included a commitment to appoint a Minister and Department to provide greater political co-ordination of the work of other Departments in relevant areas that impact rural Ireland. The assignment of these responsibilities initially to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in May 2016 and the establishment of the dedicated Department of Rural and Community Development in July 2017, as well as my appointment as Minister, have addressed this priority recommendation of CEDRA.

The Government Action Plan for Rural Development, which was published in January 2017, builds on and goes further than the CEDRA report in that it seeks to address not only the economic development of rural areas but also seeks to support the social and cultural development of rural communities throughout the country. Many of the recommendations in the CEDRA report that had not yet been implemented were integrated into the action plan. My Department recently reviewed all of the recommendations in the CEDRA report and found that the vast majority of recommendations have either been implemented, where feasible, or are being addressed through the Action Plan for Rural Development or other Government initiatives. The review that details the status of each recommendation is available on the www.gov.ie website.

I accept that the setting up of the Department was one of the key recommendations of the report. However, many of the other recommendations in the report have not been addressed to the level envisaged in the CEDRA report. This is evident when we look at the issues of housing and investment in rural Ireland. My colleague mentioned how many of the jobs outside of Dublin are only just outside of Dublin. Many of the jobs are still in the big towns and centres. The more rural and isolated areas are still very much left behind. In fairness, the Minister recognises that we have a great deal of work to do. We need to work together on that.

One relevant example is something I have mentioned to the Minister on several occasions, that is, the issue of housing in every town and village in the country with fewer than 700 or 800 people. Half of the houses on the main street lie empty. The people who own these houses have a liability, not an investment or anything they can make something out of. They need some help to turn this around. The suggestion that there will be some plan does not given them the help they need. In effect, they need seed capital in order that they can develop and bring life back to those areas. It is similar with developing new sectors in agriculture. No new sectors will develop unless there is someone to pull them together. I believe the Department is crucial efforts to make that happen.

What Deputy Kenny says is correct. Yet, the Central Statistics Office figures show that employment is growing throughout the country, including outside of Dublin. I gave the figures on the increase in the previous reply.

Other initiatives we have looked at include the town and village scheme, the outdoor recreation scheme, the CLÁR programme and the rural regeneration scheme. The Deputy made a valid point about the towns and villages where we have dereliction. I set up the pilot scheme. I will be answering a question later on the matter. I set up the scheme to see what we can do at Government level to support people who, as the Deputy noted, already have investment in rural Ireland. That property is there. We need to give them an initiative. This is something I will be talking to the Minister for Finance about. The existing schemes are not working. If they were working they would be drawing down funding. They are not working and there must be some reason why they are not working. We need a mix. We need a little grant aid and some taxation. The schemes in place at present are not working. We want to do something. That is why I picked the six pilot towns. They have come back with an initial report. I hope to have the full report published between now and the end of the year. The initial report and some of the suggestions we have are very interesting. We need to deal with that problem because it is one of the big problems.

The issue of housing is one of the key issues the Department can address. An agriculture scheme was brought out recently whereby a small amount of Government money was used to leverage a greater loan at a lower interest rate that people could access. One of the problems is that many of the people who own these properties cannot get a loan anywhere because they are already in debt for other properties they may have. They may have a house somewhere else or have perhaps inherited a property in a town but they can do nothing with it - it is a liability. We need some mechanism outside of the formal structure. The banks will not give them money. Some way has to be found to help those people to get that going.

Another issue I wanted to bring to the attention of the Minister is the issue of alternative sectors, especially in agriculture. These require co-operation across Departments and agencies. One of the things we are all talking about is plastics and the green economy. We hear how plastics are poisoning the country. If we are going to change that we need to come up with biodegradable plastic. Farmers have an opportunity to grow the product and turn it into plastic but that will not happen by a handful of farmers getting together and deciding to do it. They need to have a sector developed. The various agencies will have to come together to set that up. It cannot happen by our waiting to see whether it will happen or by leaving it to the markets. Someone somewhere has to pull it together.

Let us hear the Minister.

I think the Department has a crucial role in this because it is a rural matter.

We are not making progress.

