Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 5 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 5

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Island Communities

Éamon Ó Cuív


74. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development when the current contracts for the ferry and air services to the Aran Islands and Inishbofin in County Galway will expire and new tenders sought; the proposed improvements being planned for these services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17916/22]

The Minister might outline when the various contracts to the Aran Islands and Inishbofin and, more important, the planned improvements that she intends to introduce to these services, will come to a conclusion. I say this because they do need improvements. They were brought forward about ten or 15 years ago. However, they have remained static or, in case of the Aer Arann service, regressed terribly in the last ten years.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As he is aware, the public service obligation, PSO, status of the air service to the Aran Islands lapsed some years ago. My Department is now bringing the service back into EU public service obligation regularity compliance. The procurement process is currently under way for the new contract. Once completed, it will bring long-term certainty of service to the island communities. The existing contract for the air service to the Aran Islands will continue in the interim to ensure that there is no break in service. I am confident that a successful operator for the service will be announced in the coming weeks and that the island communities will have a better air service over the next four years.

With regard to the ferry service to the Aran Islands, the existing contract will run to 30 November 2022. As with the air service renewal, my Department has engaged with the island communities to discuss the current service and improvements that can be included in the tender document. The main issues of concern are the sailings timetables, the challenges for users with reduced mobility boarding and alighting from the ferry. My Department will endeavour to address these issues as best it can through the tender document.

Finally, the current contract for the Inishbofin ferry service will continue to 31 December 2024. Given that this contract will be in place for over two and a half more years, there are no plans to commence a new procurement procedure in the near future.

Can the Minister tell me if there will be increased frequency of PSO flights to the island under the new island Aer Arann contract? Second, is she planning to have increased frequency of ferry services to the islands? As I said in my original question, it is the way it was 15 years ago when we brought it up very rapidly to that level of service. However, it was never intended that it would stay at that level forever. This is because there are increased demands all the time. Third, is there a proposal to provide an air service to Inishbofin, which is very urgently needed?

There is no proposal for an air service to Inishbofin. As I understand it, there is no particular demand for an air service there. In terms of the ferry service, a number of issues have been raised by the islanders. We have taken those on board. All contracts, as the Deputy knows, are procured through a tendering process and adhere to all procurement rules and regulations. All competitions are conducted in an open, fair and transparent manner. As part of any contract renewal, the Department seeks submissions from the island communities on how a service can or could be improved. Submissions are assessed by the Department and, if permissible, are included in the tender document. As I said, if permissible, they are included in it.

The Aran Islands are currently connected to the mainland by reliable and frequent air, ferry and cargo services. The ferry and heavy cargo service to Inishbofin is operating well at present. They are looking for a number of things, including extra savings and disabled access. We have consulted with the islanders and we will try to include as much as we can in the request for tender.

In improving the services, can the Minister confirm whether the islanders benefit from a 20% reduction in air and ferry fares, like the rest of the country did for internal public transport from 1 April? As the Minister knows, they pay some of the most expensive fares. They have no option but to take public transport to get in and out of the islands. Can the Minister confirm to me whether they did or did not benefit from the 20% decrease in public transport fares that apply to all rail and buses that were publicly contracted?

As the Deputy is aware, the Government recently announced schemes that are designed to lessen the impact of the rise in the cost of living that is currently being experienced by all sections of our society. One such announcement includes a €54 million package that will see a 20% average fare reduction on PSO bus and rail services that are managed by the National Transport Authority, NTA, on behalf of the Government. That scheme does not extend to other transport contracts that are funded by the Department of Transport or to the transport services to the offshore islands that are funded by my Department. Although the Department is not opposed to the introduction of such a scheme for island residents, it is concerned that retrospectively applying a fare reduction to contracts that were procured through a public procurement process may create issues for private and subsidised operators.

I am happy to look at this. I have written to the Attorney General seeking advice and clarity on the issue. That advice will be made available to the Department in the coming weeks. The island's ferries are subsidised to the tune of 50%.

What about buses? I mean no disrespect but buses and trains are subsidised and there seems to be no problem with public procurement in that regard.

I thank the Minister and Deputy. Our time for this question has elapsed.

As I said, I have written to the Attorney General and I will await his advice on the issue. The Deputy can understand we do not want to cause difficulties with any procurement process that leaves us open to challenges.

I will return to Question No. 73; we are travelling backwards. I remind Deputies that in the event of substitutions, an email should be sent to the office of the Ceann Comhairle to update the House on it. Question No. 73 was originally in the name of Deputy Gould but it will be put by Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

Community Development Projects

Thomas Gould


73. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if an update will be provided on the provision of a community centre to the Ballyvolane area; if officials in her Department have met with either Cork City Council or local residents with the aim of achieving this; and the way a community can apply for funding to develop such a project. [17933/22]

I thank the Acting Chairman. It was my understand that such an email had been sent, so apologies in that regard.

