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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 5 Nov 2020

Vol. 1000 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Job Creation

Claire Kerrane


1. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the number of jobs created under the previous Action Plan for Rural Development 2017-2019 in counties Roscommon and Galway; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34473/20]

Will the Minister detail the number of jobs created under the previous action plan for rural development in 2017 for counties Roscommon and Galway?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Action Plan for Rural Development 2017-2019 was a whole-of-government initiative to support the economic and social progress of rural Ireland. One of the objectives of the plan was to support enterprise growth and job creation in rural areas.

A key target of the action plan was to increase the number of people in employment outside of the Dublin region by 135,000 by 2020, using 2015 as the baseline. Between 2015 and 2019, employment in the regions increased by 222,400 outside of Dublin, greatly surpassing the target in the action plan.

Specific figures for employment by county are not captured in the quarterly labour force survey of the Central Statistics Office, CSO. However, the CSO's data show an increase in the number of people in employment in the NUTS 3 western region, which includes counties Roscommon, Galway and Mayo, of 41,800 between quarter 1 of 2015 and quarter 4 of 2019. That is the number of extra people who have been employed in those three counties.

Over the period of the Action Plan for Rural Development 2017-2019, the enterprise development agencies successfully focused on growing regional employment. In 2019, 66% of new jobs created by Enterprise Ireland client companies were outside the Dublin region, while 57% of jobs in IDA Ireland's client companies have been created outside the Dublin region. Regional jobs growth was also achieved through the work of Údarás na Gaeltachta and the local enterprise offices, while my own Department contributed to job creation in rural areas through programmes such as LEADER, the town and village renewal scheme, and the rural regeneration and development fund.

I will shortly be publishing a new rural development policy which will succeed the Action Plan for Rural Development 2017-2019. This policy will place a strong emphasis on supporting job creation and maximising the potential of remote working.

Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. The creation of more than 222,000 jobs between 2015 and 2019 is welcome, as is any job. However, stating that those jobs are outside the Dublin region does not narrow it down. I appreciate that the Minister has given a figure of 41,000 jobs for Roscommon, Galway and Mayo but we need to see more of a breakdown of those numbers for job creation, particularly in regions such as the west. The west is already in trouble because its EU status is now that of a region in transition and no longer developed.

The Minister cited the new rural development plan. Can she give us an indication whether that will be published before the end of the year? Will it include specific targets for job creation? The Minister referred to the IDA but in counties such as Roscommon we tend not to see the IDA too often, which is a major problem. Can we see more targets for job creation per county?

The northern and western regions have been recognised as regions in transition and I was glad to receive conformation from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, that the Northern and Western Regional Assembly will be implementing the relevant funding on behalf of the Government. That is important because we want to see funding targeted at the area. It is also important that local people are involved in that because they know where the funding needs to go and what difficulties need to be addressed.

I am currently working on the rural development policy and hope to have it published by the end of this year or early next year. That is my plan. It is at an advanced stage and will look at things like optimising the opportunities for rural communities through high-speed broadband, supporting improved quality employment and career opportunities in rural areas, assisting the regeneration, repopulation and development of rural towns and villages, and enhancing the participation, leadership and resilience of rural communities.

Will the developmental plan for rural areas include more specific targets for job creation? I presume the plan was supposed to run from 2020 to 2025 but given that we are now at the end of 2020, will it roll over into 2021? It sounds as if it might.

It is important when we look at job losses in counties such as Roscommon and Galway to note that many rural towns have lost major industries. Aptar is closing its facility in Ballinasloe. A cigar factory and Dawn Meats factory closed in Ballaghaderreen in years gone by. Those jobs have never been replaced and that is a problem. There is a quality of life in the likes of counties Roscommon and Galway that is second to none but we must have the basic infrastructure, including broadband, to attract people to live and work in those areas in the western region and to attract emigrants to come home.

The Northern and Western Regional Assembly has put forward positive ideas for job creation. Will the Minister engage with its representatives? Will she confirm job creation targets? We need better data collection on employment in the regions.

