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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 15 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 2

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Community Development Projects

Fergus O'Dowd

Question:

83. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development her plans, if any, to develop new locations for connected hubs in County Louth; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45048/22]

What plans, if any, does the Minister have to develop new locations for connected hubs in County Louth? The ones that have commenced working are working very well and I congratulate the Minister. As other Deputies have said, she is very welcome to visit County Louth any time. I refer to Ardee, Carlingford, Drogheda and St. Fechin's GAA.

There are huge benefits to local connected hubs. They are keeping commuters at home and keeping families closer together. It is hugely important. Does the Minister have any plans for future hubs in County Louth?

Our Rural Future, Ireland's rural development policy, recognises the potential of remote working hubs as key economic assets for our regional towns and villages. Therefore, in May 2021, I launched the national hub network and its online platform, namely, connectedhubs.ie. The network brings together a. range of hubs catering for a wide variety of enterprise, community, remote and co-working needs. The national hub network currently comprises of 281 hubs across the State. I anticipate that 300 hubs will be live on connectedhubs.ie by the end of this year and at least 400 hubs will be on board by the end of 2025. Eight of the 281 hubs on the connectedhubs.ie platform today are located in County Louth and a further ten hubs throughout the county have been invited to join the network.

I am pleased to confirm that my Department continues to provide support for the establishment and development of hubs through a range of its schemes. For example, a number of the hubs in Louth were successful under the first two connected hubs funding calls which provided support for hubs in developing their facilities and their capacity, while my Department also continues to invest significantly in hubs through schemes such as the town and village renewal scheme and the rural regeneration and development fund.

I remain committed to leveraging Ireland's hub sector as a key asset in ensuring that we can deliver on the Government's vision for rural Ireland as set out in Our Rural Future. The Deputy was absolutely right when he said that people can work in a hub the same way as they can work in a city. The hubs are all well kitted out. I have been to see many of them. We would like to encourage more people to take them up because it saves that long commute and it is better for the environment. Remote working has been a game-changer for rural Ireland. I am very committed to it.

I welcome the Minister’s comments. If I heard her correctly, there are ten other hubs in County Louth that have been invited in. If I could have the list whenever it is available, it will be very welcome.

Dunleer needs a new library, and putting a hub in Dunleer would be a great idea. I appreciate that I do not have all the detail on who has applied, also in Louth village and in east Meath. At the bottom line, the transformation of our society because of Covid, and obviously the fact that we want to reduce our commute and climate change, mean the Minister’s connected hubs are a key facility for everybody. They should have a huge transformational impact on those communities which would otherwise have nobody in them during the day. It helps the local economy but, most of all, it keeps people near their families and their children going to and from school. It has huge other benefits as well. I hope the Minister keeps up the good work and circulates that list.

My other question is on east Meath. I did not ask it in the parliamentary question. What is the situation in east Meath? I can follow it up with the Minister later.

I know the Deputy is very familiar with the Creative Spark in Louth and The Mill in Drogheda. Those are two outstanding centres in terms of what they are doing there. I recall it was in The Mill in Drogheda that I launched the remote working app. I have been in both places this year.

The connected hubs fund is there to support centres, whether they are private or publicly owned, to upgrade their facilities. For example, they could put in a privacy pod and improve their facilities.

It is up to the local authorities to bid for funding and there are a number of different funding streams in my Department where they can acquire buildings and have a remote working space in them. They can apply under the town and village renewal scheme. There is also the buildings acquisition fund, where I give every local authority €400,000 to allow it to buy two properties to turn those into community facilities, and part of that could be for a remote working hub. Perhaps some of the places that do not have it need to engage with the local authority and see what they can do there. There are private operators that get the support as well.

On Dunleer, libraries fall under my Department as well. Perhaps the Deputy wants to engage with me on that. I do not have the list of the ten hubs, but I can get it for him.

I would be very happy with that. Again, it is the transformation of our society. It is focused on keeping people as near to their homes as they can to work. As I said, it is a huge benefit to those communities. We hear much criticism of the Government but the funding that the Minister announced that she spent and will be spending is what the country needs. It is a banner she can be proud to hold high. Indeed, I welcome all the work the Minister is doing.

I launched that voucher scheme earlier in the summer. It was designed to encourage those who have never used a hub to try it for free. It was like a sample or taster. A person could go in and use the hub for three days, free of charge. I was encouraging people to go in, try them out and see what they thought, because sitting at home is not a good idea. At least in a hub one can have a bit of interaction and talk to people. It is secure and the desks are at the right height. One will not be going home in the evening or getting up from the kitchen table with a sore back. It is much better for people to use the hubs. I am encouraging people to get out there and try them.

In June, we had 1,800 users registered on the connected hubs platform. Since the announcement of the voucher scheme, the number of registered users has gone up to more than 8,000. We want to keep this momentum going; I do not want to lose it. I want to encourage employers as well to engage with their staff and see whether remote working would work for them. I do not believe that remote working means less productivity; in fact, I think productivity goes up.

