Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Island Communities

Catherine Connolly

Question:

85. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development further to Parliamentary Question No. 43 of 25 May 2021, to outline the status of the new policy for the islands; when she expects the new policy to be finalised; the position regarding the last meeting of the interdepartmental committee for the development of the islands which was scheduled for 30 June 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38316/21]

I am taking the Minister on a tour of the islands again. There are 30 island communities, eight of which, in Gaeltacht areas, represent 70% of the island population. My questions are specific. Where is the promised policy? When will it be published? What happened at the most recent interdepartmental meeting, bearing in mind that a motion in respect of this matter was put almost two years ago? I will come back to the finer details.

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 that sustainable vibrant communities continue to live on the offshore islands. The consultation process undertaken by my Department has assisted in identifying the main challenges faced by communities living on the offshore islands.

Issues highlighted by the island communities included education, health, housing, energy, employment, broadband and access to services. My officials are now engaging bilaterally with the relevant Departments and agencies to discuss the issues raised by island communities and to assess how they might be addressed. I was pleased to address the annual general meeting of the island representative group, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, last month and to reaffirm the Government's commitment to the sustainable development of our islands. I can also confirm that the scheduled meeting of the interdepartmental committee for the islands was held on 30 June at which Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann gave a very constructive presentation. Work has begun on preparing a first draft of the islands policy. While it was originally envisaged that the new policy would be published this year, I am conscious that getting it right is the real priority. This will be my guiding principle. Having said that, I expect that a final draft will be ready for my consideration by the end of the year.

I am delighted that the Minister and Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann had an opportunity to give presentations. I welcome the fact that some progress has been made and that the Minister hopes for the draft policy to be published by the end of the year. It is important to put this in context. Some 24 years ago, there was an interdepartmental report which acknowledged what was needed and that those on the islands were leading the way but that we needed to back them. Notwithstanding the Herculean efforts of the islands to show us a sustainable way forward, 24 years later we have no policy and no underpinning legislation, unlike Scotland which has policy and underpinning legislation and where the population of the islands has increased. We need a policy. That is the most basic thing. We then need legislation to underpin that policy. Will the Minister comment on the issue of legislation?

I thank the Deputy. I agree with her. I come from a landlocked, inland county but I hope the Deputy accepts my bona fides in being absolutely committed to supporting island communities. It is my plan to visit a number of islands the week after next to meet the residents and to have conversations with them to see at first hand the issues, challenges and opportunities they are presented with. As the Deputy knows, I have approved the business case for Inis Oírr. I am meeting with representatives of Tory Island next week. I have been out to Arranmore and Clare Island. The Deputy will know that there was a problem with the ferry in Clare Island. I got that sorted. This policy document is extremely important but I want to make sure we get it right. I want to listen to the stakeholders and to have continued engagement with them.

I thank the Minister. I accept her bona fides. I hope she will visit Galway, where there are a number of islands including the Aran Islands and Inishbofin. Huge progress has been made on ecotourism and dark skies on Inishbofin but the island is struggling for something as basic as a primary care centre. That is just one example. The Minister has made progress on the business case for Inis Oírr, which I welcome, but there are many other problems on the ground. It is not bona fides that are missing, but a policy and legislation to underpin it. I have mentioned the interdepartmental report from 1996. We then had a report from an Oireachtas joint committee in 2014 and a study on the islands of west Cork which covered the period from 1998 to 2004. We have had any amount of reports and recommendations but we have had no action. That is the difficulty. We need policy underpinned by legislation. Perhaps, when the Covid restrictions allow, we might all take a little trip over to Scotland to hear a presentation on that country's policy and legislation and how it has managed to increase the population.

I am happy to look at the model employed in Scotland and to learn from the things that have worked there. I am absolutely committed to delivering this policy for the islands. A number of agencies are involved. It cuts across Departments. As the Deputy will know, it does not only involve my Department, but a number of Departments. We are consulting with them. The Deputy mentioned a healthcare centre. That would involve the Department of Health. I want commitments from these different Departments as to what they are going to do and as to how they are going to make a difference to the lives of the islanders. I am working on it and will ensure that we get it finished as quickly as possible. The Deputy is right to say that this has gone on too long. It has but at this stage, it is better to wait a little bit longer, to get it right and to have a meaningful policy that will make a difference to those living on the different islands right across the country. The week after next, I am going to visit three islands. An island in Galway is on the list.

Public Procurement Contracts

Brian Stanley

Question:

86. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if her Department has considered the role that social and labour procurement clauses could play in the development of economies in rural Ireland. [38307/21]

This question, in the name of Deputy Stanley, is being taken by Deputy Mairéad Farrell.

In public procurement, social clauses are legal obligations which require contractors to create some form of added value as part of the contract. That can come in the form of labour activation, promoting the participation of SMEs, an obligation to provide a living wage and so on. What consideration has the Minister's Department given to the role that social and labour procurement clauses could play in the development of economies in rural Ireland?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As she will be aware, responsibility for public procurement lies with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth. However, socially responsible public procurement is a whole-of-government priority. It is critical that public funds are used for the maximum benefit of society. Social clauses can also play an important role in rural development.

