I welcome all our guests. Many of us share the passion and ambition to improve the fabric and vibrancy of towns and villages, irrespective of where they are. The remit of the committee, as the Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development, is to identify opportunities and challenges. All our guests were invited to the meeting in order that we could hear, from their experience on the ground, how best policymakers, legislators and Departments can assist them, and people like them, throughout Ireland in delivering for communities. I have made many notes and listened carefully to the various contributions. The contribution on the free market was useful for us in planning the strategic development of towns and villages. I could argue local authorities, planning institutes and others have a remit but, in the light of what our guests have stated, it seems there is a disconnect and the system does not work in the way it should, on which I have a few questions.
All the Cs are before us today, namely, Castleblayney, Clarecastle and Cappoquin. I compliment the volunteers on the work they do on the ground. I, along with colleagues, appreciate they are the motivators and drivers of development in their towns and villages, and such people are to be found throughout Ireland. We selected people from various regions to get a feel for the challenges that exist. I welcome my former colleagues from Waterford, including the former Deputy, Mr. Wilkinson, with whom I served on Waterford County Council for many years and whom I welcome back to the House, and the former county manager, Mr. McCarthy. I take the opportunity to acknowledge Mr. McCarthy's role in chairing the mica committee, of which people might not be aware. He led the committee to examine the mica challenges in Donegal and Mayo, and I compliment him in that regard because he did the public a service. They continue to serve the public, as does everyone at the meeting, after their roles ended, whether in public representation or, like Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Wilkinson, in public service. I also acknowledge Mr. Tom Feerick and Mr. John McGrath from Cappoquin, who are sitting the Public Gallery.
We all know that funding streams are available. Our guests have mentioned the town and village renewal scheme, CLÁR, RED grants, LEADER programmes and local improvement schemes. Funding is available for local libraries, which the committee examines, and there is the elderly alert scheme. Much funding is available but I have heard better strategy and co-ordination are needed to manage efficiently how the funding will have an impact on the ground. I can understand the frustration of some local bodies when they make unsuccessful applications year after year, and I accept that has been the case in some of the examples we have heard during the meeting. Our guests will know as well as I that we have to continue knocking on the door to secure the funding.
What I and this committee are interested in is knowing what the barriers are to accessing funding. I have heard about volunteers and burnout. Bureaucracy sometimes can get in the way. Who do we go to in the Department and which Department and which local authority do we go to? There is so much out there, and I understand that volunteers do not have the time to go around in circles, essentially trying to access support. We have noted what has been said and it has been recorded. We will have further meetings to learn from that and how we can better engage with the various Departments, local authorities and funding bodies to reach better and more impactful funding.
When one digs down and looks at the towns being spoken about, every town has a reason for being in existence. That is the first thing. I come from Portlaw, which some of the witnesses will know well. Portlaw is a former mill town and was built in the 1840s by a Quaker family, the Malcolmsons. It was studied by academics, and I would say some of the witnesses are very familiar with it. These people were well ahead of their time, because they had a strategy, plans, infrastructure and everything else. Funnily enough, it is sustaining itself into modern times because they put in that basic infrastructure. They put in wide streets, a marketplace, educational institutions, gas lighting and water infrastructure long before local authorities were doing that. It is sustaining itself and the houses are still lived in. There is a very low vacancy rate in the town. It is down to proper planning, a strategy and the things Free Market said. I am just mentioning that in passing.
We have been through three recessions in Portlaw. There were three industries there, including a mill and a tannery. There was the recession of 2007 to 2011 onwards. We have survived. I think the reason we have survived is because we are close enough to Waterford city, Dungarvan and Clonmel. It is a dormitory or satellite town. Families are still living there and travelling to their work. I want to recognise that.
As for other towns, we have market towns, harbour towns and coastal towns and villages. They were built at a time when country markets were strong, people lived in the core of the towns and people came into them to do business. Fortunately or unfortunately, as society progresses, the reasons of use change.
