Rural Social Scheme.

Ceisteanna (38, 39)

Seymour Crawford

Ceist:

130 Mr. Crawford asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he has established the new rural social scheme as announced by the Minister for Finance on budget day which he suggested would help improve rural services; if new structures will be put in place to administer this new scheme; the person who will be in charge; if persons other than those on farm assist will be allowed to participate in the scheme; when the scheme will commence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3278/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

131 Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs when it is proposed to commence the rural social scheme; the length of time that it is proposed to keep the scheme in operation; the person by whom the scheme will be administered; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3282/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (13 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 130 and 131 together.

The aim of the scheme, as outlined in the Budget Statement, is to provide directly improved rural services at a reasonable cost to the Exchequer and, at the same time, to ensure an income and employment support for certain small farmers who can no longer make a viable living on the land. Based on the funding being made available, it is planned to offer up to 2,500 places on the scheme. To contribute to the costs of wages, insurance and materials, €10 million will be allocated from the dormant accountsfund.

The scheme is aimed at those on long-term social welfare benefits. It is envisaged that to be eligible to participate, a person must be on farm assist or possess a herd number and be in receipt of unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit, if previously on community employment or disability allowance.

The rural social scheme will be designed specifically for rural people and its operations and structures will operate in a farmer-friendly manner. The scheme will recognise that these small farmers have a wealth of experience and talents that need to be preserved for future generations. It is my intention that the scheme will be operated so that the talents of both farming men and women will be harnessed for the good of the community. As a result, this scheme is a community programme, with a focus on the provision of direct services in the community.

It is proposed that participants on the scheme will receive a payment, which will provide a weekly amount in excess of what they currently receive from the Department of Social and Family Affairs and will receive a rate comparable to what they would currently receive on schemes such as the community employment scheme. It is planned that participants will remain on the scheme for one year, with priority being given to new applicants. In the event that there are no new applicants, participants may continue on the scheme.

FÁS has advised my Department that it has approximately 1,300 participants on community employment who would qualify for the new scheme. It is anticipated that the vast majority of these people on community employment will opt for the new scheme, thus freeing up additional places on the community employment scheme. Detailed guidelines for the scheme and the administrative arrangements are currently being developed by my Department in consultation with other public bodies.

It is clear that the rural social scheme is still at an early stage of development but who will run it? Will it be operated under the Leader programme or some other group? How will the Minister co-ordinate it with the existing community employment schemes? For instance, if a few people in a parish are working under the scheme will they be supervised by the same supervisor who deals with the community employment scheme? The Minister should ensure that the new scheme will not become a bureaucracy to override existing community groups and schemes.

The Minister referred to the disability allowance. If a farmer's son or daughter does not have a herd number — I have a specific case in mind — will such a person be eligible? There is such a limited involvement in FÁS now that the opportunities for people in rural areas are scarce. The Minister should take that type of situation into account. Farmers or their children should be eligible for the scheme.

Will people on farm assist be forced to take jobs under this scheme? As the Minister has said, of the 8,600 who are currently on farm assist, roughly 1,300 are working on FÁS schemes. Therefore, approximately 1,200 extra must be found to fill the new scheme. Will the Minister assure the House that the scheme is not being proposed just to make sure that fewer farmers will be able to avail of the farm assist scheme? When farm assist was introduced it was supposed to be for 20,000 people but because of red tape and a lack of interest by farmers, 8,600 is the maximum number who participated in it.

The Deputy has asked a series of pertinent questions. First, nobody will be forced into the scheme. I accept, however, that there may be farmers who are entitled to farm assist but are not claiming it for one reason or other. During the past week, I attended an IFA meeting at which I made clear my attitude to theseissues. I am glad to hear the Deputy's comments because I concur with him that it is important, particularly with the changes in relative agricultural incomes, that people should claim their due entitlements.

The Deputy referred to the issue of eligibility for farmers' sons and daughters. As things stand currently, they will not be eligible for the scheme. However, we are examining a situation whereby a farmer's dependent spouse could go on the scheme but, in return, the person in receipt of farm assist would have to give it up. It is important to achieve a balance of men and women participating in the scheme in rural communities.

The situation is clear. At the moment, there are approximately 20,000 community employment places, with a further 5,000 between the job initiative and the social economy schemes. The new rural social scheme will add another 2,500 to the current total of 25,000. FÁS has provided us with an estimate because it did not register whether people who came from the unemployment benefit system had a herd number. Those figures therefore represent our best guess at the moment. We will allow for a minimum of 1,300, or maybe up to 2,000, to come off community employment and on to the new scheme.

