I thank the Deputy for raising this issue.
My Department established and convenes the retail consultation forum to enable key issues affecting the retail sector to be discussed - it is a very important forum - with a view to identifying practical actions which could be taken by the Government or the industry to support sustainable jobs growth in the sector. The retail sector is the largest private sector employer in the country and 90% Irish owned. It supports jobs in every city, town and village and the Department very much understands its importance.
A Framework for Town Centre Renewal was developed in 2017 by a working group of the retail consultation forum, setting out a practical step by step action plan for stakeholders to work collaboratively to enhance their local town or village. The framework also encourages towns and villages to establish digital platforms in response to the changing retail environment. At a collaborative level, using the framework, town groups can work together to improve footfall and customer experience in town centres through various measures such as enhancing accessibility, public spaces and tackling vacant property.
The framework also serves as a support document for towns and villages applying for funding streams under Project 2040. These include the €2 billion urban regeneration and development fund and the €1 billion rural regeneration fund which can be leveraged to support the regeneration and viability of town centres.
Digitalisation has increased the scope for competition in the retail sector, as reflected in the growth in online shopping and changing consumer preferences in how people shop in town centres. Sustaining physical retail outlets requires adaptation and many retailers now offer multiple sales channels to sell their goods from physical stores to social media, mobile apps and websites. Last September, we launched a new pilot online retail scheme to be delivered by Enterprise Ireland with a total fund of €1.25 million. The online retail scheme will support retail businesses of 20 employees or more which are ready to grow their business strategically online. At least 50% of the total number of grants awarded under the scheme will be prioritised for retail SMEs with their headquarters outside of County Dublin, subject to applications meeting the minimum standards. On 1 March 2019, 11 successful applicants from the first call were announced in Skibbereen and we look forward to announcing a second call later this year.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
In addition, I highlight local enterprise offices, LEOs, as the first-stop-shop front line service assisting in delivering business growth and jobs for the small and microenterprise sector in Dublin and all across the country, including the retail sector.
LEOs actively promote the trading online voucher scheme, TOVS, on behalf of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The scheme offers matched financial assistance of up to €2,500, along with training and advice, to micro companies of ten employees or fewer that want to establish an online presence for the first time or that wish to expand a basic existing website to incorporate a more substantive online trading capacity. From the start of the scheme in July 2014 to date, over 5,000 micro companies have availed of the scheme. Other soft supports offered by LEOs, such as training and mentoring, are applicable to the retail sector and this includes retailers employing more than ten people.