Thursday, 1 April 2021
Project Ireland 2040: Motion [Private Members]
Ossian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
My sincere thanks to Deputy McGrath and the Rural Independent Group for bringing forward this debate. It was interesting to hear the contributions from all the Deputies. I think we can all agree that we had an insightful and constructive debate today. As my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, said at the outset of this session it is only right and fitting that rural Ireland is and should be a key priority for all of us in the Oireachtas.
Deputy McGrath rightly concentrated on the national broadband plan. As Deputies will be aware, the programme for Government commits to seeking to accelerate the roll out of the national broadband plan. With this in mind, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has been investigating the possible ways to accelerate the broadband plan and is reporting back to Government.
Broadband is a key enabler for the development of new businesses in regional and rural Ireland together with an increased opportunity for people to work from home. Ensuring access to high-quality Internet connections for people throughout Ireland is essential to the development of all parts our country, socially and economically. Facilitating remote working and innovation opportunities is essential in addressing climate change, adapting to an evolving economy and competing internationally. I thank the Deputy for drawing renewed focus to it.
The Government sets the broad legislative and policy framework within which planning authorities work in drawing up each county or city development plan. I have experience of this as someone who was a county councillor and a cathaoirleach in local government for several years. The preparation of a statutory development plan is undertaken in accordance with the statutory provisions of the Planning and Development Act 2000. Under this legislation, the decision to adopt the county development plan is a reserved function of the elected members of the planning authority. In preparing a county development plan, consideration and decision-making on which particular development policies and objectives to include is, therefore, taken by the elected members. The county development plan belongs to the councillors.
To strengthen the independent oversight of the planning process a key recommendation of the Mahon tribunal was the creation of an independent body. Accordingly, the Office of the Planning Regulator was established in April 2019. The office is primarily responsible for the evaluation and assessment of development plans to ensure strategic consistency with established statutory national and regional planning policy and legislation, which includes the national planning framework. There is no point in having national policies that are completely out of line with how the local planning system runs.
Councillors and local communities remain the authors of each local city or county development plan and have scope to adapt relevant national and regional planning policies to reflect local context. The county development plan is now subject to independent scrutiny to ensure that local policies formulated are consistent with the relevant national planning policies to achieve an overall coherent planning system for the country as a whole.
The national planning framework, approved in 2018 as part of Project Ireland 2020, sits at the top of a hierarchy of statutory spatial development plans in Ireland. The other principal element of project Ireland is the current national development plan, which sets out a €116 billion public capital investment envelope in support of the NPF. The aligned and shared vision of the NPF in tandem with the NDP is an integrated joined-up planning and investment strategy that focuses on a series of ten shared national outcomes. This national-level planning policy is being implemented throughout the planning system.
Further to the NPF, a statutory regional spatial and economic strategies document was prepared by each of the three regional assemblies in Ireland, all of which were approved and in place by January 2020. At a local level, the development plan review processes currently being undertaken by all 31 local authorities are integrating the established NPF strategy requirements into tailored local planning policies and objectives. In accordance with section 11 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, the review of each county development plan must be consistent with both the NPF and the relevant regional strategy.
The NDP is a statement of Government policy in respect of the national development plan. The overall funding of €116 billion for the lifetime of the national development plan to 2027 is allocated on an indicative basis to each of the ten national strategic outcomes set out in the NPF. In addition, the NDP also sets out five-year expenditure allocations by the Department for the period 2018-22. The multi-annual NDP ceilings were devised to give Departments a degree of certainty for future planning with the expectation that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform would not propose substantial changes to the published allocations.
At the same time the national development plan ceilings are only indicative. The specific financial allocations are provided for in the normal annual Estimates and voted on annually by the Dáil. The statutory statement of capital budgets appears in the Revised Estimates Volume. This document sets out details of the public capital programme.
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 in place to deliver on that objective in the coming years. The fund aims to support ambitious projects that can drive the economic and social development of towns and villages with a population of fewer than 10,000 as well as outlying areas. Initial funding of €320 million has been allocated to the fund on a phased basis for the period from 2019 to 2022, with an allocation of €1 billion to 2027. Calls for applications to the fund are sought under two categories. Category 1 relates to capital projects with all necessary planning and other consents in place and which are ready to proceed. Category 2 establishes a pipeline of ready-to-deliver projects providing development funding for projects to become ready for category 1 status. To date, the fund has provided €166 million for 139 projects across Ireland with 63 category 1 and 76 category 2 projects and is worth a total of €237 million. These projects are benefitting every county and support a wide range of sectors, including town centre regeneration, enterprise development, remote working, tourism and recreation, community facilities, libraries and so on. These projects are also delivering an immediate stimulus in rural areas with many already in construction or about to commence. The third call for category 1 applications closed on 1 December 2020. Applications received under this call are currently being assessed by the Department of Rural and Community Development under the oversight of the project advisory board, which is comprised of representatives from key Departments and independent experts. It is expected that the Minister will announce successful projects under this call in the coming weeks.
I thank the Deputies again for introducing the motion and for their engagement on these issues inside and outside the House. I was glad to hear discussion on all kinds of infrastructure, including everything from water to windfarms to transport problems and so on.
I know members across both Houses are as determined as I am to ensure rural Ireland is integral to our national economic, social, cultural and environmental well-being and development. I hope that that we can work together to bring this vision to fruition.