The Government has been accused of failure and lack of commitment by pushing “spin over substance” when it comes to rural Ireland.
A pilot scheme to help families and first-time buyers refurbish vacant properties which blight rural towns and villages was one of the key initiatives in the Government’s multi-million action plan for rural development announced in January of last year. In an interview with the Irish Examiner in December 2016, then Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural, and Gaeltacht Affairs Heather Humphreys said she wanted young families to return to live in rural centres and would be introducing the scheme on a pilot basis.
Ms Humphreys said: “I am looking at developing a small pilot scheme to encourage people to come back to live in town centres because I know there are a lot of vacant units above shops in rural towns.”
However, the department has now confirmed that, almost 14 months on, the scheme has yet to be set up, no towns or villages have been identified to pilot the project, and a steering group tasked with delivering the grant has never met.
Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív accused Minister for Rural and Community Development Michael Ring of “inaction” and said the scheme to bring young families back to towns and villages was “a back of an envelope job” which he claimed the Government “hoped we would forget about”.
“I believe this was an announcement that was never approved by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform,” he said. “They had to put something in the plan that was new so they announced this. It was promised that it would be done, but it is just another broken promise for rural Ireland and it’s not good enough.”
He said those living in small villages and towns in rural Ireland are only asking for a “modest infrastructure network” but this is not even being delivered.
Mr Ó Cuív, who will be raising the issue with Mr Ring when he appears before an Oireachtas committee this week, said that while the Government is “full of promises”, most of the time announcements relating to rural Ireland are shelved.
“There are lots of launches but there is very little action. It’s all bluster,” he said,
Labour spokesman on rural and community development Willie Penrose said the grant, which was one of the Government’s “flagship proposals” in the Action Plan for Rural Development, would have revitalised country areas and also ease the housing crisis.
“It tells us all we need to know about how committed they are to rural Ireland that in the middle of a housing crisis and over a year on, there has been no move to bring in these grants,” he said.
“Across Ireland there are towns and villages that could have benefitted, where young couples could have use the payment to renovate houses. We were promised a pilot first, and that hasn’t even happened. It’s all spin over substance.”
Mr Penrose, who pressed Mr Ring on the progress of the plan in the Dáil last week, said the lack of progress is “not good enough”.
A department spokesman said the pilot scheme to encourage residential occupancy in rural towns and villages is currently being developed.
“Following initial discussions between the Department Rural and Community Development and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government at official level, the minister has now established a steering group to accelerate and oversee the design and delivery of the pilot scheme,” said the spokesman.
“The steering group is chaired by this Department, and involves a number of other key departments and agencies. The first meeting of the steering group will take place shortly.”