Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Broadband Infrastructure

Barry Cowen

Question:

5. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the establishment of a network of broadband connection points in counties Offaly and Laois; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43602/20]

David Stanton

Question:

16. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the roll out of broadband connection points in rural communities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43656/20]

Marc MacSharry

Question:

25. Deputy Marc MacSharry asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the establishment of a network of broadband connection points in counties Sligo and Leitrim; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43606/20]

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Question:

26. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the establishment of a network of broadband connection points in County Carlow; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43598/20]

The question speaks for itself. I would like the Minister to respond to the question about the roll-out of broadband in my constituency and other rural constituencies like it. It is incumbent on me and other public representatives in my constituency to work tirelessly in an effort to ensure that the transition away from peat power generation meets with the approval of those we represent. We want to ensure that every effort has been made by the Government on its contracted roll-out of broadband and that it is meeting its commitment to make broadband available to those who wish to avail of it and take on board the opportunities that arise as a result of Government investment in the area during the transitional period.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5, 16, 25 and 26 together. I thank the Deputy for raising the question.

Broadband connection points, BCPs, are among the first deliverables of the national broadband plan, NBP, and will provide high-speed broadband connectivity to publicly accessible sites in rural and isolated areas of the country, including a number of our offshore islands. These sites will be provided with a temporary wireless connection by National Broadband Ireland, NBI, the company contracted to deliver the NBP. This connection will remain in situ until the sites have been given a permanent connection under the NBP.

As of last Thursday, 10 December 2020, 162 sites had the initial connection established by NBI. Of these, 133 had been passed to Vodafone to install its equipment to provide broadband services to the site. Vodafone had installed its equipment at 113 of these sites up to last Thursday and is continuing with its installations. In the Deputy's constituency of Laois-Offaly, there are eight connected broadband points, which are, Vicarstown, Oisín House, Emo community centre in Laois and Ballycommon, Primo Coachworks, Coolderry community hall, Kilclonfert and Croghan community hall in Offaly. They have been connected and another five sites are waiting to be connected. It is my plan that all of these connections will be done by the end of the first quarter of 2021.

In addition to the substantial investment already made in the BCPs, my Department is planning to develop the facilities and services available at these sites. Included in this programme is the use of ehealth technology at BCPs. If successful, this could reduce the need to travel from remote areas to towns and cities for many medical appointments, which is to be welcomed. My officials are also exploring the use of BCPs as educational settings, remote working hubs and as locations for the creative arts.

Under budget 2021, I secured an additional €5 million to enhance remote working capability and remote access for students at BCPs and digital hubs across rural Ireland next year. The location of all BCPs which have been installed or which are planned across the country is available on the National Broadband Ireland website, www.nbi.ie.

The national broadband plan is the biggest investment in rural Ireland since electrification and nobody questions whether it was the right decision or anything else. All we want to do now is establish how soon we can get that broadband. It is a request that arrives frequently to my constituency office and I hear about people who need to go online for different reasons, including remote working, and they want to know how soon they can get access to broadband. Rolling out the plan is akin to rural electrification and we cannot get it to every house straightaway. In the interim, we are going to use these broadband connection points. I have a fund of €5 million and I want to help communities to create spaces where co-working can happen or where students can do their college work, or whatever, in hubs. For a small investment, we can make a real difference in communities.

A teacher called me the other day. He was marking an exam and needed to be able to upload the results.

They have poor broadband where he lives and I told him the good news was there was a broadband connection point, BCP, close to him and, with a bit of adaptation, there was no reason that could not be fitted out for him to go in and do his work. We are continuing to roll out these BCPs across the country in black spots. We will have 300 of them up and running by next spring, including a number in all the counties I mentioned. There is a number of them here.

There is scope to include additional BCP locations next year. If Deputies have locations they feel are suitable, they should alert the broadband officer in their local authority, who can make the case to my Department and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.

Under town and village renewal, we have been able to fund the kitting out of some of the sites with desks, computers and other equipment. It is important that we do that. I have a co-working facilities mapping exercise because I believe co-working is important. Not everybody wants to work from home permanently. There needs to be a blend and blended working may be the way of the future: three or four days working remotely and one or two days in the office with colleagues is probably the best. The Western Development Commission, WDC, is doing a mapping project of all the hubs along the Atlantic economic corridor from Kerry to Donegal. Some people may not know it but we already have about 350 hubs across the country. Some of them are more suited to community use than full-time remote working. My plan is that we do the mapping exercise across the country and develop an app in order that any worker can log on, find the hub closest to them and meet their needs.

The Deputy talked about job creation in the midlands, particularly in view of what is happening with peatlands. There will be a big boost to the IDA as it tries to attract some of the big tech companies when we show that we have a top-class network of these hubs across the country.

I thank the Minister for her response and the details contained therein and acknowledge the progress made to date, the commitment for quarter 1 and, in the case of my own constituency, to the five outstanding BCPs due for connection in quarter 1, mainly in south Offaly. I welcome that. I note what has been said on blended working and the connectivity required in relation to hubs. I note that the Minister mentioned black spots in my constituency or any other that may need verification and contact with broadband officers in respect of a commitment to work on those in relation to the mapping exercise in quarters 1 and 2.

What steps is the Minister taking to advertise and promote these hubs in various areas so people know about them and know how to use them? Will she be getting a report on the usage of these hubs in time? Has she asked for that and is it happening? Will students, who have had a tough time this year, be able to use the hubs for college work, in particular?

