Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Infrastructure and Capital Investment Programme

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

36. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the extent to which he can address the stigmatisation of rural or urban communities (details supplied); his plans to address the image of rural and some urban communities as being unattractive for investment because of a lack of basic infrastructure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51862/18]

To what extent can the Minister enhance infrastructural investment in both urban and rural areas with a view to making those locations more attractive for residential development and industrial investment?

Substantial progress continues to be made in improving the quality of life in communities throughout Ireland, both rural and urban. As the Minister with responsibility for rural and community development, it is my intention that the many supports available through my Department will continue to improve conditions in these communities into the future so that they are attractive places in which to invest and do business as well as to work and live. My focus is to support the creation of vibrant, inclusive and sustainable communities across the country. This can be achieved through the implementation of programmes and schemes that facilitate and encourage economic development and provide facilities that support communities to become and remain desirable places in which to live, work and raise families.

The rejuvenation of rural towns and villages is a priority for the Government. We are promoting a new narrative around rural Ireland, namely, that it is dynamic and can adapt to the changes taking place in our modern economy. Every day and in every town and village I visit, I see great examples of the ability of rural Ireland to adapt to economic and social changes in a positive fashion.

The Action Plan for Rural Development, the framework policy for local and community development in Ireland and Project Ireland 2040 are the key policy initiatives that set out all the ways in which Government aims to address disadvantage and how we can support both rural and urban communities across Ireland. The action plan is co-ordinated and monitored by my Department and is the most comprehensive Government plan ever produced to support economic and social development in rural areas. The measures within it are being delivered across a range of Departments, State agencies and other organisations over the period to 2020. As part of Project Ireland 2040, the rural regeneration and development fund will provide €1 billion up to 2027 to support the revitalisation of rural towns with a population of fewer than 10,000 people. The fund will be a key driver in supporting the renewal of rural Ireland. Additionally, my Department continues to provide other direct supports to both urban and rural communities through a range of schemes and programmes, including the social inclusion and community activation programme, the Dublin north-east inner city initiative, the LEADER programme, the local improvement scheme, LIS, the community enhancement programme, the libraries capital investment programme, the CLÁR programme, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme and the town and village renewal scheme.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. To what extent will the Minister and his Department steer the various communities in a particular direction with a view to achieving results in the shortest possible timeframe? I refer in particular to those communities that suffered during the downturn through emigration, housing shortages and a lack of modern infrastructure. Does the Minister believe he can spearhead a campaign to ensure that the required attention and investment is directed to these areas?

As I said earlier, a total of €50.5 million of funding has been approved for 1,525 LEADER projects. Under the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme, SICAP, for disadvantaged areas, a total of €38 million was provided in 2018. That programme will help more than 110,000 individuals and assist over 5,000 local community groups. Under the community service programme, a total of €44 million has been provided which will help 400 communities throughout the country. We also have the CLÁR programme, the town and village renewal scheme, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme and the community enhancement programme. The latter programme was given an allocation of €4 million this year and I added a further €8 million to that.

Successful programmes operate from the bottom up. The LAGs are dealing with much of this. I have asked them to identify the areas of most need. I am trying to bring this work down to a local level rather than issuing diktats from central Government. I am asking the LAGs to identify where the difficulties lie. All the aforementioned schemes are in place in an effort to target the areas that need help most. In particular, the town and village renewal scheme, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme and the CLÁR and LEADER programmes are important in this regard. While the LEADER programme has run into some difficulties, it is beginning to ramp up now. There are many good projects under way that will help both urban and rural Ireland.

Is the Minister satisfied with the speed of the uptake of these programmes and schemes or does he believe the communities involved may need some further impetus, inspiration or guidance in this regard? As well as taking advice from those on the ground and acting on it, is the Department doing anything else? We are talking here about different types of communities. Some are self starters and will drive progress themselves while other communities have become stalled or becalmed in recent years.

Does the Minister have any proposals to jump-start them?

In fairness, over the past few years the local authorities have begun to engage with communities, and communities are beginning to work with the local authorities.

On some of the schemes I mentioned, one can see there are good community groups in every corner of the country . One issue I encounter in all the schemes, however, is applications from groups which are well able to draw down funding. The matter raised by the Deputy is one which I must explore, and I will have to provide some funding to support groups to set up businesses, learn about the applications available and get the support they need. Some groups are paying people to submit applications for them but that does not mean they are the most in need. I want to identify where the need is to ensure the groups which need it most are looked after.

Local Improvement Scheme Data

Marcella Corcoran Kennedy

Ceist:

37. Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the allocation made in 2018 under the local improvement scheme, LIS, by county; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51675/18]

As a former member of Offaly County Council, I strongly welcomed the reintroduction of the LIS at the National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore. The Minister and I had many conversations about how valuable the scheme is to the local authorities and the communities that benefit from it. Will he outline how much funding has been allocated to the scheme, county by county?

The Deputy lobbied hard for the scheme, which did not exist for many years. The LIS is a programme for improvement works on small private or non-public roads in rural areas. It is funded by my Department and administered through the local authorities.

As the Deputy may be aware, there was no dedicated funding for the scheme for a number of years due to constraints on public expenditure. I was conscious, however, of the underlying demand for the scheme in rural areas throughout the country, which is why I announced the provision of €10 million to local authorities for a LIS in September 2017. Based on demand and the capacity of local authorities to complete works before the end of 2017, I allocated a further €7.4 million to local authorities for LIS roads in November last year. In February of this year, I allocated €10.8 million to local authorities across the country under the 2018 LIS scheme, given the continuing level of demand for this funding in rural communities across Ireland. I also asked the local authorities to prepare a secondary list of roads which they could complete if further funding became available for the scheme during the year. Furthermore, on 26 October, I announced a further round of almost €10 million in funding to the local authorities. The allocations on a county-by-county basis for both of these rounds of funding are available on my Department's website.

