Pandemic Supports to the Islands and Rural Ireland: Department of Rural and Community Development

I ask members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones, please, as they interfere with the recording equipment. I also remind members to sanitise their desk areas and seats when leaving the committee room.

We turn now to the main item on our agenda which is the consideration of the Covid-19 pandemic supports for the islands and rural communities. In this regard, I welcome the officials from the Department of Rural and Community Development who are joining us today, namely, Mr. William Parnell, assistant secretary of the Department, and Ms Sorcha de Brúch, principal officer. They are both very welcome.

It is no secret that Covid-19 and its fallout has disproportionately impacted rural communities, particularly our island communities. Tourism is just one sector that has been decimated and today's meeting will build upon the body of work which the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response carried out until its final report was published in October.

Water supply is one of the biggest issues affecting islanders in the context of Covid-19, enhanced hygiene requirements and the demand for water. The issue needs to be tackled by examining water services on our islands.

We will also explore the impact of Covid-19 on island communities, the progress of islands after the lifting of the travel restrictions, the services provided to island communities during the pandemic, and the vulnerability of island communities to the loss of those particular services. I recall one of the first crises I dealt with as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment was the damage to or lack of electricity supply to both Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin.

I remind members of the committee that they have absolute privilege in respect of statements made to either House of the Oireachtas or before the committee. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence that they are required to give to the committee. If, in the course of committee proceedings, they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a Member of either House of the Oireachtas, a person outside this House, or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I call Mr. Parnell to make his opening statement, which will be followed by questions and answers.

Mr. William Parnell

Good morning to everyone. I thank the Chairman and members for the invitation to address the committee on the topic of Covid-19 pandemic supports to the islands and rural Ireland. Members will be aware that responsibility for the islands' function transferred from the former Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to the Department of Community and Rural Development in September. The offshore islands and their communities are, of course, a fundamental part of the fabric of rural Ireland. Many of the challenges that affect the islands are similar to those in other parts of rural Ireland, but they are even more pronounced due to the islands’ separation from the mainland. We hope the islands will benefit from the closer alignment with the Department’s suite of programmes and initiatives to support community development, rural economic development and digital innovation.

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed our society and economy in the space of just nine months. The impact of Covid-19 was extreme and immediate. It has affected the way we work, study, socialise and go about our daily business. Rural economies are vulnerable to economic downturns at the best of times due to their less diversified economic base and a greater reliance on small and micro-enterprises compared with large urban centres.

A report on the regional impact of Covid-19 published in May by the three regional assemblies concluded that coastal and rural counties are more likely to be exposed to the economic disruption caused by Covid-19 due to their high reliance on enterprises that require human interaction or which cannot be operated remotely. We know, too, that sectors such as tourism, hospitality, arts and culture, on which many rural towns, villages and communities depend, have been among those most impacted by Covid-19.

The social impact of Covid-19 has also been highlighted by many commentators. The dispersed settlement pattern of rural Ireland, along with its older demographic profile than urban areas, also creates a particular social vulnerability for many people living in rural areas. The Covid crisis has also demonstrated the extraordinary efforts of local communities, organisations and volunteers in mobilising to help those most in need or at risk of social isolation. Many of the positive aspects of rural living have been highlighted, including the quality of life, a sense of community and close access to countryside trails, forests and coastlines. These have been important factors in supporting the physical and mental well-being of many people at this time. The Western Development Commission reported recently that 7% of respondents to a survey on remote working had relocated to the west of Ireland since the start of the pandemic, while a further 23% were considering doing so.

As the committee is aware, many different supports have been introduced across Departments to help businesses, individuals and communities to cope with the impact of Covid-19. In general, these supports are available to those who run businesses or live in rural areas. I would like, however, to focus today on the supports the Department of Rural and Community Development has made available to support businesses, social enterprises, communities and voluntary organisations to respond to the impact of Covid-19.

The Department was centrally involved from the outset of the pandemic in the Government’s Community Call initiative, which mobilised national government, local government and the community and voluntary sector to support vulnerable people in our communities. In March, as part of the Government’s Covid-19 action plan, the Department provided support for volunteering, funding to ALONE for its crisis telephone support line and funding for an email help-desk facility to assist smaller community groups with their queries. In April, an initial €2.5 million Covid-19 emergency fund was introduced to provide immediate and urgently-needed funding to community and voluntary groups participating in the Community Call. This helped with practical supports such as food for meals on wheels services, care packs for people cocooning, personal protective equipment or PPE, and delivery van costs. Just last Monday, the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O’Brien, announced a further €1.7 million under this fund to enable community and voluntary groups to support the delivery of the Government’s Keep Well campaign and to adapt their services to the Covid situation. The Department also provided funding for the Covid-19 community outreach scheme, to help ensure that any gaps in service to the vulnerable in each local authority area were identified and met. This particular outreach scheme was operated by The Wheel and Irish Rural Link.

Community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises have played a huge role in responding to the Covid-19 crisis at local level. Many were impacted, however, by the loss of revenue from traded income or fundraising as a result of restrictions put in place to counter the spread of the virus. To help address this, in May the Government launched a €40 million support package for these organisations. The package is administered by the Department and funded through the Dormant Accounts Fund. It includes a €35 million Covid-19 stability fund that provides financial support to organisations and groups delivering front-line services to those most in need, but which were in danger of closure. To date, close to 600 organisations, including a number of island-based organisations, have been allocated almost €31 million under this fund. An additional €10 million was allocated to this fund in October and will be distributed shortly.

The stability package also included a €5 million Government commitment to a philanthropy fund, Innovate Together, which focuses on supporting community and voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises to make innovative adaptations to their operations to address the challenges presented by the pandemic. To date, 52 organisations have been allocated funding to a value of approximately €3.2 million under the Innovate Together fund. Just yesterday, a further €1.3 million was announced to 20 organisations. Rethink Ireland is the organisation that administers the scheme on behalf of the Department.

Apart for those community supports, the Department has adapted its rural development programmes this year to help rural areas and rural businesses to adapt to the impact of Covid-19. This year’s town and village renewal scheme included an accelerated measure designed to support rural towns and villages to put in place measures quickly to enable people to shop and socialise safely within the public health guidelines. A total of 363 projects have been approved by the Minister under the accelerated measure, to a value of €10.4 million.

The standard town and village renewal scheme that we have operated for the past number of years is placing an emphasis on supporting towns to adapt to the impact of Covid-19 in the medium term. A budget of €15 million is available for this measure and it is expected that the successful applicants will be announced in the coming weeks.

The CLÁR programme was also refocused this year to help communities and organisations in CLÁR areas to adapt to Covid-19. This year’s programme included supports for community recreational areas, such as picnic spaces and seating areas, where people can socialise outdoors in safe, accessible community spaces. It also provided support for the adaptation of vehicles and the purchase of kitchen or delivery equipment for community organisations providing meals on wheels and other community services. A total of €4.5 million has been approved under the CLÁR programme to date for 160 projects, with some additional funding to be announced by the Minister in the coming weeks. The grant rate for these programmes was increased from 80% to 90% this year, in recognition of the pressures on the finances of local authorities and community groups due to the disruption caused by Covid-19.

Other programmes such as the rural regeneration and development fund and the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme will also play an important role in helping rural areas to recover from Covid-19 in the medium term. The rural regeneration and development fund has been repositioned this year to ensure that the investment provided can act as a driver for economic recovery in the post-Covid environment. The Department has also shown flexibility in other schemes such as LEADER, the community services programme, Tidy Towns and the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, recognising the difficulties faced by delivering organisations.

Specific accommodation has been provided to facilitate island communities during the pandemic. Approximately 30 of the offshore islands are inhabited, with populations varying from fewer than ten people to more than 800 people. A large proportion of those living on the islands are in an older age group, with the majority of the islands having a high dependency ratio. Passenger transport and cargo services to the islands are lifeline services. Our overarching objective has been to keep these services open throughout the pandemic but to do so in a way which ensures the health and safety of the islanders, service providers and visitors. In March, following requests from island representatives and in recognition of the unique challenges of island living, travel to the islands was closed to outside visitors. This decision was taken in consultation with the island communities and was welcomed by them. While visitors were not permitted to travel to the islands, the islanders themselves could continue to travel to and from the mainland to avail of services.

