Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 17 Feb 2022

Vol. 1018 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Rural Schemes

Claire Kerrane


1. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the roll-out of remote working hubs and the possible impact on uptake given the easing of Covid-19 restrictions and the return to the office; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8941/22]

This is to ask the Minister about the roll-out of the connected hubs. Perhaps she might be able to provide figures on the numbers rolled out last year and what the intention is for this year. I also wish to ask her about the possible impact on the roll-out and continuation of remote working now that many people have gone back to the office and there has been a return to work after Covid.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. My Department operates a number of schemes that focus on supporting the development of remote working hubs as outlined in Our Rural Future, Rural Development Policy 2021-2025. To date, approximately €100 million has been provided by my Department through various funding streams to support the development of digital hubs and remote working facilities across Ireland.

In May last year, I launched the national connected hubs network, connectedhubs.ie. There are currently 189 hubs live on the platform, with this number rising on an ongoing basis. The network includes a diverse range of hubs, services and facilities, thus facilitating different types of employers and employees. The platform offers booking and hub management applications to network members.

To date our focus has been on the establishment of the network. The focus will now shift to raising awareness of the network to relevant stakeholders, including SMEs, business owners and hub users. Consultations are also ongoing with hub managers across the country in developing the future strategic direction of the national hub network. With a connected hubs marketing campaign currently in the final stages of development and due to launch shortly, coinciding with the return to the office, it is expected that these events will have a positive effect on the uptake of remote working from hub facilities.

The development of a national hubs network is a key commitment in Our Rural Future and I am committed to continuing my Department's support for the ongoing development of a comprehensive and integrated network of remote working hubs in recognition of the vital role that they can play in our post-Covid recovery.

It is really welcome to see those 189 hubs rolled out at a fairly fast pace. I know of some who have looked for it and it has been up and running fairly quickly. That is all really welcome. There is a lot of focus on remote working in Our Rural Future. It is so important that we get it right. Equally, post Covid, it is really important that the level of remote working remains steady. We know from reports that the number of vehicles and cars on our road are the same as pre-Covid times. There is a concern that the need for remote working hubs may not be as great if people are going back to the office. We need to be very careful in that respect.

I appreciate that the legislation on remote working is not coming from the Minister's Department. Has she been consulted on it? Will her Department be engaging with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on it? That legislation will be key.

I absolutely agree with the Deputy. We have the hubs in place now. We want to make sure that we do not go back to the old ways. We want to make sure that people use them. They are in the local facilities. We have invested and built them; now it is about promoting and supporting them, and encouraging employers to allow their workers to work remotely. I was in one on Monday last in The Station House in Monaghan. It is an old station house that has been converted into a remote working hub. It was great to see people from all over working there. They might normally have to be based in Dublin but they are able to work remotely in Monaghan and other places. I know in the Deputy's own county there are a lot of remote working hubs. Roscommon County Council got €177,000 from the connected hubs fund. We want to make sure they are full. I am a very big supporter of remote working as I know the Deputy is.

The Minister is right that it will be about promoting them. The Minister mentioned the connectedhubs.ie website. I suggest promoting them on a greater scale. One has just opened in Ballinlough, County Roscommon, and they are trying to promote it to get people into it and so people know it is there. It is a service that people can use and it is really welcome.

However, we need to ensure that we get the legislation right. Otherwise some workers who have been working remotely for the last year or two are going to be put in a difficult position as regards going back to the office. We need to ensure that work-life balance is maintained. We have gone a long way with remote working, thanks to Covid in a lot of respects. We need to ensure that we keep hold of that for the benefit of our rural communities in particular. I urge the Minister to ensure there is engagement and consultation with her Department on that legislation.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, is bringing through the legislation on remote working. We certainly have been working with his Department in developing that and will continue to co-operate in every way we can. On Monday I am going to be launching the connected hubs network, which will enable people to access this on an app on their phones. We have over 180 connected and have mapped out over 400 hubs across the country. We are encouraging them to join the network. That work continues on and we hope it will accelerate further this year in terms of the numbers that will join the connectedhubs.ie platform. We are engaged with different organisations. Grow Remote has been particularly good at connecting workers and employers and explaining to them the benefits of remote work.

