I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross.
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister to the House. I ask the Minister to set in motion a process to prioritise a major road scheme for the N26-N58-N5. This is much-needed strategic infrastructure to provide north-south, east-west connectivity to towns such as Ballina, Crossmolina, Foxford, Swinford and to facilitate traffic from Erris and Belmullet in west Mayo that comes through Ballina.
This is a very busy road. The N26-N58-N5 joins Ballina to Castlebar, the two largest towns in the county. Traffic counts show that every morning this segment of road between the two towns in the busiest. Multinational employers are predominant and in total there are 12 foreign direct investment, FDI, companies in Mayo, employing 4,800 people. Over half of the companies are based in Ballina and north Mayo. This leads to significant traffic as people travel in each direction to go to work. Coca-Cola and Hollister are major companies based in Ballina.
The N26-N58-N5 is not up to standard. The N58, a considerable stretch of road from Foxford to Ballyvary, has now been reduced to a speed limit of 80 km/h because of road safety concerns. Equally there are problems on the N26 to Foxford and Swinford. There are plans for the N5, but I would like to have them linked into the N26-N58 road network.
In the past, the N26 had been a priority in the national road scheme of Mayo County Council. That was the case until 2010 when An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission for N26 stage 2 from Mount Falcon, just outside Ballina, to Bohola on environmental grounds. The road runs through a special area of conservation, the River Moy, where the Whooper swans spend the winter and it extends to the land either side of the river.
Ballina, Foxford and to an extent Swinford are located on or beside the River Moy, so one cannot get away from the River Moy special area of conservation.
Back in 2011 when I was a Deputy, I managed to secure a commitment from the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, that we should try to find a new route for the N26. Even though permission for the proposed road was declined by An Bord Pleanála, the significance of it has not disappeared. I am glad to say that in every budget from the Budget Statement of 2012 to date, moneys have been secured to try to find a solution. We now have a line on the map for the proposed road. We have gone through a process to allow for the upgrade of the N26. Thankfully we received planning permission for the upgrade of the worst stretch of the national primary route, from Cloongullane Bridge on the N26 just outside Swinford.
We are in a situation where we are being crippled by environmental designation. Thankfully, we overcame the difficulties because I went to the Taoiseach and to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, under whose remit this comes and secured resources to sort out the issues on this small section of road, which was not the main road, to overcome the environmental concerns relating to alluvial woodlands and the freshwater pearl mussel.
Those hurdles were overcome, which shows that it can be done. The significance of and need for this road are as clear as ever. A total of €5 million was spent up to 2010 before An Bord Pleanála refused stage 2 of the N26 road project. More than €5 million has been spent to date, but there is only planning permission for one section of the N26. It is clear that there is a problem, but the need for progress is greater than ever.
The project is a priority for multinational companies in the area. I have spoken to representatives of such companies and know that they would be happy to meet the Minister. They are trying to maintain their position and grow jobs, but they need infrastructure in order to so do. The project is also a priority for the chamber of commerce.
Government policy in the form of Project Ireland 2040 states an objective is growing the population outside the big urban centres by more than 500,000. As the area badly needs this road, I ask that the project be looked at with fresh eyes and impetus and that the Minister prioritise it and speak to Transport Infrastructure Ireland about the case I have set out in the limited time I have with the forbearance of the Acting Chairman. The Minister should meet the significant stakeholders who cannot understand why there is not more emphasis on and priority given to the construction of this road.
I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter which she has been pursuing with a great deal of energy and vigour for a long time. I wish to explain that, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding of the national roads programme. Under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, the planning, design and operation of individual roads are matters for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.
Within the overall context of Project Ireland 2040, to which the Senator referred, the national development plan, NDP, has been developed by the Government to underpin the successful implementation of the new national planning framework, NPF. It provides the strategic and financial framework for TIl’s national roads programme for the period from 2018 to 2027. In the ten year period covered by the plan, more than €11 billion will be invested in the road network.