The Minister of State will be familiar with this issue, which I raised with both the Minister of State and the Minister and which I raise today on behalf of Deputy Gould, of the area of Ballyvolane just outside Cork city. Almost 2,000 houses are planned for this area and yet, with two large strategic housing developments, SHD, in the pipeline, there is no community centre in the area. The request is there for a community centre in the Ballyvolane area.

I thank the Deputy. To answer Deputy Gould's initial question about contact with our Department, my Department has not had a direct approach from Ballyvolane residents in relation to the building of a community centre in the area, although I am informed there were meetings between the residents and Cork City Council on the matter.

In terms of the supports we provide, the community centres investment fund, which was recently announced by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will be launched shortly. This will support community groups, particularly in disadvantaged areas, with the upgrade and development of their existing community centre facilities. This fund is not intended for the construction of new buildings, however.

My Department also runs a number of smaller capital schemes such as the community enhancement programme, which provides small grants to enhance facilities in disadvantaged areas. Funding is allocated by my Department to each local authority area. Further details of the programme can be found on my Department's website.

Other capital supports available from my Department, such as the LEADER programme and rural regeneration and development fund, have more rural areas as their focus. The urban regeneration fund, covering areas with larger populations, is available within the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, further details of which are available from that Department.

Some of this is about being forward looking. Whatever discussions were held, we must take into account how much the area is going to grow. Many people coming into the area will be new to it. They will not necessarily be familiar with the community and, obviously, this is an established community.

All in all, the city council and the Department need to be proactive here. Building 2,000 houses means a lot of people going into the community. There is a need for community infrastructure. Community centres and resource centres can be transformative for an area. The Glen Resource Centre is an excellent example of that. This community centre has brought a huge benefit to the local community. Academic research into community centres shows they can have positive impacts on communities' health and well-being while also building more sustainable, stable communities.

Will the Minister of State consider meeting with the city council to consider this and other communities that need local community centres and examine how they might be provided for localities, especially areas that are growing rapidly?

I thank the Deputy. I think it is fair to say there is a planning function here as well. If a local authority is granting permission for large swathes of housing, it needs to plan for a community centre in that area as well. That is not happening everywhere. The question of whether we will actually support the local authority to do that comes up occasionally in this House, even if the local authority does not have a plan. Local authorities need to have a plan. We have some funds that can support such plans to build an actual building. We do not have a fund to support a building from scratch as well. To give a little bit more detail on the community centres fund, €15 million will be available to community groups. Funding will be available under three strands with grants of between €10,000 and €300,000. Further details on the application process and opening dates will be available quite shortly as well. There is little point in me meeting unless the local authority has a plan actually to build the centre.

While that will be useful, there is a general proposal but there is very little meat on the bones of it. There is a proposed SHD for Lahardane but there are no details. There needs to be an opportunity for community input. It is proposed that there will be a community centre. The local community needs the opportunity to give input and there is no timeline.

Deputy Gould has raised this repeatedly, as has our local representative, Ms Mandy O'Leary-Hegarty, and Councillor Mick Nugent. If the Minister of State is in a position to meet with the city council on this, and indeed any of the other issues the council wishes to raise in terms of community infrastructure, that would be welcome.

I will also take the opportunity, because it applies to similar funding streams in terms of community facilities, to raise once again the issue of the need for a new premises for the Barrack Street Band, an issue on which we have been in contact.

As I said, this is a rapidly growing area with 2,000 people coming into it. There is a need for community infrastructure. If the Minister of State is in a position to meet with the council and the local community, it would be very valuable to try to progress the plan. There is a general sentiment from the council that it wants to progress a community centre but there is no detail in the strategic housing development plan.

Deputy Colm Burke wishes to come in on this as well.

I agree with my colleague. I served as chairperson of Blackpool Community Centre, which takes in Ballyvolane, which forms part of the parish of Blackpool. More than 20 years ago, when there were more than 1,150 houses in Ballyvolane, there was an application for planning permission for a community centre which, unfortunately, never got through. We started off with more than 1,150 houses without a community facility and we are now building a huge number of additional houses, which I think will start off with one planning application having already gone through for more than 750 new houses. A second one has gone through for more than 250 houses. That is more than 1,000 new houses, and yet no specific project has been put in place for the development of a community facility in an area that will have more than 2,500 houses. It is very important there would be engagement with the local authority but also that a message is sent to the local authority about the priority of having appropriate community facilities in place. It is important in relation to the Glen facility, for instance, which my colleague raised. In fact, most of the money for that project came from the European level, not from Government level. Let us not, therefore, wait around for Europe to come forward with money for this one.

I thank the Deputies. I think Deputy Gould will appreciate this as well. I visited his area last year. The residents of Fairhill also have a need in this regard. We can be supporters; we cannot be first movers in this situation. This is primarily a competency for the local authority, which, if it moves forward and has a plan, we are happy to support through the various funds we have available.

