I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development, Deputy Seán Canney, to the House.
Community and Rural Support Schemes: Statements
I thank the House for the invitation to address it on a topic of fundamental importance to the social fabric, cohesiveness and resilience of Ireland. I am pleased that Members from across the political and geographical spectrum are present, which is testament to our shared understanding of the significance of community and rural support schemes.
The Department of Rural and Community Development has a clear, people-centred, mission, which is to promote rural and community development and to support vibrant, inclusive and sustainable communities throughout Ireland. Every policy it makes, every programme it shapes and every activity it supports is informed by this mission. We are determined to see all of Ireland thrive, socially and economically and we recognise the interdependence between the two. We have clarity of purpose and our schemes are central to achieving our aims.
Communities play a key role in driving growth and we see it as the Government's duty to harness that capacity and foster social cohesion. Cohesive communities are not just better places to live because they are fairer and they value diversity; they are also more competitive and attractive to investors. It is a mutually reinforcing proposition that investment leads to job creation, which, with the right supports, can contribute to broader socioeconomic and community development. Let me clarify what I mean by community development. Our vision of community development at the Department is about providing communities with a better chance of making choices for themselves and playing a key role designing and delivering appropriate solutions that address their specific circumstances. This understanding of community development empowers and engages people and seeks to harness local knowledge and experience. It is about fostering collective action and cultivating cohesion in our communities and wider society. To support urban and rural communities, my Department provides funding for a range of programmes and schemes which operate throughout Ireland.
I will outline the funding available, as well as details associated with the specific schemes under the Department’s remit. Under Project Ireland 2040, the Government has committed €1 billion to the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund over a ten-year period to support rural economic development and to help build strong communities. The fund has been allocated €315 million for the period up to 2022, with €55 million set aside in my Department's budget for successful projects in 2019. The first call for applications for the fund closed at the end of September 2018 and there was an excellent response from across the country, with 280 applications received. In November 2018, the Minister, Deputy Ring, announced the first 18 successful category 1 shovel-ready projects for funding. The projects being supported received wide acclaim and should deliver benefits to the communities concerned. An announcement will be made shortly detailing further successful applications from the first call. A second call for applications is expected to take place later in the year.
The community services programme, CSP, delivered more than €40 million in 2018 to more than 400 community organisations countrywide, providing local services through a co-funded social enterprise model, with funding provided to support the cost of staff. The programme typically supports organisations to provide services and facilities that would otherwise generally be unavailable. Examples of organisations that will benefit from the programme include Tralee Community Care, which provides daily hot meals to older people and a local crèche and special needs school and Energy Action which provides home insulation and energy efficiency services for older people in the Dublin area. In 2019, €46.2 million has been committed to the CSP, which will support more than 2,000 posts in more than 400 organisations.
LEADER is a multi-annual programme for the period 2014 to 2020 and has a budget of €250 million over that period. Some €220 million of this funding has been allocated to the local action groups, LAGs, throughout the country who deliver the programme in accordance with local development strategies. These groups provide funding locally to projects that address economic, social and environmental challenges faced by rural areas. The remaining €30 million is available for schemes to be delivered at a national level. There was a significant increase in both project approvals and expenditure in 2018 due to efficiency gains and process improvements. Almost 1,700 projects have been approved for funding of more than €58 million. A further 379 projects with a value in excess of €22 million are currently going through the approval process.
The town and village renewal scheme was introduced in the second half of 2016 to arrest the decline of rural towns and villages and to harness the regeneration potential to support economic recovery. Almost €53 million has been approved for more than 675 projects throughout the State. The outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme provides funding for the development of new outdoor recreational infrastructure. It also supports the maintenance, enhancement and promotion of existing outdoor recreational infrastructure in Ireland. The scheme offers three separate measures: measure 1, the maintenance and promotion of existing infrastructure, with a maximum grant €20,000; measure 2, medium scale repair-upgrade and development of new small and medium infrastructure, with a maximum grant of €200,000; and measure 3, repair-upgrade and development of larger more strategic projects, with grants of between €200,001 and €500,000. Since 2016, €41 million has been invested in approximately 600 projects.
The CLÁR programme is a targeted investment programme, which provides funding for small scale infrastructural projects in rural areas that have suffered the greatest population decline. The aim of CLÁR is to support the sustainable development of identified programme areas by attracting people to live and work there. The funding works in conjunction with local funding and on the basis of locally identified priorities. Since 2016, €25 million has been invested under the programme, supporting 1,270 projects.
The local improvement scheme, LIS, supports improvement works on small private or non-public roads in rural areas. Some €38 million has been allocated to the LIS since September 2017, with more than 1,200 roads benefitting from support.
There is a continuing demand for funding under the local improvement scheme, LIS, in rural communities across Ireland and so an allocation of €10 million was secured for the scheme in my Department’s Estimate for 2019.
The Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme, SICAP, 2018-2022, is Ireland’s primary social inclusion intervention, delivered locally with funding of €190 million over a five-year period until 2022. The programme has two main goals, which I will summarise as supporting communities in addressing social exclusion and equality issues to create more sustainable communities and supporting disadvantaged individuals to improve the quality of their lives through the provision of lifelong learning and labour market supports. SICAP is co-funded by the Irish Government and the European social fund Programme for Employability, Inclusion and Learning 2014-2020. The programme supported more than 25,000 individuals in 2018.
The community enhancement programme provides capital funding to communities across Ireland to enhance facilities in disadvantaged areas. Typical enhancements under the programme could include the renovation of community centres, community amenities, improvements to town parks, common areas and spaces, CCTV equipment and energy efficiency projects. Some €12.5 million was allocated in 2018, with an additional €500,000 for the men’s shed fund. Over 3,000 projects have been supported under the community enhancement programme in total.