Rural Schemes

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

84. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the funding that has been allocated to the local improvement scheme in 2021 and 2022 for Cork; the demand for the scheme in Cork; the financial allocations to date, by each of the Cork local authorities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45073/22]

The local improvement scheme is essential for tarring rural roads. It is the first stretch of road that people will drive in the morning, the last they will drive in the evening and probably the most frequently driven piece of road. The local improvement scheme is the only hope for tarring these roads. Having enough funding and making it available to the widest number of people is important. Can the Minister give an outline of funding to run that important scheme?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I am well aware of local improvement schemes because there are many lanes where I live that have benefited as, indeed, I am sure the Deputy is aware of many in his area as well.

As part of Our Rural Future, the Government is committed to ensuring that the local improvement scheme, LIS, is funded into the future. The LIS supports the improvement of rural roads and laneways that are not normally maintained by local authorities. The scheme makes an important contribution to connectivity in rural Ireland.

There is a strong demand under LIS, not only in Cork, but right across rural Ireland. The scheme was reintroduced in 2017 following a number of years with no dedicated funding. From 2017 to 2021, improvement works have been completed on more than 3,000 non-public roads and lanes, benefiting more than 13,300 landowners and residents in these rural areas.

In 2021 alone, €1.4 million was allocated to Cork under the scheme. I was pleased, as part of budget 2022, to announce an increase in the base funding from €10.5 million to €11 million this year. I then announced details of the first round of funding under LIS in early April. That included the Deputy’s constituency in Cork, which got €879,099.

To address the strong demand, and following the identification of savings in other capital areas, I was delighted to be in a position to double the overall provision for the scheme to €22 million this year. In 2022, LIS has €22 million. Under the second round of funding, I increased the allocation to Cork to almost €1.3 million this year.

Since LIS was reintroduced in 2017, aggregate investment has now surpassed the €100 million mark. This is clear testament to Government’s commitment in Our Rural Future to improve rural connectivity. County Cork has been allocated more than €7.36 million since its reintroduction in 2017. In fairness, the former Minister, Deputy Ring, was the man who brought this back. It is a good scheme.

I thank the Minister for the update. I want to acknowledge the increase in funding, as it is very constructive. What it means locally is that in our own area, there are four lanes instead of three being tarred. Additional families can benefit from that.

As well as the increase in funding, there is also, unfortunately, an increase in the rules and conditions that apply. That is a difficulty for many of the participants. The Minister is familiar with the demand for the scheme and that some people have been waiting for several years to be approved. When their turn comes, they may find there are two landowners and everybody involved has to take part in the scheme. This makes it difficult in some cases. People who qualified when they originally applied find they are in trouble several years later. Not everybody will be able to participate in the scheme. There are people who genuinely cannot afford to do it and will not put their name on the application. There may be people who do not agree with one another. The land may be rented or the farmyard may be on another road and the farmer may be not using the road. They are required to provide a significant amount of information such as a map, herd number and so on. These are additional conditions that are not required of householders. There is an increase in conditions that makes it more difficult to access. We want it to be available to the widest possible range of people.

The eligibility criteria with regard to at least two separate landowners being engaged in agricultural or harvesting activity remains a key component of eligibility for the scheme. My priority is to deal with the applications on hand in the local authorities based on the current criteria and to continue to support the rural farming community. Once this backlog of applications is addressed, we can look at widening the criteria.

There are many schemes. My Department is a small one and we do not have a massive budget. The Deputy might urge me to put more money into the scheme. I have put more money into it in the past two years. The baseline is €11 million and it will take time to clear the backlog. The Minister for Transport, however, should be matching the funding I am putting into the LIS because that would mean we would get more done and would be able to look at the criteria more quickly. I have raised the matter with him. I do not know if the Deputy agrees with me but I think if the funding were matched, that would be beneficial. It always came out of the Department of Transport.

Irrespective of whether the money comes from the Department of Transport or the Department of Rural and Community Development, the priority is having it available. We want to make sure the maximum number of householders can benefit from it. In the context of the change in the conditions, people who were queueing for several years may now find they are not able to get everybody involved to participate in the scheme. It may be that a landowner is not taking part or the land is rented. By the way, there is no appeal mechanism available for people to question or challenge a decision. That needs to be examined.

I draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that the question referred to all local authorities in Cork. There are two local authorities in the county. The expanded boundary change means people who were making applications in Ballinora, Blarney and other locations that were in the Cork County Council area are now at sea. Is there funding available for them? It is important they are able to access funding and have an opportunity, similar to that available to people in the rest of the country, to have their roads tarred.

I have stated here on numerous occasions that it is up to Cork County Council and Cork City Council to come together and find a solution to this. The money has been allocated to the county. I would love to give every county more money for the LIS, but if I were to do so, I would be taking the money out of other schemes. I have to try to balance these budgets. The point is Cork County Council and Cork City Council can figure that out themselves. The funding is being made available. The boundaries were changed but I continue to support County Cork in terms of the allocation it gets. It got €1.4 million this year. There is a lot of funding going into the county. The Deputy is aware that only last week there was a further announcement of CLÁR projects. There is a lot of investment. Millstreet Community Council got another €50,000 for a gym, for example. I am trying to do a lot of things. Sometimes it is a case of loaves and fishes but we try to spread it out as fairly as we can.