I would also mention the community activities fund, under which Cork City Council was allocated €307,000 last year. That was a fund to support community and voluntary funds affected by Covid-19 but it also supported its community centres' running costs, insurance bills and utilities as well as improvements to facilities. It can provide the funds necessary for repairs and the purchasing of equipment as well. I absolutely take the Deputy's points, however. We are happy to meet at a support level but not as a first mover on this.

Digital Hubs

Ruairí Ó Murchú


75. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the roll-out of remote working hubs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18041/22]

Pádraig O'Sullivan


110. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the delivery of remote working hubs; the progress of the development of a national hubs network; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17888/22]

Kieran O'Donnell


138. Deputy Kieran O'Donnell asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if an update will be provided on the connected hubs in County Limerick and north County Tipperary; the process on becoming a connected hub; and the available funding for hubs under the connected hubs funding stream. [17898/22]

I would like to ask the Minister about the status of the roll-out of remote working hubs. Obviously, there are various types of funding and funding streams with regard to these. We can all see the logic behind them in areas that have not had the roll-out of broadband we would like to see where they give people a facility to work in their area. We have obviously seen where it can help us reduce the amount of commuting in built-up places like Dundalk and all that is happening. Could we hear about where the roll-out is at?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 75, 110 and 138 together.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025 recognises the potential of remote working hubs as key economic assets for our rural towns and villages. Notwithstanding the clear benefits to individuals and families in terms of quality of life indicators, remote working from hubs will also support local economies, reduce carbon emissions and may arrest or reverse the depopulation of certain areas.

In May last, I launched the national connected hubs network together with the connectedhubs.ie platform. The platform offers a suite of booking and hub management applications to members of the network. Currently, 223 hubs are live on the platform, with this number increasing on an ongoing basis. In total, 20 of these 223 hubs are located in counties Limerick and Tipperary, with a further 32 hubs within these counties mapped for invitation to join the network. I will provide a table for the Deputies that gives a breakdown of these figures.

My Department continues to fund the establishment and development of remote working hubs under a number of funding streams. For example, under the connected hubs 2021 funding call, more than €800,000 was awarded to applicants in counties Limerick and Tipperary, enabling the enhancement of their remote working facilities. I have also recently announced funding of €18.5 million under the 2021 town and village renewal scheme. Successful projects included 28 remote working proposals. In February, I launched the connected hubs 2022 funding call, a €5 million funding stream to further support remote working facilities, including broadband connection points, throughout the country and to add further capacity to the national hub network. My officials are evaluating the applications that have been submitted and I expect to announce the successful applicants in the next few weeks. Details of all these schemes and successful applications are available on gov.ie.

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 they can play in our post-Covid recovery. I am a very strong supporter of remote working hubs. Remote working has been a game changer for rural Ireland and has helped to revitalise our towns and villages, allowing people to remain in their communities while taking up high-quality jobs. I launched a broadband connection point only two weeks ago in a very small community called Maudabawn outside Cootehill, County Cavan. I was able to say to the people there that they could do the same job in Maudabawn that they could do in Manhattan, and that is a fact because of remote working technology. The hubs are the way to go. If someone is working from home, work can impinge on the person's home life and that is not what we want. With remote working hubs, people will have the discipline of going to work in the morning and, even better, they will finish in the evening, go home and leave the work behind them. We should all have the right to disconnect, but if someone is working from home, that can encroach on the person's family life, which is not good for anybody.

This is why we have been investing in remote working hubs throughout the country. Whether through converting old cinemas, Garda stations, banks or railway stations, many types of derelict buildings have been identified by local authorities and we have been able to provide funding through the town and village renewal scheme and the rural regeneration and development fund to help them convert these buildings into modern-day use. What better way to use them than as remote working facilities? They are comfortable, the health and safety requirements are met and the worker sits at a chair that will not harm his or her back, which cannot always be said about a kitchen table. Moreover, the worker sits at a desk of a suitable height and works in a comfortable environment.

We should promote remote working hubs at every opportunity and I want employers to embrace this because there is a win for employers as well in that they will have happier workers and productivity will increase. Employers will not have to pay exorbitant rents in city locations when they can get a much cheaper alternative in rural towns and villages.

I imagine there will be a considerable degree of agreement on the issue of remote working hubs. Remote working is a game changer. While it will suit certain people to work from home and everyone is now talking about hybrid working, which might be the best of both worlds, I would also use that phrase in regard to remote working hubs. An example is Creative Spark Downtown in Clanbrassil Street, Dundalk, where the benefits of a workplace can be seen without necessarily the need to undergo long commutes, as might be the case where a business is based in Dublin or further afield. That is vital. I have recently had phone calls relating to the connected hubs funding call and people have expressed interest. We need to ensure the correct funding mechanism are in place in order that we can deliver this scheme where it is needed. It will be a lifeline for small towns, in particular, and even for larger towns such as Dundalk. We have a big issue with vacant sites. They could be used as hubs but, of course, we will also have to consider the wider issue of housing.

