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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 5 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Departmental Policies

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

68. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she will provide an update on the development of a rural-proofing mechanism, as outlined in Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, considering she previously advised that consultants would provide their recommendations by the end of March 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17896/22]

I raise the rural-proofing mechanism or model that was committed to in Our Rural Future, which is a very important and practical tool that is needed to ensure our rural communities are considered when it comes to policies across government. Can the Minister give us an update on that?

I thank Deputy Kerrane for raising this matter. Our Rural Future is the most ambitious and transformational policy for rural development in Ireland for decades. The policy contains more than 150 measures for delivery across the whole of government, with the underlying theme of economic, environmental and societal sustainability. The policy has a vision of ensuring vibrant and thriving rural towns and villages, with a key objective of maximising opportunities for individuals, communities and businesses in rural areas. It recognises that rural areas play an integral role in the economic, social and cultural recovery and well-being of the country.

The policy commits to developing an effective rural-proofing model. This will aim to ensure all Departments fully consider the effects of new proposals on rural communities and the need to better target the particular challenges and opportunities facing rural areas. Following a competitive tender process, my Department has engaged independent consultants to fully examine the issue of rural-proofing in Ireland in order to provide a strong evidence base for further action. Their work includes consideration of rural-proofing initiatives internationally, so as to inform our approach based on the experiences of others. Following the recent receipt of an initial draft of the report, the consultants are expected to provide their final report imminently. This will present a series of recommendations on approaches to rural-proofing to my Department. Once received, the report will be given full consideration to determine the next steps.

I thank the Minister for that update. Did she receive an initial draft of that report? If so, has she gone through it? She said the final draft that will follow is imminent. What does she expect the next steps will be? This will be an important piece of Our Rural Future and an important mechanism going forward when it comes to policies right across government as, before they are introduced, they will be looked at through that rural lens. It will also be important in order to avoid any unintended consequences or any possible negative impacts of policies that may impact on rural communities. If that report is imminent, what are the next steps? The Minister will be aware that there is a rural-proofing mechanism in place in the North of Ireland. That may well have been looked at in the work that has been done. I ask for a timeline with regard to what will happen next after this report is finalised. Has the Minister looked at the draft that was issued to her?

As I said, the development of rural-proofing is a key commitment in Our Rural Future. We expect the consultants' report in the coming weeks. I have not seen the draft but when I get the final report I will consider it carefully. I want to make sure we put an effective model in place. We do not want it to be a box-ticking exercise. We have looked at the practice in other jurisdictions and I am aware that there is legislation in Northern Ireland in this regard. It is about how we collect the metrics and how we can make sure they have a real impact on the ground. I want to make sure what we are doing is the right thing. I want Departments to engage seriously with this so we have to do it in the right way. On receipt of this report, I will fully consider the options presented in consultation with my officials and I will weigh up the merits and challenges of each option. My objective is to ensure an effective rural-proofing model that will support rural policy development and will consider and capitalise on the opportunities for rural areas where possible.

It is welcome that things are moving with the rural-proofing model. It will be important moving forward as many people are now moving back to rural communities. In my area, there is an increase in the population that I have not seen in my lifetime. We need to make sure everything that can be done is done in order that people moving back to rural areas, or moving into rural communities, are supported. We must back up that increase in population with the services and supports that are needed.

Key to that will be that rural-proofing mechanism. That will be considered for all policies across Government and it will be particularly important for the climate measures. That will be of concern to rural communities and we need to bring them with us. That is an important mechanism and I thank the Minister for that update.

I thank the Deputy. When I was appointed Minister in this Government I made the decision that the Department of Rural and Community Development would be kept as a stand-alone Department. That is a strong signal of this Government's commitment to rural development. It is a great Department and I am proud to be part of it. On rural-proofing, we need to find the formula that works for rural Ireland. There are many schemes that support rural Ireland that do not provide the same benefit in urban areas. There are a number of different ways of looking at this. Some other countries put it on an advisory footing, some put it on a legislative footing, like in Northern Ireland, and some have it on a parliamentary scrutiny footing. There are a number of different approaches and I want to try to find the one that is most impactful. I will get the draft report when it is finalised and then we will be publish it and we will see what metrics are the best ones to use.

Question No. 69 replied to with Written Answers.

Ukraine War

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

70. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she will provide an update on the engagement by her Department regarding the arrival of Ukrainian refugees; the role her Department will play in responding to the crisis at Governmental level; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17897/22]

I ask the Minister of State about the engagement his Department has had on the arrival of the Ukrainian refugees. I ask him to outline the engagement he has had to date and the role his Department will play in supporting the refugees who have come here and who will come here in the coming weeks.

