Tuesday, 18 February 2003
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Éamon Ó Cuív): I dtosach báire, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil áthas orm bheith anseo inniu. Tá sé go deas bheith ar ais agus ag labhairt faoi ábhar atá chomh gar do mo chroí.
I am delighted to come to the House. It is nice to be back to speak on a topic very close to my heart. Rural Ireland is changing rapidly. As politicians, we have a responsibility to recognise the changing nature of our society and adapt national policies accordingly. Any rural based Senator will explain that working in rural development can be very frustrating, though the rewards can be incredible. The challenge of rural population decline is probably the greatest we face. There is a vicious circle at work in which as more people move away, it becomes harder to maintain and attract services. The withdrawal of services tends to force further movement away from rural areas. We must recognise that farm incomes are in decline and it is not possible for a family to earn a decent living from the amount of land that would have provided one 30 or 40 years ago.
The Government continues to work closely with farm organisations and our colleagues in Brussels to support the Irish farmer but whether we like it or not world markets are forcing major changes in the agriculture sector. While this does not mean the end of farming in rural Ireland, it does mean the rural economy must diversify. In the past rural economies were models of entrepreneurship, diversification and self-sufficiency. The range of skills and professions in rural Ireland at one time was breathtaking. There were farmers, thatchers, tailors, labourers, blacksmiths, weavers, cobblers, doctors, teachers and priests. It would be wrong to think of the rural economy of the past as purely agricultural. As world markets and societies have changed, the economy has changed and many of the old skills are obsolete and have died out. We cannot preserve the past and have to build a future.
A vibrant, thriving rural Ireland is dependent on our acceptance of change which is the reason we must embrace technology and rekindle the spirit of entrepreneurship. Farmers must be encouraged to diversify into organic farming, small food production and agri-tourism, just some of the areas of which one immediately thinks. Part-time farming is recognised by a majority of farmers and their spouses as their future and they must be supported. They have been voting with their feet in this direction. Some of the main problems for young and not so young farmers who farm full-time are loneliness and isolation. In this context, off-farm employment has created an important social environment for them.
Tackling the problem of infrastructure provision is one of the biggest challenges facing me as Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. People talk about the chicken and egg situation with which we are now faced in rural Ireland: which comes first – the infrastructure or the population? There are those who argue that there is no point in providing infrastructure in areas with low or declining populations. They argue that one must have a critical mass, a certain level of population, before it is economically viable to provide infrastructure. I subscribe to the other school of thought, however, believing that if the infrastructure is provided first, it will give people what they need in order to move back home or start life afresh in rural areas. The man or woman who decides to move with his or her family to rural Ireland and set up a business is, in many ways, a much more valuable asset to that community than any multinational which may be established in the nearest city 40 or 50 miles away. If the infrastructure is not in place, however, it will not be possible for him or her to do so and, therefore, the dream of rearing a family in a close-knit rural community will remain just a dream.
Last June the Taoiseach showed beyond a shadow of doubt that the Government recognised these problems and that we were determined to work toward practical solutions. Bringing the areas of local, community, rural and Gaeltacht development, not forgetting the islands, together in one Department shows clearly that the Government is focused on communities and that we are determined to make a significant improvement in the quality of life of those living in both depopulated rural areas and disadvantaged urban areas.
The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is unique in that it works in tandem with all other Departments. Just as rural development policy embraces all facets of life, the Department's work is closely meshed with that of all other Departments and Government agencies. One of the methods used to progress this work is an interdepartmental committee. In addition, I am a member of the Cabinet committees on social inclusion, the information society, and housing, infrastructure and public private partnerships.
Detailed guidelines on rural proofing were provided for all Departments early last year. Rural proofing determines the likely impact of policies on the physical, economic and social conditions of the rural population. The Government is committed to maintaining the maximum number of people in rural areas and strengthening rural communities economically, socially and culturally. My Department is involved in a wide range of EU and national investment programmes to promote this objective. All the work on rural development carried out by the Department is underpinned by the White Paper on Rural Development, Ensuring the Future, published in August 1999. The rural development policy agenda is defined in the White Paper as:
all Government policies and interventions which are directed towards improving the physical, economic and social conditions of people living in the open countryside, in coastal areas, towns and villages and in smaller urban centres outside of the five major urban areas. The agenda will, at the same time, facilitate balanced and sustainable regional development while tackling issues of poverty and social inclusion.
The national development plan is the main vehicle for delivering the commitments contained in the White Paper. There is a specific chapter on agriculture and rural development with a commitment to public investment of €8.5 billion over the next seven years in actions which directly impact on rural areas. This package covers rural environment protection, early farmer retirement, headage and forestry, rural infrastructure and enterprises, capital investment for food and fisheries, marketing, research and development for agriculture, food and fisheries, as well as training in agriculture, food, forestry and fisheries.
As Senators will be aware, I am in the process of reviewing the operations of Údarás na Gaeltachta and the Western Development Commission, both of which come under my remit. I stress that I am not doing this in any negative way but in recognition of the fact that, despite the best efforts of such agencies, job creation in rural areas has not matched either the demand or the educational qualifications of our rural population. Arising from these ongoing reviews, I recently had discussions with the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Harney, regarding rural enterprise. Discussions in respect of these matters are ongoing and it is hoped to make an announcement regarding same in the near future.
The Leader, ADM, CDP and CLÁR programmes are all run by my Department. Each has an impact on rural communities and plays a part in reversing the current trend of population decline in rural areas. Each scheme in its own way focuses on the development of rural communities and the provision of social or infrastructural supports. The aim of these schemes is not to spoon-feed communities or to encourage a lethargic expectation of Government handouts, but rather to encourage bottom-up community development and a real sense of active and vibrant community involvement.
CLÁR, in particular, has put the issue of rural depopulation on the national agenda. If CLÁR does nothing but create an awareness of this as a social injustice, it will have served a good purpose. However, I believe it has done much more. It has a clear policy of action rather than talk. As Senators are probably aware, this initiative is part of the RAPID programme, which seeks to focus investment and development into those areas of the country that, through population decline or high deprivation, tended not to benefit fully from previous national development plans. Whereas the urban areas were selected on poverty criteria, I felt this would be an inappropriate method of selection for rural areas. As a consequence, we picked the rural areas on the basis of population decline. If one looks at deprivation scores in rural areas, it can be seen that those without jobs and those without houses move to the cities. Their deprivation is recorded in the city rather than the rural statistics. It is fair to say that many of the problems of rural areas were exported in the past in that way.
I referred earlier to the syndrome where services are being withdrawn from rural areas because of population decline and of the latter being caused by the withdrawal of services. It is to end this vicious circle that CLÁR is focusing on these areas. CLÁR is neither a new agency nor a parallel agency and, therefore, all of its schemes must be fully in line with the policies and programmes of the various line Departments. This programme is operating through the existing agencies and is not setting up a parallel system, thus obviating duplication and unnecessary bureaucracy.
In 2002, €14.14 million was spent under the various measures introduced under the programme by my Department. That levered out considerably more expenditure in matching funds from other Departments and agencies. I am currently in further discussions with various Departments in relation to other new initiatives under this programme and I expect to be in a position to announce further roll out in the new future.
It is fair to say that if my name has been linked with anything in the past three years, it has been with the debate on the national spatial strategy and the sub-debate on rural planning and one-off housing. I must stress that this was never a debate about houses. The debate about one-off rural housing is essentially about people and a peopled countryside. With the publication of the national spatial strategy late last year, the Government again showed its commitment to tackling the issue of the revitalisation of rural areas. In addition to setting out practical measures to ensure balanced regional development in the country as a whole, the national spatial strategy makes it crystal clear that people from or living in a rural area have the right to work, live and build houses in those areas. This is a strategy that has listened to the voice of the people and is now meeting their needs in a balanced and sensible way.
In many ways, the Government is focusing on the issue of rural development and coming up with practical solutions to the problems we face. There is no doubt that we have a long way to go, but there is a definite commitment and drive to get the job done. However, there are some issues that cannot be dealt with by Cabinet Ministers alone. We have spoken about planning, the decline in farm incomes, the White Paper on Rural Development, Government strategies and schemes but there is one other issue that is difficult to pin down, hard to put a name on and for which it is impossible to blame anyone specifically. It is the one issue which will wipe out any progress Government makes if we do not tackle it.
