Wednesday, 4 February 2004

Ceisteanna (233, 234)

Paddy McHugh

Ceist:

324 Mr. McHugh asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the action he proposes to take to help bring about the creation of a critical mass of economic and social activity in the towns highlighted in the Western Development Commission report, Jobs for Towns, in order that the aspiration of balanced regional development is achieved in the west of Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3281/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

In July 2003, when I launched the 2002 annual report of the Western Development Commission, I asked the commission to co-ordinate a strategy to develop towns on radial routes in the seven counties that comprise the western region. A critical objective is to maximise the benefit to the west of the national spatial strategy, major roads investment, the strategic rail review and decentralisation. At that time I said it was vital that infrastructure and development go together — each should make the other happen — and the commission was ideally placed to spearhead such an initiative. The overriding objective has been to enable local and regional authorities in these counties to plan a co-ordinated approach, to maximise the development potential of the region.

Jobs for Towns is a detailed and valuable report to appear in such a relatively short time. The commission consulted with the various local authorities and the regional authorities to compile and assemble this report. It identified 20 towns with populations in excess of 1,500 and analysed their potential for development by reference to a wide range of criteria such as road, rail and air access, remoteness and physical and social infrastructure. I was particularly pleased that account was also taken of towns proximity to a CLÁR area. Western Development Commission reports have consistently pointed out the need for an emphasis on smaller towns as part of the strategic development of the western region. In addition to the findings of the recent report, the commission intends to continue research into the development of small towns in the region. The national spatial strategy also reiterated the Government's commitment to balanced regional development, including the development of towns outside gateways and hubs, and rural regeneration. Many of the findings of this report are relevant to the recent Government decision on decentralisation, the implementation of which will be greatly assisted by the data and analysis contained in this report.

The report also deals with the issue of rail links and infrastructural development. The WDC wrote to the four local authorities on the route of the western rail corridor to establish if towns in each county have been prioritised for growth in part because of their positioning on the corridor. The local authorities have referred to this in their draft or current development plans.

The research undertaken for this report will be immensely valuable not only to local and regional authorities but to national organisations including Departments such as mine. I intend to use the findings in promoting development in the west in co-operation with my colleagues in Government. In this context, the decentralisation programme, coupled with infrastructural development, will contribute significantly to enhancing economic and social activity across the towns in the west.

Marian Harkin

Ceist:

325 Ms Harkin asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs what steps his Department has taken to ensure that rural development as the second pillar of the Common Agricultural Policy is capable of delivering for the rural community. [3300/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

The conclusion of the mid-term review of the Common Agriculture Policy in 2003 was the clearest signal possible from the European Union that the second pillar of the CAP or, more commonly, rural development policy is now regarded as central to the future of an enlarged Community. People are the lifeblood of rural areas. As is all too evident here and elsewhere, the greatest threat to the survival of rural Europe is the continued decline of rural populations particularly in poorer and peripheral areas. The single most serious challenge facing rural development policy-makers is the need to provide a rural infrastructure capable of delivering a sufficient standard of living and employment opportunity to sustain vibrant rural communities.

It has been clear for some time now to those involved that farming alone can no longer sustain rural populations. Rural dwellers expect and demand a standard of living comparable with that of urban dwellers and will rightly settle for nothing less. Therefore, new ways must be found to address the needs of rural dwellers. I attended a conference on rural development hosted by the European Commission in Salzburg last November. The conclusions of the conference provide some guidance for future policy: investment in the broader rural economy to generate the employment and living conditions necessary to maintain rural populations, especially young people and women. Policy should be implemented in partnership between public and private organisations. Development must encompass the social, educational, health, cultural, sporting and economic needs of communities. Rural development policy should apply to all rural areas of the EU.

Ireland must take a proactive part in shaping the European agenda towards rural development. Future policy should include: recognition that rural areas must have multi-dimensional development policies and recognition that total dependence on agriculture will not sustain the population in rural areas; clear spatial strategies, ensuring the continued maintenance and growth of rural populations; targeted funding for rural areas is essential to ensure that infrastructure deficits in roads, telecommunications, water, public transport etc., do not inhibit rural growth, these funds in particular need to be targeted on declining and peripheral areas; provision that EU competition law does not operate in such a way that the provision of essential services becomes prohibitively expensive in rural areas; and recognition that enterprise support mechanisms need to ensure rural areas can compete for enterprise development.

My Department is already delivering on some of these broad multi-sectoral policies. It implements a regeneration programme, CLÁR, targeted at areas of specific population decline. This programme co-ordinates existing sources of public and private finance and provides additional stimulus funding for the provision of small scale economic and social infrastructure to help rural communities overcome local difficulties, and access a range of essential services such as water supply, sewerage, road access, broadband communication, community and economic infrastructure, etc. This programme has vividly demonstrated that small amounts of public funding specifically targeted can have an significant impact on disadvantaged rural areas experiencing low or declining populations. Many farmers cannot generate an adequate income from farming and are often under-employed. To counter this problem I am establishing a rural social scheme to enable them to participate in work programmes and provide community-based rural services while farming normally. This can secure a reasonable income and an enhanced rural, social and physical environment for them. Such an integrated approach to rural development could be central to future EU rural development proposals.

Rural communities also continue to receive support through current programmes such as Leader+ and the national Leader rural development programme as well as initiatives I have launched for rural enterprise and small food producers. We are about to enter a critical period in the formation of long-term rural development policy in the EU. The publication of the financial perspectives containing proposals on budget headings for rural development measures post-2006 is expected soon as are the Commission proposals for a future rural development programme. In bilateral meetings in Dublin Castle under the aegis of the Irish Presidency of the EU with the EU Commissioners responsible for rural affairs and regional policy I have made clear that my Department will take an active part in the discussions on future proposals for the direction of EU rural development policy. MEPs responded warmly to my vision for the future of rural Europe when I addressed the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development in the European Parliament.

To welcome the new member states to the EU family and at the same time open real debate on the living conditions of rural dwellers in rural Europe, my Department as part of Ireland's EU Presidency will host a conference entitled Improving Living Conditions and Quality of Life in Rural Europe from 31 May to 1 June 2004. The foregoing demonstrates that I have been productive in advancing an enhanced role for rural development at EU and national levels.