Tuesday, 30 May 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister for Finance (Mr. Cowen): The National Development Plan 2000-2006 set out to ensure that Ireland remained competitive in the global marketplace and that the fruits of our economic success would be shared more equally at regional level and throughout our society. The plan was framed after an extensive consultation process that involved social partners and regional interests. It reflected the broad consensus on the future development needs of the country and is a coherent development strategy supported by a multi-annual investment commitment in the key areas of infrastructural development, education and training, the production sector and the promotion of social inclusion.
The size and ambition of the plan signalled unparalleled investment in the future development of the country. It involved an investment of over €57 billion of public, private and EU funds from 2000 to 2006. It has entailed significant investment in infrastructure such as roads, public transport, water and waste services, as well as health services, social housing, education, industry and rural development. Unlike previous plans, approximately 90% of the public funding for this plan is being provided by domestic sources, mainly the Exchequer. Nevertheless, the contribution from the European Union will total €6 billion, with €3.8 billion from the Structural and Cohesion Funds, and €2.2 billion under Common Agricultural Policy rural development funding.
The national development plan identifies investment priorities to be addressed by the regions to enable them to increase their potential. For the BMW region, those investment priorities included increasing the presence of key drivers of sustainable economic growth and improving the quality of the economic and social infrastructure and human resources there. Other investment priorities for the BMW region included promoting rural and urban social inclusion and building on the region’s natural resource base, especially in agriculture and tourism, the seafood sector and rural enterprise.
Significant investment evident to all who live and work in the BMW region has taken place there under the national development plan. It will not finish with the current NDP and is part of an ongoing process of investment to improve the region and bring about more balanced regional development, which is a key Government priority. The economic and social investment plan is the largest multi-infrastructural investment programme in the State’s history. It provides for total capital investment of €26 billion in key capital investment areas. Of that, some €7 billion was envisaged for the BMW region.
I will highlight the main achievements in economic and social infrastructure in the region, which have produced very significant improvements. Up to December 2005, €1.5 billion had been invested in roads in the BMW region. Major projects have included the M1 Dundalk western bypass, the Kinnegad bypass, the Carrickmacross bypass, the Ballina-Bohola road, the Sligo inner relief road, the M5 Strokestown to Longford road, the Boyle to Carrick-on-Shannon and Ballyshannon to Bundoran roads. Major road projects under construction or due to begin this year include the Kinnegad-Athlone road, the Monaghan bypass, the Castleblayney bypass, the Dromod-Rooskey road, and the Edgeworthstown and Charlestown bypasses. In addition, more than 26,000 km of non-national roads have been improved, restored or maintained, with a total investment of €1.1 billion in the BMW region up to December 2005.
In public transport, more than €283 million has been directly invested in projects in the BMW region, including work on the rail network and resignalling projects. On the Dublin-Galway and the Dublin-Sligo lines, there were consequent reductions in journey times, and by the end of next year, the Ballina and Westport lines will have been resignalled. That means that all rail lines in the BMW region will have been completed. Iarnród Éireann took delivery of 26 new modern diesel railcars, and most have been allocated to the Sligo route. An order for 150 new high-specification intercity railcars has been placed by Iarnród Éireann at a cost of €324.3 million. The diesel railcars are expected to enter service from next year and will operate on the Dublin-Galway, Dublin-Westport and Dublin-Ballina routes.
Almost €2 billion in public funds has been spent in the BMW region since 2000 on housing projects, more than 120% of the amount forecast for the period. Those projects include social, affordable and local authority housing schemes, voluntary housing schemes and Traveller resettlement schemes. Over 208,000 people are benefitting from upgraded group water schemes and small sewerage schemes in the region. Under the BMW regional operational programme, by December 2005, some 395 urban and village renewal projects had been completed. There are plans for a further 189 projects to be completed by the end of this year.
While the question of competitiveness for a small, open economy such as Ireland’s is more appropriately dealt with at national level, there must be a cohesive approach at regional level to support those efforts. The plan has a role in developing competitiveness in the region, improved access to markets, better information and communication technology, more effective investment in infrastructure, better training and development and improved adaptability of the labour force, all of which are sub-elements of the national development plan and will contribute to improving competitiveness at local and national level.
In the research and development area, €262 million has been invested in the region, including funding of the gene vector core facility at NUI, Galway, the only such facility in Ireland or the United Kingdom. Furthermore six proposals for new incubation centres at GMIT Galway-Castlebar, Athlone IT, Dundalk IT, Sligo IT and Letterkenny IT have been approved. Such investment has an important role to play in the future development of the region and of the country as a whole by supporting the capacity to provide services to high potential start-up companies and enable campus enterprises to become commercialised.
The drive to transform Ireland into a knowledge-based economy providing sustainable well paid jobs for our more highly educated workforce is being progressed in the NDP and will also be important during the next NDP if Ireland is to remain competitive in the global jobs market of the 21st century.
In this light there has been significant improvement in developing and enabling the local knowledge economy in the region. This has included expenditure of over €7O million on regional broadband infrastructure, with more than 90 towns in the BMW region selected for open access infrastructure under the BMW regional operational programme.
Local enterprise development has been funded through the county enterprise boards in the region, which have assisted in the creation of more than 17,000 jobs in almost 2,230 enterprises and have provided training to over 26,000 people in programmes over the period since 2000. An additional 10,400 child care places have been created in the BMW region and 225 new child care facilities were established and 469 have been upgraded.
These improvements have been important for the region. Yet across the economy, global competition is creating pressure for improvements in efficiency, quality and productivity and a growing need to innovate and add value across all aspects of business. These pressures are going to increase and it is therefore important that the Government draw on the experience of the current NDP in order that we can put in place the investment now needed to maintain our national economic competitiveness in a globalising world.
There have been some difficulties in expenditure under the productive sector operational programme and the BMW operational programme and there are a number of reasons for this. The impact of the slow down in economic activity in 2000-02 — the early years of the operational programmes — and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease meant that businesses were not in a position to put forward investment plans in those early years to avail of funding. Industry in the BMW region did not, in those years, have the capacity to absorb funding of the amount envisaged for research and development projects. Furthermore, research and development projects also usually have long lead-in times between inception and funding requests, meaning expenditure is now only being realised in the latter part of the programme.
Another reason is the relatively low concentration of high value-added industry and limited research and development capacity in the region. While NUI Galway has performed extremely well in obtaining competitive research and development funding, the limited available research and development capacity militates against the BMW region drawing down significant amounts of research funding. However, it should be pointed out that research expenditure increased by 14% nationally in 2005, and by 75% in the BMW region compared with 2004 expenditure levels. Therefore, progress is being made on this issue also.
I am informed by the managing authorities that there were delays in getting state aid clearance from the European Commission resulting in the late start to funding some schemes. An example of this would be the tourism measure under the regional programmes.
With regard to public transport, the main outputs in the plan for the region remain on target. However, the actual expenditure in the region is below profile partly because some major investments, which benefit the entire transport system, are attributable to the southern and eastern region only. For example, the redevelopment work at Heuston Station, providing additional platforms and train paths, contributed to the improvement to services for intercity customers to and from Galway, Westport and Ballina but has been recorded solely as a southern and eastern region project. The renewal of work on tracks and the resignalling of routes across the entire network is yielding quicker journeys, as well as increased comfort and safety.
Transport 21, announced in November by the Government, will be an important element in that significant additional investment in transport in the State will take place in the next ten years. The plan, worth €34 billion over the period, will build upon the investment made in the current NDP. It includes significant investment for the BMW region in developing the Atlantic corridor road network running from Letterkenny through Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford and the reopening, on a phased basis, of the western rail corridor, the development of Galway commuter rail services, QBC development for Galway and the extension of the rural transport initiative over the life of the investment plan.
The Government has prioritised expenditure under the NDP in the BMW region. In the major operational programme areas of economic and social infrastructure and employment and human resources development, expenditure from public, private and structural funds up to December 2005 was 92% and 94% respectively of profile or €8.9 billion. Furthermore, Exchequer expenditure under the economic and social infrastructure and employment operational programme up to December, 2005 is 113% of profile or €500 million more than planned in the BMW region.
Under the Community Support Framework for Ireland 2000-06, the country was allocated €3.3 billion in Structural Funds for the period. Of that allocation, the BMW region qualified for €1.4 billion, with the balance of €1.9 billion going to the southern and eastern region. Regionalisation has the effect of increasing the level of European funding in the BMW region to 75%, whereas the southern and eastern region only receives EU co-funding of 50%. Under State aid rules, bodies such as Enterprise Ireland, Údarás na Gaeltachta and Shannon Development can give higher rates of grant aid to small and medium enterprises than in the southern and eastern region.
Ireland will draw down its full entitlements under the Structural Funds for each region. This means that investments will continue to take place under the current programme beyond 2006 in both regions. Under the Structural Fund regulations, expenditure on co-funded measures can continue to the end of December 2008 and will be eligible for the drawdown of structural funds from the 2000-06 allocation. This is an important point, often missed by those who commentate on these matters. Reports to the monitoring committees for the period January 2000 to December 2005 indicated that expenditure on co-funded measures for each region is on target.
Not only will the available funding be drawn down but, as attested by independent assessors, the results achieved with the resources form the Structural Funds have been good. Enterprises, employees, parents and children, commuters and others have benefited through, for example, expanded service availability, access to employment and improved transport infrastructure. The update evaluation of the community support framework, completed by the independent consultants, states that an analysis of data on Ireland’s relative performance within the EU in the broad infrastructural and socioeconomic areas that are co-financed shows it to be above the EU performance economically. The evaluation also indicates that, while the BMW region has not yet converged with the southern and eastern region in terms of GDP per head, it is converging with the EU average. The BMW region is closing the gap with the south and east in terms of the rate of unemployment, which is low in both regions. At the beginning of this plan unemployment was around 1.6% greater in the BMW region than in the south and east. The difference now, I think is approximately 0.2%.
