Wednesday, 23 February 2005
National Spatial Strategy: Statements.
I thank the Seanad for arranging to take statements today. I welcome the opportunity to outline for Members of the House the many activities that have been undertaken to date to support the implementation of the Government's national spatial strategy.
As Members will know, the national spatial strategy is a 20-year strategic planning framework designed to achieve balanced regional development by enabling every part of the country to reach its potential regardless of its size or location. The strategy has three main objectives. The first is to achieve a better spread of job opportunities and economic activity throughout the country by sustaining Dublin's role as an engine for the economy while strengthening the drawing power of other areas and to bring people, employment and services closer together in a way that sustains strong communities and strong regional economies.
The second element is to improve quality of life by delivering less congestion, less long distance commuting and enhanced access to services across the whole range of public services. The third element is to create a better place to live, taking care of the environment while making the most of cities, towns and rural areas.
The strategy aims to build up the strengths of all areas in order to achieve more balanced regional development and population growth. It recognises that a greater share of economic activity must take place outside the greater Dublin area. To achieve this, the strategy sets out a framework within which gateways, hubs and other urban and rural areas will act together to promote development and growth in different areas.
Earlier this month in Ennis, it was my great pleasure to launch the full set of regional planning guidelines which have been adopted by regional authorities throughout the country. This was a major milestone in the implementation of the national spatial strategy. For the first time Ireland now has in place the entire hierarchy of strategic plans envisaged under the Planning and Development Act 2000. These range from the national spatial strategy at national level to regional planning guidelines at regional level and to city, town, county and local area plans. The national spatial strategy, and the regional planning guidelines now in place to support it, recognise that the various regions of the country have different roles to play in the country's national development. Both the strategy and the guidelines seek to organise and co-ordinate these roles in a complementary way that provides enhanced opportunities and choices for people living and working throughout the country.
The regional planning guidelines seek to make regions more competitive according to their strengths. They are also about ensuring a high quality urban environment as well as vibrant rural areas. Achieving the economic and social potential of our regions can only happen if the various elements in different areas, such as cities, larger and smaller towns and associated rural areas, collaborate more closely on mutually beneficial strategies for development. In the past people tended to do their own thing and we sub-optimised.
With the regional planning guidelines now in place the focus will shift to the achievement of the objectives of these guidelines in the coming years. An important first step in this regard will be to translate the strategic policies of the regional planning guidelines into development plans at local authority level in order that there will be a seamless and wholly integrated architecture in which planning effectively takes place. This will ensure that the thousands of individual planning decisions we make each year are informed by the "big picture" strategic policies set out in the regional guidelines. It will also facilitate the co-ordination of substantial investment by the public and private sectors in key infrastructure.
My Department has recently published Best Practice Guidance for Regional and Local Authorities on Implementing Regional Planning Guidelines. It is also my intention to publish shortly for public consultation draft guidelines for planning authorities on development plans, which will also aim to give a more strategic focus to development plans. At a micro level I am also shortly due to publish the guidelines for sustainable rural housing. When all of these plans are in place we will have an entire framework within which planning can take place from the top to the bottom.
The national spatial strategy and the regional planning guidelines are already having a key influence on the determination of our national investment priorities and will do so to an increasing extent in the future. It is vital for regional development that in developing investment priorities we pay particular attention to the development of the gateways and hubs designated under the national spatial strategy. This will enable them to realise their potential for leading the development of their areas in partnership with other towns, villages and rural communities.
My Department is currently undertaking a major study of the investment needs of gateways with the aim of identifying ways in which key enabling infrastructure can accelerate their ongoing development. A report on this matter will be submitted to Government later this year, probably in late autumn. My Department has also put a wide range of measures in place to promote levels of awareness and activity. We are actively engaging relevant Departments and other agencies in the implementation of the national spatial strategy. It is clear that all public agencies have not only to sign up, but also to participate in the process. There is already some encouraging evidence of real and concrete responses to the national spatial strategy and to the regional planning guidelines across the public and private sectors. For example, the agreement between the Department of Finance and other Departments on the multi-annual capital envelopes, which facilitate a more strategic approach to investment, require that account be taken of the need to support the implementation of the national spatial strategy in determining investment priorities. The decision to use envelopes to use the expenditure in a more flexible is a worthwhile and welcome development.
I welcome in particular comments made by my colleague, the Minister for Finance, in this House last week during the debate on the development of the BMW region that it will be important for the future and, in particular, post 2006, that investment choices at national and regional level take full account of the national spatial strategy framework. A consistent theme running through the regional planning guidelines is the priority placed on the overall transport investment, particularly that intended to deliver better connectivity between the regions. Today's announcement of €1.4 billion for national roads on top of the €7.8 billion which was already allocated and spent since 1997, taking into account that a further €7.7 billion has been allocated, is a good example of what is happening.
In the context of our requirements for an efficient modern and effective national transport system, the initial and essential focus in national investment terms in the national development programme was on better road and trail linkages between Dublin and the main cities on the island. As these major projects progress towards conclusion, the regional planning guidelines emphasise that for the regions' economic potential to be fully realised and for wider areas to benefit from the development of gateways and hubs, the internal linkages within the regions and between the regional gateways needs to be improved substantially.
The ten year transport infrastructure framework now in preparation will take account of the linkages between transport, land use and spatial planning and will be fully informed by and will support the policies set out under the national spatial strategy. One specific and significant example of central Government responding positively to the strategic planning at regional and local level was the decision to make a €90 million investment in the Mallow-Cork-Midleton commuter rail service, which will open a new 20,000 house development for Cork over the next 15 years or so. The rail investment follows through on the Cork area strategic plan and demonstrates national investment in critical infrastructure being prioritised to support new and innovative development patterns.
In Dublin, the new Dublin city development plan, taking its lead from the development agenda set by the NSS and the regional planning guidelines, in terms of the need to reduce urban sprawl and concentrate more development in the city itself, has put significant emphasis on radically improving housing output in the city through building 40,000 new homes with supporting infrastructure and services over the lifetime of the plan. Major residential developments in Dublin currently underway include Pelletstown in north Dublin, Grand Canal Basin in the Docklands and Adamstown in south County Dublin. All of these schemes also provide for improved public transport facilities, including new or upgraded rail stations. This kind of sustainable development was commended in the recent NESC report on housing in Ireland.
In Sligo a series of private sector hotel, leisure, retail, and commercial developments, totalling approximately €200 million in value, have started since its designation as a gateway. The completion of the inner relief road, on which work is underway, will provide further support for Sligo's development as a gateway with the local authority co-ordinating that development through a high level team and a dedicated implementation officer.
