Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

We are moving on to the other questions. I do not see the Deputies. If I am missing somebody, he or she can shout at me. Moving back to Deputy Donnelly, the Deputy is next with Question No. 7.

Questions Nos. 5 and 6 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Programmes

Paul Donnelly

Question:

7. Deputy Paul Donnelly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if there has been progress in relation to the multi-annual funding of community projects. [27959/21]

The Covid crisis has shown us all clearly that the digital divide is as wide as every other divide in our society. If you are from a disadvantaged community then due to digital poverty your opportunities for education and work are limited. Will the Minister detail the provisions being implemented to deal with digital poverty in our communities?

Which Minister is responding? The Minister, Deputy Humphreys?

I do not have that question on digital poverty. That is Question No. 6.

It is Question No. 7 on the Order Paper on multi-annual funding of community projects.

That is a different question the Deputy is asking. The Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, can answer Question No. 7.

I can answer Question No. 7 but it is not the question Deputy Paul Donnelly asked.

The Minister of State will have to answer Question No. 7 because Question No. 7 is in Deputy Paul Donnelly's name. Has the Deputy got it in front of him?

I have it here.

Deputy Paul Donnelly has asked about multi-annual funding of community projects.

That was not the one I referred to.

I am happy to take the question on the basis that it is the multi-annual funding question.

Okay, go ahead.

In August 2019, my Department launched Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities, the strategy to support the community and voluntary sector in Ireland. This strategy was developed in consultation with the cross-sectoral group and a work plan to progress its implementation has been agreed.

Work in 2021 is ongoing in respect of a number of the objectives outlined in the strategy including: a training needs assessment to identify gaps and make recommendations on how best to build capacity in the sector; a draft values and principles document has been developed with a view to it being adopted by all who engage with the community and voluntary sector; funding has been provided to support work promoting appropriate standards in training of community development practitioners; and proposals for a civic forum or national consultative event in 2021 are being examined.

Objective 4 of the strategy commits to scope and develop a sustainable funding model to support the community and voluntary sector, recognising the importance of a multi-annual funding approach.

Some of my Department's programmes already operate on a multi-annual basis, including SICAP, as mentioned, the community services programme, CSP, and the scheme to support national organisations, SSNO.

However, I recognise that many community and voluntary organisations receive funding from the State on an annual basis. My Department recently commissioned Pobal to commence work on a scoping exercise for a centralised grantee database which could be a useful first step in increasing visibility across government on the funding provided by that sector.

I welcome the fact that there are moves in regard to multi-annual funding and the response from the Minister of State. It is critically important for community organisations to be able to plan, strategise and keep staff, which is one of the major issues in some projects that are running on year-to-year funding. It is very difficult to maintain the continuity of staff required.

Funding is important for the safety and security of projects. They are then able to consider other types of funding and know that they have three or five years of core funding and they can now use other funding to plan for training, which is another serious deficit in a lot of community organisations. I welcome the response and look forward to many more community projects being able to get multi-annual funding which will provide them with security.

I will provide more detail on the training side of things as the Deputy brought it up. We have prioritised training in this year's action plan, which comes under the community and voluntary sector five-year strategy. The cross-sectoral group has prioritised training. There are three aspects to that. First, the process is ongoing and there will be a report on the training needs of local communities and development committees by the end of June. The second aspect relates to voluntary board members of community and voluntary organisations. Third, later this year we will examine the training needs of smaller community organisations, many of which are dependent on volunteers. In terms of the training side of things, we are putting some resources into that this year and developments are ongoing.

I thank the Minister of State and appreciate his reply. As a voluntary member of many boards, and a current board member of the Dublin 15 community drug team, it is something that we have recognised in terms of our risk analysis of the project. In a review, we identified that training for volunteers and voluntary board members and staff and how we retain and maintain continuity is something that is important.

As I said, it is critical for the future of community development structures and how they operate that we provide the appropriate type of funding. We need to ensure that, unlike what happened between 2008 and 2011, the first people to be cut and affected by cuts are not those working in the community, voluntary and charity sectors.

I thank the Deputy. We are in the process of scoping out where multi-annual funding might begin to grow. As part of the process, we have to pin down exactly what we are funding and what Departments are funding organisations. We do not fund all community and voluntary organisations, of which a large number - 11,000 - are registered with the Charities Regulator.

To give the Deputy a little more information on that development in terms of the scoping exercise, the Department recently entered into an agreement with Pobal to conduct a scoping exercise on a proposal for a centralised grantee database of community and voluntary organisations which have a funding relationship with the State. The objective is that this would be a source of information more generally about the investment being made by the State across communities and will serve to reduce the administrative burden on funders and grantees by adopting a "file once" principle.

I must stress, however, that this is a preliminary scoping exercise and is exploring potential options at this very early stage. If the project is approved on foot of the scoping exercise, it will likely take a few years before the process would be completed and operational.

