I understand that, by agreement, Senator Cullinane's matter is to be taken first.
Job Creation Issues
I warmly welcome the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, and thank him for the work he is doing in respect of the south east. He chairs a forum which brings together many of the key stakeholders in the region with a view to creating jobs and promoting economic development. I am aware that there may be a very positive announcement in respect of Waterford tomorrow, for which I am sure the Minister will be present. I take the opportunity to welcome said announcement in advance. Any job which can be created in Waterford and the south east is welcome, particularly in the light of the very high levels of unemployment which obtain there.
The Minister will be aware that the unemployment crisis in the south east must be managed and addressed. The rate of unemployment across the region is 19.1%, which is 25% above the national average. In Waterford city, the rate of unemployment stands at 25.1%. I am sure the Minister will agree that this is not just unacceptable but that it is dangerous to have a level of unemployment of that magnitude in a city, particularly one which is supposed to be a gateway city and the driver of economic development and activity in the south east.
What is required for the south east is a coherent long-term strategy that will align all of the relevant stakeholders and agencies. The key ingredient in this regard is the establishment of a technological university. I want there to be a university for the south east which contemplates the needs of the region. There is no point in creating a university just for the sake of doing so or in merely changing the name above the door. We need a university which is geared towards enterprise, which contemplates the needs of the region and which is for the people of the region. In the context of research and development, such a university must be capable of taking advantage of the region's key strengths.
Those strengths are health, life sciences and medical devices, financial and internationally traded services, tourism, arts and culture, agribusiness, food production and technology, engineering, telecommunications, software development and digital media, and the biotechnology and green economy sector. A strategy that aligns these sectors of potential growth for the south east is necessary. The crucial ingredient is the enterprise agencies. They must play a leading role. Their policies must be aligned with what the Minister is trying to do for the region.
We must join up national policy with local and regional policy and ensure those with responsibility for delivering economic development, and job creation specifically, deliver for the region in real terms. There may be a positive announcement tomorrow, but that will only be a small start to what is necessary for the region.
The region's educational attainment levels need to improve. This issue does not directly relate to the Minister's portfolio, but it is crucial to job creation. This is particularly the case of the linkages between secondary school and third and fourth levels. It is also a matter of fostering a culture of upskilling and training in businesses. The south east presents the potential for pilot projects in secondary schools, for example, fostering innovation, creativity, thinking outside the box and entrepreneurship. This approach will be key to the region's success. Long-term solutions are as important as short-term ones, but short-term interventions are required, for example, a university, the Rosslare bypass for Wexford, an expansion of Waterford Airport's runway and the use of NAMA assets for town and city centre regeneration projects. A great amount of work needs to be done.
I am seeking an update from the Minister on what progress has been made since he launched his Forfás plan, the initiatives in which he is involved and whether they have made a difference to Waterford and the south east.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. He has a keen interest in the south east, particularly Waterford. As he stated, unemployment levels in the region have been high. In the aftermath of the closure of TalkTalk, I conducted an analysis of the region and confirmed the Senator's remarks. It has embedded structural problems. The Celtic tiger, which brought a great deal of multinational investment, did not have the same impact in the south east as it did in other regions. Nor does it have the strong clusters of industry that have been a feature of the hubs of growth in successful sectors.
There will be no big bang solution. A long-term strategy needs to be developed. The action plan I have put in place is focused practically and has brought the key players together, which has been beneficial in itself. They have set out a range of initiatives that various agencies are pursuing and that will serve to improve Waterford's positioning as a region.
Significant progress has been made. The agencies have delivered on their short-term objectives, for example, special enterprise start-up initiatives aimed at getting people with ideas to develop them. Eishtec has been extraordinarily successful and has expanded to 600 employees in the south east. In 2011, it was merely a high potential Enterprise Ireland start-up. Approximately 750 jobs from the Enterprise Ireland portfolio have emerged since the action plan was initiated.