These are some examples of how we have started to build bridges between strategic planning at regional and local level and the determination of our national investment priorities. Additional support and investment will be needed in the coming years to give effect to the national spatial strategy and the regional planning guidelines and to achieve the Government's key objectives of more balanced regional development. Important planning, land use and transportation strategies have recently been put in place in Galway, Limerick and Waterford which will make important contributions to the ongoing development of these gateways.
New local area plans to take forward the role envisaged for them in the national spatial strategy have been adopted or are in the course of being prepared in respect of Cavan, Ennis, Kilkenny's western environs and the Tralee-Killarney area through the new county development plan for Kerry. Infrastructure investment generally, particularly in the areas of transport, communications, water and environmental services, is making an important contribution to the ongoing development of the gateways and hubs across the country. In publishing the national spatial strategy, the Government stated that it would take account of the strategy in moving forward the progressive decentralisation of Government offices and agencies.
Contrary to popular belief and what has been asserted, the Government did not abandon the national spatial strategy, NSS, in bringing forward the decentralisation programme. For example, my Department's current operations in Dublin are being transferred largely to Waterford, which is a gateway under the NSS, as well as Wexford and Kilkenny, both of which are hubs. However, in addition to the NSS, the Government had to take account of a wide range of other factors in selecting suitable locations for decentralisation.
These other factors included the following: the core business and nature of the relevant Department or agency and the location of its customer base; the location of existing decentralised offices; the desirability of clustering a Department's decentralised units within a region, which is important from a personnel perspective as well as administratively; the importance of respecting the scale and character of locations in terms of their capacity to absorb the new jobs involved; and the existence of good transport links and the general infrastructure capacity in the locations selected.
I also emphasise that the NSS is not just about gateways and hubs. The strategy has a strong focus on the need to strengthen the county town and large town structure and the need for a renewed emphasis on the potential of small towns, villages and rural areas. The strategy envisages that county towns and other medium-sized towns would continue to play important roles as local capitals, developing their enterprise and service functions and continuing to provide opportunities for employment both in the towns themselves and in related smaller towns, villages and rural areas. The relocation of public service employment to many of these towns will help to underpin the important role which many of them will continue to play into the future.
My Department will continue to work closely with regional and local authorities and with Departments and Government agencies in seeking to implement the national spatial strategy and the regional planning guidelines. The Government is committed to taking the actions necessary to support the delivery of the national spatial strategy and the regional planning guidelines and will work proactively to support their implementation. The reciprocal challenge for regional and local authorities is to put in place the implementation measures set out in the guidelines and to take the necessary decisions identifying the investment priorities for different regions. This is a particular challenge to local authorities to take command of the situation, use the strategies which are put in place and ensure that the development plans which are enacted locally are consistent with the overall strategies. The Government will continue to work closely with the regional and local authority structure in seeking the deliver the objective of more balanced regional development, which is accepted by all as being essential to our future national development.
The Government produced the national spatial strategy in 2002 in a blaze of publicity and then promptly lost its way in an attempt to forget about it. Stumbling in a self-made maze, more complex than any inhabited by the Minotaur of Greek mythology, the Government has made no attempt to offer visible appeasement, comparable to the seven youths and virgins demanded by the ancient creature, to regions throughout the country left without the promised infrastructure and investment.
On Thursday, 6 December 2002, I said in this House, when speaking about the launch of the spatial strategy: "Once again this Government has conceptualised and formulated an idea which although fine in theory, will be a miracle if seen through to completion. Given the pitfalls which are likely to befall it, I am not holding my breath." For the sake of my lungs, it is lucky I did not do so. Two and a half years later it is clear my words were prophetic and true.
The strategy has been left to gather dust on the shelves of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. There is no implementation strategy with a set timetable of action in place and no guarantees that investment and infrastructure planning will correspond with the development of the regions. Throughout the country, there is a lack of balanced regional development. According to the Western Development Commission, of the €1,570 million allocated to the region under the first three years of the national development plan, NDP, only €926 million was actually spent, a shortfall of approximately €644 million that should have been spent by the mid-point of the NDP.
The Government's level of capital investment under the NDP prioritises the major inter-urban routes, for example, Dublin to Cork, Limerick, Dundalk, Galway and Waterford, but even these are not expected to be completed until 2010. This means that other roads designated under the national development plan, especially those in the BMW region, may not be completed until 2015 or later. Road building schemes in the west, as outlined in the national development plan, are significantly behind schedule. Road schemes which were due to be completed by 2006 and which are now years behind schedule include the N4-N6 Dublin to Galway; the N3-N4 Leixlip to M50 junction; the N6 — Kinnegad to Athlone; the N6 — Athlone to Ballinasloe; the N6 — Ballinasloe to Galway; the N55, which passes through Longford and Westmeath to Athlone and is in a deplorable state; and the N52. This has been highlighted time and again in both Houses of the Oireachtas.
The midlands regional planning guidelines, which were adopted last April, focus on building up the urban structure of the region in accordance with a hierarchy of towns. A Leas-Chathaoirligh, there seem to be two meetings taking place in the Chamber. The Minister should listen to my contribution.
The guidelines consider Longford and Portlaoise, with smaller towns and villages, to be further down the list. We were disappointed with this at the time but we are doing our best in our respective local authorities to push Longford, Westmeath and Roscommon forward under the spatial strategy.
The huge shortfall in investment in public transport in the BMW region was highlighted in the ESRI's mid-term evaluation of the NDP, the report of which was published in 2003. This report highlighted the fact that investment in public transport has been 43% of that forecast in the BMW region and 149% of the forecast for the south and east region. There was a massive underspend of €223 million on public transport in the BMW region at the mid-term stage of the programme.
In 2002, the Department of Transport established a rural transport initiative and provided €3 million in funding for 34 rural transport projects, mainly to private operators to run the projects. In 2003 and 2004, this money was continued but, in budget 2005, the Government gave only a marginal increase to the initiative and permitted its continuation on a pilot basis for a further two years, until 2006. There is no guarantee of funding beyond that year. This gives an additional €475,000 to the scheme. However, the rural transport initiative co-ordinators sought €5 million per annum. The miserly increase barely takes account of inflation and means there can be no expansion of the initiative. It has remained the same since 2002. An average of one local bus service in each county is wholly inadequate.