The next question is in the name of Deputy Claire Kerrane.

I have permission for Deputy Paul Donnelly to take this question.

I think this must be-----

It is to ask when SICAP funding will be increased.

We have done that one.

The one before that was the multi-annual funding of community projects. That is the question that was answered. We are moving onto Question No. 8 in the name of Deputy Claire Kerrane that you are taking.

There must be a mistake because the question on SICAP funding is the one we have already gone through. There is a mix-up in the order. That has already been answered.

That is the question we are on. It has been answered.

We will not go through it again, unless you want to.

Question No. 8 replied to with Written Answers.

Community Development Projects

David Stanton

Question:

9. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the supports provided by her Department for the maintenance and enhancement of community facilities; the way in which local community groups may access this funding; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27985/21]

I am taking this question on behalf of Deputy David Stanton. I wish to ask the Minister of State about the supports provided by the Department for the maintenance and enhancement of community facilities, the way in which local community groups may access this funding and if he will make a statement on the matter.

A range of my Department's programmes contribute to the enhancement of community facilities. They include a €4.5 million 2021 community enhancement programme, which was launched on 10 May. The programme provides grants to enhance facilities in disadvantaged areas and is administered by the local community development committees, LCDCs, in each local authority area. A €49 million CSP for 2021 supports 420 community organisations to provide local, social, economic and environmental services. Another programme is the town and village renewal scheme, which involves project support and the rejuvenation of rural towns and villages, including public realm projects, remote working hubs, town centre enhancements, encouraging town centre living and addressing vacancy and dereliction. The connected hubs fund of €5 million will expand existing hub facilities to provide additional hot desks, office space and meeting rooms for remote working, the installation of electric car charging points, the upgrading of disability access and the improvement of IT facilities located within hubs or broadband connection points.

The dormant accounts fund provides funding for community initiatives and supports, including support for social enterprises. The outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme provides funding for the development or enhancement, or both, of outdoor recreational infrastructure such as trails, walkways, cycleways and blueways in rural areas. The 2021 CLÁR programme is providing support for schools and community safety measures, outdoor community and recreation facilities, community gardens and allotments, and mobility and cancer care transport. The €250 million LEADER programme grant aid is available to rural communities and businesses for projects focused on economic and enterprise development, job creation, social inclusion and supporting the rural environment. All schemes are open to applications from eligible groups during the application timeframes set for each scheme or programme.

I am very grateful for the thorough overview of the many supports available from the Minister of State. In asking this question, Deputy Stanton has asked me to convey the very clear point that over the past year we have all spent a lot more time close to home in our local communities which has allowed us to take full advantage of the amenities available to us, including community facilities and groups, as the Minister of State outlined. While many of us have relied on these groups over the past year, it has been very difficult for many groups and clubs to adapt to social distancing requirements and an increase in funding is required.

In my constituency, this includes groups such as men's sheds, youth clubs, parish halls and community groups or, in Deputy Stanton's area, Muintir na Tíre. The crux of my supplementary question is to ask what efforts can be made to make this funding accessible for these groups to ensure they can get the most out of this funding and continue to provide these vital services.

The Department makes quite an effort in terms of getting the information out. Pobal will be of assistance in making applications. I also direct people to local development companies and local authorities.

Some of the funding schemes have different ways of applying. The rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, will generally need to go through the local authority, so engagement with the local authority would be important. Some applications for the outdoor recreation scheme can come through the local development companies. Large projects can also come through State agencies.

The local improvement scheme, LIS, is open since 14 May. Local authorities generally approve that and the Department of Rural and Community Development funds it. In terms of other programmes, such as the Covid-19 stability scheme, community groups can apply directly to those. The local community development committee, LCDC, is the key player in the community enhancement programme.

As a general answer, my advice would be to talk to the local development companies.

I thank the Minister of State for that thorough answer. I agree with the closing line, which is so important, but there is a job of work to do to ensure groups know who their local community development committees, LCDCs, are. We take it for granted because we work in this are everyday, be it as county councillors, Senators, Deputies or Ministers of State such as the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien. However, given how stressed and up against it these groups have been for the past year, and Deputy Stanton agrees, there is a huge amount of work still to be done to make this as user-friendly as possible. It may be working well at the moment, but can always work better. However, I am grateful to the Minister of State for such thorough responses.

Deputy Richmond touched on a fair point. We use many acronyms such as LCDCs, local development companies and PPNs. It is important for local communities to recognise them. I draw attention to a piece of work we are doing at the moment, with the public participation networks. There are 15,000 community group members of public participation networks, PPNs, throughout the country. We are doing a review of PPNs at present, in terms of how they operate, but also how the public is aware of them. We will be doing an awareness-raising exercise after that to ensure the community at large is aware of their PPNs, because PPNs are very often the road into the knowledge of what is available in terms of funding supports. The PPNs will play a crucial role in that regard.

