That Seanad Éireann,
that the continued provision of public rural transport links is essential to the social and economic health of rural life;
the withdrawal of these services will plunge homes all over Ireland into isolation, loneliness and expense;
that huge fear and worry has been provoked by the threatened withdrawal of rural transport links, particularly the pilot evening rural transport scheme which is a crucial service for many elderly people living in isolation;
the CSO indicates that 50% of rural families experience difficulty in accessing public transport;
an estimated 21% of rural families experience great difficulty in accessing basic services such as shops, post offices and GPs due to a lack of public transport;
nationwide bus routes are currently under review and it is likely that a large number of services on routes in rural areas will be withdrawn;
the proposal in the McCarthy Report to cease funding for the Rural Transport Programme;
the comparatively low cost of the Rural Transport Programme in the wider context of transport expenditure;
calls on the Government to:
introduce a national transport regulator responsible for opening up transport networks to new competition and to facilitate better targeted subsidies that protect transport options in rural areas at least cost;
pending the introduction of a transport regulator, do everything possible to ensure existing rural transport services are maintained; and
reject attempts to damage the social fabric of rural Ireland.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady. This is the second occasion in three months on which we have debated rural transport and the issue of rural life. This is a timely and important debate, not just as it relates to rural transport but also in the context of the type of society we want to obtain in Ireland in the future. I place my comments in this regard in the context of the current economic recession, the issues relating to the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, which the House has just been debating, and the very real threat that services will be withdrawn from rural areas.
At the core of everything we, as politicians, seek to achieve must be the creation of sustainable urban and rural communities. We cannot do anything which might accentuate the divide that already exists between such communities. It behoves each of us to bridge that divide. Of central importance in the context of everything we might do in this regard is the provision of services, such as those relating to rural transport.
It is vital that we should engage in a coherent debate which focuses on the long-term viability of rural areas and on the communities that live therein. The Government appears to have lost focus in this regard. One need only consider the position in respect of agriculture, the findings of successive OECD and CSO reports and the way in which rural society has been decimated to understand what I mean.
Senator Ó Murchú, who is an extremely good advocate for rural Ireland and for Irish culture, knows what I mean. There is a growing divide between urban areas and rural areas. Sometimes those who live within the Pale tend to forget that rural Ireland does not just begin or end at the boundaries thereof. We must engage in a debate on how we might create a sound and vibrant rural Ireland. The latter is the key for the future prosperity of our country. Linked to this is the issue of connectivity, particularly as it relates to people. The words or phrases I would use in this regard are "county", "country", "town", "urban" and "not so urban". Job creation is another key component in protecting rural communities. In the absence of the link which public transport can offer, the opportunities in this regard will be lost.
The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 which the House debated earlier relates to how we might encourage people to engage in strategic land use. Rural Ireland is suffering from an infrastructural deficit. This is evidenced by the condition of some secondary roads. The Minister of State, who came from Galway originally but now lives in Kildare, will be aware of the position in this regard. Earlier today, county councils complained that they do not have the money to repair these roads. In fact, funding in this regard has been frozen. In addition, access to social services and broadband roll-out has been almost non-existent. If such access to broadband services does exist, the speed is poor and the quality is not great. There is also the issue of people not wanting to do business.
When we debated this matter on 23 June last, I used a quote from the Farrell Grant Sparks report. That quote remains relevant, particularly in light of the CSO report which was published in the interim and which paints a damning and bleak picture of where matters stand with regard to rural Ireland. We appear to have forgotten that rural Ireland exists. The CSO report indicates that 50% of families in rural areas experience difficulties in accessing public transport and 21% experience difficulties in accessing basic services such those provided by shops, post offices and GPs as a result of a lack of public transport.
Bus Éireann is carrying out a review of its bus routes nationwide. Members from both urban and rural areas will have witnessed the decline in the number of buses on our roads and the reduction in the number of services on offer. If a bus service which operates in the middle of the day in a rural area is withdrawn, people are obliged to leave home early in the morning and not return until late at night.
I look forward to hearing whether the Minister of State is sympathetic with the Tánaiste's view on the McCarthy report or whether she is of a different school of thought. In the debate on this matter on 23 June, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, admitted that the pilot rural transport scheme had been a success and that the implication with regard to costs was not really a factor.