The seniors alert scheme encourages community support for vulnerable older people in communities through the provision of personal monitored alarms to enable them to live securely in their homes with confidence, independence and peace of mind. Following a review in 2017, the scheme has been a resounding success. Some €6.984 million was spent in 2018, supporting 19,000 new participants that year.
The scheme to support national organisations provides multi-annual funding towards core costs of national organisations in the community and voluntary sector, with a focus on organisations that provide supports to those who are disadvantaged. The current three-year scheme concludes on 30 June 2019 and the next iteration of the scheme commences on 1 July. A total of €16.7 million has been allocated under the current scheme to 71 different organisations.
Some €7 million was invested in 2018 to support library capital projects and services, including new builds, redevelopments, refurbishments and new mobile libraries, as well as a comprehensive programme to enhance digital capacity across our 330 or so public libraries. Up to €6 million has been allocated for 2019.
The Programme for Peace and Reconciliation is an EU-funded, cross-Border programme which supports peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Border counties of Ireland. In 2018, we provided almost €4 million to support actions under the themes of shared spaces and services, building positive relations and children and young people. A further €5 million has been allocated for 2019.
I am very pleased the European Commission’s proposals for the next round of cohesion policy for 2021-2027 includes a specific proposal for a special new PEACE+ programme to build on earlier work.
The TidyTowns competition is certainly one of our best known and longest running schemes. Since its inception, the landmark competition has grown from 52 entrants in 1958 to 883 entrants across 26 counties in 2018. The Department made €1.4 million available to TidyTowns committees to assist them in their preparations for the 2018 competition and made a similar amount available in 2018 to assist with preparations for the 2019 competition.
The walks scheme facilitates the development and maintenance of many of Ireland’s key walking trails. The scheme currently covers 39 trails, with payments made to approximately 1,900 private land holders to maintain those trails. In line with Government commitment to increase the number of walks covered by the scheme, funding was doubled in budget 2019 from €2 million to €4 million.
The Department is also initiating a review of the scheme which will inform decisions regarding its expansion. The Department will be inviting local development companies and local authorities to submit expressions of interest in respect of trails that meet specific qualifying criteria for consideration for inclusion in the scheme in the coming weeks.
The Department invested €3.5 million towards volunteer supporting organisations in 2018. Last December, I launched a call for input paper on volunteering. This is the first step in developing a national volunteering strategy. I would urge all interested parties to engage with this important initiative and provide my Department with their views by 14 February.
My Department’s officials are also tasked with identifying and addressing potential barriers to the roll-out of the national broadband plan. This includes the ongoing co-funding of local authority broadband officers across the country with a subvention of €42,000 per council.
My Department continues to support local authorities as they draft their digital strategies. These strategies will set out each council’s digital roadmap to ensure that the benefits of high-speed broadband are fully realised in each county. My Department has also awarded more than €500,000 to local digital innovation projects that will provide real, tangible benefits to citizens. One such initiative in Galway city has seen the installation of a thermal imaging camera to monitor a bridge over the River Corrib. Over the years, several people have entered the river from this bridge and it is hoped that this initiative will assist responders to help those in difficulty.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his comprehensive report on all the schemes and budgets within his Department. I live in rural Ireland and will have to be a little bit critical. Great efforts are being made and money is being spent but there is a lot more to be done. It is an area of the country in desperate need of progression. Throwing money at an issue may not always be the solution and we have to involve the people who live in these areas. The best example, which we learned through progressive governments and regimes, is in our health service and we spend so much on it. It is not all about money and we need to get down to the fabric of the make-up of rural Ireland. We need to include the people of rural Ireland. Some of the schemes the Minister of State mentioned are good and helpful but may not always touch the nerve centre where they are needed.
Rural communities are struggling with stripped down services. Bank branches, post offices and Garda stations are closing and there is an ever-present threat of rural crime, which is a major issue, and something that calls to every neighbourhood in rural Ireland. The threat of crime needs to be addressed.
The Government's record is one of stripping away at rural Ireland’s existence, leaving massive deficits in terms of service provision, substandard infrastructure and reduced supports. Meanwhile farm incomes have been hit by severe price volatility across all sectors, jeopardising the family farm as the basis of Irish agriculture, while, as we all know, Brexit presents an existential threat to sector. The reality is that Government decisions are damaging the attraction and viability of living and working in rural areas.
An issue I have raised before, which may not be under the remit of the Minister of State's, is that there seems to be a concerted effort to avoid giving planning permission in rural areas. It may not be under the Minister of State's remit, and it may not be Government policy, but, from talking to my colleagues in different counties and in urban areas, for some unknown reason, it seems to be increasingly difficult with more barriers being put up for one-off housing in rural areas. We can talk all day long about funding and the fabric of rural Ireland but if people cannot live there, that is the kernel of the issue. We need to keep people in rural Ireland and facilitate people who are there. People are the solution to every problem. There seems to be an almost concerted effort to avoid giving people the chance to live in rural Ireland.
A two-tier recovery has developed in this country, whereby growth is concentrated in certain areas, especially in the larger cities. The European Commission has confirmed that "regional imbalances across the country remain in investment, economic growth, competitiveness and innovation". Some 45% of Irish GDP is concentrated in Dublin, while the greater Dublin area accounted for over 60% of total employment gains nationally in the 12 months to September 2018.
