I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this motion tabled by the Fine Gael Party. I will focus on decentralisation which is an important issue in County Westmeath. I welcome the commitment made by the Government this week to relocate up to 2,000 civil servants outside Dublin. The success of the decentralisation programme will depend on the Government's will to ensure that the recipient towns are provided with the necessary infrastructure and supports to capitalise on an increasing population. This is not a simple matter of locating civil servants in towns throughout Ireland or about rewarding towns in which there is a sitting Minister, regardless of the towns' employment or economic needs. The process is far more complex than that.
Earlier this month, I contributed to the debate on the Town Renewal Bill. I stated that local authorities should be given greater autonomy for planning the social, physical and economic infrastructure of their towns and villages. Local autonomy and the devolution of central Government is a central ingredient in the success of the decentralisation process. Ireland is sufficiently small to ensure that a decentralised form of government can work successfully. Devolved government is not the only ingredient in successful decentralisation. The provision of telecommunications infrastructure, adequate transport and housing is also crucial.
I refer to the case which has been well made for Mullingar by Westmeath County Council in co-operation with Mullingar Town Commission, the Westmeath County Enterprise Board, the Mullingar Chamber of Commerce, the Mullingar District Trades Council and the Westmeath Community Development Association. These groups made a presentation to the Minister for Finance in March on the reasons Mullingar would be an ideal centre for decentralisation. The most recent quarterly national household survey clearly showed that the midland and Border regions have benefited least from employment growth where the jobless rate still hovers at around 7%. That statistic should be borne in mind when decisions on decentralisation are made.
Mullingar has been bypassed on a number of previous occasions. We are not into the politics of begrudgery in Westmeath as they do not achieve anything. However, many towns around Mullingar have benefited from the transfer of Government Departments and jobs. I am delighted by the success of the decentralisation process which is important for the reinvigoration of rural Ireland and the reduction of congestion in and around Dublin. Many civil servants from Mullingar and the surrounding towns and villages in north-west Meath travel to Dublin or elsewhere on a daily or weekly basis and they would welcome the opportunity to transfer back to their homes or an area near their homes. They would also welcome the opportunity to apply for transfers to other decentralised Departments or agencies which may be located in Mullingar. If they were presented with the opportunity to move back home, they could avail of a cheaper standard of living and more affordable property prices. Some commuters travel daily on a rail service which can prove problematic and they would welcome the opportunity to work in a decentralised Department in Mullingar.
I will outline some of Mullingar's virtues with which the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Wallace, will be familiar. Mullingar, which is located only one hour from Dublin, is the county town of County Westmeath. With its rural hinterland, the town displays the best rural and urban aspects of contemporary Irish life. The town offers a quality lifestyle, having first class schools, excellent health care services and an enjoyable social atmosphere. Mullingar is a friendly, outward looking town which combines modern facilities with a co-operative, supportive and welcoming environment. Those are important attributes for any town wishing to attract a decentralised Department.
Mullingar has traditionally served as the market and service centre for a large agricultural hinterland which itself has attractive villages, towns and rural areas. Today, Mullingar has a strong industrial infrastructure comprising a healthy mix of indigenous and inward investment firms. The service sector is an important player in its own right in addition to being a support to industry.
Mullingar, known as "the capital of the lakelands", is an ideal location for leisure and recreation. It is located close to Loughs Owel, Derravaragh, Ennell and Lene, the latter two boasting Ireland's only inland blue flag bathing locations. Mullingar's 18 hole championship golf course is one of the best in Ireland. Horse riding enthusiasts can avail of a choice of equestrian centres while the town's swimming pool offers top class facilities.
Mullingar Arts Centre is a hive of activity for the performing of visual arts and Belvedere House park and gardens, the gem of the midlands, is now open to the public and is set to become one of Ireland's premier tourist attractions. These attractions will be augmented by the opening of a national transport museum which is being planned for Mullingar.
Mullingar is an ideal centre for Government decentralisation from an administrative, professional and personal standpoint. While it is obviously for the Government to decide on this matter and while we would welcome any Department or agency in the town, local and regional circumstances might suggest that particular consideration should be given to the relocation of the Central Fisheries Board, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, the Revenue Commissioners or the Department of the Environment and Local Government. I have made a strong case for Mullingar's ideal location, 50 miles from Dublin, as a centre for decentralisation.
It is essential that new development patterns are shaped in such a way as to minimise the need for people to travel. Under developed parts of rural Ireland must be revitalised and we must ensure that their redevelopment meets the needs of existing communities, rather than excluding or isolating them. Counties such as Westmeath, Cavan and others in the midlands and north-west region must be promoted and utilised as regional and national centres of trade, business and tourism. There must be positive discrimination in regard to housing development in rural areas in which there is demonstrable population decline. I urge the Minister of State to convey that message to the higher echelons of the Department. The Department must be made aware that rural people want to live in their own environment.
The lack of sewerage infrastructural development is a major problem in rural areas. I cannot understand why the Minister has failed to address this. I welcome the increased grant of £5,100 for group water schemes, based on a maximum allowable cost of £6,000, announced at the end of March. Similar action is required for group sewerage schemes in order that rural areas can be kept alive. People living in places such as Rathowen, Castletown-Geoghan and Ballymore in County Westmeath badly need such grants. Many people, including old age pensioners and recipients of social welfare benefits, in County Westmeath and other counties are attached to group water and sewerage schemes but are being denied services because they do not have the wherewithal to pay for them. That matter should be immediately rectified by the Minister. The level of grants available for group sewerage schemes should be increased to the same level as those available for group water schemes.
Sustainable development must embrace quality of life issues in addition to concerns about the physical quality of the urban environment. We must provide adequate recreational open space to meet our population's needs, together with adequate educational facilities to cater for the educational requirements of our young people. It is vital that adequate child care facilities are provided, at least at the rate of 20 places for every 75 dwellings as outlined in Westmeath County Council's draft development plan. I would like to have commented on the issue of transport but time constraints do not permit me to do so.