Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Digital Hubs

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

52. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the position on advancing remote working hubs across County Cork; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60198/21]

Brian Leddin

Question:

63. Deputy Brian Leddin asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development her plans to examine the potential to introduce specific incentives to encourage remote workers to relocate to rural towns as outlined in Our Rural Future; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60220/21]

Alan Dillon

Question:

78. Deputy Alan Dillon asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the way her Department is supporting the repurposing of landmark buildings in town and village centres for providing new services such as remote working or innovation hubs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60224/21]

Working from home and remotely is a big part of Our Rural Future and the broadband plan is not rolling out half fast enough for people. Indeed, the hubs could be a real opportunity for people and there is the opportunity of not being isolated in one's home and working in a more social environment. Can the Minister outline the plan for rolling out these hubs? How quickly can they be done and what supports are available to private operators to do so, as well as community groups that want to take part?

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter and I propose to take Questions Nos. 52, 63 and 78 together.

My Department continues to support the development of remote working hubs throughout the country. Our Rural Future commits to investing significantly in remote working facilities and to examining the potential to introduce specific incentives to encourage remote workers to relocate to rural areas, as part of budget 2022. I have instructed my officials to examine options for such an incentive mechanism, building on the connected hubs network, in particular. It is critical this is done in the right and responsible way and a number of approaches are currently under consideration.

To date, more than €83 million has been provided by my Department, through various funding streams, to support the development of digital hubs and remote working facilities. The rural regeneration and development fund and the town and village renewal scheme both support the establishment of digital hubs. Under this year's schemes, projects that bring vacant properties in town centres back into use as remote working hubs or repurposed existing community or publicly owned buildings in town and village centres to facilitate remote working were eligible for funding.

My Department also supports the development of the connected hubs network, found at connectedhubs.ie. Some 170 hubs are live on the platform, with this number growing every week. Earlier this year, I also awarded almost €9 million in funding through the connected hubs funding stream to further support hubs throughout the country. The development of a national hubs network is a key commitment in Our Rural Future and I am committed to continuing my Department's support for the development of remote working hubs, in recognition of the vital role they can play in our post-Covid recovery.

I absolutely believe in remote working or, connected working, as I prefer to call it. It is a game changer for rural Ireland. Before the pandemic, remote working was just a concept or an aspiration. Now, because of Covid, it is an everyday working reality for thousands of workers. I want to support people who want to live and work in their own community. Obviously, the public health advice is again that if one can work from home, one should.

However, there are huge opportunities here for regional development. Many major multinational companies have told their staff they can work remotely for the long term and that is very positive. I know there is one multinational in the Deputy's county of Cork. A huge part its workforce is working remotely and that is part of its policy. That is the way forward and we in the Department want to support this.

There are many benefits, across the board, to remote working. We know them all. People live and work in their locality. It enables young people to avail of cheaper house prices in the country and less time spent commuting, which is also good for the environment. The reality is if one is an office worker and has good phone and broadband coverage, which is guaranteed in these remote working spaces, one can do the same job. I will be a bit parochial here - one can do the same job in Ballybay as in Ballsbridge. We need to seize the momentum around remote working. My Department is investing in the development of remote working hubs through schemes such as the €1 billion rural regeneration and development fund, the town and village renewal scheme and the connected hubs fund.

As the Deputy knows, there are plenty of examples of old buildings in our town centres that can be renovated and used as hubs. There are a number of investments in north-west Cork. There is the gteic i mBéal Átha an Ghaorthaidh, which got €30,000 for the connected hubs funding there. Macroom enterprise centre got €68,000 and that is just to name a couple. Of course, the digital innovation hubs strategy was in the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, for Cork, of €206,000 and in Skibereen, the Ludgate Hub, with which I know Deputy Moynihan is very familiar, got €152,000. We used some of that funding to help kit out their premises, buy furniture and improve their facilities. I am on the same page as the Deputy in that I am absolutely committed to remote working.

I thank the Minister for the overview and details. Remote working will be a big part of the rural future. Having people working locally, rather than having to travel as much, offers a great deal of opportunity to communities. I acknowledge that a number of significant works are under way in our area, such as in Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh, Coláiste Íosagáin i mBaile Bhuirne, Achadh Bolg, Castletown and Aubane. I will draw the Minister's attention to the fact many community groups are not able to raise their own funding to take on some of the schemes. In some places, it will be a private enterprise in smaller communities. Indeed, there may not even be a public building, beyond the school, in some smaller communities. There should be some way in which those private enterprises would be able to access funding, whether it is the publican or the vacant shop owner on the main street, to make those facilities available for their rural communities. They will not be profit generating, but in many communities, they are the only available buildings and real option. They should be able to access funding, as well. What approaches are under consideration and do the likes of those smaller communities and private operators have an opportunity?.