The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht arranged to prepay subsidies to operators in March to support their operations and to continue the lifeline services to the islands during the lockdown. The Department also worked with community representatives and ferry operators to facilitate temporary reduced sailing timetables in an attempt to reduce the risk of exposure for the island communities and ferry operators.

In keeping with the general easing of restrictions, travel by visitors to and from the islands was permitted from July. Since then, as the committee will be aware, the Government's Living with Covid-19 plan has set out various restrictions in regard to travel at different levels of the plan's framework. The Department will work with the service operators to ensure that appropriate services to the islands continue to be provided at every stage of the framework.

Along with my colleague Ms de Brúch, I will be happy to take any questions the members may have on supports provided by the Department to help rural communities to cope with the impact of Covid-19.

I thank Mr. Parnell. I acknowledge that he is prepared to address the queries of members on the Leader programme later. We will come to it towards the end. I thank him for accommodating us in that regard.

I will have to leave this meeting early. Deputy Carey will take over. I also have to be in the convention centre. Unlike our Lord, I cannot be in two places at once. We will start with Deputy Ó Cuív.

I thank Mr. Parnell for the presentation. There are many issues. There are some attitudinal matters I would like to touch on. First, I noticed that all the documentation that comes from the Department refers to rural towns and villages. Here Mr. Parnell throws in communities. Once again, I must stress that 30% of the people who live outside the towns and villages do not see themselves as they are envisaged. They go to the town or village to shop or whatever but they regard themselves as being part of communities in their own right, particularly those involved in organisations such as the GAA. Once again, it is important to stress that the vast majority in rural Ireland do not live in towns and villages. That might seem a small point but it keeps coming up. I was made very much aware of this last night. I was talking to a public representative in the Houses who lives in a very rural area of a county adjacent to Dublin. He told me that in the new county plan, the wishes of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications have come true at last. There will be no houses built in rural parishes, even those that do not have overcrowded schools, unless the applicant is functionally dependent on the land. I could count on two hands the number of houses that will be involved, even in the large county involved. That is why I have to keep raising this issue. An attack is being made on the rural Ireland we know. A new rural Ireland is being created, and I am not sure it is one I want. We have to keep highlighting that. I certainly will do so.

Covid has been negative for everybody but I hate the béal bocht. I reckon that, for young and old alike, rural areas were the lucky places. When one gets lucky, one should not always say one is unlucky and whinge. From talking to my neighbours and friends all around Connemara, and to people on the islands, I noted the first point made was that the people have space. When the pandemic began, we saw footage from Italy in which everybody was on top of one another in high-rise flats. The residents could not get away from their neighbours. If they wanted to socially isolate, it was very difficult. The first thing we realised here is that we have the greatest gift. We are all on half-acre sites, which give us space to ourselves. If we wanted to keep the kids away from other kids when they were kept from school in the spring, it was much easier to do so on a half-acre site than on a street or in an apartment in the city.

Suddenly people woke up in the morning and smelled the coffee and said their circumstances were not bad compared to those seen in other places on the television. Many people remarked that it was a brilliant spring. Saint Patrick's Day was fierce but after that the weather improved. People were walking, and those near the coast could get to the strand in five minutes. I see this as a time in which the quiet revolution has started that will have the huge impact on the whole of society. As pointed out, people are now moving out of the urban areas voluntarily. They are not being forced out; they have suddenly realised that there is no actual need to be tied to a fixed office in the city all the time. They are moving out to places they want to live in. Nobody is forcing them to go there. Many people went home for a few weeks during the lockdown because they could put the laptop up on the table and they were able to look out the window at God's nature. It was easier to isolate socially. We should, therefore, look at the positive side and say this could be the turning of the corner for rural regeneration and rebirth. It could lead to more balanced populations in rural areas. We should always see the glass as half full.

I keep hearing about rural isolation. Isolation is a major issue but in many cases it is worse in the cities because it is easier to become socially isolated in a city, particularly, funnily enough, in middle-class parts, whose populations tend to be more transient because people move to different areas from generation to generation. In looking at the effect of Covid, we should remember that Willie Bermingham, who founded ALONE, did not start out the country. We must acknowledge that while social isolation is a major issue everywhere, the social capital out the country is really good, certainly in my parish. The minute Covid started, the local organisations, without any help from the State, made sure that every older person had his or her shopping done and delivered to the door. Communities got together to minimise the number of people going to the shops. Rather than having five families go to the shop, thereby creating a risk, a family could order what it wanted by telephone, have it delivered and pay the bill at the end of the week. We need to be positive and stop doing the béal bocht.

I recall having this debate years ago with a Deputy in the House. I said that if rural Ireland was as bad as he was saying, he should shift all the people out of it. I said I did not believe his argument. I would not live in the city. I chose to live in the country because I believe the quality of life is way better there. There narrative we hear all the time makes it sound as if we were all on our uppers and lacking services. We definitely need better things but, in the round, rural living has great advantages. We need to get positive about this.

Mr. William Parnell

The Deputy's comments are very helpful. The Department and Minister fully subscribe to the view that rural Ireland is positive and dynamic. The Minister has spoken about the contribution rural economies and communities make to our national well-being and development. Indeed, she has spoken about the need to change the narrative on rural Ireland and also about the interdependency of rural and urban areas. I assure the Deputy, in respect of his points on rural Ireland, that it is not just about towns and villages. We are very much aware of that. The rural regeneration and development fund, of which the Deputy will be aware, amounts to €1 billion, is not just for towns and villages; it is also for the areas outside them. There is no doubting, however, that towns and villages do act as hubs for economic activity and social engagement. That is why there is a focus on trying to support towns and their rejuvenation as places for people to shop, visit, socialise and live.

On isolation, the Deputy is quite correct that it is not just a rural issue. It is a societal issue regardless of whether those affected are living in a rural area or an urban one. Many of the supports I referred to in my opening statement are available to all communities, regardless of whether they are in rural areas or cities.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. My first question concerns the report from the Western Development Commission. We are all well aware that people have moved west, sometimes back to where they grew up, since Covid hit and they have been able to work remotely, which has been great and positive. If there is to be an increase in the population in rural areas, such as Roscommon, Galway, Sligo and Leitrim, will there be a sustained examination of their development? For decades there has not been a move to rural areas like that which has happened since Covid hit. Where populations increase, we should examine to a greater extent the infrastructure and the services that can be provided to follow those people.

The European Regional Development Fund is particularly important for the northern and western region. The witnesses will be aware that as a region in transition, we will have really good co-financing from Europe, at 60:40, which is excellent. What level of engagement does the Department have with the regional assemblies? I refer in particular to the Northern and Western Regional Assembly. From 2021 to 2027, we need to take full advantage of those co-financing rates to ensure that we will improve and move back from being a region in transition to being a developed region. The fund will be crucial in doing that. Whether for infrastructure, education or whatever else, we should take full advantage of everything we can use it for.

I thank the witnesses for the briefing material they provided in respect of the islands. The funding for the Irish Islands Federation is welcome. It has highlighted housing as the number one issue for the islands, and particularly their levels of housing stock. I visited Arranmore a few weeks ago when it was safe to travel there. The number one issue on the island was that people were coming home but there was nowhere for them to live. There were a number of vacant properties but there was not funding to renovate them. I appreciate that this is a housing matter, but because it is a big issue on the islands, I would like to see the Department working with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in regard to it.

The briefing document referred to water on the Aran Islands. There is a wider issue with water. Restrictions are almost continuous during the summer if there is a drought. On Inisheer, there were issues in May, when the water was being turned off at 5 p.m. and the last boat every day arrived at 7 p.m. People were constantly being told to wash their hands, yet they had no water. Those issues relating to drought have been allowed to continue every summer. Water restrictions need to be sorted out and fixed because they should not happen in the midst of a global pandemic.

On the issue of broadband for the islands, Arranmore has a really good remote working hub, which people are using all the time. I know that the Department is doing work on providing remote working hubs for rural areas, but are they being considered for the islands in particular, as well as the broadband connection points? Will that be considered beyond Arranmore?

