Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Rural and Community Development
Western Development Commission: Chairperson-Designate
At the outset, I remind members, witnesses and the people in the Gallery to turn off their mobile phones because they interfere greatly with the sound system.
The purpose of today's meeting is to engage with the chairperson-designate of the Western Development Commission, WDC, and consider the past performance and future strategy of the commission. The chairperson-designate of the Western Development Commission, Dr. Deirdre Garvey, will discuss her strategic priorities for the role and her views about the future contribution of the commission. The chief executive and head of regional development, Mr. Ian Brannigan, will discuss the past performances and future strategy of the commission. We will call on the chairman-designate and the chief executive from the Western Development Commission to make their opening statements and I will then invite members to put their questions to the witnesses. I suggest members limit their questions to between three and five minutes but members may speak more than once. Following public session we will have a short private session. Is that agreed? Agreed. It is proposed that opening statements and any other documents supplied by the witnesses to the committee will be published on the committee's website after the meeting. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I will now read some formal notices for the information of witnesses. I draw their attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I advise the witnesses that any submissions, opening statements or other documents they have supplied to the committee will be published on its website after this meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. As the committee has agreed to publish the opening statements, perhaps the chairperson-designate and chief executive could focus on the main points for approximately ten minutes.
Dr. Deirdre Garvey:
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to attend the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development. At the inaugural board meeting with the Minister, Deputy Ring, in September 2017 I outlined my approach as chairperson in three key areas. The first is setting the tone and culture, as I hope it will be an effective environment in which we value and respect diverse perspectives and work together for collective decision making in a culture of openness and transparency. The second is setting the strategic direction and the current strategic statement for the commission will guide our decisions. We will also have the opportunity to review it and build on this for a strategic plan for 2019. The commission has already embarked on the planning for its strategic statement for 2019. The third area is governance and I hope to manage the governance responsibilities of oversight and effective control with the operational responsibilities of the executive in a supportive and constructive manner.
As many members know, the remit of the Western Development Commission is set out in the Western Development Commission Act 1998 as being "to promote, and procure the promotion of, and assist in, foster and encourage economic and social development in the Western Region".
The WDC was formed in 1998 as a Government response to intense public pressure to tackle population decline over a number of years. The peripheral location and weak infrastructure resulted in a lack of job opportunities and emigration. While there remains a challenge in creating balanced regional development, there is also great opportunity to develop a sustainable competitive advantage building on the strengths of the region. The WDC has played a significant role in the economic and social development of the region since its formation. It has supported, directly and indirectly, the creation of 5,000 jobs, invested €48 million through the western investment fund, WIF. The WDC has also developed a capability in securing EU funding for critical regional projects. The regional policy and analysis capability has contributed to inform and influence policymaking on the economic and social development of the region. Thewww.lookwest.ieplatform has provided a regional identity and promotes the attractiveness of the region as a place to live and work.
I see the WDC as an integrator and enabler in this region, aligned to national policies and with the potential to contribute to a number of the strategic outcomes of the national development plan 2040. We initiated a strategic planning process in December 2017 and are engaging with national and regional stakeholders. The WDC has identified further regional growth areas supporting our national policies and contributing to the economic and social development of the region. Our objective is to develop a coherent regional approach by working in collaboration with our key stakeholders. There are opportunities to create a competitive and attractive region with the necessary physical and digital infrastructure. The WDC has a critical role in delivering on the national priority of strengthened rural economies and communities.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
As stated by Dr. Garvey, the Western Development Commission welcomes the opportunity to address the committee. We are a statutory body formed in 1998 promoting economic and social development in the western region of Ireland. The WDC operates under the aegis of our parent Department, the Department of Rural and Community Development. The general functions of the WDC are set out in the Western Development Commission Act, as mentioned, and are to foster and promote growth in the seven counties of the western region.
The WDC has developed a way of working that delivers a unique and effective response to the development challenges of a predominantly rural region. It delivers a critical capacity to the western region to identify, design and implement economic development and growth. Furthermore, it adds value and regional sensitivity to the work of national and international bodies and actively engages with regional interests. The WDC has sought to establish a capability for future growth both for the region and all of its citizens. The WDC's current key strategic goals are outlined in our strategic statement. The WDC aims to inform and influence policymaking on economic and social development in Ireland’s western region through high-quality analysis, promoting the benefits of living, working and doing business in Ireland’s western region, encouraging the development of the western economy based on the sustainable development of the western region’s strengths and resources, and providing risk capital to micro, small and medium-sized and social enterprises through the WDC western investment fund, WIF.
We are fully aligned with current and emerging national policy. We are also fully aligned with policy and best practice in the area of regional development. A Programme for a Partnership Government includes a specific commitment to reinforce the role of the WDC to support the implementation of regional jobs plans in the west and north west. We also work with the Government to realise the relevant commitments in Project Ireland 2040 and the ongoing regional spatial and economic strategies. Similarly, the recent strategic statement of our parent Department, which includes a strategic goal to enhance regional development, states an objective to strengthen the role of the Western Development Commission in contributing to regional and national policy objectives.
I will now address the committee's specific request to comment briefly on our past performance. The WDC, through its collaborative efforts in recent years, has directly supported hundreds of regional enterprises. Through partnering with regional stakeholders, relevant national and international bodies, and the Departments, the WDC has also supported or created almost 5,000 jobs. Critically, it has also acted as an enabler for our region's wider development through mentoring, advocacy and access to finance solutions for partners such as local authorities, the local enterprise offices, LEOs, Enterprise Ireland, the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland, LEADER etc. Through our innovative regional promotional platform, www.lookwest.ie, we have created and supported an identity for thousands of citizens engaging in events and programmes and thereby promoting the region domestically and globally.
The key performance outcomes in recent years for the organisation have included investment in regional jobs. Since 2010, the WDC has sourced and directed in excess of €13 million in total funding towards regional enterprise and employment development through Exchequer, EU and own funds. Also included is the realisation of regional jobs. In recent years approximately 2,700 direct jobs and 5,000 in total, indirect and direct, have been significantly supported by the WDC in the region. Regional policy review and analysis capability has led to advances in critical areas such as broadband roll-out, extension of the gas network to towns in the region, showcasing novel growth sectors such as the creative economy, and ensuring the region is at the forefront of national initiatives such as Project Ireland 2040, the regional spatial and economic strategies, RSES, and the Commission for Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, of which we were a key component.
We also offer the region a unique strategic development capacity to design and implement, with stakeholders, solutions for sustainable socio-economic growth within the western region. This has led over the years to the realisation of initiatives in key regional growth sectors such as the creative economy growth programme, the Creative West, where the WDC has championed and delivered targeted microloan offerings, a €2 million regional film fund, and an export platform, all of which have been developed and offered by us with partners to grow the sector.
To what end has this been done? In 2018, the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG, estimated approximately 13,000 people are working in the sector. In 2009, when the WDC launched Creative West, the direct employment was around 11,000. The WDC has also supported the renewable energy and green economy sector in the region. Similarly, responding to stakeholder needs in recent years, we have created a regional capacity and capability to access EU programming resources and funds. From a standing start in 2009, the region now has the capacity to develop and deliver significant funding across the region and a range of key growth areas. We are engaged in nine major EU projects in 2018, with a total value exceeding €18 million. These have supported a wide and diverse range of regional clients and stakeholders to benefit.
I will give some examples. A total of 119 creative industry businesses in the region have access to international markets through the www.mycreativeedge.eumarketing platform. These include Derryhick Sticks in Mayo, Black Hen Design in Roscommon, Howling Hamster games in Galway, and the Secret Life of Plastic, an unusual initiative from Ennis. Our renewable energy businesses are gaining access to markets through our EU programmes. For example, ProAir in Galway has recently received funds and other support from us and is now evolving to Enterprise Ireland support and will grow larger through that. Through our EU capacity, we have offered scores of stakeholders and hundreds of SMEs access to EU expertise and resources. I refer to local authorities, higher education institutes, HEIs, Údarás na Gaeltachta, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, the Marine Institute etc.