I agree with the Minister in that remote working has the capacity to be game changing. We have seen it during the pandemic. I am thinking of Dungarvan, Lismore and west Waterford, where people had the opportunity to move down. These three questions are complementary. It was interesting to see them grouped. Deputy Ó Muimhneacháin is asking about the roll-out of the technology. Deputy Dillon is asking about the buildings and the physical infrastructure. I am asking about the people. How do we entice people to move down the country or how do we make it easier for them to make that decision? What kinds of nudges can we put in place? Portugal put in place quite an interesting scheme called the work inland programme, where a grant of up to €4,800 was made available to people who wanted to change from the larger cities and move down to work. I wonder whether we have sufficient supports in place for companies, in the same way, to make it available and attractive to them to allow their employees to engage in remote or blended working in order that we see those people we need to see moving down the country.

It is vitally important we protect our landmark buildings in our towns and villages, as they are often an important centrepiece in their communities. It was great to have the Minister in Swinford last May, where she saw, first hand, the remodelling of the old courthouse into the new DigiWest hub.

Many towns and villages in Mayo are working to achieve similar outcomes to what was done in Swinford. In places like Balla, Partry, Bohola, Ballycastle, Ballycroy, Belmullet and Louisburgh we have rural communities who are eager to embark on projects through the town and village renewal scheme to ensure they fully capitalise on giving people the option to remote or co-work in their area. It would be useful if the Minister provided an outline on how communities can access funding for any plans they may have to get more out of these projects coming online as quickly as possible.

There are incentives we are considering to attract remote workers to relocate to rural Ireland. Budget 2022 provides my Department with a funding allocation of €376 million, an increase of €35 million, or 10% on budget 2021, in recognition of the critical role my Department plays in delivering on Our Rural Future. We are considering a number of options, including the use of the connected hubs network, which now includes more than 170 hubs. Research that the Western Development Commission and NUIG have published on remote working in Ireland through the pandemic indicates a significant number of people have already moved to the west. My ambition is that any incentive introduced by my Department creates new reasons to move north, south or west and does not simply reinforce existing mobility drivers.

There is an initiative I am working on with the vintners, namely, the hub in the pub. Covid has left things slower than we hoped but I am working with them on that initiative, which will look at converting pubs during the day to other purposes, such as, if high speed broadband is available, to accommodate remote working.

I want to see a situation where every community has the opportunity of people living and working locally, whether using broadband at home or the community hubs. In some smaller communities, there are no public buildings other than the school. I note what the Minister said about the pub option and repurposing buildings is a very real option because in many communities a shop and a pub might be the only public buildings aside from the school.

On the main streets of towns there are many vacant buildings and they should be an option as well. It would add greatly to our towns and villages. Will the Minister outline that the towns and villages will have the opportunity to access those schemes and do away with the vacancies we see in so many towns and villages?

It is difficult because the Minister is being pulled in three different directions by the questions. As well as giving nudges to workers to move down the country, which is vital, the Irish word that stands out to me is "fite fuaite", which rolls off the tongue better than "policy coherence". We need individual policy actors to work together. If we look to get people into our rural towns and villages, we have quality of life in spades, but we need housing solutions and, as Deputy Ó Muimhneacháin suggested, we need to tackle vacancy in housing. We need place-making, good quality public realm and services, including good schools, good water infrastructure and good public transport options.

The Our Rural Future document goes a long way towards that. I look forward to seeing the town centres first policy document which I know the Department is having input on. We need all these policy objectives to come together to unlock the potential in our rural towns and villages.

I thank the Minister for her response. I know Our Rural Future aims to expand the town and village renewal scheme as a key enabler in bringing vacant and derelict buildings back into multipurpose spaces and for residential use. I raised the issue of dereliction in our towns and villages at a Topical Issues debate with Deputy Stanton, who is in the Chamber.

I note with interest the mention of appointing town regeneration officers, announced as part of budget 2022. It would be useful to have more information on the proposed town regeneration officers and when they are likely to be appointed. Will tackling the scourge of dereliction be part of their role? If so, what resources will be made available to assist them in doing so?

Funding has been provided for town regeneration officers and they will be appointed in due course. They will work with the different stakeholders to have a clear plan on where towns want to go. They will consult with local communities and work with the people in the town. There are many different funding streams so we need joined-up thinking as to what the overall plan is. The town regeneration officers will get the plan and work with different Departments to make sure they maximise it and the right outcome is there in terms of planning. If one does not plan, one is in bother.

We have the €9 million connected hubs funding stream for existing digital hubs and broadband connection points in every region. There are opportunities for private operators to apply for that funding and some of them have done so. The fund is closed at the minute. It has been disbursed but there is more for next year.