The minimum is 1,300.

It will leave 2,000 more community employment scheme places to be spread around rural and urban areas. That should accommodate some of the people to whom the Deputy has referred, farmers' sons and daughters on the scheme. As regards when the scheme will commence, we have done quite a bit of work and we are having discussions with the various agencies. We hope to have local sponsors as well as some intermediary body, although not FÁS in this case because it is not a training scheme. We are talking to Leader personnel because that programme operates throughout rural Ireland. We need some intermediate body and currently there are discussions and negotiations going on about that. FÁS, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Leader programme and Údarás na Gaeltachta have great experience with such schemes and have been helpful in sharing their knowledge with my Department. I hope to finish the process of designing the scheme quickly. While we will have to discuss it with FÁS, there is merit in the Deputy's suggestion to share resources in certain cases.

Who will administer the new scheme or will its administration be spread over a number of agencies? With regard to the €10 million from the dormant accounts fund, would it not be more prudent to get Exchequer money because the fund cannot be raided in perpetuity? What kind of sponsors does the Minister envisage in terms of employment of participants on the scheme?

What is the last question?

What kind of sponsors will administer the scheme at local level?

I will answer the question of sponsors first. It will be like the community employment scheme. I am a great believer in rural Ireland and in what I call the parish scheme which, rather than a special scheme, gets all the bodies in a rural parish together. This could include the soccer club, the GAA club, community councils, the tidy towns committee, the day care committee, etc. This amalgam of the bodies — the parish scheme — then becomes the sponsor. I have seen this work well and successfully in my parish. When the parish gets its pool of people, they are divided out based on the needs of each organisation and according to their skills and talents. The sponsors must be local.

There must also be an intermediate tier responsible for recruitment and organisation. We are considering Leader for that. No decision has been made but we are discussing the matter with Leader because when we look at the review of structures, we see that although we have State-sponsored community groups, Leader is the only one covering all of rural Ireland, which is what we need.

Another issue we are considering is whether we should tell each sponsor and each local committee to set up a wages system or whether this should be done centrally because of the complications involved. We are examining a number of technical issues some of which are very mechanical. We will obtain quick answers to those.

On the dormant accounts, whatever the money is spent on, if it is not all capital spending, the fund will run out at some stage. That is the reason we have been prudent with regard to spending. Allowing that some money must still come from dormant life insurance policies, at the present rate of going there are ten years of life left in the fund. Dormant accounts funding should not all be capital spending because we would then wind up with many buildings and not many services. If the fund runs out, it will have to be substituted by something else. If people stopped buying lottery tickets, schemes funded by the lottery would have to funded by something else.

This scheme is here for the long term. At the rate of spending we are talking about, and we have been careful not to be tempted to spend it all in one go, the dormant accounts fund will have a fairly long shelf life, even if no new dormant accounts appear.

We all welcome this scheme but it is time that groups interested in it were able to contact somebody in the Department about it. To date, nobody is able to answer the questions people ask about it. Will the Minister ensure that somebody who knows something about the future of the scheme is available to answer questions? I do not doubt the money in the dormant accounts will last, because the scheme is so slow getting off the ground. Significant funding will be available. My concern is where and when we can get answers and information.

I thought the person who could answer the question about where we are going was myself and that I would leave the privilege of asking the question to the Deputy. There is a tendency nowadays to require an answer before something has been worked out and then to blame the person if matters do not work out as planned and one needs to change tack slightly. I have been as open and frank as I can be today about the direction I am taking.

I appreciate that.

I have indicated where we are going on this matter. However, until the deal is done and I have it cemented in place and the arrangements made, I do not want, nor is it fair to ask, a member of staff to postulate on what might or might not be done, although it is all right for me to do this in the Dáil. We would like to move forward quickly on this and to be able to say soon how it will be done. We can then build on the scheme and get it up and running for the people. It is a scheme for 2004 and nobody should doubt that. It will be done as quickly as possible, but some technical details must be worked out.

Regional Development.

Ceisteanna (40)

Paddy McHugh

Ceist:

132 Mr. McHugh asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the way in which he proposes to use the Western Development Commission report, Jobs for Towns, to bring about the stated aim of balanced regional development; his views on the report; and ifhe will make a statement on the matter. [3280/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (3 contributions) (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 that it was vital that infrastructure and development go together — that each should make the other happen — and I felt that 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.