Digital Hubs

Claire Kerrane

Question:

10. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the roll-out of an integrated national network of 400 remote working hubs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27969/21]

Alan Dillon

Question:

41. Deputy Alan Dillon asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the role of her Department in the formulation and implementation of the remote working strategy and national hub network. [27878/21]

I ask the Minister of State about the 400 remote working hubs to be rolled out.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 41 together.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. Remote working has the potential to transform rural Ireland, allowing people to build careers in good-quality jobs while continuing to live closer to home and to generate increased economic activity in our rural towns. The commitment to establish a comprehensive and integrated network of 400 remote working hubs is a key plank in the Government's new rural development policy, Our Rural Future.

An interdepartmental working group, chaired by the Secretary General of my Department, was established last October to oversee the development of a national hub network. After undertaking an extensive discovery process, the working group provisionally identified more than 400 hubs across the country. As the lead agency building the network, the Western Development Commission, funded by my Department, the Department of Rural and Community Development, has now engaged with, surveyed and mapped more than 300 of these hubs.

My Department and the other members of the interdepartmental group are engaged in the establishment of an integrated network of these remote working facilities with shared back office services and a common booking platform for hub users. I look forward to launching the national network, which will operate under the connected hubs brand, later this month. Our ambition is for the national network to have at least 40 hubs using the shared platform at launch and more than 100 on board by year end.

In addition to the supports and tools being developed under the national hub network programme, I have allocated €5 million to fund a connected hubs call under the town and village renewal scheme this year. This initiative will provide funding to support small-scale capital works in existing hubs and broadband connection points.

The type of things we want to support with that €5 million call are the insulation of pods; access control and security systems in existing hubs; the conversion of existing open-plan space to pods; perhaps the upgrade of meeting rooms; upgrading disability access; external signage; in particular, IT network upgrades in terms of wiring and access points and to make sure we have a secure control system; innovative measures to assist existing hubs to deal with Covid-19 challenges; and promotion and marketing campaigns to raise awareness of improvements made to drive increased hub usage.

We have mapped out 326 hubs and another 43 are in progress, so we will soon have close to 400 hubs mapped out. That is a mixture of private sector hubs and local authority and public sector hubs. We have been working with local authorities and communities throughout the country in developing these facilities. We want to improve the facilities which are there and encourage more people to take up the option of working in a co-working space.

We all know Covid-19 has taught us one thing, that we can change and have a better quality of life and we do not need sit for hours in traffic when we can work from home. A co-working space is a better place to go, so we have identified this network of hubs and we want to facilitate people. They can go online and book their hub and there are advantages to the hub operators engaging with us in this process.

The 326 hubs which have been mapped out are welcome. Obviously, things are progressing quickly, which is welcome. Is the detail on the locations mapped out published, or when will it be published? If 100 hubs are expected by year end, when will the detail of the locations of those hubs be known, so local communities and workers can plan? It is hoped workers will be going back to the office this year or be making a decision on how they will work, in terms of doing it remotely two or three times per week, or whatever way they want to do it.

Are any of the hubs which have been mapped out on our islands? Can the Minister provide an update on the use of rural pubs or other buildings? Has there been continued engagement on the use of pubs, in particular?

I thank the Minister for her tremendous work in the rollout of the remote working strategy. We need to maximise the opportunity and momentum which presents itself to rural Ireland in making our remote working network a reality. I thank the Minister and welcome her allocation of €5 million last month for the development of Ireland's national hub network. This funding will go a long way to putting in place the infrastructure to build on the planned rollout of the national broadband.

Remote workers require much more than greater infrastructure, alongside the high-speed broadband. Some people are happy with the options of hot desks shared between multiple users, but others require a more dedicated private setting and office space. I am talking about those who want to remain as long-term remote workers. I welcome the Minister's initiative in this space.

In answer to the question raised, we have mapped out these hubs and will have 100 by the end of the year and possibly more. I will be announcing them next week.

I look forward to visiting County Mayo next Monday to launch the national hub network in Swinford, when I will also be officially opening the new Swinford digital west hub. I am delighted my Department has been able to support the development of that hub under our rural regeneration fund. An 18th century courthouse has been refurbished into a hub, so not alone is the fund supporting remote working and enabling people to work locally in the west, it is giving an old building a new, 21st century use.

As regards Deputy Kerrane's point, only a few weeks ago I was delighted to attend virtually and officially launch the Roscommon broadband connection points, BCP, network, and as part of that I also officially launched the new digital hub in Tulsk.

Regarding the hubs that have been mapped out, I ask the Minister to come back to me on whether remote working hubs have been identified on the islands off the coast. The use of pubs was also a big part of the rural action plan. Has there been continued engagement on that?