The BMW region has made huge strides across all areas identified in the NDP since 2000. According to the most recent available information from EUROSTAT, gross domestic product in the region increased dramatically from 74.2% of the EU-25 in 1995 to 92.5% of the EU-25 in 2003, demonstrating the region’s continued convergence towards the EU average level of output.
Information from the Central Statistics Office suggests that the income gap between the BMW and the southern and eastern region is closing. The gap was 11.02% in 2002, having narrowed from 12% in 2001 and 13.4% in 2000. Furthermore, differences in the cost of living and housing between the regions would suggest that the gap in living standards between the regions is considerably narrower than the data for disposable incomes indicates.
Convergence between the two regions has also occurred in employment. Data from the CSO quarterly national household survey indicates that between the third quarter of 2000 and the third quarter of 2005 the number employed increased by 20% in the BMW region compared with 13 % in the southern and eastern region; the labour force grew by 19% in the BMW region compared with 14% for the southern and eastern region; and the participation rate grew by 6% in the BMW region compared with 3 % in the southern and eastern region.
In the third quarter of 2000, the unemployment rate in the BMW region was 1.6 percentage points above the rate for the southern and eastern region. The current unemployment rate is 4.7% in the BMW region and 4.3% in the southern and eastern regions, which shows there is a convergence in that respect.
Last August the Government announced its intention to prepare a new national development plan to cover the period 2007 to 2013. It will be the key instrument in bringing our stock of infrastructure up to the required standard. It will also see a sustained investment in a significant pillar which is crucial to our success, namely, education. Investment in infrastructure and education, combined with investment in developing our enterprise and productive sector, will strive to achieve balanced regional development by promoting the implementation of the national spatial strategy. The next plan will also see significant further investment in promoting social inclusion.
The national spatial strategy will be a central theme in the next plan. Without the proactive implementation of it we will not achieve the balanced regional development that we all want. Implementing the national spatial strategy will be particularly relevant to the BMW region. Of the nine gateways identified in the national spatial strategy, five are in the BMW region. These five gateways will be central to the development of the BMW region after 2006. They will serve as a principal focus for public investment and this investment will be complemented by investment in developing the hubs and rural areas, which are also key components of the national spatial strategy. In short, the next national development plan will be an investment strategy across the key areas, which will articulate the vision of where we want to be in 2013.
As regards infrastructure, the centrepiece of the investment will be the roll-out of the Transport 21 framework, to which I referred. A further key area for investment will be the environment. We will build on what we have achieved to date under the current plan to ensure the highest standards for our water quality and to tackle pollution. We must put facilities in place which will have the confidence of an our citizens and service the needs of a successful economy. Our investment in this area will also focus on recycling facilities and an alternative energy sector to ensure that by the end of the next NDP we will have an improved and more sustainable environment.
Spending on education will be a core part of the next plan. This is an area where spending has also risen substantially in recent years. We have implemented a sustained programme to expand and improve provision at every level. This is an investment in our people and their future which is already showing signs of a huge return.
The Government has placed research and development at the heart of its economic development strategy in order to build the skills necessary for a modern knowledge based economy and to strengthen our research base. We are committed to making a quantum leap forward in the area of research and development and to moving Ireland from being an impressive latecomer to an acknowledged leader in this critical area. The next plan will provide investment to enhance that element.
The further development of our knowledge economy has made reform of our third level sector imperative in order to enhance the quality of teaching and the student experience, to increase participation in third level education and meet up-skilling needs and to support research programmes, both basic and applied. I announced in the 2006 budget a strategic innovation fund for higher education over the next five years, which allocated €300 million to that programme. This fund will be a central part of the national development plan investment in higher education.
The all-island dimension will be a key horizontal theme in the next development plan. It will have particular resonance for the BMW region which encompasses the entire Border. Opportunities for cross-Border co-operation will be maximised to the mutual benefit of everyone on the island.
We received some excellent submissions during the consultation process on the plan which is ongoing. The regional assemblies are participating in that process. We have received a submission from both regions and my Department will meet representatives from the assemblies in due course. We have also received a joint submission from all the regional authorities, setting out their view as to how the overall national strategy should be pursued by the plan as well as the particular investment challenges in the three regional authority areas that make up the BMW region. I recently had a constructive and useful meeting with a delegation from the regional authorities and officials from my Department will have further consultations with those authorities shortly. We have also received a comprehensive submission from the Western Development Commission and officials from my Department have had detailed discussion with a delegation from it. AlI these consultations will feed into the overall process of preparation for the publication of plan.
The impressive list of projects delivered in the BMW region, the convergence which the region is achieving vis-à-vis the EU average and the narrowing of the gap with the south east underscores our commitment to approach to development. These achievements have arisen from an investment process that will not stop at the end of the current plan but will lay the foundation for further investments in the next planning period.
The Government will continue to invest substantial sums of money to meet the needs of the people in the BMW region in critical areas of economic and social infrastructure, employment and human resources, which is important if the region is to continue to build and develop an economic environment that is supportive of competitive firms and of more and better jobs in line with the Lisbon strategy. I thank Senators for their attention.
Mr. J. Phelan: I welcome the Minister and his officials to the House to discuss the national development plan with particular emphasis on the Border, midlands and western region. The Minister outlined in a direct manner the current position of the roll-out of the national development plan in the BMW region. In that respect, there are a number issues I wish to take up with him.
Spending is behind schedule under a number of headings in the BMW region, an aspect to which the Minister referred. He offered a number of excuses to why this is the case. The Minister mentioned spending on public transport. Spending is behind schedule on other infrastructural projects such as sanitary services and water schemes. There seems to be serious shortcomings in the provision of funding for particular areas in the BMW region. That is the reason some of my colleagues were eager to have this debate and I am glad the Leader has given us time to have this debate.
I read a report in the media today which covers a recent statement by the Western Development Commission in which it outlined its reservations as to what it perceives to be the continuing neglect of the western region as a whole. That media report contradicts many of the comments made by the Minister. He referred to the Western Development Commission and a recent meeting he had with its representatives. Perhaps they used that opportunity to raise their concerns. The report I read in one of today’s national newspapers contradicted much of what the Minister had to say on that issue. There seems to be an underspend of approximately €2 billion under the national development plan in the BMW region, which is a substantial underspend by any stretch of the imagination. The Minister offered some excuses as to why some of those moneys have not been spent but he has not satisfactorily answered as to why there is more than a €2 billion underspend in the BMW region.
The Dublin area is bursting at the seams in terms of development and sprawling suburbs that extend as far south as Gorey and north to Drogheda and into County Meath in particular. The decision by the Government to divide the country into two regions for the purposes of European Union funding was one I supported at the time and one I still support but the Government has not succeeded in ensuring that the gap between the two regions has been narrowed sufficiently. Some progress has been made towards that end but it has not been sufficient.
There seems to be an unwillingness on the part of some Government agencies to recognise the differences that exist between the BMW region and the eastern and southern regions. The enterprise strategy group report of last year, Ahead of the Curve, ignored regional differences and the need for specific regional policies. The tourism policy review group in its report last year took no account of the need to develop regional strategies with regard to the development of the tourism product. That was particularly puzzling because that is one area where the BMW region has a distinct advantage over the eastern and southern region in many respects. The CSO document, Measuring Ireland’s Progress 2004, provided 120 national indicators with no regional differentiation between them. It is clear there is still some difficulty in many Government agencies in addressing the continuing imbalance which exists between the BMW and the southern and eastern regions.
At the time of the establishment of the two regional assemblies, I expressed some concern locally that the region from which I come, the south east, which includes Wexford, Waterford, Carlow, Kilkenny and south Tipperary, continues to have major infrastructural deficits. Its exclusion from the BMW region means it is not in receipt of major investment and, therefore, it continues to suffer as a result of not being in a position to gain advantage from that investment.
Professor Seamus Caulfield recently predicted a population drop of 20% in the next 15 years in the BMW region. The Minister mentioned the national spatial strategy and other Government initiatives but we must try to ensure the flight of people from the BMW region, which was rampant a number of years ago but has largely been stemmed, does not continue and is reversed. If Professor Seamus Caulfield predicts such a population drop, it is very serious and the Government should take it on board.
In 2004, 88 district electoral divisions in the BMW region had an unemployment rate of 24% or more. Despite what the Minister said about the narrowing gap between the BMW region and southern and eastern region, it shows much work remains to be done. County Donegal, which is part of the BMW region, has an unemployment rate of somewhere in the region of 15% or 16%. It is a blackspot and despite recent utterances, the Government has not done enough for that area to ensure the figure is reduced.
Fine Gael has put forward a number of proposals on how the situation in the BMW region can be improved. The party leader has outlined his belief that a Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach should be appointed to ensure spending under the national development plan and its successor in the BMW region goes ahead on schedule and that amounts promised are committed.
We have also raised the issue of decentralisation which is, to say the least, a political hot potato. I am glad the Government seems to be finally coming around to the Fine Gael view that the plan set out three years ago cannot be implemented in the timeframe or manner announced. I was finance spokesperson when the Minister’s predecessor came into the House to discuss his budget but he refused to accept the above when I put it to him. I am glad the Government now seems to realise the decentralisation programme set out three years ago, while welcome and which must be part of ensuring the development of the BMW and other regions outside Dublin and its hinterland, cannot be implemented as announced.
