Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Action Plan for Rural Development Implementation

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

68. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the progress made with the implementation of the Action Plan for Rural Development to date; the results that have been achieved to date to improve the life of those living in rural Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38642/18]

I am looking for an update on the Action Plan for Rural Development. I know it was never going to be a bestseller and that it would be very late coming out but I do not blame the Minister for that. What progress has been made on the implementation of the action plan and what difference has it made to the life of the ordinary people in rural Ireland? That is the more important question.

Improving the quality of life of those who live and work in rural communities is a key objective of the Action Plan for Rural Development. It is the most comprehensive Government plan ever produced to support economic and social development in rural areas.

Progress reports on the implementation of the action plan are published twice-yearly on my Department's website. The most recent report, published in May 2018, shows that 254 of the 270 actions to be reported on were either completed on schedule or substantially advanced, representing an implementation rate of 93%.

Work is under way on compiling the third progress report, which will outline the status of actions due for delivery in the first half of 2018. The draft report will be considered at the next meeting of the monitoring committee which oversees the action plan, and will be published on my Department's website thereafter. The actions being delivered are having an impact. For example, in the case of my own Department’s programmes alone, €31.6 million has been invested in more than 450 projects under the town and village renewal scheme while the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme has had €23 million allocated to almost 500 projects. More than 1,200 projects have been approved for total funding of €25 million under the CLÁR programme. Since last September, 1,100 private roads in rural areas have benefitted from investment of €28.2 million under the local improvement scheme and more than 1,300 projects with a value of over €39 million have now been approved under the current LEADER programme.

These, and other initiatives across Government, are improving the quality of life for people in rural areas and supporting job creation in the regions. Continued implementation of the Action Plan for Rural Development, together with the additional investment provided for through the rural regeneration and development fund, will ensure that the Government delivers on its commitment under Project Ireland 2040 to strengthen rural economies and communities.

The Minister has confirmed what I thought. The action plan was purely a copy and paste job. He is, of course, saying that great progress has been made. That is not difficult because all the things he mentioned were already in train by Departments. The reality, however, is that rural Ireland is still without the essentials such as broadband, mobile phone connection and roads while the pupil-teacher ratio in the small school is worse than it was in 2011. Basic services are disappearing. I have two specific questions for the Minister.

The Minister's mentioned that LEADER was one of the great actions of the Action Plan for Rural Development. What is the provision for LEADER from 2014 to 2020? It predates the Action Plan for Rural Development anyway. What is the comparison with the provision for the LEADER programme that immediately preceded it from 2007 to 2013? Will the Minister explain something to me about which I am curious? I asked a series of questions about the update and the action plan for which the Minister is responsible. For some inexplicable reason his Department transferred many of those questions, although not all of them because some of them were answered, to other Departments. That is the Minister shirking his responsibility for the Action Plan for Rural Development. I do not blame him for that.

I thank Deputy Ó Cuív. He is aware of this but in respect of the action plan, there were 270 actions and 254 have been completed. That is a success rate of 93%. Deputy Ó Cuív is long enough in this House, longer than I am, to know and understand better than anyone how the House works. It is one of the things that he is actually good at. He also knows about Ministers and what responsibilities they have. I outlined my responsibilities very quickly to the Deputy in respect of the town of Enniskeane rural recreation scheme. He has specific questions on LEADER that I will answer later on.

On the question the Deputy posed to me on the action plan, we have had great successes. The Deputy raises the issue of broadband all of the time. The tender for the national broadband plan will be going out shortly. It is great to see someone else coming in and tendering for it.

When we came into government, 52% of the population had high-speed broadband. That is now up to more than 75%. That is a good achievement but it is no good telling that to the other 25% who do not have it. That is what we are now working on and that is the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne. He is doing an excellent job on the broadband plan with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten. We ran into some difficulties but it is up and running.

I will give a simple example to prove the broadband scheme is working. My house was one of the houses connected last week because I just happened to be on the map. I have to say that having the high-speed broadband means that I do not have to be running into the office at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. at night to check emails. It is great to have it in my own house. The broadband plan and the action plan are working. I will certainly respond in respect of the specific question that Deputy Ó Cuív asked on LEADER.

Would the Minister agree that the whole action plan was just a fig leaf to cover up the nakedness of the Government in respect of rural Ireland? Will the Minister admit to me, the House and the world that the net investment to date in the high-speed broadband that has been delivered to anybody in the country is zero? The broadband the Minister got last week and the broadband I have in my house, because like him I happen to be near the box, was provided by Eir without any subsidy from the Government. It was actually held up in that particular work by the Government. The Minister should not claim things he did not do. Will he stand up like a man and admit that he and his Government have not put one dime into rural broadband, except to have this massively expensive tender that to date has not provided one house or one business with high-speed broadband?