Everything I have stated highlights the fact the withdrawal of the rural transport programme will have profound implications of catastrophic proportions for rural areas. The motion makes a number of straightforward and quite cost-neutral proposals. We are seeking that a national transport regulator, who would be responsible for opening transport networks to new competition and facilitating better targeted subsidies that protect transport options in rural areas at least cost, be appointed.
I accept there are vested interests involved which are afraid of competition. However, what has happened on routes from the airport and those which run to and from colleges shows that competition has a role to play in the area of transport. I appeal to Bus Éireann and the unions which represent its staff to consider this matter in the interest of protection of life in rural areas as well as that of employment within the company.
The motion also seeks that the rural transport service be maintained in order to curtail any attempt to damage the social fabric of rural Ireland. The core of the motion relates to that social fabric. I am disappointed by the amendment tabled by the Government. The motion is not in any way critical of the Government. It is positively framed, person-centred and community-focused in nature. We could have been much more critical of the Government.
In light of the remarks made by the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, on the previous occasion, will the Minister of State indicate whether the funding for this scheme, which expires in December, will be continued? There is uncertainty in respect of the future of the scheme. We recognise that the pilot scheme relating to rural transport has, in some cases, been a success. Clarification is required from the Government with regard to whether rural transport is going to continue to be provided. Accessibility is critical and if we say this is not the case, we will accentuate the divide that exists between urban and rural communities.
As already stated, the CSO report indicates that 50% of rural families reported difficulty in accessing public transport. By comparison, only 11% of people living in urban areas experienced difficulty. This constitutes an enormous deficit and gap that must be bridged. On the issue of education, the report shows that 21% of rural householders have had difficulty in accessing public transport for schools, while the equivalent figure for urban dwellers is 11%.
I now turn to the McCarthy report. At this point I feel as though I am acquainted with Colm McCarthy because I have seen and heard him so often. However, I wonder whether anyone has studied the McCarthy report's effects on rural Ireland and those who live there. It has been well documented by research and educated scholars that the benefit of transport to the vulnerable and those who most need it is immense. Although the report refers to an alternate transport system, it misses the fundamental point of rural transport, which is that it is of absolute benefit to both young and old. It has a multiplicity of uses and is not simply about bringing people to and from the pub. As all Members acknowledge, it is about much more than this.
The evaluation of rural transport should not simply be about pounds, shillings and pence. It must pertain to the benefit to people and how one can build a vibrant rural Ireland in which people will come to live, socialise and work. It is about placing people at the core and the centre. Ní neart go cur le chéile. However, were this scheme to lapse or one to allow the implications for rural Ireland of the McCarthy report to take root, we would have no agriculture or marine sectors. There would be no one living in rural Ireland, as everyone would end up living in apartment dwellings between the M50 and Dublin, like Hong Kong or Beijing. We would have lost Eamon de Valera's comely maidens at the crossroads effect and might as well simply abandon ship and become an island nation of apartment dwellers.
This is the bottom line because the rural transport scheme offers a central lifeline to those who need it most. It is of critical importance and benefit to the isolated members of rural Ireland. If one takes the Lisbon treaty campaign as an example, Members should consider the number throughout rural Ireland who were afraid to open their doors, were one to drive into their yards at night to canvass. Alternatively, others were delighted to talk to, or converse with, canvassers. It was unbelievable. I visited a number of rural parts of my constituency, of which there are not many, and one Tuesday I met a gentleman in his 70s who had spoken to no one since attending mass the previous Sunday. If this is the rural Ireland one seeks, the Government has failed. We must promote policies to bolster the quality of the lives of rural dwellers, despite the cost factor, which in this case is not huge. The economic benefit of having vibrant communities in rural Ireland is unending.
Despite the protestations, the fortunes of rural Ireland and its people have been ignored by the Government. In its renewed programme for Government it should place considerable emphasis on a strong rural transport scheme. Such a scheme should be put in place. Moreover, I hope the night-time rural transport scheme will not be lost because the vibrancy, well-being and health of many depend on it.
I commend the motion to the House. Members on the benches opposite, behind and beside me should support it. It is a positive one, one about people and connectivity and, above all, creating an Ireland of equals. That is the reason I commend it to the House.