Ireland's rural development policy, Our Rural Future, includes a commitment to “expand the use of socially responsible public procurement contracts, where feasible, which will incentivise the engagement of social enterprises and Circular Economy organisations”. The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future also contains a number of commitments in this area including a commitment to optimise the community benefit of products and services procured by the State.

My Department is leading by example in the use of social clauses by, for instance, including such clauses in the procurement of sensory room facilities in public libraries. To fulfil one of the commitments of the national social enterprise policy, my Department also participates actively in the Office of Government Procurement's strategic procurement advisory group to help policy makers better understand how procurement can be used to advance social policy objectives. Finally, the Department of Justice's social enterprise and employment strategy, Working to Change, also sets a target for 10% of all criminal justice system procurement contracts to include social considerations by the end of 2023.

I am aware the Minister's Department has done work on social clauses. It is one of only seven Departments to have done so. The Minister has mentioned the involvement of social enterprises in the provision of sensory facilities and equipment in public libraries. I welcome and acknowledge that. I also acknowledge that a public body under the Minister's Department, Pobal, has also done work in this regard. The main problem is that the only reason I know this is because I gathered the data myself. I contacted 18 Departments, 184 public bodies and 31 local authorities to get that information. Information on social clauses really should be included in the annual reports of all Departments. As information on green procurement will appear in these annual reports, it makes sense to also collect information on social clauses and social procurement. As the Minister's Department is one of the seven to have led the way on this, will she commit to examining whether such information on social clauses could also be included in her Department's annual report?

I thank the Deputy. I absolutely agree with her on the benefit of including social clauses. It is important and, where possible, there should be social benefits. My Department is particularly focused on social enterprises. We have a strategy to promote these but it a question of how to get that other aspect into the public procurement process. As the Deputy will know, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, has responsibility for this specific area. I am happy to raise the issue with him.

I do not see any reason we cannot look at putting the impact of the social clauses into our report. I am happy to take the suggestion on board.

Hopefully, in the post-Covid world, we will try to rebuild the economy on a regionally balanced basis and people who have moved back into rural areas as a result of Covid-19 will contribute to that. Community wealth-building and the inclusion of social clauses would be key to that. It is something I have an interest in and, as the Minister said, if we spend public money, it should have a public benefit and help people in terms of labour activation, training, skills and that kind of thing. That will help on a rural and regionally balanced basis.

I am delighted the Minister will speak to the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth. That would be good because we need a more strategic and co-ordinated approach to using public money to support the public good. I hope the Government takes a more co-ordinated approach. As I said, the Department of Rural and Community Development is one of only seven that uses social clauses.

Government policies include the national social enterprise policy, Our Rural Future, the new national rural development policy, A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, and Working to Change: Social Enterprise and Employment Strategy 2021-2023. There is an emphasis in all those policies. The establishment of the strategic procurement advisory group under the auspices of the Office of Government Procurement is another strong indication of the Government's commitment to socially responsible public procurement. The Department of Rural and Community Development is an active member of the group and I will bring that issue up with the group. We are working on the supply side with social enterprises to equip them with the knowledge and skills to access public procurement and on the demand side to encourage greater use of social clauses across government. I agree with the Deputy on these issues.

Regional Development

Claire Kerrane

Question:

87. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if progress has been made on establishing a community ownership fund to help communities groups purchase or take over local community assets for community use; if potential State-owned properties in rural towns and villages have been identified, as committed to in Our Rural Future; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38458/21]

This question asks the Minister about progress on a number of commitments in Our Rural Future. One is the establishment of a community ownership fund to help community groups purchase or take over local community assets for community use. It also asks if potential State-owned properties in rural towns and villages have been identified to date.

Our Rural Future aims at reimagining rural Ireland by revitalising towns and villages and getting more people to live in, work in and enjoy rural areas. It notes that Ireland's overall economic and social well-being depends on the strength of the recovery in rural areas. It also recognises the centrality of communities in delivering on this ambitious new vision. The policy commits to enhancing community benefit through building empowered communities, developing social enterprises to create jobs and generate community impact and exploring new approaches to community benefit such as community ownership.

Our Rural Future is a five-year policy, with measures to be delivered over its lifetime. As such, my Department's approach to implementation is based on a series of annual work programmes, with associated monitoring and reporting structures. My Department, in co-operation with other relevant Departments, plans to begin the examination of the potential for a specific community ownership fund as part of the 2022 work programme. However, a number of actions are already happening across government that support the ambition of this measure. Communities can already access some existing funding streams to bring vacant buildings back into use as multipurpose or enterprise spaces and-or for residential occupancy, for instance, under the town and village renewal scheme, although this is not the only purpose of that scheme. Likewise, LEADER can, in specific cases, be leveraged to support the acquisition and repurposing of local community assets. As with all the measures contained in Our Rural Future, progress in relation to this recommendation will form part of our ongoing monitoring and implementation structures.