I thank the Minister for taking such an interest in this issue. It is ironic that modern technology is bringing back rural Ireland. This affords people with the opportunity to work in their local village and support their local shops and community daily, without being required to commute all the time to cites to work. I recognise, therefore, the funding being invested in this area.

It would be very worthwhile, whether it is done through National Broadband Ireland’s website or the Department's website, to outline clearly the locations of the current broadband connection points, the connected hubs that are in place and the proposed hubs. That should be provided, in particular for County Limerick and north County Tipperary, because it is very important.

We launched the connected hubs initiative in the Mill Enterprise Centre, Drogheda. There is no better example than there of the potential of remote working. There is a great deal of industry and remote work and it is an excellent place. The connected hubs scheme is available to access on an app. On their mobile phone, people can book a desk or an office and it is all done online. It is easy access and we wanted to make sure of that.

Separately, the connected hubs funding call is open to applicants. There was funding of €9 million last year and I have just opened the funding process for this year. It is open to remote working spaces that join up to the connected hubs scheme to apply for funding. We want to create a connected hubs ecosystem. I want to see this country light up. The app will outline all the places that are available.

In fairness, County Louth has a number of these hubs and is already seeing successes, as the Minister pointed out in respect of the Mill centre, Drogheda, and beyond. Creative Spark has its primary building as well as this new, secondary building, but a considerable number of other businesses are examining the idea too. Sites are available and can be utilised for this, and many companies will no doubt avail of it. Due diligence needs to be done to ensure the level of funding is appropriate. In respect of aspects of the connected hubs funding call, there are limits. It is about improving circumstances where there are already remote working hubs or where remote working of some sort exists. Do we need to consider other modalities to be able to provide for new, perhaps small remote working hubs in towns such as Dundalk?

When does the Minister expect the app will be up and running? It is hugely important that people see that and that there be encouragement for every town and village to have a remote working hub. It is something I passionately believe in. We have towns throughout east Limerick and north Tipperary that it would work very well for but it is about knowledge and people's awareness, so that towns and villages that do not have them would say they are a vital infrastructure requirement and pursue them. I assume the Minister will always be open and will have rounds coming up all the time in terms of further remote working hubs.

In terms of funding for remote working hubs, the local authority can apply to my Department for the town and village renewal scheme or the rural regeneration scheme for the infrastructure. In terms of the kitting out of the facilities, you can apply to the connected hubs but, if you want to do so, you have to register to use the app.

We have 223 hubs on board and aim to have 400 on board by 2025. I expect us to meet that target way before that. We have asked the Western Development Commission to do this on behalf of the Department. It is working with Enterprise Ireland and the IDA to promote the hub network to employers and sell the benefits, including reduced overhead costs and happier, more productive workers. I consider remote working to be a well-being initiative. We want to get employers to see the benefits of remote working and we want more people to get involved with it. We have one chance and it is now. We do not want to let it slip or let people go back to the old normal but keep them in the remote working spaces.

Harbours and Piers

Mairéad Farrell


76. Deputy Mairéad Farrell asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the full foreshore application for Inis Oírr pier has not been lodged and may be delayed further for another 12 months, given that Galway County Council must undertake updates to the original environment study in order to comply with European Union legislation before the application can be lodged; her views on whether the funding set aside for the pier will cover the necessary work given the increase in building costs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18035/22]

Tá imní ar mhuintir Inis Oírr nach bhfuil an iarratas iomlán do cheadúnas imeall trá curtha isteach go fóill agus go mbeidh moill eile do bhliain eile leis mar gheall go gcaithfear, de réir rialacháin an Aontas Eorpaigh, an staidéar timpeallachta a thabhairt suas chun dáta. An feidir leis an Aire a dheimhniú go gclúdóidh an maoiniú na costaisí ó tharla go bhfuil ardú tagtha ar phraghsanna? I know the Minister has an interest in the question but I am aware of timing.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Galway County Council is the responsible authority for the maintenance and development of infrastructure on the Aran Islands.

The development of the pier on Inis Oírr is listed among the strategic objectives set out in Project Ireland 2040. A steering committee consisting of representatives from my Department, Galway County Council and the consulting engineers has been meeting regularly to monitor progress. I understand that Galway County Council submitted a pre-application, with supporting documents, for a foreshore licence in July 2021. It subsequently held a meeting with the foreshore unit in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, where it was advised that the environmental reports it had submitted needed updating and that additional reports were needed.

Further to that meeting, Galway County Council sought quotations from environmental consultancies to carry out a gap analysis study. This was to review the environmental information available and to compile recommendations for the extent of further studies required which would form a part of the supporting materials for the foreshore licence. The gap analysis study is now under way. It is estimated that it will be completed in early May. Additionally, Galway County Council is in regular contact with the foreshore unit and they have agreed to assist the local authority with mapping the area where the licence will apply.

