Opening Statement by Minister for Rural and Community Development, Mr. Michael Ring, T.D. at Seanad Éireann, Dec 2017.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

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Cathaoirleach,

A chairde,

Could I firstly thank you for the opportunity to speak here this evening, and to brief you on the important work I am leading out on at the Department of Rural and Community Development.

The Department was established on 19 July 2017 as you know.  I am honoured to have been asked by An Taoiseach to lead the new Department.

The decision to establish the Department is an important one as we seek to promote and support vibrant, inclusive and sustainable communities throughout Ireland, both rural and urban.

Government has made a very clear commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government that, as the national economy recovers and grows, the benefits will be felt by everyone.  We know that is not yet the case.

The Taoiseach has referred to creating a republic of opportunity for all citizens.

To deliver on that, people working hard in every town and village in the country, have to be confident that growth will be evenly shared.

They have to be confident that they can have the same opportunities and choices, no matter where they live, no matter where they choose to raise their families.

Recovery and Achieving Even Growth

The Government’s focus over the past two Programmes for Government has been on recovery and we are definitely seeing the results of that.  There is no doubt the economy is experiencing the kind of growth we had hoped for.  Unemployment continues to fall and jobs are being created across a wide range of sectors.

I recently launched the new updated Pobal HP Deprivation Index which takes account of the significant changes experienced throughout the country since 2011. We can take some encouragement from the finding that there has been a 41% recovery since 2011, in terms of overall levels of affluence and disadvantage. However, the Index is a reminder, if it were needed, of the significant challenges that exist including in rural Ireland and in our towns and villages. Small towns (1,000 – 5,000 people) have been the worst effected over the past ten years, being disproportionately hit by the recession and benefitting less from the recovery than the most urban and the most rural areas.

The Index has and will enable us to more effectively target resources and services at the most disadvantaged and is a vital tool for so many Government Departments, including my own, as well as many State Agencies.

Role of the Department

Within this new remit I see my Department’s role as twofold:-

  • Firstly, to facilitate economic development through the creation of jobs and the infrastructure required to support those jobs, and
  • Secondly, to support our communities to become sustainable and attractive places to live and work.

The work is guided by two key policy documents:-

Realising our Rural Potential, the Government’s Action Plan for Rural Development, aims to unlock the enormous potential of Ireland’s rural communities to improve the lives of those living and working in rural areas. Through a framework of supports at national and local level, the Action Plan takes a coordinated approach across Government to both the economic and social development of rural Ireland.  The Plan covers a three-year period and contains a series of time-bound actions which will be monitored and reported on regularly.  The first progress report on the Action Plan, delivered in August 2017, showed great progress in relation to the 227 actions contained in it.

220 of those 227 actions are either completed, on schedule, or in progress, and I expect to be able to detail further positive developments when the second progress report is published early next year.

Our Communities: A Framework Policy for Local and Community Development is the second important policy document guiding our work. The Framework Policy reflects a shared commitment by national and local government and the local and community development sector, to engage with communities and to work with partners in planning, delivering and evaluating interventions, and the policies underpinning those interventions, for the good of individuals and communities. The Framework Policy will be implemented on a cross-government basis and will seek to secure a joined-up, collaborative and participative approach to local and community development at local level. It is guiding the work on the development of local community planning and public participation networks within my own Department.

Communities are nothing without their people, and the efforts of volunteers across the whole country are invaluable to the social fabric of those communities.  They are in many ways our greatest asset and must be supported and encouraged at regional and local levels.

How We Invest

Engagement across Government at political and Executive level will be a very strong feature of how we work and I will come back to that. However, I also have the opportunity to make investment choices within my own Vote to support and promote local communities to become sustainable and vibrant places to live and work.

In the recent Budget I secured in excess of €220million in funding for rural Ireland, giving us the foundation we need to drive the rural and community agenda and to deliver initiatives that can foster growth right across the country.

This includes flagship programmes such as the LEADER and SICAP Programmes; the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme; the Town and Village Renewal Scheme; the Library Capital Investment Programme; the Local Improvement Scheme; as well as a range of other community support schemes and programmes.

In 2017, I have had the opportunity to advance a number of important investments right across my brief:-

  • €11 million in approvals for projects under Measures 1 and 3 of the 2017 Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme.
  • €20 million in approvals for the Town and Village Renewal Programme, which focuses on economic development in rural towns and villages;
  • €7million in approvals for the CLÁR programme for small scale infrastructural projects in rural areas that have suffered the greatest levels of population decline.
  • €17.4 million for a new Local Improvement Scheme, for non-public rural lanes and roads;
  • €5 million RAPID Programme which is focused on tackling social exclusion in disadvantaged urban areas and provincial towns.
  • Additional funding of €3.75 million for the continued modernisation of the library service, enhancing services for library users and paving the way for the launch of the new public library strategy early in 2018.
  • €1.4 million in grant funding for the Tidy Towns competition as we look forward to celebrating the 60th anniversary in 2018 .
  • €800,000 for 120 Agricultural Shows around the country.

