Address to Kilkenny County Council plenary
A Chathaoirligh, a Mhaoire, a chomharleoirí, a Bhainasteoir, agus a stuarithoiri seirbhíse, is mór an onóir domsa mar Aire Stáit don Oidreacht Athchóiriú Toghchán a bheith ann inniu agus i measc libh arís.
A Chathaoirligh, Mayor, members, Directors of Services, and CEO, it is a great honour as Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform to be with you here today.
Members, this past year has been a year like no other. The pandemic has wreaked havoc and broken many hearts but there are tentative signs of hope that we will emerge from this dark time. The rapid development and deployment of vaccines has shown that we have the creativity and capability to work together towards a common cause.
Of course, what we emerge into is still somewhat of a mystery. We simply won’t know the true psychological, economic, and social impact until we move out of the crisis phase. I commend Kilkenny County Council for stepping up when asked through Community Call. It is proof once again of how local government plays such a vital role in the every-day lives of people particularly in a time of crisis.
As we look towards the future, we consider how economic life will return to our towns and villages. Kilkenny County Council has been progressive and forward-thinking in reconfiguring space within the urban area of this city towards sustainable mobility. Of course, we can always do more and as we hopefully lift the veil on the pandemic in coming months, we must be creative and courageous in how we regenerate our town centres.
I would like to thank my backbench colleagues for welcoming the funding I announced this morning. Funding of over €18m under the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund in my department will go some way towards that regeneration I mentioned. While there are elements of works funded within the Abbey Quarter with which I am at odds, I want to wish Kilkenny County Council well with the big job of work ahead.
I would propose that a rethink on many elements of the Abbey Quarter plan should be considered – including the provision of co-housing, minimising office and retail, and a complete and ambitious plan for cycling and walking.
Take note of the radical departure towards decarbonisation, sustainable mobility, and urban living within the Programme for Government ‘Our Shared Future’. We soon will be bringing together the outputs of our ‘Town Centres First’ policy and it will become the blueprint for all our cities, towns, and villages – towards heritage led regeneration.
I have followed closely progress on the establishment of the Technological University for the South East. It’s an exciting prospect for the whole south east region and I will continue to work with Oireachtas colleagues and both CIT and WIT towards the start date for the merger in January 2022. Both my wife and I are graduates of Carlow and we, like many thousands of others, benefitted from access to third-level education close to our home. The south east region has for too long underperformed due to lack of strategic investment and the TUSE will play a huge role in turning that story around.
I am also working with SOLAS, The Heritage Council, and other partners to develop a National Centre for Traditional Building Skills. I would dearly like to work with you to have a presence of that centre here in County Kilkenny.
Members, the closure of bank branches in our rural towns is a body blow to those communities. We must work with them to repurpose those retail branches – exploring digital hubs and public banking with An Post and incubation hubs. It’s a really challenging time, but it’s an exciting time too!
Members, I have committed to meeting regularly with Kilkenny Chamber, attending JPCs, and working with elected members, staff, and the wider community here in the County to help in this great recovery effort.
I would like to address the work in my portfolio in heritage and electoral reform and how this work will impact and benefit your work over coming years.
Your heritage office is making an immense difference to your work in promotion of the county, in fostering awareness, in activism, and in citizen science. In the realm of natural heritage, for example, we have a big collective job to do over the next decade – the decade of ecosystem restoration.
Ireland has rightly committed to big targets for nature protection over coming years under the EU Biodiversity Strategy. This will put a responsibility on us to achieve 30% land protection, 30% marine protected areas, and 10% strict land protection. In February I (virtually) attended the One Planet Summit hosted by President Macron and signed the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People on behalf of the Irish Government.
Last week I was part of a bilateral between the European Commission and my department on our actions for nature and I presented the Prioritised Action Framework for Nature to cabinet.
Agriculture in this part of the country will have an important role to play in reaching our targets for nature and for water quality. How we farm our land here is having an impact in our estuaries and I am advancing a network of Marine Protected Areas over the next number of years – it’s all connected.
A move towards results-based payments for farmers here, as well as in designated areas, would in my view represent a significant step forward.
You may have noticed that my team at NPWS brought a successful prosecution to court relating to the out-of-season destruction of hedgerows. We are taking a firmer stance on wildlife crime and, later this year, I will be establishing a dedicated Wildlife Crime Unit within the NPWS and with the support of An Garda Siochána.
Later this year we will embark on a new National Biodiversity Action Plan and we have been told by the Biodiversity Forum that it must be ambitious because 85% of our protected habitats are in decline or in poor state. We are addressing this by way of a review of the NPWS, through a significant increase in funding for nature in 2021, and with additional staffing.
Here in Kilkenny, I need your help in realising the high ambition. When we adopted Bombus Hortorum as our county insect and partnered with the All Ireland Pollinator Plan that day in Inistioge we signed up for that high ambition. We need to start setting down protected areas of public land, embedding biodiversity into our planning system, and greening our towns and villages.
I am also working with my colleague Minister O’Gorman to bring together a youth biodiversity assembly through your networks of Comhairlí na nÓg, leading to a wider assembly. In a few weeks I will be launching the second All Ireland Pollinator Plan – one of the most successful community-led biodiversity initiatives ever in this country. We will again see a key role for local authorities. You have a wonderful heritage officer in Dearbhala Ledwidge. We will be asking councils to appoint biodiversity officers and will have funding to support that objective.
Next week I will be writing to all councils with my colleagues Ministers O’Brien and Burke to ask you not to mow roadside verges and parks until after the first flourish of dandelions have done their work in providing early nutritious food to our early emerging pollinators.