Mr. William Parnell

The Deputy spoke about the population increase and what needs to happen throughout the regions to meet the targets in the national planning framework. Initiatives such as remote working will help to attract people but also, importantly, to retain them in rural areas. Young people will always want to travel and move to new pastures but, equally, many would like to be able to come back or to remain in rural areas. As we roll out broadband connection points and remote working hubs, it presents an opportunity to change the complexion of rural Ireland and to help to support population retention or population increase.

The Department has been to the fore in leading the Atlantic economic corridor, AEC, initiative, which seeks to attract investment, create jobs and improve quality of life for the region from Kerry to Donegal. The Western Development Commission is the co-ordinating agency for the AEC initiative. The initiative is very important because it covers whole-region investment to try to attract foreign direct investment or indigenous enterprise to invest in the region, and it has met with some success. The remote working hub network project is being driven by the AEC initiative. We work closely with the Northern and Western Regional Assembly in respect of the AEC initiative and it has been very supportive and good at inputting to the initiative. The Deputy asked about the opportunity that will come from the European Regional Development Fund. We will work closely with the Northern and Western Regional Assembly and the Southern Regional Assembly in respect of the Atlantic economic corridor to cover those counties that are further south. While that region in the north west was regarded as a region in transition, it nonetheless highlights the need for investment and the opportunity to get that higher rate of investment from the EU.

I might ask Ms de Brúch to respond to the Deputy's queries on the islands before I say a little about the broadband connection points and remote working hubs on the islands.

Ms Sorcha de Brúch

The Department is acutely aware of the water and housing issues on the islands. We participate in a number of community groups in Cork and throughout the country where these issues have been raised. As the Deputy will be aware, we are in the midst of consultation for the islands policy, as part of which we have been speaking to the various island communities to hear what their big issues are. Water, certainly, is one of the major issues that has arisen on the Aran Islands, as is housing, which is not an issue on every island but is on many, whether in respect of planning permission or social housing. Each of the islands is very different and they all have their individual personalities, if we can call them that.

The Department is not directly responsible for the water or housing issues but, as part of the development of the policy, we are about to engage in a series of bilateral meetings with the line Departments responsible for these issues. They will be top-level issues that we will raise with the Departments to seek some supports and progress. We hope to be able to further develop those issues and to come to some satisfactory conclusion. The Deputy is correct in saying they will have to be addressed. As the Cathaoirleach noted earlier, hygiene issues, in particular, have been highlighted throughout the pandemic. We will raise those issues with the Departments and I will be happy to speak to the Deputy again about them as we progress.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. I very much welcome the Department's input in the response to Covid-19 and to the challenges that Covid-19 has posed for rural communities throughout the country, and the central role the Department has played in the Community Call to roll out a stability package for communities. The accelerated measures under the town and village renewal scheme were very welcome, as was the CLÁR programme. While yesterday offered a day of hope for the world in respect of the roll-out of the vaccine, with the first jabs having been administered in Britain and Northern Ireland, what is the Department's thinking in regard to next year?

Will we still be grappling with the fallout from Covid-19? Will the Department continue to give that assistance to communities in programmes such as the town and village renewal scheme, CLÁR, the Community Call, and other initiatives, which was so valuable this year?

Today marks the opening of a broadband connection point, BCP, in Carran in County Clare, in the Michael Cusack Centre. It is a wonderful day. It is a joint effort by Clare County Council and the Michael Cusack Centre. It will offer broadband connectivity to that rural part of County Clare. It was brought to my attention that there is a position in that centre for a caretaker. The previous caretaker, who would have been employed under the community services programme, has retired. Because the community services programme is currently being reviewed, there is a state of flux in that regard and the position has not been filled, and there is no indication that it will be filled. I have corresponded with the Department on the matter. Other public representatives and I have been contacted by the Michael Cusack Centre. Perhaps it is unfair to throw it out to the officials here but maybe they could follow up on that. This issue arose during Covid and it is unresolved. The broadband connection at the centre today should be a good news story, and it is being opened formally by the chief executive of Clare County Council, Mr. Pat Dowling. It is important, however, that the funding would be made available to the centre so it can be run and marketed properly, and we can be proud of that centre in County Clare.

Mr. William Parnell

On Deputy Carey's final point, I will certainly follow that up in the Department to see what the situation is.

On the wider subject of broadband connection points, BCPs, and remote working hubs, I said that I would come back to Deputy Kerrane with regard to the situation on the islands. There are 13 BCPs that are either established on islands or are due to be established, which includes Valentia Island, which we know is connected via a bridge. I can forward on a list of those islands. Inisheer, Inishbofin, Inishmaan, Tory Island, Bere Island, Sherkin Island, and Inishturk and Clare Island in Mayo, also have BCPs, either in situ or due to be connected in the first quarter.

A lot of the BCPs are adapting now to provide remote working facilities. We can certainly see that the BCPs have the potential to do a lot more than simply be hot-desk spaces. My colleague Dr. Stjohn O'Connor was with the committee last week and he would have given a flavour of this. The intention is to try to develop the facilities and services that can be available and be provided online at these centres including, for example, e-health initiatives and so on.

There is, of course, a much broader number of remote working hubs and digital hubs around the country. The committee will also have heard from my colleague about this. Some of these are privately owned, some are operated by social enterprises and some are public hubs. Separate from the BCPs, there is a hub on Arranmore in County Donegal, and Údarás na Gaeltachta plans to open a hub on Achill Island. Again, while that is not an offshore island it gives the committee a sense of what is happening in that area. It is important that we continue to develop these. We are seeing the great interest in remote working, as the Deputy referred to, and there is an opportunity here to transform rural Ireland as the Minister, Deputy Humphreys has said.

I shall now return to Deputy Carey's question about the programmes and schemes for next year. One of the things the Department prides itself on is that we can be flexible and adaptable, and we can change our programmes as the needs arise. We are heading into 2021 keeping a very open mind on what is needed here. Notwithstanding the vaccine, it is clear that it will take some time before we ever return that what is being called "normal" living. We would also see the need for supports to help communities to help rural businesses to recover in a post-Covid-19 context. There is a lot of work to be done to build up again the tourism and hospitality sector. This is where programmes such as the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme and the rural regeneration and development fund can be very helpful in building again those assets that would help the medium-term and the longer-term recovery of rural areas, and I mean rural areas in the widest context.

I thank the officials for coming to the committee today. Water has been mentioned. Is there any rainwater harvesting in the islands? To me this would be a no-brainer because, as we know, the west gets tonnes of rain. Cubic metres of water can be stored easily, which is 1,000 litres per cubic metre. This can go a long way. I have seen at first hand how it gets put into schools and halls. I have not heard any mention yet of rainwater harvesting. Such stored water could be there in emergency situations if water has run out. Infrared technology can be used to kill off bacteria. Is the Department looking into this as an option besides being dependent on a mains supply all the time?

There are a lot of great things happening but I have to say that I could spend all of my time trying to find all the things in order to let the community groups know about them. I would love to know, for example, how the Department promotes these. Is there a one-stop shop? My time should not be spent doing PR and trying to connect the dots between supports and the community group and small businesses in rural areas. I would love to know what is the best way to do that. Is there a Department link or am I missing something? Some community groups give out because they have not heard about a scheme that others did hear about. I would like to have a fair and level playing field for all of them and I would like to know how we can do that better. How does the Department advertise these?

I would also like to highlight the very important role that local markets play. We have a very good local market in Rosslevan, near Ennis. This has been a great social gathering for people where they can go to support local producers, growers and crafts people. When they could not go to mass and when there were no shops open it was the only thing one could do to meet other humans. We have very few of such markets. I believe there are 126 of these markets out of 1,500 towns in Ireland. From being involved in them in the past, I know that these markets can struggle to get proper supports from the local authorities or from the Government. We really need to look at that. For older people or for those who live alone, going to a market might not really be about buying the produce; it could be more about the social element. There is an excellent market in Kinvara where they have live music but it has occurred to me that in my county we only have one regular farmers' market in the whole county. There is something wrong with this and we need to look at them to give them more supports. They need to be less complicated. There was a market in Ennis but it got really complicated, whereby they wanted to charge the market €20,000 if it wanted electricity. The market has since found space in a private place that said they could have all the electricity in the world. We are failing when it comes to local markets. We have climate change and we have Brexit, we have social and mental health issues, and then there is rural isolation. The Department needs to look more at supporting local markets, local growers and local gatherings, which are outdoors and safe. I would like to hear the officials' views on this, and would like to work on this in the future with the Department.

