Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Regional Development

Claire Kerrane

Question:

1. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Community and Rural Development and the Islands the steps she will take to address the growing regional inequalities here and specifically in the northern and western region, which has been downgraded by the EU from a developed region to a region in transition; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24325/20]

What steps does the Minister intend to take to address the growing regional inequalities, specifically in the northern and western region, which has been downgraded from a developed region to a region in transition? I know this is not news but with the new funding stream coming from 2021 to 2027, we need to make sure the northern and western region takes full advantage of that funding that will be in place in co-operation with the EU, and our downgraded status needs to be reversed.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The designation of the northern and western region by the EU as a region in transition underscores the importance of achieving balanced regional development as our economy and population continue to grow.

The programme for Government places a strong emphasis on balanced regional development as our economy and population continue to grow and does this through a range of measures. My Department supports this commitment through targeted investment that supports rural regeneration, facilitates new working opportunities and fosters regional enterprise growth. A significant level of support and investment has been provided to the northern and western region by my Department. Since January 2018, 40% of rural regeneration and development funding and 34% of town and village renewal funding have been invested in that region. This investment amounts to more than €80 million on these schemes alone.

In addition to this direct investment, my Department also funds and supports the Western Development Commission, WDC, in its role as an enabler of the development of the western region. Last year, the commission published a new five-year strategy for the western region and continues to provide targeted investment to establish emerging firms through the western investment fund. Since 2019, the WDC has also taken a co-ordinating role in the development of the Atlantic economic corridor initiative, which has significant potential to deliver for the north west. The WDC is also developing a network of digital enterprise and remote working hubs within the northern and western region. The increased shift to remote working in the past six months has given us the opportunity to reimagine the possibilities for a greater regional distribution of jobs and to capitalise on the quality of life which the regions offer.

The north and west of Ireland were not downgraded to the status of a region in transition for no reason. It did not happen by accident and we all know this is the result of decades of underinvestment by previous Governments and this Government in infrastructure west of the Shannon. We are the only region in Ireland that has been downgraded by the EU Commission and that is because we are lagging behind. When one looks at the west and the north west, we are bottom of the table when it comes to Government investment, whether that is in roads, health, jobs or higher education. The proof of that is there to be seen.

The Northern and Western Regional Assembly has done excellent work in the report and plan it has brought forward and I encourage the Minister to engage with it as we go forward, particularly as the new round of regional funding for 2021 to 2027 approaches. According to the EU Commission, we have one of the highest levels of regional inequality in the entire EU and this has to be addressed urgently. We know the impact of Brexit on this region will be major and we also know that the EU Commission has said that the impact of Covid-19 will be especially difficult for the west and the north west. Will the Minister engage with the Northern and Western Regional Assembly on its plan for what needs to happen with regional funding going forward?

I am aware of these matters, being from the northern and western region, as is the Deputy. I have met with the Northern and Western Regional Assembly on two occasions in recent months, most recently at the end of July in Ballaghaderreen. I heard first-hand of its concerns about the new European regional development fund, ERDF, funding and how important it is that it should get the opportunity to administer it, as it did in the past. I have passed those concerns on to my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath.

I want to point out that there has been considerable investment in the region. The national broadband plan represents an investment of €656 million in the northern and western region, and the scale of the Government's commitment to balanced regional development is exemplified by the national development plan and the national planning framework, which will deliver an estimated €116 billion in public investment through several targeted funds over the lifespan of those funds. The rural regeneration and development fund supports renewal for suitable towns, and €22.3 million has been invested in the north west through that fund.

I am glad the Minister has referred to the plans that are being considered by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that would essentially see these regional funds being centralised in Dublin. That is an outrageous proposition that should have never come to the desk of any Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. As I said, we are looking at the impacts of Brexit and at the fact that we are no longer designated as a developed region, which is so serious for our region going forward. The level of investment and infrastructure that is required has not been there and that needs to change. We need a multibillion infrastructural plan specifically for this region. The Northern and Western Regional Assembly has done the work and we need to make sure that regional funding is given to and remains in the regions so that it is spent on what is best. We also need to make sure the regions have the ability to look at how they spend those funds and we need a plan on specific projects to make sure we change the wave on this. We cannot remain a region in transition. People want to live in the west and the north west. At the moment, there is no fair play when it comes to investment and that needs to change urgently.

There has been considerable investment, which is not to take away from the fact that we want to see more investment. Some €5.6 million was invested under the regional enterprise development fund, €22.3 million was invested under the rural regeneration fund and €9.1 million was invested under the urban regeneration and development fund. In my last Department, I established a €28 million Border economic stimulus package and that provided a support of €15 million for projects across the Border counties, which are also in this region.

