I thank the Chair and members for the invitation to appear before the committee in order to discuss the action plan for rural development. Some members may be familiar with the plan through their involvement in the former Joint Committee for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. We would like to give members an overview of the plan and a sense of the progress that has been made to date. We have circulated a PowerPoint presentation of which members may have a hard copy through the secretariat, along with a summary of the first progress report on the action plan. I will go through the presentation in order to facilitate a further discussion and we will be happy to answer any questions members may have.
The action plan was launched in January 2017. It is a whole-of-Government approach to rural development and focuses on the economic and social development of rural Ireland. When it was launched, some sections of the media picked up on the town and village renewal initiative and one could be forgiven for thinking the action plan only addresses that aspect, but it is far more than that, with 14 Departments involved in its delivery, along with several agencies and the business and voluntary sectors. It is very important to realise, as the Minister has said, that developing and progressing rural Ireland is the responsibility of a wide range of actors, not just the Department of Rural and Community Development. The role of the Department of Rural and Community Affairs is to provide co-ordination to ensure the energy of Departments is directed towards rural development in a synergistic manner.
Members may be familiar with the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, report published in 2014. The action plan builds on and goes beyond that report, which was presented to Government with several recommendations. The action plan is a Government commitment to deliver tangible actions. One of the key recommendations in the CEDRA report concerned the need to prioritise cross-Government co-ordination and the action plan aims to carry that out. It was developed following quite extensive consultation. We had a series of meetings with rural stakeholders, agencies, local authorities and so on, along with several bilateral engagements. The then Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, who was responsible for the action plan, invited input from Deputies and Senators and, specifically, members of the former Committee for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, from whom submissions were received.
The consultation process highlighted the positivity and resilience of rural Ireland. It identified issues that need to be addressed but we were very struck by the positivity encountered. The introductory section of the action plan contains an emphasis on moving away from the perception that rural Ireland is synonymous with decline because, although it has encountered challenges, there is much positivity and many very good things happening in rural Ireland and it is important for that to be acknowledged and built upon. We are conscious that there is no one-size-fits-all situation because every rural area is different. Areas only a few kilometres apart may have different sets of issues. Through the action plan, we hope to help to unlock the potential of various areas around the country.
The second slide which members should have deals with and contains a graphic that captures the objectives of the action plan. As I have stated, the action plan provides an overarching structure for the co-ordination and implementation of various initiatives across Government to advance the economic and social progress of rural Ireland. That must improve the quality of life of those living in rural Ireland, whether through employment opportunities, accessibility of services or developing social networks. The actions in the plan are time bound and closely monitored to ensure they are on track.
We are even open to adding new actions. We have added a further action since the plan was launched in January. It is important to note that we are answerable to the Cabinet committee on the economy with regard to progress on the action plan.
The action plan is a three year plan with over 270 actions for delivery across five thematic pillars. I will mention those pillars shortly but, as I have said, the plan is for delivery across a range of Departments, State agencies and local authorities and indeed other bodies, such as the business and community sectors. Since it is a whole-of-Government approach, there are many synergies with other Government policies. In particular, there are many synergies with the regional action plans for jobs. Food Wise 2025 is another example of an important strategy that ties in closely with the action plan. With 270 actions, we would not say that any one of them is the silver bullet, and members will appreciate that there are not always simple solutions to the sorts of issues we face in rural Ireland. The value is in the cumulative impact of those actions. If we can achieve what we are setting out to do by bringing Departments and agencies together to see the importance of working to improve the situation for people who are living in rural areas, the cumulative impact of those actions will make a difference. It is a three year plan so we recognise that it will take time for a new plan such as this to take hold and have an impact. We will give the committee a sense in a moment of some of the progress we have seen so far under the plan.
The next slide in my presentation mentions the five pillars covered in the plan. While there are many actions, some 270, they are grouped under five pillars and even within the five pillars there are subcategories of objectives. The first pillar is about supporting sustainable communities. That pillar is about making rural Ireland a better place in which to live and to work. We will be doing that through programmes like the town and village renewal scheme and the Ceantair Laga Árd-Riachtanais, CLÁR and Revitalising Areas by Planning, Investment and Development, RAPID, programmes. Another key objective under that pillar is to enhance local services whether through access to schools in rural Ireland or primary care. Empowering local communities is another theme in supporting sustainable communities. Building better communities is the final objective within that pillar. This will be delivered through ongoing investment in schemes like the Leader programme and other initiatives, such as the rural social scheme.