We need a stronger strategy to develop a successful indigenous engine of growth in the south east. I do not disagree that the culture of training within industry and building a stronger educational infrastructure will play a part. Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, has been remarkably successful. It has incubated some high quality innovation in the telecommunications field and spawned many successful start-ups. Like the Senator, I see regional opportunities in the fields of life sciences, clean tech and food. The agencies are working together to develop these sectors as areas of potential growth.
Tomorrow morning, I will convene a meeting of the south east action plan group to review the progress being made. IDA Ireland has sustained its focus on this area. The number of site visits increased from 16 in 2010 to nearly 50 last year. It is a question of building on the co-operation in the region. We need to build on its many competitive strengths, although some of them need to be developed. I can say with some degree of satisfaction that our focus on the south east is yielding results. It is welcome that the agencies are pursuing their common purpose in a more concerted fashion. This type of collaboration is how successful regional strategies are built. They cannot be top-down but bottom-up.
While I am hopeful, employment numbers in the south east continue to pose a difficulty. They justify the focus that I assure the Deputy I will maintain in the coming years.
There is a clear focus on the region. Much of it comes from within the region or is driven by the Minister's Department. I acknowledge the key role played by the Minister, but there is a sense that the enterprise agencies could do more. For example, the availability of property solutions has been cited as an impediment. If so, we should consider how to develop property solutions across the region.
Today, I received figures to the effect that only one application was made from Waterford to the micro-enterprise fund. The company did not receive anything. The fund of €40 million provides start-up capital and supports for the micro-business sector. I cannot understand why only one application was made in Waterford, which has a high level of unemployment. Will the Minister investigate this matter? Are companies not coming forward, are they not being encouraged or, as mentioned at some enterprise boards meetings, are there problems with the scheme, for example, interest rates or bureaucratic difficulties? Whatever the problems may be, we need to flag and fix them. If money has been made available, the Minister will agree that it should be provided to those who need it in order that jobs can be created.
Property solutions are an issue. The IDA has applied for planning permission to build out the available property options in the region. This forms part of the strategy being pursued.
The Senator also raised the issue of micro-finance. It is a demand-led scheme and depends on people coming forward. We are administering it through the county enterprise boards, CEBs, which are soon to become local enterprise offices, LEOs. They are the first-stop shop. People with ideas can get help from CEBs with their business plans and apply to the micro-finance board for approval. We would be doing no one any favour by supporting plans that are not viable. It is important that a plan be tested before it is presented.
The scheme is in its infancy and we have yet to see the scope of micro-finance.
In other jurisdictions it has not been a significant element of the overall funding environment. I draw the Senator's attention to other initiatives such as the competitive start fund, a micro-finance fund run by Enterprise Ireland. There are several high-potential start-ups and we are trying to develop a range of processes to meet the different needs of start-up companies. We will review the scheme after it has been in operation for a certain period to see if there are weaknesses either in local promotion or glitches in access. If the Senator hears of a bad experience, he should bring it to my attention, as we are only too pleased to try to improve it as we go along.
Flood Relief Schemes Funding
I thank the Minister for attending. I wish to raise the issue of support for businesses, in particular, affected by flooding recently and in the past few years. Unfortunately, Cork was in the headlines last week because of flooding, as it was in June last year and November 2009. Some commentators noted that if Cork city was to be built again, it would not be built where it is now; we are stuck with it nevertheless, and incessant rain over 48 hours seems to be the precursor to this type of flooding.
This issue involves many participants, including the Office of Public Works, the Irish Insurance Federation and the Oireachtas committee dealing with environmental matters, which is holding a series of hearings on the issue. I will focus on possible compensation or support for businesses and raise the matter with the Minister because in July last year he contacted local authorities and asked them to submit details of the type of destruction done to businesses the previous June with a view to establishing some type of compensation fund for businesses. I know not everything can be covered, and in some instances businesses made a conscious decision not to insure premises. At the same time, some businesses cannot get insurance because they are in a flood risk area, meaning that some distinctions and intricacies can be made in the argument.