Deputy Ó Cuív spoke of the fact that it is hard to get planning permission in rural areas these days. It is also hard to access all the empty houses in rural areas. There are 48 in the village I am from, and I live in a two-pub, one-shop town.

Some of them are derelict while others are just empty, but there is something missing in that respect. I know from travelling around north Clare and west Clare - we probably saw it everywhere - the amount of social housing as well as shops and town houses that are empty in most rural villages. Something drastic needs to be done about that, whether it is giving the owners a carrot, so to speak, to help them renovate and rent out the property, because there is a lack of places to rent in rural areas. We need to look at the question of empty houses. We do not always have to build new houses. Let us look at the existing buildings and whether we can do more to encourage people to do them up or rent them out if they do not need them.

There are also many empty houses on the islands that family members may have built but they no longer live in them. They may use them for Airbnb purposes but they are not available all year round. We have issues with Airbnb around Lahinch and Ennistymon where houses are rented out for a few days when we have major issues with finding places to rent around north Clare. I would like to see more done for the existing buildings that would bring life back into villages and towns.

It is important that we do not always overcentralise funding. For example, there is a great group in Newmarket-on-Fergus which does meals on wheels. They were hoping to expand that service. They have been getting phone calls from all across the county to expand it. I helped them with a pre-budget submission. It went to a central rural development group nationwide but I worry that by the time that funding is drawn down, it might not happen as effectively as it would have with an existing group who know what needs to be done because they have been doing the work on the ground for years. We need to watch out for that.

The community employment, CE, schemes were mentioned. It is very important that we make them as inclusive as possible. I continue to get phone calls from people who would love to join but they are not allowed either because they are too old or they have been means tested and, as their wife is a teacher or something like that, they cannot access it. That is an important link, whether it is a CE scheme for three months, a year or whatever. It would be welcome if we could look at that because it is a great social outlet for people in rural areas.

Mr. William Parnell

I thank the Senator. She raised quite a number of issues. I will address some of them and then ask Ms de Brúch to talk about the rainwater harvesting and any other issues relating to the islands.

The Senator asked how we promote our various schemes. I appreciate that there are many schemes across Government. Information on the schemes the Department operates is available on the Department's pages on the gov.ie website. I appreciate that not everybody would necessarily have ready access to that information but most of these schemes are delivered through the local community development committees, LCDCs, of the local authorities. The separate local development companies, which are often referred to as LEADER companies, are involved in the delivery of many of our schemes. The local development companies are very active at community and local level so they should be in a position to provide information on any of the schemes operated by the Department or the Department of Social Protection. That would include the likes of CE schemes.

Regarding the local markets, one of the lessons we have learned from the Covid-19 experience is the value of these outdoor markets, and not only in rural areas. We have seen a local farmers' market close to my own home in Bushy Park. There is no doubt that they bring a buzz and a bit of vitality to the area.

I mentioned in my opening address the accelerated measure under the town and village renewal scheme. A number of projects have utilised funding to support the type of activity the Senator spoke about. Donegal town has established an outdoor food market based on the funding from that accelerated measure. In Ballyconnell, County Cavan, they have created an outdoor space for people to meet. We have seen that in many different towns throughout the country. Kildare town is a good example also of where they have converted the car parking space in the centre of town to make public seating and dining areas available. That has enhanced those town centres.

The Senator mentioned empty buildings in towns. That is an issue that has been raised on many occasions and it is one of the reasons we place a focus on supporting town revival and regeneration. The Department ran a pilot scheme, which finished last year, to examine the whole issue of town centre living. An independent report on that initiative was published in June of this year and it concluded that the issue of vacant properties is a complex one. Sometimes, it is about people who have inherited a house and they do not know what to do with it or they do not have the resources to do anything with it. In other cases it can be more costly to invest in the house than the return they will get on the investment. More can be spent doing up a house than the eventual market value of a house in a town centre.

Notwithstanding that, the Senator will be aware that the programme for Government includes a commitment to a town centre first principle. A colleague in the Department is co-chairing a group that has been established to look at progressing the town centre first principle. As part of the work of that interdepartmental group, which includes a chief executive from Tipperary County Council, the group will examine the various recommendations made in the independent report on town centre living to see how they can be progressed. It is an issue we are very conscious of as a Department and we will continue to work on it over the course of 2021.

I will hand over to Ms de Brúch. The Senator asked a question about rainwater harvesting on the islands.

Ms Sorcha de Brúch

I thank the Senator again for raising the issue. On the wider issue of water supply, many of the islands have a water supply piped onto them. In the case of the Aran Islands, they are reliant on table water being shipped in, so that is an issue that needs to be addressed.

One of the projects the former Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht had been involved in was an AranLife project, which ran on the Aran Islands for a five-year period. It has now developed into Caomhnú Árann. One of the projects they did, which was very interesting, was either to revamp or build rainwater catchers for cattle. While it is not quite the same thing, it did reduce the pull on the general water supply.

Which of the islands?

Ms Sorcha de Brúch

It was on the three Aran Islands. Several hundred rain catchers were revamped or built, which had an enormous effect. It meant that they did not have to bring water out to cattle and the cattle were far happier. That was an example of a small intervention that had a very significant impact. It is certainly an issue we will raise with Irish Water in the context of our bilateral meetings with it for the islands policy. The point is well made.

Is the information on the town and village renewal scheme on the Department's website or has it been removed? Mr. Parnell spoke about supports for farmers' markets.

Mr. William Parnell

It is not specifically for farmers' markets but that particular scheme for this year is now closed. There were 363 projects funded throughout the country. There is a further measure, a separate strand, to the town and village renewal scheme about which announcements have still to be made. That is looking more to the medium term in terms of recovery, but there will be a town and village renewal scheme next year and, again, we will be looking at the best way to support towns and villages, depending on-----

The point I was making was that it can be very hard to get a central space in a town or village because often local authorities like to keep them for car parking. It has been a battle for many villages to get a good space because it is not prioritised. Car parking space supersedes farmers' markets space. That is the battle throughout the country, to call a spade a spade.

Mr. William Parnell

We have seen examples, including Kildare town, as I said, and Stradbally.

I have seen some good examples but it can be a battle.

Mr. William Parnell

Sometimes it is those examples that can encourage others to follow suit. The intention of the accelerated measure was that some of these initiatives and innovative ideas might be replicated by other local authorities.

There have been some great examples all right. Who chairs the new committee set up for the "town centre first" policy?

Mr. William Parnell

It is co-chaired by the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

The two Departments are working together.

Mr. William Parnell

We are working together because a lot of the policy issues fall under the remit of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

Deputy Joe Carey took the Chair.

We have to move on. Senator Burke is next.

I welcome our two guests to the meeting. It is most important that communities be kept alive, not only for the communities themselves but also from the point of view of tourism, and I think the witnesses touched on that. It is very important that services be kept going. If we do not have services in communities, we will not have any tourism business in those communities either because they are the life and soul in bringing tourism to rural communities. Tourism can provide services to communities, whether restaurants, bars or whatever else.

My second point concerns the Atlantic corridor. If people have ideas they want to progress, where do they go and how do they go about it? The idea could cross several Departments, but who pulls the whole thing together? Do people who have ideas go to Enterprise Ireland or the Western Development Commission? Do they have to keep going around to them all? How do they find out what they need to find out? Where do they get all the assistance from? Where would their first port of call be?

Mr. William Parnell

Regarding groups that may have particular proposals or projects, the answer is that it depends on the nature of the project and whether it is a community-based project or a business proposal. If a group or an entrepreneur has an idea in the business sphere, the local enterprise office is the first port of call. If the local enterprise office cannot help that individual, it will certainly point him or her in the right direction, whether to the Revenue Commissioners, Enterprise Ireland or some other organisation.