I view the Jobs for Towns report as a detailed and valuable report in such a relatively short time. The commission consulted the various local and regional authorities to compile and assemble this report. It has 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 especially pleased that account was also taken of towns' proximity to a CLÁR area. The need for an emphasis on smaller towns as part of the strategic development of the western region has been consistently pointed out in commission reports.

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. It will be noted that 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 the report.

The report also deals with the issue of rail links and infrastructural development. I am aware the commission 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 western rail corridor. Each local authority responded that it has made reference to this in its draft or current development plan.

I have not doubt that the research undertaken for this report will be immensely valuable not only to local and regional authorities but also 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 towns in the west.

I thank the Minister for his reply and acknowledge his interest in and knowledge of rural Ireland. Does he agree that the Western Development Commission report is one of a series of reports, strategies and reviews which have been produced with the express aim of achieving balanced regional development?

I was in Knock Airport on the day the Minister requested the commission to prepare this report. My reaction at the time was to wonder why we needed another report, because we all knew the problems and ought to have been resolving them. Does the Minister agree that, at the time, he also said the report would inform thinking on the locations in the western region suitable for decentralisation?

My scepticism was confirmed when the decentralisation programme was announced before the official launch of the commission report. It was further confirmed when a town designated in the national spatial strategy and also included in the Western Development Commission report did not qualify for decentralisation. The Minister knows that town is Tuam. Does the Minister agree that we have had enough reports? We should co-ordinate and dovetail them to move forward. The rejuvenation of the western region is dependent on the reopening of the western rail corridor. As the Minister will be aware, the Minister for Transport has said that for this to happen it is necessary to create a critical mass. Local authorities should take that into account in the development of their policies. What are we to make of the fact that on the one occasion the Government had to contribute directly to the creation of this critical mass in Tuam, it ignored its own national spatial strategy? The Government also ignored the public pronouncements of Ministers. When decisions are made on the final IT and health sector jobs to be decentralised, will the Minister ensure that some are moved to Tuam in support of the statements and policies in which we have been asked to believe?

The Deputy should be clear that there was a set purpose behind the request to the Western Development Commission to prepare this report. Decentralisation, the western rail corridor and development in the west are all linked and we wish to position ourselves on them. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, made clear in the statement he made following publication of the report that we could create the circumstances in the west which would ensure the western rail corridor was opened. I discussed the matter with him and we agreed it would be a good idea to ask the Western Development Commission to produce a report in conjunction with local authorities, which would push the process forward.

The report is useful. It promotes the concept that local authorities should prioritise for development towns along the western rail corridor and outlines the strengths and possibilities of each urban centre. The decentralisation model developed in the report was overtaken by a decision which was made faster than anybody in this House expected. I welcome that. There were a great many issues which had to be taken into account in the selection of towns. One of the problems with previous decentralisation programmes was that above principal officer level, a civil servant could not pursue a career without returning to Dublin. Therefore, the creation in the regions of a critical mass of Civil Service jobs is very important.

Deputy McHugh spoke about Tuam and I understand that we all have to look after the home patch. However, the idea that if one places an industry in a town everyone working there will live in the immediate vicinity is incorrect. They will live in any town within a 15 to 20 mile radius. If a Department were situated in Claremorris, Tuam would benefit hugely. When the new road is completed, the distance between the two towns will be very short. My Department has used the Western Development Commission report to outline for people considering decentralisation the travel times between various locations in the west. In the case of my Department's decentralisation to Knock, travel times to Ballina, Tuam and Claremorris are outlined. That is what people consider when they are examining decentralisation. They ask what their choices are if they decide to live 20 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour from work. The report in question has proved its worth in the creation of an atmosphere in which we can move forward.

Stádas na Gaeilge san Aontas Eorpach.

Ceisteanna (41)

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

133 D'fhiafraigh Mr. O'Dowd den Aire Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta an bhfuil sé chun tacaíocht a thabhairt don fheachtas chun an Ghaeilge a aithint mar theanga oifigiúil san Aontas Eorpach agus cad iad na céimeanna atáá dtógáil aige chun an aidhm seo a bhaint amach. [3332/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

Mar is eol don Teachta, tá sé leagtha síos mar ghníomh do mo Roinnse sa ráiteas straitéise don tréimhse 2003-2005 an cheist maidir le stádas níos fearr don Ghaeilge san AE a chur ar aghaidh.

