Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Ceisteanna (23, 24, 25, 26)

Pat Rabbitte

Ceist:

77 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs his views on whether his Department’s allocation of €425 million, or a 6% share of the €7 billion total provided under the rural development national strategy, is an equitable share; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7702/07]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Ceist:

91 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs when he expects European Commission approval for the final publication of the Irish rural development national strategy. [7773/07]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seán Ryan

Ceist:

97 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he will introduce or propose any initiatives for rural Ireland in 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7705/07]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joe Sherlock

Ceist:

120 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the initiatives he has planned to come into effect in 2007 to enhance the narrow economic base of many rural areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7707/07]

Amharc ar fhreagra

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

I propose to take Questions Nos. 77, 91, 97 and 120 together.

Rural areas will benefit from a broad range of expenditure under the national development plan, including water, roads, sanitary services, housing, regional airports and so on. The national rural development strategy is a small element of the total rural spend. It sets out national priorities for rural development programming over the seven-year period to 2013 and was submitted to the European Commission in autumn 2006. The strategy was broadly welcomed by the Commission and, following a period of public consultation, a detailed national rural development programme, based on this strategy, was prepared by my Department, working together with the Department of Agriculture and Food.

This programme was submitted to the European Commission at the end of 2006. Officials from both Departments are working closely with the Commission to ensure the programme is approved in a timely fashion to facilitate an early implementation date. Over the lifetime of the programme, my Department will provide €425 million in public funding to support measures aimed at developing the economic and social infrastructure of the wider rural community. This level of funding incorporates 10% of the total EU finance available under the European agricultural fund for rural development and represents a significant threefold increase in support for the rural economy over that available under the current programme, which is now coming to an end.

It is important to stress that this programme, while significant in itself, represents only one aspect of an integrated investment package in rural areas by my Department. Over the lifetime of the national development plan, almost €400 million will be provided directly from the Exchequer to support complementary rural initiatives by my Department alone. The CLÁR programme, for example, which is targeted at supporting small infrastructure projects in rural areas will attract €141 million over the lifetime of the NDP. In addition, the rural social scheme, which provides community-centred employment opportunities for farmers and fisherpersons, will benefit from national funding of the order of €214 million over the same period.

My Department is developing proposals to establish a pilot night-time rural transport scheme, and I hope to make an announcement in the coming weeks in this regard. In addition, I have already put in place several measures for the development of countryside recreation. I will continue to support and enhance such measures in 2007.

The question in Deputy Rabbitte's name arises from the submission made by Irish Rural Link to the Coiste um Gnóthaí Ealaíon, Spóirt, Turasóireachta, Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta on the national development plan. One of the points the delegation made was that 59% of the population lives in the areas targeted by the plan. The delegates raised issues such as the narrow economic base of many rural areas.

I complimented the Minister earlier on the initiatives taken in regard to the outcome of the report of Comhairle na Tuaithe, as a result of which ten positions are being created on the leisure side. However, it is important to bear in mind that while there are many people who live in rural communities and commute to work, we must always focus on creating economic activity in these areas so that people do not have to go outside their areas to seek employment. Niche food products are an example of a market that could be developed. The entry costs for small food industries are higher than for other types of industry but great potential exists and local raw materials are available. When water and roads are taken away from the €457 million, however, what is left to broaden the economic base of rural areas, particularly CLÁR areas where the population is declining? What will this money do to improve capacity to extend economy activity and job creation in rural areas?

The IDA, Enterprise Ireland, the Western Development Commission, Údarás na Gaeltachta and the county development boards all have a remit for rural areas. Often the IDA concentrates on gateways but the other agencies operate across the State.

Údarás na Gaeltachta does not.

It operates in Meath, Cork, Waterford, Mayo and Donegal. The Western Development Commission covers the Shannon and western areas and the county development boards cover the State. Everyone has access to development money.

Leader companies have been doing good work at the micro level and have enjoyed quite a level of success. There was a constraining factor in that I decided at the beginning to put all of the European money into Leader-type action instead of spreading it out to CLÁR and other programmes. This year, however, we got a good result in Brussels which means we will have three times as much funding per annum as we had in the previous national development plan.

I agree about the importance of the small food sector and we have been working with it. We have appointed a co-ordinator for small foods who has been on a yearly contract for the past three years. She has done fantastic work and the sector is growing by 10% per annum. With changing lifestyles and farming methods, it will be an increasing player. We have emphasised farmers' markets and they are sprouting up throughout the country.

We hope to appoint two specialists to support small food producers. We must stimulate them and we have said to the Leader companies that we see the focus falling on this area next time around because rural recreation and small food production interlock. If someone goes to a region to enjoy the rural recreation, he will want to eat the food of that region. We will see a concentration on that sort of indigenous development. Where things get beyond a certain level, however, they must go to Enterprise Ireland for support.

I have had other ideas. I was keen on developing sites for micro-industries. Hygiene regulations are now very strict and people can no longer set up small industries in their kitchens. The costs of buying a site, getting planning permission and securing services are very high. I had an idea that sites, not buildings, should be ready so that a person can erect a small building. There are other ideas in CLÁR areas we should look at.

Unfortunately, despite having worked hard for five years, I still have more ideas than there are hours in the day to implement. We will keep working for the next few weeks and see how much we can get done. A lot has been done and the sector is well set up. I hope the benefit will be seen in the time to come.

Fine Gael also has many ideas so hopefully we will have a few hours after the election to implement them.

The Minister said he will shortly make an announcement on night-time rural transport. Will the Minister investigate the use of vehicles that belong to the Department of Education and Science that are parked at the end of the school day and could be used to save the State money? Perhaps others could be involved locally to fund drivers.

For many reasons, it would be impractical at present to use CIE school buses, one obvious reason being that most of them are too big to go down the bóithríní. It is no good leaving someone half a mile from his house.

I want to make transport available to all rural people as it is made available without discrimination to all urban people. There should not be a means test or an age test to get on a bus in rural areas in the evening. I am considering a transport service that will be available to all within the catchment areas where there is currently no transport service. It might be done by hackneys or small buses, many of which would be contracted during the day for school bus runs.

It is my intention that those who can afford to pay will pay. For those in rural areas, it is not a refusal to pay that denies them the service, it is the fact the service is not there at all. If a person wants a hackney, unless it comes 20 miles from the nearest town, it is not possible. Availability of transport is the number one priority followed by pensioners and those with free travel being able to avail of travel in the evenings. It will be community driven. The shape of the scheme will be decided by the RTOs or Leader partnership companies, it will not be driven by vested interests — community good will be the hallmark of the service. A youth club that cannot get kids safely home has as much of a problem as the person who has three pints and would be wiser not to drive. The scheme will offer an equality of service to rural areas compared to urban areas. It will start on a pilot basis.