Island Communities

Catherine Connolly

Question:

85. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development further to Question No. 45 of 31 May 2022, the status of the new policy for the islands; if she has received the initial draft of the policy document to date; the expected timeline for the completion and publication of the new policy for the islands; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45151/22]

Baineann mo cheist le cúrsaí oileánda agus go háirithe leis an bpolasaí do na hoileáin atá beartaithe le fada an lá. Tá mé ag iarraidh uasdátú a fháil maidir le stádas an pholasaí sin. An bhfuil an dréachtpholasaí ag an Aire agus cén uair a bheidh an polasaí foilsithe? Táimid ag fanacht le fada an lá.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Government is committed to publishing a ten-year policy on island development, with associated three-year action plans. Indeed, the programme for Government includes a commitment in this regard and, as Minister with responsibility for the islands, I am determined to ensure the policy is delivered. I have received an initial working draft of the policy, which sets out the context for the policy and defines strategic objectives. I will be meeting with my officials in the coming days to review the overall direction of the policy and discuss the next steps and timeline for completion.

The Government's ambition for a national policy and action plan for the islands was set out in chapter 10 of Our Rural Future, the action plan for rural development 2021-2025, published in 2021. The Deputy will be aware an extensive consultation process has been completed by my Department, including meetings with island communities and relevant Departments and agencies. The feedback from this consultation process provided a valuable insight into the key priorities, and indeed challenges and opportunities, for our island communities.

An interdepartmental committee for the islands was established and its most recent meeting was held on 22 June 2022, where it was agreed committee members would review their Department's draft input and revert with revised actions. I understand the interdepartmental committee is scheduled to meet again in October, when members will be able to share their feedback, observations and recommendations regarding the initial draft of the policy. I expect the policy and action plan to be finalised between now and the end of the year. It is a long time in the making but it is nearly there and I am glad that is the case. I am glad I was able to attend the AGM of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann on Árainn Mhór, where I got a chance to speak to the representative groups who were there from islands around the country. It is 26 years in the making and it is nearly there.

I welcome the Minister's determination and that she now has an initial working draft of a policy for which we have long waited. She has given a publication date of before the end of the year. I will be holding her to that. I take a cynical attitude to this, given the background here. There has been no policy for the islands. We have had interdepartmental workforces going back to 1996, yet through that time we have had no development with regard to policy. By contrast, the islands in Scotland have a comprehensive policy based on legislation and their population is increasing. The opposite is the case here.

As regards the working draft, what issues have been identified, given that Members have been inundated with issues from the islands? The islands are working in a vacuum and we receive constant representations about the céanna ar Inis Oírr agus ar Inis Meáin, for example. There is also the debacle relating to the LEADER payment, which I understand Deputy Ó Cuív will be raising later. The islands have asked that they be treated as one region for the purposes of LEADER . Of course, there is the issue of housing. These issues are being raised all the time in a vacuum, with no policy.

I will have to go through the document as I have not yet read it, but I was at the AGM and the issues relating to the islands are clear to me. There is the need to attract young people back to the islands. Planning permission is a significant issue. The islanders are concerned they cannot get planning that would allow young people to return. I was given the example of a young man who was coming back from America but could not get planning permission to build a house on the island. There is no doubt there are environmental issues but I do not see why we cannot address these things. What make islands are people, including young people. They are looking at issues relating to schools and additional funding for teachers who work on the islands. I said I would raise that with the Minister, Deputy Foley.

The point is that this island policy means that I have to hold other Departments to account. I want to make sure I get strong commitments from each Department as to how we can improve the situation on islands. There is no point in having a policy unless we have strong commitments and then I have to keep their toes to the fire to make sure they deliver on these commitments. We are working with them on that particular issue to get the policy finished and get the commitments from all the different Departments.

I thank the Minister, and I thank her for her visit to the islands. She is aware of the issues. My question is, are those issues reflected in the draft report that is before her? That is very important. In regard to the ongoing issues, we can learn from the islands. They have survived. They have shown us a sustainable way of living. Each Government, not just this Government, has utterly failed to deal with the islands in a just and equal way with a comprehensive report based on legislation. Housing is a major issue on all the islands and particularly the Aran Islands and Inishbofin. We have problems with the lack of health centres and ongoing problems with na céibheanna. I am reading correspondence from Inis Meáin. People there are despairing in regard to the process on An Caladh Mór, and the simulation exercise that is going on in the marine centre in Cork, and so on. Equally people in Inis Oírr have contacted us as a representative body telling us that the funding model under LEADER is not going to do anything for the islands and will continue the division that has happened up to date, which is not acceptable. I will not go over my time.