In relation to the cost, while Galway County Council has given projected costs for the development, a definitive cost will not be available until the tendering process has been completed. Work on this project will span a number of years and I am confident that funding will be available to complete this important project.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. That is something the people of Inis Oírr will be glad to hear. It has been great the Minister has taken this project very seriously, as it deserves to be. It is interesting to hear of the gap analysis study the Minister expects to be completed by early May because the people of the island were in contact with me and were concerned the analysis could take another year. It is welcome to hear the Minister saying the money should be there.

Tá sé go maith a chloisteáil go gceapann an tAire go mbeidh an staidéar sin déanta i mí Bealtaine agus go mbeidh an t-airgead ar fáil. Braitheann sé ar an gcostas agus níl an costas iomlán againn go fóill.

That is welcome. One of the questions people from the island will have concerns how long the Minister expects the entire process to take. That is for the gap analysis study and the environmental assessment to be done and the foreshore licence application to be put in fully. I know these things take years but will the Minister respond in relation to that?

These things take a long time. I wish they could be done sooner. I have been on Inis Oírr, visited the island and know the problems the residents highlighted to me. We want to try to sort them out. We have to do the environmental study. The foreshore licence and environmental studies are the sort of things required for this type of project. My Department is meeting fortnightly with Galway County Council to make sure we can progress these issues. If there is anything we can do to move it on, we will. The foreshore licence rests with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We continue to focus on it to make sure we get this moved on as quickly as we can. I have outlined the current situation.

The Minister has outlined clearly the situation and the people of the island will be glad to hear that. The issue, as the Minister knows, is the whole health and safety aspect, and they are really concerned about that. We have seen with storms in the past how badly it is impacted. That has an impact on the community in terms of being able to come to or leave the island, and there is a real-life health and safety impact. People from the island are wondering if, given the health and safety element, there is a way to fast-track it. I know the Minister is meeting with Galway County Council regularly and that is welcome but that is a question they have put to me.

Tá sé go maith go bhfuil na freagraí sách soiléir agus go mbeidh an t-eolas sin ar fáil do mhuintir na hoileáin ach tá a fhios agam go bhfuil siad an-bhuartha mar gheall ar chúrsaí sláinte agus sábháilteachta. An féidir fast-tracking a dhéanamh ar bhonn na cúrsaí sin?

I am aware of the safety concerns relating to the pier, particularly during the summertime, when the number of people using it increases. The day-to-day maintenance of piers, including the development and enforcement of the by-laws, is primarily an issue for the relevant local authority, in this case Galway County Council. Officials have been in contact with our colleagues on that council with a view to ensuring the pier is safe for users, particularly during the construction phase. To ensure the safety of the public, Galway County Council has recently published draft by-laws for the management of the pier and is collating submissions received from the public. I understand the council also hopes to employ a harbour master at the pier to manage traffic to the pier and ensure everyone's safety, particularly during the high volume months of summer.

Question No. 77 replied to with written answers.

Departmental Schemes

Pauline Tully


78. Deputy Pauline Tully asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development her plans to increase funding and resources to local development companies that administer schemes such as the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme which will have an increased role in the provision of advice and services for Ukrainian refugees; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18038/22]

Will the Minister outline if she has plans to increase funding and resources to local development companies that administer schemes such as the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, which will have an increased role in the provision of advice and services for Ukrainian refugees.

I am always glad to take the opportunity to talk about SICAP. That programme is our country's primary social inclusion intervention. It aims to reduce poverty and promote social inclusion and equality. It is delivered locally by the local development companies referenced by the Deputy, who work with the most disadvantaged and hardest to reach in our communities.

My Department is in constant contact with the 49 local development companies, LDCs, and their representative body, the Irish Local Development Network. I am familiar with the work they do, their unique role and their potential to play a key role in the overall framework of supports for new arrivals from Ukraine.

I believe SICAP to be an important programme and I was delighted to secure a 10% increase for it for 2022, the largest increase since the programme was launched. This represents a €4 million increase and provides for the creation of a significant number of job places for new community work on the ground in communities across Ireland.

Late last year, I also asked that, in 2022, SICAP have a particular focus on five national priorities, one of which was new communities. SICAP staff, working with LDCs, have valuable experience and knowledge of available resources in their areas to support migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Every realistic flexibility is being offered by the Department in respect of SICAP so that its circa 600 community development workers can contribute locally in responding to the needs of the Ukrainian refugees as they are accommodated around the country.

SICAP workers were to the forefront in their communities during the community call response to Covid-19. Building on these structures and relationships, community response forums are being repurposed in each local authority area. These will enable all those involved at a local level to work together to support the integration of Ukrainian refugees into our communities under the stewardship of the local authorities. I am keeping a close eye on local efforts around the country, in particular the role played by LDCs and SICAP. I will continue to support them however I can.

