Seanad debates

Wednesday, 21 May 2003

Decentralisation Programme: Statements.

 

10:30 am

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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Too much of our public administration is still concentrated in the capital. In Dublin, we have rapid population growth which is putting pressure on public services and threatening to damage the quality of life. In certain rural areas, the opposite is happening – population decline is putting pressure on the viability of public services and threatening to damage the quality of life. This is a pattern of development, which is neither economically efficient nor socially sustainable. One of the obvious solutions is to commence the decentralisation of civil and public service jobs from Dublin to other parts of the country.

Decentralisation has the potential to revitalise towns and villages. It will also have a major positive impact on the quality of life of thousands of families. As a Government, we can build crèches and implement flexible working hours for State workers, but we will never tackle the real stress of commuter workers until we relocate Departments and ensure that people do not have to get on the road at 6 a.m. to be at their desk for 9 a.m.

As a result of the pressures on house prices in recent years, a three-hour daily commute from Kildare to Kildare Street now seems like a stroll in the park, particularly when one considers that many travel from as far away as Wexford, Thurles and Tullamore. These are young people – often young couples with children – who are undertaking extraordinary commuting journeys to achieve the aim of home ownership. Added to the length of their working day, many of these people are away from their homes for in excess of 12 hours a day. I do not think there is anybody who is not sympathetic to the plight of such people.

For these families, there is a real quality of life deficit. Decentralisation has its part to play in making up some of this deficit. For that reason, if for no other, I would characterise decentralisation as a "quality of life" issue.

I am hopeful that decentralisation will have a much more significant impact than simply benefiting those who relocate and their families. I would like to see a profound change in this emphasis on east coast location. I am absolutely convinced that the Government can contribute its part to the east coast concentration through a comprehensive programme of decentralisation of Government Departments, offices and agencies.

The Government has fully committed itself to such an initiative in An Agreed Programme for Government. I take this opportunity to assure the House that the Government is steadfast in its determination to give full effect to its commitment in this regard. Interestingly the contributions made in the Dáil last week and, I am sure, those which will be made here this afternoon, point up the difficulties which any Minister for Finance has in finalising proposals for presentation to the Government.

Many compelling cases have been made for inclusion in a new programme of decentralisation. The Department of Finance has been inundated by submissions and representations. The quality of many of them is extremely impressive with very persuasive cases being made for inclusion in the new programme.

I acknowledge the sense of anticipation in advance of a decision in relation to the new programme. Due to the large volume of quality submissions, I insert the caution that, when the decisions are taken in respect of relocation, there will be many more disappointed towns than happy ones. Every Member would accept the impossibility of accommodating anything other than a fraction of those seeking inclusion in the new programme. This message is not being imparted for any reason other than to bring some perspective to the debate.

Decentralisation should be used as an economic torch to shine light into areas that have not prospered in recent years. The programme should focus on towns that have not benefited significantly from the recent boom. Many of the towns included as gateways and hubs in the spatial strategy are already significantly developed and would not be economically transformed in the same way that smaller town would be by decentralisation.

No one can convince me that prosperous places such as Wexford, Kilkenny or Castlebar need another Government Department. However, I could highlight many places in the midlands that desperately a Government Department. Central to any decision about a new programme of decentralisation is the necessity to ensure the efficient delivery of public services is in no way compromised. It is worth noting that the new programme will be announced and implemented against the background of the new social partnership programme – Sustaining Progress.

I share the view that decentralisation can play its part in moving forward the modernisation agenda to achieve a public service which is: quality, performance and results driven; achieves value for money; is focused on the needs of its customers; is accountable; responds flexibly and rapidly to change; and promotes equal opportunities. Such a substantial programme cannot be delivered other than over a reasonable period. It is critical that the delivery of public services is not affected.

Sourcing the staff for particular Departments or offices relocating to particular locations means considerable transferring of staff between Departments. This can be extremely disruptive if not managed carefully and in a well-planned fashion. Minimising the consequent disruption necessarily means the implementation of a substantial programme of decentralisation should be rolled-out on a progressive and systematic basis over a reasonable period. Having sourced the staff, it will then be necessary to train them in their new responsibilities.

There is also the issue of identifying and acquiring suitable sites for the construction of suitable office accommodation. This is a very important aspect in the delivery of the new programme and one with which the Office of Public Works will be centrally involved. As Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, I will be closely involved in this process. The Office Of Public Works is the agency that will bring any future decentralisation plan to life. It will bring the decentralisation plan from the page to the public.

Decentralisation should be located strategically within the chosen towns. Monolithic office blocks on the edge of small towns are not the way to proceed. We need to be imaginative and use decentralisation as an opportunity for urban regeneration and revitalisation. The State offices should be seen as flagship buildings that make a statement and are a source of pride to the local community.

I reiterate the Government's absolute commitment to a new and substantial programme of decentralisation. I reassure all those organisations – be they local authorities, chambers of commerce or other community groups – which made submissions in respect of the new programme, that full account will be taken of their submissions as part of the decision-making process. The Government will deliver on its commitment to decentralisation. This programme of decentralisation is of considerable significance to the people who will be part of it and to the communities in which they will be relocating, as well as to the citizens of the State who are served by the public service.

The Government is, quite rightly, taking due care in considering the wide range of issues that will impact on the final decision. We have had discussions and received reports about decentralisation. It is now time for action. The Government is committed to the concept of decentralisation. We are committed to moving major blocks of our public administration out of Dublin and into provincial towns. This is an essential part of regional development. I support the commitment made by the Tánaiste at the recent Progressive Democrats party conference on decentralisation to make a start this year, to make it happen and to get things moving. I look forward to the Government moving to progress this important issue as a concrete indication of a commitment to balanced regional development.

Jim Higgins (Fine Gael)
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Three and half years ago the Minister for Finance outlined plans for the largest decentralisation programme in the history of the State. In December 1999, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, stated that everything which could be decentralised would be decentralised. Some 10,000 Civil Service posts in Government Departments and non-commercial semi-State bodies would be identified and redistributed to provincial centres by mid-2001. Since then, nothing has happened. I accept that this is not quite the case. Three Government Ministers decided to do some political plundering – before an official blueprint was drawn up – and look after their own political neck of the woods.

The then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, decided this was one political plum for which Deputy Healy-Rae would be unable to claim credit. Without prior consultation with the staff or trade unions, he announced that the Legal Aid Board was to be transferred to Caherciveen, County Kerry. The Minister for Defence decided to transfer the headquarters of the Civil Defence to his home base in Roscrea, County Tipperary while the former Minister with responsibility for the marine, Deputy Fahey, relocated the Marine Institute to his Galway West constituency. It is not necessary to inquire if these moves were coincidence or political expediency, nor into the motivating factor behind them.

Political expediency is the nub of the problem and the fundamental reason that three and a half years after the Minister for Finance announced his grandiose plans nothing has happened. Having listened to the Minister of State we are no wiser. Instead of the massive programme of decentralisation within a fixed time-scale, there is now a complete row-back. Instead of the explicit commitment to the decentralisation of 10,000 jobs, the more recent utterances leaked from the Government refer to up to 10,000 jobs. Instead of the unequivocal time-scale that the programme of decentralisation would be realised by the middle of 2001, we are now told that the plan will take up to ten years to complete. The row-back in implementation of the plan is singularly due to the fierce infighting that would inevitably ensue among Ministers, Ministers of State and backbenchers in trying to divide the spoils.

The Minister for Finance has not advertised for applications or submissions, yet as the Minister of State acknowledges, there is a huge volume of correspondence in the Department requesting decentralisation. Some 134 towns are vying to be included in the programme. Understandably, they all want a piece of the action, which spells trouble for the elected representatives of the Government parties. The Minister of State candidly acknowledges that there will inevitably be far more losers than winners. As a consequence, a much greater number of intensively lobbied Government Deputies and Senators will be unable to deliver to their political bases, with all the attendant consequences and political fall-out in electoral terms, with the local elections a mere 13 months away.

Probably at most 20 to 25 locations will eventually benefit, leaving as many as 114 applicant locations bitterly disappointed and apportioning blame for the failure to get a Government office at the feet of the local Fianna Fáil or Progressive Democrats representative. As a result, the political solution to a political problem is a phased-in decentralisation programme over a ten year period which the Government hopes will dilute local anger and lessen the negative electoral impact at next year's local elections.