It is imperative something is done to further develop the indigenous tourism sector in the BMW region. The tourism policy review group did not take account of specific regional strategies, which would have clear benefits. I mentioned Donegal earlier but there are other counties in the BMW region which have obvious advantages which should be taken into account.
The greatest failure of the Government in terms of fulfilling its objectives in all regions, including the BMW region, is in the area of telecommunications. Massive chunks of the country, including huge areas in the BMW regions, do not have access to broadband. I am sure Senators on all sides could list areas in their constituencies in which there are significant problems in terms of access to broadband. I urge the Minister and the Government to ensure broadband becomes a reality in rural areas, especially in the BMW region. If we are to see key economic development in that region in the future, we must ensure businesses which are there and which wish to locate there have broadband at their disposal.
Mr. Feighan: I welcome the Minister and the opportunity to speak on progress on the National Development Plan 2000-2006. The Minister is from a county in the BMW region and it was welcome that his county used every resource at its disposal last Sunday to overcome a much stronger challenge from another county. I suppose it epitomised the challenges faced by the BMW region.
Mr. Feighan: I meant no offence to the Acting Chairman. We have welcomed major projects over the years. One must always welcome €1.5 billion being spent on national roads in the BMW region. I refer to projects such as the M1, the Dundalk western bypass, the N4 and the N5. There are many major road projects under consideration. However, there is one area in which I have some difficulty. There are dual carriageways and, indeed, motorways on the roads to Cork, Limerick, Galway and Belfast but on the road to the BMW region, the dual carriageway ends in Mullingar. It is getting much more difficult to get investment into the north west because if there is no dual carriageway to the north west, people will stop in Mullingar. I can drive from Lucan to Mullingar within the speed limit in 35 minutes but it then takes me approximately one hour and ten minutes to get to Boyle in County Roscommon.
Mr. Feighan: We must address infrastructure. If there are dual carriageways and motorways throughout the country, there should be some in the west and north west. I appreciate the road to Galway has dual carriageways and motorways but the west about which I speak covers counties Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo and Donegal.
Senator John Paul Phelan referred to expenditure on broadband infrastructure, of which there could be more. There is not enough broadband penetration in the regions and its roll-out has been slower than we would have wished.
With regard to funding to county enterprise boards, I was on the enterprise board in my county and these boards have provided great value for money in terms of investment. Much more could be done through the county enterprise boards. They provide great seed capital and have brought many welcome jobs to the region.
On the Order of Business I pointed out that last weekend in my area, a €150 million project was turned down by An Bord Pleanála over which I appreciate the Minister has no control. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government effectively scuppered the development in question. Finance may be available but if we cannot get goodwill from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in terms of providing this major tourism infrastructure, we are wasting our time.
I call for an investigation by the Department and ask that An Bord Pleanála take a sympathetic view to the social and economic needs of the area. I come from the town of Boyle which does not have a hotel with more than ten bedrooms. There is no hotel with over ten bedrooms, no conference centre or leisure centre, and no 18-hole golf course, yet An Bord Pleanála refused permission for three developments in the past week. One was for a hotel in the town, and another for a development worth €150 million for a hotel, including leisure centre, conference centre, 18-hole golf course and golf lodgings in Lough Key Forest Park. The third was a project across Lough Key. In total these projects were worth €300 million of private investment and were turned down.
I do not blame the Minister but some Departments are not sympathetic to rural areas which are crying out for infrastructural investment. I urge the Minister to do whatever possible to investigate this anomaly and ensure this will not happen again. This does not involve destroying the environment but achieving balance between investment and protection of the environment. Common sense is required in this area.
There is a cabal in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government which is out of control. Until this is dealt with we cannot introduce the necessary systems in these areas. If there are people in the Departments saying they will scupper certain investments we are wasting our time.
Ms O’Rourke: I am happy to speak on this debate about developments in the BMW region during the present plan and am pleased to see the Minister has opened the National Development Plan 2007-13. As he devoted considerable time to it in his speech I can speak on this matter.
We are inclined to forget the feat it was to get 75% funding for the national development plan. At the time, making the application and pushing it through was quite an arduous process, particularly because Irish economic indicators were coming good at the time. That made it more difficult to put on the poor mouth for a given region. Nevertheless, we did so and it was pursued professionally and thoroughly with the result that the national development plan was set up.
This mainly comprises core funding which spills out to other projects so that while it may appear that some elements of the plan fell short of their allocations, the core funding element allowed it spill over into other developments. We may not pay enough heed to that point.
Much of the public transport aspect of the plan has filtered through to Transport 21, which is necessary, desirable and much appreciated. There was a time when railway lines around the country were closed down. People then turned to cars and having bought one, wanted another to the point that some households had three or four. Of course cars are necessary but the railway lost its allure in the rush to use motor transport. Rail travel is coming back, however, because trains are less stressful for travellers, better for the environment and socially desirable.
Athlone, Mullingar and Tullamore have been identified as a gateway. These are modest and thriving towns. I would regard Athlone as the most important but Mullingar would think the same of itself, and if the Minister was still in the House he would say the same of Tullamore. As he has left I can say this with impunity.
A critical section of missing rail infrastructure is the Athlone to Mullingar rail line which closed in the mid-1970s. I do not blame the all-party coalition in power at the time because the tenet of the time was to close railway lines unless they could produce a significant economic outturn. That would never happen because for a railway line to be economically viable requires long distances and large populations, neither of which we have. They exist in Canada and other countries where railway lines stretch thousands of miles. We have found, however, that railways are viable and economically and socially necessary.
There is now a push to have the Athlone to Mullingar railway line reinstated and reinvigorated. To that end the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, met a broad-based all-party professional deputation last November. He told us to prepare our costings which a sub-group is doing, with the help of the Athlone Institute of Technology and Westmeath County Council. By the end of May, tomorrow, the plan will be ready and we will present it to the Minister.
If we adhere to the national spatial strategy and to the plan for gateway towns, which we will, the Athlone to Mullingar railway line needs to be implemented with stations at Athlone, Moate and Mullingar, for several reasons. The line would stretch 45 km, approximately 30 miles. The old style track was replaced by welded track during my time as Minister for Transport and a new track will be needed. It will service the communities of Castletowngeoghegan, Streamstown, Moate and Athlone.
Our aim is to have the line included in the next National Development Plan 2007-13. The Minister said, “These five gateways will be central to the development of the BMW region after 2006”. He also said that the Midlands Regional Authority and its consultative executive have endorsed this plan, which is important. I compliment Westmeath County Council and the rural link in Moate which spearheaded the public meetings, the all-party members who attended to it and the Athlone Institute of Technology which gave its economic and planning expertise to the exercise.
The Minister said, “In short, the next national development plan will be an investment strategy across the key areas which will articulate the vision of where we want to be in 2013”. I have made my pitch and I hope it will reach the ears of those who should hear it.
Ms O’Rourke: Yes I bet he will. He should not impinge on me. I am happy about the hopeful note the Minister struck in respect of education. I am reluctant to call it the fourth level but that is the postgraduate, research and development, and thesis area in which we have fallen behind. We cannot emphasise enough the importance of research and development. We were far back in that field, but we have managed to advance. I was happy to hear the Minister wax enthusiastically in his most recent budget speech about the areas of education that would be necessary, in particular research and development — both applied and pure research. We need both as one is the basis for the other. It would be ridiculous to think we could have one without the other.
We need more money for incubation units in the ITs. Where would we be without our ITs which long ago forged the way forward? We would not have the numbers of young graduates we have in critical areas if we had not had the research and development units and incubation programmes in all our ITs, including Athlone Institute of Technology which is doing very well in the area.
The story of the BMW region and the spatial strategy is good. It is good the area got the core funding of 75% — a significant amount. It got this despite the fact the region was already forging ahead on a sound economic basis. I notice the gap is narrowing between the BMW and other regions. The unemployment rate is now 4.7% in the region compared with 4.3% for the rest of the country. There are other significant improvements also. The objective of the core funding and of EU policy was to help the region measure up.
Far-flung regions, such as the BMW region, suffered an economic, social and infrastructural deficit which could be made up by the application of the core funding from Europe and national funding. This has happened to a greater degree than I anticipated. The western assembly played its part as did the other various assemblies which make up the regional assembly. I am proud to belong to a part of the BMW region, although some people might say County Westmeath veers more towards the other regions. That is true, but we were happy the county was included as this was of enormous importance to it.
We do not trumpet enough the benefits of the NDP. We see the name on signs everywhere, in particular on road developments. Tomorrow, we will be cutting the sod near Moate for the Kilbeggan to Athlone stretch of the new motorway and we are delighted with this important development. We can whizz to wherever we like now. However, the investment in human capital is significant also and it is in this regard that education is so important. The Minister said in his speech that Ireland was an enthusiastic neophyte or newcomer in this area, but that it would now be to the forefront. We are and should be, because we are building on a tradition of education that is hundreds of years old. This is something that cannot be bought, but is a cultural embodiment of the kind of people we were. We may not have been a land of saints, but we were certainly a land of scholars.
We now pursue a new type of scholarly initiative, what can be called fourth level. This is a new concept but is worth pursuing. Young people doing their primary degrees now talk about doing postgraduate study. This was unknown in my time when the only postgraduate course we knew about was the higher diploma in education for those who wanted to teach. Nowadays, postgraduate studies involve higher echelons of economic and social activity, which I welcome.