Rural Schemes

Noel Grealish


2. Deputy Noel Grealish asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if funding is available and if a scheme will be announced for the construction of new community centres; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8754/22]

I would like to ask the Minister if funding is available and if a scheme will be announced for the construction of new community centres. What funding will be available and what will be the criteria for such a scheme?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. My Department currently provides a number of funding streams which can be used for the improvement and development of community centres throughout the country. The rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, provides funding for the development and construction of large-scale capital projects in towns and villages and rural areas across Ireland. I announced the fourth call for category 1 applications in December 2021, with a closing date for applications of 29 April.

Funding for community centre projects may be also available through the LEADER transitional programme. This covers the period 2021 to 2022 and came into effect on 1 April 2021 for new project applications. The LEADER programme is administered by the local action groups in each of the 28 LEADER sub-regional areas around the county.

A new capital fund for the upgrade of community centres was referred to in the national development plan and an indicative budget of €5 million has been secured for this under budget 2022. It is envisaged that this capital fund will support the upgrade and refurbishment of existing community buildings in urban and rural areas. The fund could assist with projects such as energy retrofitting projects that reduce an organisation's carbon footprint; works to address safety concerns, including as a result of fire safety audits; works to improve disability access; and works to improve communal facilities such as kitchen and toilet facilities. The details of this capital scheme are currently being developed within my Department. It will be launched in quarter 1 of this year. I will be announcing further details in due course.

Newcastle is a community of more than 6,000 people on the west side of Galway city. Under the chairmanship of Mr. Seamus Davey, a committee got together and raised more than €200,000. It acquired a site and secured planning permission. The project, which is for a much-needed centre for the area, is shovel ready. It has the unanimous support of the local city councillors. I have a letter from the chief executive of Galway City Council confirming his support for the project. The correspondence confirms that while the area of Galway city in question has grown significantly in recent years, unfortunately there are no community facilities for the residents in which to congregate. People in the area need a facility such as a community centre within each of their homes. They need somewhere to meet up with their neighbours, enjoy social activities and take further-education courses. All that is needed is adequate funding for the project. Those involved have ambitious plans to contribute to the health and wellness of the local community in addition to providing educational opportunities and accommodating sporting activity. I ask that the proposal be considered for funding. All that is needed is capital funding. It will be matched by Galway City Council. I ask the Minister to consider such a project.

I thank the Deputy. Well done to the community for raising €200,000. That is no mean feat. When we open the community centre fund, the group will be able to apply. That it is getting financial support from Galway City Council will help to meet some of the costs. I do not know what the overall cost will be. The plan is that the fund initially will be for renovations more so than for new builds, but each application will be assessed on its own merit, as is always the case. I recommend that the group make an application, and we will take it from there.

I thank the Minister for her positive response. The next time she or her Minister of State visit Galway, they will be invited to visit the site of the proposed community centre and meet the committee that has produced the ambitious plans.

As the Minister stated, community centres are often the backbone of communities, but unfortunately there are areas in which no community facility exists. Newcastle in Galway city is one of these areas. Approximately 60% of the residents of the area are retired and have absolutely no facilities, be they community, commercial or otherwise. Communities are willing to work with the Government to make their projects a success. Newcastle Combined Community Association is no different. It is determined to make sure the community centre is viable in the long term by means of measures to generate income for the service provider to cover operating costs. Funding for this facility will enhance the lives of everyone in the community. I hope the application will be considered favourably when the scheme is announced.

I thank the Deputy. As he says, community centres are at the heart of every community. We need places for people to meet up, to play sport and engage in all sorts of activities. The centres are important and we support them in every way we can. We have a community activities fund, under which Galway City Council was allocated €264,910. Galway County Council got €286,000. Under the 2021 community enhancement programme, the allocation for Galway City Council was €132,000 and that for Galway County Council was €43,000. Under the community activities fund, considerable funding was allocated. We are opening a new fund but have not finalised the details yet. We will be doing so shortly. I know the funding will be welcome. I thank the Deputy.

Voluntary Sector

Paul Donnelly


3. Deputy Paul Donnelly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development her views on the winding down of a company (details supplied) that provided customised data to sections of the community and voluntary sector; the new regulation that will be provided by the Charities Regulatory Authority in place of the company; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8968/22]

Could the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, report on the closure of Benefacts, which provided customised data to the community and voluntary sector? What plans are in place to replace this incredibly important service?