Other than this naked political consideration, there is no excuse for not proceeding with full-scale decentralisation now. Modern IT and communications advances make it possible to transact business and deliver services as effectively in any provincial centre as from the heart of the capital. Departments already decentralised have proven this to be the case. Figures published recently indicate that the programme of moving civil servants out of Dublin is already over-subscribed. More than 18,000 applications have already been received, with 7,832 from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, 4,326 from the Department of Social and Family Affairs and 4,187 from the Department of Agriculture and Food. Despite the huge interest by public servants to move to the country, the Government has decided to long-finger and prevaricate. This is based on the clear calculation that it will be able to announce the good news for certain towns without having to say in the short term which town or public servants will not be part of the programme.

The concept of decentralisation is good and, to the limited extent it has been tried, has worked well. It has at least partially assisted in decongesting parts of Dublin, freed office space in the capital and invigorated provincial towns by providing jobs with guaranteed salaries. The Minister of State has rightly said it has given parents and children a quality of life they could never enjoy in Dublin because of the terrible daily congestion in the city. At the same time it has delivered services as efficiently and effectively, if not more so because of easier accessibility than was possible under the centralised bureaucracy that has prevailed in Dublin.

It makes good social and economic sense to decentralise. The net gain in property terms – an aspect of the Minister of State's portfolio – of relocating offices in central Dublin to Ballinrobe, Ballyhaunis or Bally-anywhere would result in the saving of billions of euro. The Minister of State is already disposing of public property. Even greater gains would be made if hugely valuable assets in the heart of Dublin were to be sold and relocated in rural areas at a fraction of the cost. This aspect can be put into perspective by considering that the State pays €80 million alone for rented office accommodation for public services in this city.

It also makes good environmental sense to decentralise. The amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by single car civil servant usage on a daily basis is a huge contributory factor to Ireland's failure to comply with the Kyoto guidelines. A penalty is threatened but huge sanctions will follow in the form of a possible fine of €200 million.

What was a good concept has become a bungled mess. Some 14,000 civil servants are located outside Dublin and are working well, yet while 15,000 public servants work within one mile of this House, the Government has not advanced the decentralisation programme. No time-scale has been agreed. The Minister has said it must be reasonable. What is meant by this? Three and a half years ago an explicit promise was made that it would be delivered by the middle of 2001. What does the Minister of State mean when he says the Government will deliver?

The Minister of State rightly said now is the time for action. We hoped he would make a clear, definitive statement, including details of the Departments and locations involved and a time-scale. We are seeking a reiteration of the clear pledge given in December 1999 and a statement of fact setting out how the programme is to be rolled out. Unfortunately, once again we and those locations seeking a Government office have been bitterly disappointed, as are the 18,000 civil servants who have over-subscribed to the scheme.

Brendan Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and compliment him on a constructive and forward looking approach to this issue, which has been the subject of much discussion over many years.

I am surprised at the remarks made by Senator Higgins. The former Minister for Finance, Deputy John Bruton, scrapped a major programme of decentralisation that had been proposed by a previous Government. He put up for sale the sites that had been bought in rural areas, including a site in Ennis. After some representations and campaigning, the then Minister did not proceed with the sale of the site and Government offices were relocated to Ennis ten years later. In view of this, the Fine Gael Party can claim no credit on the issue because when in government, it put a stop to the first major scheme of decentralisation undertaken. While I am not sure if he was a Member of the Dáil at the time, Senator Higgins should know about what happened because his colleagues were in office.

Decentralisation has been discussed for many years and it has been an issue which has excited communities, local organisations, councils, politicians and developers. For many years, we have seen young people lining up to take the bus to Dublin on Sundays and returning to spend weekends at home with their families. It is far more realistic and suitable to relocate their offices from Dublin.

There was a campaign under way in Ennis for many years which eventually saw the location there, under a tripartite arrangement with Limerick and Nenagh, of an office of the Revenue Commissioners. In excess of 1,000 personnel were transferred to Ennis while the tripartite arrangement made it possible to relocate a substantial number of positions overall because doing so was important in terms of being able to offer promotion and advancement prospects within the service. No one would wish to see offices relocated if it was to be to the detriment of those employed in them. In this case, three towns combined to allow a major slice of a State organisation to decentralise and to facilitate their own development.

Promotional prospects are key to attracting people from the higher levels of the Civil Service to rural areas. The small office of 40 or 50 personnel mentioned in the case of Roscommon will not offer any great prospect of advancement for the people involved. I advocate that some of the smaller towns combine as we have done in Kilrush.

When the Government made the announcement a few years ago of a major process of decentralisation of 10,000 to rural areas a campaign was organised in Kilrush by the town council, the chamber of commerce, the development association and the Shannon Free Area Development Company. It was obvious when the matter was examined in more detail that it would be desirable to link with other towns. As a result, Listowel, County Kerry, and Newcastle West, County Limerick, joined forces with Kilrush to put forward a tripartite proposal which was launched in Dublin by Professor Brendan Kenneally. The idea was put forward that a sizeable block of personnel could be relocated to the three towns. The advent of the Killimer ferry means Listowel, Kilrush and Newcastle West are now quite adjacent and there is a good prospect of developing a productive operation among the three towns as part of the overall scheme of things.

I am sure the Minister is aware that the application on behalf of the towns is currently with the Department of Finance. Nothing further can be added to the case that has been made. Some of the other smaller towns should amalgamate because it is imperative to the overall development of the service that the long-term promotional prospects of personnel in a large Dublin office are not lost in the transfer of offices to small provincial towns.

Provincial towns offer advantages which one does not have in Dublin. There is no traffic congestion and there are few environmental problems in what are some of the most attractive towns in Ireland. Kilrush has fine educational institutions and transport infrastructure such as the ferry service. It is in one of the most scenic areas in the west and it offers fishing and a range of other leisure activities. For those who enjoy golf, a course designed by Greg Norman was recently developed at Doonbeg.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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There is good hurling.

Brendan Daly (Fianna Fail)
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West Clare is mainly a football area. Nevertheless, there is a unique prospect for people to enjoy their leisure time in west Clare and I would strongly recommend that the person charged with making decisions in respect of decentralisation to take that into account.

I would like to see decentralisation advanced more speedily than it has been to date, although I do not particularly blame the Minister of State in that regard. Between ten and 15 years elapsed from the time of the first action to move Revenue Commissioners to Limerick, Ennis and Nenagh to the final phase of the process. I do not envisage that the latest process will take much longer and we would certainly like to see decisions made before the end of the summer. If decisions are not made, further elections will occur and this will lead to a risk of political accusations about favouring certain towns in order to gain seats for certain parties on local councils. The work has been done in the Departments and it is time the decisions were made. The cases have been made by the various communities, local organisation and councils involved.

As the Minister of State is aware, there is an unanswerable case for this effort. Much has been said on the matter and more parliamentary questions have been tabled on the subject of decentralisation than on any other during the past five or six years. The time to make decisions has come, particularly in view of the fact that unless they are taken now, the prospect of achieving anything in the next few years is remote. It is imperative to acknowledge the work that has been done by local community organisations and, if necessary, to undertake some discussion with them before the final decisions are made.

There is an unanswerable case for undertaking a programme of decentralisation and there is no reason it should not begin as quickly as possible. I encourage the Minister of State to forge ahead. In the long term, the public service will be improved by the opportunities provided to those employed by it to work and live in more attractive areas, especially those along the west coast.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to discuss an issue of urgency for many areas which the Government, during the past four years of inaction, has failed to address.

Government plans for decentralisation were first introduced in the run up to the local elections in 1999 and since then there have been statements and a great deal of waffle on this issue. Following the Budget Statement in December 1998, in which the Minister for Finance announced that he would embark on a new and radical programme of decentralisation to transfer the maximum number of jobs to the regions, we heard promises on the issue in the run-up to local and European elections. The matter raised its head even in the presidential election.

In the run-up to the last general election, a programme of decentralisation formed part of the agreed programme for Government and was to be delivered by the end of 2002. I understand from Senator Higgins that there were promises that the programme would even be delivered a year earlier in 2001. We are now informed that the Government is committed to introducing a new programme of decentralisation in the run-up to next year's local and European elections. Will the issue hold good to provide the basis of a promise in the run-up to the next general election? It seems the election will occur sooner than we imagined given the current differences between the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil.

Only ten months after the initial announcement of the programme for decentralisation in 1999, the Government came under fire for lack of progress on the matter. The Minister for Finance was forced to justify his position and stated:

The Government is every bit as committed to the new programme as it was when I first announced it. Despite newspaper suggestions to the contrary, the Government has not abandoned the new programme of decentralisation.

More than three years later we remain at the drawing board stage. The Government is still protesting its commitment to a plan which it has failed to deliver.

