Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Departmental Policies

Claire Kerrane

Question:

1. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the timeline for the roll-out of the Our Rural Future - Rural Development Policy 2021-2025 strategy as promised; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28239/21]

Will the Minister provide the timeline for the roll-out of the commitments made in Our Rural Future as promised?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Our Rural Future is the new rural development policy for the period 2021 to 2025. It is the most ambitious and transformational policy for rural development in Ireland for decades, focusing on sustainability and optimising opportunities for individuals, communities and businesses.

The policy provides a framework to set out a vision for rural Ireland and contains more than 150 measures for delivery over the lifetime of the policy, for both short-term recovery and longer-term development. These commitments were developed in collaboration with Departments across the whole of Government.

A key commitment in the implementation of Our Rural Future is to produce annual work programmes, which will detail the actions being undertaken and associated timelines for delivery relating to the measures. The first work programme is at an advanced stage. It is currently being finalised and will be published imminently. It will outline the measures and actions for delivery in 2021, and associated timelines. It has been developed in conjunction with the Departments and agencies responsible for delivering the ambition of Our Rural Future.

The policy also commits to regular progress reports, the first of which will be published at the end of this year, with subsequent progress reports to follow every six months. Regular reports to the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment, chaired by An Taoiseach, will also ensure progress on the implementation of these commitments.

I welcome the publication of this plan as someone who has lived in rural Ireland all of her life and who would live nowhere else. It is an ambitious plan and I acknowledge that. The difficulty is that while it is a five-year strategic plan, it is disappointing that the timelines were not there in the first place. The Minister referred to short-term and longer-term deliverables but, again, there is no distinction in the report or in the 150 commitments it contains. Much of the funding for the action plan is repackaged funding, including the €2 billion to €3 billion for the national broadband plan and the €1 billion for the rural regeneration fund. In fact, I do not believe there is any new funding, at least figuratively, in the plan. Will the Minister indicate what are the targets in the plan for job creation in the context of the 400 remote working hubs?

We published Our Rural Future at the end of March. It is a very ambitious five-year policy. In fairness, it has been received extremely well, not just here in Ireland but also internationally. When the World Economic Forum, the Financial Times, CNBC and The New York Times comment on our strategy, and to see it described as the most ambitious plan of its kind in Europe, it is very encouraging. We have a very strong policy, which is acknowledged by everybody, but the challenge now is in delivery. I assure the Deputy that my focus is on delivery.

The work programme for this year will be published shortly and will set out timelines for specific actions to be delivered this year. I will hold Ministers and Departments to account and make sure they deliver for rural Ireland.

If the Ceann Comhairle will bear with me, I want to acknowledge the work of a senior civil servant, Mr. William Parnell, in this plan. Mr. Parnell put a huge amount of work into it and he retired just after the plan was published. I wish him well in his retirement because he certainly put a lot of work into making sure we delivered on this plan.

I understood from the press conference after the launch of Our Rural Future that the list of actions to be worked on for this year was due at the end of that week or at least I believe it was said at the time that the timelines would be detailed in the next week. I acknowledge that this is an ambitious plan but I reiterate that it is disappointing there was not some timeframes built in there or that they were not published soon after the plan was launched.

There is a real overemphasis in the plan on non-existent broadband. The Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, acknowledged at the launch that just 12% of the 550,000 homes included in the national broadband plan will be connected by the end of this year. Does the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, have any engagement on the programme for Government commitment to accelerate the roll-out of broadband, and does she play any role in the possibility of that happening in a seven-year to a five -year plan?

I am in regular contact with the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications. He is trying to accelerate the roll-out of broadband. I also live in rural Ireland. There is a lot of broadband appearing now in areas where we had very poor coverage. The private operators are moving in now, as well as National Broadband Ireland. The acceleration and the roll-out of broadband has somewhat speeded up in the past months. As we know, Covid delayed some things, unfortunately.

We are working on the actions, as I said, and we will have them very shortly. Work continues in the meantime. I was delighted that we scaled up the town and village scheme. I changed the maximum grant up from €200,000 to €500,000. There are a number of actions on which we have already started to work.

Departmental Policies

Seán Sherlock

Question:

2. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the way in which the €5 million fund to support the development of Ireland’s first national network of remote working hubs will work; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28176/21]

I merely wish to ask the Minister the way in which the €5 million fund to support the development of Ireland's first national network of remote working hubs will work, and if she will make a statement on the matter.