I am delighted to hear that the Minister will visit Mayo next Monday. The digital hub being established in Swinford is evidence that the Government is delivering for rural Ireland. It is a fantastic project and will be of major benefit to the town and the community. The Western Development Commission has done amazing work throughout the Atlantic economic corridor in mapping the remote working hubs available.

To answer Deputy Kerrane's question, Clare Island has a broadband connection point. I had the pleasure of visiting the island, where there are a number of remote workers who can work in a professional manner within the community centre and do not have to travel long distances or commute to the mainland. That is fantastic news for the islanders, as well as for rural Ireland and west Mayo. I look forward to the Minister's visit to Swinford next Monday for the roll-out.

As the Deputy said, there are remote working hubs on the islands. When I launch the network on Monday I will outline all the details of the hubs that have joined it. We wanted to do a full and detailed mapping exercise and we funded the Western Development Commission to identify where all the hubs are. We will then be able to see any gaps and work on them. Some 100 hubs have signed up to the network, which means that if people need a space in a particular part of the country they can log onto a website and book a desk there for half a day, a full day or even a week. When travelling the Wild Atlantic Way, they could spend half the day working, if it suits, and the other half on leisure activities. It is about getting that balance so people can work remotely in a place that is safe. This is the game changer we all need for rural Ireland.

Rural Schemes

Neale Richmond

Question:

11. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of her work towards remote working as per the Our Rural Future - Rural Development Policy 2021-2025 document; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27844/21]

My question follows on from those of Deputies Kerrane and Dillon. What is the status of the Minister's work on remote working, as per the Our Rural Future rural development policy? I refer in particular to the commitment to have 20% of the public sector workforce working remotely or from home by the end of this year.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Our Rural Future, the new national rural development policy, is an ambitious blueprint for rural development in Ireland over the next five years that has the potential to have a transformative effect on rural communities. Through the policy, the Government has a vision to breathe new life into rural areas, with a focus on improved connectivity facilitated by the roll-out of high-speed broadband and the opportunities that presents for remote working. This will enable a more connected, cohesive society with more people living and working in our rural towns and villages.

While Our Rural Future complements the ambitions set out in the Government's national remote working strategy, for which the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has lead responsibility, it also contains a number of measures specifically for delivery by my Department. A number of these will be referenced in the Our Rural Future 2021 work programme that will be published shortly, including the €5 million connected hubs call, which was launched on 29 April. This initiative will support and complement the development of the national hub network, which is another key action in Our Rural Future and the national remote working strategy. My Department is also investing heavily in remote working infrastructure through the €1 billion rural regeneration and development fund and the 2021 town and village renewal scheme. My Department will continue to work with colleagues across government to ensure that the potential of remote working is realised in line with Our Rural Future and the national remote working strategy. The Deputy represents a Dublin constituency but I know he is very familiar with rural areas in County Cavan and can appreciate the difference this will make to rural areas across the country.

I assure the Minister that my cousins in Cootehill, Ashfield, Newbliss and many other places will understand the importance of this proposal. While I represent a Dublin constituency, it is one that includes a large swathe of a rural area throughout the Dublin Mountains. The programme the Minister is championing is important to the revitalisation of every aspect of rural Ireland, be that in Dublin, Monaghan, Cavan or any of the townlands previously mentioned. The crux of the matter for those of us representing Dublin constituencies is that there are reasons, both selfless and selfish, that we might want to see this developed in all rural areas. The possible transformative revitalisation to which the Minister referred may succeed where aspects of the decentralisation policy failed. What sort of efforts are happening on a cross-departmental level to ensure this change is led by the public sector?

As part of the programme for Government we have committed that 20% of public servants will be allowed to work remotely. However, we can be much more ambitious than that because if Covid has taught us one thing, it is that remote working works. It reduces people's commute, improves their quality of life and is good for the environment. Sometimes working at home all the time can be quite lonely and that is why the Government has invested heavily in co-working spaces. Those spaces have two roles. We have identified a considerable number of derelict buildings across the country. County Donegal recently benefited from an €18 million allocation of funding to develop an old cinema that was going to ruin, as well as a department store. There are many opportunities in that regard.

I reassure the Minister that there is much excitement in Newbliss regarding the renovation of the building mentioned. As someone who represents a suburban constituency, it struck me that since the outbreak of the pandemic I am the only person on my suburban street of 40 homes who has been regularly travelling into the city centre to work. The vast majority have been working from home in a blended manner and many look forward to the opening of a remote working centre in Stepaside in the coming months. While we are only 11 or 12 km from the city centre as the crow flies, at the height of rush hour traffic people might lose 45 or 60 minutes of their working day in the car, on the Luas or on the bus. I ask the Minister to provide a little more detail on how we are going to ensure that all of Ireland, whether suburban or rural, has its infrastructure and broadband needs met.