With over 18,000 applications for relocation, it is time the Government explained its strategy to decentralise Departments and replaced the fog surrounding its plans with concrete proposals. It is time the Government produced a blueprint for decentralisation in order that the public and, in particular, the applicants for relocation have a clear picture of the criteria on which decisions relating to decentralisation will be based. We want to know exactly what formula and criteria will be involved. I would appreciate if the Minister of State would explain them.

A cohesive countrywide plan which would marry the national development plan, the national spatial strategy and sectoral plans such as the strategic rail review which was debated in the House this morning is the logical way forward. However, according to the Tánaiste, gateway or hub towns already nominated in the national spatial strategy will not get a decentralised office of a Department, which point the Minister of State emphasised.

There has been a clear bias towards Dublin by the Government and its predecessor, with the lion's share of infrastructural investment in roads, railways and transport being ploughed into the capital. As Senator Higgins pointed out, over 134 submissions have been received from cities, towns and villages for departmental offices to be decentralised. Longford County Council made a submission to the Government on the suitability of Longford for decentralisation. We are disappointed that decentralisation has not happened, despite promises by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats that it would by the end of 2002.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Did Longford not get an office of the Department of Social and Family Affairs?

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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We established a business park which is helping to attract industry and which I welcome. Cardinal Health will, I hope, also come back on stream.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Will the Senator acknowledge what Longford has received?

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Bannon, without interruption. Senators should address their remarks through the Chair, which might avoid interruptions.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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We have made a strong argument for decentralisation and earmarked several sites for Government offices and agencies in Longford, Ballymahon, Granard and Edgeworthstown and Lanesborough.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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What about Tang?

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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We will leave the rabbit and the Senator to Tang.

On his recent visit to County Longford the Minister of State inspected some of those sites and saw that they were suitable for agencies and offices of Departments. As Senators know, Longford is a central location and suitable for an office of a major Department. By far the single largest issue remains job creation, with the workforce increasing and high unemployment. The country exhibits clear signs of bleeding vital resources with high emigration in general and loss of graduates and, in particular, loss of service and capital and a communications system which pulls everything towards Dublin.

A huge number of rural schools are at risk from population decline. One need only look at the recent census of population relating to County Longford, where the total population is falling with migration rates among the highest in the country. Declining populations are threatening our secondary schools, resulting in possible amalgamation in some towns. There is a disturbingly high level of long-term unemployment and the loss of graduates from the region as a result of the lack of job opportunities.

It is a fact of life that initiatives and strategies come and go but the bottom line is that we are still in a situation where one part of the country is overcrowded and over-resourced, while the rest is under-populated and starved of essential infrastructure, development and services. I call on the Minister of State to end this uncertainty with regard to decentralisation and place before this House a coherent and workable blueprint for its implementation. I expected more from him. I expected action rather than more empty promises and would appreciate if he came clean and gave the people a clear indication of what he plans to do with decentralisation. It looks like this will be a long-paying record which will run until the next general election, which I presume will be held sooner than four years – perhaps even within 12 months – given how the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil are carrying on. We will have an opportunity to witness that this evening when the vote is called in the debate on third level fees.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I join my colleagues in welcoming the Minister of State and his determination to proceed with decentralisation as outlined by the Government. I caution Senators opposite that when Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in government make a decision to do something, they do so in a careful and calculated manner for many obvious reasons, of which I am sure Senators are aware.

Caution is important at this stage. Senator Daly identified the difficulty associated with the process of decentralisation, particularly around election time, because we are open to criticism that we are favouring a particular constituency, whereas if we wait, Senator Bannon and others demand that we decentralise offices of Departments to every town, village and crossroads. However, with a capable Minister and Minister of State, I have no doubt that approach will not prevail.

Decentralisation is critical to the main planks of Government policy, which recognise the need for balanced regional development with a national development plan – which we are midway through – and a national spatial strategy. If we are serious about these, it is incumbent upon us to ensure we have a proper process of decentralisation that will allow for those planks of Government policy to be implemented and the process set in train.

We live on a small island and, unfortunately, the concentration of population is on the east coast and growing, as is clear from surveys of growth of population, business and industry. If we are to be consistent about Government policy, there is a necessity to change this. An island with fantastic resources such as we have provides communities beyond the east coast, particularly along the west coast, with the opportunity to assist in providing a home for Government agencies and Departments. It is necessary to assist those who wish to move out of the cities and large towns on the east coast and provide them with the facilities, security and job and career prospects in their native areas, particularly in rural areas. All of this will assist with the major planks of Government policy already referred to. There are benefits for all in this approach, particularly for those who have the opportunity to return to their native areas and provide the resources to develop their communities. This also has the spin-off effect of assisting the alleviation of congestion in our cities.

Earlier today we had a debate with the Minister for Transport about the work he has done and intends to do on foot of the strategic rail review. That document recognises that the increased use of cars on the east coast provides a major challenge to traffic managers trying to sort out congestion problems. Decentralisation goes some way towards this by moving people away from congested areas.

The Government is a blue chip employer in that there is none of the concerns associated with other industries such as whether they will last through times of international economic downturn. That fact will provide the catalyst for sustainable development, give life to many struggling towns and assist with their growth potential. However, it is important that we get the correct sized agency or departmental office for individual towns. Senator Daly has pointed out that some medium-sized towns can handle much greater numbers than many of us would suggest. For example, people argued that the construction of Moneypoint would put a major strain on the surrounding area. However, during construction there were some 2,000 workers and the town managed to cater for them excellently. There continues to be a large level of employment and the surrounding towns and villages have succeeded in growing and developing to meet their needs.

The Minister will be aware of the project mentioned by Senator Daly involving Kilrush, Newcastle West and Listowel. I join in asking the Minister to give it serious consideration. There have been a number of proposals in this regard. The project is imaginative in the sense that there is a recognition that we need a large block of employment in that region and that none of the towns on their own would be capable of absorbing the large block.

We have come together with Kilrush, Newcastle West and Listowel, using the existing infrastructure, particularly the ferry linking Listowel with County Clare. However, on the other side there is considerable infrastructure already in place, including Shannon Airport. There are towns such as Ennis and access to Galway, which is important from an educational point of view. It is an ideal combination.

The project is a good idea for two reasons. There is the capacity to have a large Department, which is important for the civil servants who are decentralised, because they need a proper career path. There is no point in putting a small agency of 20 people in Kilrush because there are no career prospects for the people working there and their growth within the Department or agency will be stunted. An entire Department or agency can allow for the career prospects of the people who transfer. Secondly, when these people are transferred, their quality of life will improve, as Senator Daly said. Educational needs are catered for with universities in Limerick and Galway and access is provided by Shannon Airport. The road infrastructure is good and Ennis and Shannon are recognised in the national spatial strategy as being of high quality. This provides as much as we can on the Clare side. I am sure the Minister recognises since our recent win that the sporting side of things is also exceptionally good.

The Minister will be well aware of recent census indications of a major shift in population away from the west coast and it has been designated a CLÁR region. CLÁR on its own is not in a position to deliver much unless the responsible Department makes the decision to put in place a particular infrastructural development, a policy or an investment. The programme, through the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and his Department, will be in a position to add further investment to the area. On this basis, I ask the Minister to consider the proposal seriously. I join my colleagues in urging the Minister, at a time when there are fewer constraints, to move ahead with this project as quickly as possible.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his report. I also thank the Leader of the House for ensuring that this debate on decentralisation should take place. I called for such a debate last October and on numerous occasions since.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I am sorry the Senator had to wait for a while.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I was elected to Roscommon County Council in 1999 from the town of Boyle. There are many towns like Boyle all around the country. It is not a county town or even a major town. However, it is a town with a proud past. It was a market town with many shops and businesses, some of which had been there for three generations. However, in the past 20 years a huge shift has taken place and the survival of towns such as Boyle has been challenged.

Boyle was not large enough to attract major firms such as Dunnes, Penneys and Tesco. The retail business has moved to the major towns and unfortunately we cannot attract young business people to take over the older businesses. Like many other towns, it did not have a major hospital. It had no Government Department and no county council. Most county towns have an office of the county council providing at least 200 or 300 jobs. Eircom, or Telecom Éireann, as it was called, and the ESB were not represented, so there were no safe jobs. It had no Government decentralisation. Boyle and towns like it carried on primarily because of the people who lived in them and the businesses run by them.