The NDP identifies two categories of national road improvement projects. The first covers projects to advance to construction subject to the satisfactory outcome of the project appraisal and development consent approval processes. The second covers projects at pre-appraisal and early planning stage which are being assessed, with a view to developing a pipeline of suitable projects for development. Overall, TII considers that, taking steady State and public private partnership commitments into account, the indicative NDP budget will allow the projects in the first category to be progressed and a pipeline of projects to be taken through early planning, but it will not be possible to take all pipeline projects through the development consent approval process or to construction stage within the timeframe of the NDP. Advancing projects in the second pipeline category will, therefore, be subject to prioritisation within the overall national roads programme and funding.
The preferred route for the proposed N5-N26-N58, Turlough to Bohola and Swinford to Mount Falcon, road improvement scheme was adopted by Mayo County Council in July 2015. However, TII informed the council that the scheme could not proceed to the next phase, phase 3 design, at the time owing to funding constraints and the requirement for TII to focus on progression of the schemes identified for development during the period of the capital investment plan 2016 to 2021 and, subsequently, the NDP. TII continues to focus on these key objectives. In the interim, TII agreed that the N26, Cloongullane bridge realignment, project should progress as a separate minor improvement scheme in order to improve the safety of this substandard section of the route. The scheme involves the realignment of a 1.8 km section of the N26 at Cloongullane bridge and the construction of a new bridge over the River Moy. Mayo County Council submitted the scheme and the associated compulsory purchase order to An Bord Pleanála in November 2016. An oral hearing on the proposed road development was convened in March 2017 and An Bord Pleanála confirmed approval for the scheme in December 2018. Technical consultants procured by the council are undertaking detailed design of the scheme and preparing the tender documents. It is anticipated that the tender process for the main construction contract will commence before the end of 2019.
On east-west roads in County Mayo, I am pleased to advise that Mayo County Council has received tenders for the N5, Westport to Turlough, scheme. It is expected that the contract will be awarded later in 2019. The project involves the construction of 20.3 km of type 2 dual carriageway from Westport to the east of Castlebar and a 2.5 km single carriageway link to the N59, Westport to Mulranny, national secondary road. It also includes a 2.5 km upgrade of the existing N59 at Barleyhill, two compact grade separated junctions, including overbridges, two bridges over the Westport to Dublin railway line, 13 road under-over bridges and six roundabouts. The project will have many benefits for County Mayo, including increased transport efficiency through a reduction in journey times over the length of the scheme, separating local and strategic traffic, improved road safety and a reduction in the number of accidents, as well as enhancing the environmental quality of the towns of Westport and Castlebar by removing through traffic.
I am well aware of much of the information the Minister has provided, although I thank him for providing it. This is about providing for proper connectivity for north and east Mayo. The Minister did not address the issue of grossly inadequate connectivity between Ballina and Castlebar or the reason there is a need for better connectivity east-west from north Mayo. One would not drive from Westport to Castlebar and on to Ballina or from Ballina to Castlebar in order to leave County Mayo; rather, one would go through Swinford in east Mayo. With respect, parts of the answer provided by the Minister are not relevant to the question I asked.
This project is critical, as I hope the Minister recognises. I appreciate his statutory position, but that is not an acceptable excuse because the answer he has provided fails the people of north and east Mayo, as well as his Independent colleagues on Mayo County Council who are located in the area. He is failing the people in the Mayo association who live in Dublin, many of them in his constituency, and who see the project as a priority for this vast area of County Mayo.
County Mayo is not compact; it is a big county with massive potential. We want to play our part, but this road project needs to be sorted. Where there is the political will, there is a way. I am intimately familiar with this and all other roads in County Mayo. TII has told me that it must receive some political guidance on how it should proceed. People in County Mayo have been crucified by environmental designation. I hope the Minister is seriously concerned that more than €10 million has been spent since 2010 and not one sod has been turned to improve any part of a national primary road in the area. This is crucifying social and economic growth. Is this not of concern to him? I am dismayed that he gave me a standard issue answer when I set out an authentic case.
This road project has been a priority since before 2010. It is now as important, if not more important, than it was then. We are trying to hold onto our young people. What if the companies to which I referred were to uproot to a location where there are better roads, as is the case in many pats of the country? I ask the Minister to revisit this issue and listen to the parties concerned. It is not good enough to pass the buck to TII because I can show him correspondence in which I was told where the power lay. I implore him to take a second look at this issue and not to brush me off.