Deputy Kenny has raised this question on several occasions and he is right. He commented on dereliction in towns and villages. I will talk about this to the local authorities and state agencies. Every time they come seeking a new development or building, the first place they look at is a greenfield site. It is time for the councils and State agencies to start looking at towns and villages to see where they could put libraries. It need not always be out in a greenfield site. Why can they not come into these towns? If properties are derelict, why can they not buy them? If there is no title on them they should be used under the Derelict Sites Act. They have a responsibility as well. One thing that got us into a great deal of trouble was planning in towns. Shopping centres were brought outside towns and this killed the town centres. One town in which this did not happen is my home town of Westport and it works well. The local authorities have a part to play.

We have the LEADER programme to nurture job creation and ideas in farming. There will be new initiatives to encourage people on climate action.

We have to encourage people. We have to provide grant aid and assist and help them. There are great people out there with great ideas. We can see the initiatives they are setting up in every corner of the country. We sometimes forget this because they are indigenous industries, and we do not give them credit. If they are multinational companies, they are great people, but our own people are great too and create a lot of employment and jobs.

RAPID Programme

John Curran

Question:

3. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the specific programmes, funding and supports targeted at the most disadvantaged areas as previously identified under the RAPID programme in view of the fact that the programme has now closed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30892/19]

The Minister last year took a retrograde step in closing down the RAPID programme, a programme that was to support our most disadvantaged communities. Since the Minister has closed it, what specific supports and grants has the Minister made available to our most disadvantaged communities that would previously have received funding under the programme?

I opened the programme and amalgamated it with another programme.

The Minister closed it.

A previous Minister closed it. In any case, we will not argue about that.

We will shortly.

The original RAPID programme ran from 2001 and closed to new applications in 2011. In 2017, a nationwide recast RAPID programme was launched and, in 2018, my Department completed a review of that new programme. Following the review, which included consultation with the 33 local community development committees, LCDCs, throughout the country, I launched the new community enhancement programme. I have allocated €4.5 million to the community enhancement programme in 2019. Under the programme, funding is allocated to each local authority area, taking account of the relative level of poverty. The LCDCs then administer the programme. This is a more effective, flexible and locally-responsive approach to addressing disadvantage. The committees, which have the local knowledge, monitor the programme and ensure the funding is benefitting communities, urban and rural, across the country in the fairest way possible.

The new five-year social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, which runs from 2018 to 2022, is our country's primary social inclusion intervention. This is a €190 million national programme that is delivered locally to help those in the greatest need. For example, in Dublin, SICAP will provide €9.7 million in 2019, giving vital support to those community groups and individuals most in need.

My Department also provides funding for certain specific areas of urban disadvantage, for example Dublin north-east inner city, which has been allocated a total of €6.5 million in 2019.

I thank the Minister. The community enhancement programme is no replacement for RAPID and it is a different programme. RAPID was designed specifically to focus on and positively discriminate in favour of our most disadvantaged communities. I remind the Minister that the programme for Government made a commitment to support schemes that support disadvantaged communities and to support the RAPID programme, which is very specific. It is also in the confidence and supply agreement. Where, along the way, did the Minister decide to close down RAPID? Was it a Government decision or the Minister's decision?

The honest truth is that the community enhancement programme that has replaced it has not provided the same level of support. I have seen the grants that have been made available and while they are welcome, they are not positively discriminating in favour of our most disadvantaged communities, and therein lies the problem. I have asked the Minister before and he has responded by mentioning SICAP and other programmes. The reality is the Department and the Government are letting down our most disadvantaged communities. We do not see the significant advances DEIS schools and additional funding, and it is the same with local and regional drugs task forces, which have not received additional funding. Where we have some of our greatest problems, we are not getting the level of support and it is being washed across the entire community under the community enhancement programme. That was not what RAPID was supposed to be about. It was a lot more than that.

I do not agree. I did not close down the RAPID programme.

The Minister did.

I did not close it down; I opened it.

He closed it down.

Let us have the facts.

He needs to be straight about it.

Order, please. Allow the Minister to continue.

I amalgamated the RAPID programme-----

(Interruptions).

Deputy Curran's party closed it down in 2011. I opened it.

No, Phil Hogan closed it down in 2013.

No, it was 2011.