As the Deputy is probably aware, Government is working to ensure that local capacity, resources and knowledge are brought to bear on the overall humanitarian response to people fleeing Ukraine and seeking protection in Ireland. My Department's key focus is to ensure the resources, skills and capacity of the local development, community development and charity sectors are utilised to maximum effect to help address the challenges arising.

Building on structures developed during the Covid-19 pandemic, community response forums are being repurposed in each local authority area. The role of each forum will be to co-ordinate the community-led response in the provision of assistance and support to Ukrainian refugees as they are accommodated around the country. My Department has worked with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the County and City Management Association, CCMA, to agree a framework for the community response to guide that work. The framework sets out a national template for arrangements to be put in place in each area to enable all involved at a local level, including the community and voluntary sector, to work together to support the integration of Ukrainian refugees into our communities under the stewardship of the local authorities.

At national level, my Department, together with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, will work with the CCMA and the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, to provide guidance and ensure consistent communication. The senior officials' group on the humanitarian impact of the Ukraine crisis, on which my Department is represented, will also play a role in this regard. With regard to its programme of work, my Department has committed to enabling flexibility in programme delivery to maximise the effectiveness of our response. This has been communicated to our business delivery partners, including local development companies, LCDCs, volunteer centres, community volunteers and public participation networks. I want to express my thanks and acknowledge the fast, flexible and human response of the community and voluntary sector on the ground in every community across the country over the last five to six weeks. It has been exceptional and these community response forums will help to bridge that gap between the public goodwill and central Government's response over the coming months.

It is important that we recognise the effort that has been made by the community and voluntary sector and by ordinary people in communities across the State who have come together to prepare buildings and welcome the Ukrainian refugees. I have seen it in my constituency. Roscommon Lions Club, along with Roscommon County Council and other volunteers, came together to work on what was formerly the Cuisle Accessible Holiday Resort in Donamon, which has welcomed refugees in recent weeks. A huge effort was put in by the local community to welcome them there. That is important and it is nice to see the community coming together to make that happen. They have done a great job across the State and I had an engagement with the Roscommon Lions Club, which played a big role in Donamon. It is saying that the local authority, the Irish Red Cross and the local agencies need additional funding to support the Ukrainian refugees who are there. Unfortunately, they are in a slightly isolated area in the Cuisle Accessible Holiday Resort so transport, links and practical supports will be needed in the weeks ahead.

I am aware of the project the Deputy mentioned and I hope to visit it at some stage. I am in the process of getting out and about as much as I can, so I can see the level of response and see if there are gaps. We will be working closely with the CCMA, as I said, which will be getting the feedback from the ground up. Now that we have the structures in place we will be getting more consistent feedback from the ground up and that will come through the CCMA to us and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. As a result, we will be in a better position to identify areas where there may be strong cases for additional resources. We will look at the situation directly and we will talk to community response forums via the CCMA. We are also making a point of engaging with the national NGOs. We had a webinar a couple of weeks ago with the bones of 200 community and voluntary groups around the country that fed back on some of the issues on the ground. I hope that over the coming weeks, with the community response forums set up, greater shape will come around the situation.

I also want to ask about vacant properties. This is something that has been raised and been in the ether in recent weeks and the idea of people doing up homes and opening them up for the refugees has been touted. Homes will be needed if buildings like those in Donamon fill up. There are a great number of vacant properties across the State and I wonder if there has been engagement between the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on this? I am thinking of Office of Public Works-owned buildings as well. Has there been any engagement on the use of those buildings? Is the Government looking at bringing those vacant properties back into use for the Ukrainian refugees? That would be a win-win situation when things hopefully get better and those vacant properties are up to a standard as they could potentially be used again.

The search for vacant properties is largely being led by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It could well be that the community response forums are taking it to another level in looking at what is happening at a local level as well. I want to say to representatives of community groups who may be listening to the debate that I would appreciate it if they made contact with their local community response forum. We are trying to maximise the available resources, goodwill and effort to make sure everyone is being reached, that we minimise overlap and that we make our collective resources as effective as possible. In that light, it is important that Ukrainian refugees are also directly involved in every community response forum around the country. They are already taking leadership in some areas that I know of. They will add a lot to it and they will make it true and effective if they are included in every forum.

Island Communities

Holly Cairns

Ceist:

71. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the steps that have been taken to address action 136 of Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025 to, progress vital infrastructure development for island communities. [18305/22]

The Government's rural development policy for 2021 to 2025 commits to progressing vital infrastructure development for island communities. However, the Dursey Island situation tells a different story. Only after weeks of sustained pressure did the Department commit to provide a public replacement to the cable car during its temporary closure. The people of west Cork are rightly worried that this is a further indication of the Government's lack of commitment to support our offshore islands. What assurances can the Minister give them?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government's objective is that sustainable and vibrant communities can continue to live on the country's offshore islands. For this to be achieved, it is essential that investment is made in the maintenance and upgrading of island infrastructure. To this end, I have increased the allocation available for capital works on the islands from €2.64 million in 2021 to €4.64 million for 2022. The additional funding will ensure an expanded works programme this year.

