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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 15 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

EU Funding

Claire Kerrane

Question:

79. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development when she will provide information on the next steps of the new LEADER programme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44717/22]

This question is fairly straightforward. It is to ask the Minister for an update on the next steps for the LEADER programme 2023 to 2027.

I was delighted to welcome the recent announcement that the European Commission has confirmed its approval of Ireland's Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategic plan for 2023 to 2027, which includes the LEADER programme. This approval is a key step in the delivery of the next LEADER programme.

A number of further steps will now be completed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in advance of bringing the CAP plan to Government for final approval in the coming weeks. My Department's focus now is to finalise the design of the new LEADER programme in conjunction with key stakeholders. There will be a two-stage process to select local action groups to implement the new programme. The first will be an expression of interest by eligible groups, followed by a more detailed stage which will see them develop their LEADER strategies. I hope to confirm full details of this process shortly. I am confident the programme will fully adhere to the seven core principles of LEADER and comply with all the EU regulations that govern the programme.

A budget of €180 million has been allocated for the LEADER programme for the period 2023 to 2027, and I am confident all of this funding will be allocated to the local action groups. It is now important the key public and private stakeholders in communities throughout Ireland come together in partnership to deliver a LEADER programme that will build on the fantastic success of the programme over the past 30 years and ensure LEADER continues to play a central role in supporting rural communities into the future.

I, too, compliment the LEADER programme's work down through the years in constituencies throughout the State. There is no doubt it has made a real difference in communities. The Minister cited the budget and the €180 million for the four-year period, which is approximately €36 million per year. We know in the previous period of 2017 to 2020, there was a budget of €250 million, which meant approximately €55 million for what ended up being almost a four-and-a-half-year period. The Minister will know that the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, has raised concerns about the budget for this upcoming period. Is the Minister looking at that €180 million in this budget or is she leaving is at €180 million? She will be aware that the ILDN has asked for the maximum allowable Exchequer funding for this 2023 to 2027 period.

We will have the same amount in this LEADER programme as we had in the last, which is a total of €250 million. Some €70 million has already been provided to fund the transition programme from 2021 to 2022. A further €180 million has been committed to for 2023 to 2027. We will be funding that. On top of this core funding, additional administration Exchequer funding has been put in place for LEADER groups which have exhausted all such existing funding in 2022. I wanted to make sure there would be no stoppages and groups would be able to continue to pay staff, because we knew this programme was coming very soon. It gives local action groups certainty regarding their funding until the new programme is operational. As far as I concerned, they got €250 million of LEADER funding in the last programme and they will get €250 million in this programme.

However, I am sure the Minister is aware of concerns that have been raised by the likes of the ILDN with regard to that budget allocation. I also want to ask the Minister about the timing for the programme. I know she has gone through the stages, and stage 1 will be launched this month. That is what has been said. Regarding the start of the LEADER programme for 2023, does the Minister have any idea when that will be? I presume, with the process that has to be gone through for the selection process, it will not be ready for January. Perhaps the Minister could speak to that.

I note, and the Minister will be aware of this, and she said there was extensive engagement on the next LEADER programme, that consideration was given to the establishment of a stand-alone subregional area for the offshore islands. The Minister will be aware those representative bodies for the islands are disappointed that has not come to fruition and that they will not have their own stand-alone local action groups which they sought. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that also.

I will be addressing the issue of the islands local action group, LAG, because there is a full question tabled on it. I will be happy to give further details at that stage.

On the issue of steps, the first step is the expression of interest, which we hope to put out in the coming weeks. When expressions of interest come in, I want stakeholders to collaborate and put together their strategies, which will then be submitted to us. Partnership is the key message in LEADER. When the strategies come in, they will be evaluated. I was asking my officials how we would allocate the funding to each successful group. It will be similar to the last time in that it will be based on population and deprivation. The stakeholders have also been asked for their views. We have consulted all the way on this. An independent panel will assess the tenders when they come in. This is an important LEADER programme and I am delighted it is on its way now. We got confirmation from Europe sooner than we thought so we are ready to go.

Housing Schemes

Claire Kerrane

Question:

80. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the engagement she has had with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on eligibility requirements for the Croí Cónaithe scheme for owner-occupiers in rural areas; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44718/22]

This is to ask the Minister about the Croí Cónaithe scheme for towns and villages in particular. Will she outline what engagement she and her officials have had with the Minister and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage with regard to what is a very exciting fund and scheme especially for rural towns and villages? It is very welcome. I wonder what role the Minister played with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

Earlier this year, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage launched the Croí Cónaithe fund. The fund is initially focused on supporting the refurbishment of vacant homes in regional towns and villages and is a key funding support under the town centre first policy which was jointly developed by my Department and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The publication of town centre first was a key deliverable under Our Rural Future.