When the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, announced nearly four years ago that 10,000 jobs would be moved to areas which had not already benefited from decentralisation, I was very excited, as were most of the councillors in my county. We drew up a submission which showed that County Roscommon had a low crime rate, affordable housing and access from Boyle to Castlereagh to Ballaghaderreen to Roscommon town. If 200 jobs came to Roscommon town – if the Government took a visionary attitude and decided to relocate a full Department to a town such as this – there could be a cluster effect. Senator Daly agrees with me, because he came up with the same idea. For example, if the Department of Agriculture and Food could relocate, lock, stock and barrel, to an agricultural county such as Roscommon, 500 or 600 jobs would be created – perhaps 200 in Roscommon town, 100 in Castlereagh, 100 in Ballaghaderreen and 100 in Boyle. Staff could live wherever they wanted in the county and if they were promoted they would not have to move back to Dublin but could move within the county. That would be a major attraction for County Roscommon and many other counties.

We have a very successful factory, and I have often congratulated Senator Leyden, who was instrumental over ten or 15 years in bringing that factory to Boyle. These things will not be forgotten. I have said this on the record of Roscommon County Council and I say it again in the House. Small industries mean much to the survival of towns such as Boyle. Like most towns, we have a new school, but unfortunately in these areas there is a cycle of emigration which continues throughout our lives. I draw to the Minister's attention what is happening. When people leave school at 18 they go away to college, to Dublin or the UK or the USA. When they have raised their families they relocate to towns like Boyle and we think it is great that they have come back. Unfortunately, however, the cycle has gone on since the 1960s and the children of that generation have grown up and are going away again. I have no doubt that in another 20 years they will come back to raise their children in Boyle, but we will have lost 20 of the most productive years of their lives. The cycle must be stopped.

I was very disappointed to see that the 10,000 jobs announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, were being created little by little, in a drip effect. There was a haemorrhage of jobs to areas with Government Ministers. Jobs went to Deputy O'Donoghue's constituency in Kerry, Deputy McCreevy's constituency in Kildare, Deputy Fahey's constituency in Galway and Deputy Michael Smith's constituency in Tipperary. I am afraid this is a kind of slush fund that will be used for these areas, although the Minister may prove me wrong.

The Minister said that decentralisation should be used as an economic torch, shining light into areas that have not prospered in recent years – the programme should focus on towns that have not benefited significantly from the recent boom. I welcome that. Before the last election, the Taoiseach said that towns such as Boyle would not be forgotten. All we want is about 100 jobs to ensure the survival of Boyle. We have promised a free site in which to locate a decentralised Department or agency. I will thank the Government if it delivers on its promises for Boyle, but I will confront it if it does not.

Rural Ireland faces many challenges. One decision that can be made to ensure the viability of rural towns is to decentralise these jobs now to areas that desperately need them.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this matter. I am delighted he is in this Department. Given his knowledge of rural areas, no one is better equipped to be aware of what is happening in every part of the country. He knows exactly the requirements. It is ideal that he is in this Department at this time.

I thank Senator Feighan for his kind words. His commitment to decentralisation is evident. I will not go into what happened in the past, but there has been a change of policy within Fine Gael. I am delighted about that. Unfortunately we had a major setback in 1982 when the then Government in which Deputy John Bruton was a Minister decided to—

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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The Senator is referring to 1982 but we could go back to 1916.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I want to put this in context. It is important to set out the background to this matter, given that there are those who might criticise this Government over delays in honouring its commitment in the programme for Government.

A decision was made in 1992 to decentralise the General Register Office to Roscommon town, which it has taken ten years to achieve, that being one of the longest sagas in the history of decentralisation. That office has been decentralised for some time to Roscommon town and the staff are based in good quality temporary accommodation.

The new buildings to accommodate civil servants have been approved by An Bord Pleanála in the past two weeks. I appeal to the Minister of State to move forward the contract process to ensure the builders move on to the site. These buildings are to accommodate in one quality complex all the decentralised Government offices in Roscommon town. I refer to the agricultural office, the social welfare office, the General Register Office and the driving test centre under the Department of the Environment and Local Government, the temporary offices of which are in an appalling condition. This new complex will accommodate more than 200 civil servants and it will have crèche and other facilities.

When a decision was made by the Government in 1992 when I was a Deputy to decentralise the General Register Office to Roscommon town, Garret FitzGerald objected. He said that it was unsuitable to decentralise that office because his academic friends might have great difficulty finding the town of Roscommon, even though it is on a major rail link.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Did he say that?

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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He certainly did. He thought it was a retrograde step, but fortunately we now have computerisation, broadband access, e-mail and other forms of communication. The computerisation of some 70 million files in that office is proceeding very well.

We should be talking about decentralisation of the Dáil or the Seanad outside Dublin. It is time somebody grasped that nettle, particularly in a future all-Ireland context, whether such decentralisation would be to the Northern counties or a neutral location somewhere midway between the North and the South. This city would be enhanced if the 166 Deputies and 60 Senators were located outside it. It is time we took a stand in this House and said that should be the policy. It was considered in the past that the Oireachtas should be relocated outside the capital. Such decentralisation would show leadership to the people.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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What about Athlone?

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Roscommon, being the heart of Ireland, would also be a possible location.

From my research on this issue, I understand that 120 towns have applied for decentralised offices. There are some 13 or 14 large folders in the Department containing submissions from towns throughout the country, but nobody knows the number of civil servants who are seeking to transfer from Dublin. Some say that 18,000 civil servants have applied, but some have applied to several Departments. It is important for the Minister to establish the exact number of civil servants who have applied to transfer to offices in towns and counties such as Roscommon, Longford, Mayo and elsewhere. This information should be readily available within the Civil Service.

Like Senator Feighan, I would say that County Roscommon, through the county council, has made an excellent submission. Roscommon town is centrally located and has all the necessary facilities to attract major decentralisation.

I must also make a pitch for the town of Boyle, which put forward an attractive draft brochure to the Minister and the Government. Boyle has offered three to five acres of land free of charge to the Government for decentralised offices. That is a wonderful offer by the Termon and Warren Land Trustees and the Boyle Chamber of Commerce. They are not only saying that they want and need something in Boyle but are putting their money where their mouth is and saying that they will make land available free of charge. The same would apply to towns like Roscommon which would seek to provide services.

Ballaghaderreen lost out on the decentralisation of the Office of Public Works, for which the Minister of State now has responsibility, in the period between two coalition Governments. I will not blame the person responsible for that. The offices were intended to be decentralised to Boyle but were transferred to Ballaghaderreen and they are now closed. I would like to see towns such as Ballaghaderreen, Elphin and Strokestown considered for decentralisation. The idea suggested by Senator Feighan is worthwhile from the point of view of the location of offices.

Decentralisation is an extremely important policy. I am convinced that the Government, with the Minister of State, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, will finalise this major decision in the not too distant future. This process will be carried out during the period of this Government. Nobody will accept that the 10,000 civil servants concerned will not be decentralised before the next general election in June 2007. That is the deadline. I refer to 10,000 jobs to be relocated throughout the length and breadth of the country.

I am delighted the Minister of the State said that many of the towns included as gateways and hubs in the spatial strategy are already significantly developed and would not be economically transformed by decentralisation in the same way as smaller towns. No town in Roscommon is a hub or a gateway and therefore the county must benefit from decentralisation, according to the Minister of State's statement. When he went forward for the presidency of the IFA he was not let down in Roscommon, but that is neither here nor there. The Minister of State has a great record in County Roscommon and he has many friends there. I believe he will not be found wanting. He has a great knowledge of rural areas. Given what he said, Roscommon must be guaranteed jobs under this process, bearing in mind that it is one of the few counties that is not a hub.

I am delighted that we are not a hub or a gateway because under decentralisation we would benefit greatly. I am sure Senator Feighan would agree that the point to which I refer is one of the most significant in the Minister of State's speech. This is something I have been waiting to hear. When the spatial strategy was published I was concerned that the gateways and hubs would be the towns that would benefit from decentralisation, but it is stated in the Minister of State's speech as Government policy that the opposite is true. A county like Roscommon which was deprived under that strategy will now benefit from decentralisation.

The Prison Service was decentralised to Castlereagh, a development for which the people there fought. When a former Fine Gael-Labour Government decided to scrap that project, a wall was built around the complex. Every time those parties were in Government, they removed something from Roscommon. I believe Nora Owen was the then Minister for Justice. People protested on the streets of Dublin in this regard. One American said, "My God, they want a prison. Down our way in Delaware we don't want a prison." People in Roscommon were so desperate that they fought for a prison and they got it, despite the actions of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition Government. Senator Feighan will have to fight very hard to make sure he secures decentralisation for County Roscommon if he wants to move from this House to the other House following the next general election.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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This is not a broadcast on behalf of Sligo for decentralisation, but I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I join others in welcoming the Minister of State to the House.

