I acknowledge at the outset that the Minister certainly has his heart in the right place in respect of rural regeneration and revitalisation. He is intimately familiar with the rural issues and problems that arise for rural and local people. The local elections will soon be upon us and as we know, all politics are local. We are talking about rural and community development, but Ireland remains one of the most centralised states in Europe with the lowest number of local municipalities per population in Europe. Our local authorities have fewer powers and almost no real financial autonomy. We rank last in the EU on local government autonomy We only spend 8% through local authorities, compared to the EU average of 23% and compared to much greater levels of local control over public spending in the Nordic countries. Simply put, too much power is centralised in the capital and not enough power resides with local councils to be the engine of development in rural Ireland. We can talk about rural development schemes all we like but if we do not give local government in rural Ireland more power, it will never develop to its full potential.
Rural towns and villages are at the heart of rural Ireland. They provide jobs, places to socialise and a range of public and private services. We need strong towns and villages to drive economic development in rural Ireland. The Labour Party’s Bill on the restoration of town councils would give real power and autonomy back to towns around the country. By strengthening local democracy in at least 80 towns, it would ensure councils have a singular focus on the development and well-being of their area, including the wider rural catchment area. Under the Bill town councils would also serve as rating authorities.
Small businesses in rural towns have been crippled by the higher cost of county level commercial rates, with businesses closing and employment being ripped from those communities. Two or three jobs in a rural village are equivalent to 100 jobs in a large town. I know something about this. Rates for a small shop we have in our own village in Baile na Carraige quadrupled. It was already a shop that is subsidised and its rates quadrupled. It is time that town councils should be given the power to set and reduce the rates bills for SMEs as they did in the past, which would help promote the return of busy and vibrant streets in rural Ireland. There has to be a significant reduction in the rates bill for small shops in small rural areas where population levels are not greater than 600. That is the only way. A few jobs in those areas are absolutely critical for the maintenance of the local teams, be they football, soccer, cricket or rugby, for the maintenance of the shops, churches and schools. Those jobs are critical. It is also critical to ensure that rural people can get planning permission in rural areas. I have always been an advocate of that. An Taisce even wrote a letter to the paper condemning me one time but I still stand with rural people.
There is also a need for extra money for the community services programme, which supports 400 businesses, with half of these jobs in rural areas. Much could be done with just €5 million added to that scheme. Another constraint of growth for SMEs in rural Ireland is poor Internet access, as my colleagues have mentioned. I am told the Internet turned 30 recently, but few would know it in rural Ireland because their Internet, like the Government’s broadband, is moving at a snail’s pace. We would ensure connectivity in both broadband and mobile phone coverage by creating new digital hubs in regional centres - the one down in Cork is a great example - and prioritising the roll-out of the national broadband plan, especially for small and medium businesses, which are the drivers of employment in the economy. There are areas of north and central Westmeath such as Ballymore and Streamstown which are hugely deficient in terms of broadband provision. It is impacting on their ability to create jobs there.
Pubs up and down the country are also closing their doors, which is ripping the heart out of rural Ireland. I am a Pioneer but nevertheless I see their importance, for example for people meeting to play cards.
There are no community facilities in many rural areas. People of all ages meet up to play cards, or visit the local pub and chat. The opportunity for that type of activity is fast receding. People cannot just pop down to the pub for a few pints and take the bus home, as they can in the cities. Publicans and patrons struggle to get taxis to serve rural areas, which is understandable from a purely commercial point of view. With petrol costs, the fares may simply not be viable from the drivers.
In 2013, the Labour Party introduced the rural hackney scheme to serve isolated rural villages. Since then no concrete action has been taken. I am aware that a pilot scheme is in place, promoted by the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Griffin. Resources will be required to expand that scheme. A simplified and reinforced version of the rural hackney scheme would provide subsidies for operators in isolated rural areas and ensure tenders and start-up grants where no service currently exists. Insurance premiums are another price pressure for drivers, so a revised scheme should promote pooled group insurance to reduce the costs. The State should step in and ensure that vehicles are properly taxed so that people can be taken to and from those areas.
The closure of 159 post offices is another example of rural Ireland being left behind. Every single one of those closures represents not only job losses but the loss of an aspect of community life. However, it is true that many people close those facilities themselves when they are not being used. People are also helping to close rural shops by not using them. It is okay using Lidl and Aldi and other shops, but then protesting when rural shops close when using those big shops contributes to the closures. People better wake up and contribute to the vitality and sustainability of those shops. By closing post offices, attached shops become unviable, and when the shops close, the community is diminished as people lose places to meet and socialise.
