Dáil debates

Wednesday, 7 June 2006

8:00 pm

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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I am very grateful that the Minister is here for this very important topic. When the Minister was with us recently in Knock airport, he insisted that a huge investment was being made in the BMW region. He stated this in spite of the fact he told me in the Dáil in May that gross expenditure in the region is running €3.8 billion behind its target. The Taoiseach told us recently that the BMW region has fared best in employment and in investment. He stated this in spite of the fact the State's spending on national roads in the region under the national development plan is €500 million behind schedule. The average GDP income in the west is still one third lower than that of Dublin.

When one tries to talk to anyone who is involved in trying to bring industry to the west, one realises where the buck stops. I met representatives of IDA Ireland in Castlebar to ask why it does so badly in attracting industry to the west. I was informed that the simple reason is that the infrastructure is inadequate. The lack of proper roads, rail, broadband and power mean it is not a competitive area for enterprise.

Anyone who knows Ireland will be aware that this small State differs remarkably from east to west. All one needs to do is cross the Shannon to see the difference in roads. The road from Castlebar to Belmullet is an absolute disgrace. It is little more than a dirt track — a glorified bog track. It is a dangerous road and is full of bad turns and is extremely narrow in parts. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, would like to state that matters are different. Perhaps when he visited the area he wanted to put a good face on matters.

It is difficult to see the logic in what the Minister states when one sees the figures. The facts speak for themselves. They include an underspend of €3.8 billion in the BMW area — estimated to be a 30% underspend in the national development plan — and an underspend of €500 million on BMW national roads. EU figures for cohesion funding for 2000 to 2003 show that while the southern and eastern regions of the State received at least 79% of the available funding, the BMW region received only 14%.

The situation is not improving. In fact, it is getting worse. The gap in gross value added, GVA, per person between the BMW and the south and east regions widened every year from 1996 to 2002, the year for which the most recent figures are available. Let us compare this to the investment in the southern and eastern regions. Both received more than their promised allocations, with at least an extra €2 billion spent. So much for balanced regional development and the national spatial strategy.

The Government should give us the investment we are due so that we can compete like other regions. This would make a great deal of sense when one considers the cost of catering for the population explosion in the greater Dublin area, which is getting worse. It is important that the Government should address the situation in a serious manner. The Minister must take on the NRA and challenge it on its extremely poor record of delivery in the BMW area.

The national development plan for the period 2000 to 2006 expires at the end of this year. What will come after it is more uncertain. We want to avail of the opportunities and the jobs that exist in other regions. I ask the Minister to exercise his Cabinet collective responsibility and give us a future as is our right. We are, after all, citizens of this country. Just because we live on the other side of the Shannon does not mean that we do not have the same needs, desires for our children and hopes for their future. To exist, we need proper sustainable employment and to have that we need to be a competitive area able to attract industry. I hope the Minister will indicate how this will be achieved. Only six months remain in lifetime of the national development plan. I know the Minister will state that matters will be alright and that we will receive the capital underspend we did not receive. Will he explain how this will happen?

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Minister, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I am delighted to have another opportunity to try to dispel the misrepresentations and misunderstanding which seem to be occasioned by those political opponents who continue to misrepresent what has been done and continues to be done by this Government for the BMW region. I also represent that part of the world.

I wish to reiterate what I stated recently. The simple fact is that Exchequer spending in the BMW region on the economic and social infrastructure operational programme, which is the largest of the operational programmes, was 13% ahead of profile in the six years to the end of 2005. In cash terms, that is an excess of €500 million. Exchequer spending on that programme was more than €500 million ahead of profile at the end of last year.

I also cited data which showed that Exchequer spending on the employment and human resources programme, which at €3.7 billion is the second largest of the programmes, was 96% of the profiled amount for the six years. Taken together, these two programmes are well ahead of profile. That said, there are issues with implementation rates in both the BMW region and the south-east region as compared with profile in some aspects of the overall picture. The reasons for this are common to both regions. The national development plan contains more than Exchequer spending. It also has EU and private sector components.

