Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

EU Funding

Claire Kerrane

Question:

48. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she will consider allocating additional funding to the LEADER programme for 2023 to 2027, given the recently announced indicative allocation of €180 million for this period and in consideration of the fact that LEADER funding has stagnated since the previous period and has dropped significantly since the period from 2007 to 2013; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60565/21]

I wish to ask the Minister about the indicative funding that has been disclosed in respect of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and what will be available under the LEADER programme from 2023 to 2027. It is a huge drop on the period from 2007 to 2013, considering the very important role played by LEADER. I ask the Minister to make a statement on what has been announced thus far.

The Government clearly recognises the vital role that LEADER plays in delivering impactful rural development projects at local level and it will continue to support investment in rural Ireland. In the 2014-20 CAP programming period, €250 million was allocated to LEADER. For the seven-year programming period from 2021 to 2027, this funding allocation will be maintained. It is comprised of €70 million provided for the transitional period from 2021 to 2022, and the recently announced indicative allocation of €180 million for the period 2023 to 2027. The maintenance of the €250 million funding from the 2014-20 period is evidence of the Government's continued support for the LEADER programme.

Any discussion of rural development investment must also take account of the record levels of investment in recent years. A range of schemes have been implemented in recent years, such as the rural regeneration and development fund, the town and village renewal scheme, the walks scheme, and the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme.

Budget 2022 also saw increases secured across all my Department's rural schemes and the national development plan, NDP, outlines a clear commitment to a continuation of investment in rural Ireland as a matter of priority. Capital funding allocations for my Department have seen an increase from €88 million in 2018 to €205 million in 2025 under the NDP.

This increased funding will help to deliver on the range of actions for our rural communities into the future as set out in the Government’s ambitious rural development policy, Our Rural Future.

The Minister will be aware that the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, has put forward proposals on what has been announced on LEADER. It is seeking a budget of €389 million for the LEADER programme. It is coming at this issue based on the commitments that were made in Our Rural Future. I do not think it is good enough that we should stand still. I appreciate the Minister's point that by adding the transitional fund period to the period from 2023 to 2027, we will reaching that €250 million figure, similar to the 2014-2020 level. However, it is a much reduced budget from the level reached from 2007 to 2013. For instance, my native county of Roscommon got over €11 million in the CAP period from 2007 to 2013. Looking at the indicative budget for the period from 2023 to 2027, it is looking at €6 million. The budget announced from the CAP is much less for that period if you take the transitional period out of the scenario. That will have an impact on counties such as Roscommon and Galway in particular.

I met the CEOs of all the LEADER groups just last week. It was a very positive engagement and gave me a good opportunity to hear a lot of what they had to say directly and to allow them to outline to me the really good work they are carrying out in their areas. Martina Earley, from the Roscommon LEADER Partnership in the Deputy's neck of the woods, outlined to me the different issues she had, as well as the great work they are doing down there. In fairness, there is confusion about this LEADER budget but the one thing I am certain about is there is absolutely no cut to funding. The previous LEADER programme from 2014 2020 had funding of €250 million. That is plain to be seen. The programme from 2021 to 2027 has a total of €250 million, that is, €70 million of transitional funding and €180 million in funding for the period from 2023 to 2027.

I agree that really wonderful work is being done in counties such as Roscommon where LEADER partnerships are doing a great deal of excellent work, whether in job creation, development or sustaining current jobs. It represents massive amounts of funding for enterprise and boosting tourism. They have done a lot for the county, as have partnerships across the State. LEADER, in particular, has a really important role to play.

The Minister is probably aware of an issue that has arisen in a number of counties whereby for that transitional period, funding is almost gone or has been allocated for this year and they have no funding left for next year. That is an issue. We need to look at the level of funding the Government is putting up in relation to the CAP fund. It is not enough to stand still at the €250 million allocation from 2021 to 2027. We have to consider that it is a huge drop from that 2007 to 2013 period when we were looking at an allocation of €425 million. I gave the example of Roscommon. There is a big difference between €11 million and €6 million over the fairly lengthy period covered by this LEADER programme. I ask that the Minister, at the very least, looks at the ILDN proposal.