The Deputy will appreciate that, as Minister for Rural and Community Development, my priority is how we can enhance our rural towns and villages, which he will acknowledge have faced many difficulties. There has been significant investment in this area and remote working will be a game changer for them. However, there has also been major investment in urban areas and in libraries. Many libraries also have co-working spaces in them. This plan is about using all our public buildings to maximise the benefits for the community, whether that be co-working spaces or the other facilities libraries provide. The library in Stillorgan has had funding approved and there are opportunities to include a co-working space in that development. It is about working with local authorities and communities and coming up with the right solutions to suit those areas.

Departmental Policies

Bernard Durkan

Question:

12. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the degree to which her Department has continued to monitor and identify areas throughout the country deficient in adequate modernisation and development to meet modern-day challenges; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27944/21]

This question relates to the tremendous work already undertaken by the Minister and to extending that further. In that regard, I am enquiring to what extent it is to be expected that areas will look well and be well in respect of having the ability to attract investment. In that context, to what degree will not only working from home be a desirable target but also the possibility of working from near home?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My Department provides a range of supports and programmes to address economic and social imbalances and bring positive impacts to people's lives in urban and rural areas. Our Rural Future, the Government's rural development policy for the period from 2021 to 2025, articulates an ambitious vision for rural areas, recognising their integral role in a thriving, modern Ireland. The policy outlines more than 150 commitments across Government aimed at strengthening the resilience of rural communities. The Government has committed to providing €1 billion for a rural regeneration and development fund from 2019 to 2027. Initial funding of €320 million for 2019 to 2022 has been allocated, and this represents an unprecedented commitment by the Government to strengthen our rural economies and communities. In addition to the rural regeneration and development fund, my Department also provides a variety of supports to communities across the country through programmes such as LEADER, the town and village renewal scheme and CLÁR funding.

The sustainable, inclusive and empowered communities strategy sets out Government policy for the community and local development and the community and voluntary sectors. Funding to communities provided by my Department, and local support structures which drive local engagement and decision-making, assist communities in identifying needs in their areas. My Department will continue to provide supports to communities throughout the country to meet existing and emerging challenges, enable economic development and support resilient communities. Indeed, there have been several investments in the Deputy's area already. The Royal Canal greenway was opened recently, and that passes through the Deputy's constituency. It is to be welcomed because all these investments add to the vibrancy and attractiveness of areas.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. Furthermore, to what extent can modern facilities be made available in urban and rural areas throughout the country to reduce commuting times for many of the people working in bigger corporations who may sometimes be travelling as much as 100 miles or 150 miles each day to get to work? Is it also possible to relocate sufficient resources to communal facilities in towns and villages to enable people to go to an area near their homes and still be able to work from an official working environment? In a sense, those people could be at home and at work at the same time, and I ask about this point because of the necessity of encouraging the collegiality which goes with working in a workplace.

The Deputy's point is absolutely right. We are all social animals and we need to meet people. That is why investing in co-working spaces and remote working hubs is the way forward. There has been huge investment in towns and villages throughout the country to create these facilities. However, we have also managed to incorporate the revitalisation and regeneration of old and run-down buildings which have been out of use for many years. I cite the example, again, of Donegal, where the old cinema has now been converted, as has an old department store. Regarding the Deputy's own area, it is not that long ago that I was down in Naas, under the auspices of the rural enterprise development fund, to turn the sod with the Deputy in respect of the building of a new remote working space. Many people were then travelling to work in Dublin from Naas, and they do not have to do that anymore because of the changes I have detailed.

I thank the Minister again. We will welcome her whenever she wishes to return to my constituency. In a further enquiry on this issue, to what extent does the Minister and her Department liaise with the major corporations with many employees to seek the possible relocation of a portion of their staff to an area which may alleviate the need for long daily commutes?

As the Deputy is aware, the agency with responsibility for many of these companies is either IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland. IDA Ireland is engaging with companies that have already invested here, as well as with companies thinking of coming here, and it has certainly highlighted benefits of investing in the regions. In addition, we have always heard there is a need for a well-trained and highly skilled workforce, and we have such a workforce available. We can now allow people to work remotely in safe environments in the co-working spaces and remote working hubs. We have been investing in those endeavours over the years and we have identified almost 400 hub locations. We will be able to sell this development as a benefit to those companies coming to this country. We will be able to tell them this is the place where it is possible to locate and find a workforce with the requisite skill sets, and we will develop this aspect further with IDA Ireland.

I thank the Minister.