Perhaps it would be a matter for Topical Issues, when we would have more time.

It would help if we got a straight answer.

I will explain it again. I hope the Deputy is not giving out about his councillors and representatives on the LCDCs.

It is always the councillors' fault. What about his own councillors?

And my own. There was a fund of approximately €3 million and we amalgamated the community enhancement programme and RAPID programmes. Last year, although the Deputies did not give me credit for this, while there was €4.5 million in the budget, I finished up putting €12 million into it because we had savings in the Department which I put into the community enhancement programme. The LCDCs felt this was the best way to deliver this money. Who knows best about local needs and local areas but local people? If the Deputy thinks this is not working, we will review it again, and if he wants to bring it back to giving €2 million from the RAPID programme again, we can do that. However, that is not the best way of spending money. If the Deputy thinks the local people do not know the areas that need most funding, it is him who has a problem.

I want to read a quote to the Minister:

I want to have a rethink about the community enhancement scheme and the RAPID programme. I started to think about this matter the other day. We all know what is being done in the north-east inner city and how it has been successful so far. People would like to have that model replicated in their areas but that is not possible. One could not find the resources to do it in all areas. I thought that perhaps we should designate ten or 20 areas of profound deprivation around the State and do something similar, but then it occurred to me that we had done that previously and called it RAPID.

That was the Taoiseach speaking a month ago. We all know our most disadvantaged communities need additional support but community enhancement is not the additional support those communities need. The Minister has closed it down. He should not blame us on this side. I know there were problems in 2011 and funding was suspended, and I would be the first to put my hand up. However, we did not close down the a programme that positively discriminated in favour of our most disadvantaged communities. The Minister did that. At a time our economy is doing well, our most disadvantaged communities need that level of support and the Minister has let them down.

I will say it again: I did not close them down. I amalgamated it with another programme and I put more funding into it.

He did close at down.

€2 million was all that was in it and I put €4.5 million into it.

I put €12.5 million into the combined schemes last year.

We are always glad to have a robust debate but we need to have some order.

The Minister did not put into the RAPID programme. He put into a different programme. He is trying to whitewash the whole thing.

Deputy Curran has made his point.

I will say it to the Deputy again: I amalgamated both schemes and I put more money into it than any other Minister. If the Deputy cannot see that, there is something wrong.

It is €12.5 million, €4.5 million of which was in the budget line and €2 million of which was in RAPID. I am doing this from the bottom up. I know Fianna Fáil always like to do it from the top down but I always like to go from the bottom up.

Climate Change Policy

Willie Penrose

Question:

4. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if he has been briefed on the recommendations within the cross-party report on climate change specifically relating to a just transition and the need for local economic diversification plans; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30433/19]

The Minister is aware of the recommendations of the excellent cross-party report on climate change and the significant recommendations arising therefrom, including the necessity and urgency of reducing the carbon footprint of many industries located in rural Ireland. We know the consequences of this transition will affect rural Ireland. We are long past the point of questioning the need to change in response to climate change. The question is how to achieve that change as quickly, as efficiently and as fairly as possible. Has the Minister had discussions on a cross-party basis to ensure this can take place?

I will take this question on behalf of the Minister.

The cross-party report on climate was published by the Joint Committee on Climate Action in March 2019. Our Department actively engaged with the work of the committee and also in the preparation of the all-of-Government action plan published recently by the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

The Minister, Deputy Ring, and I have been briefed on a number of occasions on the recommendations. We are particularly concerned with ensuring that transition to a low-carbon future is done in a just and fair manner, recognising the potential for measures to be felt differently in various parts of the country. The Government has consistently stressed the importance of ensuring a people-centred transition that recognises vulnerability within certain communities and takes action accordingly. Our Department is providing supports to assist communities and those in rural Ireland with climate change initiatives to enhance their resilience, and will continue to do so.

In developing the next phase of rural development policy, climate adaptation, sustainability and resilience are likely to be guiding features. In respect of recommendations on the need for local economic diversification plans, consideration of any measures that would allow local communities be included in the formulation of climate actions that directly affect them is to be welcomed. Engagement with communities will be key to delivery of climate change targets and our Department will be happy to play a role in making this happen within the scope of agreed Government policy on climate action.