I am surprised that they did not group the questions because I had a very similar question, No. 138. I was on Bere Island, Inishbofin and the Aran Islands over the summer. The regression in policy in the past ten years is absolutely astounding. To be honest, the big plan of drawing up a plan is a time-wasting exercise because for example a health policy was developed for the islands and published with great fanfare, but nothing happened. Things have regressed on that also. Islands that had full 24-7 nursing cover do not have it anymore. What they need is not rocket science. Every time you sit down with the islanders they tell you straight out. As Deputy Connolly has pointed out they want roads, better ferry services, air services, health and education services and so on. Nearly every island is unique. Some are inshore and others are much further out to sea. Will the Minister tell me how much control has her Department exerted on the other Departments? Has she insisted that it is her island policy or are we going to get a copy and paste and we normally get with these comprehensive policies, from each Department, telling her what they are already doing, for example telling her what they are doing on planning on the islands, which is as she points out an absolutely critical issue?

The Deputy will agree that I have taken a keen interest in the islands. I have taken the trouble - I know Deputy Ó Cuív is a regular visitor to them himself - and have been on Bere Island, I have been on Arranmore twice this year already and one of the visits was to open a wonderful new seafront facility for the islanders there with huge investment under the rural regeneration fund in conjunction with Donegal County Council. I am personally committed to making sure that we deliver on this island policy but there is no point in having a document if I do not nail down other Departments so that they must deliver. I mean that. I will do that. I will make sure that whenever the document comes, and there has been much consultation on it, that it is a meaningful document with very clear objectives and actions to back up those objectives. That is what I want to achieve. It is not easy living on an island. Deputy Connolly refers to Inis Oírr and the difficulties there on the pier and the simulation that is going on in Cork. As I said the last time, it comes up every time in questions in the House, if I could do it myself I would do it because I am sick wondering when it is going to move on. How many times do you have to do this or how long does it take to develop it?

Sorry, Inis Meáin. Inis Oírr is the first one I was on, and Inis Meáin was the second. This pier was repaired many years ago. The Deputy knows more about it than I do. It does not work so now it is about how we can make it better. It is complex. Significant consultation has been undertaken with island communities. There has been wide consultation with the Departments and agencies. Bilateral meetings have been held with 13 Departments and other relevant bodies such as local authorities and Údarás na Gaeltachta. Good progress has been made but I am going to make sure we have it in writing and I will hold them to account.

Question No. 86 replied to with Written Answers.

Rural Schemes

Question No. 87 was the name of Deputy Cathal Crowe is being taken by Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív.

Cathal Crowe

Question:

87. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she will take measures to clear the local improvement scheme backlog in County Clare. [45171/22]

Again I am surprised this question was not taken as part of a group but I do not know who decides on groupings. It is a simple question. What measure is going to be taken to clear the local improvement scheme backlog in County Clare? In asking that question I could also say counties Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo, Galway and many more because the backlog is horrendous.

The local improvement scheme, LIS, supports the improvement of rural roads and laneways that are not normally maintained by local authorities. Rural connectivity is an important element of Our Rural Future. Such roads represent a vital piece of infrastructure for rural residents providing access to people's homes and farms as well as outdoor amenities such as lakes, rivers and beaches. The scheme is administered locally by the relevant local authority which is responsible for prioritising and selecting eligible applications within broad parameters set by my Department. I acknowledge there is strong demand for the scheme and in some counties local authorities have significant levels of applications on hand. The LIS was reintroduced in 2017 following a number of years with no dedicated funding in place. As outlined earlier I am tackling the situation through sustained investment. Since the LIS scheme was reintroduced in 2017 aggregate investment has now surpassed €100 million. I have prioritised the scheme in my Department. While of course there are competing demands on finite resources, in four of the past six years additional resources were directed to the scheme mid-year to address strong demand for the scheme across rural Ireland. County Clare has secured combined funding of €2.64 million over the past two years. Indeed since the scheme was reintroduced in 2017 following the establishment of my Department, County Clare has been allocated almost €5 million, representing the sixth largest investment across relevant local authorities. I am happy that the LIS continues to play an important role in the delivery of our rural development policy, Our Rural Future.

Money has been spent but of course there were seven years from 2011 to 2017 when no money was spent so we are only trying to catch up on the total and utter neglect of rural Ireland. It would be a good idea and I ask the Minister, in view of the fact that so many Deputies are raising this question, that she would ascertain from the local authorities around the country the total value in each case of the valid applications they have on hand and as Deputy Moynihan pointed out that is with restrictive rules. Only then will we see the absolutely minuscule amount of money that is going into these roads compared with other roads throughout the country. These are the roads that often lead to people's houses, the one mile of road that they always have to travel. Will the Minister give an undertaking today to ask each local authority to value the total number of valid applications on hand? I can guarantee that this is a very large sum of money and needs much more than has been given to it. If we had that information we could go to the Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform and say this has to be dealt with. It is a national scandal.