The re-opening of the western rail corridor was dismissed in the strategic rail review as too expensive when it was costed at €572 million. The West on Track group has put the cost at €230 million while Galway County Council's director of services maintains it could be reopened for €215 million. The western rail corridor potentially could develop a cross radial service as well as commuter services for Limerick, Sligo and Galway. Senator MacSharry has referred to this on a number of occasions. It has the potential to connect the cities, towns and many rural communities along its route and also to expand the transport of Irish exports to international markets by using ports such as Rosslare and Waterford. This rail line could serve as a vital link between Sligo, Limerick and Waterford ports. Substandard roads currently service these ports and an effective rail link could overcome this problem, with the added bonus of taking heavy goods trucks off the roads.
A similar development, and something which I have campaigned for over the years, is a central rail line linking the towns of the midlands, particularly those within the triangular gateway, including Longford, Roscommon, Portlaoise and Cavan. Currently, if one wishes to make a connection to Cork from Longford, one must travel to Portlaoise, a journey of 70 miles. In the case of Cavan, the journey is more than 100 miles. The recent enterprise strategy group report recommended that there should be increased spending on public transport in the west. The western rail corridor would fit into this requirement. A figure of €250 million is the estimated cost of the project, which should be seen in the context of the hundreds of millions spent annually on our roads programme and other infrastructure projects such as the Dublin Port tunnel or the Luas.
The Council of the West has criticised the Government for its neglect of the BMW region. The council says planned NDP spending on the BMW region's infrastructure was under target by 14% towards the end of 2003. Spending on roads was only 62.8% of the figure forecast, while expenditure on roads in the south and east was 143% of the figure forecast.
In budget 2004, the Government announced the decentralisation of 10,300 workers out of Dublin and into the regions. The proposed locations completely ignored the spatial strategy guidelines. In November 2004, the Government reneged on its promise of decentralisation by cutting 29 regional towns from the first phase of the decentralisation programme. This was a major climb-down from its controversial plan to move more than 10,000 State officials from Dublin to the regions before the end of 2007. Only 20 towns will benefit in the initial stages of the project up to 2008 while other towns are left in limbo as to when, if ever, they will benefit from decentralisation. Towns in the BMW region to lose out include Cavan, Buncrana, Donegal, Gweedore, Ballinasloe, Clifden, Claremorris and Roscommon.
Knock Airport is the only international airport in the BMW region and, as such, could be a real driver of economic and tourism development, with Abbeyshrule in County Longford also providing a valuable regional service to the midlands. Why is there a lack of Government support for Knock Airport, the potential of which is untapped at present? It could be a huge driver of economic and tourist development across the west. The Government should have more foresight in this regard and invest in Knock Airport, which it has not done.
The BMW report and other reports on the west recognise the point. The same can be said for Abbeyshrule Airport, which has a population of 250,000 within a 30 mile radius. The Government has so far ignored both airports' requests for increased investment to facilitate an increase in the number and frequency of their routes, particularly the desire to begin transatlantic routes. While I do not say that for Abbeyshrule Airport, it should and could be developed as a bonus to the midlands. Many businesspeople travelling to the midlands use Abbeyshrule but it remains unrecognised by Government. Even sports team trainers in the midlands use the airport, for example, PáidíÓ Sé flies to Abbeyshrule perhaps twice a week to train the Westmeath team.
The Government should consider the logic of investing in and promoting this small regional airport in the midlands. I compliment the local aviation club on its untiring efforts since 1958 to ensure that the airport remains in operation. It provides a fantastic tourist amenity as well as supporting infrastructure in the midlands.
We are doing better than Galway at the moment.
The BMW region innovation report, which was commissioned by the BMW regional assembly and published in November 2004, points to a significant gap in the level of technological innovation and research and development activity taking place in the BMW region and calls for greater resources to be allocated to this area. The report recommends that there should be greater emphasis on building strong networks of businesses, improving business innovation and investing more in research in the region's third level institutions. In this regard, I acknowledge the benefits brought by Abbott Ireland to the midlands, including County Longford. We look forward to the official opening of its plant in April next, which will provide 800 necessary jobs in the county.
The report also paints a picture of a region that is under-performing in terms of innovation and research activities, business start-up and expansion. A particular concern is the low rate of employment of higher-level graduates. The cathaoirleach of the regional assembly emphasised that the BMW region's heavy reliance on low value-added industries renders it particularly vulnerable in the context of the decline and restructuring of traditional manufacturing, agriculture and primary processing industries. The need to enhance the region's innovative capacity, particularly in knowledge-based and research and development sectors and their attractiveness to high value added industries, therefore becomes even more pressing.
The European Commission must continue to provide transitional EU funding from the Objective One budget to regions that will lose their Objective One status in 2006. The transitional arrangements that currently apply to the southern and eastern region must be applied to the BMW region post 2006.
The Government has presided over a huge fall in the level of farm incomes. The average farm income has declined dramatically in the past ten years. The IFA claims that over 15,000 farm families have incomes of less than €200 per week. There is a flight from the land. Evidence of this includes the fact that since 1997 the number of young farmers claiming installation aid has fallen by around two thirds.
The Government has failed to deliver the RAPID programme. The programme was initiated in February 2001 when it was announced that €2 billion would be pledged for deprived urban areas in Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Dundalk, New Ross, Athy and Carrick-on-Suir. Some 25 areas were named initially, with another 20 areas added before the 2002 general election. In 2002 the Taoiseach promised that €2 billion would be spent on tackling disadvantage in underprivileged areas over the lifetime of RAPID; to date, less than 10% of this money has been allocated.
In June 2003, the ESB announced its decision to close a third of its stores nationwide, citing falling revenue. This is despite the company posting a profit of €250 million and being permitted to increase its prices by 14% in 2003. In the western region, the higher cost of broadband connectivity is a major issue and a disincentive to investment. Roll-out of broadband to smaller towns is not expected to be completed until 2007.
Only one of the three third generation, 3G, licensees is required to provide services outside the five major cities. In the absence of competition, 3G services in the western region are likely to be more expensive.
Funding to the rural transport initiative was cut by 50% in budget 2004. The interdepartmental committee on rural transport's key findings included the following, which I highlighted last week in the debate on regional transport.
Some 40% of people living in rural Ireland do not have access to a basic bus or rail service, 20% rarely or never have access to a car for shopping or health checks, only 30% living in the countryside or in towns or villages with a population under 1,500 have daily morning or evening commuter services and over 25% are unable to make important trips due to a lack of transport.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank him for his contribution, which I found very positive, unlike the comments of Senator Bannon. The three objectives of the strategy to which the Minister referred — better spread of job opportunities, better quality of life and better places to live — are very important and I commend the Government on the progress made in this regard.
The Irish Independent published an article by Treacy Hogan when the national spatial strategy was launched in November 2002. It was headed "Planning to get it right this time on traffic and housing", but contained much on other issues. With regard to the national spatial strategy, Mr. Hogan stated:
The timing is perfect. Most young people can no longer afford to live in the Dublin area and are being forced to move further and further out to the country into long-distance dormitory towns.