For the Deputy's information, County Offaly was allocated €290,765 under the first round of the LIS this year, and an additional €353,889 was allocated under the second round, giving a total allocation of €644,654 to advance LIS works in 2018. It is clear there is a continuing demand for LIS funding in rural communities across Ireland, and I have secured an allocation of €10 million in my Department's Vote for 2019, which will enable me to continue to provide much needed funding for the LIS.

I am delighted to let the Minister know that Offaly County Council is wasting no time in spending the funding allocation.

Will he consider developing a specific scheme that will take into account the fact that much of the road network in Offaly is on peat, including many of private roads? With the advent of climate change and given the peat roads last for only five years, rather than the 20 years one might expect, will he consider a specific scheme? It is a concern of many engineers in Offaly.

I am currently considering the LIS scheme, along with all of my schemes. I receive much criticism of the LIS scheme from certain sections of the Dublin-based media, but they will never have to worry about an LIS road or look for private funding because Dublin City Council, Dublin County Council or whatever the case may be will address the matter for them. As the Deputy knows, people in rural areas pay their taxes, such as for property, and their dues to the State, and they are entitled to have a road into their home. As a result of the Deputy's question, I will consider the matter further.

The LIS scheme works and there is high demand for it. I wish there was more money but I also would like other Departments to match some of the funding because every €10 million that I allocate for the roads is €10 million worth of roads that does not have to be allocated the following year. In fairness, some counties have done well. I recently saw reported in one of the local papers, perhaps from Westmeath, that if the town received another €2 million or €3 million, it would be able to complete all of its LIS roads.

I welcome that the Minister is reviewing the scheme. It has come to my attention that some of the non-public or private roads are used by landowners or people cutting turf but there may not be a dwelling house on the road. An older person may have passed away in the dwelling house, for example, and it is no longer used. Will the Minister take those people into account because they also need assistance?

I am reviewing, and will continue to review, the scheme, and I will examine the point the Deputy raised. When I came into office, I reduced the local contribution to 15% for five houses or more, while I reduced it to 10% for five houses or fewer. The Deputy raised an important point that causes a significant problem in many areas where there are large roads but there may be only one or two people on them. The other day there was a €4,500 local contribution, which is a substantial amount for two young families, one of which had just built a house. I will consider the matter along with the scheme.

Rural Development Policy

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

38. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans for the development of services within his portfolio in the coming years with particular reference to the need to develop and modernise services affecting rural Ireland and the Border regions; the extent to which he expects to be in a position to interact with and provide funding for voluntary community groups while, at the same time, enhancing the quality of services available through both the public and the private sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51861/18]

My question is similar to my previous one. It relates to the extent to which infrastructure provision is being made throughout rural Ireland with a view to encouraging population to develop, ensuring the quality of life in rural Ireland is comparable to the best and ensuring the population will want to live, work and invest there.

The Department of Rural and Community Development was established to support the creation of vibrant and sustainable communities across the country, which supporting the development and promotion of the modern and efficient services needed for such communities to thrive is key to achieving. The Department provides a wide range of supports to communities in rural Ireland, including in the Border regions, through funding programmes such as the rural regeneration and development fund, the town and village renewal scheme, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, the community services programme, libraries capital investment programme, the LEADER programme and others.

Local communities deserve much of the credit for harnessing these supports and driving and delivering economic growth regionally and in rural areas. The Government remains committed to funding to enable and facilitate access to the services that are necessary for communities to thrive in the 21st-century economy. The Department is finalising an implementation plan for the framework policy for local and community development in Ireland, published in 2016. I am confident the implementation plan will propose actions that will support the local and community development sectors to continue providing valuable needed services to both urban and rural communities.

On support for voluntary community groups, my Department operates a number of programmes and schemes that provide funding and other supports, such as the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, LEADER and the community enhancement programme, which are open to those in the voluntary sector who satisfy the criteria during the application timeframes set for each scheme. The Department's community and voluntary supports and programme provide a framework of supports for the community and voluntary sector, including support for 21 volunteer centres, eight volunteer information services and a number of volunteer-support organisations, such as Volunteer Ireland. My Department is supporting the upgrading of the volunteer information services to volunteer centres in 2019. In addition, my Department recently issued a call for inputs to a paper on key aspects to be included in a national volunteering strategy, with a view to obtaining views from the sector in preparation for the development of a volunteering strategy in 2019.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Would it be possible to encourage the provision of what I would regard as basic locally required services, such as group water schemes, of which there is a significant dearth in many parts of the country, and the upgrading of many existing schemes and the provision of community facilities the modern dweller normally seeks throughout rural Ireland, in particular in the aftermath of Brexit when this country will come under pressure. The Border areas and Northern Ireland will come under pressure as well. There is a moral obligation on us in this part of this island to do what we can to enhance the facilities available and to make the country a better place in which to live and to come to.

LEADER, the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, community services, CLÁR, townland and village and outdoor recreation are departmental schemes to enhance communities and to make them more vibrant. Of course, we need to do more because we have had a significant deficit in the rural areas and they have suffered most. CLÁR is there to help the areas where there is a serious decline in population and to bring them on and make them more vibrant. Some communities are better at it than others so we need to work on that.

The Deputy mentioned the group water schemes. These have been the backbone of communities in rural Ireland and have brought services to the doors of many families which would not have been provided without the meitheal going on within parishes and half-parishes. When reviewing all these schemes, we will look to see how best we can develop them. For instance, we will look at the group water schemes to see if there is anything we can do to assist the local authorities in providing funding there. It is important we work across Departments to see how we can source the funding to make the communities better places to live, work and invest in.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. In regard to any discussions the Minister of State may have with the local authorities, there are indications to the effect that rural dwellers are being denied planning permission in their own areas. Since this is a very basic requirement, would it be possible to engage with the local authorities on this? If we do not have a rural population, we do not have a need for services and eventually everything will decay. That happened in the mid-west of the United States many years ago and it has happened in many other countries.