I have been doing my best on this. I gave €22 million this year in local improvement scheme funding, which I believe is the highest amount that has ever been given. I doubled it last year also. There are many competing demands in my Department. There are other schemes and with each scheme, one may want to know why funding is not forthcoming, whether it is town and village renewal or outdoor recreation schemes, or whether it is the regeneration fund, all of which are investments in rural Ireland. I have to try to balance things. From unspent moneys, I was able to move money into the LIS programme because it is also a priority for me.

I have to say, however, that LIS is tar and that is what it goes to fund, that is, tar and roads. I would like and I have asked the Minister for Transport to look at providing matched funding to my Department for the local improvement schemes. It is a priority here and has been raised with me on numerous occasions but I cannot produce all the money. Money did come out of the Department of Transport at one stage in the past and that Department should look at matching what I have put in from my Department. My Department is only a very small one and if there was a roads project which was delayed, one would clear the whole list if this money was then diverted to the LIS programme.

The history of this is that this scheme was funded solely from the Department of Transport. When I became Minister, I topped up and matched money from the Department of Transport in the CLÁR areas as part of the CLÁR scheme. If that Department did not give the money I did not give the money.

To be quite honest, members of the public just see the Exchequer. They only see one Government constitutionally. They do not care which pocket the money comes out of because it costs the same thing to the taxpayer, no matter what pocket it comes out of. Were the Minister to agree to find out what the total demand of valid applications is, we could go to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and, if necessary, he could take the money off the Department of Transport and give it to somebody who will spend it on these completely vital roads. Will the Minister find out what the total demand for the scheme is around the country in order that we have the ammunition to fight her cause for her?

I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív on trying to collate the actual cost throughout the State. I also have to acknowledge the contribution of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, of €2.64 million over the past two years to County Clare. She actually doubled the funding this year, which is greatly welcomed. I also believe that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in the Department of Transport should be contributing to this scheme. I also acknowledge the Minister’s reference in that regard where she has reached out to the Minister, Deputy Ryan. I put in questions as Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development in the previous Dáil where we also made recommendations around this. The Department of Transport needs to come up to the plate and to provide funding for this vital scheme for rural Ireland.

I had a similar question on the paper and it was not put together with this one. I ask the Minister and I have raised it before, which is exactly that same question in respect of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan’s Department. Can the Minister inform the House as to what the response to that question from that Department has been because it is something she has said previously she has sought? Again, in my constituency in Roscommon and in Galway, but particularly in Galway, there is a very significant backlog and demand is nowhere near being met in respect of the funding that is there. I believe there may be a job of work for all of us to put pressure on the Department of Transport, together with the Minister, to get this scheme either match-funded or at least to clear the backlog.

My apologies to Deputy Ó Cuív as I did not answer him because I ran out of time. I will ask every county council. My officials are engaging with the local authorities and I will find out how many such applications are outstanding and what the story is. Believe you me, one gets a great deal of varied information from the different local authorities because they have different ways of working things out and of carrying out assessments. In any event, I will ask them and I will be delighted to get the support of all of the Deputies in getting more money for the LIS programme. If I get more money, it will be allocated across the country. I am doing my best. As Deputy Ó Cuív has said, it was always a Department of Transport fund, but in fairness to the then Minister, Deputy Ring, in 2017 he reopened the programme and we got the ball rolling. We have a long list, it is in every county in the country and I know all about it. It is something of which I am very conscious. I would appreciate the Deputies' support in trying to get more money for this particular fund and I look forward to working with the Deputies.

I believe the Minister will find that all of the rural Deputies will support that call. Next is Question No. 88 in the name of Deputy Ó Cathasaigh ó Chontae Phort Láirge.

Island Communities

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

Question:

88. Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the progress that has been made to date on developing an islands strategy; the anticipated date for the completion and publication of the strategy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45078/22]

As the saying goes, this is like déjà vu happening all over again. This is more or less the same question that was put by Deputy Connolly earlier. I note on the Order Paper that Deputies Cairns and Ó Cuív have a similar question. I ask the Minister for the progress that has been made to date on developing an island strategy, and the anticipated date for its completion and publication.

I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh. The Government's ambition for a national policy and action plan for the islands was set out in the programme for Government and included in chapter 10 of Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, an action plan for rural development, published in 2021. Indeed, the process commenced in December 2019, when a consultation paper was prepared with input from the participating Departments to act as a basis to advance the development of an island policy. Over the intervening period, there has been an extensive public consultation process with the island communities, through a combination of in-person and online meetings.

The interdepartmental committee for the islands was established and is chaired by the Department. The most recent meeting was held on 22 June 2022, where it was agreed that committee members would review their Department's draft input and revert with revised actions. The next meeting of the interdepartmental committee is scheduled for early October, where it is expected committee members will be able to share their feedback, observations and recommendations regarding the initial draft of the policy. An initial draft of the policy sets out the context for the policy, provides a high-level analysis of the current opportunities and defines strategic objectives for the policy.