Deputy Ó Cuív amazes me sometimes. When I give him statistics he does not like them. The statistics are that when we came into government more than 50% of the population had high-speed broadband. I do not have responsibility for it. It is the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Seán Kyne, along with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten.

That is all very well.

Wait a minute now. More than 75% of the people in the country now have high-speed broadband.

The Minister did not do anything.

Deputy Ó Cuív is correct that the commercial sector did that and I compliment it. We are now going to deal with the rest and that is why the Government is putting a package and a tender in place. I am glad to see there is competition within that tender to make sure the rest of the country will get high-speed broadband.

The Deputy has travelled the world. I represented the Government in Boston last year and it has the same problems we have in Dublin city with traffic, housing and jobs. People just outside Boston do not have high-speed broadband.

It is a world-wide problem but people are looking at Ireland and are seeing what we are doing. They are saying well done on having 75% of the population with high-speed broadband. As I said, the 25% who do not have it want to have it. I am one of the people provided with it, where a commercial operator came in. That happened because the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, the Minister, Deputy Naughten, and the Government put pressure on the commercial sector.

That is not true.

In fact, if we had not drawn that map we might have had up to 80% because there were areas where the commercial sector could not go ahead because someone would have had us in the High Court because we did not put it out to tender. I say well done to the commercial sector. It is doing its job and has rolled out as much as possible. I hope with the new tender that many corners of Ireland without high-speed broadband will get it. People all over the world are watching us and are saying well done, that we have rolled it out very well and have done a good job. I hope we can get 100% of people covered. I will admit it is the one tool that we all want in rural Ireland. It is the one piece of infrastructure that we need in Donegal, Mayo, Galway and elsewhere in the country.

Post Office Closures

Martin Kenny

Ceist:

69. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans to ensure the viability and sustainability of towns and villages in rural Ireland that have lost or are losing their local post office. [38641/18]

As the Minister is aware, the issue of post offices is one he passed back fairly quickly. He is not in charge of it and I do not blame him. It is, however, something that has had a huge affect on many places in rural Ireland. Over the past couple of months, we have seen proposals to close many post offices. Most of those, proportionately, are in rural areas and communities that already have huge problems. Many of the towns where the post offices are being closed are ones where the bank went not that long ago and where the credit unions are under pressure. All these services are under huge pressure. As a rural Minister and a Minister looking after rural affairs, the criteria that An Post is using are the most anti-rural that could be used. Under the review mechanism, it says that a settlement of people in a rural area must be 500 or more in 50 occupied dwellings, no more than 100 m apart. Anyone who can come up with that does not understand rural Ireland. Will the Minister do something about this? Will he do something to invest in these communities to ensure they can prosper into the future?

As the Deputy is aware, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has policy responsibility for the postal sector. However, I am acutely aware of the value placed by rural communities on services such as the local post office.

Ensuring access to services for rural communities is an issue that cuts across almost all Departments. It also relates to services provided by the private sector. In my role as Minister for Rural and Community Development I am absolutely clear on the importance of ensuring that rural communities can access the services they need in order that they remain vibrant places in which to live and work. Project Ireland 2040 laid out the Government’s plans for the country’s long-term development, and a key commitment within it regarding rural Ireland is the provision of €1 billion for the new rural regeneration and development fund, which is an unprecedented commitment by Government to strengthen rural economies and in turn support stronger local communities. Initially, €315 million has been allocated for the period 2019 to 2022 and the first call for applications to the fund closes next Thursday.

My Department administers a range of other funding programmes that support local communities throughout Ireland. Of particular importance for those towns and villages most disadvantaged in terms of access to services include the CLÁR programme, which is a targeted investment programme for rural areas that aims to provide funding for small infrastructural projects and other initiatives in areas that have experienced significant levels of population decline. The community enhancement programme was launched by my Department in May 2018 and provides small capital grants to community groups across the country. I was delighted to announce a further €8 million in funding for this programme last Friday, bringing the total for 2018 to €12.5 million. The town and village renewal scheme supports the revitalisation of rural towns and villages, with particular focus on projects which have a clear positive economic impact on local communities. Since its launch in 2016, the town and village renewal scheme has invested €31.6 million in more than 450 projects across the country. The social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, for 2018 to 2022, with funding of €38 million in 2018, provides capacity at local level to respond to the particular needs in each area. It helps those seeking employment or starting their own business. LEADER programme funding, administered by local action groups, LAGs, delivers the €250 million programme funding in accordance with the specific objectives and needs identified by the LAGs themselves as part of the development of local development strategies. Supports are tailored to the specific needs of each individual area. Libraries will also work with local partners to reach disadvantaged, marginalised and new communities, increasing these communities’ awareness of services available for families establishing in the area and as a resource for all. Some €150 million is expected to be invested by local authorities in library services in 2018.