The primary objective of the connected hubs call is to support and complement the development of the national hub network, which is a key action of Our Rural Future and the national remote working strategy. The connected hubs call targets shovel-ready, small capital works that will increase the capacity of existing hubs and benefit the wider economy in support of the network.

The call was launched on 29 April. The scheme document and application forms are available on my Department's website. Expressions of interest are requested by 28 May, with the deadline for applications being 17 June. My Department has hosted four information sessions for local authority staff and hub managers, which were attended by more than 170 participants. My officials have prepared a frequently asked questions, FAQ, document, which is updated on a weekly basis and published on my Department's website every Tuesday afternoon. The extensive FAQ document includes all of the questions raised at the information sessions and should provide valuable advice and guidance to potential applicants.

Potential applicant hubs are requested to commit to a three-year membership of the national hub network as a key condition of funding being made available. To ensure that the network is open to all hubs, regardless of size or location, my Department will cover the cost of on-boarding and membership for three years. I look forward to launching the national hub network in the next few weeks.

There is funding of €5 million for the call. Projects that can be funded under the call include, but are not limited to, the installation of privacy booths in existing hubs or pods. We know how useful the pods are downstairs here in this premises when sometimes one needs to have private conversations. It is great to be able to use that type of facility.

I can internalise and understand where the Minister is going regarding the connected hubs fund. If I understand it correctly, she is referring to pre-existing infrastructure. The reason I ask the question is to speak for people in places such as Killavullen and Mitchelstown in north Cork, for example, from where I have received queries and where there are no pre-existing hubs. This situation is reflective of the entire country really. The people asking me about these two specific locations are wondering if they can get a slice of the action there. Mitchelstown is a small- to medium-sized town while Killavullen is a village where connectivity would be an issue. Can people who live in areas where there is currently no hub reasonably expect that they will get a slice of the €5 million?

The connected hubs call is open to existing public and private hubs. The grants available can range from €10,000 up to €250,000. Through the fund, we want to expand the capacity and the quality of our existing hub facilities, providing more hot desks, office pods for when one needs some privacy, and audiovisual facilities.

Some of the funding can be used towards marketing costs, which is important because we want people to know the hubs are available to them. In areas where there are no hubs and there is very poor broadband, and I am not sure whether this is the case in the area the Deputy is speaking about, I would tell people to get in touch with their local authority and we will look at providing a broadband connection point. We have been rolling these out throughout the country. They are in areas where there are poor broadband facilities. They may be in a community hall. If there were some place such as this, and the community hall needed to buy additional equipment, I would advise those involved to apply to this fund, which is available to support them.

I thank the Minister. What she is clearly articulating to me, so that I can report back to the people who have made representations to me, is that the €5 million connected hub funding does not apply to a person or entity trying to start from scratch and that it is for pre-existing infrastructure. This is what the Minister is clarifying. If this is the case, we will advise accordingly in respect of locations where people want to create something in the community where people can come together in appropriate locations, which are not necessarily community facilities and might be privately owned facilities, such as pubs, for instance. There is now massive potential for such connectivity and bringing people together - I will not say in an unorthodox way - in a way reimagining what the local pub would look like. If the Minister is telling us there is scope for connectivity in such circumstances we would welcome it.

Funding is available through the town and village renewal scheme, in which there is a big focus on derelict buildings that could be renovated and used as co-working spaces. There is an opportunity for people to apply for this funding. There is a great project in Donegal, which was funded through the rural regeneration development fund. An old Ritz cinema in Donegal was converted into a hub. The Deputy is familiar with the Ludgate hub in Cork. Not that long ago, €206,000 in funding was allocated to create the rural digital innovation hub strategy and the pipeline implementation strategy. This project is supported through the rural regeneration and development fund. The Ludgate hub received funding through the town and village renewal scheme. There are opportunities and I am happy to speak to the Deputy about the individual case he has mentioned.

Rural Schemes

Claire Kerrane

Question:

3. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the specific measures in place to address the issue of vacant and derelict buildings in rural towns and villages; the financial supports and incentives that are in place to assist persons with renovating and revitalising buildings in these areas; her plans to improve same, as per the commitment in Our Rural Future - Rural Development Policy 2021-2025; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28240/21]

This question is to ask the Minister about the specific measures in place to address the issue of vacant and derelict buildings in rural towns and villages, particularly in town centres, and the financial supports and incentives in place to assist people in renovating them.