On a local level, I can tell the Deputy that in Galway alone, 1,182 jobs were supported by local enterprise offices in 2019. A total of 897 jobs were supported by local enterprise offices in Roscommon. I do not have the figures for Enterprise Ireland and the IDA.

The regional enterprise development fund, which comes from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, is specifically targeted at strengthening the regions. Some €16.7 million was invested under that fund since late 2017, early 2018. All that funding has gone into providing the right infrastructure to attract investment.

The record of the IDA in Galway is very good. I do not have to tell the Deputy that. Only last week, in the middle of the pandemic, 200 local jobs were created across several business functions in diligent co-operations in Galway. Those jobs were a boost to Galway and will lead to add-on jobs. It is not just those direct jobs but also those that accrue as a result of their creation. There has been much investment in Galway city. We must feed off those good job announcements and create ancillary jobs in the rural parts of Galway and Roscommon.

Remote Working

Claire Kerrane


2. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she has considered establishing co-working spaces in rural areas to facilitate persons working remotely and keep them in their communities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34163/20]

This question is to ask the Minister if she has looked to establishing co-working spaces in rural areas to facilitate people working remotely and keeping them in their communities.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue which is something that I have a keen interest in.

While many people are currently working from home to reduce the spread of Covid-19, recent research by the Western Development Commission, WDC, and the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, has highlighted a growing interest from people in continuing to work remotely in the longer term, at least part of the time availing of co-working facilities.

Remote working has the potential to transform rural Ireland, allowing people to pursue careers in good quality jobs while continuing to live in their home place. It also has the potential to encourage more people to move to the regions to provide increased trade for local businesses and to revitalise our rural towns.

Over the last number of years my Department has invested significantly in remote working facilities through programmes such as the town and village renewal scheme and the rural regeneration and development fund. My Department has been working with the Western Development Commission to develop an integrated network of remote working hubs along the Atlantic economic corridor, AEC, region from Kerry to Donegal, with shared back-office services. The WDC has identified and mapped more than 100 remote working hubs that serve that region. In addition, since 2016 my Department has been working on the broadband connection points, BCPs, initiative, which is now rolling out countrywide. Many of the BCPs will be in a position to provide remote working facilities in isolated rural areas.

An additional €5 million was allocated to my Department in budget 2021 to develop a national network of remote working hubs based on the AEC model as well as to upgrade existing facilities and BCPs throughout the country.

An interdepartmental working group chaired by the Secretary General of my Department has been established to progress this project.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I welcome that the interdepartmental group has been established. Can the Minister give me some more information as to when she expects this group to come back to her as to how we roll out the remote working hubs? I welcome the €5 million that was announced in the budget which will really make a difference. It will allow people to remain and work in their communities and to spend in the local economy. It will also significantly reduce the commuting of people out of their areas to bigger urban areas for work.

The Minister may be aware that the regional assemblies together published a report last month identifying how one in four private sector workers could be targeted for remote working. That would of course be a much larger figure when it comes to public service workers. What these assemblies have found is that over 40,000 people in the west and north west alone, private sector workers, will be in a position to work remotely. This means 40,000 less commuters and 40,000 more people at home in their areas spending locally. The concern is that while we have funding, we need a strategy urgently so that we are not just investing in hubs but we have a strategy for this. My question therefore relates to the interdepartmental group.

The interdepartmental group has had its first meeting which I attended as I wanted to show the importance that I place in ensuring that we grasp this opportunity. As the Deputy and I am aware, remote working was a concept and aspiration this time last year. In fact there was a Cabinet meeting that was specifically looking at jobs and a big part of that was trying to get companies and people interested in remote working. Covid-19 has given us this opportunity which we really need to grasp and run with to ensure that the right strategy is in place for it.

The working group has had its first meeting and has a body of work to carry out and I assure the Deputy that we are doing everything we can to ensure that the group reports back to me as soon as possible. There are a number of things it needs to do including research work.