The fund is being delivered by local authorities and will provide new choices for people to live in towns and villages throughout Ireland, initially through the provision of a grant to support the refurbishment of vacant properties, with priority given to areas where the level of vacancy or dereliction is high. There are more than 500 towns and villages in Ireland with a population of more than 400 people. It is intended that the Croí Cónaithe fund will apply in all such towns, and also to some smaller villages. Funding is not currently available for towns within the city and suburb boundaries of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

Each local authority should prioritise consideration of applications in town and village locations based on the following criteria: the overall levels of vacancy and dereliction within the town or village; alignment with policies of the relevant development plan, including areas identified for regeneration; and the role that the fund might play as part of wider town regeneration, especially in the light of emerging town centre first plans. I am committed to ensuring the continued roll out of the town centre first policy will work to deliver on the goal of revitalising rural towns and villages as set out in Our Rural Future.

While I appreciate this is a joint venture and that perhaps some of my questions come under the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, perhaps the Minister could inform us regarding the eligibility criteria, population and that figure of 400. I have come across a number of cases, for example, a young lad on the road from us is in a village in a country area that does not have a population of more than 400 people. The house he has bought has been empty, definitely throughout my lifetime. He is doing it up but he will not get any assistance because the population of the village is not greater than 400.

Do local authorities have autonomy in this scheme? I appreciate the rules are there for a reason, but would it be the case that if they prioritised all of the eligible applications and there were a few that did not meet that 400 figure, there would be wriggle room? Any house that is being brought back into life in villages should be supported. Is there any wriggle room with regard to eligibility?

I thank the Deputy. I am sure there will be more cases like the one she has just outlined. The criteria were set as towns and villages with a population of over 400 people. First of all, this is a great scheme and I think everybody agrees with that. I am getting a lot of calls from Fine Gael Deputies in particular. Even last night at a meeting it was raised with me. I have been asked can we not expand it further and can we not bring it out into rural areas and can we not make it available for towns and villages with fewer than 400 people.

I worked with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and fair play to him, he got this up and running. This is a new scheme. It is out this year. If we can just let it bed in then we can look at expanding it further. I expect there will be good interest in it. It is a good start. I said to somebody last night that we will have to crawl before we walk on this one. It is something I talked about a long time ago and fair play, it has become a reality now. It is the right thing to do. We all know these houses in towns and villages. They are serviced, that is, the water supply and sewerage is there, so we should be able to renovate them easily. They are great as a starter home for young people who want to get on the property ladder. We are doing other stuff in my Department as well. I take the Deputy's point. I will raise it with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, but to be fair to him we had better let this get bedded in first.

I thank the Minister and I too welcome the scheme. It is a good one and is needed. However, I take it from her answer local authorities do not have autonomy. It would be great if where the authorities have an allocation of X amount of money, do not spend it all and there are a few applications that are on serviced roads where the water and all that is there, they could decide to allocate it to those sites. The decisions about that would be best made by local authorities on the ground that are closer to an area.

I have another point to raise. I read in the document there would be interim reviews as this goes along. Does the Minister know when the first review will be?

This is a really good scheme. It is an exciting scheme for towns and villages. However, the figure of 2,000 homes to be delivered by 2025 is low given we probably have about 166,000 vacant homes across this State. Those are not all in rural areas but that figure should be looked at. We should perhaps be more ambitious about the number of houses we want to see restored because in many cases, in many towns and villages, we do not need to build as we can restore what is there and make a massive difference to communities.

I thank the Deputy. She is right that the fund is being rolled out through the local authorities. As to the flexibility, I am not all over the detail but you can get €30,000. If the refurbishment costs are expected to exceed the standard grant of €30,000 then a maximum top-up grant of up to €20,000 will be available where the property is confirmed to be derelict. This brings the total grant available for a derelict property up to a maximum of €50,000. Applications are to be made to the vacant homes officer in the relevant local authority, so maybe that officer could write to the Department to see if there is any flexibility in that. I take the Deputy's point and fully understand where she is coming from because I am sure we will all be getting these same questions in our constituency offices. As far as my role in town centre renewal and regeneration is concerned, there are a number of funds there. Only this year I gave local authorities funding of €400,000 to acquire buildings. These are old buildings in the towns, be that the Garda station, the old post office, bank or whatever. Each local authority was given €400,000 and they could identify two properties and buy them to turn them over to community use. The Deputy knows there are loads of other initiatives for addressing dereliction and bringing new life back into our towns.