I thank the Minister of State. He referred to the 49 LDCs. I am conscious that they assist 15,000 community groups and up to 170,000 individuals annually, which represents a tremendous outreach and a large amount of work. My two LDCs are Cavan County Local Development and Monaghan Integrated Development, which deliver a range of integration and resettlement programmes and supports to refugees and asylum seekers in new communities who have come here to escape conflicts. Like other groups working with refugees and asylum seekers at local level, for example, family resource centres, which are funded differently, LDCs will be placed under severe pressure because they will face an increased workload over the coming months as we welcome more Ukrainians who come to Ireland to escape the dreadful conflict unleashed upon them by Russia. LDCs are under pressure as it is, though. We want to see them continuing to support local people who need it as well as refugees from various countries, including Ukrainians, who deserve immense support. While I welcome the Minister of State's comments on additional support, will it be sufficient to reach everyone who needs it?

The Deputy made an important point about the role of SICAP, in that it does one-to-one work with people while also supporting community groups. She mentioned a figure of 15,000. That will be an important role for SICAP. It is important that we support Ukrainian groups that are organising themselves. SICAP would be well placed to do that, but it is also a good use of resources to support others in developing their own groups and carving out their own paths.

Community response forums will be useful in making the most of the resources. That there are 600 community workers is good, and that number is growing with the 10% increase in the budget, but there are demands on them as well. The best use of their time will be achieved by co-ordinating with community response forums, given that there are other community groups that can add to the community workers' capacity. The community response forums will play an important role in ensuring that we get the most out of SICAP.

The supports being offered to refugees and new communities are invaluable, but they are usually for a limited time. I have met some refugees. Although they received invaluable support, they were expected to cope on their own after a certain while. They had made connections with staff and were still putting questions to them and looking for their support even after the programmes they had been on had finished. The staff had got to know them and were reluctant not to help them. The staff are taking on a great deal of extra work and responsibility.

If any of us had to uproot suddenly and go to a different country where we were unable to speak the language, were unfamiliar with the culture or way of life and had nothing with us, we would want support as well. The greatest support of all is staff and we would make connections with those staff. There needs to be enough support to help the Ukrainians coming to Ireland, to continue helping other refugees who are here and to continue helping local people on the ground. This is my greatest concern.

It has been mentioned to me that community response forums did not reach out to family resource centres. While this is a different issue, I hope that they will because those centres provide a great deal of support to people on the ground.

I would encourage community response forums to reach out to every available community and voluntary group. On the other side, I would encourage community and voluntary groups to contact the forums. It is important that everyone who can do something is in the room, there is co-ordination and we are making the most of resources. At particular pinch points where there is exceptional pressure, we have added resources to the community services programme: Lisdoonvarna; the volunteer centres in south Dublin to help in Citywest; and Wexford.

I will take this opportunity to send the message out to the public at large that, if people want to help, they should contact their local volunteer centres. We now have strong volunteering infrastructure in Ireland. We have a local volunteer centre in every local authority area. These centres support people and organisations in facilitating volunteers. I encourage people to take this opportunity if they wish.

Urban Development

Claire Kerrane


79. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development if she will provide an update regarding the placement of town regeneration officers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17895/22]

I wish to ask about the establishment of town regeneration officers as outlined in the Town Centre First policy.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Government recently published "Town Centre First - A Policy Approach for Irish Towns". This publication represents a major new policy that aims to tackle vacancy, combat dereliction and breathe new life into our town centres. It contains 33 actions that will give our towns the tools and resources they need to become more viable and attractive places in which to live, work, socialise and run a business.

Action No. 3 of the new policy refers to the provision of town regeneration officers, who will be appointed in local authorities to drive the implementation of the town centre first policy. Town regeneration officers will be crucial in managing the implementation of the policy at a local level and ensuring the development and implementation of Town Centre First plans. The role of the town regeneration officers is clearly outlined in the policy. I was delighted to secure additional funding of €2 million for these posts in budget 2022. As a result, it is envisaged that a town regeneration officer will be appointed in local authority areas across the country.

A national Town Centre First office will drive the delivery of many of the recommendations outlined in the policy and support the co-ordinated roll-out of the policy by local authorities, town regeneration officers and town teams. My Department has agreed the structure of and funding for the national implementation office and the town regeneration officers with local authorities. The first step is the recruitment of the head of the national implementation office, which will be progressed shortly, and the recruitment of town regeneration officers will follow on from this in the coming weeks.

I understand that these town regeneration officers will be recruited local authority by local authority, which more than likely means that someone external will be brought in. That is welcome because we will need someone within the local authorities to focus on this and drive the Town Centre First policy, which is a good policy. If it does what it is supposed to, it will make a significant difference to town centres across the State. It will tackle the levels of vacancy and dereliction that have, in some cases, been there for a long time. Many towns across Roscommon and Galway have not recovered from the 2008 crash. They were then hit with Covid and, to a lesser extent, Brexit. They have suffered, so they need a policy like this to bring life back to their centres.

Where will the national Town Centre First office be located or has that been determined yet?