Will the Minister outline how she envisages the community ownership fund will work? I appreciate it is in the work programme for 2022.

I speak in relation to vacant buildings in the possession of the likes of the Office of Public Works, OPW. There are 75 of them in the State that are currently vacant and many of them are former Garda stations. Some will be auctioned off this month. These vacant properties lie in rural towns and villages throughout the State. I know the OPW has made the list available to the Department. At what level has she examined that? Has she considered options for using the vacant properties? They should be used within the community as much as possible rather than being auctioned off to the highest bidder. What engagement has she had with the OPW on this? Would she consider using those vacant properties?

The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, and the OPW are looking at how they can identify suitable State-owned properties which are no longer being used and could be passed over to the community. It could be, for example, an old Garda station lying idle. Rather than letting that property fall into disrepair, why not give it to the community? Through schemes like the town and village scheme, communities can get funding to renovate such properties for their own purposes. We need more joined-up thinking on this. I do not want to see buildings falling into disrepair when they could be used for good purposes.

Local authorities can be used. My local authority in Monaghan is good at working with communities to identify such properties. The local authority might buy the property and lease it back to the community. There could be a long-term lease. There are a number of options. I believe we can get the right solution. It is about stakeholders coming together at grassroots level and coming up with ideas. When such a property is identified, it is fine and well getting it but something is needed in it that washes its face in terms of running it.

The list of 75 vacant properties in the possession of the OPW went to the Department. Has the Minister had any engagement with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, or the OPW on the use of those properties for community purposes in rural towns and villages? Some of them are going up for auction this month. That is regrettable, especially if some level of engagement between the Department and the OPW or the Minister of State has not taken place. A number of the vacant properties are under consideration by the local authorities, including some in Roscommon and Galway, but some in other areas are going up for auction. Has the Minister engaged with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, or the OPW on the list of 75 vacant buildings which, as the Minister of State indicated, has been sent to her Department?

I have had engagement and meetings with the Minister of State on the issue of properties. Some of these properties could be acquired for remote working hubs or a number of other uses. It is up to local communities and local authorities to work together. When they make propositions, I am never found wanting. Good projects always get funding and different streams of funding are available.

The Deputy raised an issue about the community ownership fund. The idea came from the UK, where a £150 million community ownership fund has been introduced. It allows communities to get grants of up to £250,000 in matched funding where they want to take over a facility at risk of being lost and run it as a social enterprise or co-operative model. Our Rural Future contains a five-year strategy so we cannot do everything in year one but we will look at this as part of our 2022 work programme.

Question No. 88 replied to with Written Answers.

Vacant Properties

Holly Cairns

Question:

89. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the steps she is taking to address the issue of vacant and derelict buildings in towns and villages. [38173/21]

Claire Kerrane

Question:

93. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development her plans to introduce new supports and incentives for the refurbishment of vacant properties to increase town centre living, following on from the pilot town centre living initiative; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38461/21]

Brendan Smith

Question:

127. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the new supports and incentives that will be introduced for the refurbishment of vacant properties to increase town centre living, as committed to in Our Rural Future; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38456/21]

Too many towns and villages have vacant and derelict buildings that, as well as being eyesores and potentially dangerous sites, are buildings that could support local businesses and provide housing. We need a whole-of-government approach to this issue, with local authorities and Departments working together. Will the Minister outline the measures she is putting in place to address vacant and derelict buildings?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 89, 93 and 127 together.

The refurbishment of vacant properties is being addressed by a number of initiatives 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 category 1 of the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF. The projects will combat dereliction, increase the vibrancy of rural towns and villages and regenerate town centre buildings. A call for RRDF category 2 projects opened in May.

I have also announced funding of €15 million under the 2021 town and village renewal scheme. A key focus of this year's scheme is to renovate derelict and vacant buildings in town centres, including for residential living. I have increased the maximum grant available under the scheme to €500,000 to permit projects of additional scale to be funded. In addition, I will shortly be announcing a new €2 million scheme to fund the development of town master plans, which I expect will identify strategic actions tailored to address vacancy and support town centre living in each town.

There is a range of other initiatives outlined in Our Rural Future that 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 and bring forward recommendations to Government. As part of its role, this group is considering the suggested actions set out in the report on my Department's town centre living initiative, which was published last year. 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.

There is a range of schemes that seek to deal with this issue. As I indicated, €81 million in funding is being made available for 25 flagship projects under the RRDF. The work will involve looking at old buildings, including cinemas, courthouses and convents. For example, we provided funding to Donegal County Council to convert a former department store into a wonderful new complex. We have given funding to refurbish a number of old convents, including one in Ballymahon. These buildings will be brought back into use as community facilities, such as libraries, remote working hubs and so on. Some will be multipurpose buildings. I want to see investment in bringing buildings back into use and conversion for 21st century living. The way we are living is changing and remote working, in particular, is a wonderful opportunity for rural Ireland. It makes sense to convert some of these properties and use them for that purpose.