The issue of the regional imbalance in Ireland is a major concern to each Member of this House. The current situation, where a major portion of the population lives and works in one city while at the same time there is increasing rural depopulation, is neither viable, practical nor sustainable. Due to the recent rapid pace of economic growth, bottlenecks and other signs of pressure on capacity are becoming evident in faster growing regions of the country while others are lagging behind in terms of growth performance. We are left with a situation where there are two sets of problems in urban and rural Ireland.

All major cities, especially Dublin, have undergone rapid expansion in the past five years. All have seen explosive growth in population, employment and business investment, which has been broadly welcomed. However, at the same time, we must recognise that such explosive growth has been accompanied by a new set of difficulties, including excess demand for housing and public services with traffic congestion. This, in turn, has meant that people's quality of life has not improved at the same rate as their incomes and, in some instances, not at all.

The problem in rural areas is the opposite. It is not excess but insufficient demand. It is not just that they can accommodate more jobs and people – they desperately need them. They need an injection of vibrancy and energy if they are to achieve their full potential and maintain the culture, traditions and dynamism that have always defined rural and regional Ireland.

Although these represent different problems, one policy can significantly contribute to solving these difficulties. Decentralisation has a crucial role to play in tackling the problem of regional imbalance. In symbolic terms, the convening of full Cabinet meetings throughout the country, beginning with Ballaghaderreen in 2000, shows that we are prepared to bring Government outside the capital. However, symbolic gestures are no longer enough. Political commitment will only be taken seriously when accompanied by practical action.

We cannot continue to urge companies, especially multinational corporations, to locate new and expanding businesses in regional locations unless we are equally prepared to consider such an option. Therefore, the time has come for a tangible and positive indication of how far the Government is prepared to carry this commitment to improve the regional spread of our economic well-being.

We have decentralised individual offices to areas outside Dublin. For example, Sligo hosts a section of the Department of Social and Family Affairs, and it is clear that the people working there have enjoyed a positive experience since relocating. Those who have moved out of Dublin to the regions have found that they live in areas with lower house prices and greater availability of housing, sufficient sports and recreational facilities for all, a cleaner environment – often blue flag beaches, mountains, lakes and rivers all within easy access of rural towns, as well as a wealth of historical, cultural and visual amenities.

Despite the process of moving smaller blocks of public administration to smaller towns, the bulk of government in the broadest sense continues to operate out of Dublin city centre. We must examine the acceleration of the process in order that in future we can think in terms of locating a number of different sectors of public administration in regional locations.

There is no longer any reason the vast bulk of our administration system should be based in Dublin. This is especially true in the information age when data can be transferred at the click of a mouse not just from county to county or country to country but from continent to continent. We live in a world where location and distance are decreasing in importance. An American with a problem on his IBM computer rings a helpline. The call may be made in Boston and answered in Blanchardstown.

Given the introduction of the broadband system in many areas of the country, many towns offer modern high speed transmission systems to match the best available. There is now no reason a Government office cannot function as efficiently and effectively in Carrick-on-Shannon, Boyle, Roscommon town or Sligo town as it can in Dublin city centre.

Although I am glad to see that some offices are located outside Dublin, I firmly believe a piecemeal approach to decentralisation will not work. Moving small units will never make a real impact. We must be prepared to think big if we want to achieve real results and use decentralisation as a way of revitalising and rejuvenating whole towns and communities. It makes good human resource and economic sense to decentralise larger sections of Departments to towns and cities. For example, a section of the Department of Social and Family Affairs is located in Sligo. It would be logical, therefore, to move further sections to the same area or nearby, which would give equitable opportunities for promotion and training.

Decentralisation is a win-win option. Dublin will stand to gain from any reduction in the huge demand and pressures which place such a strain on services in our capital city. At the same time, rural towns and communities stand to gain not only from an influx of people but also from the injection of energy, enthusiasm, not to mention cash, which the people concerned will bring with them.

Regional imbalance must be addressed if Ireland's growth potential is to be fully realised. The Government has firmly committed itself to tackling this problem. The regionalisation of the country into Objective One and Objective One in transition areas as well as the awarding of gateway and hub status show that we are prepared to target incentives at those areas where development is needed most. However, now is the time to follow these initiatives firmly with definite and genuine plans to establish government outside Dublin. Decentralisation is not an end in itself, rather the beginning, a method whereby we can begin to address some of the serious regional imbalances that have developed in recent years. For this reason, I call on the Government to implement a policy of decentralisation without delay.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I do not wish to appear to be preaching in this debate on decentralisation because I am not. I can understand fully the reason Members of this or the other House would want to make a pitch for their constituency or town. I presume that, since the Minister of State has informed us that Wexford, Kilkenny and Castlebar are not on the list, Cork is not on it either. I do not think the city will rebel because of this.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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It has the Central Statistics Office.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I am aware of that as it is located in my constituency. I know its location and a good number of those who work there are diligent on my behalf at election time. I know all about the CSO.

The movement out of Dublin of parts or the entirety of Government agencies is only one type of decentralisation. The country's greatest public administrative problem is that it is grossly over-centralised in terms of decision-making. An enormous amount of unnecessary work is referred to a central authority as if there was some expertise there superior to that available in a local authority. The famous "I am directed by the Minister" letter from a civil servant to a senior official in a local authority, when that civil servant is probably neither as qualified nor experienced and definitely not as knowledgeable as the official in the local authority, is a classic example of the pretence that centralisation is better. I wish to say before anyone who has done some reading on this contributes that those in the social democratic left throughout Europe were fantastic centralisers and it took them about 30 years to realise that it was not necessarily the best way to manage public services.

The fundamental problem is the lack of thinking about changing the distribution of decision-making, which is additional to moving part of the Department of Social and Family Affairs to Sligo, the Central Statistics Office to Cork, the Legal Aid Board to Caherciveen or whatever. These are arguably good, although I am not sure they serve the purpose in some cases. Real decentralisation will only come about when decision-making is moved out of Dublin to where it needs to take place. The trend in public administration, especially in the context of the proposed abolition of health boards, is to do the opposite. We could end up with the ridiculous scenario where health boards would be abolished, a central management unit established in Dublin to manage their work and a demand to have that unit decentralised to Athlone or somewhere to deal with the Government's plans for decentralisation.

I will give an example, at the risk of annoying a colleague in my party. The location of the Environmental Protection Agency in a fairly small town in County Wexford, which is inaccessible by any serious method of public transport, is of no great service. There are some parts of the Minister's contribution that I did not like. However, I was taken by the part where he referred to the things that must be achieved. He spoke about creating a public service that will be quality, performance and results driven, that will achieve value for money, that will focus on the needs of its customers, that will be accountable, etc. How can the Environmental Protection Agency be focused on the needs of its customers when an environmental agency effectively requires that anybody who wants to do business with it must travel by car?

If we are talking about decentralisation – regardless of whether it involves public bodies, public agencies or various powers – a network of infrastructure must be put in place which makes the areas where decentralised bodies are located accessible to everybody. The great temptation is always to locate things in Dublin because the radial nature of the roads and rail system makes it easy to get to Dublin. All sorts of agencies find it easier to hold meetings in Dublin because people from around the country can get to Dublin easily by train or by car. If we are talking seriously about decentralisation, it should be as easy to get to Galway from Cork by train as it is to get to Dublin. It should also be as easy to get to Sligo or a range of other towns as it is to get to Dublin.

Decentralisation is not just about taking a group or a part of a public body, erecting a building – however aesthetically pleasing – in an appropriate town in a rural area and saying that this represents decentralisation. It is decentralisation of administration, but it is not decentralisation of the service and it is not going to meet the criterion of the Minister of State, which is to be focused on the needs of its customers – particularly if customers cannot gain access to it without staying overnight in the place in which it is located.

The Internet is a great liberating infrastructure which should make decentralisation easier. Of 30 countries, Ireland has the least developed broadband infrastructure. I am almost addicted to the Internet. The speed of downloading from the Internet is still abysmally low in Ireland. I would not wish it on a citizen to have to do any serious business with a Government body via the Internet until there is access to a proper, efficient, reliable, affordable broadband network. I know that 700,000 lines are being made available, but Intel has referred to the fact that Ireland is at the end of the queue internationally.

We must move beyond administration into management and decision-making in the context of decentralisation and examine our road and rail infrastructure. We must build a road and rail infrastructure which is posited on the assumption of a transformation of public administration and public management. We must then look at the delivery of powers.