As for community groups that might be looking for support for particular projects, again, the LEADER programme is a locally led model of community development. It covers a number of different themes, including enterprise and employment, environmental protection and social inclusion. Again, the best avenue to go down to find out information about LEADER or any of the other community-based programmes is the local development company. We have a list of all the contact points on our website, but if the Senator would like me to provide him with any more detail I would be happy to do so.

I would like to develop a point I made. The Western Development Commission, Mr. Parnell said, is co-ordinating this. How does it do so? Mr. Parnell mentioned that the Western Development Commission co-ordinates either the rural initiative or the person himself or herself, a private individual who wants to develop something.

Secondly, what is the advantage of the Atlantic corridor in all this, in the scheme of things? Mr. Parnell mentioned that the Atlantic corridor runs from Kerry to Donegal. Is there a special grant people can get? Is it the Western Development Commission that provides the input into the western development corridor? What is the advantage of this over somebody on the east coast, for instance, setting up a business?

Mr. William Parnell

I will explain. The Atlantic economic corridor is a broader concept. It does not involve specific programmes. The concept for it emerged from the chambers of commerce along the western region. The idea was to develop a proposition of scale that would act as a counterbalance to the east coast. It is really about connecting all the economic hubs along the western region, all the way from Kerry up to Donegal, in order that a cohesive and critical mass is created to attract investment. For example, rather than Limerick trying to market itself as the place in which to invest and Galway separately trying to do the same, the idea was to create this critical mass of different centres that are all connected. As for trade possibilities, the corridor has two universities and a number of institutes of technology. The idea is to harness all the capital that is there, whether human capital or infrastructural assets, to attract people to live, work and invest along the corridor. It is very much a high-level branding of the region, one might say, but it is supported by a number of practical projects, such as the creation of a network of connected remote working hubs. The Western Development Commission has a role in helping the Department to co-ordinate all the different projects and initiatives taking place there. One of the initiatives, for example, apart from the remote working hubs I have mentioned, was a submission to the European Commission on the trans-European transport network, TEN-T, corridor, putting forward the point of view of all the interested stakeholders along the western region. It is very much a regional approach that is taken to co-ordination by the WDC rather than the WDC being a repository for individual projects. As I said, the likes of the local development companies, the LEADER programme and the local enterprise offices would be the appropriate places to go to in order to find information on various schemes that might be available to support individual projects or ideas.

Cuirim fáilte roimh Ms de Brúch agus roimh Mr. Parnell. I thank Mr. Parnell for his presentation. I acknowledge the work the Department has done during this extraordinary pandemic. I know that many of its staff have worked extremely hard. There is also the significant amount of money that has come into the regions. It is acknowledged by many communities, as is the assistance that has been given.

Like Deputy Ó Cuív, I come from a rural area. I live 2.5 miles out from the town of Strokestown, in Roscommon. Many people in rural Ireland felt privileged when this pandemic arose that they were in a rural area, that we had the space and were not in crowded areas. One evening my family was watching on TV something about an inner-city part of Dublin where there were a lot flats. At the time there was virtually a total lockdown. I heard a member of my family comment that the people in that area of Dublin did not have even a green area to play in and that we were there with acres of space and places to work. This is a significant factor and points to the development of outdoor spaces, even though, obviously, at certain times of the year the weather is not conducive to being outdoors. In my area a lot of walks and cycle routes are being put in place. Open space will become so important because, as has been said, we will still be living with Covid for quite a while, despite the vaccines and even though yesterday was a very good day.

I wish to acknowledge the role played by many people in the community. I refer in particular to postmen and postwomen. I have got the feeling in recent years that An Post has been driving its workers to make more use of their time and not to engage. One of the greatest aspects of postmen and postwomen in this country is their engagement with people on the doorstep. It is very significant.

In many ways, they are carers, particularly for people who are on their own. They make sure they engage with the person before they leave their door. We should never underestimate that. In that way, Covid has had an advantage. I welcome An Post having gone out of its way to encourage its staff to engage with, encourage, help and support people. In my area, a local paper is delivered by postmen and postwomen. It is not part of their run but they do it as a gesture of goodwill. That type of engagement is very important.

Some of my points have already been addressed and I do not expect the witnesses to respond to them. On the issues of water and broadband, I very much agree with Deputy Kerrane that there are issues on the islands that need to be dealt with speedily. I know that Deputy Ó Cuív has been raising such issues for a long time.

I refer to one of the briefing documents provided. On the issue of water, it states that responsibility for the provision of water services is not within the remit of the Department of Rural and Community Development. On broadband, it states that responsibility for the roll-out of broadband is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. It further states that primary responsibility for the provision of health services on the islands lies with the HSE. Is there a co-ordinated approach on these issues? We are talking about a specific group of people in specific areas. Is there a co-ordinated approach across Departments to address all of those problems that have been going on for years and need to be tackled and developed?

On the issue of community groups, it is fair to say that a significant amount of money has been made available for grants to do specific things in a town, village or area, but one of the sections that has been suffering is that of development associations. They are the people with an office in a town who keep the whole town going. They are unofficial tourism offices. They are usually staffed by Tús workers or whatever and that is fine. However, they do not have money to pay electricity, phone or rent bills. They cannot run their lotto competitions or many other fundraising activities. It is just not possible for them to do so. I think money for this group was announced in recent days by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. Is that money an assistance to help them to keep their offices going? It is only a matter of a couple of thousand euro. If they get over these few months and there is some type of return to some form of normality, as I hope there will be, they will be able to refocus on the way they used to raise funds. In the meantime, to get them over this little hill, a small financial aid of a couple of thousand euro would keep the groups going until summer. It would mean the offices could keep their services going. We should remember that these are voluntary services. The staff all work in a voluntary capacity. I am seeking clarification on the matter. If the witnesses cannot provide it now, they may come back to me on the matter. Is the funding recently announced by the Minister specifically for people who are trying to keep those offices going and provide local services? The groups will have to apply to their local authority to get the money. I ask for clarification on the issue.

Mr. William Parnell

I thank the Senator for raising those points. I will first deal with the question on funding for various organisations and then address the issue of the islands. The Senator is correct about the difficulties that have been faced, particularly by groups such as voluntary organisations, charities and social enterprises. They found it very difficult to avail of some of the supports the Government provided which were targeted at businesses operating on a commercial basis. In May, the Department launched a new €40 million support package precisely for the organisations referred to by the Deputy, that is, organisations that could not raise funds because of the Covid restrictions or social enterprises that could not trade because they simply had to close down or reduce the level of activity in which they were involved. As part of that package, €35 million was made available through a Covid-19 stability fund. Some 600 organisations have received almost €31 million under that fund. Several island-based organisations were among those that received funding. These are small amounts of funding that take account of the level or percentage of income the organisations have lost as a result of the Covid restrictions. It is very much targeted at organisations providing front-line services in terms of childcare, elder care and so on in the community. An additional €10 million was allocated to the fund in October by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and that funding will be distributed shortly.

Separately, €5 million was committed by the Government to a fund entitled Innovate Together. The fund also attracts philanthropic support. It too is funding community-based organisations, but is more aimed at helping them to adapt their organisations and services to be able to pivot and continue to operate in a post-Covid context. It is probably worth stating that €5 million was made available in the July stimulus package to help community centres to reopen safely.

Those are some of the initiatives that the Department has taken to try to support these organisations. In addition, the community services programme helps to keep many of the organisations to which the Deputy referred staffed. Although several organisations struggled with being able to keep their services running, the Department has continued to provide funding to those organisations. I hope there is sufficient breadth of funding and initiatives available in this area. If there are any particular organisations about which the Deputy would like to inquire, we can discuss that after the meeting.

I do not wish to hold up the meeting. I thank Mr. Parnell for the clarification he provided, but I know of groups that are in need of assistance. I refer to local community development associations. They have an office and co-ordinate everything in the town. For example, they support the town teams and act as an unofficial tourism office. They do printing for voluntary groups. In the case of some of the groups, it is not that they have been turned down for funding but, rather, that they never got a response when they sought funding for what they do. If the witnesses cannot clarify this issue now, they may come back to me on it. The CEO of Roscommon County Council spoke to me about this issue recently and outlined how important those local community development groups are in towns and villages. There is no issue with regard to the workers who operate the offices. The problems relate to lighting, heating and rental bills. I know it is a very difficult area. They are completely stranded in the context of funding. My fear and that of the CEO of Roscommon County Council is that we will lose these voluntary groups.. There may be a way around this issue. If the witnesses cannot give me an answer now, that is fine, but I would appreciate it if they were to come back to me on it.