To communities I would say to work with the local authorities. That is the best place to go because local authorities have been doing good work in consulting with communities and putting in applications, whether for improvement in the town centre or bringing back derelict buildings for 21st-century use.

Deputy Dillon is right. I was in Swinford and had a great day there. What they have done to convert that old courthouse into a remote working hub is wonderful.

Flexible Work Practices

David Stanton

Question:

53. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if the connected hubs network to provide remote or hybrid work arrangements for employees is available to businesses of different sizes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60193/21]

I congratulate the Government and Minister on this initiative. I suggest we have to scale this up even further to target larger employers who might employ hundreds of people, many of whom travel for many hours every day to cities and so forth when they could work in their own towns. We have, as has been mentioned, community centres and old buildings being repurposed. We need more than that. We need to think big and look at centres that house 100 people or more.

I thank the Deputy for raising this. Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025 recognises the opportunity for rural rejuvenation that remote working presents and commits to establishing a comprehensive and integrated network of remote working hubs over the lifetime of the policy to 2025.

In May I launched the national connected hubs network, together with the connected hubs platform. The platform offers a suite of booking and hub management applications to members of the network. The national hub network working group, led by my Department, has so far identified and mapped over 460 remote working hubs across the country, of which 170 are live on the platform, with this number growing every week. The national hub network includes a diverse range of hubs, services and facilities, thus facilitating companies of different sizes.

To date our focus has been to develop a critical mass of hubs on the connectedhubs.ie platform. The focus will now shift to raising awareness of the network among the relevant stakeholders, including SMEs, business owners and hub users. Work is also ongoing to consult with hub managers across the country in developing the future strategic direction of the network. A significant number of initiatives will be developed through the network, including supporting collective engagement between connected hubs and large-scale employers and between connected hubs and Government agencies and supporting collaborative projects in the network to drive economies of scale. The development of a national hubs network is a key commitment in Our Rural Future and I am committed to continuing my Department's support for the development of a comprehensive and integrated network of remote working hubs in recognition of the vital role they can play in our post-Covid recovery.

If there is need for a particular type of hub for a particular type of business, we can accommodate it.

I thank the Minister for her response. I particularly thank her for recognising the need of large-scale employers and the workers in those operations. Has a national survey been undertaken with respect to the need for hubs across the country? Are there areas where there are no hubs? Has the Minister consulted with her colleague, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, with regard to third-level outreach? Does she agree that it is possible for universities and technological universities to outreach into towns and villages rather than have students travelling every day into those centres?

If large-scale buildings are needed, is there a way of providing comfort to individuals who might wish to put such facilities in place, which will need large investment as well?

On large-scale building need, under the connected hubs fund we have been able to support some private operators to kit out such facilities to accommodate remote working. It is important that we look at this from the different approaches. Many local authorities have made applications for funding under the town and village renewal scheme and the rural regeneration and development fund for the conversion of old buildings. There are many examples of them throughout the country. I have visited a number of them, where there are top-class remote working facilities. The private sector has come in there as well in terms of provision.

The Deputy mentioned third-level outreach. Students experiencing poor broadband in their homes have been able to use the broadband connection points. We are keen to expand this to community halls in different parts of the country where broadband service is poor. Broadband is available in our libraries as well, which some students have availed of. That is a good way to combine it as well. We are unlimited in what we can do to facilitate people to work and study in rural Ireland.

I thank the Minister for her approach and I encourage her to keep it up and to, maybe, ensure a whole-of-government approach in this area. A number of Departments can contribute to this. I welcome her remarks with regard to students. Can we go beyond facilitating students to link up to lectures and so forth and allow for research and development to take place? Collaboration, innovation and so forth can occur in such hubs if they are of a scale that can facilitate such movement.

We have funded enterprise centres throughout the country as well. For some parts, there may be an research and development element. It is a matter for particular areas as to whether they want to go down that road. The regional enterprise development fund has supported a number of centres that could facilitate research and development. There is another area we can capitalise on, namely, ehealth. As the Deputy and I know, many people will wait some time for a hospital appointment with a consultant and when they get to that appointment the consultant might not even lift a stethoscope or examine them; he or she will just look at them and talk to them. There is no reason those same people cannot attend an ehealth hub within their community for such an appointment. I visited such a hub in Scotstown, County Monaghan two weeks ago. Everything is in place such that the doctor can engage remotely with the patient and decide at that point whether there is need for an in-person appointment. Much of that consultation is a conversation. There is no reason we cannot do that remotely as well.

Question No. 54 replied to with Written Answers.