Put very simply, this issue is mindset, the attitude that the only real places to do business and to develop are urban centres. Politicians can come up with policies which Departments can implement and we can all wax lyrical about the values of rural and community development but unless we can change that mindset, we might as well give up and go home. Planners, investors, business people, developers, entrepreneurs and many others, apart from politicians alone, have the power to make changes. Balanced development, rural revitalisation and community building have to be a united effort.
The problem is bigger than rural Ireland and politics. Rural politicians, service providers and local authorities are not the only ones affected by depopulation. As people leave the communities in which they have lived for generations, our cities and towns are bursting at the seams. Every day city and county managers are struggling to cope with the demand for infrastructure in urban centres.
Rural depopulation and urban agglomeration are two sides of the same coin. Tackle one and one solves the other. We should give workers real options to move out of urban centres. All of a sudden they will be able to afford to buy a house, their children will be able to go to smaller schools and people will get to spend more time at home and a lot less time stuck in traffic. More people in rural areas means the rural community is revitalised. It is that simple. Schools which were on the verge of closure will stay open, the local shop will get a new lease of life and the local bus service will start up again to ferry workers, shoppers and schoolchildren around. On the other hand, overcrowding in urban schools will be alleviated, the drive to work will take 20 minutes instead of two hours and the pressure on housing supply will reduce. It is all so heartbreakingly obvious.
There is little point, however, in the Government providing services in rural areas if planners dictate that people cannot live there, if businesses will not look beyond the Pale for new start-up options, if developers only think of higher profit margins in the cities and if investors refuse to take a risk on rural based enterprises. As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.” We would want to be careful that the well does not dry up while waiting for the horse to drink. It is time for everyone in the country, urban and rural, to see the common position and realise the development of rural Ireland would also benefit urban Ireland.
Mr. McHugh: I welcome the Minister. I also thank the Leader of the House for her efforts in trying to secure the Minister's presence here since I first placed this item on the Order Paper six months ago. I congratulate the Minister on his openness and frankness. We are all in this together. We have a problem in rural Ireland which it will take a long time to get sorted.
When I first became involved in community development in 1995, the same language was used to discuss the build-up to the White Paper on Rural Development. What has been done is quite visible in any rural area such as west Galway, County Mayo or County Donegal. Roads that were never tarred are now being tarred. It is also encouraging that an effort is being made to hold on to our language.
The town and village renewal programmes have been quite successful in County Donegal. The changes initiated by the Better Local Government programme have brought about improvements in the structure of local government. There are now different service divisions, such as directorates of community and enterprise, planning, roads, the environment and sanitary and housing.
A problem exists in regard to the lack of clarity in accessing and drawing down funding. Local groups who try to access funding via the Internet do not know if they should be applying to the local authorities or other agencies. Sometimes local authorities do not know if it will get the funding or if it will go to Leader companies or ADM partnership groups. While I wish to make my contribution as constructive as possible, it has to be said that there must be proper dissemination of information among these groups; they need to know the mechanisms to use to draw down funding.
The Internet revolution has increased the potential among individuals and community groups in regard to seeking funding for local projects or group sewerage or water schemes. However, if people are unsuccessful in accessing what they seek, it will erode their confidence to the further detriment of rural communities. Community groups are not just interested in rural regeneration, they have their own programmes and would benefit from some transparency in respect of the current funding arrangements. In an effort to bring about a constructive approach in conjunction with BLG, a booklet should be produced to clarify the options available.
I met Liam Scollan, chief executive of the Western Development Commission, in 1996. We spoke the same language on the revitalisation of rural areas, organic farming, agri-tourism projects and turning towns into market towns. The Western Development Commission carried out research on a European scale in regard to ideas on the revitalisation of rural towns and villages in both western and eastern Europe. It was looking at areas where investment in the social and physical infrastructure of certain towns and villages had led to their survival. The effort that was made to develop and invest in indigenous local projects with the ultimate aim of keeping people in rural areas appeared to pay dividends.
We need the Western Development Commission. I say this in the context of the review that is currently under way. The commission was responsible for the genesis of rural development in 1995 and I have some experience of working in conjunction with it. At that time, its two priorities were broadband and tourism – agri-tourism in particular. The simple message was that investment in broadband in rural towns and villages would ultimately result in a reduction in the agglomeration of people in urban centres, to borrow a phrase from the Minister. Technology would have allowed people to “tele-cottage” in their own homes in the rural countryside. We missed an open goal in the intervening period. Not enough emphasis was put on broadband ISDN lines in rural areas. The notion of a broadband infrastructure from Malin Head to Mizen Head appears to be mainly aspirational. It is imperative that we get this back on the drawing board. I am aware that broadband comes under the remit of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, but there is an opportunity for the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to show some vision and tie in an interdepartmental approach.
The review in regard to Leader companies, county enterprise boards and Údarás na Gaeltachta is important. We do not need duplication, we need an integrated approach. An integrated strategy is not just needed for the west, it is also needed for rural areas in general. The Minister's Department can act as a facilitator in allowing this to happen. I congratulate him in terms of his vision and his straight-talking manner, but the real test is how this will be put into action. I do not know how long the honeymoon period will last. The only way to instil confidence in a programme such as this is if people can see some result.
The roads department of Donegal County Council is involved in rural tertiary roads. However, the planning and community and enterprise sections are also involved in regard to any village or town renewal scheme. How will these different directorates access funding? Next October, if large amounts of money have been allocated to Leader programmes or to local authorities but there is nothing tangible for people to see, the honeymoon period will truly be over.
The Minister has already welcomed the decentralisation of the Department of Agriculture and Food to Gaeltacht areas. That is a natural progression, particularly if we are serious about retaining people in rural areas and building the services around them. An American information technology company called Prumerica is based in Letterkenny. As far as I am aware, it allows some of its workforce to work from home. There is no reason someone living on Fanad Head or Malin Head or at Rosses Point cannot stay at home to do his or her work. The associated benefits to communities of people remaining to work in their areas are manifold.
I could have used this opportunity as a platform to attack the Minister. I could have said that action is not being taken and that rural areas are still in decline. However, I would rather work with the Minister whose heart appears to be in the right place in respect of rural areas. People in rural local authorities are willing to work with the Minister's ideas and vision. The current climate of confidence in rural areas will be severely damaged if we do not seize this opportunity to get the channels of funding sorted out as a priority.
That is the main point I wish to make. It has been the message from all the community groups – women's groups, local action groups, etc. – to which I have spoken. Their sons and daughters have been accessing information on the CLÁR programme on the Internet and making on-line applications, but they do not know how to draw down the funding. The same is true of local authority members and officials. Like the Minister, my heart is with rural areas and I accept that things will change.
In ten or 15 years, people will have different occupations from those they hold at present. The typical returned emigrant has spent time in London or Manchester or on the east coast of the United States. The majority of our returning emigrants have worked in the construction industry and are coming back to Ireland to continue working in the same industry. They are bringing their talents, skills and expertise back to this country, but they are working primarily in urban centres. We should use the expertise of our returned emigrants to install broadband technology. These people have installed telecommunications infrastructure throughout the world.
The emigrants who return to Ireland 20 or 30 years from now will be talented, educated and skilful. We must have adequate telecommunications and road infrastructure in rural areas – we do not need to build motorways or dual carriageways, merely to fill the potholes – for those future emigrants who will have gained working experience in Germany, Silicon Valley, Finland, Sweden and other parts of the world. Our emigrants are the most talented in the world and we must have services in place for them when they return.
I thank the Minister for coming before the House. I also appreciate the time he took recently to meet a local group in County Donegal. Unfortunately, the result of that meeting was not satisfactory, but, through working together and discussing our problems, we can find solutions.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: Fáiltím roimh an Aire agus roimh an ráiteas spreagúil dearfach a chuir sé os ár gcomhair inniu. Ní hé seo an chéad uair a sheas sé an fód ar son mhuintir na tuaithe. Ní amháin gur sheas sé an fód ach is minic a léirigh sé samhlaíocht agus tacaíocht tré ghníomhaíocht le tamall fada anuas.
I thank the Minister for his positive contribution. Anyone who looks back on the public pronouncements of the Minister for many years will see clearly where his heart is. To use native American Indian language, he never speaks with forked tongue. One always knows the Minister is speaking sincerely and that he is particularly anxious to promote this debate and come up with positive action.
