Thursday, 5 December 2019

Questions (9)

Dara Calleary

Question:

9. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the timeline for the completion of the new Action Plan for Rural Development; and if he has made a request seeking the transfer of further responsibilities for rural development to his Department. [50621/19]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Rural)

The Minister and I spoke briefly earlier about the new version of the Action Plan for Rural Development, which is in preparation. I ask him to outline the timeline for that and state when he sees it being published. To go back to other Departments, the Minister also said, "We cannot allow other Departments to throw everything over to my Department. There is a bit of that happening at the moment [...]". He said that last July; I got the exact phrase. Is he looking for further responsibilities and further budgets to be transferred officially into his Department as part of the action plan?

The Action Plan for Rural Development has been the key vehicle for delivery of the Government’s support for rural development over the last three years. My Department is currently developing the next phase of rural policy for Ireland, to follow on from the action plan which reaches the end of its three year life cycle at the end of 2019.

The new five-year policy will be forward-looking and will build on the progress achieved through the Action Plan for Rural Development. 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 to achieve those objectives.

The process of developing the new policy has involved a wide range of stakeholder consultation events with rural communities and groups, Departments, State agencies, young people and the wider public.

An online survey was also conducted, which allowed the public to prioritise what they consider to be the main challenges and opportunities facing rural Ireland over the coming years. There was a very significant response to the survey, with over 1,700 responses. The insights and views captured through this extensive consultation process have helped to identify the issues that matter to people living and working in rural Ireland.

The new policy is being finalised and I anticipate that it will be launched early in the new year. As is the case with the current action plan, the new policy will reflect a whole-of-Government commitment to rural Ireland.

Since my Department was established in July 2017, we have developed and delivered a wide range of strategic programmes and policies to support the economic and social progress of rural areas and urban and rural communities. I am always open to the possibility of considering additional responsibilities that are consistent with my Department's mission of supporting vibrant, inclusive and sustainable communities throughout Ireland.

The Minister speaks of resilience. Rural communities are resilient; that is their nature. I am not being political in saying that permanent Government policies get in the way of that resilience and undermine it. We need a plan that encourages and fosters resilience and growth that is sustainable without being choked by various initiatives. I have been reflecting on the response of the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, in respect of the broadband connection points which are a key part of the national broadband plan and were being unveiled as its opening phase. Frankly, I do not see the capability for delivering 300 of them in 50 weeks. If we go for a year from the signing of the contract, we are looking at 50 weeks. We also spoke earlier about the services story, on which Deputy Aylward has a further question. There are so many programmes in rural Ireland. We need to define the basic level of service and adapt all those programmes to support the basic level of service and grow on it. A key part of this new plan must be an agreement on basic services that we will put in place and then adapt all the programmes to grow that basic level into sustainable communities.

On the plan, the Deputy is quite correct. This time we really went all out. We had 11 regional workshops, two special workshops with young people and a public online survey in which 1,700 people participated. We went into the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development and it made a submission. There were submissions also received from rural-based organisations. The Deputy made a very valid point and it is one I look at all the time. I want to respond in respect of other things that should be done in the Department as well. The Deputy is quite correct. There are many organisations and we need some way to bring them together and not have half services here and half services there. We need to look at a means of sitting down with community groups, local authorities and stakeholders to see how we can bring them all together. There are bits being done by one organisation and bits being done by another. I need to be able to get them to sit down together. Were it not for some of these organisations, we would not have the services. I am not being critical of them and I am delighted they are there. If we did not have them, we would have difficulty.

The Deputy asked about possible areas for transfers of responsibility. When we are back in government and I am Minister again, Deputy Calleary is going to have a wider brief as Opposition spokesman. Tourism and sport would be a lovely fit with my Department's brief. The greenways and national parks would fit into it, as would Waterways Ireland. All these would fit with the outdoor recreation schemes. I announced further funding for Cavan for the walks scheme yesterday. All that would fit into my Department. We are well capable of delivering all those schemes. I have a very good team, a very good Department and great young officials who are very bright and very able. I can tell the Deputy they are anxious for more work.

I wish the Minister well in the remaining weeks of his ministry to deliver all those things. He has a super team of officials. Would those very excellent individuals not be absolutely delighted to have their Minister living in the town in which the Department is based? In bringing organisations together, one of the difficulties with LEADER at the moment is that we have brought it under the local community development committees, LCDCs, programme in the local authorities. We are losing a connection because of that. It is getting in the way of delivering the programme. I agree that we have to bring them together but we cannot lose what makes them work and what makes them tick in that process. This comes back to my initial point. The process of bringing them together through the LCDCs has not worked. I do not think it has resulted in better services. We need to be careful when bringing them together that we do not lose that spark.

The Department needs additional responsibilities but it also needs a budget to cover them.

If it takes on all these things without the necessary budget, the projects and the delivery of services will be utterly diminished. In the context of preparing the action plan, what engagement has the Minister had with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, or his Department about the transfer of responsibilities and, most importantly, the transfer and ring-fencing of the budget?

Deputy Calleary is right. Where we bring them together, we do not want any splintering of the work that is being done. It is not a power struggle but to provide better services for rural areas, giving them the services and support that they need. As for transfers I was offered some from other Departments to be taken on as a priority but the budget did not come with them. I will not allow my officials or Government to do that. Anything that comes in, the budget will have to come with it. That is very clear. The existing budget is committed, and if something new comes in, the budget must follow. We are very lucky in the many voluntary organisations we have and the great people who work in these services. They give their lives to it and we do not really appreciate the work they do.