Finalisation of the policy and action plan is due to be completed in the coming months and it is my intention to have it published by the end of the year.

I thank the Minister for that update. For her information, the Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands paid a visit to Bere Island and the message that came out strongly was that there are great opportunities for people on the island. The remote working has a chance to be transformative and the quality of life there is second to none. The resilience and adaptability of islanders in general was acknowledged. Common themes across the islands are coming across. The provision of health services is a another significant one. In the case of Bere Island, it is the need for a 24-7 cover for their nursing services. Education is a significant theme and now that the islands allowance has gone, it is very difficult to source substitute cover because if one hears that at 8.50 a.m. that there is no teacher available at the school, one will have a hard time getting somebody in from wherever, in Cork, who may be travelling to Bere Island.

Childcare is a very significant issue also, as are housing and the cost of living, all of which feed in. Can the Minister give perhaps some broad outline and are those strands also being reflected in the island policy? Are these the kinds of common themes that we are going to see reflected in the final strategy?

I thank the Deputy. Indeed, I was on Bere Island last year and I managed to dial in remotely to attend a Cabinet meeting from there. I have to say that the hospitality I received was second to none. It is a lovely island. I met a representative of the island when I was at the annual general meeting, AGM, of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann on Árainn Mhór only two weeks ago. All of the issues the Deputy has mentioned are the ones that keep coming up and the issues that were raised with me at the AGM. I am happy that because of the extensive consultation, those issues will obviously be part of this new policy on how we are going to address them. Housing is probably the biggest issue that I took from the meeting, in any event. I have not seen this draft policy yet. My officials have it and there are a few bits and pieces that are being attended to and they will be bringing it to me very shortly. We will have the policy and will get it published then as quickly as we can.

I also said to the islanders that while a great deal of consultation has gone on, this policy will be a living document and, if we need to change it is as time goes on, we will do so. The important bit for me is that we get buy-in from the different Departments because we cannot deliver it from my Department alone. My job will be to pull it all together, ensure it addresses the issues that the islanders have raised, how we look forward, but also to hold the Departments to account to ensure that they deliver on it.

I share the Minister's view that the hospitality on Bere Ireland was fantastic and we were made very welcome. However, I want to share one personal story. As the Minister knows, I have young children at home myself. I was talking to a young parent there and I asked about that spectre where, at 3 o'clock in the morning, somebody wakes up with a high fever. For me, that is a run into Caredoc. We bundle them into the back of the car and in we go to Caredoc. I was asking this parent what she does in her situation and she answered with a shrug. The nurse who is working on Bere Island is nominally not 24-7 but, of course, what happens at 3 a.m. if that child is running a fever? It is the nurse who receives the call. These are the kind of basic impediments that stop people living on islands - that basic level of service provision. All of us here want to see flourishing populations on our islands but I believe we need to provide that minimum level of service on islands that allows people to wake up at 3 a.m. and know where they are going to bring that child with a fever.

I fully understand how sometimes people are very isolated but I think there is an opportunity on islands, the same way as there is in rural Ireland, to embrace new technology. There is a really exciting project taking place on Clare Island, where they are looking at e-health and at how they can use new technology to enhance living on the islands. It is not easy. I have been there in the good weather but I cannot imagine what it is like in the wintertime. It cannot be easy. We want to support our island communities and I am very committed to doing that. I have been to a good few of the islands and I will continue to maintain that engagement and to keep those lines of communication open. I am happy to work with the islands. I know I will get the support of the Deputies in this House when we move forward with this policy to make sure it addresses those issues and that it is an ambitious policy. I launched Our Rural Future only a year ago and it has been a very successful policy. I want to see the islands policy in that same space.

Derelict Sites

Alan Dillon

Question:

89. Deputy Alan Dillon asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the funding that will be provided for the re-development of derelict or vacant buildings for community use; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45181/22]

I thank Deputy Alan Dillon for putting in this question, which I am taking on his behalf. Everyone knows that the vacancy and dereliction of community buildings in our towns and villages are a blight not only on those towns, but they are a missed opportunity to deliver an asset that can be really valuable, not to mention the impact they can have on better climate policy. I urge the Minister to take this very seriously.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The challenges relating to vacancy and dereliction are clearly recognised within Our Rural Future. Earlier this year, the Government published Town Centre First - A Policy Approach for Irish Towns. This is a whole-of-government policy and aims to tackle vacancy, combat dereliction and breathe new life into our town centres. The policy is underpinned by significant levels of public investment spread across major Government schemes, such as the rural regeneration and development fund, the urban regeneration and development fund, the Croí Cónaithe fund and the town and village renewal scheme.

This year's town and village renewal scheme launched on 27 May with funding of €17 million. As part of this year's scheme, I have already approved funding of €7.5 million under the building acquisitions measure for 36 vacant and derelict buildings to be purchased by local authorities in rural towns and villages for development as community assets. This includes the revitalisation of old Garda stations, bank buildings and courthouses for community use. In August, I announced €2.6 million for 26 rural towns to implement the streetscape enhancement measure to add colour and vibrancy to our town centres. Further funding is available under my Department's rural regeneration and development fund, as well as the recently launched Croí Cónaithe fund.

