I am satisfied that my Department delivers an effective package of supports which strengthen rural and urban communities across the country, including dealing with the issue of isolation, and that this will continue moving forward. Funding priorities are reviewed and monitored on an ongoing basis to ensure our supports remain targeted at those most in need socially and economically.
Initiatives such as the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme, the Community Services Programme, LEADER Programme, the Community Enhancement Programme, Seniors Alert Scheme, and other funding for community groups and social enterprises provide supports that are addressing the requirements of communities and areas facing disadvantage and issues of isolation.
In addition, the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund will provide €1 billion over the next 10 years for rural towns and villages, while the Town Centre Living Initiative, a pilot programme aimed at testing approaches to the revitalisation of towns and villages, was launched in six towns in October 2018.
My Department also continues to develop policy that can assist with the effective targeting of future funding. The Action Plan for Rural Development and the Strategy to Support the Community & Voluntary Sector in Ireland include a range of measures which contribute significantly to addressing isolation and social inclusion in both rural and urban areas.
The new Strategy to Support the Community & Voluntary Sector in Ireland, ‘Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities', is an ambitious strategy which builds on the Framework Policy for Local and Community Development. It comprises high level objectives and associated actions to support communities, their representative organisations, and the community and voluntary sector.
My Department is currently finalising the next phase of rural policy for Ireland, to follow on from the Action Plan for Rural Development which reaches the end of its three-year lifecycle at the end of 2019.
An extensive range of consultations has taken place to inform the new policy including a series of regional events and an online public consultation survey on the challenges and opportunities rural areas over the coming five years. The new policy will reflect a whole-of-Government commitment to rural Ireland. It will seek to strengthen and build resilience in our rural economies and communities and will identify policy measures which need to be put in place in order to achieve these objectives.
Specific examples of other measures being delivered by my Department which are helping those who feel isolated or vulnerable in communities include:
- Significant investment in the Seniors Alert Scheme, which facilitates valuable community-based support for vulnerable older people living alone. During 2018, spend on the Scheme amounted to almost €7 million, with over 19,200 applications for personal alarms approved. There have been a further 10,000 approved applications in 2019. This is an important programme which enables older persons of limited means to continue to live in their own homes at the heart of their communities with confidence, independence and peace of mind.
- Since the start of 2018 to mid-2019, the supports provided through the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme led to the following achievements:- Over 43,000 people were supported, of which 40% were from a jobless household and 31% were long term unemployed.- 16,502 people completed a lifelong learning course, 4,024 set up their own business, and 2,168 people got jobs- 334 social enterprises were supported- 3,066 community groups were helped
- Support for approximately 400 Men’s Sheds across Ireland, which provide a safe space where men can gather and participate in their communities, develop social networks and potentially gain new skills and access information. Ireland continues to enjoy the highest per capita concentration of Men’s Sheds in the world. I provided funding of €500,000 to support the work of Men’s Sheds in 2018 and this year I have built on that with a further €500,000 in recognition of the contribution these groups are making to life in Ireland. A number of Women’s Sheds have emerged in communities in recent times and in order to support this positive development I have decided to make this funding also available to these groups.
- Volunteering plays a critical part in empowering individuals to become more involved in their communities and is proven to assist with the development of mental health well-being. My Department is currently in the process of developing a draft National Volunteering Strategy which will be completed shortly.