Departmental Schemes

Mattie McGrath

Question:

81. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the category 2 applications from Tipperary County Council under the rural regeneration and development fund. [45401/22]

I wish to inquire about rural regeneration and development funding for towns in Tipperary, namely, Carrick-on-Suir, Cathair Dúin Iascaigh - Cahir - and Roscrea. We have had funding from the urban regeneration and development fund for many of our towns but these are rural towns. Since they lost many services they need this funding from the regeneration schemes and I want an update on the matter.

I thank the Deputy. Funding of €279 million has been approved to date under the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, for 191 projects nationwide costing over €379 million. Calls for applications to the fund are sought under two categories, namely, category 1 and category 2. Category 1 relates to large-scale ambitious capital projects with all necessary planning and other consents in place and which are ready to proceed. Category 2 provides smaller grant funding to enable the development of project proposals suitable for future calls for category 1 applications. The third call for category 2 applications was completed in January 2022. I announced funding of €21.5 million for 27 projects from this call. This included €1.2 million for the Rialto Digital and Enterprise Hub project located in Nenagh. The fourth call for category 1 applications to the RRDF closed on 29 April. My Department received 42 applications to this call, which together sought funding of over €149 million. I understand that three applications for projects located in Tipperary were submitted to this call.

The application process for the fund is competitive in nature. Applications are currently being assessed by my Department under the oversight of the project advisory board, which is comprised of representatives from key Departments and independent experts. Once the assessment process is complete, my Department will prepare a report setting out recommended projects. My role as Minister will be to consider that report and make final decisions in relation to the allocation of funding. I expect to be in a position to announce the successful projects in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I thank her also for visiting Tipperary. She visited Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel, Tipperary town and went on to some towns in the north of the county. Towns like Nenagh have got major funding and we do not begrudge them that but Carrick-on-Suir has been devastated by lack of industry for decades. Cahir has good employment. It is a beautiful town and indeed the new King visited there in spring of this year. It is a big tourist town and the county council has put huge work into car parking and redevelopment of the square, though everybody might not agree with it and I have my own concerns about the parking issues. Roscrea is also a town that has been hammered and has not got any major investment. These are the kind of towns that, as I have said before, must get some of this funding because they are falling off the ladder if they cannot get the funding. We cannot have it all for the main towns; it is a rural redevelopment fund. I look forward to a favourable outcome for the three applications from Tipperary of the 42 submitted nationally. We hope there will be good news for Tiobraid Árann and good news for Carrick-on-Suir, Cahir and Roscrea.

Tipperary as a county has done extremely well to date and has received the fourth-highest total county funding allocation from the fund since it began in 2018. Over €15.1 million in funding has been allocated to projects in Tipperary in that period. The Deputy was with me when I was down there and the work that is going on is wonderful. I was in Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir and I was on the blueway. That is a wonderful connection and a real boost to that whole area. I was in Tipperary town and there has been good investment there. It was only this year I announced a further €500,000, I think it was, for Tipperary town for town centre work. That was in February under the town and village renewal scheme, so there is major development going on there as well.

I am aware there are three more applications in and as I said they are being assessed. I do not see them until they come to my desk, having gone through the process.

I thank the Minister. She is welcome any time in Tiobraid Árann. I acknowledge we have been successful in funding in the major urban centres of Nenagh and Clonmel but this scheme is tailor-made to try to bring vitality back to rural towns. The Minister will not be disparaging the fact we got the fourth-highest funding allocation in the country. As she knows, "Where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows" was the old adage.

The Minister would be welcome any time to come back, and please God she will come back and make the announcement of the funding for Carrick-on-Suir, Roscrea and, indeed, my own town of Cathair Dún Iascaigh. I thank the Minister for visiting the last time. I compliment the county council and the task force in Tipperary town and the groups in Nenagh. Without good, proper applications and a lot of detailed work, people will not get any funding. I compliment all involved in the towns that have been successful and those involved with the present applications that are gone in. Enormous work has gone into them and great enthusiasm which it is hoped will be rewarded.

I thank the Deputy. He is right that good applications have to come in. I cannot give them funding unless I get the applications. For those towns in Tipperary that have not got any funding, they should work with the local authority. The applications come in through the local authority, as the Deputy knows. If I do not get an application, there is no chance of getting funding. I see here that the activating Cahir's town centre regeneration strategy is seeking funding of €11.9 million. Carrick-on-Suir is another town looking for money. Reimagining and regenerating Gantly Road is seeking funding of €4.5 million, and then Cahir's town centre is a fairly big project, looking for funding of €11.9 million. It involves a number of interventions that will assist regeneration in the centre of the town and allow for significant future growth. It includes refurbishment of prominent buildings to create an enterprise hub, a new library and public realm. There are good, exciting applications coming in from Tipperary. They are in the assessment process. If the county's past record is anything to go by, it has been very successful in its applications. We will work on that.

