Thank you Minister Ring – and again I would like to welcome everyone here today.
My Ministerial brief cuts across both the Department of Rural and Community Development, and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment. In terms of my remit within the Department of Rural and Community Development I would like to highlight a few areas of particular importance today.
Firstly, with regard to our support for the Community and Voluntary Sector; in August of this year Minister Ring published a strategy for the development of the community and voluntary sector in Ireland – ‘Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities – a five year strategy to support the Community and Voluntary Sector in Ireland’.
The aim of this strategy is to create vibrant, sustainable, and resilient communities that are fully engaged in decision making processes. My own remit covers the issue of ensuring community and citizen engagement in local decision making – and I am delighted that the €3 million community support package includes additional support for both Public Participation Networks and Local Community Development Committees.
These are the structures that can help ensure communities are engaged and have a voice at local level – and the additional funding will ensure this objective can be achieved.
We are all aware of the invaluable role that the volunteering sector plays in our society and the development of a Volunteering Strategy is well underway in the Department, in partnership with the sector.
I welcome the ongoing support for our critical volunteering infrastructure and supports, and I look forward to publishing the new strategy.
I also welcome the increased support for the CSP and SICAP programmes. Whilst not directly under my remit – the organisations that I meet on a regular basis are the ones that benefit from these schemes and the additional €1.5 million in funding for use across these programmes is most welcome.
With regard to the Dormant Accounts Fund, it has maintained its allocation of €12.6 million for 2020, and I want to highlight the type of measures that are being funded with this money.
The Fund is used to support projects that address economic, social and educational disadvantage, and to support people with a disability. It has delivered a much greater impact in recent years. For example, the Social Innovation Fund Ireland, received funding of €5 million this year. SIFI attracts match funding from philanthropic sources, essentially doubling the impact of available funds. Through the support of the Dormant Accounts Fund and philanthropic donors, SIFI have created more than 30 funds across a wide range of areas including supporting the elderly, addressing social isolation and tackling educational disadvantage. The continued funding for Dormant Accounts measures will ensure this work can continue to progress.
The available funding for Dormant Accounts measures will also allow funding towards the Senior Alerts Scheme in 2020. This scheme provides senior citizens with alarm devices that are monitored 24 hours per day. It has proven extremely popular – and is a vital service for many elderly people, especially in rural areas. Over 60,000 people have signed up since the scheme started in 2010, and the Dormant Accounts Fund will continue to provide additional funding for this scheme and will help ensure it can reach even more people in 2020.
The Dormant Accounts Fund allocation will also provide €2 million for capital investment supports for the Social Enterprise Sector. The Department published the first “National Social Enterprise Policy for Ireland” in August 2019 – and this funding is an important part of enabling the social enterprise sector to thrive and benefit people and communities throughout Ireland.
I also have responsibility for the Western Development Commission – and last year saw their budget increase by additional €500,000, from €1.5 million to €2 million. This is being maintained in 2020 and will allow them to continue their excellent work.
The National Planning Framework placed a very strong emphasis on more balanced regional development and the Western Development Commission has an important role to play in achieving this goal. It actively and successfully promotes the Western Region as a great place to live, work and run a business. It also manages a €44 million fund that provides loan capital to small and medium enterprises.
The Western Development Commission are also intrinsic to the Atlantic Economic Corridor initiative. This aims to build an offering of scale along the west coast to drive economic development along the entire area. The AEC initiative is about getting all regions, local authority areas and communities along the Western Seaboard to work together to support the delivery of the National Planning Framework objectives by maximising regional strengths and attracting investment to the region as a whole. The development and promotion of the Atlantic Economic Corridor has been adopted as a flagship project for the Western Development Commission under its recently published 5 year strategy.
With regard rural broadband and mobile phone coverage, the role of the Department is to support the local authorities in preparing for the rollout of the National Broadband Plan. This involves officials working closely with local authorities to identify and mitigate any barriers that may delay rollout. The Department also provides €42,000 to each local authority to support a broadband officer, whose role is to facilitate the rollout of telecommunications infrastructure. This is an essential role and one that has been recognised by industry as having a transformative impact on their relationship with local authorities and central government. This funding has been secured again for 2020.
I also chair the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce. This has made a substantive difference, not just in removing barriers to the rollout telecommunications infrastructure, but also in respect of making tangible improvements to mobile phone coverage.
Some recent examples of important work that Taskforce members have delivered include:
These two actions are the type of real and tangible actions that the Taskforce members are taking to improve coverage for people throughout Ireland.
So to close, as Minister Ring said at the outset, this Budget has ensured our continued commitment to existing schemes and also provided some €17 million in additional funding for targeted measures.
Given the context in which this budget was agreed, this shows the Governments clear commitment to rural and community development and will ensure that the work of the Department will continue to have a positive impact, right across the country, in 2020.