Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Voluntary Sector

Paul Donnelly

Question:

1. Deputy Paul Donnelly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if a commitment will be given to ensure that future funding and commissioning models fully support the community-based, non-profit approach in view of the significant concern in the community and voluntary sector that the commissioning process is leading to creeping privatisation of services in the sector. [44375/20]

Can the Minister of State give me a commitment to ensure that future funding commissioning models will fully support the community not-for-profit-based view of the community and voluntary sector as there is significant concern in the sector that the commissioning process is leading to a creeping privatisation of services in this sector?

In 2019, my Department published Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities: A Five-Year Strategy to Support the Community and Voluntary Sector in Ireland 2019-2024. This strategy reaffirms the Government’s commitment to supporting the sector and addressing some of the challenges faced by service providers while also recognising the reality of finite resources and the need to ensure that available resources are focused on providing effective services. Co-produced by Government and the community and voluntary sector, the strategy sets out 11 high-level objectives and associated actions that will empower communities, their representative organisations and the community and voluntary sector to inform and shape appropriate responses to their needs.

The strategy commits, among other things, to a review of the current national practice in commissioning, and specifically, to develop a commissioning model reflecting a collaborative, partnership and whole-of-government ethos prioritising societal value and community need. The implementation of the strategy is overseen by a cross-departmental group on local and community development, which is a representative group comprising local and central government, the community and voluntary sector, community development and local development nominees. The group has agreed a work plan for the implementation of the strategy and commissioning has been identified as one of the priorities in the plan. Accordingly, my Department will conduct a number of bilateral engagements with the relevant Departments and agencies in early 2021 to progress this important commitment.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. I welcome the answer's statement of the value of communities and community development projects. I first heard of commissioning four or five years ago when I was child and family support co-ordinator for Tusla. One of the aspects of the prevention, partnership and family support, PPFS, programme at the time was around commissioning and it has its own important pillar and importance both in terms of funding and the community. The figures for the community sector, as the Minister of State will be aware, are absolutely staggering. With an income of €5.7 billion, it employs more than 100,000 people with 11,500 voluntary organisations with 500,000 volunteers. The one thing that binds all of these people together is that they are not-for-profit and that needs to be protected.

Tusla is one of the priority organisations that we want to engage with on this issue, along with the Department of Health, the HSE, and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability Integration and Youth. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is important in this whole mix. Last week the cross-sectoral group overseeing the strategy had a meeting. There were several priority issues and I attended the meeting for a while. I impressed upon the group the importance of the commissioning issue. I also reported to the group that early next year I hope to meet with the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Ossian Smyth, who has responsibility for procurement, which is somewhat different from commissioning. His Department is very relevant and I will sit down with him early next year to see how we can work together to progress the overall aims of the strategy.

Gabhaim buíochas arís. I have one concern in respect of the Minister of State's answer on the funding and funding models. I always have a great concern when we put such a strong emphasis on this value-for-money model. There is always a real concern in community and voluntary organisations around how one values the community and the work that they do. Much of it is soft and it is not about figures or people walking through doors but about the quality of the work that one does and the quality of the interaction one has with the individuals around health and education. All aspects of community, voluntary and charity organisations hit every part of our lives. We need to put a stronger emphasis on how we value people and how we measure that value to ensure that it does not just come down to money.

I agree with the Deputy and there is also a recognition of that in the strategy, which is one of the reasons it has been prioritised. Much of this comes down to some Departments and agencies not getting what the community and voluntary sector is about to some extent. That is certainly not the case with my Department. I have been very impressed with the officials in my time there. They absolutely get it and it is reflected in the strategy. One of the practical measures the cross-sectoral group is working on is a values and principles document to bridge that gap that is present on some occasions. The objective is to get Departments to buy into this values and principles document, which refers to values such as social justice, sustainable development, social inclusion, human rights, equality and active participation. We are working on this document and will bring it to Departments, which will also help to bridge the gap in understanding that the Deputy has referred to indirectly.

Question No. 2 is in the name of Deputy Sherlock, who is not present. We will, therefore, move to Question No. 3 in the name of Deputy Kerrane.

Question No. 2 replied to with Written Answers.

Urban Renewal Schemes

Claire Kerrane

Question:

3. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she will examine providing a scheme to improve town centres in rural Ireland to tackle high levels of vacancy and dereliction in rural towns; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44386/20]

Will the Minister consider providing a scheme through her own Department to improve town centres in rural areas so that we can tackle high levels of vacancy and dereliction?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Since 2016, my Department has been investing in the improvement of rural towns and villages through the town and village renewal scheme. A total of €78 million has been allocated through the scheme to date, and this investment has been augmented by the rural regeneration and development fund, which supports larger-scale town revitalisation projects.