The second pillar in the plan is to support enterprise and employment. The areas we are looking at within that pillar are to grow and attract enterprises. This is where there was much synergy with the regional action plans for jobs. We have also made headway with the Atlantic economic corridor proposal. That is a very long-term objective but we have made good progress and the ultimate aim there is to support enterprise growth. We also have actions under the pillar of supporting enterprise and employment, to support growth in sectors such as the agrifood sector, the renewable energy sector and even the international financial services sector. We are firmly of the view that rural Ireland can and does deliver in these sectors as well as the traditional sectors that we are familiar with, such as tourism and agriculture. There is potential and we are seeing firms setting up in much more modern sectors that will produce high quality jobs.
The next pillar is maximising our rural tourism and recreational potential. We are probably all familiar with the increase in activity tourism and recreational tourism that is happening on a global scale. Ireland is well placed to capitalise on this area. Tourism numbers for rural Ireland have been increasing and the committee will be familiar with targeted initiatives such as Ireland's Ancient East and the Wild Atlantic Way, but we want to build on those and develop activity tourism through the development of greenways and blueways. There have been notable successes with both greenways and blueways in the past two years or so. We have a lot of natural and built heritage that can support increased tourism in rural areas, particularly through our national parks and nature reserves.
Fostering culture and creativity is also an important part of the action plan. It covers quite a range of areas, including pure arts, which help to bring cultural activity into rural communities. Arts and creativity are also important for social interaction in rural areas and for people's well-being. Within that particular pillar, we link in very closely with the Creative Ireland programme and local authorities have now established culture teams and are developing culture plans. The Irish language is a key part of our culture and within that particular section of the action plan, we have actions to promote the Irish language as a key resource within the Gaeltacht and other rural communities.
The final pillar of the action plan deals with improving rural infrastructure and connectivity. We have focused on three particular areas in this section. The connectivity piece ultimately involves the capital investment plan and investment in infrastructure, including roads, schools, health services and so on. We focused in particular on three areas that came to our attention during the consultation process. It will not surprise anybody that high-speed broadband is crucially important for rural communities and we have a number of actions in the plan to support that area. We have actions in the plan to support rural transport links too, both through such services as Local Link and support for regional airports. The third area that we focused on in that pillar is flood relief measures. This is an issue that causes much difficulty and I know Deputy Canney would be familiar with the actions that have been taken and will continue to be taken to deal with the flooding issues.
That is a quick overview of the five pillars. While the action plan might seem quite long, both an Irish and English version are contained in it. The plan itself only runs to approximately 70 pages and at the head of each section is a brief summary of the objectives I have set out. It is quite accessible to people who want to look at the plan in a little more detail.
Moving on to the next slide, I will emphasise that the action plan is a whole-of-Government approach. We have replicated on the slide a page from the action plan that shows some of the key deliverables in the action plan itself and some high-level targets.
They include supporting 135,000 new jobs by 2020, increasing overseas visitors to rural areas by 12%, and investing more than €50 million in sports, recreation and cultural facilities. They include inputs from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as well as our Department and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Our Department plays a key role in the revitalisation of towns and villages through the town and village renewal scheme, as does the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht through some of the heritage schemes and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government as well. I do not intend to go through all of the key deliverables, but they are in place to give us a sense of some of the headline targets for the action plan. Of course, we will be looking to measure not only the delivery of individual actions but the impact of individual actions as well.
That leads me to the question of delivery and how we ensure that we are making progress. There are more than 270 actions within the action plan. All these actions have been agreed with the responsible bodies for delivery. The actions are all for delivery within a definite timeframe. In some cases, the plan may refer to an action for delivery in 2017 or 2018. We have we followed up with the relevant bodies. We asked them to break down the detail between the first half of the year and the second half of the year in order that we can monitor more closely the progress that is being made. The Minister has established a monitoring committee, which he chairs. The committee includes key Departments and rural representatives. It is a wide-ranging committee, involving Departments, public bodies, rural stakeholders and the business community.