Will the Minister of State and the Department commit to an ongoing programme of creating an awareness of the necessity to ensure that all these areas in rural Ireland have the ability to absorb and to grow a population and to make a serious contribution to the community and economic life of the country?

The Deputy's sentiments are the same as the Minister's, mine and other Deputies present. It is exactly what we want to do. We want to provide equal opportunities for people. There are many opportunities for us. The Minister, myself and the Department meet regularly with local authorities. The very good councillors in the municipal districts bring forward the issues. There is a huge amount of work that we can do in these areas and I look forward to doing that with the local authorities, the Minister and the Department. It is something we discuss on an ongoing basis because we know what the issues are as we all come from rural Ireland. We know where the issues coming from rural Ireland are. We need to make sure we identify the problems and find solutions to them. The local authorities will be of great assistance there.

CLÁR Programme

Tom Neville

Ceist:

39. Deputy Tom Neville asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans to review the CLÁR areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51678/18]

What are the Minister's plans to review CLÁR areas and will he make a statement on the matter?

CLÁR is an important part of the Government’s Action Plan for Rural Development and focuses on areas which have suffered the greatest levels of population decline. It is a programme that provides modest amounts of money for small scale initiatives in rural areas, but the impact of the funding for these areas is huge. CLÁR was effectively closed for new applications in 2010. However, since I relaunched CLÁR in 2016, more than 1,200 projects have benefitted from funding of €25 million under the programme. The type of projects which have been funded, include safety measures around schools and other community facilities, multi-use play areas, supports for voluntary first-responder emergency organisations and funding for vehicles to transport people to cancer care centres and other respite services.

I have visited many of the projects which have received funding under CLÁR and I can see the difference the support from the programme makes in improving the lives of people in CLÁR communities. As I have outlined, CLÁR focuses on areas which have suffered significant population decline. However, the underlying data need to be reviewed to take account of the 2016 census of population. In this context, I have commenced a review of the programme which will examine CLÁR areas in light of the 2016 census data. The review process began last month with a targeted consultation meeting with a number of experts who are recognised for their background in rural development issues. The review will also involve more detailed stakeholder consultation and I anticipate that it will be completed in the first half of 2019.

I welcome the fact CLÁR funding was opened again in 2017. There was no delivery since 2010 given the economic crash. With the subsequent recovery, we are able to give back to and redevelop rural Ireland. As the Minister outlined, the investment has been in providing small scale infrastructural projects in rural areas that have suffered the greatest level of population decline. Some of these areas were undergoing population decline before the economic recession ever hit. We know that from our research on that. It is about trying to find more innovative ways to combat that.

I welcome the funding for Limerick under measure one of CLÁR, including funding for Bulgaden national school, Meekilly national school, Doon girls' national school, Athea national school, Kilbehenny national school, Mountcollins national school, Oola community council, village and school, Raheenagh national school, Knockadea national school and Ashford national school. I also welcome funding under measure two for Kilfinane community council and Kileedy development committee. Are there any measures to extend or review the CLÁR programme?

The CLÁR programme is one of the better programmes introduced over the years. While I have differences with my colleague across the floor, it was one of the better schemes introduced. It was closed from 2010. I am reviewing the schemes and I am looking to identify schemes that will be supportive of rural areas and of communities that are not able to get the support they need from other State agencies. The one thing about CLÁR is it can identify programmes that help.

Last year one of things that worked out very well was in regard to first responders, particularly in some rural areas where they do not have health board services. They depend on ambulances and voluntary organisations, like the Order of Malta, to bring people to hospital. That has worked our very well.

I refer to cancer services. In particular in rural Ireland, many people do not have the funding and are not able to get to hospital appointments. We need to support them and help them to get to their appointments and home again. I am delighted I brought in that initiative. I am looking at other initiatives and that is why we are doing the review. I am going on the old figures, so I need to do a review and to identify the areas that need to be targeted for CLÁR funding.

I welcome the Minister's statement. I ask that there be some sort of synergy in regard CLÁR funding. I welcome the funding from the rural regeneration and development fund announced in the past couple of weeks. There will be huge investment in the Great Southern greenway in Limerick. It will start at Rathkeale and will go to Newcastle West and to the Kerry border. In Glengrohane in my constituency, there will be a community hub that will encompass an enterprise hub, a community hub and a Men's Shed. This is a very small village in south Limerick and this hub will be a great enhancement.

I ask for co-ordination with other Departments, in particular the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. In terms of moneys being delivered to rural areas that have been depopulated, it may be thought that there is no demand for housing in them. However, when these moneys are delivered, it will generate demand. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government should look favourably on that from a demand point of view.

The Deputy mentioned the outdoor recreation scheme and the town and village scheme, which have all worked very well.

I must be careful that other Departments do not see this as a mechanism to allow them not to do what they should be doing. Deputy Neville is correct: I need to get my Department to act. I have asked my officials to meet with other Departments. I am already aware that some Departments are telling groups to go to the Department of Rural and Community Development because it has the funding, even though they are the ones that have the direct funding. I do not want that situation to arise. I do not mind supplementing schemes. An issue that was raised on the previous Question Time and to which the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, referred a moment ago, is the wonderful job group water schemes do for rural communities. One of the difficulties is that a small number of people are involved and they must make a big contribution. I must examine how I can support them on foot of their contribution but what I do not want to see happening is the Department of the Communications, Climate Action and Environment or local authorities increasing their charges and taking the money from my Department. This money must go into rural areas.