The Minister asked about places where there is very poor broadband. I draw her attention to the town of Cobh in my constituency, where broadband speeds are extremely poor. I get many calls from people in that large town. Is it her plan to put hubs in towns like that? They are not remote rural areas but many people will have to wait for a long time to get proper broadband connectivity and hubs like that in towns like Cobh could be of huge benefit in the short term.

I thank the Minister. There has been investment in broadband in County Carlow, particularly in the south east, which is good. My point is about BCPs and the new locations. The Minister referred to Deputies' belief that there are needs in certain areas. In my home town, Carlow, I believe we have further needs there in different areas. I ask the Minister to look at these.

I believe that because of Covid, broadband has played a huge part for people working from home and students. It is important that we do not have certain parts of the county that have really good broadband and other areas, such as areas in my county, that do not get the same level of service. It is important we get this good broadband across the board. The hubs are welcome, as is the mapping exercise, which is important. We need timelines in order that we can let the people know because, with Covid, broadband has played a vital part for people working from home.

I thank the Deputies. Every one of us is aware of the importance of broadband in rural areas. I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. In response to Deputy Stanton, the fact we are talking about it this morning creates awareness around what is happening. The local authorities have been doing a good deal of work on this. There are local broadband officers in every local authority. They identified the hubs and have been working with communities. In many community centres, people are voluntarily giving up their time to make sure the centre is open and people can go in and use the high-speed broadband.

On reports on usage, we will get them in due course but we want to roll out the first 300 connection points and I hope to have them all rolled out by the end of quarter 1. There were some delays because of the effect of Covid on the supply chain. They were not able to get the equipment they needed to make the connection.

This issue is important for students. Many of them are working at home because they have been told they cannot go to their colleges. It is difficult for them and they need access to high-speed broadband. They will be able to do that from these hubs and that is why the few bob to help them kit out the hall, put in the desks and a few dividers and have a wee private area is there. There is €5 million there for that. I intend to spend that early next year. We will be looking for calls on that.

Again, I ask the Minister to comment on the need for such hubs in towns and villages. We have them in remote areas, which is excellent, but, as I said, many towns like Cobh have weak broadband and many people are discommoded because of it.

The Minister referred to new locations. If we feel there is an area in, for example, my own area of Carlow, do we contact the Minister or go to the local authority? What is the process if we have people contacting us?

I call Deputy O'Sullivan.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I had been informed that my question would be grouped with Question No. 5 but it is not even on the-----

There was a list but the Minister referred to four or five.

My question has not even appeared on the Question Paper but it is in relation to this exact issue. Could I have one minute to get my point across?

I will speak up on behalf of the hundreds of constituents who have contacted my office since February who have had serious issues with broadband connections. Of course, this has been highlighted, exacerbated and underlined by the fact that during this pandemic people in their droves are being asked or are choosing to work from home. They are being put under serious pressure to achieve results. I recently read a report saying that working from home is increasing productivity within businesses. This really is the route we need to take so we need to get in those communities. It is an issue throughout my constituency, from Kinsale in the east to Castletownbere in the west. Can the Minister imagine what it would mean to towns across the constituency if people could work from home? If people could work from home and go for their coffee in the morning in Skibbereen, go for lunch in Clonakilty or have their dinner in Bandon, what would it mean to those businesses? People would be able to stay in rural Ireland and stay in west Cork, not commuting to the bigger cities but spending money in their local communities. It is vital. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for entertaining me.

I tried to have more questions grouped, but I was told the most I could take with the first question was five, or perhaps it was four. I am not sure which.

I agree with Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan and I know what it is like. I live in an amber area and my daughter is working from home. She has my head turned about the broadband speed. I told her there was not much we could do about it and that we would have to wait. I also told her that there would be a broadband connection point in the local community hall and she would be able to go down there. Mine is just one of many families across the country that cannot get high-speed broadband. This is why we have rolled out the connection points. The Deputy is right, in that remote working will be a game changer in rural Ireland. That is why I am committed to ensuring that we do everything we can to facilitate it.

Deputy Stanton mentioned Cobh. We could raise the matter with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who has responsibility for the roll-out of the national broadband plan, but I would be happy to raise it with my officials as well to determine whether a broadband connection point could be supplied.

Turning to Deputy Murnane O'Connor, if people believe that an area should have a broadband connection point, they should first approach the broadband officer of their local authority, who will make the case to my Department. We want to try to facilitate as many cases as we can. It is important that we provide this service the length and breadth of the country, as it will allow people to go to these hubs and get the vital broadband they need.

It is important that we expand the number of digital hubs. We have submitted a detailed proposal on a digital hub adjacent to the post office in Kiskeam, County Cork. The Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and Eamon Ryan, have been helpful with our proposal and I thank them for that. It would supply a high-speed broadband connection to the community as well as a digital hub, which would boost footfall and engage the post office. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has been engaging with An Post and officials in other Departments, for which I thank her. This pilot scheme is an innovative idea and we have done a great deal of work on it on the ground. We have put together a large number of figures and facts in our proposal. This scheme could be a template for the future and we should embrace it and consider how to roll it out across the country.

The Deputy has submitted another question on remote working, digital hubs and so on. He is right about the project in Kiskeam. He brought it to my attention and is passionate about it. I have spoken to An Post about it, as the proposal is for a digital hub being provided as an added service at a post office. It is an innovative idea and I am happy to work with the Deputy on the project. This is about helping communities and expanding the services provided.