The economic recovery in this country is centralised, with even the Minister for Rural and Community Development saying that Ireland is imbalanced. This is a de facto acknowledgment that the Government is failing rural Ireland. Shockingly, more than 500,000 rural households and businesses will have to still wait until 2023 at the earliest for State intervention to receive moderate speed broadband. That is more than ten years after the national broadband plan was first launched in
2012. The ultimate test will be what additional new funding will be ring-fenced for this plan and for delivery. Yet worryingly, a tender has yet to be awarded for the national broadband plan, with serious questions surrounding the whole process.
Meanwhile, the LEADER rural enterprise funding stream has seen its budget cut by €150 million. It has proven to be a bureaucratic mess for many LEADER companies. It is a damning indictment that out of a €250 million funding allocation, 85% of the total LEADER funding remains unspent after year five of the 2014-2020 programme.
In the confidence and supply arrangement to facilitate a minority Government, Fianna Fáil responded to the needs of rural Ireland and extracted policy commitments to be implemented over the Government’s term in office. Examples of this include developing new community development schemes for rural areas. Achievements to date include the reversal to cuts made to the farm assist scheme, increased rural social scheme places as well as the reopening of the CLÁR programme and local improvement schemes.
In the budget 2019 negotiations, Fianna Fáil successfully campaigned and got agreement from the Government for €48 million in additional areas of natural constraint, ANC, funding in 2018 and 2019. Funding alone is great but may not always be the answer. Rural people are very versatile, innovative and passionate and sometimes they just need leadership and direction. What I am going to say may sound like a contradiction but we have to be cognisant of how we spend money in rural Ireland and of the effect some of the projects we spend it on will have. In my term on the council, I spent a long time fighting for broadband and for a RuralLink transport system, both of which were delivered. I am not taking the credit for that. However, I live in a small town which is seven miles from a bigger town and while RuralLink is providing a great service, it has backfired in that it is drawing people from the smaller town to the bigger town in order to do their shopping. I do not know how we will overcome this problem. It is a service that is needed but it is having the opposite to the desired effect or outcome we wished for when we looked for it. We can fight and argue all day about broadband its associated problems. However, broadband in rural areas is a necessity for people to do business but by installing broadband, we are opening up a worldwide market for people to do shopping, etc., so we are going to have to have a plan B there to protect the small shopkeepers in rural Ireland. It is a catch-22. They are necessary commodities and services but we need a plan to run alongside them so they become part of inclusion and are of benefit to the rural area without hindering them in certain ways. There should be a bit more joined-up thinking in regard to schemes and the money being spent in rural Ireland. We must include people by providing them with services and schemes which are beneficial to them. As I said, the most important aspect of reviving and revitalising rural Ireland is facilitating people to live in rural Ireland.
I thank the Minister of State for updating us on the ongoing work in his Department in relation to community and rural support schemes. As always, I will give out about the lack of development where that word appears after the word "community". I would again like to articulate the concerns I articulated at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development last year, that the community development part of the Minister's brief has become lost in the rural focus. I strongly believe the community development brief belongs in a different Department given the wide range of issues under this brief. Community development has become somewhat lost. The Minister may disagree but that is how it looks to me and that is what I am hearing from the community development sector. As he knows, it is a sector in which I worked for the majority of my adult life and it is a real shame because there is such a need for community development at the moment.
When thinking about the Minister of State's visit to the Seanad today, I asked myself why we need community development. As I see it, community development is about profound transformative change and is a sign of a robust strong democracy. It works much more towards a deep participative democracy and not the highly centralised one that we have today. It asks questions as to what it means to live a good life, to be happy or to flourish. Asking such questions brings one to understand that not everyone has the same opportunities to follow his or her dreams. The deck is stacked against this and it is due to the endemic nature of inequality in Irish society.
We know the landscape of inequality well and the causes of it. We also have excellent frameworks for understanding the problems and what needs to change, and I refer the Minister of State to the equality framework in Equality: From Theory to Action by John Baker et al. The landscape metaphor is real, in that inequality is literally built into the fabric of our towns and cities. The poor live together and the rich live together and never the twain shall meet. The difference is that the poor have no choice. Powerful groups monopolise privilege and power in various ways. They have control over resources and to a large extent over our political and educational institutions. Powerful groups also control media institutions and the core messages that they convey.
One message that poorer people are consistently given is that they are responsible for their own failure. Community development is one part of a broader egalitarian movement to change things in Ireland. I am a product of that. I met people on projects who told me there was another way and they were right. The community development sector has been the subject of a relentless onslaught in recent years, and it continues today in new forms. If one is interested in the detail of what has happened it has been chronicled in the work of Brian Harvey and others. He estimated that more than a third of all funding to the community sector was removed during the austerity period. The dismantling of the national community development programme and its replacement with the much more narrowly focused social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, was hugely significant and has profoundly negative consequences. Eight consecutive austerity budgets gutted the community sector at every level and in every part. Neither the structures nor the money have been restored nor is there any sign that they will. It is a sector which has no formal pension system. A strong argument can be made that austerity suited those in political power to settle other scores and to destroy any possible forms or sources of dissent and even competition. No part of the community sector was spared. All this was done to pay bank debt and today it is as if it never happened at all.
They must have put something in the water. The project closures, the programme cuts and the shorter time have become the new normal, but despite appearances austerity did not end and it continues in the community sector right up to the present day. It has just donned a different garb. The community sector is now prey to new regimes of discipline and control and a reorientation of power to the centre. State agencies, like the HSE and the city councils, are redrawing the landscape in colours that suit them. The unwritten command is that if they fund the sector, they can tell it what to do. We can see this in the review of drugs task forces currently being carried out by the HSE where the HSE is disregarding the new national drug and alcohol strategy and writing its own set of rules. These new regimes are being brought in under the seemingly irrefutable logic of good governance. This manifests itself in ever-increasing demands for quantitative evidence of inputs, outputs and throughputs, performance indicators and logic models. The focus of these is usually on the automised, isolated individual who, it seems, has emerged from a nowhere place of no relations of care, and will cure all of their own ills through acts of sheer individual will. The refusal to acknowledge the existence of the economic and social context within which lives are lived and how these need to change has become a de facto policy of State agencies.
