Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Project Ireland 2040: Motion [Private Members]


4:00 pm

Photo of Michael McGrathMichael McGrath (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following: “notes that:
— Project Ireland 2040 represents a new strategic approach to social and economic development, and it is the first time that spatial planning and investment have been explicitly linked in Ireland;

— Project Ireland 2040 aims to accommodate the growth of 1 million additional people in a balanced and sustainable way, with a focus on developing regional growth;

— the Government sets the broad legislative and policy framework within which planning authorities work, and the preparation of a statutory development plan is undertaken in accordance with the statutory provisions of the Planning and Development Act 2000 (as amended);

— under this legislation, the decision to adopt the county development plan is a reserved function of the elected members of the planning authority;

— the national-level planning policy as set out in the National Planning Framework (NPF) is being implemented throughout the planning system, and a statutory Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (RSES) was prepared by each of the three Regional Assemblies in Ireland, all of which were approved and in place by January 2020;

— the overall funding of €116 billion for the lifetime of the National Development Plan (NDP) out to 2027 is allocated on an indicative basis to each of the ten National Strategic Outcomes set out in the NPF;

— the specific financial allocations are provided for in the normal annual Estimates process and voted on annually by the Dáil;

— the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform published the Supporting Excellence: Capital Project and Programme Review Delivery in March 2021, and the report identifies a range of strengths and weaknesses in the public capital delivery system;

— a Supporting Excellence Action Team will consider the recommendation of how best Government Departments and agencies can be supported to deliver the well-balanced, well-targeted and well-delivered investments;

— although the Greater Dublin Area (GDA) proportion grew in the past 50 years, the majority (circa 1 million people or 60 per cent) of the population growth in Ireland between 1971 and 2016 took place outside the GDA;

— around three-quarters, or 75 per cent of Ireland’s population are living outside Dublin and around half, or 50 per cent living outside ‘large’ towns of 10,000 people or more, and in addition, the actual number of people living in rural areas as a whole, has increased by more than 300,000 people in this period;

— the Central Statistics Office (CSO) statistics for one-off houses in 2016 identify this cohort as 26 per cent of all occupied dwellings and for 17 counties with one-off housing comprised over half of all dwellings built since 2011 and the data confirms that more than 16,000 one-off houses were granted planning permission since the NPF was adopted in early 2018;

— the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future has committed to the development of a Town Centre First (TCF) policy, with these commitments complemented and supported by the rural policy prepared by the Department of Rural and Community Development;

— the establishment of the Department of Rural and Community Development was an important step in strengthening regional balance, including addressing decline, with a special emphasis on the potential for the renewal and development of smaller towns and villages;

— strengthening rural economies and our communities is a core objective of Project Ireland 2040, with the provision of €1 billion to the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund ensuring that the funding is there to deliver on that objective in the coming years; and

— projects are benefitting every county in Ireland and are supporting a wide range of sectors, including town centre regeneration, enterprise development, remote working, tourism and recreation, community facilities, and libraries etc.;
— a total of 572 submissions were received during the Review to Renew, the public consultation on the review of the NDP;

— there is compelling international evidence that efficient capital public investment is central to long-term economic wellbeing, and that investment in our economy must be smart, well-planned, well-targeted and well-managed so that it delivers balanced regional growth;

— that efficient public capital investment allows the economy to grow faster on a sustainable basis by raising productivity and supply capacity and this has an important role to play in alleviating capacity constraints that might otherwise restrict economic and social progress;

— that the peripherality of many rural areas, their distance from public service provision and the relative narrowness of their enterprise base, are some of the reasons why rural areas need particular policy support to enable them to contribute fully to our national development, and the NPF supports the development of rural areas, particularly in rural towns and villages; and

— the Government made a decision to proceed with the National Broadband Plan (NBP) in November 2019, and this decision reflected the importance attached to bringing high-speed connectivity to all areas of the State and ensure that no-one is left behind, and this is a move that will address regional imbalances and is supported with a major level of investment, in this case €2.7 billion; and
— the Programme for Government commitment to seek to accelerate the seven-year timeline for the NBP;

— full implementation of ‘Our Rural Future’ which provides a policy framework for the development of rural areas over the next five years, including targeted measures to enable more people to live and work in rural communities with good career prospects, regardless of where their employer is headquartered; and

— the completion of the review of the NDP which will provide the strategic context for Government investment and set out revised sectoral capital allocations for the upcoming ten-year period, including non-Exchequer investment, as well as providing a renewed focus on delivery of efficient and cost-effective public infrastructure.”

I thank the Rural Independent Group for tabling the motion and giving us the opportunity to discuss a hugely important issue for the country. Many of the issues touched on in the motion fall under different Departments, for example, the national planning framework falls within the scope of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, my Department has responsibility for the national development plan, the Department of Rural and Community Development has a key role on many issues and the national broadband plan is led by the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. Nevertheless, I am more than happy to set out, on behalf of the Government, our response to the Private Members' motion.