The programme for Government includes a commitment for an expanded town and village renewal scheme to bring vacant and derelict buildings back into use and to promote residential occupancy. This follows on from the pilot initiative led by my Department in 2019 to explore how to encourage increased residential occupancy in rural towns and villages. An independent report on the pilot initiative highlighted the complexity of the issues that influence town centre living. It emphasised the value of developing a shared vision, or master plan, for individual towns as part of the process of counteracting vacancy and dereliction and making town centres more attractive places in which to live.

I secured an additional €2 million in budget 2021 as part of the expanded town and village renewal scheme. This will be used to support the development of master plans that will provide a vision for the future of these towns and villages. I anticipate that the plans will identify strategic actions tailored to address the vacancy and town centre living issues specific to each town. This initiative will be progressed early in 2021, and further details will be announced at that time.

This action is just one element of the Government's approach to addressing the issue of vacancy and dereliction as part of a new Town Centre First approach. An interdepartmental group has been established to progress this. As part of its work, the group will examine the suggested actions in the report on the pilot town centre living initiative. The group is chaired jointly by my Department and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and it is expected that it will bring forward proposals for the Government's consideration in the middle of next year.

That is really welcome considering what I read in the report produced following the pilot scheme for the town centre living initiative. The Minister will know there were a number of findings on difficulties tracing owners. Issues might arise where an owner passes away and there is no will. A number of such issues have been identified. Additionally, it was found there is a lack of finance available to renovate properties. I realise that there are local authority schemes but we really need to explore specific schemes to try to bring vacant properties in town centres back into use. Where there are difficulties with owners, we need to find ways around them. I welcome the findings in the report. I ask that some of the really good findings that would make a difference be considered. I look forward to seeing this.

On the town and village renewal scheme, how exactly does it work where towns have vacant buildings along the main street? What do towns and communities do?

The town and village renewal scheme very much has a bottom-up approach, as the Deputy knows. It is about working with the communities and local authorities to identify projects that will make a difference in their towns.

On vacant properties, I have the extra €2 million in the budget. That is to support the development of the master plans in about 50 towns and villages countrywide. It can be used to create the vision for the bigger projects. The Deputy will be very familiar with the Boyle regeneration project, for example. It has been allocated funding of €2.1 million from my Department's rural regeneration and development fund. Roscommon County Council partnered with the Boyle town team and Boyle Chamber of Commerce to deliver the Boyle regeneration project. It is a significant town regeneration project comprising a series of linked projects. It is part of the Boyle 2040 framework plan. Putting the plans in place gives one a vision to work to in order to make a difference for one's town.

I welcome that. It is so important. In Ballinasloe, County Galway, great enhancement works have been completed just recently. The streets are all looking really well. An awful lot of work has gone into the project but there is an issue with vacancy. We need to explore steps to address this. Where there are difficulties with owners, which is an issue nine times out of ten from my experience, we need to consider ways to get around them. I welcome the statement that the findings of the report will be examined. I look forward to seeing action in the new year.

The Deputy is correct about ownership. Sometimes it is difficult to find owners but it is important that local authorities use their powers to step in, if necessary, and purchase a vacant property compulsorily before it becomes an eyesore or danger.

I would like to see some of the extra €5 million made available under the town and village scheme this year to develop remote working facilities go towards renovating premises in the centre of towns that can be converted easily into working hubs. That is already happening in a number of locations.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has a big role to play also. In my home town, Clones, for example, there is a €5 million regeneration project going ahead in the centre. It is about bringing vacant buildings back into residential use. That, in itself, will bring life back into the town. A cross-departmental approach is important. It involves the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Department of Finance and my Department. We are working together on it. I take on board the points the Deputy makes.

LEADER Programmes

Seán Canney

Question:

4. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development her plans to put in place transitional funding to allow the LEADER programme to continue to support community projects and rural enterprise in 2021 and 2022 in the absence of a new programme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43154/20]

My question is on the LEADER programme. Yesterday, the Minister announced some transitional funding for the programme, which I welcome, but I would like her to expand on what will happen in 2021 and 2022 before the new programme is in place, bearing in mind its importance and the work carried out by all the LEADER companies over the past five years, which the Minister will know about from her constituency.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is a matter in which he has a genuine interest, as do many rural Deputies. The LEADER programme has contributed greatly to all our regions and communities.