Island Communities

Catherine Connolly

Question:

6. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the national islands policy; if the consultation process has been completed to date; when the new policy will be finalised; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43332/20]

Tá ceist agam maidir le cúrsaí oileánda agus an polasaí atá beartaithe ag an Rialtas. My question is on the policy for the islands, which has been planned for a long time. Where does it stand and when will it be ready and published?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My Department is charged with progressing the development of a new policy for the islands. Prior to the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, my officials had been engaged in a process of consultation with island communities on the policy's development. This consultation, which was a key element in informing the policy, was carried out through public meetings on the islands. Eleven such meetings were held.

Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, and to avoid health risks for the island communities, this process was temporarily suspended. With the assistance of the island development companies and co-operatives, my Department has been holding online consultations, giving island-based focus groups an opportunity to provide input from their communities. Three such online consultations have been completed and discussions are in progress to arrange meetings with focus groups from the final three islands.

My Department will consult other key parties in the new year, with meetings being arranged with stakeholders such as the education and training boards, relevant local authorities, the HSE, the Irish Coast Guard and the Irish Islands Federation, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann. To reflect on the key issues that have emerged from the consultation process, my Department will also reconvene the interdepartmental committee charged with overseeing the development of the policy.

In tandem with these final consultations, work will proceed on drafting the new policy. An action plan to address all aspects of the sustainability of island communities will then be developed and form an integral part of the policy's delivery.

I appreciate the problems owing to Covid and that it has not been easy, but there is a serious background to this. "Serious" is not an appropriate word. Rather, there is a long background to the failure of every Government to provide a policy for the islands based on legislation. In September 2019, we tabled a motion in the Dáil that was accepted by the majority of Deputies. I believe the Government did not vote for it but accepted it regardless. As a result, a policy process was started. The 1998 planning framework referred to a policy. There was an interdepartmental committee in 1996. We are now back to having an interdepartmental committee. In the meantime, the population of the islands has declined seriously. Between the 2011 and 2016 censuses, there was a decline of 5.4%. This is in stark contrast to the Scottish islands, which have seen their population increase because of a strong and robust policy based on legislation.

Notwithstanding the limitations imposed by Covid, perhaps the Minister will focus on the urgent need for a policy based on legislation.

A policy process was set up. The Deputy will appreciate that I took responsibility for the islands just a few months ago. I managed to visit an island this summer as well as last summer. Even in the short time I have had responsibility, I have shown my commitment to supporting our islanders. I increased the weekly island allowance from €12.70 to €20 in the budget. This allowance is paid to persons who live on the islands and are in receipt of a social welfare payment. I am the first Minister for Social Protection to increase the island allowance since it was introduced more than two decades ago. I secured an extra €2 million in capital funding for the islands as part of the July stimulus package. This will provide €1 million for small capital works on the islands, €500,000 for capital works required at Connemara airport and €500,000 towards development of the pier on Inisheer, which is an important project.

I am committed to working closely with the islanders and delivering this strategy. I am happy to work with Deputies in developing the strategy so that we get the best outcome for our islanders. Living in remote parts of rural Ireland is difficult, but living on islands can present even more challenges. We want to ensure that we can support them in every way possible.

I welcome the positive changes, including the change in the allowance, but we are missing a policy. We need a policy that is positive, sets out specific targets and is based on legislation. Our neighbour, Scotland, has managed to do this. Surely we could take the best lessons from it. I appreciate the Minister's efforts, but there was a change in Governments and Departments after this process was set in progress and now it lies with her.

There is a serious issue with the declining population and the Irish language. I come from a constituency that has four islands, the three Oileáin Árann agus Inis Bó Finne. I mBéarla, Inishbofin has been struggling for years to get a basic service like a primary care centre.

All the good things mentioned by the Minister are being done in a vacuum. We cannot continue to operate in a vacuum with regard to our island communities. Not alone are they struggling, and I would like to put it in a more positive way, but they have shown us the way forward in terms of sustainabe living, creative projects, energy renewal and so on. They are not asking for handouts or anything like that, but a policy based on legislation that recognises their intrinsic importance to us if we are going to survive.

I thank the Deputy. We will have a policy and we will deliver it. Much work has been done and, in fairness, Senator Seán Kyne was involved in that work as well. He and Deputy Ó Cuív are committed, as the Deputy is, to delivering for the islands. I am also committed to doing that. We have done a considerable amount of consultation. A few more meetings need to be held. The interdepartmental group is involved because the Deputy is right that it is not just one Department. The Departments of Health and Education and a number of other Departments are involved in that. We will work hard to deliver this policy for the islands.

We will move to Question No. 7 in the name of Deputy Sherlock.

My question is grouped with Deputy Sherlock's one.

I understand that. Deputy Sherlock is not present so I will move on.

Can I ask it if Deputy Sherlock is not here?

Not unless previously advised to the Ceann Comhairle. We will, therefore, move on. We will catch up and take it with Deputy Cannon's, if he wishes.

Rural Regeneration and Development Fund

Michael Moynihan

Question:

8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if Charleville, County Cork will receive funding for local developments under the rural development fund; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43810/20]

I wish to ask the Minister about the rural development fund. An application has been submitted by the county council and the local community for development in Charleville in County Cork. Will she make statement on the matter?