Tuigfidh an Teachta go caithfear idirdhealú a dhéanamh idir stádas oifigiúil sa chiall bhunreachtúil agus stádas mar theanga oibre chun críche na n-institiudí Eorpacha. Ní luaitear liosta teangacha ach in áit amháin sa dhréacht-bhunreacht Eorpach agus tá an Ghaeilge luaite ar chomhchéim sa gcomhthéacs sin. De réir na tagartha sin, atá ar aon dul leis an staid sna conarthaí reatha, leanfar le stádas bunreachtúil a bheith ag an nGaeilge san AE. De bharr an stádais bhunreachtúil sin, tá ceart, mar shampla, ag an saoránach scríobh chuig aon cheann de na hinstitiúidí Eorpacha i nGaeilge agus freagra a fháil sa teanga céanna. Anuas ar sin, ní luaitear aon teanga ar bith mar theanga oibre san dréacht bhun-chomhaontú nua. Mar sin, ní cheist í seo le réiteach sa bhunreacht nua í fhéin, ach ceist a bheadh le réiteach le dlí. Go héifeachtúil, beidh gá le Rialachán na Comhairle 1/1958 a leasú d'aon ghuth i gComhairle na nAirí.

Mar a d'fhógair an Taoiseach le déanaí, tá an Rialtais ag bunú grúpa oibre chun anailís a dhéanamh ar an méid gur féidir a bhaint amach agus na féidearthachtaí atá ann chun dul chun cinn a dhéanamh. Tá cruinniú ard-léibhéal socraithe amárach chun dul chun cinn a dhéanamh. Tá súil agam go gcríochnófar an próiséas go luath agus go mbeifear in ann dul thar n-ais chuig an Rialtas le moltaí dea-bhreithnithe in am tráth. Ag an bpointe seo, níl fhéadfainn a rá go bhfuil mé cinnte go bhfuil an cheist seo chomh simplí agus a cheaptar agus tá sé ró-luath a rá fós cén toradh a bheidh ar na comhráití atá arsiúl.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an freagra sin ach caithfidh mé a rá gur thug an tAire an fhreagra céanna dom le déanaí. Is é atá scríofa i ráiteas straitéise na Roinne go bhfuil ceist stádas níos fearr a fháil don Ghaeilge san AE á chur ar aghaidh. Is é atá in intinn an fheachtais seo ná go mbeadh an Ghaeilge mar theanga oifigiúil.

Má léitear moladh uimhir a trí de phríomh-mholtaí Choimisiúin na Gaeltachta feictear gurb é tuairim láidir lucht na Gaeilge ar fud na tíre go mbainfear amach stádas mar theanga oifigiúil oibre don Ghaeilge san Aontas Eorpach. Níor fhreagair an tAire an cheist sin ach cuirfidh mé arís í. An bhfuil an tAire sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt don fheachtas sin?

Is cinneadh é seo a dhéanfaidh an Rialtas nuair a bheas an staidéar déanta. Cloisim go leor daoine ag plé na ceiste seo agus cinnteacht iontach acu faoi gach rud, cé gur léir nach bhfuil na cáipéisí ar fad a bhaineann leis an gceist feicthe acu agus nach bhfuil anailís iomlán déanta acu ar na himpleachtaí a bhainfeadh le stádas iomlán oibre.

Chomh maith leis sin, thar 30 bliain tá athrú mór tagtha ar céard a chiallaíonn stádas oibre sa Chomhaontas. Mar shampla, ar phaipéar beidh an stádas céanna ag an Mháltais agus an Liotuáinis agus atá ag an mBéarla, ach níl éinne sa Teach seo a bhi thall ariamh san mBruiséal a cheapann go bhfuil stádas na Máltaise, go praiticiúil mar theanga oibre, ioncurtha le stádas an Bhéarla ar aon bhealach. Mar sin, caithfimid anailís a dhéanamh ar céard faoi atáimid ag caint agus féachaint cén bealach is fearr a dhul ar aghaidh.

Tá daoine tar éis a rá go bhfaighimid 100% cinnte é dá n-iarrfaimís é. Is léir nach bhfaca siad an cháipéis a réitigh an tAontas nuair a bhíothas ag breithniú chás na Máltaise. Nuair a bhí an cás sin á bhreithniú rinneadh soiléir é gurb é an fáth gur tugadh stádas oifigiúil don Mháltais, ní hamháin go bhfuil sí ina theanga bhunreachtúil mar atá sa tír seo agus go bhfuil sé mar cheart í a labhairt sna cúirteanna agus ins an bparlaimint, ach gurb í a labhartar go coitianta. Ar an mbunús sin bhí an Coimisiún sásta moladh a dhéanamh go dtabharfaí an stádas sin don Mháltais. Mar sin, níl an rud atáá rá ag cuid des na daoine san bhfeachtas seo cruinn, is é sin go mbeadh an rud seo cinnte le fáil dá n-iarrfaíé. Tá cruthú le fáil gur a mhalairt ar fad a bheadh fíor.