This is an important issue. As the Minister stated, we are talking about better quality of life, better places to live and job opportunities. We know the huge pulling power of Dublin. People in the west and outside Dublin are often jealous when Dublin or east coast areas get development that other areas do not get. This follows on from the huge growth in population. Experts and Mr. Hogan claim that Dublin will have an even greater population in 20 years. We must have a strategy in place to ensure that other parts of the country are developed, that there are other places to live and work and that there is a better quality of life.
Senator Bannon raised issues regarding Knock Airport. I am familiar with this and Galway's airport. They are doing very well. The chairman of Knock Airport recently spoke of its great success and development and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs will be decentralised to that area. We do not need to worry about Knock Airport or investment in it. I sympathise with Senator Bannon's concerns about the western rail corridor. I do not understand why that corridor, or any section of it, was not included in the rail review. Cork was mentioned, for example. The Minister said the Midleton to Cork line will receive investment.
Many costings have been rendered for the western rail line, be it called Sligo to Cork or the so-called "euroroute" of Sligo to Limerick and Rosslare. Some of these costings are absolutely inexplicable because the Sligo to Collooney line is currently included in the Dublin line, the Limerick to Cork line was always there and a good rail service from Ennis to Limerick opened recently. We must examine the issue of what I call the "missing piece" between Collooney and Ennis, including Galway city's commuter traffic. The Minister for Transport has spoken about addressing this matter in the ten-year transport investment network and the working group has considered the feasibility of the western rail corridor since June 2004. I hope the group will finalise its deliberations soon.
This route passes through many of the disadvantaged areas of the west. The chairman of the western inter-county rail committee, Fr. Michéal MacGréil, has lectured in Maynooth and written on this subject often. He has highlighted that this section of rail line passes through towns suffering depopulation and poor economies. I agree with his belief that it would be of great benefit to the west to have a rail line complemented by a road network that jointly would be a euroroute as far as Rosslare.
Tuam has been classified as both a hub town and a RAPID town. However, its railway station has fallen into disrepair. I welcomed the visit of the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, to Tuam as part of a full-day tour starting in Tubbercurry and travelling to all the towns along that railway. This link was in use until 1975 when the freight and passenger services finished. We must emphasise the importance of this particular rail network and the difference it could make if the service was available.
I have often commented on the Dublin to Galway railway line and said that 10.15 a.m. was the earliest arrival time in Galway city. On 10 January 2005 Iarnród Éireann decided to commence a Monday to Saturday service that leaves Athlone at 7 a.m. and arrives in Galway at 8.20 a.m., serving Ballinasloe, Woodlawn, Attymon and Athenry. I compliment Iarnród Éireann on this as it has been a very successful service in the six weeks or so that it has operated. It is the type of service that should be made available to commuter traffic whether it is from Claremorris, for example, through Tuam to Athenry or from Ennis to Gort and Galway city. These services were once used by workers and students. We have such traffic problems in places like Loughrea, where a bypass is being built, and the very busy village of Claregalway on the N17 that we must operate this rail service again. The opportunity the Government has provided to allow this service to be addressed in the ten-year transport investment framework is very welcome.
We should also look at the issue of integrated transport. Train and bus services can be complementary rather than competitive, as they sometimes are, and there should be a better combined bus and train frequency. I welcome the prospect of Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann discussing this issue. Some of the rural transport initiatives are good examples, such as community transport operators linking with Iarnród Éireann services.
I am amazed at the high number of costings of the rail corridor. One reason, perhaps, is that people are examining Sligo to Limerick or Sligo to Cork or Sligo to Limerick and Rosslare, but the "missing piece" of the Collooney to Ennis line has been costed at approximately €370 million by the director of services in Galway County Council. This figure is much smaller than the amounts first quoted by the rail review.
I wish to put this in context. I have always welcomed work on bypasses. When the bypasses of Lucan, Leixlip, Maynooth and Kilcock occurred, people in Galway asked me why all of the money was being spent in the eastern region, but it has been of great benefit to everyone irrespective of their location to see this work taking place. We are now undertaking work on the Kinnegad route so that there will be a direct route from Galway to Dublin eventually. I welcome the Minister's comments regarding the €1.4 billion spending on national roads. It is important that we do not overlook roads while discussing the railways but the same people in Galway will refer to the headline in today's paper about €1 billion earmarked for a ring road to beat the M50 gridlock. It ties into my comments on Dublin's increasing size. This new road will stretch from Drogheda to Navan and to Naas because experts inform us that the M50 is not the answer.
There will be inevitable complaints about massive spending in the east. Senator Bannon is correct that we should look at the BMW now and identify areas in which money must be spent. I covered the issue of rail comprehensively but there is more to it. Progress is being made on the bypass of Loughrea and other routes are being examined. I wish this could be carried out more quickly but there are many processes to go through.
There are matters regarding providing health and educational services in hub towns. I quote Mr. Hogan's November 2002 article in the Irish Independent again when he said: "It is crucial to provide the roads, hospitals, universities, industries, government departments, houses, major rail links and good culture and recreational facilities to the new alternative cities." Now that the spatial strategy is in place we have gateways and hub towns. We must ensure these are good places in which to live as mentioned by the Minister in his introduction.
I was delighted that Tuam was designated as a hub town. The Minister knows this area very well. Tuam was rocked by the closure of the sugar factory in the 1980s and the general air of gloom and doom at the time but is beginning to pick itself up. However, I was disappointed that as a hub town it was not considered for decentralisation. Ballinasloe, which was not a hub town, got the National Roads Authority while Loughrea, a smaller town, has benefitted from decentralisation of the railway commission.
It is important to look at other issues relevant to Tuam. Regarding the health services, for example, Tuam had a hospital run by the Bon Secours Order and I hope a community hospital will be established there. Other issues include education and the amalgamation of the two secondary boys' schools and the two secondary girls' schools is welcome. Being a hub town, Tuam should get priority for such developments and I hope it will.
I welcome what Deputy Cullen, the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, said regarding planning guidelines. Many Members and public representatives in the west talked about this matter for many years and pointed out, for example, that people with roots in rural communities and links to them should be considered for planning permission. The Minister has gone one step further. I welcome the comments which he made on his appointment regarding the need to help immigrants with regard to planning.