I thank Deputy Moynihan for raising this matter. The rural regeneration and development fund established under the national development plan and managed by my Department supports large-scale investment in projects which can deliver sustainable economic and social development in rural areas.

To date, 63 category 1 projects have been approved for funding of €131 million and 76 category 2 projects for funding of €35 million. Category 1 relates to major capital projects ready to enter procurement, while category 2 supports projects that require development funding to bring them to category 1 readiness. Rural towns and villages across the country are benefiting from this fund. The third call for category 1 applications closed on 1 December and I am pleased my Department received 66 applications.

I understand an application was received from the Charleville town centre integrated regeneration plan project, which is led by Cork County Council. The application process for the fund is competitive in nature. Applications will now be assessed by my Department under the oversight of a project advisory board. This independent board comprises representatives from key Departments as well as independent experts.

On completion of this process, my Department will prepare a report setting out recommended projects. My role as Minister will be to consider that report and make final decisions regarding the allocation of funding. I am informed the process should take approximately three months to complete.

This is an innovative application for Charleville town centre. It comprises the existing plaza and connectivity with the town park to make it accessible to all generations of people, not just the young. A fantastic playground has been developed over many years and it has been refurbished in recent years. There is therefore much going on in Charleville.

This project is aimed predominantly at bringing life back into the town centre. It is on the M20 and, of course, we hope the road will go ahead to give breathing space to Charleville. The most important thing, however, is that there are a number of aspects to this application. It is predominantly to energise Charleville town centre. I know my colleague, Councillor Ian Doyle, has been working hard to bring this project to application stage in the county council. I understand this is competitive in nature but I ask that every possible assessment be done in respect of this application to ensure we can deliver and bring life back to Charleville town.

I know the Deputy is committed to this project. He has told me this fits the criteria because he and the project promoters are trying to breathe life back into and energise the town centre. We want to support innovative projects like that which make a difference and make a change.

In fairness, Cork North-West has a good record in terms of submitting applications. The Kanturk regeneration phase 1 project received funding of €743,400 from the second call for category 1 applications. I had the pleasure of visiting Banteer, whose amenity project was approved for funding of €1.3 million from the first call of category 1 applications. Briary Gap theatre and the library in Macroom, which I also visited when I was Minister with responsibility for arts, got funding of €2 million from the second call of category 1 projects. Cork North-West has a good track record in these applications and all the projects are assessed by an independent panel. I take on board the good points the Deputy is making, however.

I can assure the Minister that if this project is successful, we will invite her to visit it and to look at the way it will re-energise Charleville town. It is a retail and commercial town with a huge amount of employment; it is a great town. It needs this to expand and develop it further, however. Councillor Doyle has been working closely with the county council to get it this far so we hope it will be taken a step further. I can assure the Minister that if we are able to deliver this through the Department, she will get to see it either on completion are during the completion stage.

I look forward to going back to County Cork at some stage. I would love to go back to see how they are getting on with that Banteer project. It was quite an amazing project they put forward. They had wonderful plans for the area and I had a lovely day there.

As I said, the Charleville project mentioned by the Deputy will be assessed by an independent panel of experts. I have no doubt that a good application has been submitted. In any of these projects, it is important there is a collaborative effort between the local authorities, project promoters and communities to make sure they put their best forward and show what a difference it will make. From listening to the Deputy, I am sure it will make a difference to the town. I cannot make a promise to the Deputy but I know all the applications will be looked at carefully.

Question No. 9 is in the name of Deputy Tully who is not present. We will, therefore, move to Question No. 10, again in the name of Deputy Moynihan.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Remote Working

Michael Moynihan

Question:

10. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the way in which her Department is facilitating remote working to encourage more persons to live in rural areas; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43592/20]

Seán Sherlock

Question:

7. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if research is being undertaken by her Department on the impact of remote working in towns and villages since the beginning of the public health restrictions. [43980/20]

Ciaran Cannon

Question:

30. Deputy Ciarán Cannon asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the work her Department is doing to promote and support remote working; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43946/20]

I raised this briefly in the previous round of questions. The Departments and the Government need to look at remote working and encourage more people to do it. The pandemic has provided a once in a lifetime opportunity with people working remotely and from home. There is an opportunity here. I ask the Minister to make a statement and I will come in then with a supplementary question, if that is okay.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10, 7 and 30 together.

The increased shift to remote work in the last nine months as a result of Covid-19 has given us all an opportunity to reimagine the possibilities for a greater regional distribution of jobs and for transforming rural Ireland. Remote working supported by appropriate infrastructure and facilities has the potential to encourage more people to live in rural areas while working in good quality jobs, no matter where their employers are based. It can also help to revitalise our rural towns if remote working hubs are developed in their centres.

The Western Development Commission, WDC, in partnership with the Whitaker Institute at National University of Ireland, Galway, has conducted extensive research into remote working in Ireland during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Recently published results from a survey of more than 5,600 people found that among those who can work remotely, 94% were in favour of working remotely on an ongoing basis for some or all of the time. Some 23% said they would consider relocating within Ireland based on their experiences of remote working since the onset of Covid-19 and 7% said they had already relocated within Ireland.

