Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Ceisteanna (41)

Bobby Aylward

Ceist:

41. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans to ensure the viability and sustainability of towns and villages in rural Ireland that have lost or are losing the local post office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51864/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (31 contributions) (Ceist ar Rural)

I want to ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development his plans to ensure the viability and sustainability of towns and villages in rural areas that have lost or are due to lose their local post office. It is not just a case of post offices. There has been a general decline in rural areas with the closure of public houses, post offices and Garda barracks. Rural Ireland is in decline and we need to revamp it as a matter of urgency.

My colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, has policy responsibility for the postal sector. However, I am acutely aware of the value placed by rural communities on services such as the local post office.

Investment in rural Ireland is taking place right across Government. The Action Plan for Rural Development is a comprehensive cross-Government plan which sets out a wide range of measures focused on supporting and building sustainable communities, growing jobs and enterprise, improving access to services, maximising tourism, culture and heritage assets, and improving connectivity in rural areas.

The third progress report on the action plan was published in recent weeks and confirmed the progress being made, with more than 95% of actions completed or advanced. The €1 billion investment provided through the rural regeneration and development fund will also bring positive benefits to rural communities. I was delighted to announce the first group, totalling 18 projects, to be supported by the fund last month.

My Department is also continuing to support the many vibrant towns and villages across rural Ireland through a range of other schemes and supports. The evidence of impact can be seen in growing opportunities for employment and improved quality of life across rural Ireland. Of particular importance for those towns and villages most disadvantaged in terms of access to services are the CLÁR programme, the community enhancement programme, the town and village renewal scheme and the funding being provided to public libraries.

Additionally, funding delivered through the community services programme, LEADER and SICAP provides supports tailored to the specific needs of individual areas.

The Government is continuing to explore ways to sustain the viability of the post office network into the future. In October last, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment launched a new Digital Assist pilot initiative with An Post. Ten locations across the country will act as pilots for the provision of new services and I am delighted that my Department has been able to provide funding of €80,000 for this programme.

The dismantling of the rural post office network continues across the country. We lost two important post offices in south Kilkenny at Mullinavat and Glenmore, and another is to close within the next two months at Kilmoganny. This follows the retirement of two long-serving postmasters who gave many years of dedicated service to their respective communities. Despite significant community activism in Mullinavat and the hundreds of submissions made to An Post, the independent assessor's decision stood and the doors shut.

The closure of post offices in Mullinavat and Glenmore and hundreds of similar closures in towns and villages around the country reflect a further denigration of services in rural Ireland under this Government. The Government claims it has no operational responsibility for An Post but, as far as I am concerned, the buck stops with it. If it had the foresight to implement the recommendations contained in the Kerr report when it was furnished in 2016 regarding the need for additional services to be made available to post offices, places like Mullinavat and Glenmore would have had the chance to increase their footfall and maximise their commercial viability. Many of the rural post offices now under threat of closure could have been saved if immediate action had been taken at ministerial level, and that point is directed at the Minister.

I am sorry I have only a minute to reply. I wish I had more time because I have a list of all the post offices that Fianna Fáil closed.

I knew he would come back with that.

I would be here for 25 minutes-----

That is not an answer. The Minister's job is to rule on what is being done now.

The Minister without interruption.

It is a pity-----

He is closing more post offices than ever. He must be happy.

Deputy Aylward, please.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. I let him talk. If his Government had been as concerned about post offices when this country was awash with money, and if it had given them the services they needed, we would not have any closure of post offices.

The Minister must agree the Government is closing post offices.

The Government did not close any post offices in the past few months.

I have proof of it.

The Deputy should listen. People took the packages. They were given the opportunity.

He is dressing it up.

They got the packages. Let us be honest about what is happening and stop the nonsense about post offices.

Then be honest about it.

I will give an example. There was a post office in my own county where 500 people turned up at a public meeting. I am going to tell the Deputy how many of them bought television licences. There were 352 families and just 52 television licences were bought in that post office for that year. Either one of two things happened. They either had no licences, which I do not believe-----

They would never do that.

-----or they went elsewhere to get their licences. If they want to keep rural post offices open, they will have to start using them, and not go to public meetings.

The time is up. I call Deputy Aylward.

In fairness, a post office was advertised twice and they could not get anyone to take it.

The Minister is just getting angry and it is obvious he is getting angry because I am getting under his skin. He knows I am talking fact. To talk about what Fianna Fáil did years ago is not the Minister's job; his job is to rule as Minister now and to make decisions now.

Why would old postmasters and postmistresses who are in their 60s, 70s and 80s not take the package? Of course, they would - I would too. However, that is no reason for the post office to be closed. There was a meeting in Mullinavat, like the meeting in the Minister's area, with 400 or 500 people in attendance. There was a laughable appeals system which made a decision about the local post offices being so many kilometres away and about the size of the population, but it did not stop them being closed down. What about the people who wanted a post office? It is more than a business where people get stamps and pension payments; it is also a social outlet, but that is not taken into consideration. People want to keep rural areas alive but closing post offices is not going to keep them alive. The Minister is making people travel to neighbouring villages when they do not have the transport to do it. The appeals system is a laugh. It is closing post offices in an underhand way, and that is all it is.

Where people want to keep their post office open and where there is a local supermarket or other business willing to take it on, that should be allowed, once it is viable. I heard the Minister say in the House three or four times that he would come forward with proposals to make them sustainable but I never heard one thing back about that until we got the word that all these post offices would be closed. Let him stand up now and say why he did not make them sustainable and why he did not come back with the money to keep these post offices sustainable, instead of going on with this craic.

The hypocrisy sickens me. Fianna Fáil closed many post offices and we closed very few.

He keeps going back to the one thing.

The Deputy asked what I did. I provided €80,000 last year to examine where we can get more services for post offices. Let us take the example of motor tax. Nearly 88% of people now tax their cars online. We need to give post offices more services that people will use. People are living in the modern age. They have their computers and the Internet.

Where is the report on sustainability?

They want to do business in a different way. I want to keep as many post offices open as possible. However, I would say to the general public that if they want their post office and their small local shop open, and if they want services in rural Ireland, they have to start using them and they cannot pass the door every day. When that lady called the public meeting in Mayo, 300 or 400 people turned up and they all signed up to what they were going to do to keep the post office open. However, when she was on local radio, she quenched one of the Deputy's colleagues awful quick when she said, "I did not see many of you since then." She said she was closing the post office and that she was only sorry for the elderly people who depend on it, not for anybody else.

Where is the report on sustainability?