I am delighted that the guidelines brought in by the previous Minister, with possibly more to come from the current Minister in terms of regional strategy, will be the basis of good planning practice in our local authorities. No one wants a free-for-all. We are looking for good planning practice. The guidelines with regard to areas of conservation, special protection and national heritage are not meant to operate as some kind of inflexible constraint on housing development because such development can be done in a tasteful manner. In heritage towns such as Athenry and Gort in County Galway, good planning has resulted in good housing schemes.
The Minister referred to the role of local authorities. Frustrations can arise in this area with regard to issues we raise with the Minister. I will give one example. I know the Minister is familiar with Milltown, the tidiest town in County Galway for the past few years. The town is on the N17 and has been seeking a sewerage scheme to allow for greater town development. I know the scheme is due to start this year but in recent days I have seen documentation from the Department to the effect that not all the particulars have been received from the local authority. I regret that and I ask the Minister and his Department to resolve the matter with the local authority and put the scheme in place. The tender should have gone out before now and the scheme is due to start this year as part of the 2004-06 development.
These are just some of the issues. In his speech, the Minister went on a bit of a tour of the country and highlighted good developments. I would like him to look at certain issues in the western region. I have concentrated mostly on railways but other issues include planning, housing, education and health. They are not all his concern but some are. They should be developed, and the funding must be there so that as the Minister rightly said, the areas become better places in which to live, with a better quality of life and a better spread of job opportunities equal to that in other parts of the country.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I thank him for his overview of the position as he sees it under the national spatial strategy. It is a worthwhile strategy provided it is properly and effectively underpinned by the necessary commitment. The idea of spreading development around the country and not merely in Dublin has much to recommend it. The Minister emphasised that in many of his remarks. He is a Minister with whom I have greatly agreed on other matters, particularly with regard to his guidelines to local authorities. My only wish in that regard is that he had strengthened them by putting them in the form of a directive but he is aware of my views on that issue. Having praised the Minister in that regard, I am a little sad that I have to strongly disagree with him on other matters. If I am wrong, I have no doubt the Minister will correct me.
The national spatial strategy must not be seen as a flag of convenience to be raised on every occasion when it is politically expedient to do so. Initiatives designed to deliver on a national spatial strategy must be well thought out and have the genuine effect of assisting with the objectives set down in the strategy.
It is striking that one of the measures cited by the Minister as evidence of his commitment to the national spatial strategy is likely to have a negative impact and not benefit the achievement of balanced, sustainable and enduring development. The Minister recently introduced changes to the retail planning guidelines by lifting the cap on the size of retail warehouses in the functional areas of the four Dublin local authorities and the gateway towns identified under the national spatial strategy. The change will apply to urban renewal areas covered by an integrated area plan in each of the areas. This opens the possibility of retail megawarehouses in the gateway towns, which will have a regional impact.
Concerns have been expressed by some of the trade associations that these changes will have significant impact on the gateway and hub towns identified under the national spatial strategy. For example, an expert traffic assessment prepared by P.J. O'Connor, consulting traffic engineers, for the Irish Hardware Association, demonstrated that such large-scale developments in gateway locations would impact negatively on hub towns and the road networks surrounding gateway locations. It is hard to see how this is consistent with spatial planning.
The Minister referred to Killarney and Tralee and to the county development plan. When I go home tomorrow I will investigate what stage that plan is at. Given that they are hub towns, this is a matter of serious concern as it is for all hub towns throughout the country.
The retail planning guidelines as they relate to the durable goods and retail warehouse sectors have been working very well. Senators are aware of retail park developments in their areas or counties, all located in a proportionate manner, which give consumers choice, selection, innovation and value. Instead of one big outlet or one big retail park, in some areas of the country we have a more even spread of development at both gateway and hub locations which is consistent with the national spatial strategy.
Although I respect the Minister's rights in the following regard — presumably every Minister has such rights, within the confines of collective Cabinet responsibility — it has emerged that the changes to the retail planning guidelines introduced by the Minister were made very much on the basis of the Minister's own personal assessments of retailing needs and not necessarily based on proper planning, advice and considerations.
I was particularly taken by the Minister's reply, which I read in detail, to a question tabled by Deputy McHugh, which indicated a certain aspect to the Minister's decisions. Two internal reports prepared for the Minister on the topic recommended no change to the retail warehouse caps yet the Minister overruled them. That is his right. Although the retail planning guidelines took four years to prepare and involved four separate teams of planning expertise, the Minister made the changes without any specific independent research or studies during the review of the guidelines. He did not seek the views of the NRA on the changes, which is significant given that traffic considerations are so important.
The Minister also overruled the concerns of the Dublin Transportation Office which I understand advised against the changes and ignored the balance of the submissions received on the issue. As he outlined to the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business, of which I am honoured to be a member, he received 71 submissions, 48 of which favoured the retention of the cap, 19 of which wanted the cap to be lifted and four of which had no view one way or the other. While it is obvious there were vested interests on both sides, the balance of the submissions clearly leaned in one direction.
In light of the potentially harmful impact of these changes and the nature of the decision-making procedure involved, their consequences for the national spatial strategy must be of concern. In a sense, they represent the hallmarks of an Irish solution to a Swedish problem. This matter was not properly or expertly considered. It also creates a cynical impression of the commitment, at the highest level, to the national spatial strategy and leaves many feeling uneasy about whether there is a proper and real willingness to advance sustainable spatial planning.
Members will gather from what I have said that I am unashamedly a person who favours rural and provincial towns and villages. I do not doubt the Minister's ability to deal with situations as they arise and I hope he will be able to fine-tune or refine the strategy in some necessary ways. From what he has informed me about integrated area plans, etc., it appears that the worst effects I have imagined will never come to pass.
I listened with great interest to Senator Kitt's comments about Iarnród Éireann and improved rail links. I welcome the various improvements that have been made to rail lines throughout the country. I particularly welcome those to the rail service from Kerry to Dublin. As the House is aware, people in my county have been treated like second-class citizens because they live on the periphery. I congratulate the company on the improvements put in place in terms of loop lines, etc., at various stations — particularly those at Rathmore, Millstreet and on the Killarney-Mallow section on the line between Dublin and Kerry. I am interested, however, in discovering when we will be rid of the pre-war carriages, particularly those on the service from Tralee through Killarney to Cork. When will new rolling stock be put in place? A commitment was made in respect of such rolling stock but I do not know when it will arrive.
Many more people have taken to travelling by rail than used to be the case. This is a welcome development. I recently passed through the countryside between Navan and Nobber and, in the vicinity of Wilkinstown and Castletown, I saw some disused rail tracks. I inquired about them and discovered that they connect Kingscourt to Drogheda. I am sure this line could be restored and a spur to Navan attached to it. When the Navan-Dublin line is connected, it could run further if this link was established. Dublin could, therefore, be connected to Cavan. I hope the Government's thinking is leaning in this direction because rail lines are extremely important in terms of connecting different parts of the country. I hope that we will invest increased funding and better resources in our rail system in the future.