Town and Village Renewal Scheme

Peter Burke

Ceist:

40. Deputy Peter Burke asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of allocations made to each county in 2018 under the town and village renewal scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51677/18]

I want to ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of allocations made to each county in 2018 under the town and village renewal scheme and if he will make a statement on the matter.

The town and village renewal scheme is a key part of the Government's Action Plan for Rural Development. The plan contains more than 270 actions for delivery by Departments, State agencies and other organisations to help rural Ireland achieve its full economic and social potential.

The Government launched the town and village renewal scheme in 2016, with funding of €10 million to start the process of rejuvenating Ireland's rural towns and villages to make them more attractive places in which to live and work, and to increase their tourism potential. The scheme is part of a package of national and local support measures to revitalise rural towns and villages throughout Ireland.

The 2018 town and village renewal scheme was launched on 27 April last. The scheme is funded by my Department and is administered through the local authorities. On 5 October, I announced funding of €21.3 million for 224 projects under the 2018 town and village renewal scheme. Since the launch of the scheme in 2016, a total of €53 million has been allocated to more than 670 projects throughout Ireland. The projects cover a range of activities, from improving the public realm to making towns and villages more attractive for locals and visitors alike, and to job creation initiatives such as the development of enterprise hubs and digital hubs. The full list of successful projects under the 2018 town and village renewal scheme, and earlier rounds, are available on my Department's website.

I acknowledge the Minister's work in terms of the various schemes targeted on rural areas. I note that in my constituency County Westmeath received in excess of €500,000 for the town and village enhancement schemes. Towns such as Multyfarnham, Castlepollard and Castletown Geoghegan benefitted from the funding for key infrastructural improvements. The Minister got a 27% increase in his budget for 2019, which was the biggest increase of any Department. That makes an important statement for rural areas that he was able to deliver that for his Department.

Numerous schemes are funded by the Department. A total of €1 billion is available for the rural infrastructure scheme in the next ten years. Mullingar has been a significant beneficiary of the urban regeneration scheme for category B projects. The scheme is worth €2 billion nationally over the next ten years. A number of the schemes are targeted on rural areas and they are a significant asset in terms of changing the discourse and showing there is a lot to talk about in rural areas.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. The town and village renewal scheme is probably one of the better schemes the Department administers. It is amazing what communities, towns and villages can do when they get a lift through a small allocation of funding. I was in Wicklow recently to visit a public realm project we had funded in the centre of the town. On foot of that, the HSE decided it would put in place a health centre and the council decided it would put in a library. All those projects gave the town a major lift. I see that happening all over the country where towns get a modest amount of money, local authorities match the funding and communities themselves support projects which give a lift to the area and the local people. It is good for the towns and for the community spirit. I visit a lot of towns and villages around the country and I see vibrant communities with a lot of people working on their behalf on a variety of initiatives.

Sometimes I hear negativity about rural areas and I wonder if the people making the comments see what is happening in some of the towns and villages and the employment that is being created. I see a bright future for rural areas. People have made a living out of knocking rural Ireland but I believe that the glass is half full and that many things are happening. Towns and villages around the country are improving.

I would be grateful if the Minister could outline his targets for the town and village renewal scheme in 2019. I acknowledge the great work that is being done. The Minister pointed out what is happening in rural areas. Over the next 20 years the population will increase by 1 million and 50% of the growth will be outside the five main cities in the country. Accordingly, there will be a significant need for infrastructural improvements in towns and villages and the Minister, Deputy Ring, is providing that. The facts speak for themselves. The population is growing in rural areas. Towns with a population of 1,500 have grown by 250,000 in the past 20 years. There are improvements in rural areas. Small schemes, such as the tidy towns schemes and agricultural shows, to major schemes, such as the urban and rural regeneration schemes, are key schemes that provide employment and infrastructure and make rural areas a positive place to live. Significant quality of life assurance is available in rural areas. It is great that the Minister got such an improvement in his budget this year and that he is providing key schemes to make a difference to people's lives.

One of the worries people had about the €1 billion being allocated over ten years is that the existing departmental schemes would not continue. I assure Deputy Burke that the town and village renewal scheme, the CLÁR programme, the outdoor recreation scheme and all the other schemes will continue next year. I have funding in the Department's budget for all of them. Deputy Burke is correct that the schemes for urban and rural regeneration and all the other schemes and initiatives under the national planning framework up to 2040 will benefit rural areas and urban areas as well.

I like to use the example of Drumshanbo, which Deputy Martin Kenny will be familiar with. He saw what a small amount of funding for outdoor recreation did for the town. We put further funding into Leitrim village and Carrick-on-Shannon. Between 70,000 and 80,000 people used the walking facilities in Drumshanbo last year. The food hub and many other businesses developed on foot of that with many jobs being created. What I like about the town and village renewal scheme is that one can improve the public realm, provide a digital hub or a food hub or other type of development that will create employment.

Post Office Closures

Bobby Aylward

Ceist:

41. Deputy Bobby Aylward 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 the local post office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51864/18]

I want to ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans to ensure the viability and sustainability of towns and villages in rural areas that have lost or are due to lose their local post office. It is not just a case of post offices. There has been a general decline in rural areas with the closure of public houses, post offices and Garda barracks. Rural Ireland is in decline and we need to revamp it as a matter of urgency.

My colleague, 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.

Investment in rural Ireland is taking place right across Government. The Action Plan for Rural Development is a comprehensive cross-Government plan which sets out a wide range of measures focused on supporting and building sustainable communities, growing jobs and enterprise, improving access to services, maximising tourism, culture and heritage assets, and improving connectivity in rural areas.