I am amazed at the things that still must be referred to central Government. I recall a discussion approximately two years ago about the safety aspects of the horse-drawn carriages on St. Stephen's Green. An official from Dublin City Council spoke on the radio about the issue. He was very well-informed and stated that draft regulations on insurance were being produced but they would have to then go to the Department for approval. What expertise rested in the Department of the Environment and Local Government to second-guess an official of Dublin City Council about the provision of horse-drawn carriages around St. Stephen's Green? The answer is none. We have a belief in hierarchy – it is probably derived from our experience of the church – that if a matter is passed up to a higher level, a better decision will be made. That is not the case.

I have read a vast amount of correspondence between a third level institution, the identity of which Members can easily guess, and the building unit of the Department of Education and Science regarding a major building programme. I have no complaints about the quality of people in the Department of Education and Science, but – from reading the correspondence to which I refer, which encompasses a period of two to three years – it seems that its major contribution was to add 18% to the cost of the buildings. Whatever minuscule savings were made through the identification of little things with which it did not agree, the three-year delay meant that there was a price increase. What is the point in centralising authority to put together a mystique of expertise which is no greater than that of those who made the original decision? A huge amount of the excessive bureaucracy would be eliminated.

If local authorities were responsible for most of the provision of funding for education and if they had responsibility for much of the policing function and a responsibility for a dozen different areas, then the administrative skills and capacities of the local authorities would need to be expanded. The same civil servants who are now based in Dublin could be invited to move and work with the local authorities which had been given expanded powers. That would have the same effect as the decentralisation of parts of Government Departments. It would mean that local authorities would then have real authority.

We are being given a consultative forum which is supposed to cover the nakedness of county and city managers who make decisions by themselves, in most cases, and who increasingly do so in the future. That is what I do not understand. I fear that this will simply be the decentralisation of public administration.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of State referred to the need for State offices to be seen as flagship buildings which make a statement and which are a source of pride to local communities. The Minister of State's Department – this happened before his time so he had nothing to do with it – built Government offices on Sullivan's Quay in Cork. They certainly make a statement which is that we are utterly indifferent to whatever plans Cork City Council has for preserving streetscapes and street levels. It is the ugliest building erected in Cork in the past 30 years and the only statement it makes is that the Office of Public Works is entirely indifferent to the plans that the local authority might have for the area. That is not just my opinion because I have discussed the matter with senior officials of the city council. It was made clear to them at an early stage that what they thought should be done in the city was a matter of indifference to the then Office of Public Works. That was 20 years ago, so it does not much matter.

I am aware that the law has changed because of a High Court decision which was fought all the way to the Supreme Court by the Office of Public Works. The record is very patchy. Parts of the Office of Public Works construct wonderful buildings but, when it comes to building public offices, it seems that a Stalinist socialist realism takes over and big, ugly square blocks are landed wherever is most convenient for the Office of Public Works. If decentralisation of administration is to go ahead, the buildings should at least be worthy of and appropriate to the towns in which they are located.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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I agree with much that Senator Ryan said and, in particular, that there are two types of decentralisation, namely, decentralisation of the central office that simply operates from another part of the country and devolution of authority about matters such as housing or schools decisions up to a regional basis. I accept that, in respect of the second item, we are over-centralised.

Senator Ryan referred to Cork where he could have had the Environmental Protection Agency. It is my firm conviction that if An Foras Forbartha had not resisted in 1992, decentralisation to Cork would either still continue to this day or the EPA, as a successor body, would be located there. Perhaps I could send a message to any State agency which feels it is under threat that if it applies for decentralisation, it might well help secure its future.

I welcome this debate. The interest in and commitment to decentralisation on this side of the House are visible in the number of people there who have contributed and are sitting on the benches. I welcome the Minister of State's speech and the philosophy behind it, which is very positive. It is entirely in line with my thinking that decentralisation should be used as an economic torch to shine light into areas that have not prospered in recent years. The programme should focus on towns that have not benefited significantly from the recent boom and the fact that the gateways and hubs are not the primary areas for decentralisation.

We should remind ourselves of the history. One of the most successful pieces that no one thinks of as decentralisation is the Garda Training College, Templemore. It represents an outstandingly successful and major piece of decentralisation which is admired well beyond the country. There was a programme of decentralisation in 1981 which, following a series of Government changes, was cancelled by the Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition. It was reinstated in 1982 and then cancelled again.

People have had the mistaken notion that decentralisation costs money in net terms. Senator MacSharry's father, when Minister for Finance, introduced decentralisation in the late 1980s as a cost-cutting measure because rents and many other associated costs were lower in towns throughout the country than in central Dublin. There were two tranches of decentralisation in the late 1980s and early 1990s and, as far as I can judge, they were successful. There was decentralisation under the last Government viz the North-South Implementation Bodies, including the food safety office in Cork.

I come from a town in Tipperary which is greatly looking forward to decentralisation from which it would benefit enormously. It fits the criteria set out by the Minister of State who also made a contribution on the matter on 15 April in reply to Senator Finucane in which he laid down other criteria when he referred to the success of the new programme and proximity to third level education facilities, on which Tipperary would certainly qualify being close to the University of Limerick, the location of the Tipperary Rural Development Institute, within commuting distance of Cork and having convenient access to Dublin. Limerick Junction, which caters for eight trains a day in each direction, is just two miles away. There is the availability of sites and offices and a quality of life in terms of every type of sports facility. There are also good schools available. It is located in a very attractive part of the country, underneath the Galtee Mountains. There are many places to visit as people discovered when I had a family wedding with guests from abroad. It is located at a crossroads between Limerick and Waterford on one axis and very close to the Dublin-Cork axis. From all points of view, it would benefit greatly from decentralisation. While it has good facilities, it needs more people to use and sustain them. Decentralisation would fulfil this need.

I also mention Carrick-on-Suir. In the list of towns for the RAPID programme Longford was at the top, Tipperary was second and Carrick-on-Suir, third. Tipperary and Carrick-on-Suir are twins in many ways, whether in relation to urban renewal, the RAPID programme and so on. That may also be the case in relation to decentralisation.

In the short term there may appear to be more losers than winners in that it is hardly possible to announce at once 100 towns that will benefit from decentralisation. However, the Government must take its courage in its hands, with our support. It will probably have to do it on a phased basis because it is probably impossible to do it at once. It is important to negotiate with those involved, including the trade unions. There would not be much point announcing decentralisation to Malin Head if there was a full-scale revolt the following day.

I commend the Government for the work it has been doing. There has been much careful and systematic preparation and the people of Tipperary are looking forward to the announcement of the programme.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. The fact that we are discussing this programme four and half years after the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, announced it is a ringing indictment of this and the previous Government. We should be reviewing how effectively decentralisation is working but instead we are still talking about it. People are sick to the teeth of hearing the word and want to see action. I am pleased that the Minister of State referred to the process beginning this year. However, I will believe it when I see it.

The Minister made an announcement on decentralisation four and a half years ago when he asked civil servants to indicate if they would be interested in moving. He received an overwhelming reply. Approximately 18,000 indicated that they would be willing to move. Therefore, there is no difficulty with them, it is a question of the Government getting its act together and the process under way. According to information received by Fine Gael, approximately 7,800 civil servants in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform are willing to move, 4,300 in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, 4,100 in the Department of Agriculture and Food, 427 in the Department of Education and Science, 393 in the Department of Defence, 370 in the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, 314 in the Department of the Environment and Local Government, 243 in the Department of Transport, 197 in the Department of Health and Children, 13 in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and two in the Department of Foreign Affairs, giving a total of 18,324. Almost twice as many civil servants are willing to move as are planned for. Therefore, no one can deny the urgency and need for decentralisation.

I welcome the reference by the Minister of State to Carlow, in particular, as it was snubbed and ignored in the national spatial strategy. Even though my friends in Cavan were included at the last minute, we, in Carlow, were omitted. Perhaps it is a reflection on the good Senators in Cavan. Even though Carlow is the gateway to the south-east, it was not even given hub status, never mind gateway status. I welcome the Minister of State's comments that many of the towns included as gateways and hubs in the national spatial strategy are already significantly developed and would not be economically transformed by decentralisation in the same way as smaller towns. I assume he will look after towns like Carlow that were ignored in the national spatial strategy.

Senator Mansergh mentioned suitable towns in County Tipperary. Nobody can deny that Carlow would be attractive, given that it has two third level institutions, a good supply of housing and good infrastructure. There are plans to put in place even better infrastructure in the near future. Apart from being the tidiest town in the country and winning litter free status, it has won many Leinster club finals and has a good sporting infrastructure. There are some fantastic golf courses, swimming pools and leisure centres. These add to the quality of life and we are here to improve people's quality of life. Life is not just about working all the time.