We all acknowledge that this as an issue that needs intervention. We know how disheartening it is for local communities, including those in west Cork, to see buildings that formerly housed thriving family businesses or were homes fall into disrepair. In many cases, Tidy Towns committees and property owners take on the responsibility of cleaning them up. We also have cases like Mitchelstown in north Cork, however, where the facade of a building recently collapsed. My colleague, Councillor Ross O'Connell, has been working on these issues in Goleen and Bantry in west Cork, which are examples of how even one or two vacant buildings in a town or village can have a disproportionate impact and give the impression of a high street that is empty and derelict.

The Minister highlighted the town and village renewal scheme as a means of bringing vacant and derelict sites back into use. However, that is a multipurpose and competitive scheme that is vastly oversubscribed. What specific interventions is she proposing under that scheme?

A pilot was done under the town centre living initiative and 15 suggested actions came out of it. Have those suggested actions been reviewed by the Minister's Department? One of them was to appoint town centre officers, perhaps in local authorities, who would assist property owners. We know there have been issues in this area and the pilot report also acknowledged legal issues in regard to ownership. The idea is that town centre officers would get in and engage with property owners where properties are being left in ruins in the centres of rural towns in particular. They are an eyesore and it is an unfortunate situation. While there are schemes in place, there is clearly a need for new initiatives and actions in this regard. In many towns, the situation is not getting much better and it is clear they are not seeing the funding that is available. That is why we need new initiatives based on the 15 suggestions.

Deputy Kerrane has submitted a question on town centre first officers, which we will get to presently. I will come back on that specific point when I answer that question.

The town centre first group has been set up under the chairmanship of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. My Department feeds into that interdepartmental group and much of its work is on the suggested actions set out in the report on the town centre living initiative. A number of actions will take place as a result of the work of the group. It was established to consider the regeneration of our towns and villages, as I said. It has agreed four key pillar areas for development of a town centre first framework, namely, governance and enabling structures-----

The Minister is out of time but I will come back to her.

The latest rural development policy recognises the issues involved and proposes a number of measures in response. As well as the town and village renewal scheme, it mentions encouraging local authorities to use compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, to deal with derelict buildings. Will the Minister use her influence to prompt councils to take more action in this area? We all know there are tools available to local authorities that are underused. Encouragement from the Minister could lead to greater action on that front.

The policy also mentions providing financial support to local authorities to bring vacant properties back into use as remote working hubs. Will the Minister outline what sort of funding will be made available in this regard and the timescales involved? Vacant and derelict buildings are an ongoing issue that needs policies and funding from Government and local authorities. We need a carrot-and-stick approach to prevent owners from sitting on properties, help communities to bring sites back to life and, crucially, encourage councils to use the tools they have to address this issue.

I welcome that an interdepartmental group has been established. I look forward to the Minister outlining the four pillars of action to which she referred.

Some of the specific actions that are being considered by the interdepartmental group include incentivising the use of vacant buildings through taxation strategies, exploring financial disincentives in respect of vacancy and underuse, examining alternative models for access to finance for the adaptive reuse of vacant buildings, resourcing and supporting local authorities to invest and demonstrate confidence in their town, and establishing a cross-cutting town centre first approach. There have been some really good examples of what can be done and I would like other local authorities to take note, especially where there is a large number of derelict buildings in particular towns.

Local authorities need to work with local communities. Some towns have already benefited from the available funding. In Kinsale, for instance, funding of €2.157 million from the first call of category 1 applications has been approved for a library project. The relocation of Kinsale library to a listed, council-owned heritage building will require a major restoration and fit-out. Deputy Kerrane will be very familiar with the Boyle regeneration initiative, to which funding of €2.137 million has been given for a series of linked projects, including the refurbishment of the vacant former Royal Hotel and its conversion into an enterprise hub.

There is good work going on there and I want to see more of it because it is the right thing to do. A lady who recently wrote a book on how towns were planned many years ago was interviewed on radio yesterday. We can look back to what happened in the 1800s and how towns were planned then. We could take a leaf out of that book as well.

Question No. 90 replied to with Written Answers

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Bernard Durkan

Question:

91. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development her ongoing proposals and initiatives required arising from the impact of Covid-19 in all areas of the country, urban and rural; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38180/21]

To what extent have the various schemes available to the Minister been made available throughout the country in connection with Covid? To what extent does she continue to review the progress of those schemes, with the possibility of intervention at a later stage if necessary?

I thank the Deputy for his question. Given the role of my Department in supporting the economic and social development of rural Ireland, as well as community development throughout Ireland, all of our existing funding schemes support the response to, and recovery from, the pandemic in some way. However, several specific targeted measures are aimed at directly supporting the Covid response and recovery. The main focus has been on community development supports, as reflected in the increase in gross expenditure for that programme area from €149 million in 2019 to €202 million in 2020.