The third progress report on the action plan was published in recent weeks and confirmed the progress being made, with more than 95% of actions completed or advanced. The €1 billion investment provided through the rural regeneration and development fund will also bring positive benefits to rural communities. I was delighted to announce the first group, totalling 18 projects, to be supported by the fund last month.

My Department is also continuing to support the many vibrant towns and villages across rural Ireland through a range of other schemes and supports. The evidence of impact can be seen in growing opportunities for employment and improved quality of life across rural Ireland. Of particular importance for those towns and villages most disadvantaged in terms of access to services are the CLÁR programme, the community enhancement programme, the town and village renewal scheme and the funding being provided to public libraries.

Additionally, funding delivered through the community services programme, LEADER and SICAP provides supports tailored to the specific needs of individual areas.

The Government is continuing to explore ways to sustain the viability of the post office network into the future. In October last, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment launched a new Digital Assist pilot initiative with An Post. Ten locations across the country will act as pilots for the provision of new services and I am delighted that my Department has been able to provide funding of €80,000 for this programme.

The dismantling of the rural post office network continues across the country. We lost two important post offices in south Kilkenny at Mullinavat and Glenmore, and another is to close within the next two months at Kilmoganny. This follows the retirement of two long-serving postmasters who gave many years of dedicated service to their respective communities. Despite significant community activism in Mullinavat and the hundreds of submissions made to An Post, the independent assessor's decision stood and the doors shut.

The closure of post offices in Mullinavat and Glenmore and hundreds of similar closures in towns and villages around the country reflect a further denigration of services in rural Ireland under this Government. The Government claims it has no operational responsibility for An Post but, as far as I am concerned, the buck stops with it. If it had the foresight to implement the recommendations contained in the Kerr report when it was furnished in 2016 regarding the need for additional services to be made available to post offices, places like Mullinavat and Glenmore would have had the chance to increase their footfall and maximise their commercial viability. Many of the rural post offices now under threat of closure could have been saved if immediate action had been taken at ministerial level, and that point is directed at the Minister.

I am sorry I have only a minute to reply. I wish I had more time because I have a list of all the post offices that Fianna Fáil closed.

I knew he would come back with that.

I would be here for 25 minutes-----

That is not an answer. The Minister's job is to rule on what is being done now.

The Minister without interruption.

It is a pity-----

He is closing more post offices than ever. He must be happy.

Deputy Aylward, please.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. I let him talk. If his Government had been as concerned about post offices when this country was awash with money, and if it had given them the services they needed, we would not have any closure of post offices.

The Minister must agree the Government is closing post offices.

The Government did not close any post offices in the past few months.

I have proof of it.

The Deputy should listen. People took the packages. They were given the opportunity.

He is dressing it up.

They got the packages. Let us be honest about what is happening and stop the nonsense about post offices.

Then be honest about it.

I will give an example. There was a post office in my own county where 500 people turned up at a public meeting. I am going to tell the Deputy how many of them bought television licences. There were 352 families and just 52 television licences were bought in that post office for that year. Either one of two things happened. They either had no licences, which I do not believe-----

They would never do that.

-----or they went elsewhere to get their licences. If they want to keep rural post offices open, they will have to start using them, and not go to public meetings.

The time is up. I call Deputy Aylward.

In fairness, a post office was advertised twice and they could not get anyone to take it.

The Minister is just getting angry and it is obvious he is getting angry because I am getting under his skin. He knows I am talking fact. To talk about what Fianna Fáil did years ago is not the Minister's job; his job is to rule as Minister now and to make decisions now.

Why would old postmasters and postmistresses who are in their 60s, 70s and 80s not take the package? Of course, they would - I would too. However, that is no reason for the post office to be closed. There was a meeting in Mullinavat, like the meeting in the Minister's area, with 400 or 500 people in attendance. There was a laughable appeals system which made a decision about the local post offices being so many kilometres away and about the size of the population, but it did not stop them being closed down. What about the people who wanted a post office? It is more than a business where people get stamps and pension payments; it is also a social outlet, but that is not taken into consideration. People want to keep rural areas alive but closing post offices is not going to keep them alive. The Minister is making people travel to neighbouring villages when they do not have the transport to do it. The appeals system is a laugh. It is closing post offices in an underhand way, and that is all it is.

Where people want to keep their post office open and where there is a local supermarket or other business willing to take it on, that should be allowed, once it is viable. I heard the Minister say in the House three or four times that he would come forward with proposals to make them sustainable but I never heard one thing back about that until we got the word that all these post offices would be closed. Let him stand up now and say why he did not make them sustainable and why he did not come back with the money to keep these post offices sustainable, instead of going on with this craic.

The hypocrisy sickens me. Fianna Fáil closed many post offices and we closed very few.

He keeps going back to the one thing.

The Deputy asked what I did. I provided €80,000 last year to examine where we can get more services for post offices. Let us take the example of motor tax. Nearly 88% of people now tax their cars online. We need to give post offices more services that people will use. People are living in the modern age. They have their computers and the Internet.

Where is the report on sustainability?

They want to do business in a different way. I want to keep as many post offices open as possible. However, I would say to the general public that if they want their post office and their small local shop open, and if they want services in rural Ireland, they have to start using them and they cannot pass the door every day. When that lady called the public meeting in Mayo, 300 or 400 people turned up and they all signed up to what they were going to do to keep the post office open. However, when she was on local radio, she quenched one of the Deputy's colleagues awful quick when she said, "I did not see many of you since then." She said she was closing the post office and that she was only sorry for the elderly people who depend on it, not for anybody else.

Where is the report on sustainability?