Community Development Projects

Colm Burke

Question:

55. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the support available to communities to help with the upkeep and enhancement of community centres; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60132/21]

Emer Higgins

Question:

59. Deputy Emer Higgins asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development when the fund for the upgrade of community centres that was announced as part of budget 2022 will be in place; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60005/21]

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

68. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the new fund for enhancing or upgrading community centres; if consideration is being given to assisting communities that currently do not have a centre to develop one; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60080/21]

I thank the Minister for the work she is doing in this area and for the schemes that are in place. My concern relates to the need for the upkeep and enhancement of community centres. I note that she has touched on this earlier but there are additional strains out there now such that over the past two years community groups and community centres have not been able to hold fundraising events or social functions and, therefore, there is a significant drain on the funding that they would normally have. I would welcome if something further could be done to help those community centres to continue to provide those facilities and to make sure those facilities are safe and maintained in a proper and safe manner.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 55, 59 and 68 together, for which I thank Deputies Colm Burke, Higgins and O'Dowd.

I acknowledge the importance of community centres. They are the cornerstone of community life in many places around the country. My Department has a number of schemes that communities can avail of for the upkeep, enhancement or establishment of community centres. The Department provides small capital grants for the improvement of facilities through the community enhancement programme. The 2021 programme provided funding of €4.5 million and will be available again in 2022.

The €9 million community activities fund was recently launched 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. In addition, the €49 million community services programme supports more than 420 community organisations, including community centres, to provide local social, economic and environmental services through a social enterprise model. Funding is provided as a contribution towards the cost of employing staff in these organisations.

The Minister referenced the town and village renewal scheme. It is also relevant to community centres, supporting the repurposing of community buildings in town centres to facilitate remote working and other projects to bring vacant and derelict buildings back into use. A new capital fund for the upgrade of community centres was referenced in the national development plan and funding of €5 million has been secured for this under budget 2022. The details of this capital scheme are currently being developed within my Department and it will be launched in 2022, with further details to be announced in due course.

I am raising this issue in the context of a new role for community centres, as mentioned by my colleague, Deputy Stanton. For that new role to be put in place, a large number of community centres need to be upgraded, particularly in rural areas where there is no broadband provision. I know of an area where there is no broadband, landline or mobile phone connection, but the local community centre has a hub in place, which is extremely important for that area. Other areas do not have access to a hub for people to work from. In one particular area, where more than 900 primary schoolchildren are in four schools, we are working to try to get a broadband hub into the local community centre, in respect of which the lack of engagement from the local authority surprises me. There is a need to examine the involvement of local authorities in the context of whether they are being proactive enough. We need to consider a new role for community centres, which I think is possible. They will respond to that need. That is the reason we need additional funding.

On the final point raised by the Deputy, the broadband officer in the local authority is the person to chase up on that issue. I would like to reference some allocations in the Deputy's area under the community activities fund. A €9 million fund was announced recently, applications for which are open until February but the spending must be done by August next year. Cork City Council received an allocation of €307,000 and Cork County Council received an allocation of €312,000. Under the community enhancement programme, the allocation for this year was €153,000 in the city and €156,000 in the county. Regarding to the particular community centre mentioned by the Deputy, the community services programme has also been enhanced significantly during the Covid period.

In the past few weeks, we added another €1 million to the support fund specifically for organisations that struggled during the pandemic and did not have the opportunity to achieve an earned income because they had to close.

In regard to the involvement of local authorities, has the Department had feedback from them on the schemes that are in place? I am not satisfied there is sufficient feedback into the Department setting out clearly the local authorities' targets and making sure those targets comply with what the Department wants.

I recognise the work the Minister of State is doing in this area and his personal interest in it. With reference to Question No. 68, will he outline what supports are in place to assist communities that do not currently have a centre to develop one? Will he consider doing a national audit of towns and villages across the country to see where the deficits are and to encourage and support local authorities to put in place measures to ensure, first, that land is made available and that community centres can be constructed in those locations? It might be done as part of a planning condition. I am involved in a small community centre that is used by 1,000 people a week. It is amazing to see people, young and old, using it, as well as children's clubs, fitness clubs and God knows what else. If we build it, they will come. It is a fantastic facility and the community services programme is terrific. I support the Minister of State in the work he is doing in this area. I encourage him to carry out an audit across the country to see where the blank spots are and support the provision of centres in some of those areas.

To pick up on Deputy Burke's point, there certainly is a constant flow of feedback. Regarding the community activities fund and the community enhancement programme, decisions in terms of local allocations are made by the local community development committees, LCDCs, in a bottom-up approach. The main feedback we get is that the schemes are very popular and are, in fact, oversubscribed, which is why we were glad to put more funding in that direction this year as well. In terms of the strategy, it should fit in with the local economic and community plan, but it is the LCDCs making the calls in terms of where the funding goes, with the proviso that it goes to the areas that need it most.

