RURAL RENEWAL

NEW €380,000 FUND TO HELP REVITALISE MONAGHAN TOWNS AND VILLAGES

Minister Humphreys Urges Local Communities to Apply

Michael Fisher   NORTHERN STANDARD   Thursday 11th August 2016 p.1

The government aims to publish a new Action Plan for Rural Ireland by the end of this year. This was revealed during a visit to Clones on Tuesday by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Heather Humphreys T.D. She was launching a scheme to assist rural regeneration.

Minister Humphreys announced that her department was making available a fund of €10 million this year to local authorities throughout the state in order to support the renewal of rural towns and villages. An allocation of €380,000 has been set aside for County Monaghan and each of the other 25 counties to go towards projects.
This was by no means a silver bullet to solve all the problems in rural Ireland, but it was a positive start, she said. They would work from the ground up in order to get the best solutions. The Minister said she did not have all the ideas and did not want to be prescriptive about how the funding should be used. She told the Northern Standard it was up to local authorities in conjunction with local groups to sit down and decide the priorities to be tackled, such as derelict buildings. Local people could identify things they needed to make a difference to bring back life to the towns and villages.

The Minister hoped there would be a quick turn-around time for grant approval, with allocations being made before the end of the year. If it brought back people into towns and villages then it would be a success. She said there were many examples of modern day living, with people turning historic sites into accommodation. She wanted to see people living in towns, creating companionship and community spirit.

She said this first tranche of funding under the Town and Village Renewal scheme represented a serious commitment by government to offer support to rural towns and villages. Each county can apply for grants for up to eight separate town or village projects. Minister Humphreys called on local communities and businesses to submit outline plans to her department for approval in September. Up to 200 towns and villages across the country will benefit from the scheme this year.

A particular focus will be placed in 2016 on supporting smaller towns, with populations of less than 5,000. A maximum of two projects can be supported in each county for those towns with a population of up to 10,000. Funding will be allocated to local authorities to meet up to 85% of the total cost of each project.

In County Monaghan, applications for the scheme will be forwarded through the regeneration committees in Clones, Ballybay, Monaghan, and Castleblayney, as well as the Carrickmacross Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with the respective Municipal Districts. Funding will be released to local authorities once projects are approved by the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The minimum grant for any single project is €20,000 and the maximum is €100,000. The Department says this phase of the Town and Village Renewal Scheme will be reviewed and adapted as necessary for 2017.
Speaking at the restored courthouse building in Clones, the Minister said rural development was a key priority in the Programme for a Partnership Government. Ireland’s towns and villages were at the heart of our rural communities, but the economic downturn had a significant impact on many of them. She said it was incumbent on them (as a government) to help these areas achieve a recovery.

Minister Humphreys went on: “I am launching the Town and Village Renewal Scheme to begin breathing life back into our rural towns and villages. It is critical that towns and villages become areas where economic activity can flourish, where people can live and work, and where people can meet at a social level.”

The Minister continued: “Consultation and collaboration will be key elements of the scheme. It will be administered through the local authorities, which will be required to partner with local businesses and local communities to develop and implement ideas that can make a real and lasting impact in revitalising rural towns and villages.”

She said the scheme was part of the government’s commitment to ensuring that the benefits of economic recovery were felt in every part of the country. The scheme also addresses one of the recommendations in the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas report, published in 2014.

Measures taken under the Town and Village Renewal Scheme should have a sustainable and visible impact on the area in question. The type of project to be funded under the scheme could include measures to:

  • increase the attractiveness of the town or village as a local commercial and social centre, and increase its sustainability as a place in which to live and work;
  • enhance its environment and amenity in the interests of residents, businesses and visitors;
  • enhance the culture and local heritage assets of the town/village and promote tourism;
  • tackle minor physical infrastructural deficits and land assembly issues.

The Minister was welcomed to the town along with other guests by Finbarr Dunwoody of the Clones Chamber of Commerce. The procedures for applying for the fund were outlined by William Parnell, assistant secretary at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, whose brief covers regional development and rural affairs, said the roll-out of rural broadband was a priority and the department was working in conjunction with the Minister for Communications Denis Naughten.

Louise Lennon of Irish Rural Link (an organisation based in Moate, Co. Westmeath) stressed that a good broadband infrastructure was needed. She said the scheme announced by the Minister was a first step in the right direction for the development of rural towns and villages that had been hit by the economic crisis a few years ago. She said it was important to bring facilities back into towns so that younger people could remain there.
Peter Hynes, Chief Executive of Mayo County Council, welcomed the initiative on behalf of the County and City Management Association. He said it showed the importance the government attached to rural Ireland. The local authorities, he said, shared that priority. There were big challenges in the areas of building housing, creating employment and climate change. Balanced regional development and rural regeneration was of critical importance, he added.