Regarding the EU component, while the original commitment profiles were shown as spread over seven years to the end of 2006, the actual spending can lag these commitments by two to three years. Strictly speaking, therefore, comparing profiles with actual spending does not compare like with like. Unfortunately, there is no way around that because under the rules, the commitments of EU money must be profiled over the seven-year period, even though everyone knows that the actual spending continues beyond that point.

I regret to have to make this somewhat technical point but it is absolutely essential to grasp it if one wants to have a genuine understanding of how matters are progressing compared with what was planned. Anyone familiar with EU spending rules knows this, which is why we have always emphasised that it will be some time beyond 2006 before we obtain the final picture. What I can tell the House is that progress on this front is monitored closely by the managers of the individual operational programmes and by an overall monitoring committee chaired by my Department. Only two weeks ago, that committee reviewed progress across the full spectrum of the programmes and we remain confident that available EU funding will be fully drawn down.

I will now deal with the private sector component. Here, it can at times be a matter of horses, water and whether the horse is thirsty. At the end of last year, the productive sector operational programme ran at approximately one third of the profiled amount. This operational programme has a large demand-led component where Exchequer funding and EU funding respond to private sector initiatives. If, for whatever reason, these initiatives do not arise to the extent which was hoped, total spending on the programme including the Exchequer element will be below profile. This, together with delays in the start-up phase in 1999 and 2000, is why spending is behind profile in some key components.

A huge amount of information is available on this topic and it seems that some people are tempted to be extremely selective in what they choose to highlight. In this regard, they do a serious disservice to the facts. I wish to make it as clear and simple as possible. The Exchequer is more than doing its part. At the end of last year, Exchequer spending in the BMW region totalled 88% of the profiled amount for the first six years. This is a healthy implementation rate in view of the slow start-up in some areas at the beginning, the relatively disappointing response in certain demand-led schemes and the fact that Exchequer spending on the structural fund operational programmes for the 1999 to 2006 period will continue up to 2008. l am absolutely confident the record will then show, if any of the current critics will at that time be interested in checking it, that this Government will have delivered on its undertakings under this national development plan.

I want to briefly recall what I stated elsewhere about projects delivered in keeping with those undertakings. In terms of infrastructure development, significant investment has taken place in the region. Up to December 2005, €1.5 billion was invested under the NDP in the region in national roads. Major projects have included the M1 Dundalk western bypass, the N4 Kinnegad bypass, the N2 Carrickmacross bypass, the Sligo inner relief road, the N5 Strokestown to Longford road and the N15 Ballyshannon to Bundoran road, to name but a few. Investment in non-national roads in the BMW region up to December last year stands at €1.1 billion, meaning that more than 26,000 km of roads have been improved, restored or maintained. These investments are evident to all who live and work in the region. They will not finish with the current NDP but are part of an ongoing process of investment to improve the region and to achieve more balanced regional development, which is a key Government priority.

Large investment has also taken place nationally in public transport and the BMW region has benefited from an investment of €283 million in resignalling and trackwork projects. By the end of next year, the Ballina and Westport lines will have been resignalled, which means that all rail lines will have been completed, with consequent reductions in journey times. larnród Éireann took delivery of 36 new modern diesel railcars and most have been allocated to the Dublin Sligo route. It also placed an order worth €324 million on 150 new high specification inter-city railcars which will begin entering service from 2007 on the Dublin-Galway, Dublin-Westport and Dublin-Ballina routes, improving frequency, comfort and safety for passengers.

Our commitment to developing the economic infrastructure of the region is not limited to the traditional categories of investment. We also made significant investments in enabling and driving the knowledge economy in the region. Responding to market failure to provide broadband access to many parts of the State, the Government, in 2002, decided to target the widespread availability of open access, affordable "always on" broadband infrastructure throughout the State. To date, total public expenditure on broadband amounts to €70 million in the BMW region with more than 90 towns selected for open access infrastructure.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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As the Minister's five minutes are exhausted, the remaining information will be noted in the Official Report.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Minister, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I am glad. I hope everyone reads it.