Community Development Projects

Seán Canney

Question:

82. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she will conduct a review of the way increasing inflation, fuel and energy costs are affecting community groups throughout the country; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45112/22]

We might as well talk about Galway now after Tipperary. I raise the issue of the increase in costs that community groups are suffering under at the moment. With the increasing fuel and insurance costs coming home to roost for every community group, they are going to find it very hard to continue providing their services in community areas unless there is recognition by the Department that additional funding is required. The object of the exercise is to make sure they continue to provide the services.

I am acutely aware of the increase in the cost of living and rising costs in recent months, especially increasing energy prices. Given this, the supports provided by the Department to assist communities are more important than ever. The Department was allocated €378 million for 2022, which will enable continued delivery of a wide range of measures to support communities and address emerging needs. Last November, we launched the €9 million community activities fund under the community enhancement programme. This fund allowed groups in disadvantaged areas to apply for funding for their running costs, such as utility or insurance bills. Groups could also apply for funding to carry out repairs and to purchase equipment within their communities. It is hoped to run another programme later this year. I also refer to the expansion of the community services programme support fund, which I announced last week. An additional €1 million was added to that for the remainder of this year. We have in excess of 400 community services programme projects throughout the country.

A key part of the Department's mission is to support social enterprises, and the €1.5 million scaling up scheme for social enterprise was launched by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys in July. It will provide some much-needed capital to social enterprises nationwide, including those operating in the circular economy. This will enable them to grow their operations and strengthen their impact on the communities they serve. In addition, the Department continues to provide a wide range of supports to communities, including, among others, the community and voluntary supports programme, the empowering communities fund and the scheme to support national organisations. I am confident these funding supports and policies provided will continue to deliver tangible benefits for all communities. The Department continues to engage with rural and urban stakeholders to identify and respond to issues that are having an impact on communities. I will also continue to collaborate with my Government colleagues to monitor issues that have an impact on communities in order to respond to emerging needs.

I thank the Minister of State and acknowledge that a lot of support has been going into community groups over the years. It is important this continues. With the unprecedented level of increase that is happening in trying to keep community groups and facilities open and running between heating, lighting, insurance and the cost of buying materials to maintain these facilities, it is important that additional funding is made available as part of the cost-of-living element of the upcoming budget. This would ensure these community groups can continue to put on the lights and heat, run the card games in their facilities, cut the grass and keep the places looking well, as well as providing additional resources within the community facilities when they have them. Oftentimes the easiest part of a community group's action is to provide or build a facility. The biggest problem is maintenance and sustainability going forward. Right now there is a crisis. I am hoping additional funding will be provided.

I thank the Deputy. That case was made when I was in Galway and Ballinasloe last week. Galway Rural Development made the case very well. I also had a good meeting in the Connacht Hotel with a group of 60-plus community employment supervisors. They certainly made the case around costs and made some good suggestions about what we could do in terms of materials grants as well. That is not a matter for this Department but it is relevant to the wider community and voluntary sector which they work with on a community-wide basis throughout the country. To give wider assurance, I and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, have discussed this issue. It has an impact on other Departments as well. There is live consideration being given to the broader issue that is facing the community and voluntary sector in terms of the increased costs they are going to have this winter.

I thank the Minister of State for the encouraging words. I will state again the importance of what the Department of Rural and Community Development has been doing for community groups throughout the country. It has been the backbone of the revival of a lot of parishes where they had facilities but did not have the wherewithal to get them running and back into use. We now see a lot of that. I have seen it right across my own constituency, where pristine facilities are now in place, and the question is how we keep them going and keep them up to the standard that was created with the help of the Department. I acknowledge the work that was carried out by the previous Minister, Deputy Ring in making sure communities throughout the country received the support they deserve. They appreciate it as well, which is the important thing. We want to make sure they are protected through this phase of the crisis we have at the moment.

I agree with the sentiment. It is a good opportunity for me to mention another avenue in respect of cost issues such as lighting and heating, namely, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. On energy generation projects, the climate action plan sets a clear goal for renewable energy delivered through local community-based projects. These projects will be delivered through the dedicated community category in the renewable electricity support scheme, as well as through microgeneration and small-scale generation schemes. These are real options for community groups as well. Only last night in Skerries in my own constituency I attended a meeting of the Skerries sustainable energy community. They are working with the SEAI to do an assessment of the energy needs and energy consumption of the whole town. They are working with community and sports groups in the town to see what needs to be done to upgrade their facilities, and they will do so in a cost-effective way by doing it collectively. I flag the opportunity for community groups to work with the SEAI to improve the running of their facilities and their costs overall in the medium to long term.

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