Between 2007 and 2014 is some time ago. The 2014 to 2022 allocation was €250 million and this programme is also worth €250 million. The €70 million transition programme is over two years, that is, this year and next year. It would be fair to say you would expect to have around 50% that already spent. According to our records, we have approvals of €16 million, which really only represents about 33% of the budget. Some of the LEADER companies are performing very well in getting their money out and others are not doing so well at all.

The Deputy's native county of Roscommon has a project allocation of €1.9 million over the two-year period. It has €667,000 worth of approvals, which accounts for 24%. County Kilkenny has €1.7 million in project allocation funding, for instance. It has approvals of €270,000. It has only about 15.69% of its funding allocated. I think, to be fair, there is sufficient money there currently.

Community Development Projects

Paul Donnelly

Question:

49. Deputy Paul Donnelly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development when the new round of funding will start to be allocated to community centres; and if the amount announced will be sufficient to cover the needs of all local authority and non-local authority-run centres. [60157/21]

I raise the new round of funding which will be allocated to community centres. Is the €6 million fund sufficient to cover the need of local authority and non-local authority-run centres? I am concerned about local authority and non-local authority community centres. The former already have a substantial stream from the local authorities themselves.

First, I wish to acknowledge the importance of community centres. They are the cornerstone of community life in many places around the country. As the Deputy is aware, a new capital fund for the upgrade of community centres featured in the national development plan and funding of €5 million has been secured for this under budget 2022. This is consistent with the programme for Government commitment to establish a small capital grants scheme for the maintenance, improvement and upkeep of community centres.

The details of this capital scheme are currently being developed within the Department. While details are yet to be finalised, it is likely that community centres in urban and rural areas will be eligible and that the types of work that will be eligible will include works to address safety concerns, works to improve disability access, works to improve communal facilities such as kitchens and toilets, as well as energy retrofitting. The scheme will be launched in early 2022 and further details will be announced in due course.

Separately, my Department has a number of schemes that are relevant to community centres such as the community enhancement programme. The programme in 2021 provided €4.5 million funding for small capital grants for the improvement of facilities and it will be available again in 2022.

More recently and more substantially, I recently launched the community activities fund to support community and voluntary groups impacted by Covid-19. This fund will help community groups, particularly in disadvantaged areas, with their running costs such as utility or insurance bills, as well as with improvements to their facilities.

I thank the Minister of State. I am sure he is tired of being spoken to about Hartstown Community Centre, which is close to my heart. We have been passionately trying to help and support it. Unfortunately, it recently endured another crisis, with an inspection from Tusla leading to another really difficult and stressful time for the voluntary board of management. Unfortunately, the management needs a massive investment of funding in the centre to turn it into a modern community centre. The existing funding is very welcome and helpful in keeping the centre ticking over. However, community centres not owned by a local authority do not get the same level of funding. For example, if this situation were happening in a local authority community centre in the next community - and there is one there - funding would have been secured and the problem sorted out by now. It is unfair that because the diocese and the community took on board the management, running, ownership and so on of Hartstown Community Centre, it is again being left with very small amounts of funding when it needs a massive injection of it.

The Deputy is probably aware that in my own council area Fingal County Council got an allocation of €301,000 from the community activities fund. That needs to be allocated before the end of February but it can be spent until the end of August next year. That is a substantial amount. It is in the area of small grants but they have an impact as well.

The criteria for the new programme are being worked on at the moment. We would be slow to make it exclusive because there are always unusual situations arising, even with local authority centres. The criteria are being developed at the moment. As I mentioned, the community enhancement programme in Fingal is worth €150,000 this year as well. I take the Deputy's point on the scale of fund that is needed. The Minister is committed to growing the size of the fund as well.