I take Deputy Stanton's point about scoping, broadly speaking. As I mentioned earlier, community centres across the country have a different life. If there is an area with no centre and a need for one, my first question would be to the local authority as to why it did not plan for that. I see it in my constituency, where there are large housing estates and the facilities, including community centres, were not put in when they were built. The first thing to do is to see whether the local authority can provide a piece of land to get things going. Securing land is often where projects start and get moving.

I agree with what the Minister of State said but I encourage him to engage with local authorities in this matter. They need encouragement, support and a policy direction. Does he agree that community centres can provide services, facilities and a place for people, young and old, to go at night and where communities can really develop? We need more of them and, where there is a deficit, that needs to be identified and encouragement provided to local authorities to address it. Such provision should be a condition of planning when new estates are being built in order that we do not have wildernesses and deserts, with rows of houses and no facilities. The Minister of State knows where that leads.

The new capital fund will open up that dialogue. One of the advantages of opening a specifically identified and named fund for community centres is that the process of dealing with applications will give us a good sense of the need that exists. It will enhance the conversation with local authorities because we will not always be saying, "Yes, here is your money", especially if the local authority has a clear responsibility in the matter. I take the Deputy's point in that regard. We will be developing more in this space in terms of dialogue with local authorities and pinning down the need across the country. One of the reasons there is provision in this regard in the national development plan and the programme for Government is that all parties involved knew very well the need that is there. I look forward to progressing matters in this area.

Bogfaimid air aghaidh go dtí an chéad cheist eile a bhfuil an Teachta anseo. That is Question No. 65.

Questions Nos. 56 to 58, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 59 answered with Question No. 55.
Questions Nos. 60 and 61 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 63 answered with Question No. 52.
Question No. 64 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Bodies

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

65. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the expected timeframe for the reconvening of the mobile phone and broadband task force; if she will report on the membership, structure and specific actions of the task force and the initial engagements that are due to take place; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60213/21]

I am looking for detail on the mobile phone and broadband task force, which the Minister mentioned earlier. I want to know about its membership and structure, what specific actions are intended for it to take and any initial engagements that are due to take place. We all know the difficulties there are at this point in time with the roll-out of the national broadband plan, NBP. Even in a best-case scenario, we know provision in a number of areas is going to be very late to be delivered upon and we need to look at interim solutions. This body could not only be a clearing house for industry but could also do some of the necessary due diligence work in terms of offering people alternatives in the interim.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Officials from my Department have been working closely with colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications in recent months to finalise arrangements for the reconvening of the mobile phone and broadband task force. The previous task force was very successful in delivering on a wide range of important actions and I am keen to build on that success. 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 to arrange an initial meeting.

With regard to the membership of the task force, we discovered over the course of its predecessor's term that having the right organisations at the table, represented by the right people, is key to achieving progress. The new body will include input from relevant Departments, the local government sector and private industry. A full membership can be published once arrangements for the initial meeting have been finalised.

In order to develop a detailed work plan for the new task force, I have asked the relevant stakeholders to consider potential actions that can be delivered in a number of strategically important thematic areas. It is intended that the new body'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 building on the success of the previous task force and working with the members of the new task force. It will convene at the earliest possible date before the year's end. In fact, I understand that meeting will take place next week. The task force will take on fewer actions than its predecessor but those actions will be more complex and impactful, requiring more time, resources and collaboration.

I really welcome the news that the task force will meet next week, which is vital. We can guess the different actions it will need to do. If it sets out with a limited scope in terms of the number of jobs it has to do and if it can deliver on them, that will be welcome. A vital part of that will be dealing with interim solutions for areas that may be waiting five, six or seven years at this point for delivery of the national broadband roll-out. It is very difficult to talk about National Broadband Ireland, NBI, without dealing with the issues that have arisen at this time. I accept that the Minister cannot answer this point but there needs to be a forum in which the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and possibly the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, can deal with the questions that are out there regarding the ownership of Oak Hill Advisors, which is the main body behind Granahan McCourt, and the fact that we seem to have almost a Gordon Gekko-type scenario in terms of those controlling the delivery of rural broadband. I welcome what the Minister said in regard to the mobile phone and broadband task force.

In fairness, the one thing I can say about the national broadband plan is that the boots are on the ground. I see the vans around the place and I say "keep going" because we want to get it rolled out as quickly as we can. I am sure the Deputy is aware of the broadband officers in the local authorities, who have done a fantastic job. They were appointed in 2016 and have worked with the different providers across the board. They have managed to ensure the broadband connection points, BCPs, were delivered in many remote parts of the country, which would otherwise not have happened.

I want to say thanks to them because they did a wonderful job. We were able to support them with funding to roll out those broadband connection points in small halls across rural areas and they have helped connect and break down some of the issues the providers may have had in getting the different licences. These were simple roadblocks that they were able to clear.