This debate is timely because yesterday I chaired a convention in Oranmore in County Galway, which was attended by rural dwellers from the four provinces. There was official representation from the IFA, the ICMSA, the ICA, the GAA, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the various rural-based organisations. A number of things struck me during that five or six hour convention. First, the people present were not all middle-aged or older; there were many young people present. Second, there was an absolute determination to fight the rural cause. There was no question of leaving rural Ireland behind in some defeatist manner. All were determined to take a stand. In many of the pronouncements I heard echoes of Fintan Lalor or Michael Davitt, but in a very progressive and up-beat way. That has to be the right approach.
Let me take two steps back and focus on urbanisation before I talk about the decline of rural areas. In the past 48 hours there has been an extensive debate on traffic congestion in London. We have all heard of the new congestion tax which has been introduced there. This issue was discussed on Vincent Browne's radio programme last night, with particular reference to Dublin. There is no doubt that indiscriminate urbanisation has changed the physical and social fabric of Dublin city. In terms of matters such as crime, traffic, pollution and personal alienation, Dublin city has changed out of all proportion and no one believes this trend will change in a positive way in the future. When we discuss rural decline, we should also talk about the disadvantages we see occurring, not just in Dublin and the major cities but also in some of the towns.
I do not intend to pillory An Taisce, but that organisation must be brought into this debate because it is involved at every level. Some of the ideas being expounded by An Taisce are not suitable for this country, nor are they traditional to it. The suggestion that people who want to live on their own land in rural areas should be pushed into the nearest town or village is based on the British idea of what a village and a town should be. In Ireland, dispersed villages, street villages and cluster villages are all traditional and some date back 4,000 or 5,000 years. Why should it be necessary to import something that is not suitable to Irish requirements?
In that regard, we will have to look at the planning issues. For the past 30 years I have been travelling back and forth to America. I have had the opportunity of talking with first and second generation Irish people who have informed me that the first generation left Ireland on foot of economic necessity. For many years those of us who travelled through the west saw houses locked up, their roofs falling in and their gardens unattended. These houses were symbols of the manner in which rural areas were declining. We were told people either did not want to live in rural areas or could not do so. We know now that people want to live in rural areas, but in many cases they are being prevented from doing so.
When I was canvassing during a recent election, I knocked on the door of a fine new house in Cashel. A woman with two young children answered and I remarked on how nice her house was. She said, in a very melancholy fashion, that it was a nice house and had cost a lot of money, but that it was not where she wanted to live. She said:
I wanted to live out on our own farm. My parents are getting old and if I was living near them I could look after them and they could look after their grandchildren. We would not have to throw our responsibilities back onto State services. I was not allowed to build a house on our own land.
Farmers will say – they said it yesterday in Oranmore – that they are made to accept all the obligations and responsibilities for land. When an opportunity to use the land presents itself, however, one would imagine it was not in their ownership. An Taise will have to talk in partnership with communities because what is happening cannot be allowed to continue.
When the Taoiseach spoke in Galway last week, I was delighted that he made the same points as the Minister today. He spoke about the traditional concept of villages in Ireland and said they would and should be adhered to in the future. Recently I became very concerned when I heard An Taisce was returning membership fees to certain people because it was obvious it did not agree with their views. This is a body which has a statutory base in legislation and is one of the prescribed bodies under the planning Acts. If the reports are correct, it is now being selective in its membership. I am told I can substantiate them by those who said it to me and had their membership fees returned. This matter will have to be looked at by an Oireachtas committees because it is a fundamental issue in the current debate.
I wish to refer to the reason people want to live in rural Ireland. The Minister rightly referred to infrastructure. It is true that if the infrastructure is not in place, one will not encourage people to set up in rural Ireland. Therefore, the infrastructure has to be provided and we are not just talking about roads. Those who argue that infrastructure is not in place for one-off housing are wrong. Let us break it down. We are talking about roads, water, either a public or private supply, electricity and telecommunications, all of which are in place in rural Ireland. The only issue that might apply is public sewerage. There are those who will say septic tanks can be more environmentally friendly than other types of sewerage schemes but the infrastructure is actually in place.
One of the nicest images of the debate came from the Minister who featured on the “Late Late Show” one night while a member of An Taisce was moving away from the realm of its brief to social and economic issues which did not seem to be appropriate. When they suggested to the Minister that if one built a house on a particular boreen that the postman would not have to go up it, the Minister rightly said An Taisce was wrong because it was possible there was already another house on the boreen. Therefore, the postman would have to go up in any event. There is now a possibility that the postman will not do so and that, more than likely, a box will be put in place at the end of the boreen. It is important to note that the arguments being made are false. Therefore, one must ask the question, if the arguments are not credible, what is the agenda? The agenda seems to be to have huge green ranches to which certain people can travel and have their picnic on a Sunday afternoon and then return to urban areas with all their infrastructure and facilities.
In County Mayo a meeting took place of rural dwellers which 400 attended at short notice. The clear message was that the people of rural Ireland no longer intended to be treated as second-class citizens. In fairness to the people concerned, they are not anti-urban area or anti-people from urban Ireland going into rural Ireland but they are not prepared to accept second-class status.
How many can recall the famous “Late Late Show” debate which featured the late Monsignor Horan when he was promoting the idea of a regional airport at Knock when a couple of politicians criticised him for building an airport in a foggy, boggy part of Ireland? I still remember the late Monsignor Horan in his own nice, self-assured, way saying, “I am only a simple parish priest but I know this much – putting one DART carriage on the Dún Laoghaire line and maintaining it will cost far more than my airport in Knock ever will.” The point he was making was that we never questioned expenditures when it came to urban areas but were very quick to do so when it came to rural Ireland. In the London and Luton areas, to which I travel regularly, I meet those availing of the service to Knock Airport. They come home on a Friday night and return on a Monday morning. Their social life has changed. They are in touch with their own country and helping the economy by spending their money. Who will now stand up and say the idea of an airport at Knock was wrong? In the same way let us stop knocking expenditure when it is related to rural Ireland and instead look at it in a positive equal manner. Those who wipe rural Ireland out of the equation should be reminded of this.
A statistic which I regard as particularly relevant is that one third of the Irish population live in rural Ireland. That is a major number and we cannot have them as an adjunct to all policies and philosophies put forward either in the Seanad or public life generally. Therefore, we have to take on board what exactly is needed in rural Ireland.
If we were to break down the figures for the numbers of visitors to Ireland, I guarantee that many of them travel to rural attractions, places they can see not just as a setting in their own right but in the context of their historical, architectural value also. If tourism can be boosted further, this is something that should be done. The idea of tourists being guided towards Dublin is not wise because Dublin is already over-congested with traffic as a result of which people are finding it difficult to get to work and their quality of life is being undermined. If we are to find an answer, let us do it under the title of “partnership” which should comprise rural communities, the Government, politicians, An Taisce, local councils and business people. It should not be a matter of criticising each other but of sitting down and working in a co-operative manner.
A person capable of providing us with leadership in this regard is one who has the advantage of understanding city life and has moved, not just to rural Ireland but to the Gaeltacht. He understands the traditions, values and quality of life, all of which are important. The more we are outraged by anti-social behaviour the more we are outraged by what is happening in urban areas and will start looking at what we can do about it. We begin to ask the questions, where are the guidelines, and where is the quality of life? I am of the view that there is still much quality of life in rural Ireland today. It is not just about houses, population, jobs, it is also about the stability and quality of life.
Mr. Cummins: Ar dtús ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire anseo inniu. As a Senator who comes from one of the so-called major urban areas, probably the one that has benefited least, the city of Waterford, the debate in which we are engaged is close to my heart. Those living in rural areas should bear in mind there are many who live in urban areas who have come from rural backgrounds and their hearts are in rural areas also.
The Minister has spoken previously about services to small remote villages, of which there are many in County Waterford. In recent years An Post, the banks and several other institutions have withdrawn their services from many rural towns. This is a retrograde step. Villages and towns which have had access to those services have suffered because of their withdrawal.
I refer in particular to An Post, which I mentioned here previously. Only two years ago, it spent €4.5 million on a state-of-the-art sorting office to deal with post from the surrounding areas. Recently, it has been mooted that this office will be abandoned and that sorting will be done in Cork city. When one thinks of the amount of money spent and of the many rural post offices being closed, it puts into perspective what that company thinks about people in rural communities. Not enough thought is given to rural communities by these companies and, in many instances, profit is put before service to the community.
I wish to deal now with the question of decentralisation. The Government has dragged its heels on this issue for too long. It is giving An Post, the banks and so on the opportunity to leave rural areas. The Government published a spatial strategy, but it did not mention the towns to which decentralised Departments will go. The sooner it does so, the better. It is time the Government grasped the nettle in this regard.
