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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 25 Jun 2003

Vol. 569 No. 4

Other Questions. - White Paper on Rural Development.

John Gormley


81 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the way in which the White Paper on Rural Development has been progressed by the Government. [17721/03]

The White Paper on Rural Development published in 1999 sets out a vision and framework for the development of rural communities and marks a new approach and commitment by Government to rural development. The overall strategy decided by Government provides for balanced regional development to ensure the distribution of the benefits of economic progress throughout rural areas; investment in services and infrastructure; sustainable economic development; human resources development; and a determined focus on poverty and social exclusion.

The national development plan is the vehicle for delivering the commitments in the White Paper. There is a specific chapter on rural development with a commitment to public investment of €8.5 billion over the period 2000-06 in actions which directly impact on rural areas. These range from payments to farmers on, for example, headage and REPS, to rural infrastructure, capital investment in the food sector and rural enterprises. Many of the other investments in the plan will also have indirect benefits for rural communities such as employment development, better roads and transport services, new housing and improved health services.

In addition to the national development plan investments, I also introduced, in October 2001, the CLÁR programme for disadvantaged rural areas. An Agreed Programme for Government includes a commitment to continue the CLÁR programme and to consider additional areas for inclusion in light of the 2002 population census results. Earlier this year, I announced the revision of the CLÁR areas.

It is not practical here to outline every topic covered in the White Paper. However, I am sending separately to the Deputy a detailed progress report, presented to the National Rural Development Forum at its meeting on 17 January last in Portumna, which outlines the position up to the end of 2002.

I await the report with interest. The Minister told the House what the White Paper on Rural Development is and what funding headings are available for rural development, but did not indicate what it has achieved. What indicators does the Department use? The census returns, which show an overall increase in the population nationally, indicate that there has been a continuing decline in the rural population as measured in terms of small villages and smaller population units. Will the Minister issue a clear statement on how rural Ireland is defined and the way in which it will be protected. In particular, he should clarify his position on the continuing decrease in facilities in rural areas. For instance, commercial companies such as An Post are closing or changing the facilities they offer in small villages and rural communities, while the ESB is closing commercial outlets and direct payment facilities for household bills.

The Opposition, rural communities and the public at large are seeking concrete examples of how rural development is being enhanced, protected and progressed by the Government. Short of the report the Minister intends to supply me—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

I remind the Deputy that supplementary questions are limited to one minute.

I will conclude. Short of the report the Minister intends to supply me, I have not heard any such examples in his reply. I hope he will now inform the House of the direction of Government policy in this area.

As the Deputy is probably aware, my Department was deeply involved in the spatial strategy published last autumn. For example, it made a clear statement on the issue of rural planning as well as on the need to allow the traditional settlement pattern of the country to continue and those with a connection to the countryside the right to build in their own areas. This is a fundamental issue in relation to rural population because prior to the spatial strategy's publication certain people had been trying to push a policy that only those involved in agriculture would be allowed to build outside of towns and cities. As everybody knows, the number of people employed in agriculture is declining dramatically and such a policy would have spelt a death knell for rural Ireland.

The Deputy will also be aware that a major investment in rural infrastructure is under way through various Departments. Certain regions are not receiving a fair share of this development. My Department uses three instruments to redress this imbalance, one of which is the CLÁR programme which front loads development towards the least populated parts of the country, while the others are the Gaeltacht programmes and the islands programmes. If the Deputy wishes, I will get him a list of all the water, sewerage, road schemes and so on which have been developed. As he is aware, they are myriad.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

I remind the Minister that replies are subject to a one minute limit.

I ask the Minister to be specific on an issue in which he has a personal interest and for which a more defined structure is required, namely, rural housing. Different per sonnel in different councils currently read the situation differently. An Taisce and other bodies object to rural housing and there are various kinds of special areas in which families are not allowed to build houses. The situation is desperate. Will the Minister give a commitment to introduce or force his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to introduce specific rules on the issue? Otherwise, the CLÁR programme and other efforts to try to repopulate rural communities being devastated through changes in farming will fail. Communities will collapse and schools, churches and other facilities will no longer be used if we do not introduce a proper structure for rural housing.

I could not concur more with the Deputy. Those who have not lived in a small rural townland – what outsiders consider a group of scattered houses – find it hard to understand the bonds which tie people together in good times and bad and the social cohesion such areas provide. Recently, I did an analysis of the educational achievements in my parish, the results of which were a major triumph and a challenge. It found that an extraordinarily high proportion of the population of the area receives third level education, which shows that the quality of life and opportunities for young people created in such areas are second to none. With young people in these areas doing so well in education, the challenge is to create third level type jobs to enable them to continue to live where they grew up.

I continue to view the planning issue as a building block exercise. Following the issuing of the sustainable development guidelines in April 1997, there were arguments about the definition of urban generated housing. Some people argued that all housing, except farm families' housing, was urban generated. The spatial strategy restated, in unequivocal terms, the Government's policy that those with a connection with the countryside should be allowed to build in it. I accept that this message does not appear to have filtered down to ground level in a uniform manner. I am in consultation with my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to try to achieve a consensus on implementation as opposed to policy which has already been laid down by the Government in the spatial strategy. We are working on a procedure to ensure there is uniform acceptance of the established policy and to define how it will be implemented within the current framework.

During my time in the Department of the Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands alongside Deputy de Valera, no one-off rural house was refused solely on SAC grounds and we always managed to accommodate families with a housing need.

I have a brief supplementary question related to the point raised by Deputy Boyle on universal service provision. Given the devastation brought about in the past six months by the downgrading of rural post offices throughout the country through the failure to provide up-to-date ICT facilities for rural communities, is it not the Minister's responsibility to lay down guidelines on universal provision under the rural development programme and insist that they be followed by other Departments?

I agree with the Deputy, but one must recognise that the world moves on.

The Minister is humming and hawing.

In parallel with the change in the number of full-time post offices, there has been a significant increase in the range of services available in the automated post offices. In addition, in relation to the facilities referred to by Deputy Boyle, most young and not so young people in rural areas now use ATM cards. I met the bankers' federation regarding the provision of ATM facilities.

Let us have a policy document.

I do things and get on with the job, I do not write.