I was hoping to hear something on substantial amounts of funding but also on the other aspect of this, because it is an extremely important point, which I will make again. Local authorities have substantial funding. For example, Fingal County Council, which is one of the wealthiest local authorities in the State, has substantial funding and is able to utilise that funding, as well as borrowing and so on, for capital funding for its own local authority community centres. I have seen it. Those centres do fantastic work and I have no issue with that and have supported it 100% of the way. However, we have centres that are not owned by local authorities. Maybe they are owned by a diocese or a local community group that came together. They are all over the place but the one I know best is the one in Hartstown. That centre does not have access to those types of funding streams, to borrowing or to any of the different measures that are in place for local authorities. I urge that this €5 million be allocated exclusively for centres that are not owned by local authorities. I hope the Minister and Minister of State will consider doing so in future.

As the Deputy says, Fingal stands out as one of the better-off local authorities. There will be exceptions in other parts of the country as well. Community centres start up in a variety of different ways. They all have very different sorts of life paths with respect to how they started and how the initial funding became a reality as well. It is fair to say the majority of community centres around the country are not owned or run by a local authority. They have often come out of parish centres and are connected to sports clubs and other services as well. Broadly speaking, centres that are not owned by local authorities will very much be part of what is targeted by the scheme. I think needs will also be part of the criteria. We obviously want to target the funds where they are needed most. That will be part of the plan going forward. It is a fund we want to grow over time as well.

Telecommunications Infrastructure

Denis Naughten

Question:

50. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development when the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce will meet; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60471/21]

By the end of next year, 75,000 fewer homes will have access to high-speed broadband than had been planned just two years ago under the national broadband plan. The build of that plan is a full 12 months behind schedule after only two years of the project. This will have a significant impact on the uptake of remote working across the country. This includes public sector workers, for whom the Government has set a target of having 20% working remotely by the end of the year.

I will the answer the question I have here which was on the mobile phone and broadband task force. The issue the Deputy referred is probably more suitable to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Wait for the supplementaries, Minister.

I understand the Deputy's interest in the task force and the fact it should be reconvened because we worked together on it when it was first established and we achieved much. That task force addressed 70 actions between 2016 and 2019. These spanned a mix of practical and policy approaches that have removed significant barriers to the deployment of telecoms services in the State. The previous task force clearly delivered real benefits and impact. There is now more information available to consumers to help them to choose the right service to meet their needs. More people have access to reliable, high-speed broadband than ever before and throughout the country mobile phone coverage has improved dramatically.

Building on this changed context, the new task force will concentrate on a number of strategically important and complex issues and will leverage the proactive, practical and co-operative approach taken by its predecessor. We will make use of the expertise and resources available to us to build on past successes. It is intended to convene a meeting of the new task force at the earliest possible date. Together with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, I have written to the key stakeholders who will make up the new task force in order to arrange an initial meeting. To ensure that the new task force has clear momentum from the start, I have also asked the stakeholders to consider a number of strategically important thematic areas that will underpin a detailed work programme. Building on the successful collaborative model of the previous task force, this work programme will be finalised on foot of this consultation. It is intended that the new task force's work programme will include actions to address issues such as outdoor mobile coverage, planning and licensing issues, asset mapping and access to infrastructure. I look forward to convening the first meeting of the new task force shortly.

I thank the Minister. I welcome the fact this task force is being re-established. I am deeply disappointed it did not sit for the two years since the signing of the national broadband plan contract. In that time we have seen ongoing delays in engaging with local authorities, CIÉ and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. These are all problems the contractor has had with getting access to infrastructure. Does the Minister not agree that if the task force had not been put in abeyance and had been actively engaging with those bodies over the last two years we would not now be 12 months behind schedule and would not have 75,000 families who will not get their broadband on time?