The refurbishment of vacant properties is being addressed through a number of funding streams delivered by my Department, in line with the commitments contained in Our Rural Future.

In April, I announced investment of €81 million for 25 landmark projects for funding under the rural regeneration and development fund. The projects will combat dereliction, increase the vibrancy of rural towns and villages, and regenerate town centre buildings to provide remote working hubs, libraries, e-learning, cultural, enterprise and community spaces.

On Monday, 3 May 2021, I announced the availability of €15 million funding under the 2021 town and village renewal scheme. In line with Our Rural Future, a key focus of this year's scheme is to renovate derelict and vacant buildings in our town centres. I have increased the maximum grant available under the scheme to €500,000 to permit projects of additional scale to be funded. I will also shortly be announcing a new €2 million scheme to fund the development of town masterplans, which I expect will identify strategic actions tailored to address the vacancy and town centre living issues specific to each town.

There is a range of other initiatives outlined in Our Rural Future, which will contribute to addressing vacancy in our towns and villages. In particular, an interdepartmental group has been established to develop a town centre first approach, with a focus on vacancy and dereliction, and to bring forward recommendations to Government. As part of budget 2022, and in the context of the town centre first approach, we will examine the scope to introduce new supports and incentives for the refurbishment of vacant properties to increase town centre living.

I thank the Minister for outlining a number of schemes. Are the findings of the report on the town centre living initiative, in which there were pilot programmes in six towns, being taken into account with regard to the schemes to be introduced to improve and restore derelict buildings in towns? As the Minister knows, it cited a lack of co-ordinated national supports, difficulties for property owners in accessing advice and supports for bringing properties back into use, and the fact there are no financial disincentives for underuse. While the Minister mentioned a number of schemes, we will need many more incentives to tackle dereliction given the extent of it in so many towns and villages throughout the State. With regard to the focus on this in the rural plan, has the Minister had engagement with the Minister or Department with responsibility for housing specifically on the residential use of these buildings?

I thank the Deputy. We had the pilot study and all of the information has proved to be very valuable in terms of developing the town centre first initiative. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, chairs the committee. The Department feeds into it and we are looking at a number of initiatives. I am working very closely with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on what we can do to address dereliction in town centres. The town and village renewal scheme has been repurposed this year, with €15 million additional funding from which individual projects can receive up to €500,000. I want to see a big focus on projects that bring vacant and derelict buildings and sites back into use as multipurpose spaces, remote working hubs and for residential occupancy. The town centre first policy framework is advancing very well. It will bring forward actions during the summer to look at how communities and local authorities can be supported to develop and deliver tailored plans for their own towns to address vacancy and town centre living.

I welcome the town centre first approach. In fairness to the town and village renewal scheme, it includes a real and excellent level of consultation with those in the communities in which the scheme is, hopefully, going to work. I want to raise an issue. Actively working against this is the town centre public realm enhancement scheme. In Ballaghaderreen, which is my home town, there are plans to remove 67 parking spaces and replace them with a number of small green areas, with approximately 20 trees and benches. This will have a devastating impact on businesses. There will not even be loading bays for deliveries. This is a matter of huge concern. The sum of €3 million is a huge investment and badly needed in a town such as Ballaghaderreen, but if the people in the town were asked, they would call for a childcare facility in the town to be re-established or for public transport to be improved because it is a blackspot. With regard to vital funding for towns such as Ballaghaderreen, will the Minister please look at the public realm enhancement scheme, which will do huge damage to businesses and work against the very good schemes that are there?

With regard to the particular scheme the Deputy has mentioned, it is funded by the Department through the local authorities. It is up to the local authorities to consult with communities to have a clear path forward as to how to address the issues in their villages. The Deputy knows that I am very much in favour of a bottom-up approach. I like to engage with communities and identify the problems on the ground. My job as Minister is to provide the funding to facilitate the growth of these town centres.