I thank the Senator for her impassioned plea on behalf of her constituents. I remind her that while she has stated she respects my statutory position in this matter, which is fair enough, she must also accept it. The fact is that under the Roads Acts, the planning and design of individual roads, the matters raised by the Senator, are ones for TII in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.
IDA Ireland Site Visits
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Pat Breen.
I also welcome the Minister of State. I want to raise the matter of the work IDA Ireland is doing in counties Roscommon and Galway. It is an issue the Minister of State is well aware of as he visited the IDA Ireland business park in Ballinasloe recently. IDA Ireland's quarterly results will be published later this morning and, therefore, it is timely to raise this issue, as my understanding is there have been no visits to Roscommon by IDA Ireland client companies so far this year and there have been just two visits to Ballinasloe. I met IDA Ireland officials last week and I was highly dissatisfied with the explanations as to why there are so few visits to counties Roscommon and Galway.
It appears Roscommon and Ballinasloe, in particular, have fallen off the radar when it comes to IDA Ireland promoting the region. Much more needs to be done to prioritise investment in Roscommon and Ballinasloe. IDA Ireland officials said clearly to me last week that regional urban centres are performing well and this is positive. We know Galway city is performing well, as is Parkmore, which is overcapacity. However, job creation needs to be stimulated in a wider area than this. A greater balance in job creation must be achieved. For example, the IDA Ireland business park in Roscommon town has 11 acres of available space. It is a town with significant potential, and I use the example of Harmac Medical Products, based in IDA Ireland's business park in Castlerea. It is a client company, which has been there for the past 20 years. It is an expanding medical device company, which has very much sewn roots in the Castlerea area. It has a dedicated workforce of approximately 300 people and it is in the process of expanding. This is a good argument to try to ensure we support investment and job creation in more of our rural towns. I say this with particular emphasis on Roscommon town and Ballinasloe.
This is not the first time I have raised this issue with the Minister of State. I have also raised it with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys. I am very clear that much more needs to be done. More jobs need to be created and delivered in our region. Opportunities are needed for young people to live, work and enjoy the great quality of life our region offers. A certain focus needs to be brought on this to ensure we see delivery of jobs, which we do not see at present.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue, which she has on many occasions. I visited Ballinasloe early last year to see the town at first hand. I am aware of the hard work the Senator is doing to try to attract investment to her region. It is something we are all trying to do for our own regions.
I stress that the Government is determined to support the growth of high quality and sustainable employment in all regions, including in County Roscommon. Regional development is, and will remain, a national priority, and sustained efforts are being made to foster job creation and investment all over the country. IDA Ireland, of course, plays a major role in this. Every region in Ireland has experienced foreign direct investment, FDI, employment gains in recent years and more than 132,000 people are now employed by 681 IDA Ireland client companies located outside Dublin, with 50% of all new FDI jobs created last year based in regional locations.
The agency continues to market Roscommon to potential investors. IDA Ireland works closely with Enterprise Ireland and its indigenous base of companies to enhance clusters, which are important. It is important that IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and local enterprise offices, LEOs, work together to ensure they can create employment in the regions. They work together to participate in site visits and maximise benefits for the county. From 2015 until 2017, the agency paid almost €920,000 in grants to FDI companies in Roscommon. These grants are an important means of encouraging companies to invest in Ireland, particularly in regional locations such as Roscommon.
With regard to site visits, Senator Hopkins is correct that IDA Ireland hosted three site visits to Roscommon in 2017 and 2018. While there have been no site visits to the county so far in 2019, it is worth remembering that such visits do not reflect investment potential in an area. Many of the FDI companies in the regions are existing companies, which are solidifying and growing their bases in the regions. In fact, overall employment trends in County Roscommon are positive. Nine IDA Ireland-supported companies operate in the county, employing 1,171 people, which is an increase of 3% compared to the previous year. FDI is increasing. According to the most recent FDI employment data, between 2012 and the end of 2018, the county experienced a 25% increase in FDI employment.
The Government recently launched regional action plans to further stimulate job creation and investment in the regions. In February, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, launched the west regional enterprise plan. This is focused on six strategic objectives that build on the region's strengths and address vulnerabilities. These include achieving further development and growth in life sciences, agritech, tourism and the creative sector, as well as strengthening the regional ecosystem with regard to skills availability and enterprise space. Jobs growth has been strong in all regions, including the west. As the Senator said, we are awaiting IDA Ireland's results for the west later this morning. There are 28,400 more people at work in the west today than at the beginning of 2015, when the then Government first launched regional jobs plans, and the unemployment rate has reduced significantly from almost 12.6% to 5.5%.