As the Deputy knows, part of the work of the task force was to appoint broadband officers in every single local authority in the country. They were in contact with the service providers and there was much good work done on the ground. As I said, 70 actions were completed. That collaboration still takes place today.

The last task force completed its work programme at the end of 2019. At that stage plans for a reformatted task force were well advanced but were very much of their time. Since then a new Government has been formed, the national broadband roll-out has started, Covid-19 has arrived and the priorities of all involved in the telecoms sector have quite rightly changed. As important as the strategic work of the task force has been and will be, the focus of the Government and the telecoms sector has had to pivot dramatically in the last two years to provide immediate solutions to the challenges that face us all. Task force members were at the centre of those immediate solutions and made excellent use of the lines of communication established by the task force. They continue to use those and to apply the proactive and collaborative approach.

When it was formed, the Government made it quite clear that one of its priorities was to fast-track the national broadband plan. Surely, one of the first things that should have been done was to re-establish the task force rather than considering it 18 months down the road.

I have a suggestion for the Minister for inclusion on the work programme. As she knows, as National Broadband Ireland delivers fibre broadband to homes, families will come off wireless services. That will provide an opportunity to improve the quality of wireless services to families who are further from the deployment areas. There is a problem with the physical coverage of those wireless services. There is an opportunity to improve coverage if local authorities and State agencies provide sites to these wireless operators, but it is key those sites are provided free of charge. We are talking about services that will have a very short lifespan. It is important that, first, local authorities provide the sites and, second, they do not look at this as a cash cow but as a way of facilitating delivery of wireless services pending the completion of the fibre build.

I will outline the specific actions that will be discussed and agreed with members before we publish our work programme for the task force for 2022 to 2024. The following broad areas are within the scope of discussion: permits, consents and planning permission, mapping and register of assets, geographic mobile coverage, consumer information and innovation, and proof of concept projects.

Working with the broadband officers' role, which was something the original task force outlined, my Department has provided more than €6 million to local authorities to support the continued employment of 31 broadband officers. Since then, they have repeatedly proved the value of their appointments and have been the driving force behind a number of projects and initiatives, including supporting broadband connection points, which have been invaluable in areas where there is poor broadband.

Departmental Programmes

Marian Harkin

Question:

51. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the arrangements that are being put in place to ensure an effective LEADER programme from 2023. [60566/21]

What financial arrangements are being put in place to ensure an effective LEADER programme that delivers for communities? I have heard the Minister's responses this evening and last week and have received her written response regarding the six-year tranche of funding of €250 million, about which she is quite correct. This level of funding, however, is at a standstill compared with the previous funding period and is a cut of more than 40% from the 2007 allocations. Taking inflation into account, the cut is 50%. Will the Minister revisit this?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As she will be aware, the LEADER programme is one of the key interventions of Our Rural Future, the Government’s policy for rural development launched earlier this year. An indicative budget of €180 million was recently announced for the LEADER programme for the period 2023 to 2027. When taken together with the €70 million already provided for 2021 and 2022 under the transitional LEADER programme, a total of €250 million will be made available, thus maintaining the level of funding provided for the 2014 to 2020 programme period. The maintenance of the €250 million funding allocation will underpin the continued contribution of the LEADER approach in delivering on the Government’s vision for rural Ireland.

Preparations for the design and delivery of the next LEADER programme from 2023 to 2027 are well under way. My Department has commissioned an independent review of the current programme, which is nearing completion. This review will draw on the experience of all stakeholders in the 2014 to 2020 LEADER programme and help to underpin effective scheme design for the new LEADER programme. My officials are also engaging with stakeholders on an ongoing basis regarding the design of the next LEADER programme. They are also working closely with colleagues from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the EU Commission in developing the next CAP strategic plan from 2023 to 2027, of which LEADER will form part. The ongoing engagement and consultation with stakeholders, combined with the funding allocation indicated, will ensure the LEADER programme from 2023 will continue to support and further develop our rural communities and businesses.