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has provided grant funding to Benefacts since 2015. My Department has had no funding relationship with Benefacts. I understand the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform undertook a review in 2020 that found that the business case for its continued funding of Benefacts was no longer justified. Accordingly, the decision was made to terminate its funding.

In respect of the reference by the Deputy to new regulations by the Charities Regulator, I want to take this opportunity to clarify that there is no direct connection between the work underway by the regulator and the services previously provided by Benefacts. The regulator is in the process of developing a classification standard for registered charities. Classification is a way of ordering charitable organisations by reference to predefined groups and sub-groups. The standard will be comparable with classification standards in other jurisdictions, enabling international comparisons to be made. It also takes account of the charitable purposes set out in the Charities Act 2009, which form the basis for registration as a charitable organisation.

The introduction of a formal standard by the regulator will provide more reliable and consistent data on the make-up of the charity sector and will benefit a wide range of stakeholders, helping to inform policymaking in relevant areas.

I am disappointed with the answer because it is important to have independent verification of information and data. Benefacts provided Ireland's only comprehensive and publicly available database of civil society, non-profit and voluntary organisations in Ireland. It provided specialised data services to the non-profit sector, State and others. The support it received enabled it to deliver a comprehensive database of all Irish non-profit organisations. It was updated daily and represented a unique compendium of Ireland's 34,000 civil society organisations. It fed into the Central Statistics Office and had a website. It provided a free public report for the sector. Many of us have used data that Benefacts has provided.

Before Benefacts, there were no data on which to build a reliable picture of Ireland's highly diverse €14 billion sector, with its more than 34,000 non-profit organisations and 165,000 employees. All the data we have came directly from Benefacts. I am very worried that many of the data will now go all over the place and that there will be no centralised group or organisation, independent of the State, that we can use.

There was value in what Benefacts did but we have to be cognisant of the taxpayers' money. There was a business case made in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and it did not justify continuing the funding, sadly. The data on the Benefacts database are publicly available from the organisations listed on it. Obviously, there was a value to having data collated in one location but those data are still available from the organisations included on the database.

We are developing an initiative separate from that of Benefacts. It will be a bigger project and take time. My hope is that it will have live information on grant-approved bodies that the State supports, if we decide to go down that route.

The worrying part is that the Minister of State's Department may put something in place. He has acknowledged the importance of a group or organisation collating all the data.

I note that there are 34,000 organisations and 165,000 people who are employed. There is much information and data out there that are really important to policymakers and non-governmental organisations for them to be able to put cases forward in relation to the community, voluntary and charity sector. As I said, and I will say it again, I am concerned that while the Minister of State's Department may do something into the future and is looking at it, there was an organisation in place that was providing all of the information and live daily updates on the information. I hear what the Minister of State is saying in terms of the business case having been made, but I think that closing it down and us being unable to get those data is something that is very concerning.

To explain the difference between what we are scoping at the moment, the Deputy will know that community and voluntary organisations often apply multiple times to different State bodies, often within a very short period. It is part of our strategic plan going into the future that we want to make it easier for community and voluntary organisations to apply. We want to make it coherent and more streamlined. That will involve a whole-of-government approach. There is a bit of work involved in this. We are doing a scoping exercise via Pobal at the moment. Obviously, we have to see the results coming out of that. It is a different project to what Benefacts has done. If it all goes to plan, it would ultimately provide us with live information on who we are supporting across Government. Obviously, it will be of benefit to Departments as well but most importantly, it will make the process for community and voluntary organisations of applying for State support more coherent with less red tape, as well as faster and more efficient.

Departmental Funding

Richard O'Donoghue


4. Deputy Richard O'Donoghue asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she has plans, in the context of the CLÁR programme, and having regard to local safety concerns, to allow funding to be used for local investment in CCTV and lighting in local playgrounds. [8935/22]

I ask the Minister of State whether he has plans, in the context of the CLÁR programme, and having regard to local safety concerns, to allow funding to be used for local investment in CCTV and lighting in local playgrounds and communities. Since the pandemic, more and more people want to feel safe in their communities. This can be when they are out on a walking, running or cycling track. During the pandemic, a lot of facilities were available for walking, running and exercise for people but these facilities must be provided in a safe manner.