I would greatly appreciate if the Minister could give me figures as to how many remote working hubs could be established with this €5 million and if the group could look at the use of the already established premises that are perhaps vacant, or even the use of community centres as these hubs could act as a source of income for them. We know that many of them are struggling right now, especially in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is a commitment to broadband in the programme for Government that does not necessarily fall under the Minister's remit but it is to accelerate the roll-out of broadband in rural areas. We could really do with seeing a plan on how we intend to accelerate that roll-out because it is so important. So many people have struggled during Covid-19. While it has been great that they have been able to work from home they have struggled in respect of broadband. We also know that children of school-going age have struggled with this.

On immigrants coming home, in my small village and on our road a house has not been built since I was a child. Three planning permissions have been made by people who are coming home, are able to work from home and build a life back where they grew up. That is so important.

I wish also to note that Arranmore Island has a new digital hub and it is the first to be established on an island off the coast. Is there any intention to roll out further such facilities in respect of our islands?

I thank the Deputy. My Department estimates that there is likely to be in excess of 350 hubs in operation across the country. Validating the number of hubs is one of the first tasks of the interdepartmental group which, as I said, is being chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. A number of other Departments are involved in that group.

This group will focus on collecting the data on the number of hubs that are in operation and it will be building a composite map of networks. This work is expected to be concluded in early to mid-2021. I take the Deputy's point on the islands. Some very good work has been undertaken on Arranmore Island in increasing its conductivity. I want to see more such focus on the islands because there is no reason why one cannot live on an island and work remotely for a multinational enterprise. This is now possible and this is a great time to capitalise on the opportunities that we have.

LEADER Programmes

Verona Murphy


3. Deputy Verona Murphy asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the LEADER funding programme; if there are plans for this programme to be extended to 2021 and beyond; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34472/20]

One fear that many people have facing into difficult economic times is that schemes such as the LEADER funding programme would be abandoned, suspended or reduced in value. I know the Minister is aware that the LEADER programme is a vital tool which allows many organisations in rural Ireland to develop. What is the status of the LEADER funding programme and are there plans to run this programme or have it extended to 2021 and beyond?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The current 2014- 2020 LEADER programme will come to an end this year. Under the seven-year programme, €168.7 million was allocated to the local action groups, LAGs, which deliver the programme at local level, for project approvals up to 31 December 2020. As of November, 3,530 projects with a value of over €139 million have been approved for LEADER funding by the LAGs. A further 341 projects requesting over €21 million in funding are at various stages in the approval process.

Proposals for a successor LEADER programme at EU level are intrinsically linked to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, which co-funds the LEADER programme. Proposals for the post-2020 CAP were launched in June 2018 by the European Commission. However, given the lengthy nature of discussions on the CAP and the wider EU budget at EU level, there has been a delay in adopting these proposals. This means that the next LEADER programme will not commence until January 2022 at the earliest.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to prioritise a State-led programme to bridge the gap between the current LEADER programme and the next EU programme. The objective of this commitment is to allow local-led rural development projects to be delivered under a transitional programme until the new EU programme commences.

An extra €4 million has been provided for LEADER in Budget 2021, to bring the total allocation for next year to €44 million. This allocation will be used to fund a combination of existing projects as they come to completion, for new projects to be approved under the transitional programme and to support the administration costs of the LAGs in closing out the existing programme and delivering the transitional programme.

It is important to recognise that LEADER is a multi-annual programme and that payments in respect of projects which are approved in any given year are generally not drawn down until subsequent years, as and when they are completed. In this context, costs related to projects under the transitional programme are also likely to be met from the provision in my Department's Vote in 2022 and 2023. I hope to be in a position shortly to announce the details of the transitional programme.