In terms of directly facilitating access to services in rural Ireland, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has provided a funding allocation of €14.9 million for Local Link services in 2018. Such funding facilitated 1.9 million passenger journeys last year, providing a vital service for rural communities.

The list of statistics the Minister has read is impressive in one sense. Broadband was mentioned earlier as another acute issue in most rural areas. As Deputy Ó Cuív said, the reality for people on the ground is that they do not have broadband and cannot get it. That is the situation in many rural areas. The problem with rhyming off summary statistics is they hide many uncomfortable individual realities for people. The rural communities that really need investment are the places where the most potential exists. If the people in these places are given half a chance they will work harder than people from anywhere else, because they want to prove that their community is valuable and vibrant. They want to make it work, but they have to get that chance. They have to be stimulated by way of investment.

The Minister mentioned the €350 million fund, the deadline for which falls next week. My understanding is that much of that fund is earmarked for the larger towns in rural areas rather than the small villages which require investment. Small villages are dying on their feet. I drive through County Leitrim, and in places such as Drumkeeran, Mohill or Ballinamore, half of the shops are closed down. Shops in those towns are depending on the local farmers coming in and spending money. That is all they have. That is all that exists. We need to do something more than that for those areas. We have to provide opportunity for investment and the only way that can be done is to pump money into them. We should take risks on anyone who has an idea, because I can guarantee that those risks will pay back.

I have provided €80,000 to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to support the establishment of ten digital access post offices on a pilot basis. An Post have picked the ten post offices; we are looking at how we can support it in the digital era.

I do not like saying things like this, but I have to be honest sometimes. I have said to Deputy Ó Cuív as well that we must be honest about post offices. I could provide all the figures for the amount of post office closures under the current Government and the last two Governments. I want to be fair to the postmasters and postmistresses. I know them. We have lost some in our own county; they are being lost all over the country. We must be honest and say that people are not using the services we have. Some €615 million worth of goods was bought online in this country last year. People are bypassing their local shops, supermarkets, women's shops and clothes shops, and doing their shopping online.

I was in a village of 500 people recently-----

We are not against that.

The Deputy should listen. It was a village of 500 people, made up of 300 families. In the local post office, 50 TV licences had been bought, which amounts to one per week. If people want post offices and small shops and such services they are going to have to use them. Almost 87% of people last year taxed their cars online. People are getting their passports online. They are banking and paying their bills online. People are doing everything online. We have to look at new ideas to ensure that existing post offices survive.

In many parts of rural Ireland people cannot access those online services because they do not have broadband. The Minister really needs to deal with that issue. The points the Minister has made have some validity. It is true that services are not being used. Someone should have thought about the services being provided and questioned whether they were the correct services. It is clear that the post office services did not move with the times. We will park that issue for the moment.

There are issues concerning the roads in rural Ireland, which the Minister mentioned earlier. I welcome the money that was provided for local improvement schemes earlier in the year but will more money be put into such schemes before the end of this year, as happened last year? Some €17 million was provided for the schemes in 2017, and this year the amount is around €10 million. Can we come close to matching the figure from last year?

The reality for people is that rural Ireland is dying. That is the bare reality. When the children of these people are raised and go off to college, there is no opportunity for them to return to the place they come from. We do not want rural Ireland to become a tourist resort or a holiday home for retired people. We want it to be a vibrant community, where people want to live and work. We need to see that happen, we need to make it happen, but it will only happen with Government investment. Investment in broadband is key to ensuring that it will happen.

I disagree with the Deputy; rural Ireland is not dead. There have never been as many people working and living in rural Ireland. However, the small shops and little businesses that once were there are no longer present because people are shopping with their feet. People are working in towns and going home to rural Ireland in the evening, and are using the bigger outlets. That is a decision people are making and I do not criticise it. People have rights. They work hard, pay their taxes, and have an opportunity to go and live where they want to live and work where they want to work. Where they spend their money is their business. Rural Ireland is alive and well. I listen to this kind of talk all the time. Post offices were discussed at length over the summer. The reason post offices are closing is they are not being used. I heard the postmistress in my local area speaking on local radio recently. She held a public meeting two years ago at which she was told by local people that they would use her post office. She has said she is sorry for the few elderly people who were depending on it but she is not sorry for closing her post office, because people did not use it. There is no answer to that.