The final statistic cited by the Minister of State is important. Significant work has been done to reduce unemployment. As he said, the rate is now at 5.5%, which is positive. However, I am not satisfied, and I do not have adequate evidence that enough is being done. I will outline a few examples. IDA Ireland's business park in Ballinasloe, with which the Minister of State will be familiar, has two good, solid companies in Aptar and SurModics but the difficulty is substantial space is available on the site that is not being utilised. Voluntary groups are trying to apply for planning permission to build advance facilities. I am working closely with them to support them but surely IDA Ireland needs to do more to ensure advance facilities are built because they are good templates for attracting companies. The same example should be followed in Roscommon town. It is an excellent retail town that has improved significantly in recent years. It is well connected in terms of road and train infrastructure.
When we look at the figures for the west, the challenge is that Galway is doing well, and the Monksland site is doing well in County Roscommon but, outside of them, there are major challenges and gaps in what IDA Ireland is doing.
I am aware that there are other agencies. I am familiar with the officials in the local enterprise office who do excellent work. Enterprise Ireland also works to support client companies. I am not satisfied and do not have enough evidence that all of the agencies support the region in which we live. I am talking, in particular, about the IDA Ireland business parks in Roscommon town and Ballinasloe. Will the Minister of State speak to IDA Ireland officials at the highest level to ensure there is a focus on and that jobs will be delivered in the region because we have a huge amount to offer in terms of quality of life?
It is not all about IDA Ireland jobs in every region. Some 98% of enterprises are small and medium-sized that employ over 70% of the workforce. The statistics for Enterprise Ireland companies show that 765 people are employed in 45 companies in Roscommon. Again, the trend is moving in the right direction and the figure is up 4% on the figure for the previous year. Nearly €3 million was paid out to Enterprise Ireland clients in the county between 2015 and 2017. Foreign direct investment is important, but the indigenous and small business sector is also extremely important in every county, which is why I have placed a big emphasis on same. As the Senator rightly pointed out - I know that she keeps in close contact with the local enterprise office in Roscommon - LEOs help to create jobs. For many local authorities LEOs are a very important part of the fabric of their areas because they help to create jobs locally, which is important. One finds that foreign direct investment companies opt to locate in large urban areas. One can bring as many representatives of companies as one likes to the regions to show them sites, but in the end the companies will decide where they want to locate. There are some really good companies such as Advanced Couplings Limited, Alexion Pharma, Colour Communications Europe, Harmac Medicals Limited and Jazz Pharmaceuticals, plus the ones named by the Senator. Balanced regional development is a priority for the Government. We were delighted with the figures IDA Ireland announced for last year. Some 57% of jobs were located outside Dublin. There was a higher percentage for Enterprise Ireland, at nearly 67%. Therefore, I am happy with the structure, that it is working and that we are moving in the right direction. Much of the funding under Project Ireland 2040 will be for regeneration projects in towns and large urban areas. I hope the funding drawn down under the programme by the local authority will help to sustain and increase the number of jobs created in County Roscommon also. I have noted the point made by the Senator about the number of site visits made by IDA Ireland which I will bring to the attention of the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and IDA Ireland. I intend to visit the local enterprise office in Roscommon in the very near future and will let the Senator and other Oireachtas Members know what is happening.
Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Doyle.
I, too, welcome the Minister of State. I am particularly pleased that he is here because he has a great understanding of the issue of rural and one-off housing. I asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to come to the House to report on the outcome of the work of the working group established by his Department in reviewing the sustainable rural housing guidelines following the Flemish Decree. The Minister of State does not need a lecture on the Flemish Decree and I do not intend to give him one. However, I have been extremely active in dealing with this matter for a number of years since I came into the House.