As the Minister initiated correspondence with local authorities, asking them to provide information, will he inform the House of any report? Will he bring forward proposals in the area?
I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. On behalf of the Government, I express my sympathy to those affected recently in Blackpool by the flooding. I am thankful no lives were lost but considerable damage was done, particularly to businesses, in Blackpool village.
I will set out the role of the Department in these matters. In my role as Minister with lead responsibility for the response, I can indicate the following. The cause of the flooding was primarily due to partial blockage of the debris screen located in the River Bride upstream of a culvert in Blackpool village. I understand the screen was checked and cleared by council staff between 3.30 p.m. and 4 p.m. on the afternoon of 21 March. It was subsequently checked at approximately 7 p.m. and found to be clear. At 8.49 p.m. the duty officer at the city fire brigade received a call from a member of the public stating that flooding was commencing in Orchard Court, Blackpool. The city council call-out co-ordinator was advised and Ballyvolane fire station mobilised a unit to investigate. They sought assistance from city council call-out in the form of an excavator to remove debris from the screen. As a result of the blockage the river overflowed, with water reaching Thomas Davis Street and Watercourse Road, causing flooding to some 15 business premises. Flood depth on the road varied from 0.5 m to 1 m, with velocities high and representing a hazard.
City council staff were on site but progress on clearing was limited until arrival of a JCB at 9.55 p.m. Once screen clearance commenced, an immediate abatement occurred, with the majority of clearance occurring by 10.40 p.m. During the period of the flood, the fire brigade were in attendance, deployed water pumping equipment and were assisted by Civil Defence and the Garda. I thank all the local authority staff and owners of the businesses for their work, which caused a massive inconvenience during this weather-related difficulty. The screen was subsequently monitored until 4 a.m., at which point flows had subsided in the river.
This is an example of what has happened recently but I am also aware that the Senator has referred to other locations in Cork city and county subject to flooding in 2012, including businesses, some of which had no insurance. I asked for a survey to be carried out by local authorities and received a report. As Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, I do not have a role or powers in regard to the provision of financial assistance for businesses affected by flooding. Neither I nor my Department has any remit in the area of flood relief or assistance for businesses, although there is the issue of humanitarian assistance to residents. There is, therefore, a difficulty in meeting the unforeseen circumstances encountered by businesses with no insurance and how they have been affected by flooding. I am keeping the matter under review and notwithstanding that there is no precedent for compensation of businesses arising from non-insurance or flooding, I am conscious of the importance of small businesses, who may see some financial difficulties arising from the location of those businesses. I refer, in particular, to the shopping centre in Douglas.
I understand the Office of Public Works has been in ongoing discussions with the Irish Insurance Federation regarding flooding insurance issues, particularly where insurance cover has not been provided in areas where flood defence or mitigation works have been carried out. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, has met a delegation from Blackpool today and is conscious of the areas of Cork city and county that have been subject to these unforeseen weather patterns resulting in difficulties for businesses, particularly when they have no insurance. I will undertake to keep the matter under review.
The Minister referred to the report he commissioned and the information he sought. That would have raised expectations that there would be something happening in the area. Will the Minister indicate what was the purpose of the report?
As the Acting Chairman and the Senator knows, I try to be as helpful as possible in meeting the requirements of the day and trying to overcome some of the unforeseen difficulties arising from inclement weather conditions, particularly where the work of local authorities may not have been carried out to the satisfaction of the local community and has resulted inadvertently in flooding of shops or centres. One does not expect such patterns to develop, especially if work could be carried out, with culverts cleared by the local authority. I sought a report on the extent of the problem to see if we could be helpful but I have not found a solution to the issue in that report. I will continue to seek solutions and the Government is very conscious of the difficulties that have arisen for small businesses. I will try to find solutions, if possible, but I will come back to the Senator if that is not possible.