The WDC, in respect of performance, has also developed and delivered a unique regional access to finance capability. Our western investment fund, WIF, is a critical component in the WDC’s abilities to undertake its remit.This innovative solution to regional disparities was established by the Government to be a unique source of risk funding to projects, businesses and communities in the region. Significantly, it has increased regional access to venture capital, VC, funding from 3% of total deals done in the State to over 7% in the past ten to 15 years, thereby addressing a key market failure for businesses in the region. Cumulative gains from this innovative initiative include €48 million invested, 140 enterprises supported within the western region, €208 million additional investment leveraged from private and other sources, critical jobs supported and created through this initiative, and now capital reserves available for more growth projects across a wider range with the development agenda.
Due to its dynamic and significant performance in supporting access to finance for regional businesses and its strength, the Western Investment Fund, WIF, offers us an enhanced range of opportunities to realise regional growth.
In terms of performance, we will look at regional identity. Ourwww.lookwest.ie platform has given the region a brand with real reach - more than 1 million people have visited and accessed our website since its inception - and we now have almost 20,000 social media friends within the region. This has allowed local authorities, organisations, individuals and business engage with one another in all things of the west. Novel collaborations such as a talent tool for the region are examples of how this work strives to retain and attract human capital and thus inward investment to our region.
The WDC seeks to achieve a significant step change in the effectiveness of key parts of our regional economy, which, as I said, are mostly rural in nature. The goal of the WDC is to upgrade the diversity and nature of the regional economy to make the region better able to sustain continuous long-term growth and contribute even more to the national success story.
Importantly, while recognising that our region is primarily rural in nature, it is understood that urban centres, such as Galway city, may effectively anchor the regional growth. This is a positive aspect. What would make it an indispensable aspect is designing the support policies to effectively disperse the economic benefits to the wider regional hinterlands. As such, consideration for design and implementation of effective spatial and economic development strategies will need to be considered to support such an aim. The WDC looks forward to fully supporting the regional spatial and economic strategies, RSES, process in realising these ambitions.
While in the main, the WDC has sought to inform the members on its recent strong past performance in delivering both on its remit and on the applicable national and regional policy directives, it is also important to note the current efforts on formulating an appropriate future strategy for the organisation, as mentioned by the chair.Today the WDC is advancing the formulation of its next strategic statement. This is being led by the board which has appointed a dedicated subcommittee for the purpose of guiding and co-ordinating the work plan for identifying the goals of the 2019 to 2023 strategic statement.
The WDC has demonstrated a strong performance in terms of its remit of fostering and supporting economic growth within its geographical boundaries. This is seen in the capacity, reach, investment and job support numbers outlined this submission. However, it remains apparent that this identified growth areas merit consideration on how to continue to maintain and, indeed, accelerate this rate of primarily indigenous regional socio-economic growth. Opportunities are apparent and regional support to unlock their potential is essential, not only to develop a sustainable modern economy in the region, but also in addressing potential disparities.
I would like to take the opportunity afforded to us by the committee to note the efforts of the staff of the WDC and boards, past and present, for their efforts in all our endeavours. I extend gratitude to the Chairman and the committee for affording us this opportunity to talk to them today.
I thank witnesses for their presentations. The witnesses might write these questions down because I generally tend to pose quick-fire questions to people. Mr. Paddy McGuinness has left but what the witness said was totally contrary to what his views were, in that there was not balanced growth. Has something changed overnight? Does WDC own Dillon House? Is it rented? If it is rented, how much is the annual rent? As regards creating jobs and moving forward, how much has WDC encouraged the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to bring in the west of Ireland into the Trans-European Transport Network, TEN-T, initiative? As regards funding, how much co-operation is involved with the North West Regional Assembly. Do the organisations tic-tac?
Mr. Brannigan spoke about broadband, gas networks and such matters. Is he happy with the level of broadband in the west of Ireland, especially in the rural areas, on which he touched? I know some towns have good broadband. I refer to businesses being set up and the opportunity to avail of gas. It may be coming to Longford but there are some towns in the west of Ireland which are crying out for it.
When one wants top create jobs, one needs an infrastructure in the line of Knock airport. Should there be a tax free zone there? How much lobbying has WDC done in this regard? The witnesses talked about the 2040 plan and the development of regions. In the same plan, there is talk about creating jobs and so on. We have to be honest and say that if we do not have a proper road network from Mullingar to Castlebar and from Letterkenny to the fine Tuam-Galway road which goes on to Limerick and which would link up with the Cork to Mallow road, which the Taoiseach announced would be done, we will be up against it.
The population in west Mayo, north-west Mayo and north-west Donegal has declined. On the agricultural side, what is WDC focusing in on in terms of trying to protect family farms or derive business from them?
Dr. Deirdre Garvey:
I will take the Deputy's first question on Paddy McGuinness, the previous chair, and balanced growth. With two different chairs, one may have different perspectives on this. It is important to recognise that there are disparities in regional development. There are disparities in employment, incomes, growth areas and even within the region itself from Donegal, Clare to Galway. It is also important to recognise that in the 2015 to 2016 analysis of the census there has been a period of population growth in many of those counties. We are now seeing for the first time since the census, a population decline in three of those counties, against the national average. It is important to recognise the disparities. I take the view that balanced regional development is a national issue; it is not just an issue for these counties.
We are focusing on the attractiveness and the strengths of the region and developing sectors that are indigenous and sustainable to the region in the long term - for instance, in the creative sector, I refer to the Western Regional Audiovisual Fund, WRAP, fund, which continues to grow. There are small business within that sector that support even smaller businesses and enterprises.
There have been changes. Has it magically changed? There are still disparities. We recognise those but we are focusing on ensuring to build on the positives and the strengths of the region in many of those areas. As the acting chief executive outlined, there has been a very positive impact on many of the areas across a number of sectors. WDC looks across the investment fund, in particular, the region and employment as well as the sector it is in to ensure a balance within the region. We are very aware of the Galway-centric growth and how we can focus on a distributed element of that growth.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
I will try to take these questions in order. The Deputy asked about Dillon House. We do not own it. The Office of Public Works owns it. The Deputy asked about TEN-T and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. In terms of creating jobs, infrastructure - road, rail, air and sea - is essential. We are working with the Department in terms of TEN-T. We understand through our direct policy work and through our wider European work the necessity of looking at policy development from a European-----
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
Every time the Department makes submissions, we supply it any information it needs to achieve that goal. We do not lobby Brussels directly. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has that function.
The Deputy's next question was on co-operation with the Northern and Western Regional Assembly, NWRA. We work with it all of the time. Currently, we are working with it on a smart regions programme to develop a unique case for the digital agenda in the west. As members may know, there are smart cities around the world where connectivity is the basis for efficiency and growth. We are trying to do that on a region-wide basis. With the assembly, we have commissioned an assessment through Insight NUI Galway. We are now in phase 2 of that. We are working on this issue with various Departments as well.
We have worked with the assembly on the One Region One Vision effort to highlight what is ongoing in our region and the opportunities therein. To date, two large events have been held within the region, which have attracted business leaders and they like to talk about how to grow business within the region. We also worked with the assembly on various committees in terms of the Atlantic economic corridor. We are examining the best way of pursuing enterprise growth through that with the NWRA.
As well as having a good relationship with the assembly on an ongoing basis, these are specific projects that we are working on with it.