Island Communities

Claire Kerrane

Question:

13. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development when her Department will publish its islands policy and strategy to support island and coastal communities; the areas of focus that are being prioritised within the strategy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27972/21]

Catherine Connolly

Question:

43. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the new policy for the islands; when she expects it to be finalised; the number of occasions the interdepartmental committee for the development of the islands has met to date in 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27957/21]

This question is to ask the Minister when she will publish the new islands policy, which will be the future strategy for our islands. I also ask her to give some detail on the consultation process and the areas on which this forthcoming policy will focus.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 and 43 together.

Question No. 43 is from the Leas-Cheann Comhairle herself, and I am taking it along with this question from Deputy Kerrane because I know she has a particular interest in the islands as well. The development of a new islands policy is one of the key elements of Our Rural Future, the Government's new rural development policy. The central objective of the islands policy will be to ensure sustainable, vibrant communities continue to live on the offshore islands. A consultation process was undertaken by my Department last year to inform this process and ensure the island communities were and are central to this process.

The consultation process assisted in identifying the main challenges faced by communities on the offshore islands. Issues which were highlighted by the island communities included education, health, housing, energy, employment, broadband and access to services. My officials are now engaging bilaterally with relevant Departments and agencies to discuss the outcome of the consultation, and I expect those Departments and agencies will be providing input regarding and expertise on elements of the policy as it is developed. The interdepartmental committee convened in January this year and it will meet again in June to review progress. I hope to have a draft policy document by the end of this year. Once agreed, the policy will be supported by a series of action plans across the Government to support, promote and empower our island communities.

Regarding the policy document itself, will the Minister be seeking to include timeframes and specific costs for the commitments in it? In addition, was the policy on the islands due sooner than the end of this year? I appreciate it may have been delayed with the consultation, but I thought it was closer to being completed than perhaps it is. Turning to the consultation process itself, I take it from the Minister's response that it is now fully complete. Equally, regarding engagement with other Ministers and Departments, I take it the policy will go through proposals and commitments in a wide range of areas, from housing to health.

Perhaps the Minister could provide more detail on that.

The process was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the related restrictions. Topics proper to a wide range of Departments have been raised. Officials are now discussing these with the relevant parties. This will inform the policy and the action plans.

As the Deputy is aware, an extensive consultation process was undertaken and there was a high level of engagement by the communities. When completed, the plan will set out the high-level strategic ambition for the islands. It will be supported by dynamic action plans delivering both short- and long-term actions to support island communities. It is important that we support our communities. Indeed, I must say that when I became Minster for Social Protection, one of the first things I did was to increase the island allowance. I was the first Minister in 20 years to do so. That is an indication of my personal commitment to supporting the islands.

I ask the Minister to provide some detail on the implementation of the plan and how she plans to implement the policy in the years ahead, following its publication. Is it a five-year strategy, for example?

I welcome the Minister's engagement and the extensive consultation with people who live on the islands. Of course, they are best placed to tell the Minister how their islands need to be developed and what supports they need. That is most important.

I ask the Minister to provide further detail on the implementation of the plan, following its publication. I also ask the Minister to provide further information in relation to the costings in the budgetary implications. I assume, from the Minister's response, that the policy paper will not be published ahead of the budget this year.

I believe Deputy McHugh also wanted to speak on this issue.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I acknowledge that the Minister did visit Arranmore Island. There is no better consultation than coming onto the island. The community are very grateful for that.

I would like to raise two points. The Minister stated that cross-departmental communication is happening currently. On the issue of planning for island communities, it is most important to emphasise that there are difficulties around planning for those seeking to return to the islands. I know the Minister is aware of that. I ask the Minister to look into it.

There was a recent announcement of funding for the Islands. On the chance that there is extra money or room in the budget towards the back end of the year, it would be imperative that the budget for island roads is looked at again for Donegal. I know that the Minister is aware of the situation with the Lighthouse Road on Arranmore Island.

The draft plan will be drawn up. We have done extensive consultation as part of the work. I have not seen the findings yet. A lot of work has been put into it. We have consulted with many Departments. I look forward to seeing the policy document as soon as possible.

On the issues raised by Deputy McHugh, I take on board his point. I have been to two islands. I have visited Clare Island and Arranmore. It was a real pleasure to visit them. I am hoping to visit Inis Oirr. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will understand because she has spoken to me about the island. We are working on that.

In terms of the planning and getting planning permission, the issue has been raised with me. Deputy McHugh has also raised it with me. If people are willing to move back to the island that they were originally from, we should be looking at it. I have raised the issue with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien.

If the Leas-Cheann Comhairle would indulge me, she met with me to discuss the issue of the Inis Oírr pier. I wish to state that the business case has been approved and Galway County Council has permission to put the project out for tender.

Question No. 14 replied to with Written Answers.

Rural Schemes

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

15. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if consideration will be given to extending the local improvement scheme to areas of Cork city which were formally Cork county and should not be disadvantaged as a result of the boundary change; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27833/21]

I will be brief because I know that we are under time constraints.