I thank the Deputy for the question. The CLÁR programme provides funding under a number of different measures for small-scale infrastructural projects in designated rural areas that have experienced significant levels of depopulation over a defined period. The level of funding provided for the programme in 2021 was €5.5 million and this was increased to €7 million under budget 2022. The CLÁR programme has invested heavily in playgrounds in recent years, and the focus for the programme this year will be on supporting investment in a wide range of community facilities and community infrastructure. The exact measures to be funded in 2022 are currently under review. I expect that the 2022 CLÁR programme will be launched shortly.

The community enhancement programme also provides grants for improving community facilities, with a particular focus on disadvantaged areas. Our Rural Future, the rural development policy, contains a number of measures focused on community safety in rural areas, including the introduction of a new policing, security and community safety Bill to redefine the functions of An Garda Síochána to include community safety. It was important that safety concerns of rural communities were recognised in the preparation of Our Rural Future and representatives of An Garda Síochána were present at a number of public consultation and engagement events that took place during the development of the policy. I also am aware that the Department of Justice administers a grant aid scheme for groups wishing to establish a community-based CCTV system in their area. Other measures being progressed by the Department of Justice in respect of community safety in rural areas include the establishment of local community safety partnership pilots in counties Waterford and Longford in 2021, a review of community-based alert schemes, and the development of a revised legislative framework to provide clarity to local authorities on how local CCTV schemes can be established, while enhancing community safety and data protection safeguards.

I welcome all the funding provided for rural projects. Another big issue that was highlighted over the pandemic concerns community fields. While there are many GAA grounds and fields in different areas, many communities also have community fields. In respect of the way sports are organised, sometimes camogie clubs cannot access the local GAA fields. The community fields can be used as running tracks, for athletics clubs, camogie and community projects. Can the funding that the Minister of State has referred to be made available for people who want to invest in a community field that can be used for all sports and activities that are taking place within the community? Can organisations apply for funding for the provision of community fields, and not just on the basis that they have to be trying to access one of the GAA fields, which are not usually available?

Depending on the application, it may either sit under one of the schemes I outlined, including CLÁR or the community enhancement programme, but from what the Deputy has outlined, it sounds like such applications might be a better fit with the sports capital grant scheme. That would be a question for the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, ultimately. To give the Deputy some examples from his own constituency on the applicability of the CLÁR programme, specifically regarding the issues the Deputy raised, last year the Coolfree community crèche after-school facility got a grant to install a footpath outside the school, updated road signage, lining of the road and an update of the safety lighting outside the school for €35,000. Moreover Feenagh AFC soccer club received funding of €36,000 to construct a footpath and street lighting for the public along the roadway between the village centre and the club. Obviously, in terms of lighting in public places, the local authority has a responsibility there. No doubt, the Deputy has contacted it about that but there are options available under some of our schemes as well.

I thank the Minister of State. I do not think community fields come under the sports capital grant scheme. I stand to be corrected. I welcome the funding provided in the areas referred to by the Minister of State, including the constructions of a footpath at Feenagh soccer club. However, in smaller communities, such as Granagh-Ballingarry, there are soccer and GAA fields that are being used as community fields. A high number of people are involved in sport and want to go walking and do different activities. In the case of Ballingarry, for example, there is a GAA field and a soccer field but people are looking for facilities such as walking tracks and places where they can do sports other than GAA sports. I am asking under what programme an application for funding for a community field fits. I will take any advice that the Minister of State can give me to point me in the right direction. I am referring to funding for community fields, in particular.

It strikes me that it probably depends on the ownership of the field, for example, whether it is owned by a particular club or a broader community organisation. I suggest that the Deputy writes to me and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, directly, providing more detail on the specific situation, setting out who owns the field, who uses it and so on. We will see where it might fit best in terms of the programmes that we provide.