I am delighted to hear that. LEADER is a French acronym which, when translated, means links between actions for the development of the rural economy. It is an initiative to support rural development and projects initiated at local level to revitalise rural areas and create jobs. I understand that the LEADER programme is co-funded by the EU under the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, but it has benefited Wexford to the tune of €10 million over the 2014 to 2020 period. That is greatly appreciated but I am not sure that we can do without it in this torrid time and in terms of what is to come. In the current climate, many enterprises in rural communities will end up closed permanently but job creation and enterprise development will be more crucial than ever before. I ask the Minister to take that on board. I would like further clarification on the transition period but she said she might write to me in that regard. With regard to some of the funding that is ongoing, can the Minister tell me when that will be decided or some of the programmes that are in train?

I thank the Deputy. It is important to say first that there will be a transitional programme but there are many projects and therefore the LEADER companies will be very busy over the next year or year and a half in terms of finishing the projects. They have until the end of this year to make the further announcements. In terms of the figures, there are 3,500 projects approved to a value of €139 million. A further 341 projects are requesting more than €21 million in funding and they are at various stages in the approval process. There are more projects to be announced. They have until the end of the year to announce them. They have another year and a half to make sure these projects get the funding, to work with the promoters and to ensure they are delivered in terms of what they are trying to achieve on those projects. There is a good deal of work to be done by the LEADER companies in the next year and a half. In addition, I have committed to providing a transitional programme. I am working on those details and I will have the information in a short time. There is no particular panic at the moment because they have a fair bit on their plates. I am very conscious of the good work they do. In Wexford, their budget is €7.5 million. A total of 153 projects have been approved to date worth €5.9 million and more than €2.7 million is being paid out in respect of completed works. There is a good bit of work to be done so they will be kept busy.

The can be assured that they will be kept busy and that is where I am coming from. We have two well-known food businesses in Wexford that were helped through the LEADER programme to the tune of approximately €250,000. They are Kelly's Bakery in Wexford town, which is now a household brand, and Wexford Home Preserves in New Ross. In the climate of Brexit that is about to be upon us, these companies need as much help as possible to be able to market their product in the future. To clarify, did the Minister say the transitional funding will be €4 million?

No. I got an extra €4 million in my baseline. The budget for LEADER for 2020 was €40 million. There is an extra €4 million in the baseline for next year. There is a total of €44 million available next year to fund existing projects and to develop a transition programme.

LEADER Programmes

Catherine Connolly


4. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the development of a State-led rural development programme to bridge the gap between the winding up of the existing LEADER programme and the implementation of the new programme; when she expects that the interim programme will be finalised and operational; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34137/20]

I know there is no provision for the grouping of questions but this is the exact same question. I ask the Minister about the development of a State-led rural development programme to bridge the gap. To save time, she might depart from her script because she has read it. I have three specific questions on that. Funding has not been provided for new LEADER projects in 2021. Funding has not been identified for the delivery and administration of the LEADER programme for 2021. There is no interim national rural development plan although I hear the Minister intends to publish it. Would she please address those three questions?

To clarify for the Deputy, funding is provided for 2021. That assumption is incorrect. There is €44 million in the budget for 2021. That €44 million will be used to fund existing LEADER commitments and provide for a transitional programme. The current LEADER programme comes to an end in December this year, but due to delays in agreeing the Common Agricultural Policy and the budget at EU level, the programme will not commence until 2022 at the earliest.

The Government has committed to prioritising a transitional programme to bridge the gap between the current programme and the next one. The duration of the transitional period at EU level has not been agreed so we are therefore planning that Ireland's transitional programme will run for an initial period of 12 months but with the scope to extend, if necessary, to align with the outcome of the discussions at EU level between the Commission and the Parliament. As EU co-funding may become available for the transitional programme, our intention is that the programme will be subject to the current operating rules for LEADER and the existing LEADER structures will be used for the delivery of the programme. This will involve the continuing role of the current local action groups, LAGs, and the implementing partners in each LEADER area. The transitional programme will provide funding for new projects and for the administration of the programme. The cost of the transitional programme will be managed within the Department's budget. As I said, we have €44 million.