Rural Regeneration and Development Fund

Martin Kenny

Ceist:

42. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the rural regeneration and development fund. [51872/18]

Martin Heydon

Ceist:

45. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the rural regeneration and development fund; when he expects to make further allocations for 2019 from the fund; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51842/18]

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

51. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the funding approved to date for projects under the rural regeneration and development fund; when further tranches of approvals will issue; his plans to seek further applications under this process in the near future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51847/18]

An announcement was made in recent weeks that there were almost 300 applications for category 1 of the rural regeneration and development fund and that there were some 18 approvals of projects throughout the country. I would like to have more information on where matters stand in regard to the other categories and when more announcements will be made.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 42, 45 and 51 together.

The first call for applications for the rural regeneration and development fund closed at the end of September. Some €1 billion is committed to the fund over a ten-year period to support rural economic development and help build strong communities, with €55 million allocated to the fund in budget 2019.

There was an excellent response to the first call, with nearly 300 applications received. Applications for the fund are currently being examined by the project advisory board, comprising representatives from key Departments and external experts, which was established to oversee the assessment process. Category 1 shovel-ready projects were prioritised in the assessment process and category 2 projects, that is, those which need development funding to become potential category 1 applications in future calls for applications, are now being considered.

I announced the first 18 successful projects under the fund on 23 November. These projects will receive a total of €24.4 million from the fund while unlocking a further €11 million in other funding, and all are ready to commence in 2019. The announcement on 23 November was just the beginning of the process and further announcements of successful category 1 and category 2 projects will take place early in the new year, with a further call for the fund taking place later next year.

The announcement of funding for 18 projects is welcome. However, there were 125 shovel-ready projects in category 1 and, therefore, many disappointed communities did not get funding. With regard to category 2, the Minister might give more detail on when he expects to put butter on that sandwich. We need something to happen quickly because people have to get moving on this. At the moment there is lack of capacity to get them to a position where they can get into category 1 and draw down funding.

I have looked through the list of projects, all of which are worthy and deserving of the funding they have received. However, in many cases, they are projects for which funding from other Departments, for example, the Departments responsible for tourism, housing or roads, would be expected.

Why is everything left over being gathered up with the notion that the Department of Rural and Community Development will look after it? I just wonder about that.

It might have been Deputy Martin Kenny and others who stated we would never open the fund.

I never said that.

I also heard complaints that we would not allocate the money and then I heard complaints that it would never happen. It happened. Let us be honest and fair about it. There are 18 shovel-ready projects. Shovel-ready status is one of the key elements of the programme. There are many projects which would not have been able to advance but for the funding put in place. Some of the other schemes to which the Deputy referred do not have the level of grant necessary to allow the relevant work to proceed. I am delighted with the scheme and these 18 good projects. These are projects that are going to happen. The Deputy asked about category 2 and I will give him a straight answer. I intend to have the rest of category 1 and category 2 completed early in February. I could do one in January, but I do not want to do that. I want to do the two schemes and get the funding. As stated earlier, I will open the scheme for new applications again early in the new year.

I thank the Minister for the information outlined on those issues. The rural regeneration and development fund is crucial. While I am disappointed that my local authority of Kildare County Council did not have projects at the shovel-ready stage, I am keen to ensure our very strong applications under category 2 will be considered. We have a number of plans to redevelop town squares and we also have public realm plans. In Athy, for example, we have the town centre, the site of the former Dominican church, Emily Square and Athy enterprise centre. In Kildare town, we have Cherry Avenue, which involves a plan for a multifunctional town park, and other projects to improve local infrastructure. There are also public realm projects in Kilcullen, Rathangan, Monasterevin and Robertstown. Each of those projects, some of which the Minister visited with me, will give local communities a shot in the arm. A particularly important one, however, is a plan involving close collaboration with the Department of Defence. We are seeking to leverage all aspects of State involvement and develop a serious management plan for the Curragh plain, a 5,000 acre outwash plan of national significance and great local significance to the people of Kildare who use it for a variety of reasons, including recreation and tourism purposes. We need a co-ordinated plan and I am delighted that Kildare County Council and the Department of Defence are working together as closely as they are. These are the kinds of project we need to see funded early in the new year.

The Deputy is quite correct. The great thing about this scheme is that any State agency or local authority working with community groups can make an application. There are a number of ways to get matching funding. Údarás, local authorities and other State agencies, including the Western Development Commission and LEADER companies, have come in. As Minister, the major complaint I have heard was touched on by Deputy Heydon. It relates to groups getting projects ready. They have often simply lacked the funding necessary to make a plan and the seed funding required to get schemes ready. That is why we created category 2. It provides the seed funding to allow groups to get their applications ready. They were not ready for the first phase, but they will be ready for the next. We are going through and evaluating the projects which have not been dealt with yet and determining which ones can be shovel-ready for next year. We hope to make the announcement in early February. I could have done one in January and the other in February, but I want to do them together. I want to do categories 1 and 2 because I want to get the scheme open again for next year. That is because the important thing about the scheme will be to continue it over the years ahead.

The Minister knows my normal concern. He has let out €24 million and he has to have €55 million spent by the end of 2019. He tells the House that he will let another tranche of money out in February, but he knows from his experience of the LEADER programme that allocating the money out does not mean it will be spent quickly. Is the Minister talking about allocating another €70 million or €80 million given my estimate that he would have to have €100 million approved at the end of February to get a spend of €55 million by the end of next year? That is the reality. Are these the kind of figures he is talking about letting out at the end of February? If not, he is going to underspend again.

To be fair, it is one of the things I am looking at. The Deputy is correct. As with the town and village scheme or the outdoor recreation scheme, if one does not spend in advance, one will have a difficulty. Category 2 will provide seed funding for projects and I expect a lot of it will be drawn down quickly. Some of the schemes are shovel-ready. Those behind one €4 million project have told me they expect it to be completed by September of next year. I am hopeful that people are as good as their word. The project is shovel-ready and an effort will be made to ensure that work will start and projects will be completed by the end of the year. I take the Deputy's point. It is something I am considering. He is correct, given the outdoor recreation scheme, that we need to push on with further schemes and greater spend than perhaps I should do and make the allocations. It is as simple as that and I do not disagree with what the Deputy says.