There is a need for a review of the long-term and holistic impacts of policies on rural life, not the current short-term focus on cost savings. We need a cost-benefit analysis and evaluation of those policies. On the particular case of post offices, the Labour Party previously proposed a mobile postal service for rural villages. By covering the areas that four or five post offices used to serve, it could be an economically viable service while ensuring that rural villages are not cut off. A properly resourced mobile service could serve places that have not had a post office for years.
Old age dependency is rising at a faster rate in rural Ireland than in urban areas. This has increased the demand for healthcare services and the workload for our rural GPs, who themselves are getting older. At the same time it has become more and more difficult to attract younger doctors to country practices. As older practitioners continue to retire, large areas of the country are at risk of being left without an adequate GP service. Supports for GPs have been cut, and that has to stop. This vicious cycle cannot continue. We would introduce a regional quota and scholarship scheme to help recruit and successfully retain young doctors in rural Ireland. We would also promote the continued development of primary care centres in rural towns. These centres have additional medical staff and can provide enhanced services, but they also take the pressure off individual GPs as multiple doctors can operate in the same larger centre and share the workload of evening and weekend work. With our ageing population, there is a need for more old age specialised care, including nurse-led services to help people manage their medication or monitor their conditions, and we propose emphasising old age care in primary care centres to meet this growing need.
Our farmers are also getting older. More than half of them are aged over 55. Working alone can lead to serious risks for farmers, with 14 farmers aged over 65 killed in farm accidents in 2017. At the same time, the number of people farming under the age of 35 has fallen, from 8,200 to 7,100. Without generational renewal, this places the long-term viability of many small Irish farms at risk. We would maintain funding for farm safety measures under the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, beyond the 2020 deadline, with earmarked funding for young farmers. The early retirement scheme, which operated up until 2008-09, should also be reintroduced. This would not only provide older farmers with a more secure pension in their old age but would also promote increased pathways for younger farmers. Older farmers have also been the target of thugs who target isolated homes before speeding away. In 2015, we piloted a closed-circuit television, CCTV, scheme in Dunmore, County Laois, to begin combatting rural crime and to increase road safety. No progress has been made since, despite a continuous surge in rural crime. The roll-out of CCTV in rural areas has been continuously delayed due to the Minister’s failure to clarify the issue relating to data management. This Government needs to cop on and take some responsibility and stop blaming local authorities. Labour would legislate to roll-out a national, streamlined programme of CCTV installations on motorways and other blackspots to deter rural crime and promote road safety.
Illegal dumping is another crime at epidemic levels in rural Ireland, with farmers often suffering from fly-tipping on their land. The Labour Party would create a new community warden role, with the power to issue fines, whose responsibilities would include monitoring illegal dumping and identifying those responsible.
No debate can be complete these days without a mention of Brexit. A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for the agrifood sector, which is the largest indigenous sector and one of the most significant employers in rural communities. The Labour Party argues that the EU state aid limits should be relaxed, and that the EU's European globalisation adjustment fund should be made available to support the agrifood sector in the case of a no-deal or soft Brexit. In the immediate term, farmers are still suffering from the sterling exchange rate and the fall in commodity prices. We need clear mechanisms to support farmers through this period of crisis. Labour is committed to a new round of the agriculture cash flow support loan scheme to provide low-cost finance to farmers. We must also establish a farm income diversification task force to help farmers develop alternative ways of generating incomes from their land, with supports to achieve this, including from the CAP. A number of my colleagues in the Labour Party are from rural constituencies, like myself.
Transport is important in rural areas to combat rural isolation. There is a railway station at Killucan which is on the Dublin-Sligo line. It has been closed since 1963 after operating for 115 years. Reopening it would cost €3.5 million, mostly due to the need to install the modern dual platforms required. Trains have to stop there every day as it stands. Its reopening would be of major assistance to many local communities, the citizens of which face one and a half hour journeys each way to get to work. It would make a major contribution to carbon reduction and help the environment. Some 10,000 people live within 5 km of the station. The population has quadrupled in this area in the past number of years. Up to 50% of funding could be available from the rural regeneration fund and the Border, midland and western, BMW, funding. We should be able to access that funding. Rural transport is important, and rural people are treated like Cinderella in that regard. I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to the need to provide grant aid for transport in rural areas.