To support this shift, my Department is collaborating with the WDC to develop a national integrated network of remote working hubs supported by shared back office services. The national network will build on the work of the WDC in developing a hub network along the Atlantic economic corridor. The development of the national network is being overseen by an interdepartmental working group chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. Work is already under way to map and classify the various remote working facilities throughout the country. My Department has also allocated funding to the WDC to raise awareness of the hub facilities and the hub ecosystem across Ireland. In addition, €5 million has been allocated under budget 2021 for investment in remote working facilities at digital hubs and broadband connection points across rural Ireland.

I thank the Minister for her commitment to this and for her engagement with me on it. I have given a proposal to the Minister, which her officials have been dealing with, on putting these digital hubs next to rural post offices. Many debates have been held in the Dáil over the years on the future of the post office network. In recent months, the issue of urbanisation and the drive to the cities has been completely turned on its head. There is scope for this now. We have a proposal to put a digital hub adjacent to a post office. We have put the plans in place, identified the building and identified what can be done. There is no fibre broadband within the community. There is a huge opportunity here to revitalise towns and villages. We should embrace the changes in working from home and working in digital hubs that have happened due to Covid-19. I ask that the Minister would look at this. I know she has been engaging with the Department on it but I ask her to continue to do so. I may come back with a supplementary question.

What has happened in recent months is that as a direct response to the pandemic, companies and their employees have collaborated to allow employees to work from home. Many have described this as remote working. The founder of Grow Remote, Tracy Keogh, would rightly argue that this is not remote working as it should be but that this is effectively crisis management. That is what has been happening in recent months. We urgently need to sit down with bodies such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and the WDC to set out a well-planned and well-thought-out strategy for the development of remote working as a permanent option for employees in Ireland. The benefits it can bring to rural communities and families are many. I am delighted to hear the Minister is showing leadership and taking the initiative on this. I urge her to keep going to ensure that, rather than returning to what we described as the normal of the past, there is a new normal created in which remote working becomes a long-term viable option for thousands of workers across the country.

I agree with the Deputies. Remote working, or as I like to call it, connected working, will be a game changer for rural Ireland. Last October or November, I carried out a joint initiative with Tracy Keogh from Grow Remote. What was a concept is now a reality and because of Covid-19 it is a working reality for tens of thousands of workers. There is a huge opportunity here for regional development. One looks at companies like Indeed and Microsoft, which have told their staff they can work remotely for the long term. That is hugely positive.

There are benefits across the board from remote working. For example, people can live and work in their locality; young people can avail of cheaper houses in the countryside; less time is spent commuting, which is also good for the environment; and most importantly from my perspective, it supports rural communities. The reality is that if one is an office worker and has a good phone and broadband coverage, one can do the same job in Ballybay as one can do in Ballsbridge. We need to seize the momentum on remote working. The Tánaiste is working on the development of a national remote working policy. That will be very important and I know he hopes to get it finalised in the coming weeks. That will look at areas in which employers can be given enhanced rights in being able to request the right to work remotely.

It is true that one can work remotely just as well in Ballybay, Ballsbridge, Duhallow or Dublin. The Minister is dead right about that. This has challenged policymakers to make the decisions on remote working, smart working or working in communities.

I want to take the Minister back to the proposal we have. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the gains that are there for everybody who is working at home and for those who are within the communities as well if this project is taken up. It is a pilot project that is well thought-out and we have put the facts behind it. We welcome with open arms the Minister's support to date and we hope the Minister will continue in that. I know she will do so and I want to press to make sure she continues supporting it through An Post and through the Department of Transport and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who is supporting it as well. It is a pilot project and it can prove what can be done. It can be a template for the future for post offices and rural communities.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. Her passion for this is obvious to all.

One thing the Government should be doing is encouraging the public service to become leaders in this area so that others might follow. We attempted in the past, albeit it was a poor attempt, to decentralise public service operations to various locations throughout the country. Perhaps the technology, knowledge and know-how to do that well did not exist back then. It exists right now and from talking to many public servants who are working remotely from their homes in an effective way in towns and villages across east Galway, I know that this is possible now. It would be helpful if the public service itself was seen to take a leadership role in the area of remote working, to lead the way, to find the mechanisms for doing it successfully and then to use those mechanisms as an exemplar for others to follow in its footsteps.

I am familiar with the Kishkeam project courtesy of Deputy Michael Moynihan. It is something we should explore, developing on what we do in post offices. It is a good project so I am happy to work with the Deputy on it.

Deputy Cannon is right. There is a commitment in the programme for Government that 20% of public sector employees will be able to work remotely. My opinion is that we need to be much more ambitious than that. In the Department of Rural and Community Development, practically all staff, that is over 95%, are working remotely. In the Department of Social Protection, over 3,000 staff are working remotely and that is about 50% of the Department's staff. If the Department of Social Protection can get 50% of its staff working remotely, given all the challenges it has faced in getting 13 million payments out to people since last March, that shows we need to be much more ambitious. If we were writing the programme for Government today, the targets would be higher and there is no reason we should not be more ambitious. That is something we have to work on and we are going to make it happen.

Town and Village Renewal Scheme

Brendan Griffin

Question:

11. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development her plans for town and village renewal in 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44130/20]

I thank the Minister for all the information she has provided this morning. It is clear from her answers how much work is going on in her Department. In recent years, the town and village renewal scheme has been beneficial to countless towns and villages all over the country, including in my constituency of County Kerry. I am hoping the Minister will be able to update the House on the scheme and her plans for 2021.