The Deputy referred to broadband and gas networks and asked whether I was happy with the level of broadband. To be fair to all parties, I would say that, the better the broadband, the happier I will be. We have proof that people in the digital and creative economies want to work and live within our region. They demand connectivity to undertake their daily business. We are supportive of anything that accelerates connectivity in every part of our region. From a business point of view, it is needed for jobs. More widely, and to speak personally-----
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
We are definitely working towards a goal, and that goal needs to be met as soon as possible in terms of implementation and roll-out. There is a business need. My Creative Edge and other platforms have been used to showcase goods and service from western businesses in Roscommon and beyond. That is all predicated on having sufficient broadband to enable them to transact on the back of that publicity and market exposure. It is self-evident that they need broadband. I would be happier were I able to say that the roll-out had been completed, but that is not within my remit. I am relatively happy that we are moving towards it, and I will be happier when we get there.
The Deputy referred to Knock airport.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
We have worked on trying to extend the networks by examining the analysis undertaken by the relevant Departments. Our examination of net present value calculations has led to seven extra towns receiving gas. It is the case that gas is a more cost-efficient fuel and helps business wherever it is, and the more towns that have it, the better. That said, I am not sure what the Deputy's question was. Did it relate to the town of Longford?
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
Where asked, we always make an input.
Knock airport is a key infrastructural node within the region for inbound tourism, visitors and so on. As to the WDC's view, we are long-term investors in Knock airport. We are also engaging with it on publicity and PR. Previously, we worked with the airport and local authorities on direct marketing campaigns to keep flights from Milan, Frankfurt and London flying into the region so that it could better serve the wider hinterland. Specifically, we are engaged in an ongoing discussion with management about how to help the tourism initiative it is trying to create within the airport, namely, to increase tourist numbers and the value of the information on the region's available tourism products that it gives to people. The airport is key to the region, especially the north west, it connects the north west internationally and we are highly invested in it.
As to the question on the Project Ireland 2040 plan and the road network, road infrastructure is critical to the west. In every case where there has been investment, we have seen a bounce.
The WDC made a submission, as did probably every Member present. Does that mean the Department was not listening to us? We can make all the submissions in the world, but are we not being listened to?
I welcome the witnesses and commend them on their work. I read with interest the more detailed submission that was circulated to committee members. It was clear that the WDC was playing a significant role in the economic development of the western region. I come from the south east, and I would love to have such a voice working for us across various sectors, be it with the Government, State agencies or local authorities.
I note with interest that the WDC has invested €48 million, supported 134 enterprises and leveraged an additional €208 million for investment, all of which is significant. Will Mr. Brannigan elaborate on the jobs that this investment has supported in enterprises in the western region? He mentioned that there was the potential for more growth in similar projects. Will he provide more information on same?
I was going to ask about the WDC's views on Project Ireland 2040 and the national planning framework. Its submission refers to Galway as an anchor for the region. Sligo is identified as an urban area of growth in Project Ireland 2040. With both growth areas, there is potential everywhere in the region between them.
Members were right to refer to the infrastructural deficit. Being from the south east, I am concerned by a piece of infrastructure that links our two regions, that being, the freight train service between Ballina and the Port of Waterford, which recently ceased. The latter is the only port outside of Dublin with a direct rail connection. We should try to find ways to sustain such rail lines to improve interconnectivity between the regions and continental Europe. If there was a role for the WDC to identify replacement business, for example, by combining smaller volumes and then building the sustainability of such a freight train service between the west and south east, it would be a job well done. Will the WDC consider carrying out a feasibility study of companies in the western region with a view to determining whether the service can be reinstated?
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
I will take the questions in order. The Senator mentioned our investment fund. I thank him for his kind words regarding the south east. I will give the committee an overview of the fund. The document we supplied to the committee refers to 134 enterprises supported, but the updated figure is 140. It is growing all the time. I will provide an example of where the money has gone over the years.
I stress that the western investment fund was a really good initiative of the Government of the day and has done and is doing an excellent job. However, as we have had no fund since 2010, it is working on revolving funds, that is, funds that may have come back. The position is that the largest share on a sectoral basis of the spread of investments, the €48 million about which Senator Paudie Coffey spoke, is in the life sciences because of the cluster of world-class medical devices organisations in the west. After that comes the ICT sector, with a share of €10.1 million, followed by the clean tech sector, at €3 million; the food sector, at €2 million; the natural resources sector, at €1.4 million; the manufacturing sector, at €3 million; and the tourism sector, at €1.2 million. There is good diversity in the sectors funded, although, in fairness, in the life sciences risk and return are also considerations.
The way in which the fund has been dispersed geographically during the years is interesting. We mentioned the anchor that is Galway city. Owing to their population, city and county areas will obviously receive a proportionate sum. I will give the committee the figures and then discuss them a little. During the years Galway city has received €16 million. That is a large percentage of the outlay, but County Donegal has received €5.3 million; County Mayo, €9.2 million; County Sligo, approximately €2.6 million; and County Clare, €1.5 million. Therefore, there has been a regional spread of the money. That is one of the main aims in what we are trying to do. As the Chairman said and I intimated, we see fully the anchoring nature of what is a large area. The goal is to use the likes of Sligo, Castlebar, Shannon, Ennis and Letterkenny as mini magnets or mini anchors and try to spread from there. Many of our efforts in promoting regional development and providing access to finance are aimed at trying to get businesses and organisations to come to us to see whether they can grow. We have had some recent good successes in that regard.
As I mentioned to Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice, we worked on the national planning framework, the precursor to Project Ireland 2040, on a collaborative basis with many of the local authorities. I felt it was very much a concerted effort to seek what was best for the region, which was both good and new; hence, I think poles around Sligo, Athlone and Letterkenny emerged from the plan on the basis that there was an understanding that if we could have infrastructure and so on provided in these areas, it would benefit wider areas. I thought they were very sensible proposals and we were very glad to be a part of the process.
Senator Paudie Coffey made a really interesting point about Ballina and Waterford and the line between them and asked a very good question. The WDC is interested in all access infrastructure to grow the economy. About two years ago we made a rail freight analysis - it is on our website - that looked at rail freight as perhaps being a way to enter passenger numbers and so on to subsidise them. The analysis showed that three of the four freight lines in the country, of which Ballina-Waterford is one, emanated from or passed through the west. I know that there is work ongoing in the Department in that regard. I would have to go back to the team to talk about the Senator's request for a feasibility study to link with it. If I may, I will defer the response to that discussion and come back to the Senator on the matter.
I appreciate that response. It is in the interests of the western region and the region from which I come, the south east, because the Port of Waterford is an access point to continental Europe. It was served by a freight train service that, unfortunately, has ceased. If we want to sustain the port into the future, we must identify new opportunities. If the Western Development Commission could collaborate with whomever it must within the western region and the Port of Waterford to try to re-establish the line, it would be mutually beneficial. That is on what our efforts should be focused - finding solutions and new opportunities. I would appreciate it if the commission were to do so.
I was struck by Mr. Brannigan's figures for development and tourism. Obviously, the Wild Atlantic Way winds its way through much of the western region. I note from the CSO figures announced only today that in the month of May more than 1 million overseas visitors visited Ireland, up nearly 250,000 on the figure for the same period last year. There are huge opportunities to attract overseas visitors into all regions which would help to sustain rural enterprises. I see this happening in the south east through the success of the Waterford Greenway, from which many rural enterprises have emanated in a very short period. Towns and villages along the greenway are finding vibrant new economic uses and there are new restaurants and services and so on. I know that there are greenways in the west also. There is one in Westport and I think there are plans to extend it to Achill. There are huge opportunities for all of us. The Western Development Commission has a role to play in identifying what lies ahead and where the potential for growth is. I wish it well in its work.
Dr. Deirdre Garvey:
I will respond to the Senator's comments on Galway being the anchor. To clarify, I mentioned Galway in the context of there being perhaps fewer disparities there than, let us say, in counties Donegal, Clare and Mayo. I reiterate my colleague's comments about Sligo and its importance under the national development plan. It was an important contribution by the WDC to make that submission from a regional perspective, not from the perspective of individual counties in the context of what was best for the region. It had an impact and was hugely important.