I have also provided funding for the recruitment of town regeneration officers and the development of Town Centre First masterplans across the country. These supports will further help local communities to ensure the regeneration of their local towns and villages and to address issues relating to vacancy and dereliction. I am committed to ensuring that 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 absolutely agree that the integrated approach in Town Centre First is the correct approach, I urge the Minister to consider a cross-government strategy involving all Ministers to look at how we address refurbishment of derelict buildings, not just for community use but the potential for homes and other uses. The reality is that, in climate terms, it takes one tonne for every metre squared for a new build, but just half of that if we bring a previously occupied building into use. Therefore, not only is this urgent in terms of our need to access community and housing uses, it is absolutely in line with a long-term strategy. It is an opportunity, at a time when there is a focus on better use of energy and better avoidance of waste, to have a cross-government strategy to address vacancy and dereliction.

I agree with the Deputy that it is much better to repurpose, refurbish and reuse the town centre buildings. Let us face it, the power is connected, the water is connected and it is also connected to the sewerage, so we do not have all of those added costs that apply when a build is started outside the town. We have been working very hard with local authorities. Revitalising rural towns and villages is a central objective of Our Rural Future.

The town and village renewal scheme was repurposed with provision for the purchase of vacant properties, and priority was given to projects that bring vacant and derelict buildings and sites back into use as multipurpose spaces and remote working hubs, and for residential occupancy. More than €19 million was announced for projects in February, €7.5 million for the building acquisitions measure in July and €2.6 million for streetscapes in August. The streetscapes initiative has proved very popular because it means a town is identified by the local authority and it gets €100,000. Businesses or community groups can apply for a grant to upgrade the premises or improve the shopfront and paint it. That is taking place in a few towns and it really has transformed them. It is a simple enough measure.

I completely agree that this is the right thing to do but we should be honest with ourselves. The CPO process has been dogged by slowness in moving. There is only one county that I know of that really takes it seriously, and only one, County Waterford, takes the repair and renewal scheme seriously. If we want to have a strategy on bringing derelict property into use, we have to get a national focus and not rely on overstretched local authorities, which do not seem to have the capacity to use some of the instruments necessary to drive this on.

The Deputy is right. There are buildings that are lying vacant for years and we are all wondering why something cannot be done about them. As the Deputy and I well know, CPO is a complicated process as it stands. If a project misses one stage on the ladder, it goes back to the start, and that slows it down and delays it. The Town Centre First policy framework does contain a range of actions designed to achieve these objectives, such as the social and economic revival in towns. We have appointed Town Centre First officers and these are the things we will expect them to deal with. We obviously have to look at how we can acquire buildings that are falling down around our ears.

That is what we have to do. We will continue to work on it. It is fair to say that we have made considerable progress, when we look at some of the buildings in towns across the country that have got rural regeneration funding. There is massive investment to allow them to be repurposed as remote working hubs and for community use. If somebody cannot get a premises for some service in the town, there is no reason that they cannot go to that community building and find a space there. There has been massive investment and it is working. However, as the Deputy said, we have to keep at it and we can never take our foot off the accelerator when it comes to investing in and regenerating our towns and villages.

Community Development Projects

David Stanton

Question:

90. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the options that are available to communities that wish to apply for the community centres investment fund, CCIF, but do not currently have community centre facilities; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45150/22]

I congratulate the Minister and her Department on the introduction of the community centres investment fund, which was inspired. Community centres are the centre of communities and a place where young people, and not so young people, can gather to do community activities that are badly needed. From my previous role in the Department of Justice and Equality dealing with youth justice, I know how important these centres are, but many communities do not have one. What plans does the Minister have to assist those communities to get a centre?

My Department currently provides a number of funding streams that can be used for the improvement and development of community centres throughout the country. Under the 2022 town and village renewal scheme, where there is a clearly identified and defined need in a town or village that cannot be met by an existing premises, I have included a provision for funding for new-build community centres. The deadline for applications under the scheme was 22 July 2022 and I expect to be in a position to announce successful applicants later this year.

Funding for community centre projects may be available through the LEADER transitional programme. This covers the period 2021 to 2022 and came into effect on 1 April 2021 for new project applications. The LEADER programme is administered by local action groups, LAGs, in each of the 29 LEADER sub-regional areas around the country.

The CCIF is a new capital fund with a budget of €15 million to support community groups with the upgrade and refurbishment of existing community centres. It should be noted that the development of new community centres is not covered by the fund. It deals with existing centres.

Separately, my Department currently has a number of schemes that are relevant to community centres, such as the community enhancement programme, CEP. In 2021, the programme provided €4.5 million in funding for small capital grants for the improvement of facilities. It is envisaged that the CEP will run again later in 2022. However, details of the fund and the allocations available have not yet been confirmed.

