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Community Development Initiatives

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 5 November 2020

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Questions (9)

Bernard Durkan


9. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the additional funding secured by her Department in budget 2021 to support remote working initiatives; her views on the benefits of remote working for balanced regional development; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34102/20]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Rural)

My question relates to, again, that favourite subject of remote working and remote hubs. I would be grateful for the Minister's advice.

I have a prepared response but I will leave it because it is similar to what I said earlier. This is it; this is our opportunity. Remote working, or as I prefer to call it, connected working, will be a game changer not just for rural Ireland but for the urban areas as well. Many people living in the Deputy's area get on a train, bus or whatever to come into the centre of the city when, in fact, they could be working in a co-working space close to their homes and in their community. That is what I mean by connected work. A person can connect to his or her employer easily.

As I said last year, remote working was a concept. Now, because of Covid-19, it is an everyday working reality for thousands of workers. There are huge opportunities here for regional development. One only has to look at the major companies, such as Indeed and Microsoft, which have told their staff they can work remotely for longer terms. That is hugely positive. We must enable and facilitate that and make sure it happens. There are benefits right across the board. People can live and work in their own locality. It enables young people to avail of cheaper house prices, particularly in the countryside. Less time is spent computing and that is good for the environment. The reality is, therefore, that if an office worker has good phone and broadband coverage that person can do the same job in Ballybay as he or she can in Ballsbridge.

We must seize this momentum around remote working. My Department, therefore, is investing in the development of remote working hubs through schemes like the €1 billion rural regeneration and development fund and the town and village renewal scheme. As I said earlier, we secured an extra €5 million in funding for the town and village scheme and part of that budget, specifically, is for the development of remote working facilities in our town and villages.

I thank the Minister for her helpful reply. I strongly support that particular initiative. I believe Deputy Ó Cuív and others mentioned earlier the benefits of a community working together and the benefit from an employment and social point of view as well as from the point of view of having the names of some of our major players in industrial parks or similar in cities and towns throughout the country, where adequate communication facilities have been laid on.

Will a specific plan be pursued in that area with a view to making it attractive for the major players in the services and manufacturing sectors to have several locations throughout the country, bringing jobs to communities and community life to local communities? It must be taken on board that young people want to associate with each other in a work environment. That is good for them, the community and the employer.

The Deputy is absolutely right. There is a broad consensus across the House that this is the time to do it and this is the right opportunity. I discussed public servants earlier. We need to facilitate our public servants to go into designated co-working spaces in towns across the country. We must have it mapped out and planned. That is why we have the interdepartmental group led by my Department. I am aware the Tánaiste's Department is leading a policy on remote working. I am looking after these hubs and interdepartmental group has been set up. First of all, we are mapping it out. We have approximately 350 hubs across the country but some are more suited for community use than remote working full-time. My long-term plan, therefore, is to do that exercise right across the country and develop an app so any worker will be able to log on and find the closest hub.

Of course, the Deputy is absolutely right. That will be a big boost to the IDA when it is trying to attract some of the big tech companies. We already have a top class network of these hubs across the country. We will be able to say here is the skill set and here is the area. It is about the clustering as well as about bringing this information together. It is about putting it on a plate for them and saying we have all that they need. It is important to say that other countries across Europe are doing this as well but I want us to be at the head of this and to make sure we are not left behind.

Can I inquire as to whether it will be possible to ensure adequate broadband is available in the locations considered in as short a time as possible? This might be made known to employers and employees with a view to them co-operating in an effort to maximize the benefits of less time travelling, more time at work and more time available to the consumer who will eventually benefit from such investment.

The Deputy is right. When I was Minister with responsibility for business, a young lad with a wife and children said to me it is a no-brainer. He said people need to be able to work in their communities and said it makes such a difference to his home life. It is true. Many people have now discovered they are able to spend more time with their families. It is a better quality of life at the end of day but it is also good for communities and for the environment. We will certainly look at the area.

Let us face it that the one good thing is that we have signed national broadband plan. That was the best thing we ever did. It is not a question now of whether we should have it but when we will get it. The most frequent representation in my constituency office these days is on when people can get broadband. Of course, we are working on that.

In Deputy Durkan's constituency, I notice that under the town and village renewal scheme hub investment in County Kildare and the 2020 accelerated measure, which was to cope with Covid-19, a nice application came in for the kit-out of a broadband connection point. The applicants got €9,900 to renovate and decorate rooms in Bigstone, Crookstown, County Kildare. They will renovate and decorate rooms for remote working to provide seating desks and IT equipment so sites can be used for remote working and learning. The learning is the other bit and we can have education rolled out in these centres.

Deputy Healy-Rae has a brief supplementary question.

There is much talk and promises about broadband but will the Minister please give the money and get people working? Nothing has happened in County Kerry in two years. There is nothing at all since Eir stopped. It stopped repairing even simple things. Nothing at all is happening. It says a new company has been drafted in by the Government and yet nothing is happening. Please, get people working. County Kerry is decimated without service and on top of it, we do not even have mobile phone coverage. The whole thing has gone wallop. That is the honest truth.

The responsibility for the roll-out of the national broadband plan falls within the Minister, Deputy Ryan's, Department. I know he is working closely with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in an effort to try to roll this out as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, however, the good news is my Department has a number of broadband connection points in the local community halls. A person can go in there and get the high-speed broadband he or she needs. That is why I have provided money. I just mentioned one in County Kildare and I am sure County Kerry was not left out. I do not have the list here but County Kerry certainly was not left out when it came to the broadband connection points. The purpose of those is that if a person does not have good broadband in his or her house, he or she can go down to the local community centre and get that connection he or she needs. A person can either get it outside in his or her car or go into the into the community hall. The local broadband officers in the local authorities have been working extremely hard right across the country. They identified the areas which needed that and asked us to get those connected.

We will have 200 connected by the end of the year and another 100 will be connected early next year. That will give another 300 connection points throughout the country. If there are instances of real need, people should contact the broadband officer in their local authority.

The 300 connection points being provided for the whole country are needed for Kerry alone.

That might be bad for the Deputy's health.