We have said that we will publish progress reports twice each year. The first progress report was published in August. This committee was supplied with a summary of the progress report. The monitoring committee is examining some important thematic issues. At the most recent meeting of the monitoring committee representatives attended from bodies dealing with mental health and mental wellness issues. Issues such as rural isolation are not only for older people. They are relevant for younger people as well. We hear a good deal about sports clubs having to stop, perhaps because they cannot field a team and so on. Mental wellness is an issue for people of all ages. We had some good inputs from groups, including the Irish Men's Sheds Association and Mental Health Ireland. We envisage that we will add further actions on an ongoing basis as they emerge from the monitoring committee. Indeed, we have added an action relating to a Gaeltacht region in the Iveragh Peninsula. Those involved are now developing their own action plan to try to support that particular area. It is part of our action plan in order that we can monitor and keep track of it.
I mentioned that we come under the remit of the Cabinet economic committee. We are being supported in the delivery or the promotion of the action plan by Pat Spillane, who was the chairman of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA. I will outline progress. As I mentioned, the first progress report was published in August. I need to correct the slide before the committee, which states that 201 actions were due for delivery. Actually, 227 actions were due for delivery in the first two quarters of 2017. They were either due for delivery or they were multiannual actions but with activities scheduled for 2017. Of those 227 actions, a total of 220 were completed or were in progress where they were multiannual in nature. The full progress report is available on our Department website. The website address is available on the screen for committee members.
I referred to measuring impact. A key objective for our 2018 workplan is to measure the impact of the actions. We have been working with some renowned researchers on rural development to try to develop a methodology to measure our impact. I will offer some examples of progress in the first six months. The town and village renewal scheme was launched for 2017. Funding of €21 million has been made available to support 280 towns and villages in the coming 12 to 15 months. One encouraging feature of the 2017 scheme involved asking local authorities to engage with local communities to identify projects that will have an economic impact on towns and villages and their outlying areas. We have seen some really good projects coming through.
In May and June, the Minister approved funding of €7 million under the CLÁR programme for 231 projects. As many committee members will know, the CLÁR programme focuses on areas that have suffered heavy levels of depopulation. A total of €11 million in funding was announced for more than 200 projects under the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme. More recently, the Minister launched a seniors alert scheme with €2.3 million in funding to support older people with free personalised monitoring alarms. The local improvement scheme was launched in September with a fund of €10 million to improve non-public roads. In the past week, the Minister announced a further allocation for the scheme based on the level of work that local authorities have indicated they can complete by the end of the year.
There have been developments in other Departments as well. Enterprise Ireland has launched the regional enterprise development fund. The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has provided €9 million for 56 arts and culture centres. IDA Ireland has delivered advance buildings in Sligo, Tralee and Castlebar. Committee members are probably aware that Clare County Council has become the first council in the country to launch its own rural development strategy following from the Government action plan. It is encouraging to see local authorities take the objectives of the plan and try to replicate them in the local area. Údarás na Gaeltachta has a digital strategy for the Gaeltacht. The authority has innovation hubs operational in Donegal and Kerry. A great deal is happening. I am not suggesting this is all as a result of the action plan, but it shows what we can replicate, and I find it encouraging.
The EY Entrepreneur Of The Year awards were announced in recent months. Harry Hughes, who is the chief executive of Portwest, a company based in Westport, Mayo, was named as the EY Entrepreneur of the Year. Evelyn O'Toole, who is the chief executive of Complete Laboratory Solutions, won the industry category award. She was also named as businesswoman of the year at the Irish Tatler women of the year awards. Her company is a contract laboratory that provides testing to clients in the food, environmental, medical devices and pharmaceutical industries. The company has laboratories in Ros Muc and Galway. These are good examples of what can be done and what is being achieved in rural parts of Ireland. The Northern and Western Regional Assembly area has been named as the European entrepreneurial region for 2018.
We are keen to see and measure more of this coming through. Data are available on the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation website this month.
There are a lot of high-value-added jobs being created by Enterprise Ireland client companies around the country, in places like Dundalk, Kilkenny and Ennis, and in areas such as pharma, financial services, biotech, cardio products and so on. This gives a sense of what is being achieved and what can be achieved. The aim is that the action plan will help to develop this and bring new and increased opportunities for people living and working in rural Ireland. Along with economic development, it is important we focus on the social fabric of rural communities.
I hope I have given members a good sense of the action plan and of what we are trying to achieve.