The Minister’s speech is a good landmark and I compliment whoever put it together as it is logical, clear and easily understood, unlike the sometimes turgid speeches we hear. The speech was logical and consequential, traced all that has happened and related the good news from the beginning to the end. This side of the House can certainly say much has been done and there is more to do. What has been done has been thought out and executed well. I welcome today’s debate on this important matter.
Mr. O’Toole: I am delighted we have the opportunity to discuss this issue today as I have often raised the issue of examining the BMW region in terms of its importance to the nation. I am not quite as enthusiastic as the Leader about some of the points made in the Minister’s speech. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, to the House and ask him to note a number of points, some of which concern his constituency.
I appreciate and support the improvements the Minister outlined for the Dublin-Westport, Dublin-Ballina, Dublin-Galway and Dublin-Sligo lines. These are much needed crucial developments and I am glad the Minister forecast they would begin in 2007. I would like a clear commitment in the next national development plan to a rail schedule that will ensure a train every hour from Dublin to Sligo, Mayo and Galway.
I appreciate what has already been included and recognise the progress made in terms of roads and the mention of Transport 21, but I did not see any mention of the western rail corridor or of the vertical connection, the Atlantic highway from Sligo through Galway, Limerick and, via Cork, to Rosslare. The House will be aware that I referred to the western rail corridor as the Sligo-Rosslare line because I think that is what it should be. Looking at those sitting in the benches of the House now, it would go through all of their counties, from Sligo, through Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and over to Wexford. I am appalled there has been no mention of this project although that may be an oversight.
Mr. O’Toole: I cannot see it, but I will come back to that. The issue raised by Senator Feighan is important, especially with regard to the type of development such as Lough Key Forest Park. I know the Lough Key area well and that there has been some good development there. I agree with the point made by Senator MacSharry that there should be some responsibility on Departments as opposed to planning authorities. If sections of the Department find it impossible to approve something, they should be required to put forward alternative proposals as to what might be done. This issue is of crucial importance for the future.
At a recent briefing of Members with various rural groups involved in housing and related matters, including some prominent people from the Minister of State’s constituency, there was talk about the difficulty of developing rural areas. We must ask ourselves what rural Ireland needs, what is important to it and how we can make it live. It is important that people who want to live all their lives in the area are able to do so. If we had a train every hour from Dublin to the areas in the west I mentioned, a person could attend third level education in Dublin, commute and still live in the west if necessary. This sort of commute happens in most other countries. Commuting time would only take two and a half hours or less, depending on the type of train. If people live in the west during their college years, they are more likely to stay there after they have graduated. It is a hugely important issue.
I welcome the commitment by the Minister for Finance to research and development in education, for example in the institutes of technology and colleges. I complimented him when he spoke on budget day about tying such things together, of which I am in favour. I will make a further point in this regard, which I ask the departmental officials to consider. We need to harness what is available to us. I refer to something that used to drive me to distraction when I was in another job. We have invested a great deal in the intellectual ability of the people of the west, many of whom would like to further develop their intellectual capacity. They are unable to do so because they are too far from the main colleges to study for masters' degrees, etc.
Incredibly bright people throughout the west are running their homes, rearing their families and doing jobs somewhere. Many of them would like to exercise their mental functions to a greater extent. They could do so if there was more access to on-line and distance education. It is a very simple thing to do. It is already happening in Hibernia College, which is based just 200 yards from here, and provides professional courses in various areas. Some 80% of each course is taken by the person in his or her own home. Students have to be away from home for 20% of the course, which most of them can manage. There is a huge possibility of harnessing the intellectual energy and ability of people throughout the BMW region in that way.
I acknowledge the expansion of the former Galway Institute of Technology to become the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, which is something I called for over many years. I remember meeting groups in Castlebar to discuss this issue. I appreciate and acknowledge the fact that the Government finally took on board the need for change. The Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology has been a major success. We need to invest money in such areas.
I would like to mention something the Minister did not mention in his speech, although he has mentioned it at least twice before, once in his Budget Statement. I refer to an extraordinarily restrictive proposal in the OECD report on university and third level education, which was published last year. The report recommended that the right to offer doctorate level degrees should be restricted to the traditional universities and that the institutes of technology should not be involved in them. Many Senators felt that it was an extraordinarily regressive step. They do not notice these kinds of things in the Lower House, but we examine them closely in this House. We felt that this extraordinary proposal made no sense, especially as the institutes of technology are so close to industry.
I have spoken strongly, enthusiastically and energetically about the notion that education does not focus solely on business and economic development, but we should not forget that a huge amount of it does. We should not restrict educational institutions. I was pleased by the Minister’s commitment in the budget, which he restated today, to develop the areas of research and development, information technology and the universities in the BMW region. It is magic. It is an example of the kind of synergies and energies to which we need to give direction. It needs to be encouraged by all sides of the House. It was the most important thing in the Minister’s speech today.
I would like to link the issue of broadband with the future of our airports. I do not want to discuss privatisation and State ownership, etc. When services go wrong, those who are furthest from the general centre of services are the first to lose out. The further one is from Dublin, the more one suffers if services go backwards. When Senators on all sides of the House participated in a long and genuine debate on the privatisation of Eircom, they felt we should do this, that and the other. It is in the record of the House that I said I did not believe a private sector company would bring broadband to Belmullet. I raised that issue all those years ago. Eircom has been sold four times since then and is apparently about to be put in the hands of Babcock & Brown. I do not believe that company will invest in the BMW region — it would not care if the region never existed. It has nothing to do with the BMW region and has no commitment to it.
I worry that we have gone back to the future with Eircom. We wanted to privatise Telecom Éireann because we were sick and tired of people waiting for telephones. In the 1970s, people offered bribes to have telephones installed, but we are quickly moving in that direction again. People have to wait months for a landline to be installed because nobody wants to do it anymore. I mention that because airports are so important. There are airports in the BMW region in Sligo, Knock and Galway. Galway and Sligo airports need to be developed and Knock Airport needs investment. I do not want them to be privatised or taken out of State hands, not for reasons relating to a philosophy or any kind of “ism” but because if we do so, like we did when we gave Eircom, through four owners, to Babcock & Brown, we will send our airline system back to the days of Alcock and Brown. We should not sell that system or move towards selling it without having a clear understanding of where we are going.
I firmly believe that the infrastructure of our air services is of more crucial importance to the west of Ireland than it is to anywhere else. Whenever I make that point during debates on this issue on the national airwaves, I am asked whether I think Michael O’Leary or British Airways would stop bringing aeroplanes into Ireland if Aer Lingus did not exist. I do not believe so but I think they would not care too much about bringing aeroplanes to Sligo, Knock or Shannon.
I apologise to the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, for forgetting to mention Shannon Airport when I was listing the airports in the western region. I was taking the reference to Shannon Airport as read. There are more commercial airports in the BMW region than in the southern and eastern region. It is crucially important to the BMW region that its airports are allowed to develop and progress. I have never been to Carrickfin airport in County Donegal, but I should have mentioned it because it is also in need of development.
Four new routes from Galway Airport to continental Europe have been announced this year. It is the first time the airport’s authorities have started to shake themselves. A substantial development is taking place at Shannon Airport, where a railway link is needed, as I have said on many previous occasions. Given that the Ennis-Limerick railway line is just three miles from Shannon Airport — I have driven along the route and measured it in my car — why is it not possible to develop a spur line to the airport, thereby making it the first airport in Ireland to have a direct rail service? I would like the officials from the Department of Finance to recognise that when people in counties Kerry, Clare, Limerick, Galway, Sligo and Cork are planning their holidays, they prefer to use routes which originate in their own areas. They will not drive to Dublin because they do not want a holiday that starts in Dublin Airport. It is extraordinary that they prefer to use Cork, Shannon, Galway or Knock airports, or wherever flights are available.
We are celebrating 20 years of Knock Airport. I estimate that almost as many people use that airport every year as used Dublin Airport over 20 years ago, when politicians in Dublin said Knock Airport could never be viable. Looking back, I imagine that is the reality. I ask the officials from the Department of Finance to consider one of the problems in the planning sector, which is that the Department often receives flawed advice. It gets economic advice, rather than marketing advice. It is given the kind of advice given to a former Minister with whom I once argued the case for the extension of the rail network to the west, which is what the Minister, Deputy Cowen, said today that he will do. The presentations made by IBEC and other groups at that time basically involved taking the number of people using the trains over the course of a year and dividing it by the cost of upgrading the network. They asked whether the cost would be worth it, without considering the fact that a better service would attract greater usage. I know it is a difficult factor to take into consideration, but we need to do so.
I feel strongly about an issue that was not mentioned in the Minister’s speech, but is of absolute relevance to the BMW region. I refer to the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement to examine European regulations and directives when they are being transposed into Irish law to ensure they are similarly done on both sides of the Border. This matter is causing all sorts of difficulties. I refer, for example, to a food safety directive — I do not have the number of the directive to hand — on the ability of craft butchers and local butchers to supply meat to local hotels, guesthouses and restaurants. The EU has decided that butchers who sell meat not only to people who walk into their shops, but also to restaurants and hotels who in turn sell it on to their customers, are wholesalers. In that case, a new raft of regulation must be dealt with. In order to ensure this measure worked properly, each country in Europe was allowed to make its own decisions for a local interpretation of aspects of certain protocols. I do not expect the Minister of State’s advisers to be fully up to date in respect of this matter, as it was not handled by his Department.