I welcome developments to date. I congratulate Iarnród Éireann on the improvements put in place and I look forward to the company honouring its commitment to provide new carriages on all services throughout the country.
I welcome the Minister. I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. We have had similar debates in recent weeks in respect of the BMW region, regional transportation and, yesterday, the OECD report on third-level education. I ask, therefore, that the Minister indulge me if my comments are somewhat repetitive.
The national spatial strategy is probably the best plan envisaged in terms of Ireland's potential development during the next 20 to 30 years. It allows, through the gateways and hubs, various towns and cities to grow to their potential in a cohesive way and, as I understand it, take the pressure off the Dublin area where development, growth, etc., are obviously out of control.
I first heard of the national spatial strategy — long before I was elected to the Seanad — at a conference in Limerick. The essence of that conference was that we should create capacity before demand. No one would argue with the fact that the Government has done a great deal in pursuit of the aspirations of the national spatial strategy in terms of the level of investment in all aspects of our infrastructure. I refer, for example, to our roads, in respect of which a further investment of €1.4 billion was announced earlier today, and rail. As regards the latter, Senator Coghlan referred to new rolling stock and I understand that Iarnród Éireann has 400 carriages on order. I regret that the service into Killarney will probably benefit from the use of those carriages long before that into Sligo will be catered for.
There has been an unprecedented level of investment in all areas of infrastructure. However, I have a number of major concerns about the strategy. While I have no doubt that the Government and members of the Cabinet are loyal and fully committed to the aspirations and principles of the national spatial strategy, I stated when it was launched that there may have been a need for legislation or a directive, at the very least, to encourage all arms of State — semi-State bodies and all agencies that are State controlled or funded — to buy into those aspirations and principles before taking any action. I am satisfied that this has not happened. It would be a great shame if such a good plan failed because everyone did not sing from the same hymn sheet. The national spatial strategy should be the prime directive for every State organisation and local authority as they plan for the future. I do not believe this is happening.
While I paid tribute to Iarnród Éireann earlier, I must now accuse it of ignoring the spatial strategy. I refer to the fact that in Sligo, which is a gateway city, a freight yard and all the infrastructure attaching thereto is being closed by Iarnród Éireann. It is inconceivable that the company should set out to close a facility such as this in a gateway city, the population of which is expected to increase under the plan by some 50,000 during the next 30 years. This does not make sense. Iarnród Éireann will state that it closed the yard for commercial reasons. I do not know who is the head of marketing at the company but he or she need only visit any roundabout on the N4, from the M50 to Carraroe in Sligo, to see the approximately 100 container trucks per hour that pass by. Issues surrounding public safety and congestion arise as a result. The head of marketing at Iarnród Éireann should stand at one of the roundabouts to which I refer and take down details of the hauliers or the companies transporting these goods by road instead of rail and target a marketing campaign at them. Perhaps then there would be no need to close freight yards.
Bord Gáis, contrary to the aspirations and principles of the spatial strategy, is completely ignoring the entire north-west region. At a recent meeting of the relevant joint committee, the chief executive of the company proudly declared how well things are going and that under the Gas Acts and its commercial mandate, it has no intention or plans to bring the gas network to the north-west. That is unacceptable.
In general terms, the commercial mandate in the semi-State sector supersedes all aspirations in the national spatial strategy. Board members are more concerned with ensuring that the bottom line remains balanced during their tenure. We should adopt a more visionary approach in terms of what might happen in the future. If we invest in line with the national spatial strategy and create capacity before demand, then the demand will follow and we will reap the rewards. Whatever investment we make now, it will represent value for money in time.
I would like a directive to go to all arms of the State to ensure they take account not only of the bottom line and the commercial mandate but of the national spatial strategy before they act on the closure, cancellation or planning of anything for the future. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, when he was here, alluded to the speech in this House last week by the Minister for Finance in which he said he would look at any project that any region proposed, be it infrastructure development or whatever, provided that it made economic sense. However, if we are always going to take the cost-benefit analysis as the bottom line we can close the door on the north west of Ireland, indeed north of a line from Dublin to Galway and east of the Dublin-Belfast corridor. The door will be closed on the west of Ireland unless we are prepared to put in the capacity before the demand materialises. It is a chicken and egg situation.
In today's Irish Independent there is a report that the Government is considering the construction of an outer ring road linking Drogheda, Navan and towns towards Naas. If that is the way we are now thinking, it is an admission and acceptance of the Central Statistics Office prediction of 1 million more people in the country in the next 20 years, with 80% of them living in the greater Dublin area. We are accepting failure now by saying, "Let us build this outer ring road". I am not saying it should not be built, but I believe we should be investing more in the gateways and hubs, in trying to achieve our targets.
If there is an extra 1 million people in the country by 2020 and they want to be in the greater Dublin area, let us set a target to put the infrastructure in place in the other gateways and hubs to try to locate 400,000 or 500,000 of them to the other areas. Otherwise, we are admitting defeat. In another ten years, where will the ring road be? Will it take in Dundalk and Mullingar and will it be further out ten years after that? We need to be more strategic and not reacting to the inevitable. We should plan and be proactive about what we could achieve. In many ways the national spatial strategy could end up on a shelf with many other plans that have never achieved their potential. The strategy has massive potential and I want it to be a success.
In terms of the north west, it is not going to be economically viable, in the NRA's terms, to build a motorway to Sligo. The M4 has now become the M4-M6 and we currently have a great road to Sligo. However, we should be planning these routeways. The board of directors of Bord Gáis should have an aspiration to have gas in Letterkenny. If a subvention is required, that is a matter for the Government. The Houses of the Oireachtas will debate the issue and put the relevant subvention in place. EU permission will be required and it should be sought. There is no university or radiotherapy unit north of a line between Dublin and Galway. Similarly, there are many other facilities which do not exist north of that line and if we are serious about the spatial spread of people and opportunities, as the national spatial strategy aspires to be, then we will have to be speculative to the extent that capacity must be created before demand. I first heard that argument, capacity before demand, from the former Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey, at a conference in Limerick on the national spatial strategy. I cannot repeat it often enough.
I appeal for either legislation or a clear directive in this area. I ask that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government liaise with the Department of Finance in reviewing the various taxation schemes that may be put in place. I hope that the urban and rural renewal schemes are extended for particular areas north of the Dublin to Galway line because there is still much scope for them to lead development. I very much appreciate the Minister of State's reference to Sligo. I cannot help thinking this has been for my benefit, because I have been so vocal in this regard in the House.