The focus becomes ever narrower, instrumental and depoliticised. Community development becomes wrapped up in employment and training structures. Projects have become part of a commissioning process whereby those with the lowest bids win the contracts. We must ask ourselves whether we think it is good to have, properly fund and support an egalitarian community development sector. Does the Minister of State think it is good and valuable? Much needs to be done, not least by showing some bottle with regard to State agencies doing what they like regardless of what the Minister of State and other Ministers think. The clearest sign the Minister of State could send is restoring funding to the sector and re-establishing the national community development programme with the haste that it deserves. The reforms needed to make this a reality are possible and we can work together towards them.
Would the Minister of State be willing to meet representatives from the community sector, listen to their concerns and engage on where we go from here? I would be happy to organise this. As matters stand, people involved in the majority of these community development projects feel that they have no relationship with the Minister of State or his Department due to the rural aspect of the brief. I would like the opportunity to rectify some of those relationships.
I welcome the Minister of State. I shared a platform with him on the Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development. I am aware that he is a champion for rural Ireland. I commend him on the work he is doing to ensure that the maximum investment possible is delivered to rural areas. Last year alone, the Department of Rural and Community Development delivered almost €22 million to communities across Roscommon and Galway, the country with which I am most familiar.
Schemes such as the community enhancement programme, CLÁR, the local improvement scheme, seniors alert, the community services programme and town and village renewal funding are essential for the delivery of services in our communities. These schemes are the primary means by which the economic recovery can be felt in rural areas. I was happy to hear Senator Paul Daly refer to the reintroduction of some of these programmes. I am reminded of the local improvement scheme and the CLÁR scheme. They are key hallmarks to indicate that we are in an economic recovery. I commend the Department and all of the officials who work on these schemes for turning them around in a short timescale to ensure that funding is delivered directly into the communities. I am reminded specifically of the town and village funding and outdoor recreation infrastructure funding. The rural regeneration and development fund is a flagship element of Project Ireland 2040. The Minister of State does not need to be reminded about ensuring that there must be balanced regional development.
The trends relating to employment figures are positive. However, there is a significant concentration of growth in Galway city in the west and there is a need to support towns across the region. We had an interesting debate at this morning's meeting of the Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development about working from home and the use of digital hubs. I am reminded of the digital hub attached to the library in Ballinasloe and to Roscommon County Council's offices. These provide significant potential to enable people who live in rural areas to work remotely and to benefit from the existing infrastructure and broadband. Those hubs are currently underutilised. This morning's debate was important and I am interested in what the Minister of State had to say about foreign direct investment companies looking at whether there is potential for employees to work remotely when they are setting up. The committee and the Department need to ensure that we provide the necessary infrastructure and use existing resources to allow as many people as possible to work in rural areas.
I am aware, through my connection with and involvement in different committees and community groups across the region, that many volunteers submitted applications. I am reminded of the outdoor recreation infrastructure which provides a significant benefit for our region. We are delighted that almost €1 million has been given to the Beara-Breifne Way, which is being developed. Much work has been done and there is still more to do. We would like to see the outdoor recreation infrastructure fund continuing to support the tourism potential and the routes off the Beara-Breifne Way, which is a key objective of that fund. Many volunteers are involved, whether in Tidy Towns or in making various applications. We rely heavily on them to support rural villages and towns. The Minister of State spoke about his remit in the context of broadband officers. There is significant concern about the rate of progress of the national broadband plan. It is a key player in levelling the field and ensuring that we receive our fair share in services. Almost every week, I speak with schools about increasing the level of digital technology. There are significant challenges relating to broadband in our schools. Rural communities are affected and we need to see action as quickly as possible.
I want to mention a number of funding announcements which have a positive benefit. I recently visited the Triest Press printing company, which is a social enterprise company based in Roscommon town. It supports individuals with intellectual disabilities. It received €70,000 last year under the community services programme. I emphasise the importance of that funding to support people in employment. Another example is Midland Warmer Homes, which received approximately €63,000 in dormant account funding. It provides a service for energy upgrades across Roscommon, Galway and beyond there. We know there are challenges in rural areas. I know about them because we face them every day. We need to be positive and proactive in trying to deal with them.
I do not agree with Senator Paul Daly on some matters. However, I agree that we need people and jobs in rural areas if rural communities are going to remain vibrant, for people to enjoy the great quality of life in rural areas.
I welcome the Minister of State. This is a very important session. I commend and thank all of the volunteers connected with all of these schemes, which the Minister of State has outlined, and all the workers and participants on the schemes. They make a huge and valuable contribution to communities all over the country.
I want to make a few points on community development. I welcome every one of the schemes outlined and think there are many good schemes. However, my God, this Government and the Government that was in office in 2009 and 2010 cut the heart out of community development in this country. I know that because I witnessed it. It really was torn apart. I believe it was torn apart because it was a threat to the political establishment in that it was empowering people and building the capacity of people within communities. We could see it working. I worked for many years in the community development sector and I could really see the difference it was making. Instead of that, we now have a plethora of schemes but we have people tied up in form filling, counting numbers and recounting them. It is an issue of power and control and that worries me.