I thank the delegates for their opening statements. The difficulty with the Western Development Commission's work lies in how it strikes a balance in putting sufficient pressure on the Government to make the right policy decisions for the west while being funded by it. That is a challenge for many agencies. It has concerned us all that someone such as Mr. Paddy McGuinness threw his hands in the air and said, "I cannot take this any more." We can see that nothing major has changed since. As there has certainly been no game changer, we are concerned. While the delegates can present a very optimistic picture - I suppose it is part of their job to do so - we need to dig a little deeper on certain matters. I know that the commission's remit does not include applying for EU funding, but are the delegates satisfied that in the west we are availing of all opportunities presented to the commission to obtain EU funding? How concerned are they about the withdrawal of the TEN-T projects? Has a renewed application been made? How much pressure is the commission putting on to have a renewed application made?
I want to ask the delegates about the Atlantic economic corridor and the task force that was set up. How many times do the commission and the Atlantic economic corridor task force meet? What is the relationship between them and has it made a difference? We are two years down the line from when it was set up and I know that it was to be reviewed within two years. Has it been reviewed and, if so, has it made a difference to development in the west?
We talked about broadband provision. We need to be a little stronger on all of the areas without broadband. It is not just broadband; there are huge areas without telecommunications. I am not talking about remote areas but about trying to make telephone calls in areas within half a mile of Castlebar. People have to go sit in their cars to try to get a signal. That is the reality. Mr. Brannigan talked about part of the commission's remit being overseeing the provision of connectivity. Connectivity is the key driver of all development, but how can we expect a CEO or other staff to relocate to the west when there are areas in which we do not have something as basic as connectivity even to make a mobile phone call?
I also want to ask the delegates about the promotion of education which is part of the commission's remit. Are they concerned about GMIT and the slowness in implementing the report brought out last November? Were they concerned when courses were recently closed there? There does not seem to be the will to see GMIT's development.
I must ask the delegates about Knock Airport. It is not just a matter of flights in and out; it is also a matter of creating an industrial zone.
How important is it to have a decent fiscal incentive in place to attract companies to ensure we have a proper development hub at the airport? If the witnesses were to name their one key infrastructure priority what would it be?
I am concerned that the national planning framework, NPF, seems to be population driven and that while there are aspirations, there is no real commitment on timelines. It states specifically that projects will be considered. If the commission is to do a cost-benefit analysis of any project, population, as one of the main drivers, will almost predict the outcome of the decision. There are, however, many projects that I imagine are priorities for the Western Development Commission and that are certainly priorities for me and Sinn Féin. How can the commission influence the elements used in the cost-benefit analysis to ensure decisions are not only population driven? I welcome the opportunity to discuss this with the commission today.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
In respect of EU funds, broadly, the commission is happy that it has enhanced capability to offer EU funds such as INTERREG in the region and we do that to the tune of millions of euro. This funding helps the region. We work with Údarás na Gaeltachta, National University of Ireland, Galway, the private sector and others in this regard. This process is going well and this capacity is needed because it is like risk funding for ideas and concepts for development that people may not get easily elsewhere.
The TEN-T project is a completely different EU project. I fully accept the Senator's point on that. We have to look further into how we will be centrally involved in the project because we fully buy into the idea that we need to be on the core not the comprehensive network of the TEN-T, which is important for infrastructural growth in the country and the region. While we are doing great stuff in the EU and have worked previously on TEN-T, there is scope to consider it again and see what we can do to influence it. Ultimately, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Government will have the most influence on that.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
We do not engage in lobbying. We are an independent State agency and we have to work within that remit. We have certainly informed in terms of what infrastructure we believe is needed. The Senator asked what infrastructure is required. Based on engagement with stakeholders, we are clear about what infrastructure is required in the region. We have to put that through the proper channels and push as hard as we can that way.
The Senator referred to the Atlantic economic corridor, AEC, and the number of meetings we have had with the AEC task force. As I do not have exact details, I may have to revert to her on the matter. Meetings take place regularly. One was held last week and there will be another next week. The WDC was represented on three sub-committees and is now represented on two, namely, infrastructure and enterprise. We are also on the AEC steering committee, which meets regularly. A website related to the AEC will be launched this Friday. There are things happening all the time.
The Western Development Commission fully embraced the Atlantic economic corridor task force. At first, the major point was that the chambers of commerce were involved and we could speak to businesses and get a lot of input from them. The chambers represent companies with 70,000 employees. We remain totally committed to the task force and we have made submissions on its behalf. In addition, it falls under the aegis of our parent Department. We work with the group. It is too early to say whether it has made a difference as it has not been up and running for long. It is not really for me to judge whether it has made a difference. It is working in the right areas and much good has come out of it, but these things take time. I have seen tangible results in terms of submissions and projects, meetings and infrastructure around the process.
The Senator mentioned connectivity as a basic necessity. We share that view, not only as citizens, but also because we hear it from the business communities with which we engage. Connectivity is necessary. We asked Paul Cummins when we were talking to Telegael, how he could produce in the west of Ireland and compete in international markets. He said he needed connectivity to be able to do the business in real time, not send it in the post to India. That was some time ago. We need to continue to challenge that dynamic. We have coalesced hundreds of creative businesses and almost all of them, even the artisanal ones, need connectivity to sell their products. Many of them need connectivity to create their products. We work hard with the relevant Departments to do everything we can to push it forward as an economic imperative.
I noted earlier how much we work with Knock Airport to help it, even historically in respect of flights. The Senator asked about the industrial zone and whether we need a development hub. I was most aware of that some years ago when we did an analysis with Knock Airport as part of a consultation on that issue. At the time, there was a need for some of the aviation business and material science businesses. I think the Senator's question is about whether there is a strategic planning zone requirement or suchlike. I would need to study that again because I have not have discussions on this matter with Knock Airport recently. If that analysis stands up, that may be the case.
The Senator asked what would be our key infrastructure priority. While it is difficult to answer that question, roads seem to make the biggest difference to a wider economic hinterland. We believe, as per the submission to the NPF, that roads are very important. This brings me to the very interesting point the Senator made about some of the population based criteria. As I was not privy to that discussion, it is hard for me to talk about it. I am seeing and hearing that the UK realised its use of population based economic models led to a disproportionate investment in the London area which is coming back twofold. It is almost a bias that is built in - that is self-evident. The western region is a coherent region of 826,000 people. That, in the Irish context, is a large region, which deserves serious consideration. At the same time, the Senator is right that we need to reconsider population based models if they are driving decisions all in one way because under that approach we would not be able to realise the opportunities that we have in a geographic spread. There is one question left.
Dr. Deirdre Garvey:
Senator Conway-Walsh's opening question was about the previous chair of the Western Development Commission, Mr. Paddy McGuinness, throwing his hands in the air. I recognise the challenges Mr. McGuinness faced as I was on the WDC board at the time. Those who take on the position of chair of a board must believe they can make a difference and, in this case, that the commission can make a difference. We do that by building on the success we have. We have had many successes which have an impact, for example, in the creative sector, the WRAP fund, the accelerator initiatives, and the western investment fund or WIF. In 2010, no one would have projected that the WIF would be as successful as it has been, indirectly.
I appreciate what the Senator says about balancing pressure for regional issues with the pressure on central Government for funding. It is important not to become isolated from the centre, while at the same time having an ability to innovate locally and take measures to create sectors which are indigenous to, and sustainable in, the region over the long term. It takes between five and ten years to develop sectors such as the creative sector. We have identified several sectors for employment growth over the next few years and we are considering a strategic plan.
I recognise the issue. It is not naivety but we believe we have to make a difference. We have to look at where we have made a difference and how we can build on it.
I will come back to the Senator's other question about education. I have my WDC hat on today and not my education hat. With my WDC hat I say we share the concern about education in the region. Access to education is critically important right across the region. The HEA, in its report on the financial review of the institutes of technology, recognised that regional campuses, including Donegal and Mayo, provide access. That is a rationale to having education provision in those regions. They provide access for people who otherwise may not have access to third level education. It is highlighted in the Action Plan for Rural Development that the young male population in particular is leaving the region for education. Access to education is hugely important in retaining younger people in the region. I share the concern. It is hugely important that the provision of third level education in the region is maintained.