There have been enormous benefits so far from the national spatial strategy. These have, for the most part, been privately led, and Sligo is an example, because of the perception and the expectation that central Government will invest more in the critical infrastructure of these areas, as well as their linkages to Dublin and the other hubs and gateways throughout the country. I hope the Minister of State will take some of these points on board.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am delighted to have the opportunity to say a few words on the national spatial strategy. The Government missed a golden opportunity with regard to the spatial strategy plan for the country, as happened previously in connection with the reorganisation of the local authorities when the then Government missed a similar opportunity to put a proper plan in place. We now have a mess. If one speaks to council staff and the public, one finds people are getting a worse service from the local authorities than heretofore. The opportunity was missed, as regards their reorganisation, to make them more efficient. There is no reason local authorities may not be as efficient as any other business. They have certain obligations to provide public services and so forth but there is no reason why they cannot be as efficient as private enterprise. I believe they can be.
The Government should have put more thought into how it went about devising the spatial strategy plan, particularly as regards regional balance. As Senator MacSharry said, there were debates on this in the BMW region over the last couple of weeks. I will not be repetitive, but I would like the Minister of State to clarify the following sentence in his speech:
The ten-year transport investment framework, now in preparation will take account of the linkages between transport, land use and spatial planning, and will be fully informed by, and support the policies set out in the national spatial strategy.
This is akin to a chicken and egg situation. Local authorities put county development plans in place, which only last five years. There is now an obligation for county development plans to be replaced every five years. We now see that two counties in particular, Laois and Offaly, have introduced county development plans which zone land in rural villages within their respective local authorities.
With regard to what the Minister of State has said concerning linkages to transport, land use and spatial planning being fully informed, if a local authority decides to zone in a rural town and there is no back-up from the Government as regards proper access to roads, rail, air or whatever transport for the ensuing ten years, what will be the position? Senator Kitt mentioned the Sligo to Ennis rail link, or as some people like to call it, the Sligo-Waterford link, which would be part of a European rail network. There is no reason why there could not be a linkage from Westport via Castlebar, Claremorris, Tuam, Athenry and into Galway. I believe larger centres must be grown in some areas, whether it is in the west, the south or north, to draw away from Dublin, which has become a magnet for every other region. To this the Government must put the infrastructure in place in the poorer regions. There is no other way to proceed. The transport infrastructure for national primary and secondary routes, rail and air access must be put in place. If not, it cannot be achieved. As Senator MacSharry pointed out, an outer relief road is now being planned for Dublin. This road might stretch from Drogheda to Navan and on to Naas, and probably on to Laois and Wicklow. If that road was built on the west coast, from Limerick to Galway to Sligo, it might draw from the magnet on the east coast. If one goes through the figures in place for infrastructure along the east coast, it is unbelievable in comparison to the figures for the west coast. How can the regions be developed if investment is not being provided?
We have to go back to the kernel of the Minister's speech on the linkages between transport, land use and spatial planning. Greater debate will have to take place in this regard. Above all, infrastructure in the poorer regions will have to be put in place, such as water, sewerage systems, national primary and secondary routes and especially rail transport. While this may not look right from the financial planning point of view, it is the way to go in the long term. Other than that, Dublin will become even more of a magnet. If all the infrastructure is developed in the greater Dublin area, more and more people and industries will gravitate to that region.
This development will leave local authorities in other areas in a poorer condition with a less buoyant rate base. In County Mayo, a new waste water treatment unit is required for Castlebar which will cost more than €50 million and is being developed under a public private partnership. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is now looking for the local authority to raise €12 million to €14 million so that the scheme can get off the ground. If the local authority does not have a good rate base, from where can it raise these extra funds? Where can it raise the necessary local contribution to put funding mechanisms in place to back up departmental funding?
No industry has been provided in Mayo over the past seven or eight years. It is incredible to think that a county of that size has not had any new jobs created in the past eight years. We have lost 1,000 jobs in Castlebar with the closure of Volex as well as 350 jobs in Westport. Similar things have happened in other areas and that means the rate base will decline. This will make it more difficult for local authorities to raise an initial contribution to get backing from the Department. Greater debate will have to take place about the issue of linkage between transport, land use and spatial planning. More funding will have to be put in place for the regions, especially for services, roads, railways and water treatment units.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House. The national spatial strategy is an important and positive principle, as it is about trying to spread development evenly around the country due to growth pressures in Dublin. Every day we read about projects that cost billions of euro — today it is the outer ring road and last week it was about various public transport schemes in the greater Dublin area. I would not dispute that such investments are necessary, but they are also having the effect of reinforcing concentrations around the Dublin area. It is important to recognise that even a fraction of that level of investment in other regions would make an enormous impact. It is very important that we do not just see infrastructural development that is mainly for the 50 mile radius around Dublin.
I have a certain ambivalence towards the national spatial strategy. My brother was involved in the advisory group on the strategy. He is a local authority official in Cork and helped prepare the strategy. Many people from that perspective believe that too many hubs and gateways were created. I do not come from that point of view. I come from a county which was very annoyed that Clonmel was not designated as a hub. It is a hub regardless of whether the strategy chooses to describe it as such and it is more than a county town. It has a fantastic range of industry and has no difficulty in attracting new industry and new investment. It is probably the largest town outside the 50 mile radius of Dublin that was not included.
We feel grateful for the fact that we live in a market-led economy rather than a planned economy. If we lived in a planned economy, it would be very serious. In our economy, the market will decide to a large extent where it will invest in additional housing, services and so on. The infrastructure improvements in national roads make locations along those roads more attractive in a way that is not reflected in the national spatial strategy. I am happy that the strategy is not overly constraining. It is qualitatively rather similar, but on a much larger scale, to the CLÁR and RAPID programmes. It is a consideration which can be adduced to support investment in particular areas. It clearly is not the only criterion. I am glad that decentralisation was not just concentrated, as some of its critics claimed it should have been, on the hubs and gateways. The term "gateway" makes no sense if all activity is imagined as being stuck under the gate. The term "hub" makes no sense unless there is much activity spread around it.
I support the points made about improving public transport infrastructure. It seems that it is necessary to refurbish existing infrastructure around the main cities to provide commuter and regional public transport services. The arguments Senator Paddy Burke and others made regarding the north west can also be made in relation to the Limerick and Waterford areas. Some steps have been taken in that regard. For example, the Minister, Deputy Roche, referred in depth to the Mallow-Cork-Midleton commuter line.