My Department continues to provide Covid-19 supports to communities right across the country. On 6 May, I launched the 2021 stability fund, with an allocation of €10 million targeting organisations that deliver critical services to vulnerable people within their community but now face closure or loss of service due to the impact of the pandemic. This €10 million investment builds on the €45 million stability fund 2020 which supported almost 600 organisations across the country.

The application process for the 2021 stability fund has now closed, with applications appraised and assessed in batches to facilitate timely drawdowns. Decisions will be released on an ongoing basis. I was pleased to announce tranche 1 of successful grantees under the 2021 stability fund on 9 July, supporting 180 organisations with close to €4.5 million in allocations. Further tranches will follow in due course.

The €4.5 million 2021 community enhancement programme will provide vital supports to assist local groups to reopen their facilities post Covid-19. Adjustments to programmes delivered by my Department, such as town and village renewal and CLÁR, have been made where required to further support communities during the pandemic.

I thank the Minister of State. How are the various projects progressing and being taken up? Is there a further requirement to revisit these schemes in light of the impact of Covid? To what extent are the current proposals and provisions deemed sufficient to meet the requirements in full?

I thank the Deputy for his concern for the sector at large. The stability fund last year offered us a unique opportunity to do a kind of health check or get a good snapshot of where the community and voluntary sector was and it allowed us to support the sector. The new stability fund offers additional support in that regard. Without going into detail, I am hopeful and satisfied that, by and large, the community and voluntary sector will bounce back. Obviously, some organisations will suffer more than others but, on the whole, in terms of the applications coming in and the amount of support we will provide, I am hopeful that the sector as a whole will prove its resilience.

I will provide figures that may be of interest to the Deputy in the context of Covid supports to County Kildare. Under the Covid-19 stability scheme last year, €490,000 was disbursed to projects in Kildare, as was €66,000 under the community enhancement programme, €181,000 through the community enhancement programme for community centres under the July stimulus package, and €94,000 under the emergency fund.

Can the Minister of State indicate whether, based on his observations and ongoing dialogue with the various groups concerned in County Kildare and elsewhere in the country, there is a greater need for further intervention in specific areas?

There is no single overarching area or geographical area that springs to mind in that regard but we are monitoring the situation very closely. The community enhancement programme was launched recently and we will be getting feedback from the local authorities that manage those schemes in terms of demand and the types of projects that were seeking supports. We keep an ear close to the ground in terms of feedback on the various schemes and closely monitor the applications that come in to help us to get a full and deep picture of the financial situation of the community and voluntary sector as a whole. We are looking closely at the matter. No decisions have been made yet but, on the whole, we are very hopeful that the sector will bounce back strongly.

Departmental Schemes

Claire Kerrane

Question:

92. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if progress has been made as part of the town centre first approach to provide and resource dedicated staff within local authorities to support town centre renewal, as committed to in Our Rural Future; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38459/21]

Reference has already been made to the subject matter of this question. Has progress been made to provide and resource dedicated staff within local authorities to support town centre renewal, as committed to in Our Rural Future?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Our Rural Future sets out a blueprint for the development of rural Ireland over the next five years. It is supported by some 150 commitments based on the challenges and opportunities identified for rural communities.

A key element of Our Rural Future is the commitment to develop and deliver a collaborative town centre first approach to put the development and regeneration of rural town centres at the heart of decision-making. The Government has committed, as part of this overall approach, to provide and resource dedicated local authority staff to support town centre renewal. It is envisaged that such staff would assist the towns themselves to identify and deliver the key interventions required for the town.

My Department and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage are jointly chairing an interdepartmental group established to progress these matters. The group has made good progress in identifying specific actions. As part of its work, the group is considering all of the suggested actions identified in the report on the town centre living Initiative published by my Department last year. That report suggested the appointment of town centre officers or management teams to support the regeneration of our towns.

The work of the group is being supported by an advisory group which includes a wide range of stakeholders and is chaired by my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke. Based on the work of both groups, I expect recommendations on the delivery of the town centre first approach to be presented to the Government in the coming months. This will include provisions in respect of dedicated staff for town centre renewal.

I thank the Minister for her response. This is a good initiative and it will drive the town centre approach in a collaborative way. There is a real need for staff to be placed in local authorities. I presume the Minister is considering one such town centre officer per local authority. They will have a crucial role to play in developing rural town centres, many of which need a dedicated approach in respect of town centre development, which will be very important. The Minister stated these staff will be in place. The interdepartmental report will be produced in the coming months. When will these staff members fill the roles in local authorities?

As regards collaboration under the town centre approach, it is important that there is consultation with residents and business owners in the town centres at every stage.