No. Next week, we will advertise for the position of the head of the national Town Centre First office. I am not sure where the office will be located, but I am sure a space is being organised for it somewhere. In a few weeks' time, we will ask local authorities to hire town regeneration officers. It is a good job with an attractive remuneration package.

We are putting these structures in place because we have many different Government schemes that are targeted at supporting our towns and villages.

For example, in my Department there is the streetscape scheme, in addition to the town and village renewal scheme and the rural regeneration development fund. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has the repair and lease scheme, the urban regeneration fund and the Croí Cónaithe scheme, which will be announced shortly by the Minister. We want a joined-up and co-ordinated approach. We want a plan with local engagement and we want the town regeneration officer to engage with the local town teams, the local chamber of commerce, businesses and residents. This is very much the bottom-up approach. I want all the people working together because sometimes they are inclined to go off in different directions. We will get them working together. The town centre first regeneration officer will be the focal point in that regard.

The position for the person in that head office will be advertised next week. When does the Minister foresee that local authorities will begin recruiting? When does she see that part of the process being finalised?

As I said, I am expecting that in a few weeks we will ask local authorities to hire the people to get them in place as soon as possible. As the Deputy knows, funding was also provided by my Department to consider a specific town in every single county. Some €100,000 was provided to look at that. The town regeneration officers will work with all the towns and villages in their area. It will not be specific to the one town that got the funding. As I am sure the Deputy knows, Strokestown got that money in her constituency. We want those who got the funding to look at the different aspects of their town and we want the plan. I was in a village near me last night, Newbliss, where a plan was launched. Again, towns and villages are going nowhere if they do not have these plans. We have been funding plans in a number of different places. Some towns are very good, while others are a little more disjointed. The role of the town regeneration officer will be to pull them all together and then draw down the different funding schemes that are available.

Departmental Strategies

Claire Kerrane


80. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the forthcoming progress report on the Our Rural Future strategy considering the strategy commits to reporting every six months and the policy was launched almost one year ago; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17892/22]

What is the status of the forthcoming progress report? I acknowledge it is published and I read it with great interest. I will raise two aspects of the report. It has many references to the acceleration of broadband and also refers to the success of the remote working hubs, with which I entirely agree. There are two matters. One relates to the ability to accelerate the broadband programme. Has the Minister had any engagement regarding that on the back of this progress report?

Our Rural Future represents the Government's blueprint for the development of rural Ireland up to 2025. It provides the framework to achieve the vision of transforming the quality of life and opportunity for people living in rural areas. It was published in March 2021 and contains more than 150 measures across the whole of government for short-term recovery and long-term development.

Implementation of the five-year policy will be delivered by a series of progress reports and work programmes, which allow for the policy to be flexible enough to respond to new challenges and issues as they emerge. The first progress report was published on 25 February and is available on my Department's website. It provides updates on a total of 216 actions contained in the 2021 work programme. The level of achievement detailed in the report is extremely positive, with a completion rate of just under 80% on actions to be delivered by the end of 2021. Some key actions delivered in 2021 include the establishment of the national hubs network, the launch of the town centre first policy, and the publication of a range of important policies and action plans, including the new agrifood strategy, Food Vision 2030, the sustainable tourism interim action plan, and an action plan for apprenticeships.

A new work programme for 2022 is being finalised in conjunction with Departments and will be published shortly, with activity already under way on many of the actions it contains. The key challenge now is for us to maintain the momentum of delivery from the first year of the policy in order to ensure that the full impact of Our Rural Future is delivered for rural communities throughout Ireland. This policy applies right across the Government. Every Department has had to submit its actions and I will be holding them to account to make sure they deliver.

It is welcome to see so many of those actions either delivered or well under way. I welcome that. I will speak on two aspects of that progress report, in particular. The very first measure relates to broadband. The report references the acceleration of the broadband programme, which was a commitment in the programme for Government. The Minister will know that National Broadband Ireland, NBI, is under significant pressure. It had a target last year of 115,000 premises to be passed but 34,500 premises were passed by the end of last year. That is concerning because of the catch-up that is now needed, never mind accelerating the programme from a seven year roll-out to a five year roll-out, which would be very welcome given that so many of us in rural communities do not have broadband, have very poor Internet access and struggle daily, especially those who have businesses in such areas.

The remote work strategy interdepartmental group is also referenced in the report. Will it look at the legislation on remote working, which will be very important if remote working hubs are to work and be sustained?

NBI is rolling out the national broadband plan. There are probably many more connections than had initially been anticipated. Its representatives said that to me when I spoke to them informally. They said there was a lot of demand for connections and NBI is rolling them out. The good thing about NBI being on the ground is that it means other providers are also stepping up to the plate. In fact, the national broadband connection comes less than half a mile from my house but, thankfully, another provider was able to step in and I was able to get a wireless connection that means I have good broadband. The fact that the national broadband plan is on its way is helping others to step up to the plate. That is also a good thing.