The counties are Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan and Monaghan. This was the first time ever there was a dedicated fund of that nature for a region. Those projects will make a significant difference to the north-west region, which will be particularly impacted by Brexit. Other elements of the Border economic stimulus package include an extra €3 million for the six local enterprise offices, an €8.5 million Brexit transformation fund to enable firms to transform their business and diversify their markets, and €1.5 million for industry fellowships. We need the targeted support, and the Border stimulus package is certainly doing that in the region.

Rural Transport Services

Seán Sherlock

Question:

2. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Community and Rural Development and the Islands if she has met with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on rural public transport challenges under Covid-19 regulations. [24447/20]

I merely wish to ask the Minister if there is an attempt at policy coherence in respect of rural transport provision. Covid-19 has highlighted the weaknesses in school transport policy in particular. We know that currently there is a review of the school transport scheme but to our mind there is no point in having a review of the school transport scheme unless the Minister's Department is mapped across the review.

I thank Deputy Sherlock for raising this issue. As he will be aware, the provision of transport services, including for rural areas, is the responsibility of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the National Transport Authority, NTA. Continued operation of the public transport system is among the designated essential services that have carried on throughout the Covid-19 crisis and transport operators and their staff must be thanked for their dedication to providing what is a vital service for rural areas in such challenging times. While I have not met with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport regarding these challenges, I am aware that his Department has been working closely with the NTA in line with the Government's Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business and the recently published Government plan for living with Covid-19.

My Department is currently developing the next phase of rural policy for Ireland to succeed the Action Plan for Rural Development which concluded at the end of 2019. The need for further integration of rural, regional and national public transport services to provide a comprehensive and reliable service to people who live, work and study in rural towns, villages and outlying areas was highlighted as part of the consultation process to inform the development of the new policy.

The programme for Government includes commitments to the development of integrated public transport and connectivity in rural areas and works continue to be funded through Project Ireland 2040 and the national development plan to ensure that people living in rural Ireland remain connected with their local communities and beyond through investment in public transport and the road network. My Department will continue to engage across the Government, including with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, to identify tangible policy measures to further enhance access to transport services in rural areas.

I thank the Minister for her response. If her Department is developing a rural policy for Ireland I do not think it is possible to do so without talking about the totality of public transport. Increasingly, rural Ireland is a cosmopolitan place. The people who live there now traverse the entire demographic of Irish society. Without being too verbose about it, this September there was a crisis regarding the supply of school transport. Hopefully, that will be worked through. There is an opportunity here for policy coherence to radicalise how rural transport is developed. We have Local Link which, arguably, is a very successful service. That is certainly the case in my neck of the woods. In developing a rural policy there is no reason we could not look at the totality of transport. I prevail upon the Minister to take into account the fact that 120,000 children use school transport. I realise it is not across the Minister's Department, but there is the potential to use the 5,000 buses involved in school transport to transport other people as well who live in rural Ireland.

I agree with Deputy Sherlock. There needs to be cross-Government thinking, and there has been. As part of the rural development policy I have engaged right across all of the Departments because everybody has an input into this policy. Local Link, which the Deputy mentioned, is one of the best rural transport initiatives that we have. Some of the local companies are really good at the joined-up thinking that we need. For example, in Cavan and Monaghan, with which I am familiar, there is an integration of the services, which includes providing transport for health services for people who need to go to hospital appointments and those going to college. There is a really good service in Cavan and Monaghan that links the two institutes which runs over and back five times a day. Students going to the local colleges can get transport, which did not happen before. The service has enhanced the local institutes of education. Deputy Sherlock is absolutely right about joined-up thinking. We need to do that. I assure him that I will be engaging with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on that issue.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that more and more people are connected. Many people who ordinarily would not have been connected to Internet technologies are now in possession of smartphones and can use that technology in a seamless way across the age range. It is about developing a coherent supply of transport services to allow people to use the technology to map on, so that no matter where they are living they can get access to services and they do not have to go to a place to buy a ticket, for example, as they can use their phones now. There is an opportunity to radicalise in a positive sense how we deliver rural transport in a more cosmopolitan society, as it were.

I absolutely agree with Deputy Sherlock. That is something I will certainly work closely on with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. There is €2 million in the July stimulus package for new and expanded local bus services. There is also €250,000 to support the transition of Local Link services to zero-emission vehicles in areas of rural Ireland. A total of €21 million is being provided to improve rail journeys and that will primarily support works along the Dublin to Cork line. There is a commitment to rural transport in the programme for Government and I will certainly support it.