But let me give you a couple of examples of the impact that these investments can have on local communities.

The Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen is a digital hub that was given €150,000 under the Town and Village Renewal programme. Ludgate is a great example of what can be achieved with the aid of government investment. There are now more than 30 businesses operating out of the Hub. It is a credit to those involved.

I recently visited the Blueway project in Drumshambo – a project  also supported by my Department. It supports 8 small local businesses.

My point is, even these smaller investments can have an enormous impact on a town and the surrounding hinterland. These projects offer the potential for local job creation and, if replicated, can generate real economic growth.

In a different way, the investment in the Tidy Towns competition serves to celebrate the wonderful example of volunteerism with results that benefit the whole community.  We know this is part of the social fabric we enjoy in Ireland and we must protect and promote.

The “Home from Home” Learning Programme in north east inner city Dublin is another excellent example supported by RAPID one of the community programmes. The programme is making a really positive difference to children and families in the area so that these children can grow up with the language, and mathematical skills needed for success in life.  But what was most striking to me in visiting the area was seeing how this whole community works together to make this happen.

Broadband

Another initiative my Department is involved in relates to broadband connectivity. We all know that this is a serious concern for many in rural Ireland, and the Government has committed to ensuring that high-speed services are available to every business, group or residential customer in every area of the country.

I am delighted to be supporting the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment in the roll-out of this project. My Department has provided funding to every Local Authority to appoint a dedicated person to assist in ensuring that there are no local barriers to rollout of broadband.

Charities Regulatory Authority

I also want to mention the Charities Regulatory Authority which has also come under the remit of my Department.  This is Ireland’s national statutory regulator for charitable organisations.  It is independent in its mission to regulate charitable organisations operating in Ireland.

Since its establishment in 2014, great progress has been achieved by the Regulator as it seeks to increase public trust and confidence in the management and administration of those operating in the charitable sector.

Community and Voluntary Sector and Social Enterprise

The work of the Regulator is a separate but important aspect of my departments work in supporting the community and voluntary sector in Ireland, recognising the unique role charities play in supporting communities across Ireland.

 Community and Voluntary Sector and Social Enterprise

The Scheme to Support National Organisations in the Community and Voluntary Sector (SSNO) is a key element of the State’s support for the role of the sector in contributing to the development of strong and vibrant civil society and in improving outcomes for those most disadvantaged.

The Department supports volunteer centres in 21 counties as well as a number of national organisations such as Volunteer Ireland and Young Social Innovators. The funding of these organisations is designed to foster volunteerism in Ireland, building a support structure that would develop volunteering locally from the bottom up.

Social enterprises differ from commercial enterprises in that they have a social mission. Social enterprise has a long-standing presence in Ireland, building on deep roots of community organisations, self-help and enthusiasm for enterprise.

In September I committed to developing a National Social Enterprise Policy. As part of this work I announced a research partnership between my Department and the Social Finance Foundation. Work on this research is ongoing. A Steering Group is in place which involves both key Government Departments and experienced social enterprise practitioners.  The policy is scheduled to be completed in early 2018.

Influencing Critical Policy Developments

I mentioned earlier, that achieving success involves the work of a number of departments. Collaboration between my Department and our colleagues across government must lead to policies and programmes that take a holistic approach. This approach must consider the needs of all communities, regardless of location or population.

Responding to the challenges being experienced by many communities requires many hands and financial investment across many Departments. This cross-government working and leveraging of effort and influence is at the heart of the two policy documents I mentioned earlier. My capacity to engage at Cabinet level and bring that continued focus to this rural and community agenda is also going to be critical to achieving real impact.

Upcoming Government initiatives include the National Planning Framework and the National Investment Plan. Ensuring the balanced regional rural and community development of communities everywhere is an important focus for me in working with colleagues across Government on these two policy initiatives.

Conclusion

In addition to the ongoing programme of work being undertaken, my Department is also working its way through the challenges associated with its establishment.  There is no doubt that this brings its own workload but I am very pleased with the progress to date.

As well as making the practical arrangements, both legal and administrative, to establish the Department, we have welcomed a cohort of young, vibrant new staff to our ranks.

My officials and I recognise that part of the opportunity and the challenge for the new Department is to make a difference.

My team are in the process of finalising a Statement of Strategy which reflects the new combination of responsibilities. By bringing together  key policy, supports and programmes we can offer something which is greater than the sum of its parts.

I will conclude by saying that I believe the creation of this Department is a huge opportunity for communities across Ireland.

I know that the Senators here this evening share with me the aspiration that all our citizens have the  same opportunities, regardless of where they live.

As Minister for Rural and Community Development, I am committed to ensuring that the policies of this government reflect those aspirations and recognise the unique challenges these communities face.

Thank you for your attention.