I would like to ask the Minister about the local improvement schemes and the community involvement schemes, in particular, in areas that were formerly within the boundary limits of Cork County Council, and which now, on account of the boundary change, find themselves within the boundary limits of Cork City Council. As a result of the change, they are no longer eligible for funding. I ask the Minister to comment on the matter.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The local improvement scheme, LIS, is a programme for improvement works on small private or non-public roads in rural areas which are not under the normal maintenance of the local authorities. The scheme is funded by my Department and is administered through the local authorities. I launched the 2021 LIS on Friday, 14 May. I was also pleased to secure a 5% increase in funding for the scheme, bringing the funding available for this year to €10.5 million.

Local authorities in Dublin and the city councils in Cork and Galway have not been eligible for funding under the LIS. This is due to the nature of the scheme, which provides funding for improvement works on small private or non-public roads in rural areas and is typically linked to access to agricultural land. I have no plans at present to broaden access to the scheme to the city councils.

However, I do acknowledge that there were areas of Cork that were previously eligible under the scheme but are now not eligible as a result of the recent boundary change. If both local authorities in the county were agreeable to including these areas affected by the boundary change as part of the scheme for County Cork, it is open to them to submit a joint proposal to my Department for consideration. I have indicated this previously. Any such proposal would need to be made in the context of the existing allocation provided to the county, and without any additional funding requirement from my Department. Roads selected for inclusion in the scheme would, of course, have to meet the criteria of the scheme.

I hope that brings some clarity to the Deputy.

I received the same response to parliamentary questions that I submitted previously on the issue. The difficulty is that it is very unlikely that Cork County Council will share its own limited budget with Cork City Council. That is the realpolitik of local authorities.

To make the case again, these communities were located within the county council boundary and now find themselves within the boundary of the city council, despite the boundary extending in nonsensical ways, for example, 20 km into rural hinterland. They are communities that were lined up to deliver on the scheme proposals. They had dealt with local engineers, had money in the bank and had collected their own percentage in preparation. Unfortunately, now they find themselves on the wrong side of an arbitrary boundary after doing all of that hard work. They have been left in no man's land. That is the reason for the appeal.

It comes against the backdrop of the publication today of a report by the All-Island Research Observatory of Maynooth university. I do not know if the Minister has had a chance to look at it yet. The report found that roads in County Cork, in particular, are massively underfunded in comparison with the national level. It is in that context that I make the appeal to the Minister on the issue.

I must say, the Department is willing to be flexible in this situation. If both councils come together and come to an agreement on how the areas impacted by the boundary change can be covered, we are happy to work with them. I recommend that they take that course of action. There will be no net increase in the funding allocation to Cork, but the Department is happy to accommodate a proposal whereby areas affected by the boundary change are included. They have the choice to do that. Some €10.5 million in funding was announced this month for repairs and improvement works. Cork will receive an increase this year in its budget. Cork actually has the highest allocation in the country and of course is the biggest county. By the end of the year, Cork will have seen investment of some €5.3 million in rural laneways under the LIS since 2017.

I am not going to dispute that the allocation has been increased this year for Cork. The Minister is right to state that Cork has the longest road network in the country. Indeed, the northern division of Cork has a population equivalent to places like County Kilkenny. West Cork, for example, has the largest road infrastructure network in the country. It is for that very reason that per head of population, Cork does receive less funding from any of these projects, whether it is in terms of roads, as I am speaking about now, or CLÁR programme funding. County Cork was massively underfunded in terms of that programme.

That is the case with roads, which I am speaking about now, while County Cork's share of CLÁR programme funding is massively underfunded. As regards LEADER funding, Cork is among the lowest in the country in terms of what it receives. In the case of the town and village renewal scheme, Cork has more settlements than any other county in the country, and it is estimated in the report issued today that it is likely to be 11 years before certain settlements in Cork receive their fair share. Cork is a massive county and I believe it deserves special consideration. I am not just saying that from a parish pump point of view. It is the reality on the ground that, per capita, it does not get its fair share.

I thank the Minister for answering the questions about the LIS. Mayo is one of the largest counties and has the greatest number of LIS roads as well. In addition to the severe underfunding and the impact it has, the fact that people are now paying property tax but do not have access to their homes is a major problem. Will the Minister along with the Department look at the number of LIS roads that have been taken over by local authorities? One of the main problems is that once the LIS roads are done they are not being taken in hand by the local authorities. That means the number is not reducing all the time, so there are more roads taking out of the same pot. An instruction and resources must be given to the local authorities to enable them to take over the LIS roads and bring them under the councils.