I also launched the community activities fund, CAF, last year to support community and voluntary groups impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. This fund helped community groups, particularly in disadvantaged areas, with their running costs, such as utility or insurance bills, as well as with improvements to their facilities. The CAF is currently closed for applications. However, I will keep a future iteration under consideration.

I am looking at a new scheme for new centres, on which I will elaborate further presently.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response and the information she gave. Can she tell us when successful applications under the CCIF will be announced and made available? Many people around the country are waiting for them and I note that a number of colleagues have tabled questions in this regard. Does she agree that in many communities that do not have a centre, people find it hard to organise themselves to get together, in a situation where there is a lot of responsibility put on communities? Will she consider supporting community councils in parishes and areas around the country that are trying to establish, or have already established, forums for organising? As she knows, applying for funding is not easy and there are lots of boxes to be ticked. Sometimes, people even have to establish a community group as a public limited company and get charitable status. There is much to do in order to get things done.

There are many community centres around the country, which is why we opened this scheme to refurbish existing facilities. There is no doubt that some of them need a good bit of work. During the Covid period, they were not able to fundraise and carry out the type of annual work they do. We now have this fund in place and it is very popular. We got more than 1,000 applications, which, when one adds them all up, amount to a funding request of €72 million. That is a large amount. There is a lot of interest in it and I am delighted with that because it shows there is a need for the scheme. The money is going where it will be used and spent.

I am aware that there are areas that have had population growth and where a new community centre is badly needed. I am looking at a scheme for new centres. Deputies Grealish and Ó Cuív, Senator Kyne and the other Galway representatives, including Deputy Connolly, met with me to raise this issue very forcefully. There is one project in Galway that is shovel ready. I am looking at a scheme for new centres, which is all I can say to Deputy Stanton. Any support he can give me in getting a new stream of funding for new community centres would be most welcome.

I thank the Minister for her response. A total funding request of €72 million from a fund provision of €15 million is a big discrepancy. We can see there is a large need for this and that great work is being done through the scheme. Will she respond to my question as to when the results of the CCIF applications will be made known? There are a lot of people who are anxious to know. I congratulate her on the work she is doing. I am sure she will have everyone's support in looking for extra funding for new community centres, especially in new towns and built-up areas that need them badly, particularly in the context of youth justice.

I acknowledge that the Minister is looking at a scheme for new community centres, which is the big gap in provision, not just in new towns and rural towns but also in cities. The Newcastle action group in Galway has fought for a centre for a long time, as all Members for the area know. It has fallen between two stools, having been led in one direction via urban regeneration funding. It lost out on that, notwithstanding its brilliant application. This group is a good example of the gap in funding that needs to be met. I hope the Minister will comment more on the new fund and when she hopes to bring it to fruition.

I still have to announce the successful applications under the CCIF. The applications are being assessed and there is a lot of work in it. We are going to do it in three phases, with the smaller applications first, the results of which I hope to announce in October. That is the plan. They are all being processed and assessed independently and we hope to have the first announcements in October.

I am working on a new fund for new centres. I take Deputy Connolly's point about the particular situation in Galway, which has been raised with me on a number of occasions. All I can say at the moment is that we certainly are looking at what we can do around a new scheme. The Deputies will appreciate that we have to find €72 million for the existing applications. I will do my best and I ask them all to support me when I look for more money.

Offshore Islands

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

91. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if it is intended to have a special local action group for islands under the new LEADER programme, as there was previously up to 2013; if not, the reason, in view of the stated importance the Government gives to island development; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44889/22]

Until 2013, there was a very successful local action group operating the LEADER companies across the islands because, as the Minister said in her response to previous questions, the islands are unique. That changed in 2018 when the islands lost LAG status, but Comhar na nOileán still managed to run the project in Donegal and the Beara Peninsula, including the Cork islands. I understand that under the new arrangements, it is going to get even worse and the comhar will be totally excluded from any involvement in the LEADER programme. That is a disgrace. What will the Minister do to change this situation before it is too late?

As is the case with the current LEADER programme, the subregional areas for the new programme will correspond with county boundaries. This alignment will help to ensure coherence of LEADER funding with other initiatives and policies delivered on a county basis, thus helping to deliver the best impact and value for money under LEADER. The county structure also allows for the most efficient allocation of funding across the country. The offshore islands will continue to be aligned with their relevant subregional area and a separate Island LAG will not form part of the LEADER delivery model.

However, I am aware that island communities have particular needs and priorities and, within the context of the emerging programme, they can play a key role in delivering on those needs. In recognition of this, a number of important elements will be included in the model for the new programme.

Any LAG selected in an area that includes island communities will be required to identify specific actions developed in consultation with the island communities themselves in its LEADER strategy and to include an indicative budget to implement such actions. In addition, a representative of the island grouping in each subregional area must be included in the decision-making body of the LAG. I assure the Deputy that the important contribution island communities make to rural and island development has been considered in the design of the new LEADER programme and I am confident this programme can continue to make a real contribution to island communities in the years to come.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie.
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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