I have a letter dated 9 May 2017. In summary, it outlined that the Minister of the day would set up a committee. I have a funny feeling that it might have been Deputy Coveney who was in office at the time. However, it was indicated that the Minister would set up a review group. Clearly, there is an issue with one-off housing. The Flemish Decree raises a number of concerns across the European Union about one-off housing but, more importantly, about who can live in such housing or seek to develop properties. The Law Society of Ireland did some work on the issue. It identified:
A number of Irish planning authorities restrict the granting of planning permission for housing based on personal characteristics of the applicant such as their connection to a particular locale as a ‘permanent native resident’ who has lived in the area for a number of years, having employment locally, or – in Gaeltacht areas – proficiency in the Irish language. These restrictions are by their nature discriminatory but are generally justified as a means of preserving the culture or rural character of the area.
The restrictions are also related to employment prospects. We know, for instance, that in County Wicklow and the Dublin mountains there are people involved in forestry, horticulture, agriculture, stone masonry and so on. The people who have engaged with me on the issue include Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, Councillor Maura Healy-Rae and, of course, Independent Councillor Donal Grady in Killarney. They have raised the matter consistently with me, as have other councillors across the country.
There seems to be a misunderstanding about what is and is not permissible. I was sufficiently concerned to raise the issue with the Oireachtas Library and Research Service which I asked to compile a paper on it. It is dated 12 May 2017. For the information of the Department, the inquiry reference number is 2017/600. I pay tribute to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service which is an amazing resource within this organisation. I draw the attention of the Minister of State to the paper it presented, the findings of which raise concerns. How is the review group established in May 2017 progressing? What conclusions has it reached? Where are its reports? There are concerns in counties Galway, Kerry, Clare and Wicklow. I do not want to predict the outcome, but we need greater clarification on the Flemish Decree and the response of the Government to same.
I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. Our respective local authorities were always high on the agenda when it came to development plans. It is an important issue for many in rural Ireland. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to provide an update on the review of the 2005 planning guidelines on sustainable rural housing issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended.
Like all statutory planning guidelines issued under section 28, the rural housing guidelines are intended to be applied on a consistent and uniform basis by all planning authorities. Under the guidelines, planning authorities are required to frame the rural housing planning policies in their development plans in a balanced and measured way. The aim is to ensure the housing needs of rural communities can be met, while simultaneously taking into account the principles of sustainable development and avoiding excessive urban generated development. The guidelines further aim to ensure sites being developed for housing in all rural areas are suitable with reference to vehicular access and wastewater disposal and also from landscape and design perspectives. In addition, they outline a number of criteria to be taken into account in local authority development plans for the purpose of assessing whether planning applications for rural housing are intended to meet a rural generated housing need. These "local needs" criteria relate primarily to planning applicants having familial or occupational ties to the rural area in question.
In 2007 the European Commission issued an infringement notice against Ireland on the 2005 guidelines which was specifically related to the “local needs” criteria having regard to a potential conflict with the freedom of movement principle in the EU treaty.
The infringement case was subsequently deferred, pending the outcome of a related European Court of Justice case against Belgium, generally known as the Flemish decree case. The Flemish decree linked the sale or transfer of property in certain Flemish communes to the condition that there should exist a sufficient connection between the prospective property buyer and the relevant community. This had the practical effect of precluding non-locals from purchasing property in the Flemish communes in question. In 2013, the ECJ ruled that the Flemish decree constituted an unjustified restriction on freedom of movement under the EU treaty. Following the ruling the European Commission re-opened the infringement case against Ireland on rural housing guidelines.
On foot of the ruling and subsequent engagement between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the European Commission, a working group was established in May 2017 to review and recommend changes to the 2005 guidelines. The working group comprises senior officials from the planning division of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and senior officials from the planning divisions of local authorities nominated by the local government sector. In making recommendations, the objective of the group will be to ensure that rural housing policies and objectives in county development plans comply with the relevant provisions of the EU treaty. The working group must take account of the rural housing policy related objectives contained in the national planning framework, NPF, in its deliberations on the review of the 2005 guidelines. As a general guiding principle, the NPF fully supports the sustainable development of rural areas by seeking to encourage growth and arrest decline in areas that have experienced low population growth or population decline in recent decades. These are considered to be weaker rural areas, as such. At the same time, the NPF also highlights the need to manage certain stronger rural areas around cities and towns that are under pressure from urban-generated development to avoid overdevelopment of those areas. It also requires planning authorities to carry out a housing need demand assessment to correlate and accurately align overall future housing requirements across all types and tenures in rural and urban areas as an evolution of existing housing strategy requirements under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000. Accordingly, the NPF objectives are aligned with the approach already expected of planning authorities under the current 2005 guidelines.