On the Order of Business today, two Members opposite referred to the heavy-handedness of Dúchas in recent times. An Taisce is a laudable organisation which does tremendous work, but it should adhere to its brief. As has been stated, it goes well beyond its brief on many occasions and the powers and undue influence it exercises, particularly in relation to the rural environment, need to be questioned by an Oireachtas committee or another body.
I agree with the Minister's assertion that infrastructure is vital to rural areas and communities. As has been stated, roads are in place but water, sewerage and telecommunications infrastructure are required. If decentralisation was implemented and people knew where they stood, the above issues could be rectified. I agree with the Minister that a woman or man who moves their family to a rural area and sets up a business there is, in many ways, more valuable to a community than a small industry 40 or 50 miles away because a sense of community is created as a result of that person and others moving to the area.
I recently wrote to the Minister about elderly people living alone in rural areas. It has come to my attention that a number of the alarm units which people living in remote areas had installed cannot be repaired when they break down and must be replaced. I have been informed that the community alert schemes and St. Vincent de Paul, which provide this service, are still awaiting funding from the Department to replace these units. This is a question of life and death in terms of the security of many old people living in remote areas. Will the Minister investigate this problem? We all know many elderly people, even in urban areas, who require these units. I refer to my mother who is 85 years of age and who requires such a facility. It is something which should be acted on as a matter of urgency.
The Minister mentioned the RAPID programme, which relates to urban areas and deals with poverty and areas of disadvantage. I agree that population decline rather than poverty should be the criteria in rural areas. I have no doubt about the Minister's sincerity on this subject and I have listened to him on several occasions address the question of people living, working and being able to raise their children in the area they wish. It is incumbent on the Minister to come up with practical solutions and to take whatever action is necessary to allow people to do so.
I agree with Senator Ó Murchú in respect of Knock airport. The need for airports in rural areas and in the regions is of paramount importance. As far as Waterford is concerned, the south-east regional airport has had its difficulties recently. We need the same assistance the other regional airports get in order to compete on a level playing field. We have addressed that issue with other Ministers, but the problem has not yet been resolved.
Mr. Kitt: This is a timely discussion on the work of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and on rural areas and on the people who live there. One of the best schemes the Minister introduced was the CLÁR programme, which focused on areas that had suffered from population decline. He outlined the facts and figures to support his case. CLÁR was able to help areas and other schemes already in existence.
I was interested in region ten, described in the CLÁR programme as north Galway, east Mayo and north-west Roscommon. In recent years, people in north Galway have found that the CLÁR programme, through the Minister's Department, has been of great assistance in regard to schemes already in existence – for example, sewerage and water schemes – and where sports capital grants were sought. I am glad the Minister announced recently that other areas will be included in the CLÁR programme. This is most welcome in areas where population levels have fallen.
In the past, the Minister placed great emphasis on education and on small schools in rural areas. There were a number of one-teacher schools in County Galway which were in danger of closing. The Minister, in conjunction with the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, put forward a proposal to provide a minimum of two teachers to these schools which now have remedial and resource teachers and, through the FÁS programme, they had learning support teachers in the past. This has been of great benefit. We should look at other ways in which schools may be used. Many people have asked me why should a school close at 3 p.m. There are other uses to which schools could be put, including studying, child care and so on, and I hope the Minister will take that on board.
I am concerned about the postal service in rural areas, a matter about which I spoke to the Minister last week. It is difficult to know what constitutes a post office. In parts of Galway, post offices have been turned into agencies. It transpires that one cannot register a letter in an agency post office and, therefore, if a farmer wants to send off an area aid form he or she cannot do so in certain areas. Students who want to fill in CAO forms, which are important for those who wish to go to university, cannot do so at agency post offices.
To confuse matters further, PostPoint, which allows people to pay bills and top up mobile phones, is not a post office, nor is it advertised as a post office. However, many supermarkets and big shops are availing of PostPoint. More importantly, if a post office closes, an advertisement is no longer placed in the newspaper seeking someone to take over the new service. These are important issues which must be addressed.
I spoke to the Minister last week about the village of Clonberne in north Galway where a post office closed and there was no advertisement in the media. To make matters worse, two other post offices in the same parish at Lavally and Cashel are also closing down. To lose three such centres in a small area makes matters difficult for people who were used to the service and wish to see it continue.
Another issue on which we must focus, and to which the Minister referred, is that of part-time farming. It is becoming more difficult to live and rear a family on a small farm. FÁS schemes have been of great benefit in the past, but, under the new regulations, it seems that from next April people who have worked for three years in these schemes can no longer continue do so. I would like that ceiling lifted. The matter will be the subject of much debate in the coming months because it gave many small farmers great opportunities to avail of an alternative income. In my area, people would have to travel approximately 40 or 50 miles to Galway city to obtain alternative employment. Given the amount of traffic on the roads, this is not practical.
More FÁS schemes and opportunities for people to continue working must be considered because it would allow people to have sufficient contributions on reaching the age of 65 or 66 to get on to social welfare schemes. This year 5,000 people will be lost from FÁS schemes, but that loss may not be felt in some areas. Perhaps there could be some flexibility in regard to changing FÁS places to different areas.
The setting up of the new Department has been a great idea for which the Taoiseach and the Minister deserve much credit. One of the issues that will continue to arise in regard to rural areas is that of transport. There have been some very good initiatives in that regard in the past, particularly those put in place by the old Department of Social Welfare. Many schemes were established and social services in smaller towns have done an excellent job. I hope this will continue.
I would like to see more pilot schemes on transport. An initiative was introduced in the last budget to allow for improvements in this area. The use of school buses after school should be considered, including on bus routes operated by Bus Éireann. I have had many requests, which I put to Bus Éireann, concerning bus stops on certain routes, particularly those from Ballinasloe to Galway and Dublin to Galway. It is difficult to get flexibility on this issue. I do not understand, for example, why a bus route should be the same every day. Some people would like to have a bus service one or two days a week, but I have been told this cannot happen. These issues, including bus stops outside of towns, should be considered.
The Minister referred to infrastructure and other Senators spoke about water and sewerage schemes. A great deal of progress has been made in County Galway in regard to water. However, many villages do not benefit from sewerage schemes. Many detailed preliminary reports have been carried out by Galway County Council in relation to villages, most costing approximately €1 million. We received additional funding under CLÁR. However, it would be good value for money to provide sewerage schemes at approximately €1 million to €1,5 million, because huge amounts are being spent in cities and towns on sewerage and water treatment.
Newspaper reports indicated that there was some disappointment in regard to the National Roads Authority announcement last week. The authority announced a €17 million investment for County Galway, including €1 million for the Loughrea bypass. It is significant that €1.2 million was allocated for a national secondary route, the N63. At a time when there is huge speculation about the type of new roads being provided, it is very welcome and significant that €1.2 million is being spent on a stretch of road from Turloughmore to the Ballygar border with Roscommon.
I welcome the announcement of the national spatial strategy and the decentralisation programme, which I hope will be put in place in due course. I welcome in particular what has been said in regard to regional airports. We must also look at railways. The fact that a mile of road costs three times as much as a mile of rail means that railways have a great role to play. The former Minister, Senator O'Rourke, spoke about an expansion study which would cover, for example, railways from Mayo to Galway, south Galway to Galway and Athenry to Galway. I hope the Minister will consider an early commuter service from Ballinasloe to Galway. There is great potential for the railways and I hope the Minister will continue the good work he is doing in the Department.
From my perspective, the support structures for the west, in particular, have been disimproving. I listened to Senator Kitt and I am well aware of the excellent points he raised. Under the National Roads Authority's plans, during the course of the last year 75% of the road projects west of the Shannon were behind schedule, while 45% of road projects in the south and east of the country were ahead of schedule. That was the position last year and matters have become worse. I know that the National Roads Authority has to cut its cloth to suit its measure and to operate within certain constraints but the signal we are sending out as a society is that rural Ireland takes second place. This is utterly and grossly unacceptable and represents a kick in the teeth for the people of rural areas.
Gas is an important part of our infrastructure. The extension of gas pipelines to the west is crucially important for towns in that part of Ireland. The Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and I recently had an argument about these issues. Regardless of what was said on that occasion, I am worried by the recent Government statement that it intends to reconsider its plans to distribute gas to the west on the basis that it cannot, on balance, be done in an economic manner. If we are to discuss the provision of services and infrastructure in the west in economic terms, we might as well throw our hat at it now, as it will never happen. The west must be seen as part of Ireland. A square mile of County Mayo, County Kerry or County Galway must be considered to be as important as a square mile of County Kildare or County Dublin. If we look at the country in any other manner, we will lose out as there will not be balanced growth or development.