It is important to say there is unprecedented investment in rural Ireland through all our other schemes. When comparing different periods, if you go back to 2007 to 2013, we did not have all these other funding schemes we now have that are providing investment in rural Ireland.

The Minister and I agree that the LEADER programme supports community-led local development. It is unique. As an MEP, I was proud to see an EU Court of Auditors report in 2010 stating the Irish model was best practice. What has happened since then is we have significantly minimised the active role of the local community in the context of decision-making regarding funding decisions for LEADER, with the exception of a few independent LEADER companies, and we have cut the funding. I agree with the Minister on the funding figures but in my constituency the reality is, if we take inflation into account, which is not high at only 10% since 2007, there is a 28% cut in Sligo and Roscommon and a 47% cut in Leitrim since 2007. Yes, Leitrim Development Company, Roscommon LEADER Partnership and Sligo LEADER Partnership do great work, but these cuts mean they have to cut back on supports and resources for their local communities.

It is important to say that when LEADER was introduced, many years ago, it was the only show in town for funding projects in rural Ireland. That is no longer no case. We have a whole swathe of funding streams to support rural communities. In my Department, we have the rural regeneration and development fund, the town and village renewal scheme and the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme. Many of those schemes offer higher grant aid than that available under LEADER. We also have specific funding streams to support social enterprises. Only yesterday, I was pleased to announce funding for more than 200 social enterprise projects. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment runs the regional enterprise development fund. The Department of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has a range of schemes to support climate action. LEADER complements all those programmes but it would be wrong to try to portray that it was the only support for rural communities, which the Deputy will acknowledge.

The €70 million transition funding will be over two years. A number of allocations have been made from it, but an average of 33% has been allocated to date out of that €70 million.

The Minister is quite correct. LEADER is not the only show in town but it is the only one that is community led. I will come back to what the Minister asks LEADER companies to deliver in their transition programmes. The Minister asks them to support rural business, especially in the context of innovation, diversification, Covid and Brexit. That is crucial in Border counties. LEADER companies are asked to look at ensuring adequate resources not just for the companies themselves but for the LEADER companies that will develop and deliver those programmes. The Minister asks that they support innovative projects in the areas of climate change and the green economy and, quite rightly, that they maximise the potential of the digital economy, all of which are excellent initiatives. I again ask the Minister to look at the level of resources provided and to please ensure a sustainable, effective and adequately funded LEADER programme.

I believe that the LEADER programme is adequately funded. LEADER complements all the other funding programmes. It is about people working together. That is where we get the results. The Deputy mentioned the Border. Not alone do we have the regional enterprise development fund, we have the Border enterprise development fund, which is specifically for the Border region because of the impacts of Brexit. That is run by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The local enterprise offices do great work with businesses. We want to see joined-up thinking between LEADER, the local authorities, the local enterprise offices, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, who should all work together. At the end of the day, we want to see more jobs and more investment through different schemes in rural Ireland.

Sligo local action group, LAG, which was mentioned by the Deputy, was allocated €2.2 million under the transitional programme, of which nearly €1.7 million will be allocated for new projects. To date, Sligo LAG has allocated approximately 29% or almost €500,000. To be fair, we are halfway through this, so we would like to see it at the 50% mark towards the end of this year, but it is doing okay at 29%, which is about the average. Some LEADER programmes are looking for more money but have only spent a fraction of what they have got already.

That is another issue.

Bogfaimid ar aghaidh go dtí gnáthcheisteanna eile. Tá an chéad cheann eile in ainm An Teachta Ó Muimhneacháin. Tá sí grúpáilte le dhá cheann eile, ceist Uimh. 63, in ainm An Teachta Ó Cathasaigh agus ceist Uimh. 78, in ainm An Teachta Dillon. Tá 30 soicind ag An Teachta Ó Muimhneacháin.