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government intends to provide further guidance to local authorities later this year to support their housing need demand assessment work as part of the review of their development plans. The working group has met on five occasions. Subject to the completion of its ongoing deliberations, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will be in a position to finalise and issue to planning authorities revisions to the 2005 rural housing guidelines. The aim is to ensure that these revisions strike a balanced and reasonable approach to rural housing in line with the objectives in the national planning framework while also taking account of the ruling in the Flemish decree case. The revisions to the guidelines will be issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act. This means planning authorities and, where appropriate, An Bord Pleanála will be required to apply the revised guidelines in the performance of their statutory planning functions specifically in respect of the assessment and determination of planning applications and appeals for rural housing proposals.
I thank the Minister of State. The reply is helpful and there is a great deal of information in it. I am pleased because at least we now know that after two years the working group has met on five occasions. I do not have the dates but that will be my follow-on question at a later date.
Clearly, the problem goes on. We still have councils telling their elected members that they cannot make certain planning decisions because the question of the Flemish decree has not been officially completed or dealt with and remains an outstanding case in respect to Ireland. That has to be of concern.
I wish to reiterate that I believe in and support the vibrancy and idea of revitalising some of our rural communities for people who wish to remain in rural communities and live outside cities. Certainly, we have to do this in a responsible and environmentally friendly way. I know the Minister of State appreciates where I am coming from in that regard.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. There is ongoing work and it may be helpful to collaborate. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. There is sufficient meat on all of this for me to take the matter there, but I thank the Minister of State for coming in and going through this issue with me today.
We need to develop consistency. There can be consistent application of the rules but different circumstances arise. As I said in my opening address, we have places that are weaker rural areas where the population is stagnant or in decline and needs propping up. In contrast, those who live where I live may be subject to the risk of urban-generated pressure and that can be overwhelming at times. The county development plan and local area plans in Wicklow have always been seen to be restrictive, but that is because of the general pressure. Still, genuine local need is being met.
Ironically, many years ago when we provided rural clusters as a tier in the settlement strategy, the arrangement was deliberately restrictive so that it would be affordable for locals. The risk was that if we opened it up too much, then no local would be able to afford it. The rationale was that capital could be generated from other people who might have sold properties in other areas. This basically is the challenge ahead.
I thank the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs for coming to the House. The reason I asked the Minister to come in today relates to Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich Teoranta, which is an Irish-speaking preschool in Ballycroy, County Mayo. The preschool was established in 2001 by a voluntary group of local parents. No preschool services were available at that time. Since then, it has become the heart of the community and has enjoyed great success serving families well throughout the years. Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich Teoranta works in partnership with local government to ensure the long-term use of the old national school. As it happens, it is my old national school so the Minister will forgive me for being extra passionate about this particular project. It was a derelict school and was then transformed into a vibrant and refurbished preschool and after-school service. It has ensured a lifeline for the parish and its people.
The Minister may be aware that Ballycroy covers a large geographical area of 210 sq. km. Hence, the preschool and after-school service offer a space for all of the children in the parish to connect and play together. We have two excellent national schools in the parish. One was recently built and the other was recently refurbished. Funding for the preschool falls under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. This inhibits the sustainability of services because the current funding model system is not equitable. The Department funds through a set capitation model. The current system benefits services located where the population is high and, as a consequence, the numbers using preschool facilities are high as well. Increases in the capitation grant are of course welcome, but this does not address the issues for rural services. It may serve to make the services with higher numbers better off but it does not serve areas like Ballycroy.
The rural action plan makes explicit reference to the importance of regenerating these areas and having vibrant services in these areas. However, early years services cannot access funding through the CLÁR or RAPID programmes. That is the key to it. Something needs to be done. The position needs to be reviewed so that the Department and CLÁR can jointly fund rural services such as the naíonra in Ballycroy. Such services should be able to make an application on the ground of their rural location.
If that is not done, the future of Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich will be under threat. The problem is that its closure would mean there would be no preschool service in the parish. There has been significant investment in the national park and other facilities in Ballycroy, which is on the Wild Atlantic Way and so on.