The Minister knows as well as I do that the issue of roads is a huge one, as he lives and travels in rural areas. I have heard him discuss the state of the roads on many occasions and know that he is as disgusted by it as I am. As a member of the Government, he does not have the freedom to say some of the things I have said. We must think about the roads one must travel if one wishes to transport fish from Dingle, Killybegs or Rossaveal to the ferry ports on the east coast. The fishing industry is a huge one but it is almost impossible to transport goods. Similarly, one must use dangerous roads to transport mushrooms from Belmullet to the market. These matters need to be considered in terms of investment in people.
The fact that BreastCheck facilities are not available in the west is devastating for people there. I mention this as Senators are asked in this debate to discuss rural development policy with particular reference to population decline. People will not live in areas that do not have good education and health facilities. I defy anybody to explain to normal people with a sense of equity the reason people living in Castlebar or Dún Chaoin cannot enjoy the same access to BreastCheck facilities as those in other parts of the country. I was in a larger country, with the same population, background and infrastructural problems as Ireland, last year. A state-of-the-art unit, containing an operating theatre and other equipment that could be used for health checks, that could be moved between various parts of the country had been established there. The unit was connected with the services provided by local hospitals. Surgeons travelled to regional centres to perform operations in the unit. People who did not need intensive care were looked after in local hospitals. Such a system would be an appropriate way of dealing with the problems in our health service.
Fine towns in the west would benefit from decentralisation. I do not know the reason the Government has not decided to begin the next phase of the decentralisation process. I recently walked through Kilrush, a well built town with wide streets and solid infrastructure, a classic example of a location that has not received sufficient investment. I looked at its buildings with decentralisation in mind and decided that there was no reason a Department could not be located there tomorrow morning, as it had great potential. I could say the same thing about many other towns. I do not have a vested interest in this matter; I am not thinking of standing for election in Couny Clare, County Galway or County Kerry.
I ask the Minister to listen to the points I have made. Members of the Government may believe they can ignore these issues but many fair-minded people living on the east coast would support a Government initiative on them. People cannot argue against investment in the west.
I have heard the Minister discussing the development of tourism in the west on many occasions. The development of nature walks, treks and tracks has fallen behind that of other countries which have officially designated tracks. Such development is important as it helps us to show off our country at its best. There is no marina north of Galway on the west coast. Many argue that, with the north-west of France, the seas off the west coast are the most beautiful sailing areas in Europe. There are fine marinas in Fenit and Kilrush and one or two are to be built in County Galway. When I walked around Blacksod Bay recently, I saw a notice of application for planning permission for the development of a marina. I hope this project goes ahead. We should be attracting people who are interested in Ireland by putting in place quality tourism attractions that are environmentally friendly. I ask the Minister to examine this area.
I wish to discuss the rail service. It could be argued that the Government has made certain choices in relation to the matters I have already mentioned but who made the decision not to provide a dining car on the Sligo train? I would like to meet the person who made that decision to ask him or her what is wrong with the people of the west that means they do not need to eat when they get on trains. What is the basis for treating passengers on the Sligo train differently? Who are the people who decided not to provide the dining car service? Surely an official of Iarnród Éireann, faced with the fact that there is a limited number of dining cars, would decide to distribute them in an equitable manner while the company is waiting for more to be delivered. I do not know the reason the people of the west tolerate such treatment – perhaps they have become too quiet.
It is the intention of the National Roads Authority that cars will be able to travel between conurbations at an average speed of 80 kph, or 50 mph. Similarly, the Government should insist that all trains be capable of maintaining an average speed of 60 mph. People should be able to travel to Westport, Castlebar, Ballina, Sligo or Tralee by train in under three hours. It is worthwhile for users of the rail service to carry with them a list of the times of the last trains from Cork, Tralee, Limerick, Galway, Westport, Ballina and Sligo to Dublin.
Mr. O'Toole: One cannot do a full day's work in such places as the last train departs before 6 p.m. in most cases – I think the last train from Cork leaves at about 7 p.m. Such a timetable is ridiculous in this day and age, as it means expensive infrastructure lies idle. It should not be allowed to continue.
This country would gain a great deal from investment in conference facilities in attractive places like the Chair's constituency. County Galway is quite well served in terms of such facilities. Given that Knock Airport is in place, all that is needed is a proper train service to the west to develop it as a conference location. Many hotels are providing conference services – fair play to them – but we need national investment in other areas.
The worst and oldest carriages are used on trains that serve the western lines. If I lived in that region, I would stand on the track at Kingsbridge and not allow a train to move until I had met the people who made that decision.
I have raised the importance of broadband infrastructure on many occasions. I am glad that the Minister is taking lessons on the development of e-government. I compliment the Government on the fact that it expects to run Cabinet meetings electronically very shortly. I welcome such a progressive move which reflects well on the members of the Government. Similarly imaginative steps should be taken in the west.
Towns like Castlebar have made huge advances in terms of new technology. Ennis is the leading town in Ireland in this area, but many towns, including Ennis, Castlebar and Galway, have put a lot of investment into this and need ICT infrastructure support. Money must be put into broadband because current investment is inadequate. Privatisation was a major mistake and it should have been a condition of any buyout that up-to-date facilities would be made available. In the era in which we live, the west can be as close to the centre of the action as Wall Street if people have the necessary ICT facilities coming into their homes.
Tá sé ráite agus sean-ráite agam leis an Aire gurb iad seo na deacrachtaí atá ag muintir na nGaeltachtaí. Brathaim i gcónái nach bhfuil tacaíocht ar leith ag dul do mhuintir na nGaeltachtaí. Tá dearcadh agus polasaithe an Stáit dírithe orthu siúd atá ag labhairt cúpla focal Gaeilge lasmuigh des na Gaeltachtaí. Tá sin i bhfad níos tábhachtaí don Stát ná tacaíocht a thabhairt dóibh siúd atá ins na Gaeltachtaí, i dtobar na teanga. Ba chóir go mbeadh tacaíocht ar fáil dóibh.
Tá a fhios agam go mbeidh an Bille teanga ag teacht chugainn amach anseo agus go mbeimid in ann an cheist seo a plé nuair a tharlaíonn san, ach níl seans á thabhairt faoi láthair do mhuintir na nGaeltachtaí a saol a caitheamh tré Ghaeilge. Níl na seirbhísí ar fad le fáil acu ina dteanga féin agus tá seo i bhfad níos tábhachtaí ná aon rud eile.
Tá na Gaeltachtaí i bhfad níos tábhachtaí ná an teanga féin. Is seod de chultúr na tíre iad na Gaeltachtaí, even if people never speak the Irish language. Is daoine ann féin iad muintir na nGaeltachtaí a bhfuil dearcadh dá gcuid féin acu agus a bhfuil a lán acu le tabhairt dúinn. Ina measc féin creideann siad nach bhfuil siad chomh tábhachtach mar shaoránaigh ná a lán daoine eile ar an dtaobh eile den tír. Ba chóir go mbeadh níos mó tacaíochta á thabhairt dóibh.
Tá a fhios agam go n-aontaíonn an t-Aire liom sa mhéad seo. Tá a lán daoine ann, agus nílim ag trácht ar na heagrais teanga, a bheadh sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt do mhuintir na nGaeltachtaí. Tá sin ráite go minic ag an Seanadóir Ó Murchú. Tá tábhacht na nGaeltachtaí i bhfad níos mó ná tábhacht na teanga féin, cé go bhfuil an teanga tábhachtach chomh maith.
In bringing those issues together, we need to look closely at the way people live their lives in the west and in other rural areas in the context of health facilities and education. I made a point of not speaking on education today as I have done so on many previous occasions, but it comes into this discussion with regard to the question of schools, school transport and other matters. We need to look at people, where they live and the infrastructure they need.
The last point I wish to raise is one on which I know the Minister and I are of one mind – ar aon aigne. That is the policy on tithíocht, or housing. The Minister has articulated his views on housing, particularly single housing, and those views should be brought quickly into legislation or implementable policy. That is something Members on all sides of the House could contribute to, and it should be done in a brave and straightforward manner.