Deputy Kerrane lives in Ballaghaderreen. I think it would be fair to say that in Boyle there has been a really good project where they approved €2.1 million from the first call for category 1 applications under the rural regeneration fund. That includes the refurbishment of the old Royal Hotel into an enterprise hub. That is a case of where there has been wonderful engagement and it has worked well. I hear what the Deputy is saying.

Departmental Programmes

Paul Donnelly

Question:

4. Deputy Paul Donnelly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development when SICAP funding will be increased to its 2008 level at €84 million given that current funding is at 50% of this amount. [28312/21]

I ask the Minister when Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme, SICAP, funding will be restored to its 2008 level of €84 million, given that current funding is at 50% of this amount and given that this affects the most disadvantaged people within our communities.

I thank the Deputy for his question and the focus on the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme.

My Department is providing funding of €190 million over five years for the current SICAP programme, which is our country's primary social inclusion intervention. This year over €39 million was allocated to the programme, supporting front-line workers in local development companies to deliver SICAP on the ground.

The programme does vital work in helping individuals and groups, by improving the life chances of those who are marginalised in society, living in poverty or unemployed. Indeed, since 2018, the programme has supported over 80,000 individuals and 6,219 local community groups. SICAP also supports social enterprises. In 2020, for example, 448 social enterprises received support though the programme. In addition, it supports collective community engagement and the development of more sustainable and stronger communities, improving the quality of life of those facing social exclusion and inequality.

The funding for SICAP is subject to the annual budgetary Estimates process. Modest increases in the annual allocations have been achieved over the duration of the current programme. I acknowledge that funding for social inclusion measures was reduced after 2008. However, since then, other social inclusion measures have been initiated and funded. I realise the importance of continuing to address this. I want to assure the Deputy that I review the level of funding of all programmes each year as part of the budgetary process and it remains my intention to continue to prioritise funding for SICAP.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit.

The funding over the five years of €197 million, if it was at the 2008 level, should be approximately €470 million. There is a massive difference between what people are getting now in SICAP funding and what they were getting 13 years ago.

There is strong evidence that we are not all in this together. The Covid crisis has shown even more that communities, particularly disadvantaged communities, are severely disadvantaged in supports.

In terms of SICAP, the funding is not sufficient. Can the Minister of State give a commitment that over the next years that will be increased? It is very important for our communities.

I can give a commitment to prioritise SICAP. In terms of the programmes that I oversee, it is one of the ones that I have been shouting about most since I came into office.

It is something that we need to raise the profile of across communities as well because so much good work goes on. We have over 500 posts for SICAP workers across the country doing really good work, particularly last year during the crisis. That is not often recognised. I always appreciate the programme being raised here in the Dáil.

To put it on people's radar as well, next week we will be running a promotional programme for SICAP that details much of the good work that was done, in particular, last year. It really came into its own last year in the value that it brought to communities in terms of innovating and responding to the issues that emerged from Covid-19. I can assure the Deputy it is very high on my priority list.

At the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands meeting last week, the chair and the CEO of the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, stated clearly that SICAP providers have played a central role in communities across the country in responding to the needs which emerged during the Covid lockdown and beyond. As the Minister of State stated, they helped over 2,200 individuals on a daily basis who came to their service during the lockdown.

As I said, this is so important. There is no single group of people who have been as affected by disadvantage, cuts and Covid as many of these communities, and particularly the communities that I represent in Dublin 15. It is not good enough. I do not blame the Minister of State personally. This is something that has happened over a period of 13 years. It is not good enough to say that the funding will be €197 million over five years yet if it was 2008 we would be looking at close to €500 million being provided. That is not acceptable or good enough.

The Deputy makes a relevant point in relation to the decrease that SICAP has taken over time. I am very aware of that, to acknowledge that again.

I draw attention to some areas that come under the area of social inclusion that have received increases in funding in that time period as well. One of them is the Community Enhancement Programme which provides small grants to community groups to enhance facilities in disadvantaged areas. From 2018 to 2020, it has provided €25 million to support 8,000 community groups and organisations. The 2021 allocation is €4.5 million.

Also relevant is the scheme to support national organisations, SSNO, in the community and voluntary sector. It is a key element of the Department's support for the role of the sector in contributing to the development of a strong and vibrant civil society and improving outcomes for those most disadvantaged. A large majority of the organisations under SSNO will work in areas of social inclusion. Funding for SSNO has increased significantly since 2008 and that needs to be acknowledged as well.