Defence Forces Properties
I feel guilty about keeping the Minister in the House given I have met him three or four times today in different guises. However, he will appreciate that this is an important issue. He may not be familiar with the fact that a significant parcel of land between the old and new golf courses in Lahinch, County Clare, is in the ownership of the Defence Forces. Due to the challenging economic environment in which we find ourselves, the Defence Forces have rightly had to rationalise and centralise. While this is regrettable, given the people of Lahinch have had a long association with the organisation over the years, I could not justify maintaining their presence there because, as a country, we cannot afford it. While it is difficult for me to say that, given this is my own parish, leadership is required from public representatives at this time and I am happy to play my part in that regard.
Sluagh Hall is part of the Defence Forces complex in Lahinch. It is annexed off the main building and there are even walls built around it. The hall could easily be divided from the main lands. The purpose of the raising this matter is the community uses the hall regularly for musicals and as changing rooms for sports, and it is also regularly used by the golf club. The community feels an association with the hall, which was built in 1932. I would like the entire site to be sold to the golf club but it is not for me to decide that. That would be desirable from a tourism and community perspective for the parish of Lahinch and Ennistymon. I am keen that Sluagh Hall, which comprises a small area of the overall site, be made available to the community if a community group expresses an interest in doing a deal with the Defence Forces to retain it for the use of the community. I encourage the Minister to facilitate this. If the building was derelict and not in use, I would not have a case. However, it is used extensively and a successful musical ran in the hall in the past two weeks. There was a full house almost every night. That indicates the connection between the building and the community. I look forward to the Minister's reply.
I am advised that Lahinch military camp comprises a military barracks and Sluagh Hall on 5.19 acres. The camp was used up until 2012 by the Permanent Defence Force, PDF, and the Reserve Defence Force, RDF, for training purposes. The RDF is undergoing a major reorganisation. This is consistent with the recommendations of the recently published value for money review. The new "single force" concept comprises PDF units with Reserve components, rather than a parallel Reserve force. Reserve units within barracks are supported by their parent PDF unit and have access to the training facilities within the barracks. The 16 units outside of PDF installations have access to training facilities identified by the military as being most suitable from the pool of RDF training establishments already in place.
Lahinch RDF post is one of the properties identified for closure under the reorganisation programme for the Reserve. All RDF properties identified for closure under the programme, including Sluagh Hall, Lahinch, will close by the end of March 2013. At that stage my Department will invite Departments and other public bodies to identify any interest in the properties in question, including Lahinch. If no interest is expressed by another Department or State agency the property will be disposed of by public tender or auction. I am happy to discuss with any interested group proposals they may have for the purchase and development of the site for the benefit of the local community. However, my Department does not have the resources to maintain surplus vacant properties, such as Lahinch camp, in the longer term. As the property no longer serves a role in the defence organisation, it will be disposed of.
We have in the context of vacant Defence Forces properties been prepared to make them available to local communities for community purposes but this is normally done in circumstances where it is feasible, the property is sold to a local community organisation or group or a rental arrangement is entered into and the group takes full responsibility for the maintenance, upkeep and outgoings of the premises. If the Senator knows of a community organisation or a group of organisations that want to come together and make a proposal to my Department, we will consider it. I take on board his comment that he would like the site to be sold to the local golf club. Subject to my assuming that there may not be an interest from a public body in the site, which I cannot guarantee, the Department of Defence would be open to do business with the local golf club if it has an interest in the site. It may be well be that a joint proposal may be made by the golf club and community groups, which would provide for a use for Sluagh Hall. I have an open mind on the issue. At any stage, if a local community group or the golf club is interested, I will be happy to arrange an initial meeting with officials in my Department to explore any proposal that might be made.
That was a detailed, comprehensive and positive reply. I suspect there will be contact. Sluagh Hall could easily be divided from the rest of the site because of the way it is designed. I am sure there will be discussions which will lead to a result in the public interest and to the benefit of the common good.