The debate, rightly, shines a light on the centrality of rural Ireland to who we are as a nation and draws attention to the fact that Ireland will only be truly strong and prosperous when the entire country has the opportunity to realise its full potential. The definition of rural Ireland varies in different contexts, with around three quarters of the country's population living outside Dublin and around half living outside large towns of 10,000 people or more. The Central Statistics Office, CSO, provides a further breakdown into aggregate rural areas, which comprises all areas outside of settlements with a population greater than 1,500 persons, amounting to almost 1.8 million people. Excluding small rural settlements and villages, there are just under 1.5 million people, or almost 30% of the population, living in rural areas outside any defined settlement. While largely urban, the constituency of Cork South-Central, which I have the honour to represent, also has significant areas which could be best described as rural in nature. This highlights that urban and rural places are truly interconnected and interdependent in Ireland and there is not, nor would we want there to be, a neat division between them.

That is not to say that there are not differences; of course there are. The remoteness of many rural areas, their distance from public service provision, the relative narrowness of their enterprise base, and the consequent vulnerability of rural areas to economic shocks, are some of the reasons rural areas need particular policy support to enable them to contribute fully to our national development. Not all rural areas are the same. Different rural areas vary in characteristics, and distinct interventions and supports are required from place to place.

I note the views of my colleagues who proposed different methods through which these challenges might be met. Constructive feedback of this kind is helpful and leads to better policy outcomes for the country and our people. When we came together to form a government last year, we sought to draw upon the best thinking available to us, creating a vision for reform and renewal that can help Ireland recover and thrive. The Government is addressing regional balance and supporting rural Ireland through the policies, programmes and projects under Project Ireland 2040 as well as the recently published Our Rural Future plan for the period 2021 to 2025.

Since the launch of Project Ireland 2040, there has been significant progress in delivering a range of both large and small infrastructure projects throughout the country, delivering better transport links, facilitating better health outcomes and promoting balanced regional development. There is much more to do, for sure.

The investment target has been regenerating towns and villages to allow for sustainable development and greater access to key resources. This has been enhanced by the national broadband plan, which will deliver high-level connectivity to areas of Ireland that have struggled to source broadband privately. The programme for Government commits to seeking to accelerate the seven-year timeline for the national broadband plan. I have met National Broadband Ireland representatives to discuss this issue. They will be reporting shortly, through the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, on the scope that exists and the options for the acceleration of the broadband plan. The Government is really determined to do that, if at all possible.

The national development plan, for which my Department is responsible, is one half of Project Ireland 2040. Published in 2018, it involves a ten-year programme of capital investment aimed at upgrading our infrastructure, enhancing our economic capacity and promoting balanced regional development. While a review of the national development plan was originally planned for 2022, I asked my officials to bring it forward to 2021 and I launched Review to Renew, the public consultation element of the plan, late last year. In 2021, we now have a public capital budget of €10.8 billion, the largest in the history of the State. The review provides an opportunity to reassess investment plans, update project costings and highlight any new issues that may need to be taken into consideration, particularly in light of the new programme for Government and the ongoing impacts of Covid-19.

The review will seek to answer a number of key questions. What is the appropriate level of public capital investment to 2030? How should it be shared across the Departments? How can Project Ireland 2040 be changed to deliver on the policy priorities in the programme for Government concerning housing, health, transport, job creation, enterprise development and climate action? An assessment will be carried out of whether our plans are ensuring regional balance in line with the national planning framework. We will examine governance and whether any structures and rules can be improved. In that regard, I am introducing a number of important reforms affecting how major public investment projects are managed. This will be achieved by bringing in more external expertise, by adding people with external experience to the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board and by setting up a major projects advisory group comprising individuals with national and international expertise in delivering major capital projects so we can benefit from their experience.

The desire to ensure balanced regional growth will remain a key goal for the national development plan review in 2021 in respect of planning for an Ireland in which the majority of the additional 1 million people we expect to reside here by 2040 will settle outside the greater Dublin area. The first phase of the review is now complete, and the phase 1 report will be published within the coming days.

The revised national development plan, to be published later this year, in the summer, will see balanced regional development at its heart. It will provide further scope for considering the investment commitment to rural regeneration and development, and other projects and programmes that can foster strong rural communities and economies. It will set out the overall public capital budget to 2030 and it will also provide line Departments with rolling five-year ceilings so they can plan the delivery of projects of the type Deputies have said need to be delivered. That gives them certainty on their budgets for the coming years because too often our planning has been short-termist in nature. There is considerable oversight from the Oireachtas on these processes through the sectoral joint committees, the annual Estimates process and the regular reporting commitments of the Government to the Oireachtas.

Our Rural Future is the Government's blueprint for the post-Covid recovery and the development of rural Ireland over the next five years. It provides the framework to achieve the vision of transforming the quality of life and opportunity for people living in rural areas. The policy reflects the unprecedented change in living and working patterns during Covid-19 and the significant opportunities that arise for rural communities, from remote working and revitalising our town centres to job creation, developing a green economy and improving our outdoor amenities, on which we have relied so much. The combination of the roll-out of the national broadband plan and the move to more remote working and a hybrid form of working affords rural areas enormous opportunities. The Government is very ambitious regarding the development of these areas. I commit to working in a spirit of co-operation and collaboration with colleagues right across this House to seek to achieve the objectives that I believe we all share.

The policy will help rural Ireland to recover from the impacts of Covid, enable long-term development of rural communities and create more resilient and strong rural communities with more employment prospects.

Again, I thank the Deputies for introducing this motion and for their continued engagement on these issues. I am aware that Members across both Houses of the Oireachtas are as determined as I am to ensure that rural Ireland is at the centre of our national economic, social, cultural and environmental well-being and development. Much work remains to be done to achieve that vision. I commit to working with colleagues to do all we can to bring that about.


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