Community Development Initiatives

Paul Donnelly

Question:

3. Deputy Paul Donnelly asked the Minister for Community and Rural Development and the Islands the provisions made for funding for community centres into 2021 due to the restrictions on local fundraising due to Covid-19 and the reduced capacity to operate cafés and receive income from room rental. [24461/20]

I would like to ask the Minister what provisions have been made for funding for community centres into 2021 due to the restrictions on local fundraising due to Covid-19, and also, importantly, the reduced capacity to operate cafés and receive income from room rentals. The Minister knows they are not businesses. They are not there to make a profit but to support the community and they need to be supported as we go forward.

The Government's recovery and resilience plan, published on Tuesday, does acknowledge the importance of communities working together at this challenging time. Community centres, as Deputy Paul Donnelly knows, are often the focal point for vital activities that can foster community resilience. The most relevant programme in my Department is the community services programme to community centres. Overall, the community services programme funds approximately 400 community organisations and earlier this year a support fund of €1.2 million was put in place, providing additional funding to many of these organisations, many of which suffered loss of income due to Covid-19, as they are partially dependent on revenue-raising through renting out spaces, cafés and so on.

My Department also introduced a package of supports for community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises in the context of Covid-19, which included a stability fund of up to €35 million. Some community centres met eligibility criteria for this and are receiving funding from the fund.

The 2020 community enhancement programme, which was launched in June and has funding of €2 million provides small capital grants to community organisations. Separately, under the July stimulus, a €5 million fund was launched for repairs and upgrades to community centres and community buildings. Details can be found on the website.

The overarching rural development investment programme has been tailored to address the emerging challenges associated with Covid-19. This includes the town and village renewal scheme, which is currently open for applications. Improvements to community centres have been funded through this scheme in the past.

My Department will continue to work with relevant stakeholders, including the community and voluntary sector, local authorities and local development companies, to support community organisations across the country as they deal with the ongoing and emerging challenges presented by Covid-19.

I am sure that the Minister of State has spoken to a large number of community centre managers. Many of those to whom I have spoken are concerned. They appreciate the funding that has been provided, but they say it is not enough, given that the impact on their centres has been enormous. Most closed and then reopened with significantly reduced capacities. Many of the centres had to retain reserve funds because they were companies limited by guarantee, but they are now approaching the end of that pot. Their reserve funding is running out. This issue has not just arisen in the current context - centres have always asked for multi-annual funding, which would allow them to plan and prepare. Now, they have no reserve funding and little income. The money they have received to date has been welcome, but it is not enough. The managers are concerned about 2021 and 2022.

I will elaborate on the question of the loss of income suffered by community services programme, CSP, organisations. My Department developed a €1.2 million fund to ensure that such organisations could pay their full-time CSP-supported employees a maximum of €350 per week, with a proportionate amount for part-time CSP-supported employees.

Pobal has issued a financial survey to all CSP-supported organisations to identify their remaining financial issues. We are in an organised and forensic way looking to see what the real issues are for each of the relevant organisations. Pobal will report to the Department this month, following which the Department will consider any additional funding need that may arise as detailed in that report.

I will cite a couple of sentences. I sent out a survey to a number of community centres. One response struck me, that of Huntstown in Castleknock in my constituency. The centre stated that its reserve funds had been depleted and its traded income was down by more than 80%. Along with that traded income, the CSP grant received was used to bring people up to the minimum wage. This centre is concerned because, if it does not have a reserve fund and income coming in, the CSP funding will not be able to meet the minimum wage. The centre would like to pay the living wage, but it cannot. It is fearful that if there is no guarantee that CSP funding will at least help to match the minimum wage, it will have to let people go in 2021. This concern is shared across the board because funding from the CSP is €9.38 per individual yet the funding for the minimum wage is nowhere near that.

People are asking me questions about this issue. Will the Minister of State give community centres some clarity about 2021? I am sorry, but I am not seeing much clarity right now.

Regarding Huntstown specifically, my Department provided €20,000 in January to that community centre. Under the stability fund, €45,000 was approved for the Huntstown family resource centre. I am just putting these figures into the mix.

To address the Deputy's question, the Estimates process is ongoing. I am fighting hard for the community service programme across the country. Some organisations are in trouble. Outside of Covid, and while I might hope it was not the case, there is a natural rate of attrition every year where some services cannot survive. Some services exit the programme and new ones enter it.

I met an organisational body of CSP managers several weeks ago. The managers laid out a stark picture as well as some proposals, which we are considering. I asked them to organise further meetings for me with different types of community services from around the country. I am eager to stay in touch with the stories on the ground such as the one the Deputy outlined.