Island Communities

Catherine Connolly


5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development further to Parliamentary Question No. 89 of 7 December 2021, the status of the new policy for the islands; if she will report on the work of the interdepartmental committee for the islands; if the minutes of the meetings of the interdepartmental committee are taken and published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8496/22]

Baineann mo cheist leis an bpolasaí atá beartaithe do na hoileáin, polasaí atá beartaithe le fada an lá. Cá bhfuil sé? Cén uair a bheidh sé foilsithe? My question relates to the policy for the islands. I know the Minister is very familiar with it. I am more than familiar with it. Going back to 2019, the Government of the day accepted that we needed urgently a policy for the islands underpinned by legislation, as in Scotland. My question today is, what is the position in relation to the policy and when will it be published?

The Government and I are committed to publishing a ten-year policy on island development with associated three-year action plans. Work on the policy is well under way and my Department has now completed the bilateral meetings with all relevant Departments. The bilateral meetings provided an opportunity for frank discussion of the issues raised by island communities and for Departments to assess how they might help address the various issues raised. The interdepartmental committee held its most recent meeting on 29 November 2021, during which the participating Departments reviewed progress and agreed the next steps to be taken. It was agreed at this meeting that the various Departments would submit a list of actions that they could undertake to enhance the future development and sustainability of communities on our offshore islands. It is planned to convene a further meeting of the interdepartmental committee in the coming weeks. Minutes are taken at the interdepartmental committee meetings, but they are not published routinely by my Department.

Work has begun on an initial draft of the policy document and, based on the development work to date, the draft is expected to be ready for my consideration by the middle of the year.

I know this is taking time but we have been engaging intensively with Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann. We keep it abreast of our progress on the strategy. I met the group last year and its representatives told me they wanted time to be taken to get this right because they did not want another glossy document but, rather, real actions and meanings in this strategy. It does cover several Departments.

I am amused at the need for more time. First, I appreciate the work being done, but a task force was set up in 1996. No policy was ever produced. In contrast, in Scotland there is policy underpinned by legislation and the population is increasing. We know from the most recent census that the population declined on a certain number of islands. There are 30 offshore islands, of which eight are in the Gaeltacht. Gaeltacht islands account for more than 70% of the offshore population, so it is a particularly acute problem in the context of the language. This is not just about the language, however; it is about a policy of sustainability for all the islands.

I understood there was to be another meeting of the interdepartmental committee this month. When will that take place? Is it to be the last meeting? Will the work from now on be to produce the actual document? Is the consultation finished with such that it is now all to do with producing the policy document?

The work is at an advanced stage, thankfully. The Deputy is right. This has been going on for a long time. The draft is being worked on currently and, as I stated, officials of my Department are in regular communication with the representative groups. It is my intention that this will continue as the draft policy is being developed. I know exactly what the Deputy is saying. The interdepartmental committee for the islands was established in 2019 and has had numerous meetings. It went to Sherkin Island, Whiddy Island, Dursey Ireland, Bere Island, Inis Oírr, Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, Hare Island, Long Island and Arranmore. It has had public consultation. It did focus groups. There has been a serious amount of consultation. All that is now finished, so there is no reason the draft plan should not be coming forward very soon. I will continue to keep the pressure on.

I thank the Minister, but the words "very soon" are very elastic, are they not? The 1996 interdepartmental co-ordinating committee on island development did not include representatives of the island communities and neither does the current committee. I see that it went out to communicate, but it was a fault from the start that an interdepartmental committee was set up that, of its nature, excluded island representatives. We then had the position that the committee was going out top-heavy to talk down. I hope that is not what happened in reality but that is the way the framework was set up. The island community had repeatedly appealed that it be an integral part of the design of the policy and where we are going, given the background. It is all in the documents I have before me. I only have ten seconds remaining, so I will not read it out. This is a positive story. The islands can show us the way in the context of sustainable development, but we need a comprehensive policy urgently. I ask the Minister to clarify the meaning of "very soon".

As I stated, the committee is in the process of preparing the draft policy. We are at the final stage. I cannot give the Deputy a specific date but I give her a commitment that I will make sure we get this policy document finished and delivered as quickly as possible. There has been extensive consultation. I attended the online 2021 annual general meeting of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann and, as I stated, it asked me to allow more time. Its members want to get it right. It has taken a long time to get to this stage and there is no point rushing it at the end for the sake of producing the document by an arbitrary date. We are committed to finalising it very soon.