As I stated, the working group chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, will come forward with recommendations in the coming months. As part of budget 2021, I secured €2 million to help these towns develop master plans. It is very important that they have a plan in order to ensure there is joined-up thinking, which is part of making it a success. It is one thing to have the plan, but there is then a need for people to drive it and to work with the stakeholders, communities, businesses and all those involved, as the Deputy stated, to see what is the best approach to revitalising the town centres. The plan is for the town centre first officers to carry out that role.

We will support local authorities in appointing an officer. However, we want to wait until we receive the report from the interdepartmental group. The plans are in place. We will drive it forward. In fairness to local authorities, they have taken on a lot of work.

I hope we see the report from that interdepartmental group before the end of the year. I hope we see moves being made to hire these town centre officers and to put them in place in our local authorities across our rural counties to ensure that the town centre first approach works and is driven on by our local authorities in those local areas.

As I said, in fairness to local authorities, many different demands are being made of them. Many funding opportunities are available for schemes, whether it is the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and the Media's scheme for outdoor dining, the Minister for Transport's schemes for cycling and walking infrastructure or schemes from my own Department in town and village renewal, and rural regeneration. Of course, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has more schemes that are run through the local authorities.

Instead of following this ad hoc approach, the town centre officer can co-ordinate the different schemes and drive them forward. They can identify the best source of funding, which may perhaps include a mix of a number of different funding streams, to achieve their objectives and revitalise town centres. We have a great opportunity to do it. If Covid-19 has taught us one thing, it is to think outside the box. When we work together we get better results. I plan to support the local authorities in appointing a town centre officer. I hope it progresses very quickly.

Question No. 93 answered with Question No. 89.
Questions Nos. 94 to 99, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Schemes

Brendan Griffin

Question:

100. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if increased funding will be provided for local improvement scheme roads around the country; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38520/21]

Brendan Smith

Question:

102. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if additional funding will be provided in 2021 for the local improvement scheme in the event of a reallocation of capital funding during 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38483/21]

I thank the Minster wholeheartedly for the fantastic news this week of the additional allocation of €10.5 million in funding for local improvement schemes. When I tabled this question, the funding had not been announced. The Minister effectively doubled the budget for this year with her announcement yesterday. It is great news. I would like to discuss the matter further with the Minister today.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 100 and 102 together.

The local improvement scheme provides funding for work on rural roads and laneways, as Deputy Griffin well knows. He has raised this matter with me on a number of occasions. These particular laneways are not normally maintained by local authorities. They are normally private and go into agricultural land and houses.

This funding is vital for rural residents and for improving connectivity for rural farm families, in particular. The scheme is funded by my Department and is administered through the local authorities. I launched the 2021 local improvement scheme on 14 May with an announcement of funding of €10.5 million, representing a 5% increase on last year's funding. As part of the our rural future policy, the Government committed to ensuring that the local improvement scheme is funded into the future. This reflects the important contribution that the scheme makes to connectivity in rural Ireland. It is against this background that I am very pleased to confirm that I recently announced the allocation of a further €10.5 million to the local improvement scheme in 2021 to bring the level of funding to €21 million. That means that the level of funding has been doubled this year compared to the original allocation. The increase will be funded from expected savings elsewhere in my Department. I am also continuing to engage with my colleague, the Minister for Transport, to explore the potential for further financial support from his Department.

My Department is currently ascertaining the capacity of each local authority to deliver this additional funding and to complete works on additional roads before the end of the year. Following on from this engagement, I expect to shortly announce the exact additional allocation to each county. The announcement will mean that almost €80 million will have been allocated under the local improvement scheme since it was reintroduced by the former Minister, Deputy Ring, in 2017. This demonstrates the Government's commitment to improving connectivity in rural Ireland, as outlined in the our rural future policy.

It certainly does emphasise the Government's commitment. I welcome the funding that the Minister has delivered. It is very rare for a Minister to deliver such a level of funding in an area such as this. She has played her part. However, I certainly feel, and I agree with the Minister, that it is time for other Departments to chip in, particularly large capital budget Departments like the Departments of Transport and Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Those Departments have a role to play. It cannot just be left to the Minister's Department. A huge burden is being placed on the Department of Rural and Social Development and there is a massive list.

I will be parochial and say that when it comes to distributing the extra €10.5 million in funding, County Kerry has one of the longest lists in the country. There are hundreds of worthy roads that are very valuable to the local communities and are awaiting repair and resurfacing. I ask the Minister to look kindly on the Kingdom when it comes to the local improvement scheme. Our roads are the worst in the country and we badly need that money.

There is a long list of roads that need repaired. I know there are many such roads in counties Kerry, Cavan and Monaghan, Mayo and all over the country.

We have contacted the local authorities. We have asked them to outline what they can deliver before the end of the year. I want the money allocated to be spent on the roads. The allocations will be looked at by my Department. We will be also looking at what local authorities can do themselves and if they can deliver. It is important that they submit realistic and achievable targets for the end of the year. If they do not meet the targets, we will take a very dim view of it. To be clear, they need not put in a list of roads to get the funding and then not spend it.