It was the wrong way to go. It was a very deliberate move. It was first mooted in the White Paper in 1999 where the Government started to look at how we could control community development organisations. These were people who were thinking for themselves and thinking outside the box but the Government set about trying to control and politicise them, which is an awful shame. We now have many of the programmes and schemes where the governance and bureaucracy ties up people's minds. It is a great loss to rural Ireland and other parts of Ireland that people are now caught up with form filling and making deadlines because they have to apply in the short gap between one date and another. The inflexibility around it all means there is little room for creative thinking.
We have had projects like the digital hubs. I will give an example of one of the projects that ran for a number of years under the community development programme. It was a computer programming project for children between the ages of eight and 15. We recognised that if we could get those children excited and passionate about computer programming, we could then tie that up with things like the transatlantic cable. We envisaged that we would have whole communities where there was a cohort of young people who were into computer programming and who would advance their education in that direction. There would be this human capital within communities and people would be able to stay at home, have their families at home, live in their communities and bring the heart back into communities. Of course, what did the Government do? It introduced savage cuts. Community development projects had up to 60% of their funding cut and they were then closed down. The reason I believe they were shut down is that they could not be controlled by the Government. There were all of these community responses that could happen near to the ground with very little money. Now, however, I find it very hard to get excited about community development.
This threatens volunteerism. For St. Patrick's Day parades or similar events, we now see that due to the bureaucracy and the insurance schemes that are necessary, fewer and fewer volunteers are coming forward. Volunteers are tired and worn out with the bureaucracy and governance. They then look at something like the children's hospital and they see the governance is not there. Governance is for the little people on the ground. There are programmes that cannot buy a packet of biscuits without going through a whole procurement process of tenders to get the best price and everything else. I am not saying there should not be governance, of course there should, and there should be accountability for any public money. However, it is weighted against the smaller schemes in a way it should not be.
I want to touch on a few of the schemes, the first being the community employment, CE, schemes. One of the most pressing issues is the lack of referrals. There are 1,990 vacant CE places advertised online and that figure has remained high for some time. Obviously, these are community-based roles, such as for childcare assistants, caretakers and support workers, many of which would not exist in towns and villages were it not for CE schemes. The first thing supervisors will say when it comes to the lack of referrals is that it is the Department's preference to refer people to JobPath over CE schemes. Some €140 million has gone to JobPath. I ask the Minister of State to look at the contracts and the mistakes that were made in JobPath. I ask him to look at the deals that are being done there, where people are being double-referred or taken off schemes to be put on JobPath because we have guaranteed these private companies X number of participants to give them revenue. It is wrong. This is €140 million that could be put into local employment and real community development. This needs to be looked at. That is why my party colleague, Deputy John Brady, brought forward a motion this week to stop referrals being made to JobPath. It is wrong and it does not add up.
Community employment is dying on its feet. Participants must be paid a minimum of €50 extra per week because we have to give them an incentive. The other big issue in regard to the CE schemes is the occupational pensions for CE supervisors and assistant supervisors. This was recommended by the Labour Court. We are asking the nurses to go back to the Labour Court and use its mechanisms to make deals yet this was a ruling it made. Where are the occupational pensions for supervisors and assistant supervisors of CE schemes? Please right that wrong. There will be a strike. This has been pushed and pushed. These people have been waiting but they have not got a pay rise for ten years. We will have a strike, which will mean the most vulnerable people in communities will be left without the vital services these schemes are delivering.
Another issue that can be dealt with very simply is to extend the age limit on the CE schemes from 66 to 70 to give people the choice to go on until the age of 70. Many people at that age are healthy and vibrant and make a huge contribution. They have huge experience and knowledge within their communities.
More flexibility is also needed in the rural social scheme to enable preferred relations, such as nieces and nephews, to be attached to herd number. I ask the Minister of State to look at this issue. The rural social scheme is a great scheme but it is too restrictive in terms of who can take it up.
The Government has to bring back the training funds for all of these programmes, whereby people could go and get proper training. Again, this was about empowering people and providing them with small resources that would give them huge returns. The programmes need to have proper training funds.
The Tús programme is only a one-year programme so participants are just beginning to gain confidence and skills when they have to leave. It is not right to build up people's expectations and then knock them down again. I ask the Minister of State to look at this. It needs to be a multi-annual programme rather than a one-year programme, so we can make the most of it. In addition, disability allowance recipients should be allowed to avail of this scheme, given people get disability allowance for many reasons.
I am tired of talking about the layers of bureaucracy for LEADER programmes, although I know some work has been done on this. The LEADER scheme has been completely politicised and brought in under the local authorities. It was operating in Ireland as a model of best practice throughout Europe. What did we do? We went in and destroyed it. It comes back to the power and control issue again.
In Mayo, for instance, funding for the LEADER programme has been cut by between €10 million and €12 million. The Minister thinks that because he advertises every LEADER programme, it somehow gives the illusion that more money is available. There is little room for community responses to key issues under SICAP.
My heart was broken by what this and the previous Government did to community development because we could have very different communities when it comes to building the capacity of people and generating human capital. The Minister of State needs to be careful because the volunteers in this country are worn out and worn down but perhaps that was the intention in the first place.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his detailed report. I acknowledge what other Senators have said. These are good schemes but we all accept that more funding is needed for them.
I am particularly interested in the Department because it is relatively new. It is good at telling its story and it has a very interactive website. Clearly, there is a lot of news and spin but the Department is good at that, which is not a bad thing. I interface on a regular basis with all of the 900 plus councillors around the country for various reasons and use an awful lot of their information because it is important to communities and I find it valuable. Local councillors like to hear about the activities of the Department because they touch on communities and assist in expanding the capacity of local communities to empower themselves and get on with projects. However, funding is an issue The town and village renewal scheme is effective but there is not enough money for it. Senator Conway-Walsh's comment on funding was correct. I acknowledge regulatory arrangements must be in place but there is significant bureaucracy, red tape and forms for relatively small amounts. In some cases groups have been turned for funding because of the way they dealt with their applications. My experience of the LEADER programme and the town and village renewal scheme is positive. I would like them to have more money, given more people are interested in the scheme.