Was there one other point that we have missed?
Dr. Deirdre Garvey:
The other thing I wanted to come back on was the cost-benefit analysis and population. I share the view and it is something I have spoken about previously in terms of balanced regional development. It has been written about by many economists, including John FitzGerald, who has written about it a number of times. These services cost more to provide in the regions. By using population-based models, we exclude social factors regarding the wider and longer-term impact on the region. I share the concern and think it is important we work in an integrated way to try to highlight it. We do it in various ways in the WDC, through the policy team, input and various submissions. It is important we keep doing that.
I appreciate the Chairman letting me ask some questions because I am not a member of the committee. I heard that the witnesses would be here. They are both very welcome. It is important that I come to see my neighbours. They are based in Ballaghaderreen, where I live, and I am very aware of the great work the WDC has done since it was founded in 1998 in probing, researching, supporting and providing seed capital.
Knock Airport was mentioned. I am very aware that the role the WDC played in Knock Airport over the years has been crucial at a time when it was more vulnerable than it is now. It needs to be supported in bringing businesses that are located in the eastern side back to the west. I have lobbied many Ministers on all sides to improve that support. I will have a question on that in a moment. It is important that no matter what Government is in office we do not fall into the trap in the west of Ireland of talking ourselves down. It happens continually and the WDC is the one State agency that helps to lift the tenor of that conversation about the west. The IDA brings investment in from outside and Enterprise Ireland gives support to companies in the west that are exporting but there is a void in the middle where help is needed. The Western Development Commission could be used as that vehicle to give that help. I have brought people to meet Mr. Brannigan over the years for help, support, advice and mentoring. I have always found the door open and the advice very constructive. Sometimes I felt the criteria the WDC was working against was limited, for example, where it could give seed capital and buy in equity. Could the WDC play a bigger role if there was more funding? Could there be more flexibility in how it could offer help? Is that a constraint at times?
The other thing that has been mentioned continually is the TEN-T issue. Students from a local school did a survey on it recently. There is a perception being created that there is buckets of money in Europe and that we rejected that money. I do not accept that argument. When TEN-T was being formulated it was more about bankruptcy of the country than TEN-T. I am a member of the transport committee. The European Commissioner for Transport appeared before the committee a few months ago. TEN-T was not to be reviewed until 2023 but, in light of Brexit, the Commissioner assured us it would be reviewed a lot sooner than that. There may be an opportunity there for Government but also for agencies such as the WDC to feed into that. The Commissioner gave us assurance that the transport situation with regard to the land bridges of Britain, depending on what happens, would be looked at again. There is a possibility Ireland will need support. It will be supported by the European Union and the western region could come in on that. If there is something to be gained from TEN-T, my reading of it was that most of the money was to be provided by the national Government and that 20% would come from elsewhere. I do not want to fight the war here but what we need to do, and what the WDC is doing, is look forward rather than look back and plan for the future. The WDC will play a really important role in the future of the west and the north west and the entire region it covers. Do the witnesses have a wish list in terms of how their jobs and their delivery to the region could be helped?
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
I thank the Senator for his remarks. His first question on the constraints is very perceptive. We always want to do more. That is the nature of continual improvement and trying to do better. We are in a good spot in terms of venture capital and access to finance. We created a microloan specifically for the creative economy when we had good information that it was an access to finance issue for such businesses. In recent years we looked more broadly at how we could do more if the possibility arose. There are quite a lot of what we feel are patient-investor-principle projects in the region. How can I put it simply? They are projects that would provide lots of jobs and lots of income for the region but which, for the core investor, would take a long time to return the capital. We are working on ways we could be involved in supporting them. There was analysis done on the bike trails. Our region has one national and two regional bike trails. They are Donegal, Galway and Sligo. It was a very good analysis. They will build what I would describe as ski resorts for bikes, if the committee understand that analogy. They will have different trails on them. We have worked with some of the projects which are really good commercial ventures. The trail itself does not generate a lot of income but it generates bed nights because people come in and want to stay for the weekend.
If one considers what is happening in Longford with Center Parcs, it is a perfect fit. These are the types of deals we would like to see the private or public sector work on. We are looking at that type of patient investor and working with Departments and so forth to try to imagine how we could realise ambitions such as these.
A second example would be energy projects. From our work with the sector we know that many energy projects require a great deal of capital up front. Banks find that difficult because the payback period can be ten to 15 years, which is not a good business model. We believe it is a great business model because the projects use fuel such as wood chip, biomass residue and so forth from the locality. That is perfect. We are seriously looking at that and we are beginning to feel there is a solid business case there. We are in constant discussion with the Minister and the Department about how we move to realise these things.
The Senator mentioned the TEN-T. His point about an opening, perhaps, of a re-evaluation is incredibly interesting news, to be brutally honest. As I said previously, it would be nice if we could say to the various Departments, such as the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, that if there is an opening here, we would certainly like to put a case together for certain things that are in our region's interests.
Dr. Deirdre Garvey:
I wish to add to that. We would like to be able to replicate further what we have done to date. There is a challenge in scaling that budget-wise when working from year to year and also to scaling it, because there is a time factor in due diligence. One of the issues for the WIF has been having a pipeline of projects to come into the fund that will meet that level. There are a number of accelerators now in which the WDC is involved which will bring that pipeline in. Ideally, we could see that scale to the next stage with the Western Development Commission and the WIF, but it is difficult to scale that quickly. It will have to be more gradual and be done over the next two to three years. It is a positive position, however, in terms of the western investment fund and the experience we have of what has worked, and having done that in the past ten years while going through some very difficult times in between. We have come out of that with some very successful projects that the WDC has supported and from which we have seen employment growth. With regard to the key growth sectors, the biggest impact the WDC can have is the integrated and regional approach in particular sectors. We will not have an advantage in every sector that competes across the country or internationally, but there are particular sectors which are attracted to the region and can remain in the region, such as tourism and the green economy. The medical device sector has been a very successful cluster but there are other potential clusters within that as well.
Like Senator O'Mahony, I am not a member of the committee, but being from County Roscommon and representing the Roscommon-Galway constituency, I always have a great interest in the commission's work. First, I compliment the witnesses on the work they have done since the commission was established. There is no doubt its presence was significant in terms of at least showing there was some survival in the region. My point is that if the commission had not been there, we would probably be in a worse position.
My questions might not be in the witnesses' remit, which is fine. I will understand that. First, however, what is the commission's budget for 2018 and how many staff does it employ? Is that budget open to all areas of development? We know it is open to industry, for example, but what about tourism and rural renewal? Is it open-ended?
I will make some brief comments before putting more questions. My big concern is the Roscommon perspective. According to the latest figures, between 900 and 1,000 people a day travel from Roscommon to work in Dublin. Somebody said to me recently that we are lucky to have the jobs, and it is great that we have employment within the island. I wish to reflect on families and the number of people I know who rise at 4 a.m. or 4.30 a.m., rush to get a train or get into their car to avoid the traffic, work in Dublin all day and return home at 9 p.m. or even later. It is no life for a family. One sees the situation in Dublin and the east coast. Galway city is also bursting at the seams, yet 40 minutes along the motorway Ballinasloe has lost almost 3,000 jobs in the past ten or 11 years. I constantly ask why we cannot consider some relocation. The same applies to other towns such as Mountbellew, Ballygar and so forth. That is the first issue.
Second, broadband is non-existent in many parts of my region. Obviously, there is an issue with the roll-out of the national broadband plan. It has not happened and that is a Government issue, so I am not blaming the commission. There have been many announcements about broadband but it has not happened. The reality in some situations, and it is a minority of situations, is that a number of small businesses are moving out of the county. For example, in the case of east Roscommon, businesses are relocating to Longford town from Strokestown, Roosky and elsewhere. I accept that they may be rurally based and that it is not all bad news with regard to broadband, but we are losing some small businesses specifically because we cannot deliver broadband. We were told that broadband was going to be as important as rural electrification. If it is, why is it not happening?