Mr. William Parnell

The Senator raised an issue around the co-ordination of efforts for the islands. Ms de Brúch may wish to address that question.

Ms Sorcha de Brúch

As set out in the briefing note provided, the Department does not have responsibility for all the individual areas. One of the roles of the islands division within the Department is to try to co-ordinate across the various sectors and, to a certain degree, to advocate on behalf of island communities. That is why it is so important for us to be able to meet with individual communities to hear what their individual needs are. As set out in the briefing, we held meetings on many of the islands until we had to stop holding such meetings as a result of Covid. However, we have continued them on an online basis. The meetings give us a very good feel for what these issues are. The decision to look at developing an islands policy was taken by Cabinet agreement. That is the level of seriousness the Government applies on this issue.

This was decided at a Cabinet meeting, with all the Ministers agreeing that their individual Departments would look at whatever services are being delivered on the islands and would try to come together with a better policy. From one perspective it is kind of fragmented but it would not make sense either for these services to be delivered just to those individuals. What the Department of Rural and Community Development is doing, through the islands division, is trying to advocate for that and pull all of that together to give a bigger voice to these islands. For all that they are rural communities they do have slightly different challenges from others. That point was very well made and it is a point we are trying to address through the islands policy.

I will bring Deputy Ó Cuív back in now.

I have a few specific questions. Deputy Kerrane raised issues relating to regional development funding and the regional assemblies. I have asked who was given the money the last time and received pages and pages of replies but they were all private companies. I have nothing against that because we need to stimulate business in the area but there was nothing for infrastructure or that kind of thing. It was all private companies. Is there a role for the regional assemblies in the distribution of that money for infrastructure? I am not talking about an advisory role. There is a lot of misunderstanding there.

The Community Call is operated by The Wheel and Irish Rural Link. I am absolutely fascinated by why the Department would not operate it. It seems obvious that that brings in two layers when it should be one. How was that done? There are many areas in rural Ireland where The Wheel is unknown, and certainly Irish Rural Link is not that well known either. It might be a little bit better known but not that well known. How did they operate, on behalf of the Department, to get down into all the communities that do not have connections with these bodies?

The fund for community and voluntary, charity and social enterprises was a great idea because all these facilities and organisations had overheads and did not have their normal income. The witnesses said 600 of them were funded but how many applications were received? What percentage of these organisations were left with nothing? It is fine to have bidding competitions but something as basic as meeting overheads does not solve the problem for the large number of organisations that bid for this, spent time making applications and got nothing. I have always taken the view that it is better to divide less on more than more on less. I would be interested to know how many applications the Department got for that fund. We can then figure out how many cases applied and did not get funded.

Tá cúpla ceist agam maidir leis na hoileáin. Caithfidh mé moladh a thabhairt don Roinn as ucht an bád farantóireachta a choinneáil ag imeacht i gcaitheamh an ama. Bhí sé sin thar a bheith tábhachtach agus bhí sí ag fóirdheonú báid a bhí ag imeacht cuid den am gan duine ar bith orthu. Bhí sé fíorthábhachtach go mbeadh an ceangal sin ann leis an mórthír agus molaim an Roinn as é sin a dhéanamh. Faoi láthair, tá bád amháin ag dul as Inis Oírr, Inis Meáin agus Inis Mór go Gaillimh, isteach go Ros an Mhíl. Tugadh ceist dom maidir leis sin. Má tá éileamh ann ag deireadh na seachtaine seo agus an tseachtain seo chugainn, an gcuirfear bád breise ar fáil? Tá cuid de na hoileánaigh ag rá liomsa go mbeidh go leor acu ag dul go Gaillimh ag siopadóireacht go luath i mbliana chun na sluaite a sheachaint agus tá imní orthu go dtiocfaidh siad síos agus nach mbeidh spás ar bith ar an mbád. B’fhéidir go bhfreagróidh Sorcha de Brúch an cheist sin. Go ginearálta, rinne an Roinn éacht maidir leis na báid fharantóireachta agus níor mhaith liom é sin a bhaint uaithi.

Tá dhá cheist ann maidir le tithíocht agus an polasaí mór. Tá leisce ar go leor de na húdaráis áitiúla tithe aonair nó scéimeanna tithíochta a thógáil ar na hoileáin. Cuireann siad daoine ar na hoileáin ar liostaí ar an mórthír nuair nach bhfuil sé sin mar chéad rogha na daoine sin. Má tá oileánaigh ag iarraidh bogadh go dtí an mórthír, cinnte dearfa ba chóir go mbeadh siad in ann, ach tugtar é sin mar mhalairt ar a gcéad rogha, sé sin, teach ar an oileán. Níl sé sin sláintiúil do na hoileáin. An dara rud ná, mura ndéantar scrúdú géar ar na pleananna contae do na hoileáin, ní bheidh daoine gur féidir leo a gcuid tithe féin a thógáil in ann cead pleanála a fháil. Tá siad in acmhainn iad a thógáil ach níl siad in ann cead pleanála a fháil. Tá sé fíorthábhachtach go ndéantar socruithe sa phlean mór atá á réiteach ag an Roinn le go mbeidh deis ag daoine cead pleanála a fháil ar na hoileáin.

Baineann mo cheist dheireanach leis na hoileáin agus uisce. I ndáiríre, tá an fhadhb is mó ar na hOileáin Árann, áit ina bhfuil leath den dhaonra. Mar is eol do na finnéithe go maith, agus chuala mé go raibh siad in Inis Oírr ó thráth go chéile, is sna hOileáin Árann, áit a bhfuil clochach, is mó atá an fhadhb. Ceanglaíodh Oileán Ghabhla leis an mórthír trí phíopa uisce. An raibh caint ar bith ar phlé a dhéanamh le hUisce Éireann, Bord Soláthair an Leictreachais agus an dream atá ag cur an snáithín optaic ar fáil maidir leis seo? D’fhéadfaí píopa uisce, snáithín optaic, agus líne eile leictreachais a chur ann, mar má thosaíonn na hoileáin ag giniúint leictreachais beifear ag iarraidh an leictreachas a thógáil amach uathu. An raibh aon phlé ag an Roinn faoi na háisíneachtaí ar fad a tharraingt le chéile agus breathnú ar an bhféidearthacht uisce, leictreachas agus snáithín optaic a thabhairt isteach go dtí na hOileáin Árann ag an am céanna? Bhí gineadóirí ar na hoileáin i bhfad siar agus ansin fríothadh amach go raibh sé i bhfad níos eacnamaíche an leictreachas a thabhairt isteach ón mórthír.

Níl mé ag baint ar chor ar bith ón rud a dúirt an Seanadóir Garvey maidir le huisce báistí. Fada ó shin nuair a chuaigh mise go hInis Meáin bhí umar uisce i chuile gharraí le huisce a thabhairt do na beithígh agus ólann beithígh i bhfad níos mó uisce ná mar a ólann daoine. Dhéanfadh sé sin difríocht ollmhór. Tá siad i bhfad níos áisiúla mar go bhfuil siad san áit atá na beithígh.

Mr. William Parnell

I will answer the issues relating to The Wheel and regional assemblies first and then perhaps Ms de Brúch can answer the questions about the boats and the services to the islands.

The Deputy asked about The Wheel and Irish Rural Link. Their involvement in Community Call was part of a wider effort to mobilise community organisations and volunteers at the start of the Covid-19 crisis. The two organisations in question were identified because of their outreach to local communities and they were involved in the community outreach initiative for a period of three months. The Deputy will probably be aware that each local authority set up a forum to provide a co-ordinated approach to the community response and community champions were appointed in each local authority area to help deal with the position. We have certainly been in a different position over the past number of months compared to where we were in March. Back in March it was a case of having to move very quickly to try to bring together all the people who could help support communities and support people who may have been in danger of isolation. That was the context of the involvement of The Wheel and Irish Rural Link.