The Deputy is a former Minister in the Department of Transport. He will appreciate that roads are normally funded by that Department. This scheme is a specific commitment to rural Ireland. I have raised the matter with the Minister for Transport. In fairness, I think he is open to the idea of assisting in this particular area. Obviously, he will have to have discussions with his officials in the Department.

I appreciate the efforts that have been made with the Department of Transport. I have been a long-time advocate of the Department of Transport supporting the local improvement scheme. The Department should not have abdicated all responsibility back in 2016. It should have retained its commitment to co-funding the scheme, as far as I am concerned. I wish to acknowledge the efforts that were made over those years by both the current Minister and her predecessor, the former Minister, Deputy Ring, to get the scheme moving again and to start clearing the lists.

From a Kerry perspective, any money that ever came into the county was rapidly spent. The local authority went through the previous list very quickly and showed that once it received the funding, it was spent and put to good use. I am sure that will happen again with any funding that is allocated in future. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind when she is making her decisions.

We will not get through the list, in any acceptable amount of time, without that level of co-operation from other Departments. I support the Minister in her efforts. The other Departments must step up to the plate and acknowledge the role that has to be played by the Department of Transport, in particular, in acknowledging the use of these roads for walking and cycling.

As the Deputy is aware, we try to be as fair as possible when allocating the funds. The officials will come forward with recommended allocations in due course. They are currently engaging with the local authorities on the matter. In fairness to the Deputy, it will not be his fault if Kerry does not get a fair share of the cake, as it were. It is an issue the Deputy has raised with me previously. To be fair, I have more than doubled the budget this year, with funding of €21 million.

It will be a help. I am aware there is a long list. There is no doubt about that.

I thank the Deputies who have raised this issue with me today. The LIS was previously under the Department of Transport but we have got it kick-started. I will be working with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who is open to working with me. The Department just has to identify the funding streams.

I have some rural roads in Dublin South-West. The Minister should not forget Dublin when it comes to rural roads.

Community Development Projects

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Question:

101. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if there is scope to expand the community enhancement scheme to offer financial supports to communities that wish to undertake renovations on community centres or, potentially, construct new community centres; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38011/21]

Steven Matthews

Question:

131. Deputy Steven Matthews asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if there is scope to expand the community enhancement programme in order for it to offer more substantial financial supports to local communities wishing to undertake renovations to their community centre or perhaps build a new community centre; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38017/21]

Is there scope to expand the community enhancement scheme to offer financial support to communities that wish to renovate community centres or, potentially, construct new ones?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 101 and 131 together.

I thank the Deputy for his question. The community enhancement programme, CEP, provides small grants to community organisations, with a focus on those organisations in disadvantaged areas. The funding is provided to each local authority area and is distributed by the local community development committees, LCDCs, on the basis of local need. In 2020, the CEP received a total fund of €7.2 million, including €5 million as part of the Government's July stimulus package for repairs or upgrades to community centres and community buildings. This year, on 10 May, I launched the 2021 CEP, with an allocation of €4.5 million. The key theme of this year's programme is supporting groups as they reopen their facilities, which were closed because of Covid-19. To allow flexibility, each LCDC can set its own closing date to best suit its area, but all closing dates must be no later than 16 July 2021. Groups should check with their LCDC for further details.

It is important to note that, typically, the CEP provides smaller grants and does not fund substantial renovations or the construction of new community centres. While community centres are funded from many different sources across Departments, agencies and local authorities, there is no dedicated stand-alone funding stream for capital works for community centres at present.

There is a benefit to the introduction of a dedicated community centre capital programme to provide large-scale capital grants for significant refurbishment, retrofitting and modernisation works across the network of community centres. My officials are exploring whether it is possible to secure additional funding for my Department to deliver such a programme.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. He has touched on the fact that there are two issues at play. First, it is a matter of filling in the gaps where there may be no community centres. Tramore is peculiar in this regard. It has a community of some 12,000 people, yet it does not have a community centre to serve it. It does not really have a village hall or shared community space to facilitate a large-scale sharing of views, small theatre groups and so on.

The second issue is that running a community centre results in substantial running costs. There is a genuine opportunity in this regard. With retrofitting, particularly the installation of renewables, for example, it will be possible to switch from incurring a cost to having a revenue source as we get feed-in tariffs. Having a dedicated source of funding is good and well worth pursuing within the Department.

There is a benefit to introducing a dedicated community centre capital programme to provide large-scale capital grants for significant refurbishment, retrofitting, modernisation and the construction of community centres. The need for more significant capital investment to support community infrastructure has become more evident during the pandemic.

