Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Ceisteanna (1)

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

1. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the timetable for the roll-out of the town and village renewal scheme in 2019 in terms of the applications process; when project funding approvals will issue; and the timetable for implementation of the scheme to encourage residential occupancy in rural towns and villages as committed to in the Action Plan for Rural Development. [3395/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Rural)

The Minister does not need to be told that towns and villages are under significant pressure in facing not just the challenge of depopulation but also online trading. For those who do not understand that challenge, I encourage them to listen back to the recent "Drivetime" reports by John Cooke who gave views from the ground. I want to discuss with the Minister how the town and village scheme and the scheme to encourage people to move back to towns and villages are progressing. Will he also outline his key priorities in this area in 2019?

The town and village renewal scheme forms an important part of the Action Plan for Rural Development and has the potential to stimulate economic recovery and job creation in towns and villages across rural Ireland. The scheme is specifically focused on rural towns and villages with a population of less than 10,000.

The town and village renewal scheme was introduced in the second half of 2016. To date, almost €53 million has been approved for more than 670 projects across the country. The projects cover a range of activities, from improving the public realm to make towns and villages more attractive for locals and visitors alike to job creation initiatives such as the development of enterprise and digital hubs. Details of the 2019 town and village renewal scheme are being finalised by my officials. I anticipate that the scheme will be announced during the first quarter of the year, with approvals being announced in the second half of the year, as was the case in previous years.

The scheme to encourage residential occupancy in rural towns and villages is under way. I launched the initiative last October and announced the six rural towns which had been invited to participate in the initial pilot scheme. The scheme is being led locally by the local authorities, in close collaboration with all relevant stakeholders and my Department. Up to €100,000 is being made available for each participating town. The funding will be used by the local authorities to engage with communities and local businesses and identify practical solutions to increase the number of people living in rural towns. I expect to receive a report from each of the local authorities in the first half of the year on the progress they have made. It is envisaged that the solutions identified in the six pilot scheme towns will lead to the development of more substantive proposals for funding from the rural regeneration and development fund in due course.

The Minister has said funding of €53 million has been approved for the town and village renewal scheme. Will he confirm for the House how much of that sum has been drawn down? The replies to parliamentary questions to the Minister indicated that there had been a €2.5 million underspend under the programme in 2018. Will he confirm whether the money has been spent since and if all of the money allocated in 2018 was spent?

The Minister and I see the effects of both schemes daily. There is significant potential in towns and villages, but there is no sense in the Minister ploughing away with this initiative in his Department if other Departments are ignorant of what is going on or not co-operating with his Department. For instance, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government should provide for rates remissions for those who invest in their properties. Instead, if someone invests in a business property in a small town or village, he or she receives a bigger rates bill. There is significant space overhead in many properties in towns and villages that would be ideal for use as assisted accommodation or accommodation for older people who want to live near services. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government should engage with the Minister to devise a scheme for existing properties to get people back into services.

The Department of Health is dragging its feet on the GP contract. A GP service is essential in any local community. It, too, would help to keep people in rural areas and encourage others to move back. The schemes should be bigger. What else is going on at the Government table to provide services in local communities?

A total of €13.854 million has been drawn down to date. To be fair to the local authorities, the schemes were always intended to be run over a 15-month period. We allocated the funding in October and expect it to be spent this year. It is a rolling scheme and that is the way it will operate, regardless of who will have this job in the future. That is the way it has to be because local authorities are not able to deliver schemes within the year.

They need a bit of time to get their Part 8 projects in place and there is other work they need to do. Local authorities have not had themselves in glory around the country on this programme or any other. I will ask my officials, over the next number of days, to write to the local authorities about all of the funding I have allocated under the CLÁR programme, outdoor recreation, rural recreation and I will seek four-monthly reports from the local authorities to see what they are delivering.

As the Deputy is aware, the town and village scheme has been very good. We allocated €200,000, for example, for the community centre and Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ballycastle. That was with the local developer who developed the street. The Céide Fields Visitor Centre gets €1.5 million. The signature point in Ballycastle and the GAA there are also getting funding. It is not all about funding but Ballycastle is a town we should use as an example because it has been given a lift. That has happened all over the country. The same thing has happened with the funding we have given for the walk scheme in Drumshanbo.

The town and village scheme has been very good, as the Deputy knows. We allocated €200,000 to Ballycastle, for example, for the community centre and the Ballinglen Arts Foundation. That was with the local developer who developed the street. The Céide ields there are getting €1.5 million. Signature Point in Ballycastle is also getting funding, as is the GAA. It is not all about funding, but what it has done for that town, which we should use as an example, it has given it a lift. That has happened all over the country. The same thing has happened with the funding we have to the walk scheme in Drumshanbo.

I agree with the Minister about Ballycastle, but that has been led by the community and not by the local authority. Out of €53 million drawn down, €13 million has been spent. The Minister needs to start kicking heads. Local authorities are great at showing up for openings but there is no sense in the Minister allocating money that is not being drawn down and spent in the communities where it is needed, and it is badly needed. I encourage the Minister to get that information and publish it. It is time for the Minister to start publicly calling out local authorities that are letting their communities down by not spending this money.

There are substantial under-allocations and funds that are not being drawn down across many of the Minister's programmes. Members and officials of local authorities need to be told they are letting their communities down by not drawing down this money. The Minister needs to do more that write to them. He needs to name and shame those poor performers.

I thank the Deputy, and I really mean that, for his support because he is correct and this is something I have been saying within the Department. Of course, civil servants do not like to give out to other civil servants and they will protect one another whenever they have to, but local authorities have not had themselves in glory. Every week, I read cuttings from local papers all over the country and it annoys me to see Fine Gael councillors, Fianna Fáil councillors and Independent councillors criticising the Government for not providing funding. There has never been as much funding put into rural Ireland. There has been €22 million given through the LEADER programme. The town and village scheme has provided €53 million. There has been €41 million for outdoor recreation. The CLÁR programme has provided €25 million. The local improvement scheme has provided €38 million. The SICAP programme has provided €190 million. It is not that the funding is not going in. Sometimes the local authorities are not doing what they should do and I will tell them, in the next rounds of these schemes, that they are not to make application for schemes if they are not ready to deliver them. That is a message that will go out loud and clear.

Deputy Calleary is right that it may be the time to put out figures that show what local authorities have got from my Department. I have a list here showing how much money each county got from my Department last year but I do not have the corresponding list of how much they have then spent and that is something I need to start working on.

Deputy Calleary was talking about a pilot scheme earlier and he is quite correct. I want to sit down with all Departments when the report comes back from the six towns. Deputy Calleary touched on something I do not want to see happening. I do not want every other Department throwing schemes over to the rural regeneration scheme or over to my Department. It happens regularly that letters come in from Deputies or community programmes and the Departments wish to state they do not wish to touch them but that it is a matter for my Department. It is not. We need to sit down and start working that out and we will do that when we get the results from this pilot scheme.