As the Deputy knows, due to delays at EU level, there will be a delay between the end of the current LEADER programme, which was due to conclude at the end of this year, and the next EU programme, which will not now commence until 2023. The programme for Government includes a commitment to introduce a transitional LEADER programme to help to bridge that gap. My Department and I consulted key stakeholders over recent months to get their views on priorities for the programme. I am pleased to say that, yesterday, 16 December, I announced details of the transitional LEADER programme. I have provided for it an initial allocation of €20 million, which will fund both new project applications and the administration and project animation costs of the local action groups, LAGs, which deliver the programme. I have also undertaken to review funding when the issue of EU co-financing for the transitional period is clarified.

Project approvals under the transitional programme will commence from 1 April 2021 but LAGs can work on identifying potential projects from 1 January next. A key focus of the transitional programme will be building capacity within communities that have not received LEADER funding to date. The programme will also support job creation, foster and encourage entrepreneurship, and support projects that address the climate agenda, digital transformation and the smart villages approach to building on local strengths and assets.

Under the transitional programme, the grant rate for enterprises and commercially focused community projects will be increased from a maximum of 50% to a maximum of 75%. This will further help to support enterprise development and job creation in rural areas as we emerge from the Covid crisis.

I also announced some flexibilities in the current LEADER programme, including an extension of the deadline for commitments to the end of March 2021 to facilitate the full allocation of the funds available.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Separate administration funding will be provided to the LAGs for their work in managing projects that continue to be delivered under the current programme.

Full details of the transitional LEADER programme have been notified to the LAGs and are available on my Department's pages of the website www.gov.ie.

I thank the Minister for the update. I have a few questions on it. She announced €20 million nationally and she says this is an initial fund. Taking as an example Galway Rural Development, which is in my constituency, Galway East, the last programme would have given it an average budget of €1.15 million per annum.

The allocation announced by the Minister yesterday gives it €695,000. I know how the scheme works from my time in the Department and there is demand for it. The money is welcome as an initial allocation but it is important that we make sure that the funding is there for the throughput.

My other question is about projects that have applied for funding but did not make the cut because the money required to deal with them was not there. Do they have to reapply or will they carry on in transition?

An initial allocation of €20 million is being made available for the delivery of the programme and 75%, or €15 million, of the funding is being allocated to new project activity, with the remaining 25% or €5 million available for administration and project animation costs. The funding will be distributed between the local action groups, LAGs, on a pro rata basis commensurate with the allocations made at the start of the 2014-2020 LEADER programme. It is important to recognise that LEADER is a multi-annual programme and that the payments in respect of projects which are approved in any given year are generally not drawn down until subsequent years, depending on the nature and scale of the projects concerned. In that context, costs related to projects under the transitional programme are likely to be relatively low in 2021, but the overall costs will be met from the provision in my Department's Vote in 2022 and 2023, as necessary.

I wanted to make sure there would be no gap between one programme and the next. We have the transition programme and it is important that the LEADER companies will be able to continue and finish off their projects.

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment and thank the Minister for that. The importance of this scheme to rural Ireland is enormous. In Galway East, the budget for the past five years was €5,728,456, from which 170 community projects have benefited. By 31 December, the allocations will have been made to 170 projects. That is an enormous amount of money. Some 25 projects will have received €934,000 for enterprise development. Seventeen projects in rural tourism will have received €563,000, and so on. There is not a parish, boreen or village that has not benefited from the scheme. Of all the schemes I know, this is the one that I would like to see continued and built upon. We have the necessary expertise within the companies that are developing it and in the Department. I compliment the Department, the Minister and her predecessor, Deputy Ring, for all the work that went into this scheme and continues to be put into it.

A lot of work has been done by my officials in the Department, my predecessor, Deputy Ring, and Deputy Canney, as a former Minister of State. I met with representatives of the LEADER companies and heard their concerns. I have addressed those concerns in this transitional programme. The Deputy is right about Galway, which has an impressive record in this regard. As of 13 December, the LAG had approved a total of 149 projects, which equates to €5.3 million. A further 16 applications are at various stages of the approval process, seeking funding of over €500,000, over €2.3 million in payments and a further €3 million remains to be drawn down in Galway East. As the Deputy has said, the area will be allocated €695,986 under the transitional programme, of which €521,990 will be for new projects.

I have also committed to meeting representatives of the LEADER companies and the Irish Local Development Network on a three-monthly basis. I am going to keep in touch with them regularly and if any problems arise, I want to work with them. It is what they deliver on the ground that makes the difference.