Planning and licensing will be major issues, and they obviously needs to be done. Significant work has been done by broadband officers. I will come at this from two ends. There is a necessity to look at planning laws and such. National Broadband Ireland, NBI, is looking for the resource to be available, particularly if it gets to the point of an acceleration, where people would have the knowledge of planning permissions and road opening licences. Those would be road engineers and those with knowledge of planning, and they are very necessary.

My fear is not the NBI and its operations, although I think we need interim solutions, but that the financial arrangements behind it will lead to difficulties. The due diligence might not have been done on whether Granahan McCourt had the financial arrangements to deliver what we need. I accept this question needs to be answered by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan and the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth.

Will this task force will have any role in the security of mobile phones? How certain is the Minister that her phone, my phone and the Cathaoirleach’s phone are not being hacked or tapped at the moment, that someone is not listening into what she is doing and saying about where she is and who she is talking to, or the fact she is sitting beside the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O’Brien, could not easily be identified and so forth? Has she had any discussions, or does she intend to have any discussions, with the Ministers, Deputies Eamon Ryan or Coveney, the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, or the Minister, Deputy McEntee, with respect to the security of our mobile phone network?

On the broadband task force, the broadband officers will be the one point of contact for the providers in the area. They can direct them to who they need to because they will know the story. They should know the story in the local authorities and, I have to say, they have been very good at doing that. The new actions the task force will look at when it convenes for its first meeting on 15 December are permits, consents and planning permission, as the Deputy highlighted, mapping and registers of assets, geographic mobile coverage, consumer information, and innovation and proof of concept projects. Those are the sort of things we will be looking at. They are more complex, more knotty, as they say, and they are more time consuming.

On whether my phone, the Deputy’s phone, or anyone else’s phone is secure, that would be a matter for cybersecurity. It does not fall under the broadband task force.

Question No. 66 replied to with Written Answers.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Colm Burke

Question:

67. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the funding her Department has provided to community and voluntary organisations to date to help with the impact of Covid-19; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60131/21]

This goes back to the issue of funding and how the past two years and Covid-19 has affected community groups, community centres and sporting organisations. I ask the Minister about the supports provided to the community associations and community centres as a result of Covid-19 and what further work we can do on that. We are going to go through at least another three to four months of difficulties in this area. The Minister might give me some information on that area.

Through the Covid-19 stability fund, my Department supported a total of 840 organisations in 2020 and 2021 with total funding of approximately €48 million. That fund is now closed and there are no plans at present for further rounds of the stability fund. The innovate together fund was launched in May 2020 and was administered by Rethink Ireland. This consisted of a €5 million commitment from my Department’s Dormant Accounts Fund and €600,000 from philanthropic donations. The purpose of the fund was to assist organisations working with vulnerable people and communities. Some 71 projects received grants of between €20,000 and €200,000 as well as non-financial business supports.

My Department currently supports more than 420 community organisations in the community services programme, CSP, to provide local services through a social enterprise model. My Department recently announced a further extension of €1 million to the CSP support fund to cover the period up to December 2021, bringing the total funding allocated to the CSP support fund to €8.95 million for 2020 to 2021. This funding was provided to CSP-supported organisations which required additional assistance to continue to retain their CSP-supported employees on their payroll, provided assistance for the employers’ PRSI contributions and supported organisations considered by my Department to be most in need to cover overhead costs.

Most recently, I was pleased to launch a new community activities fund. This €9 million fund is being provided by the Government to support community and voluntary groups impacted by Covid-19. This once-off funding, allocated under the Department’s community enhancement programme and administered locally by the local community development committees, will support groups, especially in disadvantaged areas, with their running costs as well as with improvements to their facilities.

I thank the Minister for all the work that has been done in this area over the past two years and for the funding that has been made available. One of the challenges that we now have as a result of the downturn in business in certain areas is that there will be people who will not go back to the jobs they had had before. Will we open up the area of community employment, CE, and change the rules to make it more adaptable to the changes that have occurred over the past 12 months? Is that being considered at this time so that there is a benefit for people who do have not employment at the moment as well as for the community groups and centres throughout the country?

I do not want to stray out of my departmental remit. I will only say yes, we are looking at community employment.

On the Deputy’s initial question, the stability fund was our main response to community and voluntary sector for larger groups. A large number of groups were covered under that. The community services support fund was targeted particularly at groups funded under that stream, with groups that needed traded income, or relied on traded income to a fair extent. For example, many community centres using a social enterprise model were not able to generate traded income over the past while. Obviously, restrictions were lifted during the summer, but prior to that they had been suffering, which is why we added more to the support fund. There was a gap in terms of smaller community groups, and that is what the more recent community activity fund is targeting. That €9 million will be distributed by the local community development committees throughout the country. They will be small grants but they will be very effective in remobilising those smaller community groups throughout the country as well.