I looked at that lovely building in the middle of Castleblayney. It was a market building where the market was. Now it is derelict and vacant, which is unacceptable. I guess there are conservation issues there and other challenges. To achieve real sustainability and a future for our towns we must find new uses for places. I can give another example from my own town, and this is not a boast, rather it is luck. It is an argument that we, as a committee, and the witnesses can make. Woodlock House in Portlaw, a former Malcolmson house, was a nursing home. It was closed about ten years ago, and we were all worried about what would happen to it. The company that owned it went into receivership, but luckily a company called Agora took over the building. Agora is an American firm that wanted an old building. It did not want to be in a city. It wanted to be in a smaller town and it wanted an older building, purely because the owner of the business wanted that. There are 300 jobs operating out of that building in a small town. It flies in the face of IDA policy and all that rest of it. One will often hear that we have to go to the cities. These are graduate jobs and these are people dealing with international finance, web publishing and all of that type of thing.
There is a future for our towns and villages and we cannot give up hope, but I think we need to a develop strategy, going back to Free Market, to identify the priority areas in the town. Going back to what the witnesses said, we need to find an identified use that we can all buy into, which is coming from the grassroots and bought into by the local authority with funding streams to follow. Until we do that, we will not grasp the nettle because funds are spread too thinly. We should have a hierarchy of priorities within our towns and counties and even within the towns themselves on what we should develop first. I think Cappoquin is doing that and I think Clarecastle is doing it as well.
I would be interested to hear more detail on how we can achieve buy-in from stakeholders, communities, local authorities and Government to support what we want to achieve. Some people mentioned rural regeneration and there was an announcement today. I know it is positive for some and it is disappointing for others. Some people are disappointed that they did not receive funding, but there will be opportunities in the future. We need to co-ordinate how that funding is used in order to have a better impact in rural areas, and I think that is the key.
Remote working hubs seem to be working successfully. We, as a committee, have visited some of those around Leitrim and Sligo. Maybe that could be an opportunity for the marketplace in Castleblayney. I know Cappoquin is planning some as well. I think Clarecastle is looking at something around data centres as is Ennis.
The witnesses are doing the groundwork, but it is about how we can bring it to the next level. It is about how we, as a committee, can encapsulate the witnesses' experience on the ground, their frustrations and their challenges and maybe bring forward a report. We can bring in the officials and the Minister in the Department of Rural and Community Development, tell them what we have heard and tell the about the challenges for the people on the ground and what they recommend on how best the funds provided by whatever Government are used to address dereliction, vacancy, sustainability of use and to bring people back to live into our towns and villages.
I would like to know where the pilot programmes Castleblayney and Cappoquin were involved in are at. Are they achieving what they set out to achieve? Are they a bit slow? What is the next step in relation to those? Ministers and their officials come in here to go through the Estimates and we see money allocated for town renewal schemes, pilot schemes and this, that and the other, but I would like to hear from the witnesses how effective those funds are. Are there barriers to spending them once one is allocated or granted the funds?
I take the opportunity to recognise Tomar Trust, which was mentioned by those from Cappoquin. It is a philanthropic organisation contributing private funds seeking matching funds from local authorities and the Department. Tom Cavanagh is the man behind that. I publicly recognise what Tom Cavanagh is doing to develop communities and put his money where his mouth is. I know there is frustration that funds are not being matched sufficiently by Government. We need to look at community-led projects supported by private investment, rather than always take the lead from the councils. I say that with the greatest respect to the former county manager who is here, but the councils are not always right. They might have their own priorities and agendas, whereas people are living in the communities and they know what the priorities are. We need to address strategy properly, and maybe Free Market might talk about that. If councils have one agenda and communities have a different one, how can we bring them together to agree on a strategy that is beneficial for all? Sometimes that disconnect is there. The council wants to do one thing, and communities want to do a different thing. That is where some of the problems arise.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions. We will not get to every single word that was said, but they have all been noted and we will use them in compiling our strategy for improving how public engagement happens. I thank everyone for their work on behalf of their communities because that is one thing we all share. Public representatives, community activists and volunteers share a passion for our communities. We want to better the communities that we live in and to leave a better legacy for the people who are coming after us. I have a concern around volunteerism as well. Maybe younger people are busy with families or whatever, and I do not want to be ageist here, but it is becoming more difficult to recruit volunteers who have the witnesses' passion. I would have a concern that if we lose that aspect of community development, our towns could be even worse off.
Those are the general views that I have. If the witnesses could pick up on some of the points, or if they want to elaborate on them, I would appreciate it.