I urge the Minister of State to consider Carlow and rectify the mistake of the Government in leaving it out of the national spatial strategy. If he can do that by decentralising a Government Department or part of one to Carlow, it would be most welcome. Population decline is affecting Carlow. Census figures show that the population in some parts of south Carlow is decreasing. These areas would benefit from decentralisation.

The Government should get the process of decentralisation under way so that in a year we can return to debate this issue again. However, rather than discuss decentralisation, we can discuss its effectiveness, whether it is working and how it can work better.

Everything in Ireland has gone wrong in terms of planning. Everything is located in Dublin and that should not be the case. There is no need for it. Decentralisation has worked well in the past. Sections of the Department of Social and Family Affairs are based in Sligo, while the driving licences section of the Department of the Environment and Local Government is located in Ballina. When one drives through such towns during a Seanad election campaign, one can see the benefits of a Government Department being located there.

There is a new industrial park on the outskirts of Carlow town awaiting investment. We would welcome a Government Department there. I urge the Minister of State to ensure that Carlow and the other towns that have been omitted, economically and socially, in the past are brought back into focus. Hopefully, this will not be a case of empty promises, as occurred before the general election.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Senator Feeney.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I make no apologies for pleading for decentralisation on behalf of County Cavan. Building on the positive experience derived from participation in the Government's first decentralisation programme in 1989-90, which the coalition Government under Garret FitzGerald tried to sabotage—

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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For God's sake, the Senator is going back 20 years.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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When Fianna Fáil returned to Government, it fulfilled its promise and brought 120 civil servants to Cavan. We make no apologies for that. I urge the Government to include Cavan among the centres to be selected for the forthcoming decentralisation programme. A number of factors underpin this request.

Cavan occupies a strategic position on the corridor linking Dublin to Enniskillen and Donegal. Centrally located in the north midlands, Cavan is a gateway to and from Northern Ireland and is also a pivotal point on the east-west route to be developed between Dundalk and Sligo. While the area is now identified as being within the greater Dublin commuter belt, it has kept its unspoilt and attractive environment relatively free from traffic congestion. It is conveniently located within easy access of regional and international routes and is only two hours away from three airports – Dublin, Belfast and Sligo.

The national development plan provides for a major upgrading of the N3 route, with a proposed dual carriageway from Kells to Dublin and high quality single carriageway from Kells to Cavan. While there is no rail service, which we discussed earlier, bus services have improved dramatically in recent years. Bus Éireann operates services to Dublin 19 times daily, to Enniskillen five times daily and to Dundalk, Galway and Belfast each day. Several private operators also provide access to Dublin. In a recent survey, it was discovered that 3,000 people commute each day to Dublin.

Cavan town has sufficient land zoned and serviced to accommodate development which will cater immediately for an increase of 6,000 new residents. Rented accommodation is also readily available in the town and surrounding areas. There are numerous pre-school facilities in the county. There are six registered full day care providers and seven seasonal service providers within three to four miles of Cavan town centre. There are eight primary and four post-primary schools within a two mile radius. The quality of schools in the area is second to none.

County Cavan Vocational Education Committee established the Cavan college of further studies in 1984. This provides a wide range of third level, certificate and diploma courses, including business studies, accounting technician, information technology, services in tourism, applied social studies, child care and international teleservices. The college is now recognised as one of the largest and most successful post-leaving certificate colleges outside Dublin and Cork. A new college on a green field site is at an advanced planning stage and will commence in January.

A multiplicity of universities and other third level educational institutions are located one and a half hours from Cavan, for example, in Dublin, Dundalk, Belfast, Maynooth, Athlone, Sligo and Letterkenny. The County Cavan innovation and technology centre has recently been developed as part of a cross-Border programme to support local, regional and national agencies in stimulating an environment conducive to innovation, entrepreneurship and inward investment in the Cavan-Fermanagh region.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Wilson for sharing time.

Decentralisation is an important business. One might wonder why I call it a business when nobody else has mentioned the word. However, it is a business. It is an important business for several reasons, not least because it affects the lives, careers and futures of people and their families.

Decentralisation is about balance and addressing regional imbalance and urban regeneration. It is about looking at east versus west and north versus south. I am glad that a Fianna Fáil-led Government has given a commitment to look at these areas. I remind Senator Browne that Fianna Fáil-led Governments have always accommodated decentralisation. His party never accommodated it in any way.

One cannot look at this from just a parochial point of view. If one's town is not chosen for decentralisation, one cannot get into a huff about it. I will congratulate the towns that benefit from decentralisation because the neighbouring towns will benefit from the spill-over. I can say this from experience. Although I am from Offaly, I live in Sligo and towns such as Ballymoate and Tubbercurry, to the south, Dromore West and Easkey, to the west, and Grange and Cliffoney, to the north, have benefited as a result of decentralisation to Sligo.

Senator Higgins talked about Ministers bringing things to their home town. Does it matter who brings them, provided they are brought? The Opposition is forever telling us that people have short memories, but I do not know how short memories come into it, if one has a problem with Ministers bringing things to their home town. My home town of Tullamore has done exceptionally well, but it has a vibrant, active and hard-working Minister. There is also a hard-working Minister of State in the south of the county.

I ask the Minister of State not to forget Birr. We are still waiting to see something nice brought to the town and I am sure the people living there will reward the Minister of State in whatever way they can – if there are a few votes going begging after the Minister for Foreign Affairs gets them, they will throw them his way.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I welcome the debate because this is a crucial issue. I do not blame any Government but, in many ways, the west is almost a wasteland, it is dying on its feet. I made this point last week about a number of towns. Kilbeggan and Ballinrobe are both without a hotel, although they had one previously. I travel the country more than most Members and always look for the old, traditional local hotel when I drive through a town. Most of the time it is either closed or there are better facilities in a guesthouse. For infrastructural reasons, Governments of all hues gave tax breaks to build hotels and while those schemes were abused, there was a good reason behind them.

The Minister of State was given the wrong advice. He mentioned commercial viability but people said budget airlines would not be commercially viable. They said the man who had decided to build a €13 million hotel in Ballymore, County Cavan, was out of his mind and that he would lose every penny. I have seen these ideas time and again and the problem with the decision making process is that it is driven too much by current demand without taking potential demand into account.

If the Minister of State, on his way home, takes the Summerhill road and the shortcut between Killucan and Milltownpass and crosses the canal, he will pass Killucan railway station. It is in the middle of nowhere within 40 minutes of Dublin and would be an ideal place for Westmeath County Council to develop and put in place infrastructure, giving something back to the village of Killucan which is fading away.

Towns should be encouraged to make a pitch for decentralisation. People used to build advance factories to attract businesses to their area. Towns should be asked to make similar pitches to show what they can offer to decentralised offices of Departments and should not get them just because they are located in a particular constituency. There are towns that already have the buildings and infrastructure in place, they simply need to be revitalised. Kilrush is an ideal example. I have no connection with the town whatsoever but it is a suitable candidate. There are wide streets, an old hotel that has closed down, like many in the area, and other large buildings where offices of Departments could be sited almost immediately. Kilrush, Newcastle West and Listowel have formed an axis to attract decentralisation and it makes sense. They are three very different towns that are culturally attractive, close to each other and to which development would give new drive.

I asked the chief executive officer of the largest and most successful IT company in Ireland what he looked for in a site. He told me that he preferred a greenfield site within an hour of an airport and which had connections to the rail system, broadband connection and housing, gyms and golf courses. He wanted space for his staff, he did not want to set up in a city. Such sites, with educational and social infrastructure, could be easily created.

The Minister of State should disregard much of the advice he gets that is based on current population, demand and possibilities. He should listen to the creative people who do one thing in the knowledge that the rest will follow. The hotel in Portumna was built from scratch and became successful while the hotel in Ballyconnell put infrastructure in place and was a major success. We should listen to the people concerned as we consider our options.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I support the programme of decentralisation but I am worried by the Minister of State's speech. He takes a very different view of decentralisation from that laid out by the Tánaiste in replies to parliamentary questions and speeches. He has said many of the gateway and hub towns are already significantly developed and seems to be indicating that these should not be considered for decentralisation. In an ideal world it would be great if we could shine a light on towns that have not prospered in recent years but if the decentralisation programme is to work, we must decentralise to towns where housing stock and transport are available and the infrastructure is in place. It might be ideal to pick the 20 most disadvantaged towns and decentralise offices of Departments to them but we must decentralise to areas where people will want to live. It would be pointless to decentralise offices of Departments to a town if the people who are to move there cannot build or buy a house and would have to travel 50 or 60 miles to work every morning. That would be recentralisation.