I realise that I went over the top on the previous occasion I spoke about this matter in the House in having a go at some of the people in the great organisation that is supposed to look after the development of the environment and built environment. I accept that those people can do both good and bad things, but much of what they are doing at present is demoralising for the development of communities in rural Ireland. As politicians and elected public representatives, we should say that loudly, clearly and without inhibition. I support the Minister in moving those matters forward.
Mr. Dooley: I welcome the Minister who has taken an enlightened approach to the subject of rural development policy, particularly with regard to the problem of population decline in rural areas. While I lack the objectivity Senator O'Toole displayed in identifying Kilrush as a centre to which a number of Departments should be transferred, I would be delighted to discuss this matter with him and perhaps we could plan a campaign along those lines.
Mr. Dooley: For too long, the rural parts of Ireland have experienced a brain drain, with the brightest and best from all over the country moving to the big towns and cities. That is where the jobs are and where people have had to go for further education. Many Members were part of that process.
There is a significant cost to society, particularly in rural areas, as a result of these necessities. Rural areas are dying a slow death; the rural community is haemorrhaging and there is no sign of this stopping. That is what the discussion should be about. I listened to the Minister's speech with great interest. I have no doubt that he is committed to ensuring that this decline stops, but it is incumbent on everyone in the House and outside to become involved in that active debate. I agree with Senator O'Toole that this is something we should discuss on an ongoing basis.
The statistics from the census of 2002 show the scale of the problem. One need only look at the figures represented on a map to realise the staggering effect of depopulation since the previous census. This is a disturbing fact and we should bear it in mind.
The west has experienced some of the greatest decline in population and County Clare, in particular, has experienced acute problems. Large rural areas of County Clare have experienced a drop in population. For example, the population of Carn dropped by 16%, Mount Elva by 24%, Kilmaley by 9% and Mullagh by 10.5%. That decline can be contrasted with the Ennis urban region, which has seen an increase in population of some 24%. The figures indicate the scale of the problem with regard to County Clare, but other counties along the western seaboard have had a similar experience and the Leas-Chathaoirleach will have seen major decline in his area as the population moves towards Galway city.
There is a real problem in rural communities and steps must be taken to counteract it. While the Government should be commended for the national development plan, the national spatial strategy – we are well aware of the Minister's involvement in that – and the steps being put in place to reverse the continuing drift of the population towards Dublin and the surrounding areas, we need to take greater steps to keep our rural communities intact.
The Minister referred to culture and the changing of mindsets, which is important, but there is a need for funding. I liked the Minister's analogy about the chicken and the egg and the necessity to put infrastructure in place first. The overriding concern is the provision of money and the Department of Finance will have to grapple with that to ensure that not just infrastructure but necessary services and facilities are put in place to assist the development of communities and ensure that the decline so evident at present does not continue. How can people be expected to stay in rural areas when Government spending seems to be concentrated on the east?
Senator Kitt referred to the announcement from the NRA. I would not have been as positive as the Senator because a disproportionate amount of that investment was for the east coast. There are reasons for this arising from the different stages a number of projects are at. It is incumbent on us to ensure State agencies responsible for developing the infrastructure are properly biased in their approach. It is also important to ensure the necessary resources are provided to ensure the principle of balanced regional development is adhered to. This will set the tone for the other stockholders and ensure a change in culture and mindset. As politicians, we must grasp the nettle and ensure it is not merely a question of lip service. It comes down to money.
There is a need to reduce the economic deficit experienced by rural regions. This can only happen through a programme aimed at reducing the economic marginalisation of rural communities. Life must be made attractive for people living in rural areas to ensure they do not follow their brothers, sisters and others who have left. There is also a necessity to encourage people to return home. Having spent a number of years studying and working in Dublin, I returned to a rural community. Being involved in politics it may have been easier for me to do this. One form of encouragement is the absence of the traffic chaos in Dublin and other cities to which the Minister referred. This needs to be built on.
Given the difficulties with securing planning permission, it is not surprising that young people are moving away from rural communities on which Senator Ó Murchú elaborated. While the Minister has also made statements on the issue, the problems in this area are not being adequately addressed. Some of the policies and county development plans must be re-examined. National and local politics are involved. Local authorities tend to place the onus for resolving problems on the Government, yet at the same time many continue to develop county development plans that are not well thought through. The identification of industrial zones within rural areas is an example.
The Minister referred to the changing nature of farming. While it must be accepted that the agricultural base of rural communities is being eroded and while the protection of family farms is a priority, there is an evident necessity for off-farm income. Securing that income can be problematic, especially if it means the necessity to travel 60 or 70 miles to take up employment. This does not bode well for the retention of rural populations. A mind shift is required to ensure local industries can develop in designated areas which will create the necessary backup in terms of services and employment opportunities.
Over the life cycle of the Celtic tiger the disadvantages of living in large urban areas have become apparent. There is now the opportunity and the capacity to make it attractive for people not only to stay in rural areas but also to move back. It is, therefore, essential for us and the relevant Departments to ensure the necessary funding is provided to allow for this.
Mr. U. Burke: I was reminded of the return of the old romantic by the Minister's references to aspects of rural Ireland that have regrettably long since disappeared. If I believed he and his Department and the other relevant Departments had begun to deal with the aspects of rural development he espouses, I would consider his appointment as Minister with responsibility for this area to be justified and overdue. Unfortunately, however, while he highlighted many aspects of rural Ireland that are in decline, nothing has been done to stem the exodus from the countryside. For example, earlier today, on the 1 o'clock news on the radio, I heard of another example of how bureaucracy in the form of European Union legislation had denied a farming couple the opportunity to enhance their income in a small way by engaging in value added activities on their farm. They have had to close their small industry. It is regrettable that such incidents continue to happen because of the need to implement EU directives. When the Minister ensures legitimate efforts to improve rural farm incomes are recognised and allowed, we will recognise that he has made an impact on his Department.
I do not doubt the Minister's intentions. One of his early initiatives related to the CLÁR programme. While the programme is not a new development – the Minister has used it to his political advantage in his constituency – it can be of great benefit to many rural communities which are suffering population decline. I welcome his initiative in extending the programme to other areas and widening its application.
The Minister has identified areas that have suffered population decline. They are widespread throughout rural Ireland, especially in the west, including his constituency. If areas of designation, such as those under the European Union habitats directive, are superimposed on CLÁR programme areas, it will be clear that the aims of designation and the programme are incompatible. For example, 25% or more of County Galway is designated and this is set to accelerate. Rural communities in County Mayo are protesting about their inclusion in areas of designation, while recently there were similar protests by communities on the banks of the River Shannon.
Has the Minister forgotten that he gave an undertaking to compensate those who, on their own initiative, took on board schemes for the protection of habitats before there was ever a directive from the European Union or anybody to monitor the effectiveness of such a directive? What happened to the people concerned? They were left high and dry – that is a pun – especially those concerned with the Callows in the Shannon Basin. They were left stranded without any recognition of what they had taken on. There was no response from Government by way of compensation and the Minister has not come forward with any.
We debated agriculture last week in the Seanad but there has been no long-term, focused policy of any kind on agriculture in recent years. There have been ad hoc responses to a series of crises during the years, and compensation may have been granted in some areas. Being seen to respond to a certain crisis when it occurs is not indicative of policy development. If we go down that road, we will never have a new, vibrant rural community, regardless of what one does.
With regard to industrial policy and job creation, do I have to remind the Minister that Ballinasloe in County Galway was rocked in recent days by the sensation that the last flagship in the town was to suffer the loss of 387 jobs? This affected both a rural and an urban community. If we expect rural communities will be enhanced in any way by the IDA, the one industrial body we have charged with the responsibility of bringing industry to the regions, we will be disappointed. I have worked for 25 years in Ballinasloe where not one IDA-assisted job has been created in that period. The glib response of the Tánaiste was that those affected should go to Galway or Athlone, where there are jobs. This response is totally unworthy of any Minister charged with the responsibility of creating jobs for a population that has suffered severe job losses. Task forces were created but there was no adequate response.
Enterprise Ireland has recognised the need for jobs and delivered some to our indigenous industry. However, the county and city enterprise boards are the only agencies to which ordinary people can gain access in order to acquire money to support their initiatives. Every day entrepreneurs find the wall getting higher and higher because of red tape preventing their initiatives coming to fruition. That is a serious indictment of the Government.
On the question of policy, it is worrying if the Government intends to rationalise all the relevant agencies. What has it done with the Western Development Commission? It has demoralised all its initiatives. The Leader programme has been strangled. While the Government is acting in this matter, we will not have any communities flourishing in rural areas.