May I just ask one final issue to the Minister of State about co-ordination of supports? I have come across a situation where there is support from Avondhu Duhallow, which is a very effective organisation, but there are not supports, for instance, from the local authority. Can we look at that co-ordination of supports so that if moneys are granted by one organisation, sufficient moneys are granted, the other organisations involved are made aware by the Department or the relevant organisation that is providing the funding, and there is joined-up thinking in that whole area?

Is the community services fund open for new applications and, if not, is it intended to be? If so, how many a new applications would be accepted?

I will first pick up on Deputy Burke’s point. I think he was talking about a local development company, Avondhu Duhallow, which is in a different realm again. Its funding stayed solid in terms of the programmes it rolls out for Government, be it SICAP or LEADER or whatnot. I am not sure how the local authorities might support it in different ways. On the stability fund, organisations were asked what their earnings were. They were asked for details on their accounts and where they were getting funding. There are checks and balances done in that regard.

On the community services programme, we are working through the recommendations of the Indecon report.

We obviously stalled it a little over the last year or so while we have been restructuring the community services programme. We have a small number of applications that were in the pipeline when we stalled it. We are going to try to process them early next year and then we are looking at the middle of next year, roughly speaking, because we have a bit of work to do yet before we reopen the new restructured programme.

Harbours and Piers

Catherine Connolly

Question:

62. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development further to Parliamentary Question No. 19 of 14 October 2021, the status of the development of Caladh Mór pier on Inis Meáin; the status of the development of the updated simulation by the National Maritime College of Ireland; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60119/21]

Baineann mo cheist le hInis Meáin agus an fhorbairt atá beartaithe ar an gcéibh ansin, sé sin, an Caladh Mór. Tá mé ag iarraidh stádas na forbartha sin a fháil amach. I am just seeking clarification on the proposed works on the Caladh Mór pier in Inis Meáin. It is the third phase of the development so I ask the Minister to be specific.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As she will be aware, Galway County Council is the body responsible for development of stage 3 of the Caladh Mór pier development on Inis Meáin. Users of the pier, including a number of State-subsidised ferry operators, have highlighted issues with capacity within the harbour, as well as with currents around the mouth of the harbour. As part of the preparatory works, the National Maritime College of Ireland, NMCI, was instructed by Galway County Council to develop a model simulation for the harbour, which will inform the business case options for the development. The NMCI hosted a group of islanders, ferry operators and officials at its facility in July for a demonstration of the initial iteration of the marine simulation. Following feedback from the various parties that attended the demonstration, the NMCI is furthering the development of the simulation. It is expected that the updated simulation will give a more precise and accurate overview of how the conditions at the pier affect the specific key vessels that use it. Galway County Council is in ongoing contact with the ferry and cargo operators to collate the technical specifications which the NMCI will use in its updated simulation. Once the NMCI has completed its work, Galway County Council will incorporate the findings into its draft business case. Following on from this, the Department will then be able to evaluate the next steps in the process, in line with the public spending code and available funding.

I am hoping that some day I will get an answer about the deadline for this project. This is the third phase for Inis Meáin. This has been going on for years and that is the exact same answer my colleagues got about it. I understand that, because maybe not much progress has been made. Can the Minister tell me what progress has been made on the work being done by the National Maritime College of Ireland? When will it be completed? Most important, what money will be allocated? Has money been put aside for this development?

I visited Inis Meáin during the summer and spoke to a number of the islanders. As the Deputy and I well know, sorting out a pier presents different challenges and everybody seems to have a different solution. The college has done the simulation and it is going back now to look at a number of other things that arose during those simulations. The parties have reviewed this and there is ongoing contact between the county council and the maritime college.

The Government is absolutely committed to a new pier. I agree with the Deputy that this has been going on for a long time. My officials are in contact with Galway County Council on a fortnightly basis. We have to get the business case but it has to be made by the county council before I can bring it any further. We are working with the local authority. In fairness, it is trying to find out what the best solution is here because, from my experience of the islands, one could find a solution but it might not be the right one. This simulation will give us more information on what needs to be done.

Cuirim fáilte go raibh an tAire ar an oileán. Is maith an rud é go bhfaca sí rudaí ar an talamh agus go bhfuil tuiscint níos fearr aici orthu. I welcome that the Minister was on the island and that she has a better understanding of the matter but neither she nor I are experts in this area. I appreciate that completely. This is very specific, especially as it goes back such a long time and the development has not been completed. When will the work of the maritime college in Cork be finished? Is the council working on a business case simultaneously or does it have to wait for the results of the college study to come back? When will we have both the business case and the results from the maritime college?