However, the United Kingdom has interpreted it in such a way that butchers north of the Border have a significant advantage over their southern counterparts. Consequently, it will be butchers in Enniskillen who will be in a position to make sales to restaurants and hotels in Sligo and south Donegal. How big is the difference? A butcher in the United Kingdom can sell up to 2,000 kg per week to a wholesaler or to another outlet, whereas a butcher in the South can only sell a quarter of that amount. Worse, the amount is also restricted to a percentage of his or her total turnover. This constitutes a serious issue.
I do not know which Department is responsible for considering such matters. However, in terms of Border area development, the Minister’s speech stated clearly that this would be a horizontal aspect of the next national development programme. I welcome this, as would everyone I know who is involved non-politically in this issue. However, the small print as to how directives are applied must be examined in such a way that the United Kingdom and Ireland interpret them similarly. Ireland has an extraordinary record of adopting the most difficult interpretation as to how European directives should have an impact on the daily lives of people and businesses in respect of country markets, the making of cheese or the issue I have just raised. We must ensure balance on both sides on the Border.
Finally, I will conclude with the following point. Agriculture has been mentioned in this debate, which is important. However, I refer to an initiative with particular relevance to the west. Last year, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment decided to lift excise duties on fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. However, it only did so on a year to year basis, which makes it impossible to plan.
For the sake of the BMW region, I ask that the Department lifts the duties for the next ten years, thus enabling people to make plans. In particular, those farmers and others from the agricultural sector who commit to the scheme will require at least three or four years to balance it economically. The Department must give a clear indication that this can be done. Moreover, further support should be given, as it is in the United Kingdom, for wind energy along the west. It could supply much of our energy needs.
Mr. O’Toole: I know. The last one was penultimate. It could also be part of the proposed ring of wind stations throughout western Europe which is under consideration by Airtricity at present. This could also provide future possibilities to the west.
Mr. MacSharry: I join with other Members in welcoming the Minister of State to the House and I am delighted to have the opportunity to make some points in respect of the BMW region, particularly regarding the roll-out of the national development plan and future development plans.
This subject is so vast that Members should approach it by having separate debates on different aspects, such as the roll-out of transportation and education, as one could go on and on about so many different issues.
Being from the region, I have listened to much debate and commentary in the media in recent years regarding the underspend of some €3.9 billion there. Much mythology surrounds the commentary pertaining to that sum, such as the supposed fact that European funds, which were earmarked for the BMW region, have been or were being spent in the eastern or south-eastern regions. However, this cannot happen under the present regulations. The various European funds must be and will be spent by 2008. However, one cannot take funds which are earmarked for the south east and spend them in the BMW region. Similarly, one cannot take moneys which are earmarked for the BMW region and spend them in the south east. This is a simple fact and people should not delude themselves with diatribes to the effect that “our” moneys have been spent by “them” or vice versa.
As someone who comes from and lives in the region, I can state that an unprecedented amount has been done since November 1999, when as an unelected party, I attended a launch in the Sligo Park Hotel. It was very interesting and many matters which everyone thought were hare-brained have already come to fruition.
While I have spoken many times in this House on my frustration at the pace of developments, nevertheless, much has happened. One must also acknowledge that in the period 2000 to 2004, Dublin was made a priority in terms of public transportation infrastructure. It is essential and important for the vitality of the regions to have a functional and efficient capital city. Hence, that was understandable.
In recent years, there has been some catching up in this regard. One could consider the M4, as well as various bypasses and improvements which have been made. For example, in Senator Bannon’s constituency in County Longford, the bypass of Edgeworthstown is imminent. I passed it this morning and it appears to be near completion. Moreover, the Bundoran to Ballyshannon bypass was recently completed, as was the Sligo inner relief road. Although the development of the latter took 30 years, that had much to do with local objections and indecision, rather than anything else. I understand the Department of Finance made the necessary funds available for the Carrick-on-Shannon and Sligo inner relief road bypasses in 1981. It then took 22 years to decide on routes.
Many other improvements have taken place across the entire range of the programme. One would require five or six debates to go through them in detail. After listening to the Minister’s speech, it is clear that more is to come. There has been an underspend, in many cases under the same operational programmes, in both the south-eastern and BMW regions. Hence, the underspend is not limited to the BMW region. However, there has been an underspend in respect of transportation, due to the prioritisation of Dublin and of design within the BMW region. This is now coming to fruition and some catching up is under way. I have mentioned some projects and the Minister mentioned several others.
Coming from the region, I must state that while much has been done, there is much more to be done. I am uncertain whether we are thinking sufficiently ambitiously in respect of the BMW region or, to use terms from the national spatial strategy, in respect of new gateways. Are we considering the factors which keep happy those who already live there, or who may live there, given current trends? Are we seriously considering the creation of viable alternatives to Dublin? After one M50, metro or Luas line has been completed, another will be required.
It is good that after many years, Dublin is being brought up to the requisite standard. However, do we want to make Sligo an alternative to Dublin? Do we want to make the gateway hub of the triangulation of towns, namely, Tullamore, Athlone and Mullingar, a viable alternative to Dublin, whereby major industry can be attracted? The anticipated population growth in the coming years is approximately 1 million people, 800,000 of whom are expected to seek to locate in Dublin. We must think on a larger scale.
For example, I will localise this issue further, to a region within the BMW region. There remains no university in the north west region, north of a line from Dublin to Galway and west of Mullingar, nor are there plans to found one. There are excellent institutes of technology. However, Members still await the appearance of the institutes of technology Bill before this House. It will give them further autonomy, which will allow them to seek the kind of research and development projects which, as the Minister mentioned, they were unable to do heretofore. This explains why there is an underspend in this regard in the region. Again, the Minister spoke about the gene vector core facility at NUI, Galway, which is focused on Galway.
There is no connection to the national gas grid in the region. Last week we had a debate on that matter in the House. We will now have another feasibility study which will tell us it will require Government subvention to bring the gas national grid up to standard. I can tell people the outcome right now and the Minister of State should take note. For several years we have heard Government announcements that gas would be supplied to Sligo and the north-west region. I would like to see some definite dates and for us to move ahead apace. Bord Gáis will claim it has been instructed by Government to undertake a feasibility study and a result is expected in 2007. However, this is not good enough. We know we need gas in the region and as we have a supply of gas off the coast, we should go ahead and do it.
Cancer services is a very important issue in Donegal and Sligo. Access to such services is not an aspiration or pie in the sky, it is a civil right. I have been told it is all about linear accelerators and that it costs money for the equipment, technicians, radiotherapists, etc. This is not a request for that region, it is a basic civil human right as far as we are concerned. The lives and the care of the people in the north-west region are no less important than those of people elsewhere. Let us make the necessary arrangements to implement this as a matter of urgency. This is not undue criticism, it is a constructive suggestion. I acknowledge that much has been done in a wide variety of areas. However, more needs to be done and we need to increase the pace and think somewhat bigger in general.
For example, I have mentioned the sub-region, north of a line from Dublin to Galway and west of Mullingar, which does not have a yard of motorway. We probably have the best connection from Dublin in the country and I am not complaining about that. However, we need to think bigger. In his speech the Minister for Finance mentioned the next development plan. Let us see an aspiration in that plan to improve the road network.
The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill was mentioned on the Order of Business. On Second Stage I mentioned that in that sub-region critical infrastructure may also include tourist amenities which may give further viability to the region and provide employment. It may be as critical to our region as a road to a different part of the country. Today An Bord Pleanála overturned the decision of Roscommon County Council to allow a very large tourism development. This was a private development in which I have no interest per se. However, that kind of facility whether undertaken by the State or the private sector, would be very beneficial. I acknowledge Senator O’Toole’s support in the matter. When such a refusal is announced, there should be a responsibility to indicate why it would not work and outline an alternative that might achieve the same ends. Working towards that objective would be much appreciated.
Broadband is a critical issue as are regional airports. Communications and physical access are very important. I support Senator O’Toole in seeking to enhance all measures regarding both of those. The airports at Carrickfinn, County Donegal, and in Sligo and Knock are vital. The Minister for Finance was here earlier and I am sure he has gone directly to Knock Airport to celebrate at 7.45 p.m. the airport’s 20th year of operation. It is appropriate to acknowledge that milestone in the House. More investment is needed in all airports down as far as Shannon.
Regarding West on Track, we need an announcement on the rail link from Claremorris to Sligo. It is not acceptable simply to say that we have fenced it off and cut the grass. I am not saying it should happen tomorrow. However, let us announce a realistic deadline that the line will be operational by 2011, which will allow me to get the Rosslare train from Sligo, just as a friend of mine from Enniscorthy who lives in Sligo refers to the N4 as being “out the Enniscorthy road”. Similarly let us see the train from Sligo going through Galway and all the way to Rosslare. The reopening of the track up to Claremorris has already been announced. Let us begin to think somewhat bigger. If Sligo is a gateway, let us push on apace to provide it with the relevant infrastructure and services to allow it play its part in being an alternative to Dublin, given the population increase expected in coming years.
Mr. O’Toole: On a point of order, when I spoke I chided the Minister for failing to make reference to the Atlantic corridor. I was incorrect and it was mentioned in his speech. I was obviously answering the phone at the time. I apologise.
Mr. Bannon: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, the man who created the well-known slogan “You are now entering Parlon country”. The big slogan in the midlands now is “You are now leaving Parlon country and leaving it fast”. Many of my friends in the constituency of Laoighis-Offaly speak of the major underspend in the BMW region for which the Minister of State is a public representative. He has failed to deliver on his promises regarding airports, improvements in agriculture, better rail and road infrastructure, etc.