A proposal for an increase in the level of capital funding provided for community development has been included in my Department's submission to the review of the national development plan, which is being undertaken by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Separately, my Department has developed a proposal for a community centre capital programme as part of a wider community-recovery investment fund. This was submitted to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for consideration for inclusion in Ireland's national recovery and resilience plan proposals. Programming is under way for the European Regional Development Fund, ERDF. My officials have completed a screening questionnaire on the proposed funding in respect of ERDF co-financing. This has been sent to the Northern and Western Regional Assembly. The development of a dedicated community centre capital programme will depend on the success of the proposals.

I thank the Minister of State. A dedicated funding source would be one of several steps in the right direction. Many communities have to develop their community facilities in dribs and drabs, and there are small groups of volunteers chasing every funding source available. We should bring the strands together and help put the facilities into the heart of the communities.

In my home town, Tramore, there is a significant site for sale. We could lose it to residential use unless it is taken on board. It was formerly a school site. It has a large hall and the potential to be developed into an outstanding community centre. In a growing town the size of Tramore, there is a need for the kinds of community services in question to be brought together into one space and for the site in question to be handed over for the good of the community. I would welcome the Minister of State's comments in this regard.

There is strong interest in developing a programme like this. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is advocating it strongly. We hope there will be something in the revised national development plan to facilitate the need. There are gaps across the country. In deprived and lightly populated areas, there is a clear issue. Many community centre projects start and grow organically so we should match that community commitment to making improvements with some commitment from ourselves. It is certainly high on our agenda. A need has been identified and we need to act upon it.

Question No. 102 answered with Question No. 100.

Broadband Infrastructure

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

103. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the work programme of the mobile phone and broadband task force; the estimated timeframe for when the task force will be established; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38308/21]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

108. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if her Department will primarily oversee and implement the work programme of the mobile phone and broadband taskforce; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38309/21]

My question is about the mobile phone and broadband task force, which, on the basis of legacy, resides within the Minister's Department. It has been re-tasked. It is a matter of the timeline. Deputy O'Rourke and I recently met representatives of Telecommunications Industry Ireland. That would have included National Broadband Ireland, Eir and others. They really want the body up and running so as to have a clearing house to deal with issues. There are always planning permission and infrastructural issues with major infrastructural projects. We do not need hold-ups. We need a clearing house rather than an arrangement by which we deal with issues across this floor.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 103 and 108 together.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The mobile phone and broadband task force was launched in July 2016 with the objective of improving access to high-quality mobile phone coverage and broadband services in rural Ireland. Since its inception, the task force has addressed more than 70 targeted actions, worked on removing structural barriers to telecommunications deployment and addressed mobile coverage deficits, particularly in rural areas. The completion of the task force's 2019 work programme marked the end of the task force as originally constituted. Attention has now turned towards its future orientation in line with the programme for Government commitment to continue to support the work of the group. Officials in my Department and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications have prepared a report on the task force's achievements and are currently evaluating what issues should be addressed by it in the future. Significant progress has been made by the task force although I am aware that there remains a range of strategic issues whose solution will require multiple Departments and agencies working together.

Since its inception, the implementation and overseeing of the task force have involved a joint commitment of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and my Department. I will continue to work with my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, to agree a new direction for the task force that will build on the success and positive engagement across central and local government, statutory agencies and industry.

I was involved in the setting up of the task force in 2016. At the time, I set up broadband officers in every county in the country. Having spoken to the telecommunications operators, I have learned that the task force structure and broadband officers have been invaluable to them in sorting out problems they have encountered on the ground, be they associated with planning or infrastructure. The arrangement has been very successful.

I welcome what the Minister stated to the effect that there will be a timeline for the evaluation and that the body in question, with its new tasks, will be back in operation. These organisations and companies are looking for a clearing house for dealing with the issues that exist. We know the situation in respect of National Broadband Ireland. There are two parts to that. One involves delays relating to Covid-19, which we expect to be dealt with in the first six months. Then there is the wider issue of accelerating the programme, which will probably involve years 6 and 7 being done in years 4 and 5. As already stated, we need a clearing house to deal with any issues that arise.

We recognise that section 254 guidelines have streamlined the matter of planning permissions across the State and for local authorities. There are still major issues, however, and local authorities are not fully structured from the point of view of delivering major strategic infrastructural projects across the State. We need this up and running as quickly as possible. We then need to be able to offer interim solutions for those people for whom the National Broadband Ireland roll-out will take a long time and the latter will be need to be done by that task force.

We have the task force and it has worked very well. We are looking at how we can repurpose it. A great deal of work is happening. I spoke to the task force only recently. It acknowledge the great work with the local authorities and local broadband officers, who have been able to bring a wide range of solutions there. I agree with the Deputy on the wider structure.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is certainly dealing with those issues on a national basis and is doing everything he can where he has engaged with National Broadband Ireland with a view to accelerating the roll-out of the national broadband programme on a contractual footing. Obviously, any changes to the contract will require detailed, technical, commercial and financial analysis by both parties. I understand that National Broadband Ireland has established a dedicated team to investigate the potential for acceleration of the roll-out of the fibre network. We are all on the same page here and want to get broadband rolled out as quickly as possible.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.