Town and Village Renewal Scheme

Gary Gannon

Question:

4. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Community and Rural Development and the Islands if she will extend the 2020 town and village renewal scheme outline for the accelerated measure in response to Covid-19 to enable more communities to avail of this funding. [24462/20]

The Ceann Comhairle has given permission to Deputy Cairns to ask this question.

The town and village renewal scheme with accelerated measures for Covid-19 has been a welcome and successful programme. It has supported 106 towns and villages across every county to adapt to living with Covid. For example, it has facilitated the purchase of stage and amplification equipment for community events and concerts in west Cork and the revamp of Macroom town centre. Given the success of the scheme, will the Minister please extend it to enable more communities to avail of this funding?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. This year's town and village renewal scheme has been tailored to assist our rural towns and villages to respond to the challenges presented by Covid-19. The scheme includes an accelerated measure to enable towns and villages to introduce initiatives immediately in order to support increased footfall and enable people to shop and socialise safely in accordance with public health guidelines. The scheme also includes a standard measure that places a focus this year on the recovery of towns and villages from the impact of Covid in the medium term.

When the 2020 town and village renewal scheme was launched in May, it had a budget of €15 million, including an indicative allocation of €5 million for the accelerated measure. The Government's July stimulus package provided an additional €10 million to the scheme, allowing the allocation for the accelerated measure to be doubled. This extra funding for the measure has allowed my Department to increase the number of funding rounds from two to three, increase the number of applications that can be submitted by local authorities and, as an exceptional measure, provide funding under the accelerated measure for larger towns with populations of more than 10,000 people. This is in recognition of the importance of larger towns in supporting the economic and social fabric of surrounding rural communities.

Successful projects under rounds 1 and 2 of the accelerated measure were announced recently, with a total of €6.1 million approved for 226 projects, including those Deputy Cairns mentioned. Applications under round 3 for large towns are being assessed by my officials. Further announcements will be made when the process is complete.

Applications under the standard measure for towns and villages will place a focus on the next stage of recovery. That process will be announced at a later stage.

I thank the Minister. The town and village renewal scheme's funding is the type of practical and tangible support that communities need. At a time when rural areas have been significantly impacted by the pandemic, the scheme is not only helping us to adjust, but is offering a lifeline for main street shops and other family businesses. The two schemes have cost just over €6.1 million so far this year, which is an investment that will pay back manifold for the communities concerned.

However, the town and village renewal scheme required communities to almost compete against one another due to the limited funding available to each local authority. Many areas that put together excellent proposals did not get funding, which is disheartening, especially this year. To help boost towns and villages, will the Minister provide additional funding to each local authority to invest in the communities that have already applied but were unsuccessful in previous rounds?

The town and village scheme is close to my heart because I first established it when I had responsibility for the rural development brief in 2016. I am glad to see that it has gone from strength to strength. It has seen millions of euro invested in rural towns and villages across the country. It has a bottom-up approach where communities are able to engage with one another, identify what they want to do in their towns and submit applications for funding.

We originally had a budget of €15 million for the scheme. I have since got an extra €10 million, bringing the total package up to €25 million this year. The €10 million has been allocated to the accelerated measures. There are good things being done, for example, providing outdoor seating, enhancing community centres to allow remote working and adapting community spaces. As the Deputy mentioned, outdoor cinemas are becoming popular. Some towns are organising them. Others are widening their footpaths to make them safe for social distancing.

There are 226 projects involved, with approximately €6 million spent to date. There is still €4 million in the budget.

The scheme is welcome and has helped, which I appreciate. However, villages have tended to lose out. These communities, which often live in the shadow of regional towns, could do with a crucial boost this year. For example, Ballydehob in west Cork put together a fantastic application reimagining the whole village as an inclusive social space where locals and visitors could avail of refreshed spaces, outdoor seating and new facilities for community events.

That is one example. Other villages such as Eyeries, Drimoleague and Belgooly would all benefit immeasurably from this type of targeted intervention.

The Minister mentioned an additional scheme for towns with populations of more than 10,000 from August. I ask for a similar scheme at the other end of the scale, from the bottom up, for towns of under 1,000. Places in my constituency such as Schull, Drinagh and Innishannon could apply. They desperately need it. As a fellow rural Deputy, the Minister will understand the difference this will make to those communities.

We increased it. There is still money left in the pot. It is targeted at the larger towns but there is nothing to stop the villages applying under the standard town and village scheme which is still open for applications until 30 September. I will leave it to places that have not been successful to continue to engage with the Department and put in amended or adjusted applications that may qualify for funding.