We have a big job of work to do with water quality also and a new river basin management plan will be published by our department soon.
In built heritage, we have some exciting plans too. Our hugely successful Built Heritage Investment Scheme and Historic Structures Fund will close shortly and we are expecting a record number of applications. Minister Martin and I added another element into the scheme to support the conservation of traditional and Irish language shopfronts.
I see these and other schemes as long term strategic schemes that will regenerate our historic urban centres, that will bring whole streets back into active use, and that will provide thousands of work hours in traditional conservation skills. In that regard, I am, as aforementioned, actively pursuing the establishment of a National Centre for Traditional Building Skills with accredited craft skills apprenticeships. Partnering in with TUSE on these will be important.
Kilkenny is steeped in built heritage and monuments. Last week I opened the funding stream of €2m for the Community Monuments Fund. If there are projects in your area please let people know about this grant programme. Later in the year we will be advancing a new consolidated National Monuments Act to replace over 100 years of fragmented legislation.
I will also be publishing a National Architecture Strategy later this year.
Our built and vernacular built heritage are in my view key to unlocking the potential in and leading the regeneration of our towns and villages. County Kilkenny is fortunate to have so much intact built heritage and it needs to be conserved, restored, and repurposed.
Local Authorities should have a full heritage team with conservation and repurposing officers and a county architect. We have a wealth of local knowledge and of support with the Heritage Council and other organisations. Their Collaborative Town Centre Health Check programme is an excellent starting point for towns to get started on their own town regeneration plans and in bringing together ‘town teams’ to animate works.
My work in Electoral Reform is progressing well. We are currently moving the most ambitious piece of reform legislation in decades through committee stage. The Electoral Reform Bill will see the establishment of an electoral commission to oversee all electoral events and act as an advocate for reform, participation, and inclusion in our democratic system.
The bill will modernise the electoral register – creating a single rolling online register, using PPSNs to register voters, pre-registering 16 and 17 year olds, and working with local authorities to create a single database of information.
Within the bill, we will legislate for the holding of electoral events during COVID-19 emergencies – a necessary inclusion as we simply don’t know how long this pandemic will be with us for.
Finally, the bill will be the first in Europe to legislate for the regulation of online political advertising – again much needed in a time of disinformation. This part of the legislation will not moderate online political advertising but require those placing political ads online to register and make public all of their details.
The electoral commission will over time be given significant powers and an enhanced role in research, in targeting hard-to-reach groups, in advocacy, and in promoting participation in our electoral system. It will be independent of government and report to the houses of the Oireachtas.
Women face significant barriers to running in and getting elected to local and national politics and remain under-represented on councils in particular. Women accounted for only 21% of councillors after the 2014 local elections, a figure that improved only marginally to 24% after the 2019 election. Of the 69 co-options that took place since 2019, 37 seats were filled by women – my vacated seat was one of them and Cllr Maria Dollard has been an exceptional replacement and, I’m sure you’ll agree, a valued colleague to you all.
There is also a significant urban/rural divide in the representation of women, with urban LEAs having more balance. I agree with the contention of the National Women’s Council that we should give consideration to extending gender quotas to local elections.
I also hope that the commission will be tasked with considering reducing the voting age to 16 for the 2024 local elections and introducing a ban on election posters.
Once the electoral reform legislation is passed, we move towards a number of referenda scheduled in the Programme for Government: extending the voting franchise to overseas citizens in presidential elections, a referendum on housing rights, and one on water.
Members, I am deeply impressed with the way that Kilkenny County Council continues to support communities through the pandemic. I wish to commend the Local Enterprise Office for the ongoing support and mentoring provided to small business at this time.
Similarly, your library services have been just a fantastic support to communities over the past year.
I am conscious of the challenges that the pandemic has placed in front of our minority communities – our families from South Sudan, from Syria, from other minority communities, and indeed from our Traveller community. It is important that a new integration strategy for the county is advanced as soon as conditions allow.
I have met with many representative groups affected by the pandemic; most recently the hotel and hospitality sector. I will work with Government colleagues to ensure a package of supports is in place to help them to re-open and thrive again.
Members, I am working with your Director of Services Tim Butler and the Department of Transport to progress the completion of the Northern section of the Kilkenny Ring Road. The Strategic Assessment Report submitted by Kilkenny County Council in December 2019 will be subject to a deeper analysis under the Public Spending Code. I have been informed by the local and regional roads section of the department that the local authority will need to demonstrate significant ambition in cycling, walking, and public transport within the city core as part of the application of this project. It is unfortunate that it was not advanced as a priority back in 2011-12 when the opportunity presented, but I will do all I can to help its progression.
Members, I wish to continue to work closely with you all over the lifetime of this government to help deliver all of these big ambitious plans and projects for County Kilkenny – its built and natural heritage and its people. It has been a hugely challenging year for us all but there are real and tentative signs of hope. I have been in regular contact with your CEO and officials to support them with funding issues and, thankfully, Government has been very supportive.
We are fortunate to be living in a county with so many creative talents – from Cartoon Saloon to our great crafts people. At this juncture, I should acknowledge and congratulate Cartoon Saloon for their fourth Oscar nomination for ‘Wolfwalkers’.
We have a resilience to do something that is uniquely Kilkenny. It is important that we put our collective and collaborative efforts into lifting our communities towards a vibrant and sustainable future.
Ba mhaith liom beannachtaí a bhreith oraibh agus bhur dteaghlaigh ar lá Fhéile Pádraig seo, ag súil go mbeidh sé ár gcéad agus ár deirenach ceiliúradh ar líne.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.