I will have to come back to the Deputy on the number of applications under the stability fund.

The issue I raised was about the rural development fund. There was a big discussion about it. It is a regional development fund, which gives grants to private businesses. Am I correct about that?

Mr. William Parnell

Is the Deputy referring to the European Regional Development Fund?

Yes, the co-funded European fund.

Mr. William Parnell

That falls under the remit of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The-----

When I asked a question about this, however, I got this list of private companies which were given the money. That is fine. I have no problem with private companies getting money and grants they need. What I am saying is that there seems to be a myth out there that there is a great deal of devolved regional structural funds for infrastructure that is administered by regional assemblies. That is not what I found out.

By the way, if people want to mobilise rural Ireland they need to get on to the sports clubs and the GAA, in particular. It can be done in one shot rather than through a convoluted system. That is, in any event, my own pedigree.

They were involved in the Community Call, and very much so in County Clare.

Ms Sorcha de Brúch

Bheinn féin ag tacú le pobal na n-oileán, na hionadaithe oileánacha agus na farantóirí as an obair agus an tacaíocht a thug siad don Roinn agus muid ag iarraidh a chinntiú go mbeadh na seirbhísí farantóireachta ar fáil ag dul isteach is amach ó na hoileáin le linn tréimhse na paindéime. Táim sásta gur oibrigh sé chomh maith sin. Chuireamar orainn chuile lastas agus seirbhísí paisinéirí a chur ar fáil isteach is amach ó na hoileáin i gcaitheamh na tréimhse. Ceart go leor, tá bád amháin i mbun seirbhísí faoi láthair ag dul isteach is amach ó na hOileáin Árann. Tá socruithe againn leis an bhfarantóir go mbeadh sé cinnte go mbeidh an dara bád i mbun seirbhíse ón 18 Nollaig go dtí an 6 Eanáir ach tá deimhnithe freisin go mbeidh sé ar fáil má thagann ardú ar an éileamh leis an taisteal isteach is amach ó na hoileáin ag daoine ag déanamh a gcuid siopadóireachta agus ag bogadh amach. Taobh amuigh den tréimhse sin, beidh an dara bád réidh le freastal ar na hoileáin. Tá na báid ag na farantóirí agus is féidir leo iad a chur i mbun seirbhíse má tá gá leo. Is féidir é a fheiceáil fiú i mBaile Átha Cliath go bhfuil ardú tagtha ar líon na ndaoine atá ag taisteal isteach is amach sa tréimhse seo agus ag an am seo den bhliain, thuigfí é sin. Tá an socrú sin déanta leis an bhfarantóir. Ba mhaith liom a dheimhniú go mbeidh sé sin ann.

Ó thaobh cúrsaí uisce, tá neart taithí agam ar na cúrsaí sin ar na hOileáin Árann. Is cuimhin liom féin mar ghasúr uisce a bhailiú sna buicéid sin agus muid ag fás aníos. Mar atá ráite cheana, agus na ceisteanna seo á dtógáil, is ceist mhaith í an ceart an fibre, an t-uisce agus an ESB a thabhairt isteach in aon turas amháin. Tá sé i gceist againn na ceisteanna sin a ardú leo. Tuigtear dom go mb'fhéidir go bhfuil cuid den chaint seo ar siúl laistigh de na heagraíochtaí seo iontu féin. Is é seo ceann de na hábhair is mó a theastaíonn uaim a phlé leo agus muid i mbun cainte leo agus an polasaí á fhorbairt againn.

Ó mo thaithí, theastódh síntiús díreach ón Stát le go dtarlódh sé mar bheadh sé ar bun an liosta ag na heagraíochtaí seo. Níl sé ina chuid den national broadband plan, agus caithfidh duine a íoc le go dtabharfaidh na comhlachtaí isteach é. Dúirt Uisce Éireann i bhfreagra ar cheist a chuir mé air go raibh sé ag breathnú air. Maidir leis an ESB, rinne sé sin as a chonlán féin cheana agus go mór mór má tá easpórtáil a dhéanamh ar leictreachas ó na hoileáin ó mhuilte gaoithe, theastódh é sin. Ceapaim féin gur mór is fiú fáilte a chur roimh an méid atá ráite ag an bhfinné.

Ms Sorcha de Brúch

Bhí ceist amháin eile ag an Teachta Ó Cúiv maidir le cúrsaí tithíochta agus tithíocht shóisialta, go príomha. Is cinnte go bhfuil an cheist sin tagtha aníos ó roinnt de na hoileáin. Arís, tá sé i gceist a bheith ag obair leis na comhairlí contae mar aon leis an Roinn Tithíochta, Rialtais Áitiúil agus Oidhreachta ina leith. Tá cloiste agam, go háirithe maidir le hoileáin na Gaillimhe agus thíos i gCorcaigh, go bhfuil sé seo mar dhúshlán acu agus is é an rud céanna maidir le cúrsaí pleanála. Arís, tá sé i gceist againn na ceisteanna seo a thógáil agus muid i mbun cainte. Tá plean gníomhaíochta mar chuid den pholasaí atá déanta. Is rud atá ag fás, nó iterative process, é seo. Tá súil againn go mbeidh na ceisteanna seo á dtógáil agus á leigheas. Beimid in ann dul ar ais arís is arís eile chun iarracht a dhéanamh chun rudaí a fheabhsú ar na hoileáin. Táimid sásta labhairt leis an Teachta arís fúthu sin.

Mar fhocal scoir, labhair an Seanadóir Murphy mar gheall ar an dúshlán a bhaineann le bheith ina gcónaí in árasán i mBaile Átha Cliath. B'fhéidir gur cuimhin le Sorcha de Brúch ag dul go dtí Oliver Bond-----

Ms Sorcha de Brúch

Is cuimhin liom go maith é.

Ní bheifear in éad le daoine atá ina gcónaí ansin. Mar is eol don bhfinné, is iomaí duine amuigh faoin tuath, dá dtabharfaí an dá rogha dóibh, a déarfadh gur thiar a bheidís, ní thoir.

Ms Sorcha de Brúch

Tuigim go maith.

I will bring in Deputy Kerrane now. Mr. Parnell has agreed to answer questions on LEADER and we will move on to that issue after he has responded to Deputy Kerrane’s questions.

Will the rural action plan that was supposed to run from 2020 be published before the end of the year? I refer to the previous action plan for rural development from 2017 to 2019, which had a key commitment and target of job creation, which was very welcome. My issue with that, which is something I hope will be rectified in the new action plan, is that targets were met in job creation - 220,000 jobs - which was welcome but when one asks where those jobs are, one is told they are outside of Dublin. That does not exactly narrow it down. In this new action plan, I would very much like to see targets but I would like to see follow up also and that when we get to the end of the plan, information is provided as to where those jobs were created. It is not enough to state "outside of Dublin".

While I greatly welcome the move to remote working, which is really positive, we do not want to see an over-reliance on that. We need to see further job creation, which is so important. When targets are set, I would like to see where those targets have been met so we can see whether there is a focus on the south as opposed to, perhaps, the west. Can I flag that point, please? Can Mr. Parnell tell me if the action plan will be published before the end of the year?

In respect of the schemes that exist, and there are many within the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage which are welcome and do a great deal of good in many communities, is there any way in which there might be a one-stop shop? On so many occasions a voluntary organisation, one with charitable status or a sports club, will approach a Deputy looking for a funding stream. It would be great if it could go on to a website and state that it is a sports club and what it is looking for and that options would then come up on what it can apply for. Much of the time clubs and organisations do not know what they can apply for and what the criteria are. If all this information could be on one system, it would be very useful.

On the ongoing consultation on the islands policy, have we a date for the publication of that or even a rough idea on when that might be published?

On the report brought out by Pat Spillane a number of years ago, has that been consigned to the dustbin? He said that much of it was like confetti being spread all over the place. Has there a been a more concentrated effort in doing bigger projects? What has happened with that report?