The Tidy Towns scheme is fantastic and even in my community, volunteers are doing what the local authorities should be doing and they are exhausted. I agree that we should encourage people to improve their communities but, for example, where the Tidy Towns committees are active, the local authorities have pulled back and volunteers now clean the streets. Some groups find it difficult to get their local authorities to dispose of the waste and stuff that they have cleaned up. However, on the whole the scheme is good. The seniors alert schemes and others are basic measures. While it is great to talk about them, they should form part of the standard support provided to communities.
I welcome the fact that the Minister of State has come to the House and I welcome his update on the schemes. I suppose we would all say here that we need a hell of an awful lot more money for them but I wish him well. I acknowledge that this is a relatively new Department but it has stayed focused. However, I have heard all the announcements and I am not sure that so many of them need to be made. The Department announces them, then it announces it is doing them and then it announces it has done them. The press people in the Department are busy and they have worked well to tell the story. Well done.
I warmly welcome the Minister of State to the House. I hope that we can have him here again because these areas are of great interest to all of us.
I will speak to a couple of the schemes in a moment but I would like first to pick up on some of what was said by my colleague, Senator Ruane, and Senator Conway-Walsh. This is not necessarily an indictment of or reflection on the Minister of State but it is important to acknowledge the impact that austerity measures had on the community development sector. I worked in the community and voluntary sector at the time. I was part of the attempts to organise against cuts in the early period of austerity in 2008 and 2009. We had marches and we had a little logo. Many of these projects were scattered and involved a small number of staff and part-time staff. The sector was not the same as some larger sectors that managed a resistance. There was significant defamation at a time that community development, community spirit and cohesion were most needed.
We must think constructively about where we must go now. At the time national organisations such as the Combat Poverty Agency, considered how one interrogated, and not just identified, challenged and combatted poverty, and the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, worked on ways to integrate communities. In that same set of austerity measures there were cutbacks in community development. Outspoken people raised useful red flags about the problems on the ground, which should have been welcomed. This was not just true in Ireland but across Europe. The European Union has acknowledged that a social pillar must be introduced to repair the great damage done to society and social cohesion in Europe. The loss and atrophication of social cohesion is measurable in the Eurobarometer figures during the period of austerity. It was regrettable that some of those who were most outspoken and generous and who took risks to highlight the issues were sometimes some of the first community development projects to either be absorbed into others or be shut down. The Community Workers' Co-operative in Galway was one of the first to take a strong hit for having a challenging voice.
Within the community development projects that remained there was another problem but, thankfully, there is potential for it to be addressed. We had the 40:40, 10:10 rule. I love that the mission statement on Department's website states: "To promote rural and community development and to support vibrant, inclusive and sustainable communities throughout Ireland". That wider work of building and engaging the community had to move through a grid of what I call 40:40, 10:10 which meant 40% of all the time and resources had to go to training, 40% had to go to employment, and only two 10% envelopes left for community development. Only a small amount was left for youth groups that worked to make young people engage and know themselves as citizens at a time there was no work. Only 10% of funding was left for groups who worked with young people, children, and who were carers or groups that supported people who had disabilities. I encountered the cutbacks when I worked with older people. Some of the brilliant initiatives that had been happening in the empowerment and engagement of older people were atrophied. There was shrinkage in the work of building the fabric of society done by community development groups.
I recognise and like the aspiration that the Minister of State mentioned about "providing communities with a better chance of making choices for themselves and playing a key role designing and delivering appropriate solutions", which is key. One of the great principles of community development is that the community is empowered to recognise what it needs and say, "This is what matters to us, this is what will work for us and this is what we need". There is an unfortunate problem sometimes that in the patchwork of schemes that have been introduced since, with each of them is trying to do good work, they are focused on specific work with specific targets and parameters. The space and flexibility that the community development sector had to empower people to set the agenda and identify ideas that might start in one town but go on to become a national change has been impacted. The ideas for the future of Ireland come from our communities as well and are not simply something that land on a top-down basis. We need to recognise economic, social and transformative ideas and ingenuity that emerge. I say this to the Minister of State because I can see that he is passionate about this brief and recognises the great asset of rural and urban communities.
There are two or three issues I wish to highlight. I welcome the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, and the public and shared spaces initiatives. There are strands of funding through the LEADER programme and some funding from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. In terms of public and shared spaces within our urban communities, in particular, there is a challenge now. We want more housing and we need housing that is better. We need to identify spaces. For example, in Dublin 8, we know that many people would like to see the Player Wills site used for social housing, yet Weaver Park is shutting down. We need to recognise that those green spaces and shared spaces are part of the fabric of what makes a community. It is important there is resourcing of public and shared spaces in our urban communities as well as in rural communities. That is really vital. I have spoken about this previously in terms of the pollinator plan. There is almost an ecology and an ecosystem within each place and it is the social as well as the environmental space that needs to be nurtured.
I commend my colleague on the work in Ballaghaderreen - I know Senator Hopkins has encouraged and supported it - to build that excitement around, and support for, communities that are growing and expanding and that have new arrivals coming into them. That is somewhere the Minister of State can play a vital role. It is important resources come with that. For example, communities that take in new members, bringing a vibrancy back to their main streets, have a need for extended bus services and extended health resources. We should ensure that we do not just build houses and apartments on the outskirts of Dublin, for example, but that we plan the resources, the schools, the parks for the children and the people who will live in the area. Similarly in our rural communities, when we bring in people to the community, we should also provide the resources to strengthen and create a vibrant life.