Mr. Bannon: The Minister of State also has responsibility for my area and has failed to deliver. He has failed to deliver and the truth hurts. A mere half of the budget for the BMW region, as outlined in the National Development Plan 2000-2006, has been spent. The money is no good to us in the pocket of the Minister for Finance and he should open the purse strings and let the money that is due to the BMW region be spent on the many valuable projects planned for the region. The BMW region, which has Objective One status, is meant to be a priority region and funding is meant to bring equality to the area and bring it up to par with the rest of the country.
The allocated funding is supposed to promote growth and development, and improve the road and rail infrastructure, agriculture, tourism, and rural development. The chambers of commerce, industrialists, farming organisations and many others with an interest in the development of the BMW region feel let down by the Government’s lack of interest in this area. The widening gap between the midlands and the east is indicative of the mentality that keeps alive and well the thinking that nothing outside the Pale is worthy of consideration.
Falling victim to a Government which squanders wastefully on one fiasco after another and refuses to spend money on the important issues, is very much to the detriment of the midlands and the BMW region as a whole. If the infrastructural needs of Longford, Westmeath, Laois, Offaly and the other midlands and Border counties were to be redesignated under the broad heading of purchase and storage of obsolete electronic voting machines, I am sure this lame-duck Government would throw money at the BMW counties. As it is, the picture is somewhat different. The midlands is struggling in an infrastructural morass, as the financial input to the BMW region takes its place behind one hare-brained Government scheme after another and behind other regions of this affluent country.
The national spatial strategy is already as outdated and outmoded as the electronic voting machines and the approach to decentralisation shows a complete lack of co-ordination with the strategy. It is imperative for economic and social development to be more regionally balanced and any development plan must reflect this and must contain nationally inclusive goals of competitiveness, sustainability and social cohesion. Co-ordination of a better regional balance is imperative to achieving national goals and to the achievement of a better quality of life in all regions, with equality of distribution.
The National Development Plan 2000-2006 and national spatial strategy were intended to redress the regional imbalances and spread growth more evenly throughout the country. However, regional disparities are widening further. Between 2000 and 2005 employment supposedly increased by 24.1% in the midlands, which includes my constituency of Longford-Westmeath. Like most statistics, this figure paints an incomplete picture, as it fails to detail the location of the new jobs, which many economists believe refer to those held by people who commute to Dublin. Last December, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, speaking at the third sod turning ceremony in Longford, where the offices of the Prison Service are being relocated, denied that the Government’s decentralisation policy is “an election stunt” aimed at securing seats in marginal constituencies. However, of the promised 180 personnel relocating to Longford, only 158 will move, although this could change as time moves on. For example, the figures are changing in the Minister of State’s constituency.
Mr. Bannon: The truth hurts. This is a small gain for Longford when one considers that a number of social welfare services have been relocated from Longford to Donegal. As usual, the Government gives with a huge fanfare on the one hand and then takes away with the other. A number of issues have not been addressed in the constituency of Longford-Westmeath and, given their importance to the development of the midlands, urgent action needs to be taken. The rail link between Athlone, Moate and Mullingar, to which the Leader referred, is totally under utilised.
Mr. Bannon: This double track line needs to be updated and made fully operational, as it would be an important asset to the midlands. The community enterprise board has identified it as essential to the development of Westmeath, while Westmeath County Council lists its reopening as an important strategic target. The Leader suggested I should not get involved in this project but I am involved because she and her Government colleagues failed to include it in Transport 21. She has suggested the project will be delivered post-2013. The line would link the three largest towns in the county, which the current road system does not provide for adequately. It could also be linked to Longford and Edgeworthstown, as it would help to connect the entire midlands. More accessibility would be gained to Mullingar hospital for the residents of Athlone, Moate and south Westmeath. Students from Athlone and Moate could also access Maynooth college and Longford students would have more ready access to Athlone IT. The BMW region urgently needs an improved rail service plan. A central rail line linking the towns of Roscommon, Tullamore, Mullingar, Longford and Cavan in the midlands has been a pet project of mine for a long time.
The N5 bypass connection to N63 has been promised for the last ten years and should be in place. The rail bridge at Longford on the N63 to Athlone requires replacement and this has been highlighted at several meetings of the BMW board but no action has been taken by the Government. Street restoration in Longford is long overdue but it is essential for the development of the town. The Newtownforbes bypass is still outstanding while the Longford to Granard bypass is overdue. The BMW board and Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government are well aware of the need to provide funding. Traffic calming and a roundabout in the centre of Ballymahon are long overdue. Longford town water supply requires urgent upgrading, as businesses have been without water on several occasions during the past six months. The business owners pay high rates but the Government has failed to provide capital funding to upgrade the water supply.
In its programme for Government in the run-up to the last general election, the Government parties highlighted that they would roll out broadband to the regions by 2006. The lack of progress in this regard is stifling development in rural areas and there is widespread discontent at the lack of interest the Government has displayed in rolling out broadband to the regions. Abbeyshrule airport in County Longford, which was established in the early 1950s, should be developed because an airport is needed in the midlands. The airport board has been crying out for funding but nothing has been delivered. Gas spurs have been denied to towns in the midlands and Chambers Ireland has lobbied all politicians about this.
The difference between the two main EU designated regions in Ireland, the south and east and the BMW region, is considerable. GVA per capita in the BMW region is 31% less than the average for the State while the equivalent figure for the south and east is 11% higher than the average and this gap has considerably increased since the mid-1990s. The BMW region has experienced a decline in its share of the national wealth, with major gaps in disposable income. Disposable income in the BMW region is 8% less than the State average. The attempts by the BMW region to narrow the gap between it and the south and east is hampered by deficits in transport, energy and communications infrastructure and by long-standing infrastructural difficulties.
Many lessons need to be learned. I thank the Leader for affording us time to debate this issue. While polish has been put on the spin, there has been a major underspend in the region, which proves negligence on the Government’s part towards the people of the BMW region.
Dr. Mansergh: Senator Bannon is not much given to understatement. He said the truth hurts but it tends to bounce harmlessly off him. However, I am glad his colleague, Senator Feighan, paid tribute to the efficacy of the community enterprise boards, which was one of the chief economic initiatives of the Longford Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. I am glad Fine Gael paid tribute to it.
The Minister referred to investment amounting to €57 billion, which is exceptionally impressive, particularly when one bears in mind that this is provided overwhelmingly from our own resources. Tribute should also be paid to the division of the State into two super regions to prolong the benefit of Structural and Cohesion Funds. When the deadline for using the funds expires, they will have been fully spent and the BMW region will get every cent it is due. The region, like the southern and eastern region, is diverse. For example, County Louth probably has the best infrastructure in the State and it is highly developed, as is County Laois, which has excellent infrastructure links. Equally, the south east is near the bottom of the list. One of the purposes of the division of the State was to give increased grants to the BMW region compared with elsewhere. According to the IDA, nearly 9,000 jobs, 17% of the total, were created between 1996 and 1999, whereas 15,545 jobs, 24% of the total, were created between 2000 and 2005. The strategy, therefore, has clearly succeeded in its objective of increasing the proportion of jobs created in the BMW region.
The Minister of State noted the significant degree of convergence which has taken place. The increase in GDP per capita in the region from 74.2% to 92.5% of the EU 25 represents substantial progress. Similarly, there is now little difference in unemployment rates, with the labour force in the BMW region growing as fast as or faster than the south and south-eastern regions.
GVA per capita, which was mentioned by Senator Bannon, is not a good measure. Three years ago, County Tipperary had the highest GVA per capita of anywhere in the country, largely due to the output from Merck, Sharpe and Dohme. It did not mean that the people in that county were wealthier than those of other counties.
A considerable emphasis has been put on transport. It is important to connect up the national rail network and a demand clearly exists for local and regional rail services. In my own region, the Limerick to Ennis line is used for that purpose and the Limerick to Waterford line is being developed. I am glad the Minister of State made reference to the western rail corridor because that will make an important contribution once Galway is linked up with Shannon and Ennis. The people of Shannon should not allow themselves to be fobbed off with a bus link from Newmarket-on-Fergus.
Dr. Mansergh: At least the commitment has been made. I remind the House that Deputy Quinn’s 1997 budget, his last as Minister for Finance, did not provide a penny of Exchequer money for rail investment.
Road improvements, such as the N17 and N18, are important. The Ennis bypass provides a connection to the region and other improvements made outside the region will also bring benefits. I recently attended the sod turning ceremony for the Mitchelstown-Cahir-Cashel bypass, although work on the project had commenced three months earlier. Tremendous progress is being made throughout the country on roads projects. However, economics cannot be entirely thrown out of the window because consideration must be given to demand and population density when roads are being improved and modernised.
The Leader noted that the midlands are well represented in the national spatial strategy, with Tullamore, Athlone and Mullingar being mentioned. Given that the strategy will be an important component of the next national development plan, I regard this with a little bit of envy because County Tipperary did not receive the same attention. Nevertheless, we lie on the line between Limerick and Waterford.
Decentralisation, which is badly needed, will make a contribution to the BMW region. Members of the Opposition should be careful to avoid doing damage by damning the entire programme. They pay lip-service to decentralisation but their denunciations are much louder than their praise. The Irish Times, which is one of the fiercest critics of decentralisation, pointed out in a supplement that Dublin’s weight in Ireland is greater than Paris’s weight in France. We have to address that issue and, while the decentralisation programme may not be perfect, I urge the Opposition not to throw out the baby with the bath water.