Mr Hynes said a key part of that was getting people back into towns and villages. The extent of the challenge was daunting: towns and villages were at the eye of the storm, challenged by the spread of online retailing. He reminded the gathering that it would take time, commitment and resources to tackle the problem, but it could be done. He cited the example of Westport in Co. Mayo where he was appointed town manager in 1996 with a brief for regeneration. Twenty years on, it had been a success. He looked forward to local authorities taking on the challenge so that towns and villages could realise their potential. They would be collaborating with businesses, the department and in particular with local communities to make it happen. This scheme was a big step in the right direction, he said.

Patrick McCarville of the Clones Regeneration Partnership said their committee set up last year would probably concentrate initially on the development of the Fermanagh Street and Diamond area. The town renewal scheme would be another potential source of funding in addition to LEADER.

Mr McCarville said the committee would be meeting at the end of the month to try to identify sites that businesses could do up. But the improvements would not happen overnight and as they heard, had taken some twenty years in Westport. One thing they were not going to do was to attempt to cloak the dereliction by erecting fake shop fronts to give the impression the buildings were occupied, as had been done in Enniskillen during the G8 summit in 2013.

Minister Humphreys told them that Clones with its monastic heritage was a fitting location to launch a scheme that aimed to support the revitalisation of towns and villages all over Ireland. Clones was also a town that had suffered more than most down through the years. Its close proximity to the border during the troubles had a severe impact on economic activity locally and sadly that resulted in a legacy of decline in the town. Unfortunately the scars were there for all to see today.

She went on: “while Fermanagh Street is always a hive of activity and thronged with people on Ulster Final day, the sad reality is that when the crowds move off, we are left with a main street that has far too many vacant premises. That’s a pity because it undermines the good work that is taking place in Clones. And there is an awful lot of good work going on here.”

“You have the superb PEACE Link facility, the recently opened Barry McGuigan Park, the new soccer pitch for Clones Town FC, as well as St Tiarnach’s Park – the home of Ulster GAA and of course a state of the art modern secondary school in Largy College. These are amenities that would be the envy of many towns in the country but unfortunately it’s all about first impressions. And the fact is when you walk on to a main street that has a number of empty and derelict premises, that vital first impression is not good.”

In launching the first phase of the Town and Village Renewal Scheme she said it was critical that town centres – and even small villages – became areas where economic activity was supported and encouraged, where people could visit and enjoy themselves and most importantly where people could live and work with a sense of pride of place.

“I have increased the allocation for the scheme in my department’s vote this year, from €4 million to €10 million, reflecting the government’s commitment to the development of rural Ireland. I want to acknowledge the excellent work which is already being carried out by businesses, communities and local authorities throughout the country to revitalise town centres. There are some fine examples of good practice and I hope that this new scheme will help other towns and villages to replicate and adapt those examples, or develop their own unique solutions to town and village renewal. I am encouraging the local authorities to engage fully with the scheme in order to maximise the benefit for the towns and villages in their area”, the Minister said.

She welcomed the presence at the launch of a number of business people and representatives of local community groups from across Monaghan and Cavan. “You are the people who are best placed to know how we can help your local town. We want your ideas and we want you to work with you. In this regard, consultation and collaboration will be key pre-requisites of the scheme”, she told them.

A project committee, representative of local community and business interests and the local authority, should be established for each project to help design a strategy which should be aligned with broader development plans and opportunities for the area. The most important part of the scheme, however, will be taking practical measures to support the town or village’s social, cultural and economic development, Minister Humphreys said.

She told them that a number of other measures would be announced in the Autumn to support rural development. These would be announced in due course by herself and Minister of State for Regional Economic Development Michael Ring. The Minister observed that there were many vacant or partially vacant heritage buildings in town centres all over the country which she believed offered real opportunity to bring life back into town centres.

If a real and lasting impact was to be made on the regions and on rural Ireland, then every government department needed to make a meaningful contribution to the effort, whether it was in relation to jobs, education, transport, housing or other economic or social policy area. With that in mind, her department would shortly commence work on an Action Plan for Rural Ireland. It would include clear objectives, with regular and structured progress reports that would be presented to the Cabinet Committee on Regional and Rural Affairs chaired by An Taoiseach. This would ensure co-ordination of the rural agenda across government, the Minister stated.

Included in this process will be the consideration of regional and rural issues in the design of the National Planning Framework. This framework is the follow-up to the National Spatial Strategy and its development will be led by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. The National Planning Framework (NPF) is a Long-term, 20-year National Plan outlining a high level spatial vision for Ireland. It will be the overarching plan from which other regionally and locally based plans will emanate.

The Action Plan format, successfully developed through the Action Plan for Jobs, takes a strategic approach based on implementation. Government departments are given key objectives which they must meet in the context of regional and local priorities.