Dá mbeadh stádas níos fearr ag an Ghaeilge san Aontas Eorpach bheadh sé mar theanga shásúil chun postanna a fháil san Aontas Eorpach. Nuair a bhí an Taoiseach ag tabhairt an fhreagra do Enda Kenny, d'admháil sé go raibh sé an-tábhachtach ar fad. Más rud é go bhfuil Gaelainn ag duine, ba cheart go mbeadh sé sin sásúil chun post a fháil san Aontas Eorpach. Is rud an-bhunúsach ar fad é sin. Is é an t-ainm atá ar a ráiteas straitéise ná"Éist"— listen. An bhfuil an tAire ag éisteacht le muintir na Gaelainne? Nach bhfuil sé sásta obair? Cuirfidh mé ceist air sa ngrúpa oibre atá bunaithe aige an mbeadh sé sásta Conradh na Gaeilge agus muintir an fheachtais a thógaint isteach sa ngrúpa sin ionas go mbeimis go léir ar aon aigne faoi seo? Caithfear an Ghaelainn a chur chun cinn. Le comhoibriú, b'fhéidir gur féidir linn an réiteach is fearr a fháil. Níl a fhios agam an raibh an tAire ag léamhThe Irish Times inniu. Bhí scéal faoi phlean B ann. An féidir linn comhoibriú le chéile chun an Ghaelainn a chur chun cinn? An bhfuil an tAire sásta éisteacht leis an Dr. Pádraig Ó Laighin, Conradh na Gaeilge, Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge agus gach duine? Tá mé ag fáil litreacha ó dhaoine ó gach cearn den tír agus as Sasana fiú. Tá an-suím ar fad ag muintir na Gaeilge sa cheist seo.

Tá muid ag plé lena chéile trasna na Dála anseo le tamall fada anois. Creidim gur duine thar a bheith réasúnta, tuisceanach é an Teachta, agus oibríonn sé ar bhealach stuama ciallmhar i gcónaí. Dúirt mé ag an am go raibh muid ag plé cheist an Bhille teanga. Tá mise sásta éisteacht; tá mé ag éisteacht le dhá mhí. Is beag a dúirt mé faoin ábhar seo le cúpla mí anuas. Ar ndóigh, sa gcéad áit, tá freagracht ag an Roinn Gnóthaí Eachtracha faoin gceist. D'fhreagair an Teachta a cheist féin ar bhealach. Céard atá i gceist go praiticiúil leis an stádas oibre don Mháltais? Tá ceithre nó cúig rud i gceist. Tá an cheist ann maidir le ceart a bheith ag duine post a fháil san Aontas Eorpach. Tá ceist na hateangaireachta ann. Tá ceist an chomhfhreagrais ann. Tá an cheist ann maidir le cáipéisíocht a aistriú— mar shampla, dlíthe na hEorpa — go dtí na teangacha éagsúla. Is dóiche gur stádas an chúigiú ceist — rud éigin san aer. Maidir le postanna, thiocfainn leis an Teachta go hiomlán gurbh fhearr i bhfad a bheadh duine le Gaeilge agus Béarla cáilithe le haghaidh oibre san AE ná mar a bheadh duine a mbeadh péire de na mionteangacha aige nó aici. Tá cás an-láidir le scrúdú ansin.

Maidir le hateangaireacht, níl an cás, fiú mar atá sé, simplí anois, mar ní dhéantar ateangaireacht go dtí na teangacha beaga i ngach cás níos mó— fiú na teangacha beaga oibre. Ba cheart dúinn tuilleadh stáidéir a dhéanamh ar an gceist áirithe sin. Tá comhfhreagras ceart go leor de thoradh stádas bunreachtúil na Gaeilge. Is é an ceathrú rud ná an cháipéisíocht, agus tá daoine ag obair le fáil amach go díreach cad é an cháipéisíocht.

Ba cheart don Aire dul ar aghaidh go dtí an chéad cheist eile.