I thank both Deputies for raising this. I am very familiar with local improvement schemes and I understand the issues the Deputies have raised regarding funding. I will outline a little of the history of the LIS. It was originally a Department of Transport scheme. In fairness to my predecessor, Deputy Ring, he recognised there was a clear need for the scheme and he reintroduced it under the Department of Rural and Community Development. However, the scale of the backlogs in local authorities is far beyond the resources of my Department alone. I have raised the issue of co-funding with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. He did not rule it out, but his budgets for this year are committed. I will continue to raise it with the Minister and, perhaps, he might have some unspent moneys in other areas that we could divert into the LIS. I urge local authorities to spend what they have this year. If there is any spare money at the end of the year, I will certainly do what I can or examine the situation at that stage.

We are running out of time. There is only time for one more question.

Questions Nos. 16 to 18, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Policies

Claire Kerrane

Question:

19. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development when her Department will publish the rural proofing model which underpins the Our Rural Future - Rural Development Policy 2021-2025 strategy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [27968/21]

This question is about the rural proofing model referred to in Our Rural Future.

Our Rural Future is the new rural development policy covering the period 2021 to 2025 and, as I said earlier, is the most ambitious and transformational policy for rural development in Ireland for decades. It recognises that rural areas play an integral role in the economic, social and cultural well-being of the country and sets out a vision for vibrant and thriving rural towns, villages and communities. The policy contains more than 150 commitments, focusing on long-term sustainability and optimising services and opportunities for individuals, communities and businesses in rural areas.

Urban and rural areas are interdependent, and we must avoid an asymmetrical recovery which risks leaving people behind. This requires not only fulfilling the letter of Our Rural Future, but also the spirit of it on a cross-government basis. The policy commits to developing an effective rural proofing model that will ensure that all Departments fully consider the effects of new proposals on rural communities, the need for possible adjustments to better target the challenges and opportunities facing rural areas and to highlight any unintended impacts that may arise. Any rural proofing process adopted by the Government must be effective, efficient and implementable. The development of a rural proofing model will begin later this year with a scoping exercise that will include assessment of international best practice in this area. Finally, it is of note that in addition to the development of the rural proofing model, formal structures for the monitoring of policy implementation are in place and are overseen by the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment, chaired by An Taoiseach.

It is disappointing that work will not begin on this rural proofing model until later this year. I assume that will be after the Minister makes her initial plan for what will be carried out and what her list of actions will be for this year. Obviously, a rural proofing model is long overdue in respect of the impact of certain Government policies. In many cases it will be too late. However, it is very important. The Minister mentioned the need for the recovery to be balanced. After the last recession the recovery was not balanced, and many rural towns and villages never recovered from that recession. In some cases, that was due to decisions made by the Government and Government policies because there was no rural proofing and no consideration of the impact of certain measures on rural towns and villages. We see the result of that. I ask the Minister to look at developing the rural proofing model. Who will be involved in that regard? Can she give any more details? Will she be engaging with stakeholders on what it needs to be?

My Department will begin the process of developing a rural proofing model this year. It will also engage with colleagues across the Government, with the higher education network that is being established this year under another commitment in Our Rural Future and with other rural development experts as part of the scoping process. This process will also involve engagement internationally, for example, with the OECD, to assess and learn from other countries' experiences of rural proofing models. To be clear, when policy documents and changes come to the Cabinet, I am there, I check them and I raise any concerns that rural Ireland may have. I am the voice of rural communities at the Cabinet, and I have many other colleagues who are also committed to rural Ireland. The point is that we are continually looking at all policy documents through the lens of rural Ireland.

In regard to the engagements the Minister will have in respect of this new rural proofing model, I suggest that she engage not just internationally but also with the Northern and Western Regional Assembly which has done very good work relating to balanced regional development and the inadequacies that already exist. Unfortunately, while it is welcome to have that voice at the Cabinet, in many respects it is too late for many villages and towns. That is why we must ensure that any further Government policy decisions are considered as they relate to rural Ireland. While we all try to work together and have the schemes that are necessary to ensure all rural towns and villages have every opportunity to bounce back, we must also acknowledge the consequences of Covid-19 on top of that and the need to have protection for rural communities when it comes to Government decisions and policies.

To be fair, there has been unprecedented investment in rural Ireland. One need only look at the rural regional development fund, category 1 call, and the successful candidates. That amounted to €81 million. This is since the rural development policy was launched. There was €81 million for that, €15 million for outdoor recreation to support 126 new projects and €15.4 million for the town and village renewal scheme for 147 successful 2020 projects. For 2020-2021, there are calls for proposals, with €5.5 million for CLÁR, €14 million for outdoor recreation, €15 million for town and village renewal, €10.5 million for local improvement schemes as well as the €70 million LEADER transitional programme.

The Deputy referred to the Northern and Western Regional Assembly. I work very closely with the assembly. It is doing wonderful work and I want to continue to work with it and support it in what it is doing for the region and on how we can improve on it. I know it has some exciting plans and I am happy to collaborate with it in any way I can because I believe it is doing very good work there.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.