The Minister of State is aware that communities in rural Ireland will undoubtedly be affected most by changes in agriculture, the increasing carbon taxation and the closure of peat bogs, particularly in the midlands. There are many such bogs in Derrygreenagh, Boora, Derrahaun, Cullenagh and across the midlands. The recent announcement on the Moneypoint plant in west Clare was instructive about how electricity generation would be handled. For some, the changes will dramatically alter the way in which they live, affecting farming and the types of employment that will be available in the future. There could also be many opportunities for rural communities in the production of green methane gas, microgeneration and mixed agriforestry, but if we are to capitalise on them, we will need strong local economic diversification plans to smooth the transition. Rural communities, particularly farmers and farm labourers, will need to be adequately incentivised and rewarded. That is why the Labour Party continually called for a diversification fund at the all-party Joint Committee on Climate Action, but I have heard nothing about it yet. I hope it is a measure the Ministers and the Department will support. Otherwise, the report will be a waste of time. Local diversification plans will undoubtedly cut across a number of Departments from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Employment Affairs and Social Protection, but they must be consistent, coherent and always have the concerns of rural communities at their core. The climate action delivery board cited in the climate action plan is one possible mechanism for achieving a just transition in Ireland. Is it being given consideration? There is no use in us waking up after the fact. We must act now.

I agree with the Deputy that ensuring we respect and deal with local communities is important. The Department works to ensure the impact of climate policies on rural areas and communities is given appropriate consideration. It is engaging with communities throughout the countries on these matters. The needs of rural areas are important in the light of the contribution their communities can make to climate mitigation and ensuring our climate action policies will not impact on them disproportionately.

The Deputy mentioned microgeneration and the fact that farming had to change. All of these issues are covered within the climate action plan. Consider also the house retrofit programme and the fuel poverty scheme, under which we are providing 100% grants for households. The effects are threefold. First, they help people to live in their homes more comfortably. Second, they help to save on energy bills. Third, they create employment in SMEs across the country, with many subcontractors and contractors due to be employed in the next few years in undertaking the required retrofits. It is important that the threefold effect be understood. Of course, it will cost money. People's ways of living and doing business will also have to change.

The similar Climate Change Delivery Board, CCDB, was established in Scotland in 2012 after cross-party consensus was reached on climate action. Scotland's rural ministry has played a central role on the board in achieving a buy-in from rural communities. We must have local buy-in, including in the case of the Moneypoint plant. For every direct job that is lost there, 1.5 indirect jobs in, for example, services will be lost in the community. We must support a just transition. We could as a consequence surpass our environmental targets, as happened in Scotland. We should learn its lesson and take the same approach, as we cannot afford for rural communities to be left as the hind tit taking crumbs from the rich man's table. Will the Minister of State confirm whether he has been briefed on the recommendations made in the joint committee's report, specifically those relating to a just transition and the need for local economic diversification plans? Will his Department play a significant role on the proposed climate change delivery board outlined in the Government's climate action plan?

Take Bord na Móna as the prime example. It is close to the Deputy's neck of the woods.

Like everyone, I view Bord na Móna as a model for every other organisation in transitioning in a fair way. It is embedded in the communities where it has worked since its inception. It is undertaking a large number of pilot schemes to examine ways of diversifying its business model and changing what it is doing from brown to green. That model will stand the test of time and show how any country or company can transition in a way that will retain jobs in communities. Granted, they might be different, but I am fully confident that Bord na Móna's potential will be delivered on in time, although there are issues. It will be laying off people in certain places because it is getting out of certain types of business. However, it is regenerating other businesses and creating new, more sustainable jobs. That is what it is all about.

The Deputy referred to rural Ireland being left with just the crumbs from the table. If we put the national broadband plan in place and give everyone in rural Ireland a chance, we will leave no one behind. I agree wholeheartedly with the Deputy in that regard.

I thank the Minister of State.

Rural Regeneration and Development Fund

Dara Calleary

Question:

5. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the number and value of payments made to date for approved project funding under the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30893/19]

We spoke briefly about the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund, RRDF, which seems to be another of the Minister's specialties, but there have been lots of announcements, with nothing practical happening on the ground. Will he, please, flesh out the details?