We are told in the 2040 plan that the development of the N4 and N5 national primary routes will take place. Can we fast-track them? As the witnesses know, the big issue with the road from Westport to Dublin is the road through County Roscommon. I have met many people in the big industries in Mayo and they constantly complain about the state of that road. How can we push those further and get that work done as quickly as possible? The same happens in Carrick-on-Shannon. There is no plan for a bypass or ring road for the town, where there is a dreadful situation for traffic coming from the north west. The development of that ring road is very important. In addition, I have noticed that bypasses have affected business in our towns. If one owns a filling station, a newsagent or a similar type of shop the bypass has had an effect. It might not affect a hardware shop or a pharmacy, but it definitely has an effect on hotels, filling stations and so forth. I have asked this question previously but is there a fund available or can one be made available to rejuvenate such towns? Every time a bypass is completed, €60,000 to €100,000 is spent on a piece of art work to commemorate the opening of the new bypass so why can there not be a fund to rejuvenate part of the bypassed town?
I do not wish to take up any more time as Deputy Ó Cuív wishes to speak, but those are my questions. If they are not relevant to the witnesses' area, I will accept that.
I will digress for a moment to return to the Deputy's point on families, as I forgot to mention something. Earlier we discussed the economic base model population. Dr. Alan Ahearne is professor of economics in NUIG. Something is emerging, which he described as being annoying to economists who are scientists, that relates to quality of life which is increasingly being seen as a key determinant for certain growth. It concerns why clusters suddenly arrive out of nowhere and why high-value people move to places. It is really important because when one speaks about the movement of families, part of our ethos is combat or offer alternatives to this. We do it through regional promotion and, as I mentioned in the written submission, we are working with IDA Ireland and the institutes of technology to do a talent tool, which we have done once before, to capture people of talent in the region as well as those who are outside the region and wish to return. It is predominantly being used to attract inward investment and grow the case for indigenous business. I am not saying that it is a solution or a panacea but it helps. It was apparently the key determinant for Randox moving to Donegal rather than continuing to expand in Northern Ireland. They did not know if there were enough PhD-type people. We showed them the data that indicated there were and that took that issue off the table. We are hoping to do the same thing in a better way in the future to strengthen the case. We have done preliminary research and we know the reason that thousands of people want to be on the talent tool is because, rather than wanting any old job, they want a job in the region from which they came or where they wish to live, namely the west for its quality of life.
We discussed broadband. I could not agree more that the better the quality, the faster the roll-out. We hear that from business constantly. The Deputy said it was a key determinant of people moving out. I have already said that it is a key determinant of people deciding to stay. We have hundreds of businesses in the creative sector alone saying this.
On the national planning framework, it would be great if we could do that overnight. I join with the Deputy in asking that it could be fast tracked, but it is not within our remit. We believe it would realise huge gains for the region.
The question of the bypass is very interesting. I will have to consider it further. We have worked with small communities such as Letterfrack, where they might want to have an enterprise centre and we ask for what purpose, who will be there and what they will do. We are working with them now in phases two and three of that and some ideas are coming out of that. However, that was not due to a bypass; it was just us working with a small community. I will return to this because it is something that is new to me.
I will be honest that when the Western Development Commission was established, I thought it was a token agency. Unfortunately my view has not changed. I am not saying that the people there are not doing their best with the tools given to them but the Government refused to take the west seriously. It was set up to deal with an urgent problem that was there at a time of the famous bishops' campaign. It was a token agency to which the Government would not give similar powers as Enterprise Ireland or IDA Ireland, or powers like Údarás na Gaeltacht has or the Shannon Free Airport Development Company, SFADco, had at the time. Rather than giving the agency real executive powers to get on with the job and compete, they gave it a kind of research role with a tiny remit. I want to be clear that I am not blaming the witnesses or the board, with whom I have worked over the years, or the executive. However, if anyone were to suggest to me that the Western Development Commission is a large, powerful agency in the west, I would tell them to look at their budget, staffing level and statutory powers. They are not powerful because they are not allowed to be. People sometimes confuse criticism of a national structure set up by us in this House with criticism of the agency that is there. I recognise that with the resources it has been given that the agency has worked efficiently. However, much more could be done in the west.
Can the witnesses answer something that puzzles me? They do a lot of research and are very good on that. I asked a parliamentary question of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport - by God, it is a complicated Department to deal with - about what money had come in from the European Union for transport infrastructure from around 2005 to date. I am not sure of the dates. I thought I would get an answer. I thought it would know where the funds came through because I thought they were all siphoned through the centre, which they are. However, the Department wrote out to every agency involved and now I have a pile that I will have to go through. A quick perusal suggests they were very small for the whole of Ireland. In other words, all our motorways were not built with EU money, as most of the public think, they were actually built with national money. I am not interested in €0.5 million here or €2 million there, that is kids' money in real development terms, but sums of €100 million to €300 million. I do not want to know about agricultural payments, such as ANC, PBS, and TAMS payments, which are compensation to farmers for getting a bad price for cattle. In structural funds for infrastructure, what serious money is coming from the EU? Is there really serious money available that if we just put our hands out we can grab it and it will flow in? I do not believe there is any but maybe the witnesses do because they are the type of people who know things like that.
On the trans-European transport network, TEN-T, I do not know who is codding who here. The Chairman will be very surprised about what I have to say on this. I did some research on this four or five years ago. The story was going around the west that the Government was doing things so I put in freedom of information, FOI, requests. I provided the response to the people who had raised the matter with me. It was somewhat messy because when one puts in an FOI request, one receives information here or there. Perhaps the witnesses have analysed this, but my reading was that the reason the core mainly came down the east coast - although I accept that the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan may have looked after Limerick in relation to Foynes - was directed by the EU. It is the unseen hand. We do not designate any areas in Ireland for special areas of conservation, SACs. The Government proposes them but it has no choice because the EU sets down the criteria, and if one does not provide them, they come back and demand that more be identified. Can witnesses tell me if this was a unilateral decision on behalf of the Irish Government or was there an unseen hand operating from Europe that wanted infrastructure down the east coast because it had an interest in a trans-European network that would be very much focused on where the traffic was? It would be useful to have an answer to that.
I notice that the commission did some work on rail freight. I have never seen that as being the answer to our desire to have a proper rail network in the west. The province of Connacht has a population of around 500,000 and the city of Dublin has a population of approximately 1.1 million. If we look at investment in rail in Dublin for 1.1 million compared to the half million in the west, it is much more than twice the amount. If one pays tax according to the ability to pay - one should get services from the State according to some objective criteria, even based on population - we are getting skinned. Despite the myth, the reality is that we in rural areas get much less per head on many services. There are about 40,000 people in the major towns, Ballina, Castlebar, Claremorris, Tuam, Westport, north of Athenry. I have looked at journey times and commuting patterns to Dublin from towns such as Tullamore, Longford and Mullingar.
The train journey between Maynooth and Pearse Station takes three quarters of an hour and nobody thinks that is an unreasonable commute. It takes about the same time to get from Greystones, very much a commuter town, to Connolly Station.
Commuter services are high-volume in nature, much more so than intercity services. The term "intercity" is a bit of a misnomer in this country. Most people using the trains, even the so-called intercity trains, are commuting. There might be a reasonably high number travelling between Dublin and Cork but even on that service, many people get on that train at Thurles, Portlaoise, etc. Who would have responsibility to ask the WDC to compile a study on commuter and airport rail potential into Galway and Limerick, from the Clare side, since the commission does not operate outside of Clare? In the short term, a service in this regard would link Claremorris to Athenry and Athlone, Ennis and Limerick to Galway, and vice versa, Galway to Limerick. What are the drivers of commuter rail services internationally? Does the train have to arrive between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., which seems to me to be a basic criterion? I have done some work on this myself. That work has given rise to interesting answers. If trains do not leave at certain times in the evening when people are finishing work, there is not much point in calling them commuter services. Are there examples of similarly populated areas that have efficient commuter rail services which attract passengers? It would be useful to know whether it is possible to have such services and, also, what is the best practice in areas with populations of similar size?