I have a major concern about voluntary bodies, such as Citizens Information services in our towns and communities. One of the most regrettable decisions has been the decision to move away from the autonomy of local Citizens Information services right across Ireland. It is a decision which will haunt the Government. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection and we were deeply unhappy with how we heard about the roll-out of that process. The Minister of State may want to examine this from the perspective of his brief.
I refer to the role of arts centres throughout the country. We know there are tensions and difficulties whereby one place may have an arts centre while another place has a sports centre or community centre. Sometimes there can be a false sense that if a community has one centre, it will not get another centre when, in fact, each centre is doing different but very complementary work. Recently, the Arts Council did an audience survey that looked at the importance of the arts, not just for artists but for the audiences and what it meant for them to have access the arts at local and community level and I ask the Minister of State to look at that.
I commend the digital innovation scheme in regard to the bridges in Galway. I know many people have very tragically lost their lives in Galway, so this scheme is very positive.
Perhaps we could discuss the manner of procurement within SICAP and other funding so we do not have a situation whereby the way in which that funding comes out prohibits the security and the enthusiasm of long-term planning within the sector.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am positive about the schemes. I will speak from my experience of living in the west, in a city which has many rural villages on its outskirts. From working with those communities, I find that a number of the schemes that come under the remit of the Department of Rural and Community Development have been positive and life-changing for the people living in the local communities. The theme of the Department is about promoting rural and community development and supporting vibrant, inclusive and sustainable communities. That is a line that is so important when it comes to communities throughout Ireland.
I want to discuss the rural regeneration development fund. A number of communities in my area have benefitted from this. The community in Murroe in east Limerick has been told it will receive €3.8 million but the letter has not gone out. I pay tribute to the many volunteers because all the applications were put together by volunteers from the community. Murroe is a village surrounded by many other villages and everything had closed down except one pub and a petrol station with a shop. The community knew it had to do something. It looked very closely at the remit of the Department and put together a very successful project called the Murroe Field Project, with a community centre, an incubation centre where there would be lifelong learning and classes in the community, which is under the remit of the Department. It is installing a skate board park, an all-weather pitch and running and walking facilities. It is about brining people of all ages together. In regard to the all-weather pitch, the work is being done by volunteers and this project has brought the community together. Many people have given their skills and their time to this project. Their application had a great many strands that were inclusive of all ages and encompassed all the areas the Department covers, such as the CLÁR programme and the local improvement scheme.
Many roads and footpaths are not covered by the local authority as they are viewed as side roads but funding under the local improvement scheme has had a significant impact and the community now has a pathway into the village. It has been really positive. I compliment the Minister of State on the funding and I know funding will be available again this year for projects.
Up to 19,000 people benefitted from the seniors alert scheme last year. This scheme allows people to live in the security of their own homes and to feel secure within their own homes. People may be living on their own and might fear rural isolation as there might not be a house in sight, with the nearest house a mile down the road. However, they have benefitted from the seniors alert scheme in that they get a devise and nominate people so that if anything happens, once they press the button on the devise, someone is there within minutes. It has been of great benefit to people living on their own. These people feel they can live comfortably in their own homes, otherwise they would have to go to nursing homes or sell up and move to the nearest village or town. The Department is making a significant investment in rural areas.
In the community centre in Murroe, the plan is to hold different classes. The community has spoken to the ETB and is going to get funding to provide tutors and buy computers. This is all about creating an environment of lifelong learning for different age groups because whether we are young or not so young, one is never too old to learn.
The proposed funding of €1 billion over a ten-year period is a significant investment. I hope we will see greater investment in the future. I want to see other villages benefitting in a similar way to Murroe.
It is about putting life and soul back into the community. Other villages will benefit as well, and both the local soccer club and rugby club in Newport use the all-weather pitch for training. As Senator Higgins said, it is about sharing resources. It is about putting facilities in the centre and attracting people from outside. I urge the Minister of State to keep up the good work. The Project Ireland 2040 investments outside Dublin are to be commended.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I was with him on Sherkin Island the day before he was appointed. He was very much involved in this space before he became a Minister. He has knowledge of this issue, his heart is in it and he understands it. He gave a wonderful presentation this afternoon which explained all 18 schemes in which his Department is active.
I will focus on two. The town and village renewal scheme is one of the most important and has been rolled out since 2016. It represents major funding, at €53 million, which has been driven into the heart of local government structures. It re-energises villages and towns in rural Ireland. I believe we can do even more with the scheme. The biggest problem in rural Ireland is the derelict houses in villages and towns but the powers to deal with this are not being used. The powers to which I refer lie within the local authority structures. In the 1970s, the town council in Kinsale made 27 houses subject to a CPO and changed the outlook of the town, which thrives today. Cork City Council did the same in the 1990s under Joe Gavin, . A strategy is needed to ensure local authorities use the unique powers they have, which at the moment they are slow to use. We should create a scheme to ensure we get movement in these villages and towns. In Innishannon, there are 14 derelict houses in what is a small village. We could create great benefits for our housing stock, for society and for Ireland Inc. so I implore the Minister of State to engage with local authorities and convince then to use the powers they have. The county managers are reluctant to use the powers, though a few have done so. The powers could be used in cities like Dublin. I travel through Dublin and ask myself how we can allow so many houses to sit there derelict. We need to put pressure on local authority management to move on this.