The effects of the Celtic tiger reached some parts of the country relatively slowly and have only been felt in some places in the past year or two. The announcement of decentralisation had a significant stimulatory effect on private investment in certain places even though the offices in question have yet to open in most cases. Balanced regional development is very important and a great deal of progress has been made in many centres. Many of the main towns in south Tipperary, excluding Clonmel which is already thriving, have taken off in the past year or two in ways in which they did not during earlier periods of growth. This suggests that as congestion increases and costs rise in larger centres, market forces naturally push people to examine locations at the periphery. It is very important to ensure that infrastructural, cultural and sporting investment is made at a level which guarantees the quality of life of people in these areas.
I thank Senators for their contributions to today's debate. While the spatial strategy has only been in place for two years and was always intended to constitute a long-term policy, some speakers have sought to convey the impression that everything should be achieved within a short space of time. A great deal of progress has been made to spread the message and embed the strategy in the plans and programmes of Departments, Government agencies and wider regional and local authority structures. The first act had to be to ensure that all Government agencies fell into line with the strategy and recognised the need to implement it in their various national, regional and local plans.
Looking forward, it is timely to recall the fundamental objectives of the spatial strategy and pursue the further measures required to support them practically. I feel confident that the important gateway investment priority study, commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in co-operation with Forfás, will be taken on board by Government and have a significant influence on investment priorities into the future. While a number of gateways have put in place the development frameworks, including land-use policies, required to transmit the message of the strategy, others have not. All such frameworks will be in place by the end of 2005. The nationwide adoption of regional planning guidelines will be followed by their implementation in the statutory planning functions of local authorities. The guidelines will have a strong influence in the determination of investment priorities by Departments and agencies.
Substantial progress has been made on the major infrastructural projects which constitute a key element in the roll-out of the strategy. The first phase of the regional broadband programme to construct broadband networks in 19 towns and cities has been completed. Phase 2 will bring broadband to more than 90 towns with populations greater than 1,500 over the next three years. The group broadband scheme offers up to 50% of the funding required to meet the costs of establishing broadband connectivity for rural communities and towns with populations of less than 1,500.
Many of the speakers to whom I listened since I arrived emphasised infrastructure. Extensive infrastructural development has not taken place only in Dublin or the east in general. Major sewerage treatment plants have commenced operations in the past 12 months in Cork, Limerick and Galway and will facilitate continued development in these gateways. The pace of the national roads programme is being maintained and anyone who travels around Ireland will be aware of the excellent roads which have been constructed as a result of a significant investment of almost €8 billion over the past seven to eight years.
Key projects completed in the past year alone include phase 1 of the Limerick southern ring-road and the Monasterevin, Cashel and Ballincollig bypasses, none of which is in the Dublin area. Projects which are under way include bypasses at Ennis, Sligo, Dundalk and Fermoy and national secondary bypasses in Cavan and Mullingar. It is interesting that on the day the House debates this matter, the NRA is launching its investment programme of €1.4 billion for road infrastructure in 2005. My Department has already announced a record provision of €500 million for non-national roads. A significant level of investment is being made.
Perhaps politicians are all the same and act in a similar way on different issues. We call constantly for development and infrastructure but when it is provided we run scared and side with objectors. We must be reasonably consistent. To demand of the Government that it provide something and to suggest one does not want it when it comes is inconsistent. Senator Bannon said earlier that the Government was dragging its feet on the M3. While I am glad the Fine Gael candidate in the Meath by-election is in favour of the proposed motorway, very mixed signals have come from the party over the years all the way from the very top. People did not know whether they wanted the road. I hear Fine Gael is now in bed with the Labour Party which is absolutely against the development and maintains it will happen over its dead body. I do not know how long the marriage will last.
I am simply saying that, overall, infrastructure and investment have side effects. While there are some who demand infrastructure and wish to be able to refer to the sums of money which have been spent in their counties, there will always be people with an opposing view. Many people with a nice standard of living are of the opinion that while it is nice to have access to infrastructure, it should not be built too near them. We must be brave in calling for development and be prepared to stand up to people.
Senator Bannon was very contradictory and his reference to the M3 was especially ridiculous because of the mixed signals from his own party over the years, never mind the deal it would like with the Labour Party and perhaps more so——
Fine Gael would also like a deal with the Green Party. Opposition Members can agree on slagging the Government or come together to be against the Government.
Previous Governments, in which Opposition parties were members, might have been good for all-night Cabinet meetings. However, it is not all about debate; it is about delivery and making decisions and seeing them happen on the ground. Having a great debate is not an end in itself, rather a means to an end. It is all right if one makes a decision, but it is easy to come in here and criticise.
Senator Bannon referred to Abbeyshrule airport, and I wish him well. When we discussed Knock Airport not so long ago, Fine Gael and the Labour Party did everything possible to stop the proposal before it got out of the starting blocks, and some very derogatory remarks were made.
I agree that this whole debate is about infrastructure, which is being provided. Some €1,400 million has today been allocated for national roads, together with non-national roads. The figures being invested are enormous and many Members living in the country will see the results. I see them on my occasional visits around the country. Infrastructure is being provided and some great jobs have been done. Perhaps they took too long in some cases, perhaps they did not. However, the work is being done and the investment is being made.
The national spatial strategy never envisaged that the Dublin area must be forgotten. Rather, it is concerned with providing alternatives and developing other parts of the country to enable them to compete with Dublin. It was never intended to run down Dublin. The target is that growth and development in other regions will outstrip Dublin in the future but we are not going to move everybody out of Dublin. It is important that services are provided for people who live in Dublin and want to stay there and have a good quality of life. However, it is hoped that in the future other regions, gateways and hubs will develop at a faster pace than Dublin.
The national spatial strategy also strongly supports rural development and in this regard the Western Development Commission has launched its Look West initiative aimed at people living in the greater Dublin area who may consider moving to the west for quality of life reasons. My Department's guidelines on sustainable rural housing for planning authorities, published in draft form last year, seek to ensure that people in the rural community are facilitated in obtaining planning permission for their housing proposals. In the interests of sustaining population levels in the future, planning authorities are required to ensure any demand for housing in rural areas suffering from population decline is subject to good planning practice and accommodated.
I assure the House of the Government's ongoing and deep commitment to the full implementation and achievement of the objectives of the national spatial strategy. It is a Government policy, it will happen and it is happening. However, we first need to get the message out, including the policy and plans. There is no point in the Government alone speaking about them unless the policies and plans are implemented or embedded in other strategies and policies at different levels, national, regional and local. That is happening, the commitment and resources are there and the infrastructure is being provided. It is a long-term strategy, the fruits of which will be increasingly evident over the years.