From his experience with LEADER, does the Minister agree that he will need to have approved €100 million between category 1 and 2 by the end of February if he is to hit his target of spending €55 million by the end of next year? Anything less will leave him short at the end of next year and we will end up having the same debate about money going back to the Exchequer.

While I cannot commit to that, I can commit to ensuring that there will be a substantial spend. I have to see what projects are actually shovel-ready. My problem is that they must be ready to go. Category 2 will be an easier scheme because it is seed funding. People thought the scheme would not happen but it did and it is a good one. The Deputy should be happy that his constituency did quite well in relation to a project which would never have been able to get funding but for the scheme. It would never have been able to get the grant aid it needed. It is a scheme that creates jobs in the Gaeltacht in the Deputy's constituency. I am pleased that project came through because it is a very good one.

Dormant Accounts Fund

Catherine Connolly

Ceist:

43. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if the interdepartmental group pursuant to recommendation 7 of a report (details supplied) has been established; the number of times it has met since its establishment; the membership of the group; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51856/18]

Has the interdepartmental group been established? If so, how many times has it met? Who are its members? This arises from the review established by the Minister's Department which reported in July 2018. The review was further to a chapter of the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General which came before the Committee of Public Accounts in February and identified significant underspending and serious problems. Is a copy of the reply available?

No. Only replies to Topical Issues are available. The reply will be available later.

That makes matters difficult.

The review of the Dormant Accounts Fund disbursement scheme, which was published in July 2018, set out 15 recommendations aimed at improving the management and administration of current and future disbursement schemes.

One of the recommendations was to establish an interdepartmental group for the Dormant Accounts Fund to meet on a six-monthly basis. The stated purpose of the group is to inform and monitor progress in the implementation of disbursement schemes and subsequent action plans and to ensure that up-to-date co-ordinated information is maintained.

The interdepartmental group has been established and it met for the first time on Thursday, 25 October 2018.

The group is chaired by my Department and membership consists of those Departments making use of dormant accounts funding. These include the Departments of Justice and Equality, Transport, Tourism and Sport, Health, Children and Youth Affairs and Education and Skills. Given its role in the operation of the fund, membership also includes the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Pobal is also represented in the membership of the group due to its administration of some measures on behalf of Departments and with a view to having it act as a link to the community groups which often utilise dormant accounts moneys.

I am informed that the first meeting of the group covered a range of issues, in particular information management and the development of guidance documents around how the fund should operate. The next meeting of the group is planned for April 2019 which will allow the group to inform the preparation of the 2019 dormant accounts action plan. This group will play an important role in supporting the implementation of the recommendations in the review and ensuring that the available funds are utilised for measures targeting disadvantage.

I thank the Minister of State for his clarification that the group has been established and that it is going to meet again. However, it is important to put this in context. It did not come from the Department. The inefficiencies and serious problems with the Dormant Accounts Fund were identified by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Among many other things which are of great concern to me and other Deputies are the significant underspending, the fact that fewer measures are actually being delivered to the community, that there was no single database, that many of the reporting requirements set out in the legislation were not met, that there was insufficient incentive to undertake dormant account measures and that there was no awareness or communication strategy with regard to selling this to the public. There were also many other deficiencies. That is why 15 recommendations were made, one of which I am dealing with today. It is important to bear that in mind. Will the minutes of those meetings be available?

The Deputy is right. As recommended by the Comptroller and Auditor General, my Department completed a review in 2017. The 15 recommendations seek to improve information gathering, simplify the operation of the fund and ensure that funding is used by the Departments or returned to the fund for use in other projects. Some good progress has been made, with comprehensive information on the measures being funded being brought together and maintained by my Department. My focus is on ensuring that these recommendations are implemented and that the best use is made of the funds available. I will check about the minutes of the meetings for the Deputy. I presume they will become public, as they should. I will confirm that for the Deputy. The fund allocation in 2017 was €30.192 million across all Departments. It is important that we are confident that the funding is going where it should.

I would appreciate it if the Minister of State came back to me with the minutes because it is absolutely vital that we have transparency. Again, this has arisen because of a lack of transparency, significant underspending and a lack of preparedness. The review was finally carried out this year on foot of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report and due to the fact that recommendations in the report for the period 2013 to 2016 had not been implemented. No action plan was implemented in 2015. I do not say this to embarrass but because this is serious funding for the community that is not actually getting to the community. Later this week, my colleagues in Galway West and I hope to raise a Topical Issue debate regarding an autism project in Galway. The Minister of State is aware of the project. While organisations are struggling, millions are sitting in the Dormant Accounts Fund. These millions are dormant and that should not be the case. That is the importance of this issue.

I again thank the Deputy . She is right. The diligence of the committee in coming up with the 15 recommendations has to be lauded. It is important that we take the recommendations on board. As the Minister of State with responsibility for the disbursement of the Dormant Accounts Fund, I will certainly be ensuring that everything is transparent. I repeat that €30 million - a not inconsiderable amount - has been allocated across the Departments of Justice and Equality, Transport, Tourism and Sport; Health, Children and Youth Affairs, Rural and Community Development, Education and Skills and Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and the Prison Service. The money is being allocated. There are issues in that, perhaps, we may not have enough money for everybody. The Deputy mentioned the autism service in Galway. I was at the meeting. There are other groups like it which find themselves left in the crevices and not being picked up for funding. I have come across many more like that.