Returning to the rural regeneration and development fund, there is an urban regeneration scheme and a rural one. The urban scheme consists of €2 billion for towns with a population of 10,000 or more. The rural scheme will apply to towns with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. To me, the most effective scheme is the town and village renewal scheme, and the Deputy knows this. I refer also to the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme. The Deputy's own town of Drumshanbo has received €700,000 from my Department. The boardwalk attracted 80,000 visitors last year. Some eight new businesses were created around that. We have to do business differently in rural Ireland now. People say that rural Ireland is dead. It is not dead. We have fine, vibrant and good people working in rural Ireland.

Departmental Expenditure

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

70. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the capital spend by his Department to date in 2018, including the capital carry over from 2017, by subhead; the provision under each subhead, including the capital carry over from 2017 provided for in the Revised Estimates Volume for 2018; the details of the significant overspends or underspends under each subhead; the action to be taken to deal with them; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38643/18]

I am absolutely fascinated listening to the Minister talk about all this spending. However, tá difríocht mhór idir na fíricí agus an méid atá á rá ag an Aire. I have a question about spending in the Minister's Department. What prompted me to ask the question? The Exchequer returns at the end of August show that only €16 million, that is, 18% of the €88 million of capital allocated to this Department had been spent by the end of August. That leaves the Minister with 82% to spend between now and the end of the year. I am looking for details of the spend, the breakdown, etc. Will the Minister leave out the waffle at the beginning of his reply, all that general bumph Ministers offer to waste the two minutes, and just cut to the chase? Will he give me the figures for which I have asked?

I will give the Deputy so many figures that he will not be able to take them all in.

I remind the Minister that he has two minutes.

I will just give Deputy Ó Cuív the table. It might be easier.

The Revised Estimates for 2018 in respect of the Department of Rural and Community Development set out an allocation of €87.5 million for gross capital expenditure, supplemented by €7.7 million carried forward from 2017. I have provided an update of capital expenditure to date across the various capital subheads, including carryover, in a detailed table for the Deputy.

In overall terms, total capital spend, including carryover at the end of August - I want the Deputy to listen to this - was at 70% of expected profile. I will read that again. Total capital spend at the end of August, including carryover, was 70% of the expected profile. The community programme spending was 250% of profile at the end of August, reflecting earlier than anticipated spending on the community enhancement programme.  Spending on the rural programme was at 60% of profile at the end of August. At this point in September, the library development and archive service subhead is ahead of profile.  I am expecting an acceleration in spend towards end of year. Some 52% of our capital spend is profiled for the last three months. It is helpful to note that this acceleration is already evident. For example, the spend on capital in August was the highest in any month of the year at €6.2 million.

Deputies should note that the figures for spending are not an accurate reflection of the work carried out on the ground by those receiving support. In many cases, the projects in question are nearing completion, or are indeed completed. The requests for reimbursement, however, have not yet been received by my Department. For example, I announced the local improvement scheme, LIS, and allocations in February, early enough to give local authorities time to implement those projects. Details of the costs incurred are now being received my Department and we will meet those as quickly as possible. Leader programme drawdown is slower than I would like. As the Deputy will be aware, considerable work has been undertaken in preparing, assessing and approving new Leader projects. There is now a very clear pipeline of projects approved by local action groups, totalling almost €40 million. This will translate into increased spending over the remainder of the programme.

I have instructed my officials to continue to closely monitor expenditure patterns and to stay in close contact with local authorities on planned spend. Should it be the case that for whatever reason expenditure is not being drawn down as expected, I will look at other options for reallocation of that spend to meet other priorities. For example, the Deputy will be aware that I have already been able to announce €6 million of support to enhance digital services and facilities in public libraries.  Moreover, last week I announced €8 million of additional investments under the community enhancement programme.

My focus remains on fully using the capital funding allocated by the Government to provide for the betterment of those living and working in rural communities throughout Ireland.

