Thursday, 5 December 2019

Questions (2)

Brian Stanley


2. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the role of his Department in the development of the midlands following news that two power stations are set to close, which will give rise to job losses. [50292/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Rural)

My question for the Minister relates to the role that his Department can play in the development of the midlands following the news of the closures of power stations at Lough Ree and Shannonbridge. Those closures are going to have a significant impact, as will the general scaling down of the peat industry. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation is involved but how can the Minister's Department help the midlands?

The responsibility for energy policy matters falls within the remit of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

However, there is an all-of-Government response and commitment to ensuring a sustainable future for those communities that are impacted by the closure of the two power stations in the midlands. The delivery of a package of investment and supports for the midlands will be overseen by the recently appointed just transition commissioner, Mr. Kieran Mulvey.

My Department was established in 2017 with a mission to promote rural and community development and support vibrant, inclusive and sustainable communities. I am therefore focused on ensuring that the transition to a low-carbon future happens in a just and fair manner. It is important to recognise the potential for climate action measures to be felt differently in different parts of the country, including in rural Ireland.

My Department is represented on the just transition task force being led by the National Economic and Social Council and we intend to be a strong voice for engagement with communities and their involvement in the transition measures.

My Department is finalising the next phase of rural policy for Ireland, which will reflect a whole-of-Government commitment to rural areas. Climate action, new ways of working and the changing nature of jobs are among the key challenges which the new rural policy will seek to put in place measures to address.

In addition, to support communities, including those in the midlands, there is a full range of funding and supports programmes being delivered by my Department.

Since 2017, Longford and Offaly, the counties in which the closures are taking place, have been allocated in excess of €34 million by my Department for projects that facilitate and encourage economic development and provide facilities that support the sustainability of our communities.

Last month's announcement of funding under the rural regeneration and development fund included €522,000 for a community and economic hub in Abbeyshrule, County Longford, and the same amount for a project aimed at regenerating the town of Edenderry in County Offaly.

My objective, and that of my Department, is to ensure that the funds available to me are targeted at those sectors and communities most in need and that will continue to be the case.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He will understand from where I am coming. Bord na Móna and the ESB have been large employers and significant parts of life in the midlands; indeed, the economic backbone of the area to a large extent. Towns like Shannonbridge, Ferbane and Cloghan will be badly hit by these closures.

I welcome the fact that the Department of Rural and Community Development is represented on the just transition task force. That is important. There is a need to start generating new industries around biomass and biogas. The Minister and Department can feed into the different key objectives of the action plan for rural development by providing the necessary skills, training and supports to people throughout the agricultural sector.

It is also important that we look at tourism in these areas. There are opportunities to improve areas along the River Shannon. We have had the Wild Atlantic Way but there has not been much of a focus on the midlands and we need to bring the same attention to the Shannon region and improve it. I would like to see focus being brought to those areas.

I am glad that Kieran Mulvey has been appointed the just transition commissioner because that is a good move. I worked with him when he chaired a task force about inner city Dublin and he did a tremendous job. The Government went on to support the particular project that the task force came up with.

My Department provides rural regeneration and development funding. We gave €1.2 million for the upgrade of Emo Court, €1 million for the Barrow blueway, €1.2 million for the regeneration of Edgeworthstown, €2.8 million for the historical Granard Motte project and €1.6 million for the mountain bike trails in the Slieve Bloom Mountains. We have an available fund of €1 billion over ten years.

My Department is flexible and will examine where there is a need and a demand. I have not allowed, and will not allow, my Department to only deal with a particular area but instead to deal with the whole of rural Ireland. Funding needs to address specific needs and cases and must be targeted at areas that have suffered and neither I nor my Department will be found wanting in that regard.

It is only right that we look at ways and means to support the midlands. I know the ways in which the areas that Deputy Stanley represents are suffering, as does Deputy Calleary. I was a Member of this House when Bellacorick faced a similar problem. Crossmolina, Belmullet and other such areas all suffered from the closure of the power station down there. I know exactly from where Deputy Stanley is coming. An all-of-Government approach has been put in place to respond and it is vital that this be adhered to.

I welcome what the Minister has said about the focus of the Department and that he recognises this is a special case. He also mentioned the Slieve Bloom bike trail, which is an important project for Laois-Offaly. That needs to be completed and the Minister's officials might send me a note outlining where the Department is on that project because it is important to see it through to completion. Big progress is being made on that important project.

I will refer to the enterprise pillar in the action plan for rural jobs. There are excellent jobs clubs in the midlands, including the one in Portarlington and the Laois partnership. The jobs club in Portarlington deals with people from Laois and Offaly. There has been a focus in recent years on moving people to organisations such as Turas Nua. The Minister will recognise that jobs clubs turn out the goods despite the very small amount of money that goes into them. There may be a need for more jobs clubs to provide supports to get people back into work and allow them to diversify.

I will send the Deputy the details on the Slieve Bloom project, which is exciting and which will create jobs in the region.

Kieran Mulvey will be talking to all interest groups and I am glad that Bord na Móna and the ESB are ready to talk. Some funding will be put in place. Some €6 million was allocated in the budget for a just transition fund and the ESB has agreed to put €5 million into that.

We need to look at ways and means to support these families and try to create jobs. There are lots of good ideas and talented people out there. I hope they will be able to generate the jobs that are needed to replace existing jobs. I know the effect on people when they lose their jobs. It is sad for families. The Government is committed to helping. Kieran Mulvey has been appointed. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, led a number of Ministers to the midlands recently, and the Government understands that a very serious problem exists there. The Government understands that it needs to support, help and try to regenerate the midlands and plans to do that.