The second scheme I will focus on is the seniors alert scheme, which is unique. This is a game changer. It will change the quality of life of people in their homes by giving security to them. The household benefits package provides free travel and free electricity units, and it may even include free telephone rental now. The seniors alert scheme should be under the package as well and we should push the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to do this. At the moment, community alert groups engage with people of a certain generation and tell them what they can get but we need to do more because we need to ensure everyone can get this. It should be part of the household benefits package on reaching a certain age. It gives security to people who might be living by themselves and feeling secure in our homes is all we want from life. Providing for that in this package would streamline the scheme and benefit all our elderly.
The Department is a shining example of what can happen when there is energy and drive behind something. It has done a lot in a short time. I acknowledge the contribution of the Minister of State given his energy is behind these projects.
I thank speakers for their contributions. I came here to listen as well and I will take up Senator Ruane's offer to go into the community in parts of Dublin. It is important to see everything at first hand. As a local activist myself, I know the feelings behind a lot of what has been said this evening. We know what austerity caused.
I agree with Senator Paul Daly that it is not all about money. I was in Tubbercurry a couple of weeks ago for the launch of the smart towns initiative, where I saw some money and a lot of local spirit creating something special, which we will replicate in other towns. All the agencies come together with the local authority to pursue one synchronised agenda. Whether it is the heart of a city or a rural area, this is the secret weapon.
I smiled when Senator Conway-Walsh said her heart was broken. I thought it was September and her county was in the all-Ireland final again.
No, these are bad times.
It will happen next September.
The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, is overseeing an interdepartmental review of the CE scheme. I believe that if a person aged 55 or over is on a scheme, he or she should be left on it because of his or her chances of getting employment. We should target jobs for younger people. I am a great believer in the rural social scheme and I have worked hard to get more numbers into it. It is not, however, a training scheme so we cannot give money under a job activation programme. It is a social inclusion scheme, it is brilliant and we need to support it. One can find something that is not right in any scheme and we are reviewing the CE scheme to see how we can do it better.
Senator Boyhan said we were not giving enough money while Senator Daly said we were giving too much. Perhaps we will split the difference. If public money is spent, there has to be a strategy and a way to measure outcomes. We cannot just throw money at projects.
Senator Hopkins mentioned an enterprise centre in Ballinasloe. We often think about constructing the buildings and we put a great deal of energy into that. When we have done it, however, we do not look at how we are going to manage and sustain what we have built. Sometimes we do not look at that before we start. We talk about sustainable projects. A project is not sustainable if the building is completed but is not full within a certain period. We must work on that.
Senator Lombard referred to villages. When I drive around big and small towns, I also count the houses that are abandoned. We do not need planning permission, we just need to renovate the houses and put families in there. That would be doing something right. We recognise that within the Department and we have created a living town centre project. We have a pilot scheme whereby we picked six towns and we have allocated funding to local organisations to come up with plans for those towns. They will probably come back with six different ways of doing what they need to do because the circumstances are different. The assets in the towns could be different and the outcomes could vary. We are providing money to these organisations to allow them to draw up their plans. If those plans are workable and sustainable, we can put them forward for consideration under the rural regeneration fund and bring them to fruition. There is a recognition of what has been said and more joined-up thinking is required to ensure progress.
Senator Lombard also referred to Joe Gavin and others who were involved in the CPO. There is the stick and there is the carrot. We are offering a carrot to get people involved and to try to create something different. I think we will achieve that.
I have seen at first hand how effective the seniors alert scheme has been. Senator Byrne referred to a project in Limerick. The one thing about that project is that is that it is multi-use. In that context, Senator Higgins spoke about arts centres and sports centres. My view is that we should have one building that is multi-use. For example, we have a network of libraries around the country and we are now rolling out digitalisation in them. We also have what is called the open library where one can visit a library from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., 365 days a year. Libraries can also be used for other purposes. We must do more of that. We are doing some positive things.
All of the schemes are under review at any time to ensure that we do not just think we are doing something right but that we look at the outcomes. Changes were made to LEADER funding last year to make sure the operation of the scheme and the application process was streamlined. That has worked but it will be under review again. When I say it has worked, what I mean is that more applications are coming in but the funding must be allocated. We have three years following the closure of the scheme to spend all the money. We are putting pressure on the LAGs to ensure that the money is spent.
It is great to get an input from people who are working in communities, rural or urban, and who understand what is going on. I thank Senators for their input. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk to them.
We talk about all that we are doing, but we face a profound challenge in the form of Brexit. I am conscious that those who may be affected most by it are rural communities or communities that are in disadvantaged areas. It is a bigger challenge for us in our Department than for other Departments and that is something we must bear in mind. We are working hard to minimise the potential negative effect of a no-deal Brexit but it is imperative that we continue to cultivate resilience, which we have in the communities, and to nurture the volunteerism that exists and to encourage it further.
Building resilience and cohesion among communities in a strategic manner is our best way to ensure sustainable development throughout the country. We talked about regional development, but I call it balanced development. I chair the task force relating to the Atlantic economic corridor and we will create a counterbalance. Broadband is an issue we discussed this morning. One of the guests at the meeting stated that broadband is not an inhibitor to working in rural communities because many people can work from a hub within a town or village even if they cannot work from home. That would be a big draw to keep people living locally, working locally and adding to the economy as well as having a better quality of life rather than spending two or three hours in a car travelling to work every day.
We must be positive about what we are doing. The Department is new, it is positive and it is showing its mettle. I am delighted to be working with the Minister, Deputy Ring. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, who was in the Department prior to me on all the work he did. The officials in the Department are also up for the challenge. I am lucky and privileged to work with such a great bunch of people. I again thank Senators for their contributions.
I thank the Minister of State. That concludes our debate on No. 4. We will not suspend the House before the next business starts. I welcome some friends and associates to the Gallery. We will move on to No. 5 presently.