Leathnóiméad eile, le do thoil. Tá sé tábhachtach. Éinne a bhí ariamh ag cruinniú de Chomhairle na nAirí, beidh a fhios aige go gcuirtear na dréacht-doiciméid ar fad thart i mBéarla nó, b'fhéidir, i mBéarla agus i bhFraincis. Ní chuirtear thart i ngach teanga iad. Mar sin, tá an t-aistriú ar an gcaipéisíocht teoranta. Ba cheart dúinn, ní amháin breathnú ar an gceist seo i líon amháin, ach breathnú air píosa ar phíosa le fáil amach cén bealach is féarr dul chun cinn leis an gceist.

Tar éis dom mo shaol a chaitheamh leis an nGaeilge, go pearsanta agus go poiblí, agus bheith ag obair ar a son i ngach uile phost a bhí agam ariamh ar bhealach amháin nó bealach eile, ní gá do dhaoine léachtaí a thabhairt domsa faoi mo dhícheall a dhéanamh ar son na Gaeilge.

Planning Issues.

Ceisteanna (42)

Martin Ferris

Ceist:

134 Mr. Ferris asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs his views on whether the current planning regulations need to be revised to meet the pressing need for housing in rural communities. [3368/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (3 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

Overall Government policy on housing in rural communities is set out in the national spatial strategy, NSS, which was published in November 2002. The rural settlement policy framework contained in the NSS aims to sustain and renew established rural communities while strengthening the structure of villages and smaller settlements to support local economies. In that way, key assets in rural areas are protected to support quality of life, and rural settlement policies are responsive to differing local circumstances.

My colleague in Government, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, accepts that it is vitally important that there is certainty and consistency in the implementation by planning authorities of Government policy regarding rural housing through their own development plans and in the operation of the development control system under planning legislation. That is the purpose of the guidelines under the Planning and Development Act 2000 which the Minister, Deputy Cullen, intends to bring forward to deal with this issue.

I gather that those are at an advanced stage of preparation and following ministerial consultation the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government hopes to issue them as soon as possible.

The decline in rural Ireland in recent years, particularly in the west and south-west, has been alarming. Does the Minister agree that contributing to that decline are the difficulties in some areas for local people in getting planning permission? Does he agree that another contributing factor is that when there is a shortage of supply and an increase in demand, it is almost impossible for local people or working-class people in rural areas to compete in the market? I speak in particular of scenic areas, where the number of holiday homes is increasing. Does the Minister agree it is of enormous importance that he come up with some form of imaginative scheme to help working-class rural people and those who were born into single-room rural cottages and do not have land of their own? Owing to the escalating cost of sites, effectively any couple trying to build their own home needs two mortgages, and in many instances the price of the site can exceed the cost of the building. Is some form of imaginative scheme — perhaps an interest-free loan over 25 years towards the purchase of the site, administered through local government — not needed urgently to reverse the decline?

It is well known that I believe that in rural areas outside those areas subject to major urban pressure, those with a connection with the place or who live there permanently should be accommodated. All that is clearly spelt out in the spatial strategy. The spatial strategy is there, and we do not need any housing guidelines to lay down the basic rules. Let us be clear about it. It states that near the big towns and cities where there is urban influence, people with a connection with the place, either through background or employment, full-time or part-time, should be accommodated with rural sites. It goes on to state that in the BMW region, away from areas of urban influence, anyone who will live permanently in a house should be accommodated. It therefore rules out overspill from the towns and cities into areas adjacent, as well as second homes.

We must all be up-front about this. By designing the spatial strategy as we have, particularly in the scenic areas that the Deputy mentioned, we have excluded the very wealthy person who wants to build a second home from competing in the market. According to the spatial strategy, they should not be at the races. That was done for two reasons, the first being the obvious one of preserving the countryside, since one wants to ensure that those houses that are granted permission go to locals. The second one was the social reason that the Deputy has just propounded, the market for young local people buying sites whose parents do not have farms and have no connection with planning, and their right to planning permission. Those people should not be wrongfully priced out of the market by having to compete with holiday home owners.

From the point of view of the person selling, we have limited the market, but for a local buyer we have ensured that he or she does not have to compete with holiday home owners. I am glad the Deputy has raised this matter because at many meetings throughout the country people on the one hand want to get top dollar and to be able to sell to the outsider while on the other they complain that those same outsiders are pricing their children out of the market. We can have it one way or the other.

I was part of a council which adopted this policy long before the spatial strategy. Priority to build houses in rural areas and in scenic areas should be given to local people or to people who have moved to an area, live in it permanently and have a job in it, and not to people to have second homes. That is the best social policy we can follow.