Thursday, 5 December 2019

Ceisteanna (1)

Dara Calleary


1. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the progress in meeting commitments to improve the provision of public services in rural areas as the Department responsible for the implementation of the Action Plan for Rural Development, and the discussions he has had with his colleagues regarding meeting targets in the plan. [50956/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Rural)

I am seeking an update from the Minister for Rural and Community Development regarding the implementation of the Action Plan for Rural Development. Given that I listen to him most weekends in our constituency, I can nearly anticipate his response but I want him to focus on a comment he made last summer that other Ministers were dumping stuff on his Department. He may not have used the word "dumping" but that is what he meant, in other words, that all rural services and issues were going to be left to his Department. What engagement has he had with other Ministers about what they should be doing in their Departments as opposed to leaving it all to the Minister's Department?

I am delighted that the Deputy is so happy that I am doing so well with my Department. The Action Plan for Rural Development was published in January 2017 as the first whole-of-Government initiative to support the economic and social progress of rural Ireland. The cross-departmental approach of the action plan to support rural communities and rural businesses is benefiting rural areas in many ways. It is driving job creation, improving access to services and enhancing the quality of life in rural Ireland.

The action plan contains measures for delivery across a number of Departments and agencies aimed at enhancing local services, including in the areas of healthcare, schools and initiatives addressing mental health and isolation. For example, the delivery of 18 primary care centres in rural areas was a commitment under the plan and these are all now open and fully operational. My Department has provided funding to Irish Men's Sheds to support the great work the organisation does to address mental health and isolation in communities. There are now over 450 men's sheds across the country. My Department also invested €6.9 million in the seniors alert scheme in 2018 and over 53,000 participants are being supported by the scheme.

These are just some examples of the measures being progressed and are in addition to the very substantial investment that my Department has made in rural communities through programmes such as the town and village renewal scheme, LEADER, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme, CLÁR and, more recently, the rural regeneration and development fund.

A monitoring committee comprising senior representatives of relevant Departments and key rural stakeholder interests oversees progress on the implementation of the action plan. In addition, my officials are in regular contact with their colleagues in other Departments regarding the progress of relevant measures. Progress reports on the implementation of the action plan are published twice yearly on the website.

The action plan reaches the end of its three-year cycle this year. My Department is developing a new rural policy for Ireland that will be launched in the new year. As is the case with the current action plan, the new policy will reflect a whole-of-Government approach to supporting rural Ireland.

The Minister spoke about improving access to services, enhancing quality of life and healthcare. Last week, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, published statistics showing that there is a considerable difference between rural and urban areas when it comes to average distance from services. The statistics showed that while the average distance in Ireland to the nearest HSE adult emergency department or hospital was more than 20 km, in rural areas it was over 30 km. There were higher average distances in counties Mayo, Donegal, Galway, Leitrim and Roscommon and those distances are increasing. Basic community services like supermarkets and shops are closing and there is a greater distance to travel.

What specific initiatives will be included in the new plan to ensure a basic level of services is available at an accessible distance? Many of the initiatives mentioned by the Minister are worthy and welcome but unless there are basic services, we will not encourage people to remain in rural communities. What if people have to take a journey for medical reasons on roads that may not be good? We saw this morning the difficulties with ambulance access shown by a very tragic case in Donegal. We need to make sure that the basic services are in place.

The CSO report was interesting but the Deputy and I could have written it. We both live in rural Ireland and know the distances people have to travel to access services. This is why we built 18 health centres. We did so to make it easier for people to access services. I read the CSO report the other day. The situation in rural England or rural Spain is no different from the situation here. We will not be able to have hospitals and other large services in every town and village. However, the Deputy must agree that we in rural areas have a quality of life that people elsewhere do not have. While people may have services in Dublin, if one is in the city in the morning or after 3 p.m., one will see congestion and people having to stay in their cars. I feel sorry for these people who have to travel early in the morning and late in the evening. The one thing we have in rural Ireland is quality of life.

Over the past three years, through the town and village renewal scheme, the rural regeneration and development fund, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme and other schemes, the Department has put in place facilities and provided jobs. Six out of every ten jobs created last year were in rural Ireland. We must get more jobs into the regions because more services will follow.

I agree with the Minister about quality of life, etc., but quality of life does not put butter on potatoes. Unless there are services, we will not be able to keep people in rural areas. It is a vicious circle. Without people, there are no services and without services, there are no people so there needs to be a minimum level of service. I do not want hospitals on every corner but I want to know that if I ring for an ambulance, I will not spend hours waiting for one. The figures released for the first quarter of this year show that response times in seven out of the eight ambulance regions countrywide were worse when compared with last year's figures. If we have all this investment, including in services, why are services getting worse? Why are people's experiences of services in rural areas getting worse? While quality of life is wonderful, what we need in the plan is a guarantee of a basic level of services. We need to build to deliver that basic level of services and a contract to access other services so that people know that if they need services, they will be able to get them.

I know I am stepping into another Minister's area but I do not mind doing so. The reason for greater demand on services is that more people are living in rural Ireland. It is not me saying that. The Deputy cited the CSO figures, which also tell us that more people are living and working in rural Ireland. People are moving back to rural Ireland. Of course, we will have to improve services, including the ambulance services.

There are demands for hospitals, nursing homes and school places. That is what my colleagues and I will be addressing in our next plan. I will sit down with my officials and we will look to see what is actually happening and what services are needed in rural Ireland. Resources are going to have to be put in place to ensure that we provide the services people need.

As the Deputy indicated, people in rural Ireland are entitled to have these services at a reasonable distance from their homes. As I stated earlier, we cannot have hospitals and secondary schools in every village but these services should be in reasonable locations in areas to which people can travel. That is why we are looking at Local Link services. There are many other services that we are trying to provide. We are trying to bring people who live in rural areas to hospital appointments and assist them in every way we can.