It will include the annual programme for minor capital works on the offshore islands, co-funded by the relevant local authority. So far this year, I have approved works valued at €2.09 million for non-county roads in Donegal. My Department continuously seeks opportunities to expand its existing schemes to further enhance the infrastructure on the islands. I was delighted to announce last month that I was introducing a new measure specifically for islands under the CLÁR programme. This measure will give island communities and groups the opportunity to seek up to 90% funding for community vehicles and other community facilities.

The key island projects set out in Project Ireland 2040 are being progressed this year. These include three major harbour projects, namely, improvement works to piers on Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin in County Galway and at Magheraroarty, serving Oileán Thoraí in Donegal. These projects are all at different stages in their development and will continue to be progressed as quickly as possible.

The Deputy referred to the Dursey Ireland cable car. Cork County Council closed the Dursey Island cable car on 1 April 2022 for a period of seven months. The local authority had made no provision for alternative island access for the duration of the maintenance period. I am over time and will speak further in the supplementary answers.

The issue for people on the islands is that while the Government says it plans to progress vital infrastructure development for island communities, they believe the reality is different. In the case of Dursey Island, instead of an immediate reassurance to those who farm and live there, the council and Department played pass the parcel. The Department provided funding for a public service because ultimately it was always going to be the responsibility of the Minister's Department. The community and public representatives, including me, had to fight for that. This is not an isolated case. Every time questions to the Minister's Department come up, Deputy Connolly and other Deputies, including me, ask about the forthcoming policy for the islands. Offshore communities have been waiting for years for that policy. It is ridiculous. Numerous questions about island infrastructure and access were tabled today. Does the Minister see why island communities are concerned about the mismatch between Government plans and Government action when it comes to matters such as this?

I want to be clear about the Dursey Island cable car. This was a problem of Cork County Council's making. It made an announcement with no prior notice to my Department. It just said it was closing the cable car. I was pleased to step in at the last minute, last week. I was kept abreast of the matter. I worked hard with Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan and Senator Tim Lombard to find a solution. I provided funding to Cork County Council, which will procure a ferry service. It hopes to have an outcome from that procurement process in the coming days. I was not found wanting when it came to the islands. Cork County Council has a responsibility, when it takes a service away from people, to come up with an alternative. It did not engage with my Department, but when it did, we were able to work with it and to find a solution.

I cannot speak for Cork County Council, but the last-minute nature of the announcement was unacceptable. Weeks before the closure, I raised it with the Minister's Department. It is disappointing that the Minister is unwilling to acknowledge the frustrations and worries of the island community. It is an incredibly resilient group, but it needs Government policy backed with concrete measures to support it now. I have continuously pushed for investment in small piers on our islands and coastlines. They are vital infrastructure to support local communities, fishing, recreation, tourism and accessibility, but they are significantly underfunded. Every year, Cork County Council and other local authorities get insufficient funds to maintain and develop the piers. Some piers got welcome funding under the recent Brexit adjustment fund, but I could list many more in west Cork alone. What are the Minister's plans to prioritise investment in those small piers?

Funding was eventually put in place for the Dursey Island cable car. I am grateful to the Minister and her Department for that. I am trying to highlight that it took a long time. It was raised with the Department earlier. Will the Minister reassure those communities?

If you take away a service, you have a duty to put in a replacement. The council did not engage with us, but when it did, we got a solution. I recognise the work of Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan and Senator Lombard, who worked hard to find solutions.

Regarding what I have done for the islands, there has been unprecedented investment in the islands. I was on Bere Island in the summer. I attended a Cabinet meeting remotely from a remote working hub on Bere Island. I went to visit a glamping facility that received investment through the LEADER programme. I set aside a special allocation under the CLÁR programme which is specifically for islands. They can now apply for different projects that are funded under CLÁR and they are not competing with the mainland. I have also embarked on a number of critical infrastructure projects, which are going through a process. I will answer questions later about the islands policy, which we are working on, and also about piers and other island locations.

I have visited a good few of the islands and I absolutely understand the concerns of the islanders. I have been there and listened to them.

I saw the video about the concerns of the people on Dursey Island. We responded when an approach was made to us.

Whatever about the concerns of the islanders, the poor Chair looking at the clock is concerned.