One could create 2,000 or 3,000 jobs in the west overnight without going to IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland or asking for any money. It would be awfully easy. It could be done by means of decentralisation, a dirty word which we should say quietly. Has the WDC done a study on the positive and negative impacts of decentralisation? Is it difficult or does it give rise to inefficiency? Are the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection's offices in Sligo, Carrick-on-Shannon and Buncrana and the Department of Finance's office in Galway much more inefficient than those Department's offices in Dublin? The Department of Rural and Community Development and parts of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment are based in Ballina. Are they laggards or, as I suspect, leaders when it comes to efficiency? Is there a need to move huge numbers of people up and down to Dublin every week for meetings or do a few assistant principal officers and principal officers come up every few weeks? If they did not come up to Dublin, would there be a need for people from head office to travel down? Decentralisation has taken place over a long period and not just during the lifetime of the Government of which I was a member when it was done successfully. It was happening long before that. How major a contributor is it to the regions? As with other studies whereby one is trying to discover what would happen if one took a particular course of action, the great thing about that study is that it has been done and we are aware of the impact. As a result, it is possible to extrapolate the impact of having another 2,000 or 3,000 jobs in a particular location.
An examination of the Civil Service transfer list shows that many more people want to get out of Dublin than want to come here. In the context of decentralisation, is there a problem in getting people to accept particular jobs? Is it difficult to fill them? There are all the usual questions. There is huge potential to relieve Dublin of its problems, particularly as it cannot handle what it has, and not by means of transferring them to Galway, which also cannot handle what it has. The places that can handle them include Carrick-on-Shannon and, to a degree, Sligo. I still deeply regret that An Bord Pleanála decided to turn down the proposal to build the Government Department headquarters at Ireland West Airport in Knock, which would have given rise to a little concentration of development at that location. There is a great road service on the east-west north-south link cross south of Charlestown between it and the airport. Some great gurus in Dublin could not get their heads around that. These might be useful things to do.
The Minister, Deputy Ring, the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, and I visited the back of a hill in the middle of nowhere the other day. At the back of the hill in the middle of nowhere there is an industry. Some 120 people are employed on the floor of that industry. Another 100 go in and out of that industry every day, so there are over 200 people on site most days. It is a timber industry, so there are another 100 out in the forest. That is not a small industry. It is in the middle of nowhere on the back of a hill. Despite popular myths that rural Ireland can only sustain micro-industries, there are some major employers in the region. There is an urban myth that these industries are not sustainable and that one cannot locate a big industry on the back of a hill in the middle of nowhere. Would the WDC consider performing a mapping exercise of manufacturing businesses?
I found another business, although this one is not located on the back of a hill. It is located in a flat place not too far from the area the WDC oversees. I was in Supermac's in Cappataggle one night having a cup of tea and a guy came over to me. He said he had a little business down the road and asked if I would come to see it. I happened to be going to Loughrea the following weekend to visit a school. I decided to call in to find that there were 40 jobs in a boithrín in the middle of nowhere. It would be interesting to exclude Galway, Castlebar, Sligo and their environs and to try to map all the manufacturing industries that employ more than ten people in the WDC area and discover how many jobs there are within it. Most of these businesses have a local reason to be where they are, and the jobs created indirectly could be extrapolated. The commission will find that when it comes to manufacturing jobs, the centre of Dublin does not have most of the manufacturing jobs and that there are many businesses operating along the highways and byways of rural Ireland, despite the planning rules that are there to try to stop all of this. They make an enormous contribution to the economy. The great thing is that they are not really adding too much to the traffic chaos.
Looking at services in a similar way, there is an accountancy firm near where I live in a village that does not have 20 houses in it. The firm employs ten or 15 people. If the owner gets his broadband by the end of the year, he will probably add another ten employees. He is doing accounts from London. It is not a local accountancy firm. He has no problem getting staff. He has a very nice place from which to operate. We seem to have closed our minds to all these marvellous possibilities. We need to start mapping what is there despite less than conducive conditions.
How much cash does the commission have in the WIF? What cash is in hand? Are enough people coming in to look for that money or is the commission too constrained in the context of disbursing it?
I have seen figures of €13 million, €20 million and €30 million, which is joke money in the context of developing a region. I mean no disrespect to the Western Development Commission. It was not given any more so I am not blaming it. I spoke about a small business on the other side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. It invested between €20 million and €30 million on one side in the past ten years. That is what it takes, as I know, having been involved in that kind of development, albeit on a small scale compared with what is possible nowadays. The one thing I found out is that just because it is a rural location, it does not suddenly get cheap.
I will not discuss the issue of broadband. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment should get on with the job of putting fibre into every house in the country and ensuring everyone has access to a mobile phone. That should not require more research. It is just a question of getting somebody to do a very simple job of running some cable along existing telephone lines and into businesses. There is no rocket science involved. It is as simple as putting up electric lines was when they were first installed.
I ask the witnesses to elaborate a little on the talent tool the WDC uses.
Dr. Deirdre Garvey:
I appreciate Deputy Ó Cuív's view of the agency, and I know he recognises it is not a reflection on the executive or the board. From the perspective of the chairperson of the board, we are working with the statutory instrument we have and the remit as defined within that. Regardless of whether we like it, that is our remit right now and our objective is to do that as efficiently and effectively as we can. While I understand the points the Deputy raised, it is not within our remit right now to address those matters.
The Deputy identified some projects in terms of potential and asked about a mapping exercise. There are also some to which he appears to have the answers and perhaps he needs those answers confirmed. In regard to whether there is an unseen hand, I am afraid I cannot answer that either, but perhaps the Deputy has the answer.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
"Analyse" would be a bit strong. What we did was realise the importance of the TEN-T process in getting infrastructure into the west. We realised the issues in the comprehensive and the core, and we took a deep interest in working with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in trying to get ahead of this.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
I will start by going backwards. As the acting CEO, I acknowledge and thank him for the positive comments he made, notwithstanding his broader comments about resources and so on, which were equally interesting.
We did the regional skills tool for LookWest.iebecause, from the outset, we wanted it to be more than a website that people would visit. We wanted it to do things to get people employed and into work. The most visited page on LookWest.ieevery month, one which we constantly promote on social media, is our jobs page. It was the most visited page through the downturn and still is, which is great. We work with all the recruiters in the west and nationally to show people the jobs available in the west. If one visits the page, one will see jobs in counties Galway, Clare, Roscommon and so on. We are pleased it has become the go-to place for jobs in the west. We are not a recruitment agency; we simply facilitate the public in finding jobs. We have moved on as the site evolved. IDA Ireland and others told us they wanted to make a compelling case for businesses to locate and stay in the west. We are now advertising hard-to-fill jobs, which means top management and positions with specialist skills. There is a perception that there may not be enough human capital with the core skills needed. The Deputy addressed that issue when he spoke about manufacturing businesses. We know these skills are available because the attainment rates in the west are relatively strong, as they are nationally in any case.
We have completed the feasibility part of the talent tool, which was paid for and done by the WDC with IDA Ireland, the institutes of technology involved in the project and the regional skills forum. We are moving to the phase of designing and implementing the tool, which will require a little money and time. Thousands of people will indicate they have a degree in a certain area or a skill in another area and that will form the basis of the talent tool. We will then have to take account of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, and the various new protocols before sharing this information with appropriate parties, with their permission, to help businesses locate in the region.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
No, that is why we call it the talent tool. In large part, they will be people who are from the west. Some 20% of the views on LookWest.ieare from abroad, specifically the United Kingdom, America and Australia. These are people who left and who will return if given half a chance. They hang their curricula vitae on the talent tool and these are then used when a major employer or indigenous firm decides it wants to grow and needs microbiologists or whatever other skill is required. As we already have permission from those using the talent tool, we can ask the employer to look at what we have and either make the investment or, even better, simply contact the individuals. Most of the users will be people who wish to come back as opposed to people living in the region. That is a fair point.