CLÁR Programme

James Browne

Ceist:

44. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans to review the CLÁR areas based on the 2016 census returns; the timeline for the review; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51732/18]

I ask the Minister his plans to review CLÁR areas based on the 2016 census.

The CLÁR programme was originally launched in October 2001 to provide for targeted investment in disadvantaged rural areas. The areas originally selected for inclusion in the programme were those which suffered the greatest population decline from 1926 to 1996. The Cooley Peninsula was also included, on the basis of the serious difficulties caused in that area by foot and mouth disease. The average population loss in the original CLÁR regions over the period 1926 to 1996 was 50%. In 2006, an analysis of the 2002 census data was carried out by the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, NIRSA, at Maynooth University and the programme was extended to include areas with an average population loss of 35% between 1926 and 2002.

The CLÁR programme was closed for new applications in 2010. However, I relaunched the programme in the second half of 2016, using as a baseline the areas identified in the work carried out by NIRSA. Over 1,200 projects have been approved for funding of €25 million under CLÁR since I relaunched the programme in 2016.

I have now initiated a review of the CLÁR programme which will, in particular, examine CLÁR areas in light of the 2016 census of population data. The review process began on the 23 November with a targeted consultation meeting with a number of people who are recognised for their background and expertise in respect of rural development issues. The review will also involve more detailed stakeholder consultation and will inform launches of the CLÁR programme in the future. I anticipate that the review will be completed in the first half of 2019.

I thank the Minister. As he knows, I have raised this issue a number of times since I was elected to the Dáil. There are only two counties outside of Dublin which are excluded from the CLÁR programme - Kildare and Wexford. That is partially because the CLÁR programme is still based on the 2002 census. We have had three censuses since then. A number of areas in Wexford would have been eligible for the CLÁR programme but have been excluded because of the reliance on the 2002 census. That has been deeply unfair to Wexford especially as it is consistently and unfortunately the third or fourth worst county in any assessment of disadvantage or socioeconomic assessment. To be excluded from a source of income is quite unfortunate.

To highlight another matter, CLÁR sometimes masks areas of concern. In areas along the south coast and into Wexford where there has been depopulation of young people, the overall population tends to remain stagnant because many retirees move down. Those retirees are very welcome but they can sometimes mask depopulation due to the departure of young people. Without young people our rural areas simply cannot progress. Perhaps the Minister might look at that in the future.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He has raised it before. My first priority was to get the programme opened again, which I did. To be fair, using the census figures we are using does not really make sense. I now need to do the review. I want it done quickly. I need to look at ways and means. There might be other issues, such as the one the Deputy has just raised, we need to consider in including areas in the CLÁR programme. Things have changed in certain areas. One would have to question whether some parts of my own constituency which were in the original CLÁR programme should be in it now. There are other areas which should be in the programme which are not. I need to start looking at it. I need to start looking at ways and means to include areas where there is disadvantage and where there are issues which need to be dealt with. One good thing about the CLÁR programme is that it can actually be targeted at schemes. One can look at ways and means to target schemes. I like the scheme and I want it to continue but the census figures I am using now are out of date. I need to get new figures and I have done so. We have started consultation. I also want to get down to those at grassroots level, rather than just the professionals, to see what they have to say and to see if they come back with any ways and means to improve the CLÁR programme.

I welcome the Minister's intention to review the CLÁR programme and its use of census figures. I hope that the Minister will, as he stated, look at the deeper issues and ensure that the proper funding is targeted at areas of true disadvantage.

As already stated, the review process has commenced. I have the views of well-respected researchers from Maynooth University but I also want to talk to people on the ground. I want to talk to the practical operators who operate some of these schemes. As I said, the one thing I like about the CLÁR programme is that difficulties can be identified and schemes can be created to help and support communities that need help. It is a bit like what the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, was speaking about earlier.

Sometimes areas do not get what they should because they may not have the supports they need to be able to make the applications. That is something I will be looking at in this scheme.

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle-----

We do not have time for the Deputy's question. I told Deputy Calleary that too and he was also waiting. I can take the question if Deputy McLoughlin will allow the Minister only to give the reply. The Minister can give the response to Question No. 47.

Question No. 45 answered with Question No. 42
Question No. 46 replied to with Written Answers

Western Development Commission

Tony McLoughlin

Ceist:

47. Deputy Tony McLoughlin asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans to enforce the role of the Western Development Commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51671/18]

The Minister might give the responses to Questions Nos. 47 and 54.

They are not grouped.

The Minister of State, Deputy Canney, is dealing with Question No. 47.

The Western Development Commission, WDC, was established on a statutory footing in 1999 under the Western Development Commission Act 1998. The main aim of the commission is to promote, foster and encourage economic and social development in the western region, covering the counties of Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Galway and Clare.

A Programme for a Partnership Government includes a commitment to reinforce the role of the WDC. This has been done in a number of ways. For example, the commission participates on a number of groups which oversee the progress of key Government initiatives. These include the monitoring committee for the Action Plan for Rural Development, the implementation committees for a number of regional action plans for jobs, and the Atlantic economic corridor task force which I chair.

As the Deputy may be aware, a new chair and board were appointed to the WDC by the Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, last year. The board is currently developing a new five-year strategy for the commission.

My Department has regular engagement with the chair and the chief executive of the WDC with a view to strengthening the organisation’s role in the delivery of Government objectives related to regional development. I am pleased to report that the Minister, Deputy Ring, secured an additional €500,000 in the 2019 budget process to support the WDC. This funding will enable it to maximise the potential of the western investment fund to support small and medium enterprises in the area under its remit, and also to provide a co-ordinating role in relation to the Atlantic economic corridor initiative.

I have been assigned responsibility for the WDC by the Minister, Deputy Ring, and I look forward to working with the board and the chief executive to support the development of the western region and the wider Atlantic economic corridor area.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.