Ukraine War

Paul Donnelly

Ceist:

72. Deputy Paul Donnelly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the additional supports that will be provided to community and voluntary groups, including local partnerships that have stepped up to support Ukrainian refugees. [18308/22]

I ask about additional supports that will be provided to community and voluntary groups, including local partnerships, that have stepped up to support Ukrainian refugees.

The Government is working to ensure that local capacity, resources and knowledge are brought to bear on the overall humanitarian response to people fleeing Ukraine and seeking protection in Ireland. My Department is contributing to the effort by linking with key stakeholders at community level, providing information, assisting the co-ordination of supports through the community sector and enabling flexibility in programme delivery to shift focus onto the Ukraine response.

My Department recently hosted an information webinar attended by over 160 participants from community and voluntary sector organisations involved in the Ukraine response effort. The webinar provided information, disseminated key messages and encouraged communication and co-ordination. As part of the overall Government response, officials from the Department will regularly meet key national stakeholders from the community and voluntary sector to provide any necessary guidance, help address any operational issues that might arise locally and ensure consistent communications.

My Department has also committed to enabling flexibility in programme delivery where necessary to support the response. For example, flexibility has been offered to local development companies in respect of social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, resources. This will ensure that approximately 600 community development workers are available to help support arrivals from Ukraine. In addition, organisations supported under the community services programme can include Ukrainians in the target groups for their services. Exceptional additional funding for staff resources is being provided by my Department to volunteer centres providing support in front-line reception hubs and to a community support programme, CSP, organisation to assist its efforts in co-ordinating the response to Ukrainian refugees.

We are all in touch with many members of community organisations who work with and support Ukrainian refugees. They utilise every tool and all funding and support that they have built up in our communities over the years to support the thousands of Ukrainians who are coming into our country and communities. That is not unlimited and it has a cost to the people whom these organisations were already supporting in disadvantaged areas. I am concerned about the Minister of State's answer about shifting the focus of different programmes to supporting Ukrainian refugees. That is fine. However, it cannot be at the cost of existing services, which have been providing supports in disadvantaged areas for years.

As I said, there is a limit to the support and staffing hours that can be utilised. Therefore, they need extra funding and extra support. It has to be on top of, and not from a shift in focus.

I would add that 600 community development workers have been freed from the majority of their core work to assist with helping and supporting people who are arriving from Ukraine into their locality. There was also a10% increase in the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, budget from last year. That will add a significant additional resource and capacity to the local development companies going forward.

In terms of community volunteering, exceptional additional funding for staff resources is being provided by my Department to two volunteer centres in Wexford and in South Dublin, which are dealing with particularly large pinch points. They are providing support in front-line reception hubs. As well as this, there is a community services programme in Lisdoonvarna Fáilte, which is another area that is experiencing a high demand. There is exceptional additional funding allocated to Lisdoonvarna Fáilte to assist in its efforts in co-ordinating the response to Ukrainian refugees.

I take the Deputy’s point about resources being shifted. We have had to act quickly and that was the quickest way that we could do it. However, as I said earlier, we will be maintaining close contact with the organisations on the ground and with their national representative bodies as the weeks and months go forward.

As I said, I have no issue with the fact that we had to react quickly. The communities, the organisations and the voluntary and community organisations acted really quickly. In some cases, they acted quicker than the State. This is because the State did not notice that, for example in my constituency, upwards of 70 Ukrainian refugees came into the community. The local organisations were not informed. Yet, they went in, they did the work and they stood up.

When the Minister says that 600 community development workers have been freed from their core work, that means that their core work is not being done. That is my point. We need a medium-term and a long-term strategy to deal with this refugee crisis, because there will be possibly upwards of 200,000 people. The strategy should also deal with how we continue to support the core work of those 600 community development workers. They were not sitting around, twiddling their thumbs before this. They were doing valuable work in our communities. That work cannot be disturbed, lost or put aside for a number of weeks or months. This work needs to be done, and it needs to be done at the same time as we support Ukrainian refugees.

I accept the Deputy’s point. I think we will see an improvement in co-ordination at a local level over the coming weeks with the establishment of the community response fora. There is capacity at a local level that has not been best utilised because of the lack of co-ordination over the initial few weeks. There have been small areas of overlap. There have also been people who have not been reached. That cohort is most important and is a priority at the moment.

I would urge the public to contact our local volunteer centre. There is still a lot of goodwill out there. People want to help and want to get involved. I would direct people to their local volunteer centre, if they have time and effort to give. However, I take the Deputy’s points and we will be monitoring the situation closely. As I mentioned, we have provided additional funding in some exceptional circumstances. We will be taking information from the ground up, as well as from national organisations in monitoring the situation across the country.

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