I thank the Deputy for his question. The regeneration and revitalisation of our rural towns and villages is a key priority for my Department. Since 2016, the Department has invested €78 million in approximately 1,200 projects under the town and village renewal scheme. Large-scale projects that support town revitalisation are also funded through my Department's rural regeneration and development fund.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to bring forward an expanded town and village renewal scheme to bring vacant and derelict buildings back into use and promote residential occupancy. In this context, a budget of €20 million has been allocated for an expanded town and village renewal scheme next year. This is an increase of €5 million, or 33%, on 2020. The standard town and village renewal scheme will be allocated €15 million of this funding to support the economic and social development of our towns and villages, including through measures to encourage town centre living. The remaining €5 million will be used to support the development of remote working facilities at digital hubs and broadband connection points. These facilities can play an important role in supporting the revitalisation of town centres and stimulating local commerce. The rural regeneration and development fund will also continue to support large-scale regeneration projects in our towns and villages in 2021.

In addition, for next year, I have secured funding of €2 million to enable rural towns and villages to prepare master plans as a basis for their strategic development. The development of a shared vision and direction for any town is essential for its successful long-term future.

My Department is also co-chairing a recently established interdepartmental group to progress the town centre first approach committed to in the programme for Government. The group will bring forward proposals for the Government's consideration in 2021.

I emphasise how important funding is for the various towns and villages. The figure of 1,200 projects is remarkable. I do not have time here to cover the number of towns and villages in my constituency which have received funding.

In some cases the funding is relatively small, but the cumulative impact of funding from the town and village scheme, CLÁR and the rural regeneration and development fund, combined with the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, ORIS, and other schemes under Fáilte Ireland and various Government agencies, is huge. The results are starting to be seen but funding needs to continue. It is critically important that we keep funding coming into villages and towns. I ask the Minister for a timeline setting out when we can expect the next tranches of funding under the various schemes in her Department.

I have a list with me. In 2020, funding of €424,000 was provided to 14 projects in Count Kerry under the town and village scheme as part of the Covid measures. While this was small money, it made a difference in providing outdoor seating, bicycle stands and moveable plant displays. Projects included an extension to the Green Street car park in Dingle; the creation of a picnic recreational area in Inch; enhancement of footpaths in Kenmare; and the provision of nine broadband connection points with equipment in the county. The fund was used for broadband connection points and to fit out places. Small amounts of funding of between €25,000 and €40,000 for various projects in 14 different areas made a difference. The Deputy is correct that we need to maintain this small investment. We want to continue to engage with the local community because they are the people who have the answers.

Ten years ago, these types of funding injections were badly needed but not available. I emphasise the cumulative effect of these different schemes. When taken together over time, they have a direct impact with projects that are visible when people visit towns and villages. They also help to rebuild areas that have been decimated. That is why it is so important that the Minister maintains this funding. Speaking on behalf of the people of Kerry and the many towns and villages that have benefited, it is appreciated. There is always scope for more funding and it causes disappointment in some areas that do not make the cut after each tranche is announced. I ask the Minister to keep fighting for every scrap of funding she can get because it makes a difference for people. It creates a better environment in which to live and do business in future, particularly in the area of connectivity and remote working. I urge the Minister to do everything she can in the future to do more and keep the funding coming.

I thank the Deputy. I will keep fighting and I know I will have the support of the Deputy and other rural Deputies as well as Deputies from across the House because this scheme makes a difference and has an impact.

I have €2 million for towns that are providing plans. That is important too because we need a joined-up approach. Working with local authorities, this funding will be used to examine how we will get people back living in the bigger towns and how we will revitalise them. Westport is one of the most successful towns in Ireland. We often say it is a fantastic place. Many years ago, Westport got a plan. Sometimes people ask why we need another plan. These plans are important because a plan joins up the different organisations and gets everybody on the one page. When we have a focus, we always get there. Funding will always be made available to good projects. When I came into politics someone told me not to worry about the money because good projects always get funded. That is the truth. Fair play to the Deputy for what he is doing in Kerry.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Bernard Durkan

Question:

12. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the extent to which she has been in the position to address issues of rural and-or community deprivation, with particular reference to the impact of Covid-19 on both urban and rural communities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43200/20]

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which the Minister and her Department have been able to assist with issues of deprivation in both urban and rural communities arising from the impact of Covid.

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly impacted communities in rural and urban Ireland. Those that were already vulnerable, marginalised or facing higher levels of deprivation must continue to be supported to ensure that no community is left behind as we navigate our way through the pandemic and build towards an inclusive recovery.

The Department's programmes have been supporting vulnerable communities this year and will continue to assist in addressing gaps in meeting social needs, including those caused by higher levels of deprivation. Some key supports provided this year include the following. A €50 million support package for the community and voluntary sector, charities and social enterprises was launched by the Government and administered by the Department. This funding was made available from the Dormant Accounts Fund through the Covid-19 stability fund and the innovate together fund.

The Minister also recently launched a €1.7 million Covid-19 emergency fund, which groups can now apply for through their local authorities. This focused on groups participating in the Government's community call initiative.

The community enhancement programme was provided with €7 million in funding in 2020. This comprised of €2 million in June and a further €5 million in August under the Government's July stimulus package.

The social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, is Ireland's primary social inclusion intervention with an allocation of €39 million this year. SICAP funding allocations are made based on levels of relative affluence and deprivation in communities, ensuring the programme is targeting disadvantaged areas fairly and helps those individuals in greatest need of the support.