Teagasc is the agricultural training and research agency. Today in Dublin a seminar group was told that young people did not want to become involved in agricultural education. Soon, no young people will follow on from their parents. A speaker at the seminar gave an example of one young man in Cork who had not one acre of land, yet he was farming 2,000 acres. That is what will happen in rural County Galway unless the Minister prevents it.
We must stop, once and for all, the creeping paralysis of designation that is stifling rural areas. The Minister said he was the person who had become identified with the point of view of those who stood for the single rural house. I know where he is coming from and support him on the stand he has taken but let us not forget that we will be in serious difficulties until he gets his Government colleague to erase from the spatial strategy the word “sustainability”. This is because the Government's interpretation of sustainability with regard to the provision of services for a rural, stand-alone house is quite different from mine and that of the Minister and many other local authority members. The Minister is paying lip service and using welcome jargon but, despite having espoused certain policies, he will charge up the stairs in Dáil Éireann in support of the very terms that are crucifying rural communities.
I welcome what the Minister has said, although some of his comments are outdated. We are looking forward to stemming the flow and to a brighter future. There is no indication that the Government has focused policies. I do not know if the Minister has the capacity to wrench from his colleague, the Minister for Finance, any supportive mechanisms that will sustain a rural population.
Mr. Brennan: I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his tremendous rural development work since taking charge of his portfolio. He has the good will of rural people and it is in all our interests that he succeeds in what he is trying to do.
I compliment the work of the National Rural Development Forum. It is important that the finances are given to the Minster to implement the plans prioritised in the White Paper. Agriculture and rural development were mentioned in the report of the Minister. I am glad to see that €8.5 billion will be available over the next seven years to implement the plans therein. It is important that the maximum possible number of agricultural families continue on the land and that the early retirement and installation aid schemes are kept in place.
I agree with my colleague, Senator Ó Murchú, on the point he made regarding rural housing. It is very important to implement sustainable development policies to facilitate housing in rural areas where a housing need is established. Of all our infrastructural needs, none is greater than the housing need of rural communities. I compliment the work carried out by voluntary housing bodies over the past ten years. They have catered well for the needs of rural communities and, please God, will play a leading role in the future. If their spirit can be harnessed in the implementation of a rural development plan, we will succeed.
It is important that the tourism industry receives its fair share of finances. I compliment the work carried out under the national spatial strategy and disagree with Senator Ulick Burke's interpretation of the matter. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government has said, quite rightly, that rural one-off houses are included in the strategy. That is very important. I am sure the Minister will clarify the position in the very near future. It is time for action and for all agencies to work together. Local authorities, county development boards and enterprise boards must implement the plans which are in place. I wish the Minister every success in the future.
Ms White: I am very grateful for the opportunity to make a couple of points. I draw the attention of Members to public frustration at the slow pace of infrastructural development in rural areas. That was reflected in the number of Independent Deputies returned at the last general election. One was elected in Monaghan and two in the west. Connacht is perhaps the region most isolated from the infrastructure of our cities.
Ms White: I agree with previous speakers who said that the roads and the railway there are in appalling condition. I draw that to the attention of the mainstream political parties and say that change must happen quickly. The slow pace of political change is very frustrating and contrasts with the pace of doing business.
Ms White: I speak generally about the slow pace which applies across the board. I am very familiar with past Governments and I have always found them to be slow. It is the reason I became involved in politics. I have been very close to what has been happening over the past 25 years and I have seen the lack of energy and vigour.
Ms White: Unless politicians stop talking about the issues and drive home the projects to get them done, more Independent Deputies will be elected. They are very articulate and are holding their own, despite the fact that people said they would fade away.
The Minister is sincere and wants to develop rural Ireland, but he has been ambiguous and I disagree with him on some points. Having been a public servant and close to Government, I understand that Ministers are the people who make the changes. In the last part of his speech, the Minister noted that it is not enough for politicians to develop policies since Government Departments cannot implement them unless mindsets change. It is our leaders, the politicians, who are the ones who must change mindsets. They are there to create a vision and to lead. The Minister should not wait for various bodies to get their acts together. They will not do that unless they are led politically by particular Ministers in particular Departments.
Without mentioning names, there are many examples of major changes in this city which were the result of the visions of certain politicians whose reputations are somewhat compromised. Senators know who I mean. Change took place because the drive was there.
Ms White: Mr. Haughey had a vision for the country and it is unfortunate for him that things went wrong. I am not justifying anything, but he had a vision for economic development and he had the guts in 1987 to establish what was necessary to get the economy right.
An Taisce has got itself off side with Government and decision makers by concentrating on the issue of one-off housing in rural areas. That needs to be sorted out. Those who want to live in one-off housing in the countryside should be allowed to live where they want and An Taisce should be brought into the mainstream of decision making. Its aspirations are my aspirations.
The greater Dublin area is home to 40% of the population, up from 32% in 1961. We want no more than 25% of future development to take place in this region. It is crazy to have dormitory homes 15 or 20 miles outside the city to which people travel late at night after work and from which they speed at the weekend. That is not a natural way to live.
Senator McHugh spoke eloquently about returned emigrants. I draw the attention of the House to economic immigrants, some of whom work in my own company. They sustained the Celtic tiger when there was no unemployment and they make an exotic contribution to our economy. We are getting the cream of eastern Europe and the Baltic states. They are charming, brilliantly educated and very polished and they remind me of our emigrants in that they have drive and energy and they want to get on. They will stay here and have families, while many of our returning emigrants are coming back from exotic places with wives and husbands. In Colombia last week I met a young Irish man who has been there for five years and will be bringing his Colombian wife home to live in Ennis. I told her that she will be very welcome, that she will add to the exotica and had better learn English properly. In 50 years time this will be a different country from the one we know. It delights me that there will be people in Government whose grandparents were born in eastern Europe, the Baltic states or Africa.
I received a call on Friday from an independent councillor, Valerie Byrne from Elphin, County Roscommon. Elphin is a village of 750 people and its community college does not have enough classrooms, forcing the children to go to the grammar school in the town for certain classes during the day. They get wet and cold as they go to and from classes and she has asked me to ascertain the status of an extension for the community college. The economic viability of Elphin is affected by the current state of affairs because children are being sent to school in Strokestown, Carrick-on-Shannon and Boyle. This means parents will do their shopping in these towns rather than in Elphin. The Minister in his speech said that community leaders rather than developers should be the decision makers in rural areas and praise is due to Valerie Byrne for putting pressure on Government to secure an extension for her local school.
I realise the Minister is sincere and I was asked to convey warm regards to him from people in the North last week. He supported people on both sides during the troubles. However, there is one point which I must take up with him. It is a pity he said that the man or woman who decides to move their family to the countryside to set up in business is, in many ways, much more valuable to that community than a multinational which sets up in the nearest city 40 or 50 miles away. The Minister should not have said that, rather he should have equated the two. It is not true that such a man or woman is more valuable. Entrepreneurial, craft, intellectual and IT skills are brought by multinationals. Where would the country be if we had opted for the Buchanan report in 1972? Since he is a community leader, I would like the Minister to rephrase his statement.
Mr. J. Phelan: I agree with much that Senator White and many other Senators have said. I welcome the Minister to the House. He has an important portfolio and I wish him well. Like most of the other speakers, I have been encouraged by what the Minister has said since he took office. His heart is in the right place and he is a man who knows what rural affairs are all about.
I find it ironic that the Minister mentioned the future importance of organic farming at a time when doubt is being cast on the agricultural college in Athenry, which promotes such farming techniques. Organic farming is significant and deserves additional funding rather than less. In addition, Teagasc is to close down the country's main research centre for soft fruit, in Clonroche, due to funding cutbacks. I urge the Minister to intervene to keep both these centres open.
The Minister referred to one-off housing in rural areas and I support the thrust of what he said. Inevitably, however, it comes down to a question of interpretation by local authority planners as to whether or not an application will be accepted. As a county councillor I am well aware of that, as are other Members of the House who are also councillors. Regardless of what the Minister may say at national level, it still comes down to a local planner's decision. Planners are individuals and while one person may read something into a development plan, another may read the same plan months or even years later and see something completely different.
I have a problem with the inconsistencies in planning laws as they apply to Kilkenny. On the one hand, we see developments that many people would question, while on the other, a proposed development by a local person to live on their own land can be turned down by the planning authority. If we are serious about resolving such difficulties we will have to introduce a degree of consistency to local authority planning decisions.
