The definition of rural Ireland used by rural Ireland includes an area with significant towns that covers more than 2 million people or almost 40% of the population. It always amazes me when we speak about rural Ireland that people believe tens of millions of euro will be a sufficient allocation. When problems arise in urban areas, we all accept that hundreds of millions of euro will be required, even if the problem is a finite one. For example, €200 million was announced recently to fund basic infrastructure in Dublin to open up sites and allow housing to be built. We would not have such a housing problem in Dublin if more people stayed in rural areas. We also heard about an investment of €500 million in Limerick city. While I am not against such investment, if a city with a population of 80,000 people needs this level of funding, how do we expect areas with a total population of 2 million people to be developed suddenly with expenditure of €3 million, €5 million or €10 million?
The Minister was able to provide the Minister of State with €19 million borrowed from the Leader programme this year. Put another way, the underspend in the Leader programme, which I predicted at our previous meeting, has been allocated to projects within the remit of the Minister of State. This is a welcome development.
It is also striking that expenditure on rural and regional affairs in the first half of this year amounted to only €8.6 million or €4 per capita. If anybody believes this level of spending will resolve the problems faced by rural Ireland when billions are needed to sort out problems in our cities, then rural Ireland must be the greatest place on earth. Rural areas have great potential but they need investment.
A major saving will be recorded in the Leader programme this year. How much of the €40 million provided for the programme will not be spent? The Minister correctly decided not to return these savings to the Exchequer or roll them into next year and, instead, €6 million was reallocated to town and village regeneration, €5 million to the national rural development schemes, €4 million to rural recreation projects, €1 million for rural broadband and €3 million for CLÁR infrastructure. The allocation for this year has, therefore, been fixed, which is fine. However, I presume the Department will need €40 million for the Leader programme next year. Does the Minister anticipate spending €40 million on administration and projects under the programme next year? If so, where will she secure the €19 million required just to stay still in the other programmes I outlined? Will they go by the wayside?
If €40 million is not expended under the Leader programme next year, we will fall far behind the €250 million expenditure target which, in any case, amounts to only €25 per capita for the population of the Gaeltacht. If the full allocation is spent, where will the money come from to maintain expenditure on other schemes at the current levels?
Will funding be provided to the mountain rescue service? I address that question to the Minister of State. I understand Mountain Rescue Ireland has been in negotiations with the Department and has met Comhairle na Tuaithe. Rural recreation cannot be developed if people who are lost or injured cannot be moved off mountains. Somebody must take responsibility for this because Mountain Rescue Ireland has a major problem with equipment and insurance.
Is it intended to focus only on towns and villages and ignore the fact that the majority of people in rural areas live in parishes and the countryside rather than the towns in which the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government wants them to live? Most GAA teams are parish rather than town based. Will this geographical reality be recognised and will money be provided for the basic infrastructure required by those of us who happen to live in houses outside towns and villages?
I congratulate the Minister of State on getting the CLÁR scheme back on the agenda. He has done the big job first in ensuring the Vote includes a line for the CLÁR programme. This is a major achievement. While €3 million is a tiny allocation, he will have a job spending it by the end of the year. I wish him good luck in accepting that challenge. On what does he propose to spend this funding? Will he seek to secure for next year the level of funding that used to be provided for the CLÁR scheme? While it will be challenging to spend money under the scheme in the short term, will he seek €20 million or thereabouts for the scheme next year? Failing that, it will not be the CLÁR programme but a leithscéal de chlár.
In view of the new census figures showing many rural areas with a steep decline in population, is it proposed to revise the CLÁR areas, which were determined scientifically and objectively on the basis of having experienced a population decline of 30%?
There is €1 million allocated for the roll-out of broadband. It is extraordinary what is going on. At the moment Eir, a private company, is rolling out eFibre to homes in many places in Ireland, including Corr na Móna, where I live, which is very rural. What is the €1 million being spent on if a private company can just get on with the job and bring eFibre at 1 Gb if customers give it €30 or €40 a month? Will the Minister explain what exactly is being done with the €1 million when, way ahead of the Government doing this, the fibre is being rolled out by a private company without all the backup? All it is doing is hanging the fibre on the existing telephone poles, taking down the copper wiring and away we ago, all happy and home for tea. Instead of a bit of copper coming into a house, a bit of fibre comes in to the house. One is able to switch in and there is nothing much more to it.
With regard to the Leader programme will the Minister clarify that there was a limit of €500,000-----