Chief Executive of Chambers Ireland Ian Talbot said, “We welcome the commitment by Government to invest €10 million into the regeneration of rural towns and villages with the central aim to improve the living and working environment of local communities and support their potential to increase economic activity. We anticipate that this investment will be a positive step to help revitalise rural Ireland. Ireland has a high number of towns and villages with a population less than 10,000. There are 552 villages with a population of less than 100. Many of these towns and villages across Ireland will benefit from the funding announced by the Minister.”

“Consultation and collaboration with local citizens, business owners and Chambers will be vitally important to the success of the projects chosen for investment under this scheme. We encourage local business to engage with other stakeholders and to work closely with the local authority to develop innovative projects that can deliver long term and sustainable economic benefits, not only for the individual town or village but in turn for the wider county and region.”

Mr Talbot also welcomed the government’s commitment to produce an Action Plan for Rural Ireland similar to the Action Plan for Jobs. He said the courthouse restoration in Clones was a testament to what could be done with a small amount of money towards regeneration.

Mairead McGuinness, MEP for Monaghan and Vice-President of the European Parliament encouraged community groups to avail of the immediate opportunity to work with their local authorities to enhance and upgrade their towns and villages under the new scheme. The MEP said it was a good opportunity for those who had projects and ideas ready to activate to put in their applications by September.

“This funding scheme is due for distribution by the end of the year so those with projects already in mind will be in pole position to benefit. There will be further tranches coming down the line during 2017 and beyond. This part of the scheme will assist those with initiatives to help regenerate their towns and villages and give a boost to those working to bring vibrancy and economic recovery back into communities,” she said.

Mairead McGuinness was joined at the launch by local Fine Gael Councillors Sean Gilliland and Ciara McPhillips (Ballybay/Clones MD). Cllr David Maxwell from Monaghan MD was also present.

In a speech last month Minister Humphreys outlined how she was working closely with the Minster for Communications Denis Naughten, to deliver key elements of the National Broadband Plan and to accelerate and prioritise the rollout of the programme in rural areas. The aim is to deliver high speed broadband to every home, school and business by 2020 through a combination of commercial investment and state intervention.

The state will intervene in areas where commercial providers are failing to reach. The Minister said the Department of Communications was continuing to manage the procurement process for the state contract, which was expected to be awarded in summer 2017. In the meantime, her new Department was working with local authorities to eliminate any roadblocks, so as to ensure that towns and villages and rural areas were ready for broadband when the contract was signed.

She said it was difficult to overestimate the challenge they were facing. The broadband blackspots in need of state intervention accounted for 750,000 addresses, and covered 96% of our landmass. This represented about 100,000km of road network, traversing areas which were home to 1.8 million people. “Put simply: it’s a very big job – it’s akin to rural electrification.

But it will be worth the effort, and it will have a transformative effective on rural Ireland. High quality broadband is one of the many tools we can use to empower rural communities. The revitalisation of rural Ireland must be based on sustainable development”, the Minister added.

“We must learn from the mistakes of the past. We are all well versed on the mistakes of the construction bubble, when our young men were recruited and trained in their droves in an industry which was built on sand. The old approach of ‘an IDA factory for every town’ didn’t work either. It was false promise, and one that was generally never fulfilled.”

“Through the implementation of regional jobs plans, the government is encouraging each region to focus on its strengths. By supporting indigenous businesses and linking education with industry, we can give each region the best possible chance of success. Take for example, a business in my own constituency of Cavan-Monaghan.”

“Combilift is a home grown Monaghan success story – a jewel in the crown of Enterprise Ireland. Since it was first started by Martin McVicar and Robert Moffett 18 years ago, the company has grown into a global leader in forklift manufacturing. It now exports to over 75 countries. Last year, Combilift announced major expansion plans and the creation of 200 new jobs.

Crucially, the company has teamed up with Cavan Monaghan Education and Training Board to develop a series of new apprenticeship programmes, to ensure those jobs can be filled by local graduates. It’s a formula that works, and one I want to see replicated nationwide.”

The Minister told the MacGill Summer School in Glenties that sustainable development should also mean national decisions about rural Ireland were not taken in isolation. The report by the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas – published under the last government – looked at how to revitalise rural Ireland. One of its most important findings was the realisation that in order to fully support sustainable rural development there was a critical need for a more integrated approach across all government departments and agencies. “This is not a new concept and indeed much of the relevant sectoral frameworks accept the need for this kind of approach”, she said.

Minister Humphreys added: “this government’s increased commitment to supporting sustainable rural development in an integrated way has already been formalised through its commitments in the Charter for Rural Ireland published earlier this year and the creation of my new portfolio.”

 

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