The community services programme, CSP, has provided funding of up to €4.75 million in 2020 to assist CSP-supported organisations most in need to retain their CSP-supported employees. The programme is also providing assistance to meet employer PRSI contributions during the crisis period and this has been extended until April 2021.

The overall 2020 community services programme allocation is €46.89 million.

I thank the Minister of State for his informative and comprehensive reply.

Does the Minister of State and his Department continue to liaise with the various communities in both urban and rural areas with a view to determining the extent to which any further assistance might yet need to be added?

I am glad to say there is constant communication between my Department, myself, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, the local development companies, the community services programme organisations and the broader community voluntary sector. That flow is constant and we are keeping a close eye on developments as they carry on.

I want to mention some other programmes which are key in terms of reaching people. The CLÁR programme in particular is worth a mention. There are three measures under that. Measure 3 is particularly important as it provides Meals on Wheels, Link services, as well as mobility and cancer care transport. CLÁR was open to applications from local authorities under measures 1, 2, 3a and 3b. Up to 339 applications were received in 2020 across all these measures and 186 were approved. Measure 3 is particularly effective in reaching vulnerable communities, particularly those impacted by the pandemic.

I thank the Minister of State again for his reply.

Does his Department continue to be in contact with the local authorities and the health services in their respective areas with a view to having local input and advice at the coalface and to directing, or redirecting as the case may be, to ensure that assistance is available and continues to be available?

The short answer is "Yes". The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and I had a meeting with local authority chief executives earlier this year which informed the budget process as well.

We stay in touch with the local community development committees, LCDCs, which the Department oversees. I stay in touch with the public participation network. Some 15,000 community organisations are members of the network nationally and I had a meeting with them earlier this year. It is fair to say that of all Departments, the Department of Rural and Community Development is extremely connected with organisations on the ground. I am proud to say that.

The social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, in Kildare received more than €1 million this year. That is particularly important because it is reaching those who are most vulnerable. That is the particular aim of SICAP.

Question No. 13 replied to with Written Answers.

Rural Recreation Policy

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

14. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the developments in the past year in rural recreation; the work carried out by Comhairle na Tuaithe in that period; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43079/20]

As the Minister knows, in the early 2000s there was a crisis about rural development, access to hills and so on. Much work was done on it. There seems to have been a long hiatus in the early part of the past decade in which little happened. What progress has been made in rural development? How are we going to develop this absolutely phenomenal asset we have? For example, has the Minister resolved the issue of access to mountains in an organised way, as was piloted back in 2008?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I want to acknowledge the work he put in to setting this up when he was Minister in this Department.

Covid-19 has reminded us all of the importance of outdoor recreational amenities for our physical and mental well-being. My Department provides substantial funding for outdoor recreational infrastructure through programmes such as the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, the walks scheme and the rural regeneration and development fund. My Department also works with State agencies, such as Coillte and Fáilte Ireland, as well as other stakeholders, to facilitate the strategic development of the sector.

Comhairle na Tuaithe, the Countryside Council, is central to this work as it brings the outdoor recreation stakeholders together in an advisory role. In June 2019, Comhairle na Tuaithe was given a new mandate to strengthen its role in the development of the outdoor recreation sector. Dr. Liam Twomey was appointed as chair of Comhairle na Tuaithe and he has driven the new mandate with the support of the council members. Earlier this year, the group commenced work on the development of a new national outdoor recreation strategy to provide a vision and framework for the growth of the sector. I will bring this strategy to Government when it is completed next year.

A range of other initiatives are being advanced by the council which will be captured in the annual report of the group to be agreed at the next meeting of Comhairle na Tuaithe. My Department is also establishing an interdepartmental committee to help progress recommendations coming from Comhairle na Tuaithe. This group will be particularly important in the development and implementation of the national outdoor recreation strategy. My Department continues to provide substantial support for the sector with expenditure of approximately €11 million on the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme this year. At the end of last year, an additional ten trails were approved for inclusion in the walks scheme. An external review of the scheme is also expected to be completed in the new year. This will pave the way for the further expansion of the scheme to 80 trails.

The genesis of setting up Comhairle na Tuaithe and the most urgent problem it faced in its early years was the whole issue of access to farmers' lands, particularly hill land and mountains. All that is owned by somebody. What we call commonage is shared ownership land. It is not common or some public land unless it belongs to some organisation such as Coillte.

As it was not mentioned in the Minister's reply, what progress has been made to build a scheme that recognises the rights of farmers and, on the other hand, gives widespread access to the hills and mountains? We do not need to build the hills or the mountains. They are there. People want to be sure they can access them and that they would be welcome. On the other hand, the farmers want to be assured that there would be no dogs on the hills, fences will not be damaged and the policy of leave no trace will be followed.

A pilot scheme was set up in 2008. Indemnity was to be given to the farmers against the very off-chance that somebody would try to take a case because they slipped on a rock or something on a mountain. What progress has been made in ensuring access to the hills? Is it intended to extend the trail scheme again this coming year because that was in abeyance for the past ten years?

We have been working hard with the local authorities to develop a pilot insurance scheme. Indemnity has been a long running issue for farmers in upland areas. It was far too complex to provide a blanket indemnity scheme. We got advice from the Attorney General on it and we would have had to put amendments through several Acts. The problem was that it was getting complicated.