I hope the Minister of State is not serious when he indicates that gateway and hub towns will not be included in the decentralisation programme. When the national spatial strategy was announced, every indication was given at the most senior level of Government that we would focus on the gateway and hub towns for decentralisation. We must be realistic and accept that there cannot be an office of a Department in every town and village and must look at the towns that have the services in place, with housing and education facilities readily available. The Minister of State should not make the mistake of selecting towns for reasons of geography if services are not available – that would be a disaster. There should be a focus on the gateways and hubs and everyone will be happy because there will be strong regional decentralisation.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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No, they will not.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Like Senator Bradford, I find it hard to understand what the Minister of State said about the decentralisation programme in relation to hubs and gateways – that none of them will be considered. I am disappointed that he ruled out Wexford, Kilkenny and my town, Castlebar, for further decentralisation. That is a retrograde step because Castlebar is a hub town on the west coast and, if we are serious about decentralisation and bringing a proper balance to east-west population figures, cannot be ruled out. It has much going for it, including its tourism infrastructure and convenience for Westport.

The Minister of State said there should be efficient delivery of public services. When the decentralisation programme is put in place, it is hoped it will give quality performance. It should be results driven, achieve value for money and focus on the needs of its customers. It must be accountable, respond flexibly and rapidly to change and promote equal opportunity.

We have seen the dispute outside the Department of Agriculture offices and in other areas around the country. These disputes are about promotion and equal opportunities, subjects mentioned in the Minister of State's speech. I do not understand why such disputes cannot be resolved. If promotion and equal opportunity are to be made part of the decentralisation programme, surely such opportunities should form part of the agreement under the social partnership programme.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share my time with Senator Brennan.

Acting Chairman (Ms Feeney): Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Kieran PhelanKieran Phelan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for joining us to discuss this vital issue. Decentralisation has many advantages. By relocating various Government bodies and Departments away from Dublin we will be easing pressure on the capital and its infrastructure, as well as easing the pressure on the housing market in the city and reducing its traffic levels. With the vast majority of Dublin civil servants based in and around the city centre, such a relocation of staff would have a profound effect on the rush-hour traffic.

It is not just Dublin which will benefit from such measures. Decentralisation will have a significant effect on the towns and cities to which these Government bodies and Departments will move. Hundreds of thousands of people moving into towns throughout Ireland will have a significant effect on regional economies and a real effect on the ground. Local shops will experience a greater demand for their products and local service providers will have many more potential clients.

Such a boost to the local economy for any given area might also contribute to preventing further regional emigration. As the local economy improves, it will help to create more employment opportunities, will act as a spur for the development of better infrastructure, and provide an incentive for the building of more houses and other amenities. All these measures will help provide a better local government to help correct the impression held by many young people from outside Dublin, namely that if they wish to succeed, if they want opportunities, if they want to build a happy and healthy life with all the perks that modern Irish life provides, they must move to Dublin.

The towns and cities selected as destinations under the decentralisation programme will not be the only areas to benefit. The surrounding areas will also reap the rewards of this programme. As these civil servants set up home in nearby towns and villages, we will see a knock-on effect that will benefit the country as a whole, right down to the smallest communities. The simple addition of an extra family to any rural community can have a significant effect on its future. When this programme of decentralisation is implemented, along with the national spatial strategy, it will help keep to a minimum the brain drain that has been eating away at rural Ireland for decades.

When all these factors are taken into account, it is clear just how significant the decentralisation programme is. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and the Government, realise this.

An area which can reap such benefits is County Laois. It is centrally located and has a relatively high quality of infrastructure. It has a young and energetic population and a capacity for growth and further development. All this marks Laois out as a prime candidate for decentralisation. When one also considers how Laois has been overlooked on previous occasions, the argument for choosing it is strengthened.

Of all the areas in Laois, the most deserving of the decentralisation benefits is the south of the county. If this area is to develop, to have any sustainable future, it must be considered as a location for substantial decentralisation. Knowing that the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, spends much of his time in that area, I have no doubt that he will consider its case favourably.

Michael Brennan (Fianna Fail)
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I too welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, and I welcome the decision and the commitment of the Government in going ahead with the decentralisation programme. I am sure that many fine applications have been received and assessed by the Department of Finance, and that the towns selected will play their roles in balanced regional development.

I support the application by Newcastle West, Listowel and Kilrush as an integrated application. The necessary infrastructure is in place in those locations. I agree with the Minister of State that State offices in the towns selected should be flagship buildings, and I have no doubt that with the involvement of the Office of Public Works, there will be flexibility in the design and location of those buildings in the towns, and that the quality of life of the 10,000 civil servants relocating will improve enormously.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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I thank the Senators who have made such a positive response. Senator Higgins spoke of the sheer coincidence of some of the more recently suggested locations for decentralisation. He mentioned Cahersiveen and Roscrea. I would remind Senator Higgins and other Fine Gael Senators that this is not a new phenomenon. In a previous Administration, both a Labour Minister referred to by Senator Brendan Ryan, and, I think, a former Minister for Agriculture, Mr. Yates, moved two Government Departments to County Wexford. It was just a sheer coincidence that both men came from there.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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History repeating itself.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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It is probably a phenomenon that will last into the future, and there could be some coincidences with regard to the Government Departments being moved. It is no coincidence either that many Senators gave very positive and enthusiastic pitches for towns within their own constituencies – not that Senators have constituencies, but they might have in a future situation. I myself have been the subject of a number of pitches, and I feel that towns and communities which make very positive pitches are the ones that should be looked at.

Much has been made of the numbers of civil servants anxious to move. There has been a major over-statement in this regard. A figure of 18,000 has been suggested and that is not realistic. Many of those civil servants would have made numerous applications, and there is a lot of re-recording there. Senator Browne suggested that the number of people in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform who have sought a move exceeds the number of people actually working there.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Since the Minister took over.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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Perhaps. The Minister, Deputy McDowell, would no doubt be concerned about such a figure if that were the case, and I think it is not.

Previously, there was a lot of difficulty moving people, and we know of some outrageous circumstances where people were moved to new premises only 100 metres away and sought compensation for such a move. It is generally accepted now that there is a very substantial number of civil servants based in Dublin who would wish to move to a decentralised location for all the reasons outlined in this House today in terms of quality of life. The arguments in favour of moving are very good.

Senators Brendan Ryan and Martin Mansergh referred to the criteria that might be laid down. I do not think there are any criteria, other than that everything should be taken into account. Templemore, a very successful location for training the Garda, was mentioned, and if someone were to draft criteria now, I doubt if Templemore would qualify. Portumna and Ballyconnell are two places where very successful hotels have been established by local entrepreneurs.

In terms of making decisions about decentralisation, the Government will consider all aspects, and nowhere has yet been ruled in or out. Some people on the Opposition benches in this House—

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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Could the Minister of State say something about the hubs and gateways?

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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I notice that people interpret speeches differently. I referred to many of the towns included as gateways and hubs, and I referred to three towns. The decision will not be made by me but by the Cabinet. There is a very strong Government commitment to decentralisation, and a similar commitment by Senators. It is a very sensible project for the Government. When the decision is made, the area will then be my responsibility in terms of when and to where the moves will be made. I will be responsible for providing the facilities, locations, buildings and sites.

Boyle has offered a site, and other towns already have suitable buildings. The Tánaiste recently visited Birr – it is mere coincidence that I happen to live beside Birr – to open a state-of-the-art technology centre there which is empty. The people of Birr made a strong plea to the Tánaiste to accept that the town would be an ideal location for a decentralisation move. There is much support for the move in the town.

While I cannot say when a decision on the decentralisation programme will be made, I understand it will be taken soon. Coming from a rural area, it is an issue to which I am committed. Decentralisation will give a boost to balanced regional development. While it will not be the answer to all the economic problems of rural areas, it will present an opportunity for the Government to put its money where its mouth is on the issue. We will be pushing the process along and I look forward to a decision being taken by the Cabinet soon and its speedy implementation.

It is important to point out to the House that decentralisation cannot happen overnight when one considers the need to acquire sites, etc. It will occur over a long period. One Member mentioned 25 towns as a more realistic figure, yet there are 110 hoping to have offices of Departments relocated. Some will be disappointed. A decentralised unit should have 200 individuals; anything less would be insufficient. The suggestion of "clustering" relocated departmental offices will be taken on board, as it has worked well.

With regard to the attractiveness for civil servants, no civil servant will want to jeopardise his or her opportunities to move up the scale. If one has a cluster of 200 people and 600 in a ten to 15 mile radius, it will give an opportunity for the people concerned to move up the Civil Service scale.

I appreciate the contributions made by Senators and note a positive attitude to decentralisation. This will encourage the Cabinet to press ahead with the decision.