TABLE

SUBHEAD

€'000's

€'000's

Spend to 20th Sept

Allocation

V42 – GROSS

28,066

95,208

A - REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT & REGIONAL AFFAIRS

22,810

85,855

A.2 - ADMINISTRATION - NON PAY

131

166

A.3 - DORMANT ACCOUNT MEASURES

0

2,006

A.5 - NATIONAL RURAL DEVELOPMENT SCHEMES

2,078

18,083

A.6 - LEADER - RURAL ECONOMY SUB PROGRAMME

14,414

40,000

A.8 - TOWN AND VILLAGE REGENERATION

6,176

15,000

A.9 - RURAL BROADBAND, REGIONAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

11

600

A.10 - LOCAL IMPROVEMENT SCHEMES

0

10,000

B - COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

5,254

9,353

B.2 - ADMINISTRATION - NON PAY

93

136

B.6 – RAPID

2,976

3,767

B.8 - PROGRAMME FOR PEACE AND RECONCILIATION

0

700

B.10 - LIBRARY DEVELOPMENT AND ARCHIVE SERVICE

185

2,750

B.11 - COMMUNITY FACILITIES FUND

2,000

2,000

I would like to thank the Minister for confirming what I have said. The profile is an extraordinarily low €34 million for the first eight months. It works out at about 40%. Basically, the Department admitted fairly early that it was not going to spend the money. The reality is that the Minister has not done so. Leaving aside the money that should have been spent last year and has been carried over into this year - that should not have occurred - the fact of the matter is the Minister has only spent €16 million out of the €88 million in new money he got for this year.

Let us take just one subhead. What is the allocation for the Leader programme this year and what is the spend to date? I am asking about allocation versus spend. It is a simple question. We will save time. It will only take the Minster two seconds to answer that one. The answer is in the Minister's table, by the way.

The Deputy knows this. He has been around this House for long enough. I reject what he says about me spending the money. I have spent the money. It is the Leader companies, the local authorities and the people who have actually got the money that have not spent it. I am putting pressure on the local authorities on a daily and weekly basis. The Deputy and I both know that much work has been done. He should look at the LIS and the town and village renewal scheme. Much of that work has now been completed. Members of every local authority stand up and complain every day about not getting funding from the Government, yet the local authorities are not actually spending. I will look at the LIS again. I have a few other plans if the local authorities have not spent the money that has been allocated to them to by the end of the year.

The Deputy knows it is very difficult for me. I make the allocation. If we take the Leader companies, we were hoping to see a big improvement in the Leader programme this year. We have seen a big improvement in the number of projects that have been approved. When people get approval they then have to get the work done. They have to come in with receipts and the Department has to check that the money is spent. It is not the case that I have not worked with that programme or that we have not made the changes. It is not the case that we have not made it easier. It annoys me when I see money spent on administration and not on the programme itself.

Is there a contagious disease in Government called blaming local authorities, Leader companies and everybody except oneself? Ministers do not accept responsibility for their own failures. If the Minister sanctioned the money in time and said that if it was not spent, it would be taken back, he would have seen it spent. That is how it is done. I asked the Minister a specific question. I will ask it once again because I am a very patient man. Will he tell me the allocation for Leader this year, that is, the total gross allocation and the amount spent to date, broken down between administration and projects paid for from that allocation? It is a simple question. Can he give a simple answer? It will only take two seconds to answer me.

To date, 24% of the overall project allocations have been approved, totalling €40 million.

Can the Minister just give me the figures? I asked about spend. I am not interested in-----

The total to date is €40 million. Some 24% of overall project allocation has been approved. When the value of the project applications which we have received and provisionally approved is considered, this figure increases to 28% of overall allocation, €46 million. Some 1,300 projects have been approved with a further 324 in the pipeline. I have allocated the money in time. They have got the Leader funding. They have received it over the last three years.

In Standing Orders there is provision for the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to intervene when a Minister does not even attempt to answer a simple question that is asked.

My recollection of the question is that it was on the amount allocated to LEADER this year-----

And the amount spent to date, no more and no less.

I have no control over the-----

-----Minister's response. I ask the Minister to provide the two figures.

They are in the table in front of him. The Minister said he had the table there.

I have the two figures. The total of allocations is €164,503,189.

No, just LEADER.

There are 304 projects to a value of €21.111 million.

Is that what has been spent?

I just asked for the cash allocation for LEADER.

The Minister is endeavouring to answer.

With regard to what has been spent-----

I can give it out myself tomorrow when I get it.

I have given the information to the Deputy but the problem is he has come in here having asked a specific question about LEADER, for which I have all the details for him-----

The Minister said he has a table with the breakdown.

There is a tabular statement to be circulated.

It was in the initial answer. If the Minister looks at the first question, the answer was in the question.

There is a tabular statement to be circulated.

The Minister has it. Will he not read out the two figures from it?

I could give them to the Deputy but it is not my job.

Exactly. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle has the answer in front of him but he cannot give it. I just want it on the record of the House. I can publish it myself tomorrow, no bother. I will do that tomorrow. It is all right.