My Department is committed to maintaining the maximum number of people in rural areas and to strengthening rural communities economically, socially and culturally. As pointed out in the national spatial strategy, in many rural areas, the combination of a high dependency on a changing agricultural base, a scarcity of employment opportunities and resultant out-migration, has weakened demographic, economic, social and physical structure. Several policy responses are required as a result.
The aim of the CLÁR programme is to alleviate the economic and social disadvantage suffered by those living in areas of low population density. This disadvantage is manifested in weak infrastructure and slower delivery of services than more populated areas. The measures I have introduced under the programme aim to redress this imbalance and encompass the priorities highlighted by the communities in the selected areas whom I consulted at the outset. These measures support physical, economic and social infrastructure across a variety of measures such as electricity conversion, roads, water and sewerage, village enhancement, health, broadband and sports projects. Through these supports, setting up enterprises in the CLÁR areas is more attractive and viable.
As a consequence, more employment should be available thus maintaining or increasing the numbers living and working in these areas. In addition, an EU Community initiative for rural development provides approved local action groups with public funding, to implement multi-sectoral business plans for the development of their own areas. This is delivered via two programmes the EU initiative, Leader+ and the Leader national rural development programme. There is public funding of €150 million allocated to the programmes over the period to the end of 2006.
In September 2003 I announced that Fitzpatrick Associates, economic consultants, had been appointed to carry out a review of enterprise support in rural areas. This review was to analyse official enterprise support, including tourism enterprise, already available in rural areas. The greater Dublin area, as well as gateways, hubs and their areas of influence were excluded from the analysis to ensure that the focus remained on regions that have not benefited from urban-generated economic growth.
I hope that this report will be finalised later this month. In the light of the foregoing measures real progress is being made to counter depopulation and strengthen rural communities.