My Department is committed to maintaining the maximum number of people in rural areas and to strengthening rural communities economically, socially and culturally. Rural development policy is set out in the White Paper on Rural Development which is being implemented primarily through the national development plan. As pointed out in the national spatial strategy, in many rural areas, the combination of a high dependency on a changing agricultural base, a scarcity of employment opportunities and resultant out-migration, has weakened demographic, economic, social and physical structure.
The national spatial strategy adequately addresses my concerns about rural housing. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is finalising rural housing guidelines. The aim of the CLÁR programme is to alleviate the economic and social disadvantage suffered by those living in areas of low population density. This disadvantage is manifested in weak infrastructure and slower delivery of services than in more populated areas. The measures I have introduced under the programme aim to redress this imbalance and encompass the priorities highlighted by the communities in CLÁR areas whom I consulted at the outset. These measures support physical, economic and social infrastructure across a variety of measures such as electricity conversion, roads, water and sewerage, village enhancement, health, broadband and sports projects. Through these supports, setting up enterprises in the CLÁR areas is more attractive andviable.
In September 2003 I announced that Fitzpatrick Associates, economic consultants, had been appointed to carry out a review of enterprise support in rural areas. This review was to analyse official enterprise support, including tourism enterprise, already available in rural areas. The greater Dublin area, as well as gateways, hubs and their areas of influence were excluded from the analysis to ensure that the focus remained on regions that have not benefited from urban-generated economic growth.
I hope the report will be finalised later this month. As regards decentralisation, I am working with my colleagues in Government to ensure that the ambitious programme announced on budget day is implemented on time and on target. I have initiated a small food producers' forum which has met several times to address the concerns of that sector. This will remain a priority for me in 2004.
On 29 January, I announced the establishment of a countryside council and I am making up to €40,000 available this year to provide related research and supports. Since the commencement of Ireland's EU Presidency, I have held bilateral meetings in Dublin Castle with the EU Commissioners with responsibility for rural affairs and regional policy. I have also addressed the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development in the European Parliament.
In 2003 in response to similar questions from Deputies, I outlined my Department's activities in respect of Ireland's EU Presidency as including a conference on territorial cohesion in Galway from 25 to 27 May and a conference on rural development in Westport from 30 May to 1 June.