Town and Village Renewal Scheme

Catherine Connolly

Question:

5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Community and Rural Development and the Islands her plans to roll out the town centre living initiative to other towns following the pilot project involving six towns; the criteria by which such towns will be assessed for inclusion in the initiative; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24393/20]

On the same theme, the Minister's predecessor rolled out a pilot for six towns. My question relates to that. There are three Bs and three Cs: Ballinrobe, Banagher, and Boyle followed by Callan, Cappaquin and Castleblayney. The Department was to learn from the pilot and roll it out as a matter of urgency to all other towns. Where does this stand? The Minister had no input into the choice and said the towns were chosen by officials.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue, in which I have a great interest. The pilot town centre living initiative was launched in October 2018 to explore in a holistic way how to encourage increased residential occupancy in rural towns and villages. The pilot focused on six towns with different characteristics in different parts of the country. Funding of up to €100,000 was made available to each of the participating local authorities to support their work. An independent report on the pilot town centre living initiative was published on 22 June. The report outlines the approach taken by each town under the pilot and sets out the key issues identified to encourage the increased living in town centres and the repurposing of vacant properties for residential purposes. The report, which is available on gov.ie, highlights the multiplicity of factors that need to be addressed that cuts across a number of Departments and agencies. Based on the common issues identified across the six towns in the pilot and the suggested follow up actions presented in the independent report, I do not think it is necessary to extend the pilot initiative. However, all local authorities can benefit from taking on board the findings of the report, including the importance of consultation with local communities, property owners on town centre development, the value of developing a shared vision or master plan for the town and programmes, such as the rural regeneration and development fund, and the town and village renewal scheme can provide funding for projects which emerge from this process, subject to meeting the required criteria and the quality of the proposal.

I am a little disappointed. The initiative was launched in January 2017 as a pilot. It took up to October 2018 to roll it out. The report, which I have read in detail, was published in May and was available to the Department in February. What did the report cost? The complexity was already noted when this was launched by the then Minister, Deputy Ring. He said the reasons more people do not live in town centres are many and complex. We knew that there were many reasons, we knew about consultation and we knew about working with chambers of commerce and community groups in towns. This initiative was to learn and to see how we could roll it out. Incidentally, not a single town in the Gaeltacht was chosen. The Minister's predecessor noted and acknowledged that it was a gap that needed to be remedied. Why, when the pilot project was run and the report was commissioned and lessons were learned, has it not been rolled out? There are towns in Galway that would benefit, but I do not wish to be parochial. It could be rolled out to any town in any county.

The point is that it is a complex issue, there is no doubt about that. If it was easy it would have been solved years ago. I want to see more people living in the centre of towns. It is about more than buying a house and moving in, many more issues need to be considered so that it is attractive for people. There are significant costs associated with repairing older buildings which are in poor structural condition and often have protected status. Adapting older buildings to modern building standards and requirements can be difficult. Return on investment is a factor as the value of the vacant properties after intervention and repair will often be less than the cost of refurbishment and investors get a greater return on investment on new sites on the edges of towns. Sometimes owners have inherited the property and have limited resources for investing. There are also inexperienced property owners. A range of different issues need to be addressed but the report's findings will inform local authorities across the country. The same issues exist in all the towns.

We know that. We have had the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, report and many Government initiatives. Earlier this year, the Department established a steering group to do exactly what the Minister spoke of. It examined it and concluded the most effective way to do this was to set up a small number of well-planned pilot initiatives that could be delivered and scaled up quickly. Are we disregarding this report? Will we just shred it - I used this language about another report recently - or will we follow it up and publish the criteria by which we will choose the next round of towns and get on with the job? How much did the report cost? Did each town receive the €100,000? If so, that represents a significant investment of €600,000 for six towns. Let us learn from that and, if it was effective, let us roll it out.

We are learning from it. There are really good findings that can be applied to other towns across the country. This is not just about my Department alone but it is cross-Government. For example, in my own town of Clones, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has done really wonderful work in centre of town regeneration. It spent close to €5 million in refurbishing derelict buildings. It has taken some time but it is nearly complete. It is a fantastic initiative. My Department is responsible for the rural regeneration development fund. In rural Limerick, €2.5 million in funding was awarded to the towns of Rathkeale, Abbeyfeale, Askeaton, Ardagh, and Bruff under category 2 of the rural regeneration and development fund to help them to assist in delivering town and village regeneration and contribute to economic development and recovery. There is a further €3.3 million for other towns and villages. It is about working with local authorities, local towns and all the different stakeholders and trying to make the towns more attractive. Some really good plans have come out of the pilot project. I do not have the cost of the report but I will have it sent to the Deputy. As she said, it was €100,000 for each town.