Dr. Mansergh: I welcome the emphasis put on education in the next national development plan. That attention is important and worthwhile in terms of investment. I have some sympathy with the claim that the south east is much like the north west in respect of certain matters. A solution to the problem of radiotherapy is being found in the south east but the problem remains for the north west. The Tánaiste stresses the importance of the quality of service given to patients but part of that quality comes from accessibility.
The Government will have to review the location of universities because it is extraordinary that more universities were established prior to the creation of the State than subsequently. I am a strong supporter of the campaign to establish a university in the south east and we should also consider the possibility of a university in the north west.
Mr. U. Burke: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to the House. Senator Mansergh’s comment that a commitment has been made cuts to the heart of this issue. The Government made a commitment but fell down on its delivery. Many economists have criticised the Government on this failure. In the BMW region alone, millions of euro of the money promised for regional development projects under the national development plan are still unspent. The total projected spend in the BMW region was €4.2 billion but there has been an underspend of €530 million. Think of the projects that could have been delivered with that money. This problem, which has been repeatedly raised by the Western Development Commission, must be recognised by the Government.
We were later told that the national spatial strategy would balance regional development. That has not happened and this reality is clearly visible on the ground. The majority of regional development still goes to the east and the south. The IDA’s target of 50% of new greenfield jobs for the BMW has not been achieved and is not likely to be achieved. We must all ask why the IDA and the Government have failed to deliver on those issues in the BMW region, with the exception of Galway city which has done particularly well and of which we are all proud. The peripheral areas of the country have fallen flat.
Last week the Taoiseach said the midlands, west and Border regions had fared better than the other regions from the economic boom. Is it any wonder the groups representing the BMW region in the west have requested an urgent meeting with the Taoiseach to ask if he realises the situation on the ground? It is unbelievable that the Taoiseach could make such a statement when he must have been aware of the reality on the ground, of the underspend and the failure to deliver so many of the promised projects. We have a fanfare of activity when an initiative is announced, but when the Taoiseach makes such a statement, the west of Ireland is in serious trouble.
Mr. Seán Hannick, who is a director of the Western Development Commission, has said it is unbelievable that the Taoiseach’s understanding of the position would be so wildly at variance with the facts on the ground. That needs urgent attention and it is great that we are having a debate with the Minister so we can highlight what can be done for the future development of the BMW region.
Many statistics have been given on the spend and underspend and the projects that have been completed or which are under way. Many valuable projects have been carried out. The underspend must have been siphoned off to other projects in other regions and we must highlight this fact. If this underspend has occurred, where are the grants that were supposed to come to the west as an Objective One region? Where have they gone? This is important.
In April, Deputy Cowen admitted to the Dáil that the shortfall from the BMW region between January 2000 and the end of June 2005 was €3.65 billion. While Deputy Cowen has given statistic after statistic on the cost of projects that are completed or in progress, the sad reality is that this startling underspend indicates that nobody in the Government is taking responsibility. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, is a typical example and must take the blame for the failure. The NRA will list projects in eastern areas such as Drogheda and Dundalk as part of the BMW region, and it is sad that it has to resort to this practice.
We are told that 95% of rural County Galway is unlikely to have broadband. This was stated approximately three weeks ago at a conference in Tullamore in the Minister’s constituency. If we are being told in a glib fashion by Ministers and the Taoiseach that the west will have development, we need broadband. However, the areas which we are talking about developing, such as rural County Galway, are condemned to be without broadband access. It is no different in many other areas. While the hubs and gateways may have access to broadband, 27% of the population of the BMW will have to go without, and that figure is increasing. Some 47% of the population of the BMW region live in rural areas.
It is urgent that the Taoiseach realises his misunderstanding of the situation in the BMW region and that the Ministers responsible for delivery of the projects, particularly in transport and infrastructure, have failed miserably. An underspend of €3.65 billion in a four-year period is such serious negligence that if a reasonable Government was in place those people would be put in the back benches rather than be allowed to continue. Unaccountability and transparency are gone. If this debate means anything I hope it will highlight the reality compared with the promises. That is the issue. Deputy Cowen came to the House and read a list of spending achievements. However, the promises are not the issue, but the delivery of the projects.
Mr. Kitt: I welcome the Minister. As a resident of the BMW region I am glad of the opportunity to discuss this issue, which we have raised a number of times. I would like to repeat what Senator MacSharry said about the 20th anniversary of the opening of Monsignor Horan International Airport, which is being celebrated today. At the time it was a great step forward in western development. As a Galway person I was a bit jealous at the time that it was not in Galway. The great vision of Monsignor Horan and his committee ensured that this airport is making great progress.
I was chairman of Galway County Council in 1986 and was glad to represent the council on that day. The vision of Monsignor Horan and his committee is the type of vision that many people in the west have undertaken in developing projects and they have been supported by various Governments through the years. I agree with what other speakers have said. It has been difficult to make that progress because there was always some issue about infrastructure or communications. We were aware of what was happening in other parts of the country and there was always the opportunity to compare the east and west coasts.
I recall arguing with so-called experts who proposed that the Maynooth and Leixlip bypasses were positive developments. I can now see the benefits of it, especially in light of the first toll road from Kinnegad to Dublin. A similar point was made in the Minister’s speech, to the effect that developments such as additional platforms in Heuston Station will provide an improved service from Galway, Westport and Ballina. We must consider the whole country, not the regions. There is an underspend in the BMW region and the north west and south east have been identified as regions in need of development.
As Senator Ulick Burke mentioned, Galway city has been successful, sometimes to the detriment of other parts of the county and the western region. Perhaps authorities in Galway are too greedy in the projects sought. We should be conscious of this and it is one of the reasons we supported the national spatial strategy, Tuam as a hub town and gateway towns along the west coast. One must have development in such towns or, in other words, put spokes on the wheel of the hub.
The provision of broadband, to which Senator Ulick Burke referred, has been disappointing. We suffered under the illusion that the ESB would undertake supply of broadband in Tuam but were let down. Other smaller towns received broadband ahead of Tuam. I attempted to raise this matter on the Adjournment but was told that I could not do so because I had raised it a few months ago and no new developments have taken place since. The lack of broadband is a problem throughout the BMW region.
In a manner similar to the group water schemes of days gone by, smaller communities have implemented the group broadband scheme. I live close to Mount Bellew, a small town that has provided broadband to its inhabitants. The vocational school in the town was the first vocational school in Galway with broadband. Similar schemes have been implemented in Ahascragh, Clonbrock and County Roscommon. The lack of broadband represents a gaping hole in development. Last week the Western Development Commission referred to 100% broadband coverage in Northern Ireland. We are starting from a low base in these matters.
Senator MacSharry is keen that a timetable for the western corridor rail line between Claremorris and Killooney be announced. Work has been carried out to clean up the line. The timetable announced is disappointing. I cannot believe the line from Ennis to Claremorris will not be completed until 2014. Work has begun on the Ennis section and I hope that the timetable, completing the line to Athenry in 2009, Tuam in 2011 and Claremorris in 2014, will be improved. Otherwise, the completion of the line as far as Sligo will be further delayed.
The provision of natural gas must also be examined. Differing timetables have been suggested for its completion. Gort was not included in the scheme but I hope gas can be provided in a different way. Perhaps the Government can give a definitive answer on this issue.
I am concerned about the future of agricultural colleges. I have raised the need to broaden the courses offered in such colleges. Staff at Mount Bellew, an excellent college run by the Franciscan order, seek to teach trades such as plastering and brick-laying. This should be funded to broaden the education of people in those colleges. FÁS should be more supportive than it has been in the past. Third level colleges are supportive of such courses but FÁS needs to provide training for these trades, which are important skills for the farmers of the future.
I have raised the disappointing progress of the decentralisation of the National Roads Authority to Ballinasloe previously. Little progress has been made in this, particularly in comparison with the road safety authority in Loughrea and the Railway Safety Commission in Ballinasloe. The NRA is busy, as evidenced by any drive through the country. If the NRA will not be transferred to Ballinasloe, this must be made clear and another agency or section of a Department must replace it. Ballinasloe is growing and in recent months a company called USCI Japan Limited has relocated to the town. Decentralisation would be a vote of confidence that would build on the success of this development.
Water and sewerage schemes in the BMW region deserve particular attention. I had hoped this would happen under the national spatial strategy. Major water and sewerage developments have taken place in Galway city. Much money was spent on the controversial Mutton Island project. I cannot understand why schemes in many towns and villages, costing approximately €2 million, have not been approved. The Minister has stated he will approve any schemes costing less than €5 million but unfortunately this programme is making slow progress. Although some have been approved for next year, no small scheme has been approved for Galway this year. In Ballinasloe, councillors used development levy moneys to promote a scheme that was urgently needed. I compliment the councillors from all parties who took this decision, costing €1.5 million.
I hope that all issues highlighted will receive attention. Money is available and the implementation of these schemes would be welcome. Many announcements have been made, which is a positive step. At this stage, we have done all the studies that can be done, having almost blown our minds on them. Most important is to get the funding announced. I hope that timetables can be improved, especially regarding train services, so that we need not wait until 2014 to get a train from Ennis to Claremorris.
Mr. McHugh: I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, to the House. I will start on the point on which my colleague across the House, Senator Kitt, finished, the amount of money that has been blown on strategies, plans and visions for the west. We can discuss that all day, but I will highlight the only figure outstanding, the €3.65 billion underspend. That has already been put on the record by colleagues, and we are all aware of it through the media. People have been shouting that it has not been spent.