It is important that the Minister has a real level of direct engagement with NBI, even though it is not exactly her Department's remit. Given how crucial the roll-out of broadband in a timely manner is, and its importance to rural communities, it is important she engages regarding it. I know that she is doing so. The target that was missed last year was significant. When we look at the likes of Eir, it met its targets. While Covid may be used as part of the reason, other telecommunications companies met and exceeded their targets; NBI did not. That is of concern. It is of particular concern for us in rural communities because we need broadband.

I ask that the Minister play a role regarding the remote work legislation. It will be very important. We want the remote working hubs to work in our communities. They are very important. They will sustain rural communities, keep people in their communities and benefit the local economy. There are many benefits to them but we have to get that legislation right.

As the Deputy knows, the Tánaiste is bringing forward legislation on the right to request remote working. It is possibly before one of the Oireachtas committees at present - I am not sure where it is - but that is welcome. It is important we have that conversation with employers and employees. We want to encourage them because this has to be a win-win for employers and employees. Some of them may be concerned about it and may be worried. I know, in particular, that Tracy Keogh from Grow Remote has been fantastic. She has been encouraging people to take up the option of remote working. There are sometimes concerns around that but we need to allay those fears. We should take every opportunity we get in this House to promote the benefits of remote working and the game changer it has been for our rural communities.

Question 81 replied to with Written Answers.

Bus Services

Colm Burke


82. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the engagement between her Department and other Departments in respect of the local transport services for communities not served by scheduled public transport services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [17939/22]

There will be an increase of approximately 25% in the availability of rural bus services. What engagement has there been between the Department and other Departments to deal with the areas where there will not be connectivity or a service?

Our Rural Future is the Government's national rural development policy. It sets out an ambitious blueprint for the development of, and investment in, rural Ireland over a five-year period. It is a whole-of-government policy, and the more than 150 measures set out within it are being delivered by the Departments with responsibility for the relevant policy areas, including the Department of Transport.

Our Rural Future was developed following extensive consultation with rural stakeholders and communities, and issues of rural transport provision featured strongly in those discussions. The policy was developed on the basis of these consultations, leading to a strong focus on improving the provision of transport and other services in rural areas.

The first Our Rural Future progress report was published in February and it provides updates on actions detailed in the policy's 2021 work programme. These include rural transport measures such as the expansion of Local Link services, investment in greenways and active travel infrastructure, as well as other public transport upgrades to the bus fleet and train stations and the development of the forthcoming Connecting Ireland rural mobility plan, which aims to expand the public transport network in rural areas and to increase service levels.

The Department of Rural and Community Development has the community services programme, CSP, which supports in excess of 2,000 positions in more than 420 community organisations to provide a vast range of local services through a social enterprise model, including the provision of transport services such as accessible transport services for an independent lifestyle for people with permanent or temporary mobility difficulties, physical and sensory disabilities and the not-for-profit sector. CSP funding is provided as a fixed annual contribution towards the cost of an agreed number of full-time equivalent positions, including a manager where appropriate, focusing on communities where public and private sector services are lacking either through geographical or social isolation or because demand levels are not sufficient.

Of the six organisations that are supported under CSP which provide a range of community services to older people, including transport, one is based in Macroom in Cork. It was supported with funding of more than €146,000 for the provision of services through the operation of three day care centres, transport services to older people and the provision of meals on wheels services.

I thank the Minister of State. However, would he not accept that despite the increase of over 25% in the level of services, there will still be areas which need additional support and work? Should there be further engagement, perhaps with our local authorities, to ensure we can provide that transport service?

I know the increase of 25% is over a five-year period. In my own constituency there is talk of a new service between Cork, Whitechurch, Carrignavar, Glenville, in the Grenagh area and Tower, Courtbrack out to the Rylane area. The question is the timeframe. Do we have an idea of the level of increase in the first, second, third, fourth and fifth years? What other work can be done in the areas where there is no proposal for providing additional services?

I do not have the detail of the stages of investment and what will happen on the ground over the next few years. The Connecting Ireland rural mobility plan is a major national public transport initiative funded by the Department of Transport and managed by the National Transport Authority, NTA. The aim of the plan is to increase public transport connectivity, particularly for people living outside major towns and cities. The Department of Transport has allocated €5.6 million from budget 2022 to the NTA to commence planning under this initiative. I think it is fair to say the planning will come first and the investment will follow in the next few years. Connecting Ireland proposes to expand the public transport network to rural areas and to increase service levels. As the Deputy said, there is a 25% overall increase in rural bus services. Some 70% of people in Ireland will have access to a public transport service that provides at least three return trips daily to the nearby town. The active travel infrastructure will also connect in with these over time.

I ask about the review of services. Places have developed where there is not a service and that connectivity is lacking. I think of my own area, for instance, where Dripsey to Ballincollig has developed but there is no bus service from Dripsey to Ballincollig even though it is the nearest town to a big rural area. Would that also be part of the overall review?

Again, that is really a question for the NTA and I am happy to take that question and seek detail on the transport connections to it as well.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie .
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.