The RRDF 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, with €315 million allocated to it for the period 2019 to 2022, inclusive. Following the conclusion of the first call to the fund in February 2019, a total of 84 successful projects had been announced, with funding of €86 million provided. This funding supported a total investment of €117 million by the projects in rural areas.

Following the announcement of the successful projects, my Department engaged with each lead party to complete due diligence requirements. Contractual arrangements were also drawn up, with the release of funding based on the achievement of key milestones in the projects. In that regard, significant progress is being made in the implementation of successful projects, a number of which have met their first milestone and had funding released. To date, €1.722 million has been drawn down from the fund by seven separate projects. I expect payments to accelerate significantly in the coming weeks and months as further milestones are achieved across all 84 projects.

The figures for 2019 are 84 projects and funding of €86 million. To date, approximately €1.7 million has been spent. Even with a significant acceleration, it is difficult to see €86 million being spent by the end of the year. Will the Minister confirm whether the allocation for the budget has been reduced by €3 million because of the national children's hospital fiasco? Rural communities will be made to pay for the incompetence of the Minister for Health.

The Minister interacted with Deputy Martin Kenny earlier. We all know rural towns and villages where there are loads of empty spaces, units and, more importantly, accommodation. What specifically will the plan do to encourage people and local authorities? The Minister was right, in that local authorities should be leading developments in towns. What is there within the fund or the milestones he mentioned that will inject people back into small towns to live and be part of their communities on a day-to-day basis?

My Department has been in constant contact with all State agencies, local authorities and anyone who has received funding under the RRDF. I will answer the Deputy's other question shortly, but, regarding milestones, we have set targets. I am obliged by law - there is also an evaluation committee - to ensure we do not hand out funding until bodies reach milestones in procurement and being shovel ready. There must also be a certain level of spending before they can draw down from the fund. I expect the figures to improve. Some of the projects in question are major. They told us that, although they were shovel ready, they still had to undertake procurement. That they would not attempt procurement until they were allocated the money was understandable. Some of the projects are fantastic and will create very badly wanted jobs and infrastructure in many towns, villages and other areas throughout the country. Consider the project proposed for Bekan in the Deputy's own area. It can be used for shows and markets and will be open to the general public. It will give a lift to Claremorris, Ballyhaunis and many other towns. Many other projects throughout the country will do the same.

This is a game-changer for rural Ireland. When I started in this job, one of the issues constantly raised with me was in respect of promoters with ideas and projects. There was not enough grant aid or State funding to bring these projects over the line. This scheme will work well.

Can the Minister confirm the €3 million reduction in the budget? The project in Bekan is really interesting and has massive potential for east Mayo. What is being done was in the Minister's Department to ensure that potential is reached? That project will not happen on its own. Knock, Ballyhaunis and Claremorris need to get the kind of wins they need out of it and there must be a plan in place for those towns. For instance, there needs to be a plan in place for accommodation for people who are going to use that facility. Is somebody driving the local authority, which in this case is Mayo County Council, to come up with a plan that knits that huge development with the towns around it, so that they get the win we want them to get rather than us hoping, or assuming, they will get a win? At the moment people are being bussed in and out. Somebody has to drive it in order to get the impact. That is where this fund should come in. Fund the project but in order for it to deliver its full capacity and full benefit, somebody must also drive it on.

The local authorities are one of the drivers. I will tell the Deputy about the real drivers behind any project, and we talked about that project in east Mayo. I refer to the town and village scheme. The plaza in Knock has given a lift to the town. The streetscaping in Ballyhaunis has given a lift to that town. Claremorris is a town that has seen much development over last number of years. What is happening in all these towns is that jobs are being created and there is a little bit of confidence in the towns. Communities and community spirit lead these projects.

I refer to the LEADER programme and the amount of grant aid allocated to very good projects in east Mayo. It takes time to develop them and for these schemes to be up and running. I am pleased my Department has played a major part in rural development with all the different schemes. The local authorities have a job to do to drive this on. They need to be doing more of that and encouraging more towns. I have asked them not to concentrate on the Ballinas, the Castlebars or the Westports but to look at the smaller towns and give them an opportunity as well.