Mr. William Parnell

I will take those questions. Deputy Kerrane referred to the new rural policy. The development of the policy was delayed because of the Covid-19 crisis but we will have a stronger policy as a result of it because one of the key things the country, as a whole, is going to have to deal with is how to respond and recover both economically and socially from the impacts of Covid-19. The publication is obviously a matter for the Minister and he has indicated that the new rural policy might be published early in the new year.

I certainly appreciate Deputy Kerrane’s question on jobs. The difficulty we have in measuring exactly where the jobs are is that the CSO, in its labour force survey, counts the jobs at the level of the subregion on the Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics, NUTS 3 regions basis. One will get details on employment in the north west or the south of the south east, for example. The CSO does not capture that information at county level. The only time people get clear and precise information about employment at county level is through the census. That is a little bit of a challenge but we can certainly measure it at the NUTS 3 level. In the case of, for example, the west of Ireland, this will include Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. We will be focusing very much on job creation as a key element of the new rural policy.

The Deputy asked about the idea of one-stop shop for different schemes.

There is information on all of our schemes on gov.ie but I appreciate that as schemes grow in terms of the different target groups we are trying to reach, it can be difficult for people to navigate their way around. I take on board the Deputy's suggestion. There is, perhaps, more we can do to help improve our signposting and also streamline our application processes.

Senator Burke asked about Pat Spillane's report, which is the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, report published in 2014. It was built on by the Action Plan for Rural Development, to which Deputy Kerrane referred, which ran from 2017 to 2019. There will be a new rural development policy. The CEDRA report delivered on a number of its initiatives and proposals. The central proposal of CEDRA was the need to establish a Department with a senior Minister responsible for rural development. That has happened, as the committee will know. All of the recommendations of the CEDRA report which had not been delivered at the end of 2016 were factored into the Action Plan for Rural Development. We carried out a review of the CEDRA report last year, which we published on the Department's website. The review sets out the status of all of the different recommendations made in the CEDRA report. I am happy to forward that review to the Senator if he would find that helpful.

I thank Mr. Parnell. I have a couple of questions for him in regard to the LEADER programme. Has the Department undertaken a review of the administrative budget requirements to maintain the operation of the local development companies in 2021 and into 2022? Has a core funding model to sustain the local development companies been explored?

Mr. William Parnell

I will try to be as helpful as I can but the Acting Chairman will appreciate that the Minister is currently finalising the transitional LEADER programme, which will cover 2021 and potentially 2022 and so I am not at liberty to give any specific details of funding at this point. The Minister met all of the local development companies recently and she has assured them that there will be funding available to cover their administrative expenditure and for new projects under the transitional programme. The local development companies will continue to work on closing the 2014-2020 LEADER programme, which will be a large body of work for them into next year. In addition, they will be asked to deliver projects and to identify other projects under a new transitional programme. As I said, the Minister assured the local development companies that funding would be available for these purposes. The conversation with them very much focused on the types of projects that might be included in the transitional programme. It was a very constructive meeting, particularly in terms of the feedback from the local development companies on areas on which they felt the transitional programme might focus.

Was that engagement with the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN?

Mr. William Parnell

It was with the ILDN as the umbrella organisation and all of the chief executives of the local development companies.

Was there any discussion on the programmes and initiatives that local development companies could roll out given their record in terms of their response to the Covid-19 pandemic?

Mr. William Parnell

The meeting the Minister held with the ILDN and the local development companies was predominantly about LEADER and the LEADER transitional programme. The Minister acknowledged the work that the local development companies do in regard to other programmes such as the rural social scheme and Tús. The Department is in regular contact with the ILDN and the local development companies. They are key partners of the Department in the delivery of different schemes such as the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, as well as LEADER and other programmes.

The Minister committed to providing funding to maintain the staff of local development companies. When will this funding be formally communicated to staff members because some of their contracts are due to expire on 31 December?

Mr. William Parnell

The local development companies would have had the assurance from their meeting with the Minister. The Minister is hoping to announce the details, including the administrative and project allocations, very shortly. They will have that clarity before the end of the year.

Has an independent cost-benefit analysis been undertaken of the new structural arrangements put in place for the delivery of the current programme involving local authorities and Pobal?

Mr. William Parnell

There has been no cost-benefit analysis. As members will know, we are heading into a transitional phase in terms of the ending of the current EU programme and the commencement of the next programme. It looks like the new EU programme will not commence until 2023. We will have an opportunity in the intervening period to review to the structures that are currently in place. The Minister is keen to have the inputs of local development companies to understand what has worked well in the context of the current programme, not just in terms of structures but project delivery, the nature of the projects and engagement with communities. We have written to the local development companies seeking their input, particularly focusing on their successes and, perhaps, areas of the programme that have not worked so well for them. We will use the transitional programme period to reflect on their inputs and also the inputs of the local authorities. Most of the local action groups are headed by local authorities through the local community development committees, LCDCs. That is something we will be looking at too.

Mr. Parnell has confirmed that the new programme will not commence until 2023, which was communicated to the committee a couple of weeks ago in a briefing note from the Minister as well. Is the Department preparing a multi-annual programme to get us to 2023? If so, will it be over two years or three years and what budget will be made available specifically for delivery of those projects?

Mr. William Parnell

Up to recently, we did not have certainty around whether that transitional period would be one year or two years. There was a difference of opinion and some negotiation on that between the European Commission and the European Parliament. A draft transitional regulation was published in the last couple of weeks which indicates very clearly that the next EU framework will not commence until 2023. This means there will be a two-year transitional period. It appears also that funding will be available from the Commission for that transitional period. We do not know the amount of funding yet because the overall EU budget still has to be agreed. I understand it is being delayed by a couple of member states. We do not have certainty on the amount of funding which will come from the European Commission to support the CAP and the LEADER programme specifically but the Minister is nonetheless committed to providing funding in 2021. We will review the situation to identify what funding might be available for 2022. The Minister has also made the point in response to questions in the Dáil that LEADER needs to be looked at in a multi-annual context. It is not just about funding for 2021. If we provide an allocation to the local action groups for 2021, it will be 2022 or 2023 by the time those projects are identified and start to be delivered.

The Minister has spoken about needing to look at the LEADER programme in that multi-annual frame. I think the answer to the question is that funding will be provided between now and the start of the next LEADER programme, which will be fully funded by the EU within the new framework.

I will make a brief comment. I always believe the bigger the distance from the top to the bottom and the more layers that are in a process, the bigger the delays and unnecessary complications. Generally, LEADER worked well. It was run through the Department, the European Union and the delivery companies, the local action groups, LAGs. I have an attitude in life that unless something is radically broken, do not mend it. I cannot understand how we wound up having local companies, local company development committees, LCDCs, Pobal, the Department and Europe. Those are five layers. It is over the top and removes the immediacy of a programme. That is a comment and I am not looking for a response. I feel that strongly. It has certainly worked well in Connemara where they just said that they would do it. It has not been a problem. There is an idea that we are involving public representatives. Local authority members are on every LAG in the country. The local authority had a big and a direct input. They are now kind of on two LAGs. In fact, they have less of a say in the LCDCs than they had in the local company. That is my opinion and I wanted to express it.

Has the Department got any feedback from LEADER companies where projects that were due to go ahead may not now go ahead because of Covid-19? Perhaps the bank has gone cold or the project is out of date, or whatever. Has the Department seen any of those sorts of problems through the LEADER companies, where some projects could be in difficulty and may not go ahead even though the funding will be granted?

Mr. William Parnell

I have not heard of any particular difficulties and nothing systemic has come to my attention. We have tried to offer flexibility to the LEADER groups and local development companies in terms of how the programme is being delivered. Some local development companies have expressed an interest in seeing the period in which they can make commitments being extended. That is something the Minister is also considering in the context of the transitional programme.

Does Deputy Kerrane want to come in?

It is unfortunate that while it is being finalised, it has been left to the last minute for people who will be concerned about this. I appreciate what our guests have said.

I agree with the points Deputies Kerrane and Ó Cuív have made. I hope it will work out fine. As Deputy Ó Cuív said, it worked well as it was, to be honest. We will wait and see what will happen now.

I thank our witnesses, Mr. Parnell and Ms De Brúch, for their contributions and engagement with the committee.

The joint committee adjourned at 10.54 a.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 16 December 2020