LEADER is a multi-annual programme and payments in respect of projects which are approved in any given year are not generally drawn down until subsequent years. Costs related to projects under the transitional programme in 2021 are therefore likely to be relatively low, but the overall project costs will be met from the provision in my Department's Vote in 2022 and 2023, as required, as well as in 2021.

I thank the Minister. I understand that there is a delay because of the CAP negotiations, but if we look back to questions asked by Deputies previously, culminating in Deputy Martin Browne's yesterday, going back to December 2019 when the Minister was on notice that there would be a transitional phase, almost a full year has passed and a transition plan has not been published. That is the first point.

We have a transition plan.

The Minister says there is no particular panic on the ground but 35 rural local development companies are asking all of us Deputies for certainty in respect of what the €44 million applies to. Does it apply to new projects? How much will be used up on the projects that were already committed to by the end of this year? The Minister has confirmed it will apply to administration costs. That is welcome. We are getting some certainty now and I welcome that.

I draw the Acting Chairman's attention to the time. He is giving me extra time by mistake. As I am always giving out about time, I had better stick to it myself. I do not know how much time I have left now.


That is true but I try.

The Deputy's time is never up.

I have ten seconds because I have drawn the Acting Chairman's attention to the clock.

The Minister's choice of words were unfortunate when she said there was no particular panic at the moment. There may well be no panic but there is a lot of uncertainty that needs clarification-----

There is no uncertainty.

I am telling the Minister there is uncertainty because that is what we are being told by the Connemara Forum.

Allow the Minister to respond.

Can I be very clear?

I appreciate the Deputy is being told that because I see the letters that have been sent out to everybody.

That is why there are so many questions on the LEADER programme coming up today. I am very happy to answer them.

There is no uncertainty. First, they do not stop announcing projects until the end of this year so they can continue to announce projects. As I said, there are approximately 3,000 projects and they have plenty of work to do for the next year and a half. Some 3,500 core projects are approved to the value of €139 million. A further 341 projects requesting €21 million in funding are at various stages of the approval process. They have not been completed yet. On the payment side, 1,800 project promoters have now received a final payment. There are 3,841 projects. Only 1,800 of them have been finished. There is a lot of work to do for the next year in terms of just over half of them. They will have plenty to do. There will be a transition programme which I will announce in a number of weeks. I can assure the Deputy there will be sufficient funding to allow them continue to operate. I have been in this space before. In 2016, it was the same story and there was a big furore which was sorted out amicably in the end. I want to work with these LEADER companies. I want them to engage with my Department and I will be doing likewise.

I am delighted but perhaps the communication should have happened beforehand. I am delighted the Minister is now offering certainty and that the plan will be published in the next few weeks. We can hold the Minister to that before Christmas.

The Irish Local Development Network is pointing out the uncertainty on the ground, as is Forum Connemara. We all recognise the work being done on the ground. I was sparing the Minister from having to read out the information in this regard because I have read all the detailed replies. We know the wonderful work the staff are doing. In fact, it should be reinforced and resourced with extra money. There is uncertainty over the €44 million. How much of it was available for new projects or to keep the scheme going for the year? How much was available for the plan itself? We need certainty and communication. We need positive communication and interaction with the groups on the ground. Tá obair na gcapall á dhéanamh acu lá i ndiaidh lae.

For the third time, €44 million has been made available for next year to pay for existing projects and for a new transitional programme. In a number of weeks, I will be issuing a new transitional programme, following consultation with the stakeholders. The local development companies do really good work on the ground. I engage with them in my other Department, the Department of Social Protection. They roll out a number of projects on its behalf.

I am going to carry out a full review of the success of the current LEADER programme. LEADER staff are not the only people delivering on the ground because we are delivering through the local authorities, CLÁR, the town and village renewal scheme, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme and the rural regeneration scheme. Therefore, there are a number of players. I accept that they do great work and I want to engage with them but I want to review the scheme. It is timely that we look at what they achieved in the last programme and determine how we can improve on it in the next one.