Instead, we are working with the local authorities to roll out a pilot insurance scheme. It will have the same effect. For example, it would involve the introduction of an insurance policy in the Macgillycuddy's Reeks in the first instance which might then be expanded to other mountain access project areas such as Mount Gable in Galway. It is hoped that new mountain access project areas would then be developed with support from my Department. We have rolled out ten new trails and we are looking to develop more.

The Minister said local authorities might take out insurance. Will she clarify how that will stop somebody suing the landowner, as well as the local authority which has got the insurance cover?

The idea of the indemnity scheme was to indemnify people against being sued. There is very little chance of a successful claim for somebody coming to harm on a hill through no fault of the farmer. The person would have to show reckless disregard according to the law. There are cases, as the Minister knows, in Wicklow and up in Donegal that have gone to the Supreme Court, which has ruled against the plaintiff and in favour of the defendant. One was a State defendant. The chance of a successful claim on a hill because of something that might happen is very small.

The problem was not that someone would succeed. The problem was that somebody might take a case and that a farmer would be part of a court case and have to put a lot of resources into fighting another case that would fail. Will the Minister assure me that whatever she is proposing will deal with the specific problem, which is not the cost of getting insurance, which was never a problem because most farmers have insurance, but how to stop farmers being enjoined in a case and having to go through all the rigmarole of defending a case that would never succeed?

The one thing I want to ensure, and I know the Deputy will agree with me, is that we do not want to give the farmers any problems in this space. The farmers are allowing people access to their lands. We want to try to facilitate and accommodate this. Most stakeholders in the sector share the view that a public liability policy has the potential to deliver the same benefits as an indemnity scheme but it can be introduced much more quickly. The focus on the indemnity scheme may have somewhat distracted from the development of an alternative solution linked to insurance. As I said, for some time the officials have been examining how best to introduce a scheme to indemnify private landowners, particularly in upland areas. It is a complex issue. They have looked at it and they feel this is the best way forward. The point I am making, and I know the Deputy will agree with me, is that we do not involve the farmers in this. They will not have any liability. We do not want that to happen.

Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme

Brendan Griffin

Question:

15. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme applications for funding assistance for walking infrastructure in County Kerry and nationwide; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44129/20]

I want to ask the Minister about the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, especially her plans for County Kerry. This is a fantastic scheme. I referenced it earlier regarding the cumulative effect of these injections of funding in rural areas. In particular, I want to ask the Minister about projects such as the Dingle Way, which is a very important economic lifeline in County Kerry. What are the Minister's plans for funding this project? There is also the centenary walk in Ballykissane near Killorglin, which will be a beautiful loop walk and something very worthy of funding. There are many other projects in the Iveragh area. Will the Minister update us on when we can expect to hear about such applications?

I thank the Deputy. The outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme supports the development of outdoor recreational infrastructure. It provides vital funding for walking trails, cycleways, blueways and mountain access routes. The Deputy has all of these wonderful amenities in his county and we want to support them. He is absolutely committed to making sure they get the maximum support from the Department.

Since the funding began in 2016, €52 million has been allocated to 747 projects. Measure 1 is for small-scale projects with funding up to €20,000, measure 2 is for medium-scale projects with funding up to €200,000, and measure 3 is for big projects with funding of up to €500,000. The closing date for receipt of applications under measure 1 was 30 September 2020. My Department received 193 applications seeking funding of €3.6 million. The assessment of these applications is nearly complete and I expect to make an announcement on the approved projects shortly.

The closing date for measure 2 and measure 3 projects was 30 November. The review and assessment of these applications will be completed early in the new year. I can confirm that Kerry County Council, South Kerry Development Partnership, and North and East Kerry Development have each submitted applications under the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme for 2020. These will be assessed in line with the scheme criteria along with all the other applications received.

In recognition of the contribution this scheme is making to building vital communities and tourists alike, I was pleased to secure a 20% increase in funding for the scheme next year to €12 million.

I know the Deputy has a keen interest in these projects. Examples of projects funded in Kerry in the previous years, to which he was absolutely committed and supported fully, were large-scale repair works to the Dingle Way, access to Torc Mountain, the upper Strickeen trail, the Killeen wood upgrade and Kerry Way promotion. I am sure the Deputy will be able to tell me the benefits these have brought to his county. Since Covid, more people want to get out and enjoy the wonderful countryside we have. We want to help them. We also want to support and improve the facilities we offer.

The Minister has nailed it. In the post-Covid world this scheme will be more important than ever. I am very heartened to see there is an increase in funding. I urge the Minister to do everything she can to try to assist as many projects as possible. There is an element of loaves and fishes for her when she has so many applications and only a limited amount of resources. It is money very well spent that gives a return to the Exchequer and communities. It also helps to maintain Ireland and various locations around the country on the international tourism map. It gives back so much to the communities. I thank the Minister again and we look forward to the announcements.

I thank the Deputy. There is always a big demand for support and funding to help these projects go ahead. Sometimes there is disappointment because we cannot fund every project. Often, when we have gone back to the project promoters and local authorities and said that perhaps we can improve it somewhat, I have seen cases where those projects were refused once but were able to make changes and were much better projects and delivered much better outcomes. Kerry has a good record in sending in good applications. What is more, I know the Deputy will not let me forget about the importance of these projects, their outcomes and what they will deliver for the people of Kerry. I thank the Deputy for raising the issue.