To give the Deputy a straight answer on the cash in hand for the western investment fund, as of last week cash in hand stood at approximately €20 million. I do not recall the exact figure but I can provide it. To put that in context, when we spoke to the Deputy, we would have been lucky to have had €3 million or €4 million on a revolving basis. While that seems like a large amount, we usually disburse between €1.8 million and €2 million a year. We need to retain a little more for investments made because of exemptions and so on. Basically, we were constrained and had no more than what we needed. We are now starting to imagine new things, which is interesting, but only since last year.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
No, the idea is to get this working. We are working with the board at the moment to figure that out. We have ideas and we are working with the board and the parent Department to figure out ways to make efficient use of this capital. I do not mean from a treasury point of view, but from a remit point of view and to get this money out there. I referred to some of the projects in energy, tourism and so on, that we have been gestating with partners for some time. We would like to see many of those realised sooner rather than later.
I love the imagery the Deputy used about a factory at the back of a hill the middle of nowhere, and I totally agree. The Deputy asked if we could do a mapping exercise. We used to do a regional directory, which we paid a lot of money to get an external firm to do. Amazingly, there was no directory for companies in the region at the time. We stopped that for cost reasons about four or five years ago. It is something we would have to consider. The Deputy was referring to a mapping exercise outside of major towns, if I am correct.
The reality is that Galway has high visibility, with a chamber of commerce and so on. Politicians are often lobbied by chambers of commerce, for example, the Westport or American chambers of commerce. They are organised. I will name a company, which will not mind because it is blue-ribboned in every way. The manufacturing firm, McHale, is local and creative, operates in a competitive market and has a foreign branch. It is counter-intuitive in every way, from its inception to the position it has since reached. It is competitive and effective because the guy who owns it comes from where it is located. We have a great deal of that.
Nobody ever figures out that there are some massively successful, internationally competitive companies in the strangest of places, sometimes because the people running them are in those places by chance. These companies are able to compete in locations in which people say that they should not be able to. They do however, partly because they often have loyal workforces which one might not get in a city. If we could get a list, or even a sample list, of 70, 80, 90 or 100 of these companies in some way that would not involve spending oodles of money, we would be able to tell people that this is the real west of Ireland. It is creative, dynamic and competitive. It does not lie down just because it is a little bit further away by road. I know some of these companies. I find them on back roads all over the place. It would be useful for us to know exactly how many of those are around the place because they give a lie to the spatial planning idea that if something is not in a growing city it will not happen.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
There is a lot of value in that. The Deputy mentioned McHale. There is also PEL and there is SIS Pitches, which is doing the pitches for the World Cup. There are huge technical services businesses located in rural areas for the reasons the Deputy has mentioned. Bringing them together in a mapping exercise is an idea we would need to consider and revert to him on. The Deputy mentioned decentralisation. That is a fascinating study. It has not come across our desks to look at. Anecdotally, we have managed to hire into the organisation in recent years. We are small and modest but we are the definition of a decentralised but regionally-based body. We have had an average of 50 to 78 applicants for each position. I will be brutally honest; that surprised us. We were asking "Really?". That says something about people wanting to go to areas where one would not think it is logical for them to go. Again, I would have to come back to the Deputy on the idea of a more in-depth study. We would have to ask how easy it would be to do and whether there is information to hand. It is something worth considering however.
On the potential for commuter rail, we have looked at rail freight as an in to getting the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and others to look at the case. The previous board and chairman met Iarnród Éireann to figure out what it takes to create lines because we have an interest in biomass and bulk and in getting the infrastructure in the region improved. We did the analysis on rail freight. That has gone into the public arena. It helped push things along a little bit. We have not looked at the international comparisons in respect of commuter rail which the Deputy has talked about, however, and we have not looked at the drivers. Again, that is something about which I will need to talk to the policy team. We will need to see what is easily to hand and what we should be doing.
I do not mean to interrupt Mr. Brannigan but I have an interesting statistic. The Athlone and Limerick lines converge in Athenry. Athenry has a population of 3,950. Some 300 people a day travel from Athenry into Galway city. The rail census November tells me that. It was taken in November so these people are not tourists. If we then consider Ballinasloe and Athlone, Athlone has 27,000 people. Fewer people travel from Athlone to Galway than from Athenry, which has 3,950 people, even though it is only a 55-minute journey. That is well within the length of journey that is considered a commuter journey in this city without a problem. When one is on a train, it is not the distance but the time that counts. Therefore, one has to ask why is one service doing better. Even though the service into Galway from Athenry is not great, at least it has twice the service Athlone has because it has two sources of trains - the Limerick service and the Athlone service. In fact, more people take the Limerick service to Galway because the times are better. Why is a population of 3,950 producing more passengers than a population of 27,000? It is the same situation with Ballinasloe. It is way behind both.
One has to say to oneself that there is something strange here and ask oneself whether it has to do with the frequency of the trains. Once one starts looking at that, building up a model, looking at best practice in other places and finding out what can be done to increase that figure in notches again and again with little investment, then one can start looking at Athenry, Tuam and Claremorris, which automatically links one in to looking at times. I have done some work on this. A good study needs to be done which would take the town populations into account, not to mention the hinterland populations. We can then start to look at the factors that get people out of cars and into trains, at how many potential passengers there are and so on.
To my knowledge, the WDC has done work on travelling to work in the region so it knows that half of Galway's working population comes from outside the city. It probably has information on how many come from the east, where there is a railway line. These are the kinds of factors we need to look at. I am convinced that there is a justification for the western rail corridor and a massive justification for improving services between Ennis and Galway, Ennis and Limerick and Athlone and Galway. Commuter rail is going to be the driver, not intercity or freight rail. Freight and intercity services are fine, but the big driver of numbers will be commuter rail. If look around the east coast, intercity is not the big driver of people getting off at Heuston, Connolly and Pearse stations, but inner commuter and outer commuter.
Mr. Ian Brannigan:
The Deputy is correct that we have just finished research on travelling to work so we have some of that information to hand. I will bring that back to the team and discuss it because, as the Deputy realises, there is a good discussion to be had in detail to see where it takes us. We have discussed TEN-T, but the Deputy asked about Structural Funds available from the EU. We have talked about how we are now dealing with a lot of EU funds. I am not going to discuss the TEN-T straight away but I am aware that a lot of the available funds of which we were not heretofore availing but now are because of the efforts of bodies like our own will be reorganised after Brexit. The inter-regional funds - the INTERREG funds in particular, not the Structural Funds - will all now be reallocated.
Mr. Brannigan is saying that our region got €200 million or €300 million over seven years. We will say €400 million. We will be generous to them. If we divide that by seven, it is €50 million or €60 million a year.
In addition, the State spends €3 billion or €4 billion on capital spending every year and, therefore, it is not a big player in the game. If we want to redevelop the roads and the rail system in the west, looking to the seanbhean bhocht atá ag teacht thar sáile is a waste of time. We should just look to the Exchequer and get on with the job. We can let the Exchequer worry. If it wants to get European money to supplement its own, that is fine, but we should just get on with the job. That would be my message. There is an illusion out there that there is a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. It is a rainbow; there is no pot of gold at the end of it. The pot of gold is in the building across from this one - the Department of Finance.
On behalf of the committee, I thank Dr. Garvey and Mr. Brannigan for their worthwhile engagement with us. I propose to forward a transcript of today's meeting to the Minister, Deputy Michael Ring. Is that agreed? Agreed.