The Minister made a number of positive statements to which I have referred but it is now time for action on these issues. Like my colleague, Senator Ulick Burke, I have not seen many concrete proposals in the Minister's speech for the future development of rural Ireland.
In common with other Senators, I am concerned about a number of local issues. I read with interest a report in a Sunday newspaper, which I can only presume was a targeted leak by somebody in the Department of Health and Children. According to the report, a proposal is being considered to close the maternity facilities at St. Luke's Hospital in Kilkenny and transfer them to the regional hospital in Waterford. A similar proposal is being considered for the maternity wards in south Tipperary and Wexford, with a view to bringing all of them together in a central facility in Waterford. From the viewpoint of developing rural communities that would be a retrograde step. It is only two years since the maternity unit was opened in St. Luke's Hospital, so the facilities there are modern and it would make no sense to transfer it, along with neighbouring maternity facilities, to Waterford. Some 6,000 babies are born every year in the south east and it is not feasible for Waterford Regional Hospital to deal with that number.
The issue of single men living in pre-fabricated accommodation in rural areas may not come under the aegis of the Minister's Department, but I wish to raise it anyway. Such men are living in south Kilkenny and I am sure it is similar in the Minister's constituency of west Galway. Many of them are in their 50s or early 60s and most work as farm labourers but they are living in Third World conditions. This is unacceptable. The Minister could deal with this matter and make an impact.
Members of local authorities are familiar with such situations when it comes to allocating council houses. Local authorities build three or four-bedroom houses but one cannot expect middle-aged, single men to be given such housing if a family is in need of it. We must seriously examine the accommodation problems that these men face because they have been overlooked by various Governments. The Minister should examine this matter during his term of office.
The level of grants for the upkeep of thatched houses is a problem in south Kilkenny. A few weeks ago I was contacted by an elderly gentleman who had availed of a grant to have his dwelling rethatched. Given the current cost of such work these days, however, the grant is too small and it needs to be increased significantly. The gentleman who contacted me lives alone with no family to support him, and also has thatched outhouses in a yard. He has been unable to obtain assistance to help meet the cost of rethatching those buildings. If the roofs fall in they will have to be replaced with more modern materials. The Minister should examine the grant levels for repairing thatched roofs. These are not confined to the west; it is a national rural issue.
Many speakers referred earlier in the debate to decentralisation and for some time New Ross has been seeking a Government Department to be relocated there. According to a recent report in a national newspaper, decisions about decentralisation may be put back until after the local elections next year. We know that such decisions were delayed until after last year's general election for political reasons, but I would hate to think that once again for political benefit the issue will not be tackled because decentralisation can bring many benefits to provincial towns.
I agree with Senator Ó Murchú about the role of An Taisce, particularly concerning one-off rural housing. As he rightly pointed out, An Taisce is a prescribed organisation so the idea that it would refuse membership to people whose views differ from its own is objectionable. The sooner An Taisce's role within the planning process is sorted out the better for everyone concerned.
Both the Minister and An Taisce are in favour of the development of villages and I wish to raise the case of Kilmacow, a village in south Kilkenny about six miles from Waterford city. Some 30 years ago the idea of developing a sewerage scheme for the village was first mooted, yet to date no action has been taken to provide such a scheme. This is despite the fact that Kilmacow's population has increased dramatically in the intervening 30 years. It is now impossible to obtain planning permission in Kilmacow, Mooncoin and neighbouring villages throughout south Kilkenny due to the lack of a viable sewerage system. Villages are an integral part of rural life and if they are to be developed in future we will have to provide basic facilities such as water and sewerage, for which additional funding should be made available.
I wish the Minister well in his important portfolio. In common with the Minister, I represent a rural constituency which is close to my heart. I detected a sense of fatalism about the future of agriculture from speeches by the Minister and Government Senators, but we should not be fatalistic about it. If we are serious about rural development in the future, agriculture must play a very vital part in that development. There has to be a sustainable future for people so that families can earn a living from the land. I hope the Minister will be able to influence his colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, to take action in that area.
I have one further point to make about An Taisce. As a rural dweller, I am annoyed at the views held by some urban dwellers who travel out to rural Ireland at the weekend, see the green fields and want the landscape to remain that way. If the rural lifestyle and communities are to survive there must be people living within those communities and it is the Minister's job to ensure this. It is a tough job and I do not envy the Minister his task, but I hope that he will be able to breathe new life back into those communities during his term of office.
Mr. Scanlon: I will be brief because I know that the House is pressed for time. I wish to share my time with Senator Leyden. I welcome the Minister to the House and commend his work over the past two years. There is no Minister with a better understanding of rural Ireland and its problems.
The Minister introduced the CLÁR programme for areas that have suffered serious depopulation over the years. Thanks to that programme there are small group water and sewerage schemes being installed which have made a great difference to those areas earmarked for the programme.
I come from the north-west, from a small town in the very south of County Sligo. That town stood still for most of my childhood and even up to ten years ago. The rural renewal scheme was introduced by the Fianna Fáil Government of the time and in the past four years over 200 houses have been built in my town. At least another 200 houses are being planned and hopefully those houses will be built before the end of the scheme in 2004. It takes far-sighted projects such as these to sustain rural towns, particularly the small towns.
It is crucial that people are allowed to build houses in rural areas. I agree with Senator John Paul Phelan that different planners have different ideas and there does not seem to be consistency. I am aware, as I am sure all politicians are, of planning applications which are refused for different reasons. I acknowledge that scenic areas are important and should be preserved but it is more important to ensure that the people of the rural areas are granted planning permission to build houses. Their children will then go to the local schools and the sporting organisations will be supported within the areas. There will be no hope for rural Ireland without the people. Provided that the sewerage systems and the roads can bear it, people should be allowed build in those areas.
I agree that decentralisation of Government Departments from the cities would help cities, where people cannot easily travel to work because of traffic congestion. It would also make a difference to the rural areas. I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence.
Mr. Leyden: I welcome the Minister to the House and I congratulate him on the excellent work he has carried out since his appointment last year. It must be particularly rewarding for the Minister to see the realisation of many of the projects which he worked on when he was Minister of State.
The Minister recently visited the constituency of Roscommon and was shown the benefits of the CLÁR programme in the case of a small sewerage scheme in Ballinameen. Roscommon County Council, the Department and local developers between them built the integrated sewerage scheme. It has revitalised the village, which is close to Boyle, and new housing has now been built in the area. Combined with the tax concession in the Shannon corridor, it has made Ballinameen a focal point for redevelopment and regeneration. It is the ancestral area of President Mary McAleese. The Minister also visited Deerpark in Boyle where an extension of the sewerage scheme is being developed which will allow for housing in the area.
The extension of the CLÁR area was very welcome. I ask the Minister to reconsider the situation regarding the town of Castlerea which is not included in the CLÁR area. People find it remarkable that towns like Boyle and Carrick-on-Shannon are included in the CLÁR area but Castlerea is not. The town has suffered serious job losses but recent announcements of new jobs are very welcome.
The Minister recently extended the CLÁR area to include an area called Four Roads, which is just a few miles from Roscommon town. We are now losing our post office in Four Roads and it will be run on an agency basis. The very week in which the Minister was trying to revitalise that area, An Post decided to allow the owner of the premises, the postmaster, to avail of redundancy. He is entitled to avail of any such offer and it is not fair that he should be put in that position.
An Post is closing post offices by stealth, by offering a sweetener to existing postmasters and then running the post office on an agency basis. It lowers the status of an area when a school, a Garda station or a post office is closed. The post office in Four Roads is now run on an agency basis. I ask the Minister and his Department to enter into consultation with An Post to ensure that the strategic locations of post offices in rural areas are retained. We appreciate that it is difficult to maintain every post office but those of strategic importance should be supported. The Minister is trying to revitalise rural Ireland and An Post, a State agency, is trying to take services away.
I ask the Minister and his Department to investigate the situation thoroughly and ensure that the maximum number of post offices is retained. I ask that his Department work with An Post to work out a financial package which would upgrade the offices and provide additional services such as computerisation, so that they are viable and more customer friendly.
I wish the Minister well in his brief. The roads have now been resurfaced in a place called Cloonlarge outside Kilteevan, thanks to money from the CLÁR programme. Kilroosky and other areas have also benefited.
Ms O'Rourke: There is considerable interest in the debate and several other speakers wish to contribute. We will adjourn the debate until another occasion. I thank the Minister and his officials for their attendance.
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