It is not good enough for those of us with western and north-western accents to say that we did not get our lot, justifying it by shouting. We must examine the matter logically from a national perspective, since we must start in the east of the country before we find a solution to the problems of the west. The east has its own problems of congestion and the mass inward movement of people from the west who must seek work in the large urban centres around the Pale.
I will provide an example, which is not anecdotal, since empirical evidence supports it. There is a mass movement of people from the Inishowen peninsula to counties Louth, Meath and Dublin between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. on a Monday. I was in a small place called Culdaff last night, where I spoke to the parents of a 19 year old. They told me that their son left at 4 a.m. on a Monday to head to the building sites of Meath for work. He is one of many in Inishowen, and across County Donegal and the west, who head off on a Monday morning to seek employment on the east coast.
That is where the problem lies. There is an excessive pull factor on the east coast and in Dublin. There is a constant drain of people from the west and north west of the country. The east has its own problems of success based on investment. There are problems associated with success, but the west has problems associated with successive failures to invest. The east’s problems are associated with overinvestment, since too many resources have been put into one area.
My fundamental premise is that the solution to the west’s problems lies in addressing the problems of the east coast. Let us formulate a plan to move people back. It would be apt to raise decentralisation, given the Minister of State’s presence. We are all aware of the technical problems of moving public and civil servants. Why not consider a decentralisation plan for those who wish to move out of the Pale, including people from Culdaff in north Inishowen who do not want to drive to a building site in County Meath on a Monday morning? Let us start generating a haven of investment for peripheral areas. The only way that we can do so is by investing in access infrastructure such as the N2-A5 route from Dublin through Strabane and into the north west.
We still do not have 100% roll-out of broadband in this country, something promised in 2002. In the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats programme for Government, it was promised that there would be 100% Internet access through proper and adequate broadband infrastructure. That has not yet happened, although I acknowledge that many companies are involved in the project. North West Electronics is rolling out wireless broadband, considering the needs of the various communities. It is a very good scheme, but it is not going to everyone on the west coast.
If we do not have 100% roll-out of broadband, we are at a disadvantage compared with Northern Ireland, which has the maximum 100% roll-out. Derry, some 20 miles from Letterkenny, has a comparative advantage in attracting inward investment. The region has Derry City Airport, 100% broadband penetration and good access from the main port and international airport at Belfast. Donegal does not have those advantages, since there is no 100% roll-out of broadband, and there are technical, movement and communication difficulties from Dublin, along the N2 and up through the A5. One need only sit in traffic during the day to see that.
I drove down today from Letterkenny, taking the guts of five and a half hours to travel 167 km. That sort of travelling time is not on if we wish to spread resources or attract companies into counties such as Donegal, Mayo, Leitrim and Sligo. If I leave Letterkenny at 11 p.m., it can take me just over three hours. That two-hour differential is not good enough and it does not give us a competitive edge or advantage when it comes to attracting inward investment.
The national spatial strategy is like a football team. Some teams, such as England, look good on paper, but I would not wager too much on it winning the World Cup. Perhaps it will but that is neither here nor there. On paper, Ireland is a great country. We have spatial strategies, and Letterkenny has gateway status. We are examining linear paths and connections and considering Derry as a gateway city for the north west. On paper our plan is impressive, but there is no connectivity or coherent policy on how we move forward.
Six years ago, the then Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, spoke of flagship tourism projects for the BMW region. It was said at the time that there would be three, four or perhaps five flagship tourism projects for the north west. Like other aspirations, that did not happen. There was also talk of a necklace of marinas along the west coast, up into Donegal and around Inishowen into the Foyle estuary. That did not happen either, and we have still received no Government funding for marinas in County Donegal.
We have great plans, visions and aspirations on paper, but we will not realise them until we tackle the fundamentals. For Donegal and the north-west coast, that means proper access and bypasses rather than throughpasses. Two-in-one lanes suffice to an extent, but we must think bigger when it comes to access. If there are plans for motorways between Dublin and Galway, Limerick, Cork and Belfast with proper access, why is none planned from Dublin to the north-west coast?
Those fundamentals must be addressed, and let us focus on them when deciding the 2007 to 2013 plan. We must consider the story of the chicken and the egg. Investment will not come to a place such as Donegal if we do not first focus on the fundamentals. We need proper access and broadband infrastructure. There is no reason in 2006, with a commitment given, that we should not have 100% broadband access in a county such as Donegal. There are wireless and ADSL solutions in urban centres, and there is no reason the Government cannot consider satellite options in areas where wireless is unsuitable. These are ideas suggested by communities. If the Minister of State visits Milford in Donegal he will find a community that developed a wireless broadband solution for their area known as “Broadband for the Hills” with Government support. However, there are other areas of Donegal that need intervention from the Department of Finance in order to bring solutions for broadband infrastructure in the west.
I have a message for the Minister. The west can offer solutions to east coast problems. This is not about the west crying or seeking what it considers it deserves. That is not the argument. The west can help to draw in people with skills. Only last week a commercial photographer moved to a rural area of Donegal from Dublin because he has a wireless solution. His wife deals with Government contracts for Bord Bia and she has moved because she now has solutions in terms of infrastructure. Let us look at this issue pragmatically and logically and move people away from the east coast, thus providing a solution to the difficulties encountered in both the east and the west.
Mr. Parlon: I thank every Senator who took part in this debate, particularly those who were supportive in their comments. Senator O’Rourke stressed the importance of education and Senator MacSharry acknowledged the significant work already done in the BMW region. I also thank Senator Mansergh and Senator Kitt. I am as disappointed as Senator Kitt that the National Roads Authority is slow in rolling out projects to Ballinasloe, but that is an issue for the relevant Minister.
There is great movement on the issue of decentralisation and I hope Senator Kitt also finds this to be the case. We have had the usual winging from some of the Senators, particularly Senator Bannon who whinges about the lack of infrastructure in his own region. I was surprised to hear at the weekend Deputy Olivia Mitchell blaming farmers for causing delays in infrastructure projects due to the money they receive for land used for development. Perhaps Senator Bannon might inform the Deputy that farmers receive the market value of their lands and they are entitled to no less.
Mr. Parlon: The Minister and I were happy to listen to Senator Bannon’s remarks which provided us with an opportunity to outline the achievements and progress to date of the NDP in the BMW region. The Government remains committed to the vision of bringing competitiveness and economic success to the State through the current NDP. The size and ambition of the plan signalled unparalleled investment in the development of the country. The investment of over €57 billion of public, private and EU funds over the period 2000-06 is on track and provides the foundation for further investment in the next planning period.
The Minister has put on record a select list of achievements delivered by the NDP in the BMW region. These include more and better jobs, improved roads and public transport, housing, child care and public infrastructure. People throughout the State have experienced real improvements in their lives thanks to the unprecedented investment by the Government in the future. These successes should not be diminished by focussing on what remains to be accomplished in the BMW region under this plan. National development planning and investment is an ongoing process and investment to achieve more balanced regional development is a key Government priority.
The Government has already announced its intention to have a successor to the current NDP to build on the current plan and to set out a blueprint for investment in the period to 2013. The new NDP will seek to address the investment necessary to maintain national competitiveness within a sustainable economic and budgetary framework. Funding for the new NDP will come from the Exchequer. A solid financial framework for capital investment is already in place through the multiannual capital envelope system introduced in budget 2004. Senator John Paul Phelan suggested having a Minister responsible for spending under the NDP. He is a little late with his suggestion as the Minister for Finance fulfils this role very well.
A number of Senators have raised the issue of broadband, which I agree is of great importance. There have been significant developments in 2005 in the Irish broadband market, including substantial growth in its use, from 63,000 connections in the second quarter of 2004 to 175,000 connections in the second quarter of 2005. Prices have fallen and progress continues on the metropolitan area networks and the county and group broadband schemes. By the end of 2005 total public expenditure on broadband in the BMW region was €70.1 million. By the end of 2006 a further €10 million is expected to be spent.
Design and procurement for phase 2 of the metropolitan area networks programme is well advanced in all regions. Construction will commence in the second quarter of 2006 on new networks in counties Cavan, Monaghan, Louth, Mayo and Galway. A third call for projects will be announced shortly under the county and group broadband scheme.
Mr. Parlon: Transport 21 provides for the reopening of the western rail corridor in three phases, from Ennis to Athenry, Athenry to Tuam and Tuam to Claremorris. These projects are to be implemented in conjunction with rail commuter services from Athenry and Tuam serving a new station in Oranmore en route to Galway. Iarnród Éireann, along with the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is developing a mechanism under the CLÁR programme for the preservation of the line from Claremorris to Killooney.
Mr. Parlon: On the western rail corridor, Iarnród Éireann has submitted business cases to the Department relating to phase 1, that is, the reopening of the Ennis to Athenry section. Phase 2, the reopening of the Athenry to Tuam section, is being finalised and the Minister expects to be in a position to make a decision on Iarnród Éireann’s application and the allocation of funding in the coming weeks.
The mid-term evaluation of the national development plan, carried out by the ESRI, reinforces the investment priorities chosen by the Government. The key finding was that the NDP “will have a sustainable, positive effect on competitiveness and productive capacity of the economy in the long term”. In the long term the level of GNP growth will be approximately 3% higher, which represents a real rate of return on NDP investment of around 14%. This is an exceptional economic performance by any standards. It proves the NDP will leave a lasting legacy that will benefit generations to come.
Mr. Parlon: Real improvements in people’s lives are being delivered every day through the NDP, from reduced journey times to more jobs and job opportunities, better living standards, more affordable housing and child care facilities. The improvements are all around us and will continue to be delivered by this Government.
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