As I understand it, the National Maritime College of Ireland is developing a model simulation of the harbour on Inis Meáin and that will inform the business case options for the development. The business case will then be undertaken by Galway County Council, in consultation with the Department and in line with the public spending code and available funding. I was out there on the island. I saw it. I know what is happening there and I want to see the development move on. I know the Deputy wants to see this moving too and so do the other Deputies and Senators from the area because it is going on and on. There was work done on the pier but it was not right and now we have to get the proper job done. I am not an expert on the waves, tides and everything else but we are committed to doing this.

Question No. 68 answered with Question No. 55.
Questions Nos. 69 to 74, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Island Communities

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Question:

75. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the new ten-year cross-departmental policy for island development and associated action plans to ensure delivery of the policy, as outlined in Our Rural Future; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60217/21]

Catherine Connolly

Question:

89. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development further to Parliamentary Question No. 61 of 14 October 2021, the status of the new policy for the islands; when she expects the initial draft of the policy to be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [60118/21]

Holly Cairns

Question:

101. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she will report on the islands action plan and her engagement with island communities in relation to it since taking office. [60254/21]

I was not expecting this question to be reached. Perhaps the Minister was not either. The one thing Waterford does not have is an island. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy O'Brien, would like to donate one of the Cork ones; I somehow doubt it. Can the Minister imagine being on an island tonight? It is a precarious existence out there and it needs our support. What is the status of the ten-year, cross-departmental policy for island development, and associated action plans to ensure delivery of the policy, as outlined in Our Rural Future?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 75, 89 and 101 together. However, as Deputy Ó Cathasaigh appears to be the only one here I will focus on his question.

As set out in Our Rural Future, the Government is committed to publishing a ten-year policy on island development, with associated plans. It had been initially envisaged that the new policy would be published in 2021. However, following engagement with island communities it became clear that more time was required to get the policy right. Indeed, at this year's annual general meeting of the islands' representative body, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, at which I was present, this very point was stressed by members of that body. We have to get it right.

I understand that based on the development work to date, the draft policy is expected to be ready by the middle of next year. Some initial work has already been made on aspects of the policy document and considerable progress has also been made on bilateral meetings with stakeholders. In particular, my Department has now completed the bilateral meetings with all relevant Departments. The bilateral meetings have provided an opportunity for frank discussion of the issues raised by island communities and for Departments to assess how they might help address the various issues raised. It is not just my Department; we want to involve many other Departments in this. The interdepartmental committee for the islands held its most recent meeting on Monday, 29 November, during which the participating Departments reviewed progress on the policy development. The next meeting of the committee is scheduled for February 2022.

In the past year, I have managed to visit a good number of islands. I was on Inis Mór and Inis Meáin and I have been to two of the Donegal islands and some of the islands off the coast of Cork. I am imagining living on an island tonight. It does present challenges. This policy is an important document and we want to make sure it is right. As I said, we had a meeting at the end of November and we will continue to work on it. I thank the Deputy for his question.

The committee on social protection, of which I am a member, also covers this part of the Minister's brief, that is, community and rural affairs and the islands. Islanders often feel they have been tagged on to the end of the departmental line.

One of the representatives who spoke to our committee referenced a programme that was on TG4 Player, "Inis Airc: Bás Oileáin", which is about the leaving of Inishark. We must acknowledge that the way of life that exists on the islands is precious but also marginal. It is difficult for families to maintain their life on an island.

While I welcome the Minister's comments, the work must be multi-departmental. Many issues need to be addressed, for example, housing and employment. Language is also a major consideration on many islands because they are often Gaeltacht communities. Other issues include schools, how to keep young people on the island and how to attract inward investment.

I agree with the Deputy. I can imagine how they must feel isolated. It is fine in the summer months when everyone wants to visit the islands but it is different in the winter months. When there is an evening like this, it must be very challenging.

I have been on a number of islands, for example, Clare Island. I apologise, as I should have said I visited Árainn Mhór, not Inis Mór. I have been to Inis Oírr, Inis Meáin, Bere Island and Gola and I intend to visit more of the islands to hear first hand the issues that they have. I want to work with them and support them. We have granted funding because roads and piers are major issues for the islands. I want to try to maintain their schools and keep their children on the islands. That is challenging no matter how one looks at it. I will continue to work with them.

The Minister has acknowledged that the policy's development has to be interdepartmental because it must cover housing, education and the Gaeltacht. The islanders deserve the House's attention and I welcome her comments.

I wish to work with the Deputies present, members of the committee and those Deputies with a particular interest in this matter. Living beside the islands, they have a much greater knowledge of them than I do, but I am committed to working with everyone.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.