I am afraid that this issue will be considered on the basis of a snapshot in time and the conclusion will be reached that there are not enough children to sustain the school or make it viable under the current funding model. What about next year, the year after and the year after that? What about people, such as members of my family, who wish to move back to the parish and raise their children there? There will be no preschool service for them. These children have the right to a preschool service. That right is upheld in other parts of the country and that needs to be the case in rural areas. That is why the funding model must be changed.
I have a submission that I will give to the Minister for her consideration and that of her Department in the context of finding ways to keep these facilities open. We have had to fight for our post offices, Garda stations and other facilities, but people in rural Ireland are tired of fighting. We want a little flexibility to address depopulation in rural areas and to do everything we can to bring people back into them so that we can have vibrant communities. Can the Minister imagine a parish without young or other children? The heart and soul of the parish would be missing. It would be like having a garden without flowers. We need facilities to ensure children continue to live in these areas.
Assisting families to access high quality and affordable early learning and care, ELC, and school-age childcare, SAC, is a priority for me as Minister. Government investment in childcare has increased by an unprecedented 117% over the past four budgets, with €575 million allocated in 2019. This investment has provided for record numbers of children benefitting from my Department's ELC and SAC programmes in 2018 and 2019. It has also provided for significant increases to the beneficiary payments to childcare providers, including a 7% increase to early childhood care and education, ECCE, providers in 2018, while targeted childcare supports provided under the community childcare subvention scheme and the training and employment childcare scheme were enhanced significantly in September 2017, some by up to 50%.
I want investment in this area to continue to increase significantly over the coming years. I am, therefore, delighted that First 5, the whole-of-Government strategy for babies, young children and their families, commits to doubling investment over the next ten years. The national childcare scheme will mark another significant milestone for early learning and care and school-age childcare and create an infrastructure through which the Government can further increase investment in services over this period.
Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich is a small service in a remote and sparsely populated region of Mayo, as ably described by the Senator. I understand that the service has been facing sustainability challenges due to declining registrations and is expecting a further decline in demand in 2019-20. The current programmes do not differentiate between the geographical locations of services to provide ELC and SAC services to as many children and families as possible in a fair and equitable manner. However, the First 5 strategy commits to undertake research on the ELC and SAC needs of parents who work atypical hours or live in rural communities, and develop recommendations for further action in this respect. That will be progressed in 2020.
In the meantime, I fully recognise the challenges that may be faced by community services, including those such as Naíonra Bhaile Chruaich, which are situated in rural or isolated locations. That is why my Department has developed a strong case management system operated by Pobal through which a dedicated team assists services facing challenges. This assistance may include expert guidance, a review of the financial position of the service and an assessment of its operating and business model. I understand that the service in question has sought assistance from Pobal case management. I urge staff to continue engaging with the Pobal case management team, which will be able to provide these supports in partnership with the Mayo county childcare committee.
In addition to the non-financial supports I outlined, my Department has made a number of financial supports available to community services facing specific challenges to their ongoing sustainability, including a once-off financial support for services in rural and isolated areas that suffer from falling or fluctuating demand. These once-off financial supports are intended to assist services in transitioning to a sustainable operating model and may be accessed through Pobal case management following a standardised financial assessment process.
I thank the Minister for her reply. I take some heart from it. Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating in terms of the naíonra remaining open or the situation there being reversed. We need congruence between rural development plans and childcare plans to address cases such as this. I will work with the Minister, the Department and the committee, which I wish to commend along with the voluntary committees of all childcare facilities. The parents on these committees, some of whom have children who no longer need preschool care, continue to work for the betterment of their communities. With some flexibility and understanding of the challenges services are experiencing, all these challenges can be worked through. I am looking for a solution and nothing else.
I am grateful for the Senator's willingness to co-operate in this regard. It is important that she raised the matter of this preschool centre. I am committed to ensuring the sustainability of early learning centres, particularly in rural and isolated areas. I described to the Senator our way of approaching such issues. I believe that, through research, we will find a better way to approach them.
I take her point about the need for a match between the rural action plan and what is happening in the childcare setting. I am impressed by her description of the naíonra having been established by a group of parents from the community and that the original national school was transformed and is used by the service. That demonstrates the great resilience and flexibility of the people there. I hope the representatives of the service encounter the same qualities when they meet my officials and Pobal.