Topical Issue Debate

Regional Development

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. He would agree that if there is one trend to be observed in our country’s economic recovery it is how Dublin-centric it is. The lion’s share of new jobs are in the greater Dublin region and the property market over the last period of time is performing in the same way, which is leading to talk of a two-speed market. With this topical issue, focusing on what is termed the western arc, it is not my intention to follow in the footsteps of others and be overtly critical or to take a swipe at Dublin because it would be advantageous to do so. However, to any observer it is clear that economic recovery is stronger in the capital.

We cannot - nor should citizens be expected to - cram into Dublin and the surrounding counties. According to the latest CSO figures, 50% of the population live in the Leinster area. There is an ignorance, sometimes completely genuine, among residents of the capital of the additional challenges faced by people in rural or semi-rural areas. Limited public transport options, less developed transport infrastructure, additional costs for energy supply and communications and a lack of high-quality broadband Internet services, let alone a choice of service providers, are all additional challenges faced by people outside Dublin and the other urban areas. I regularly meet with businesses in the west and with constituents who outline such problems, which are holding them back.

A web presence is integral to the success of a business, with an increasing amount of business being conducted online. Furthermore, the transition to e-commerce and e-business is lessening the significance of location, meaning a business on the western coast with a high-quality broadband connection can compete successfully with a business in central Dublin. Broadband Internet access is also vital for flexible working options. Recently, a constituent who works from home for part of the week told me he has to drive to the car park of his local GAA club to be able to download some of the documents he requires.

The Government obviously cannot dictate to businesses where they should locate or establish themselves. However, Government can and should take steps to promote a regionally balanced economic recovery. The western arc is a counterbalance to the east and Dublin regions and involves connectivity between five of the six largest cities, Belfast, Derry, Sligo, Galway, Limerick and Cork. It is essential for maximising the total gain from road, rail, air, sea, energy and broadband telecommunications to release the full economic potential of the region.

There must be a realisation that a meaningful economic recovery will not take place until we address regional imbalances in a co-ordinated and strategic way. The lack of co-ordination and strategy is exemplified by the fact that this topical issue falls between the two Departments - those responsible for communications and transport - with each saying the other is responsible. The western arc initiative involves the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources as well as other Government Departments and State organisations such as the Western Development Commission and the Border, Midlands and Western Regional Assembly. They have done much work to promote the region and, rightly, to point out the positives in the region. I ask the Minister to look positively on the western arc proposal as has been outlined. I am sure he is aware of it. He might give us his comments.

The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, is unable to attend today due to a prior commitment. As Deputy Kyne pointed out, the question he has posed is shared between the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. I will try as best I can to respond to the issues he raised.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has indicated to the House previously that there is no policy or plan to develop the concept of a so-called western arc or indeed a so-called eastern arc. The Government's policy on the funding of capital projects to 2016, including rail and road links, is set out in the document Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2012-16: Medium Term Exchequer Framework. Due to the overall reduction in funding for transport infrastructure, the priority to 2016 is to protect the investment made to date and maintain safety standards. The limited funding available over and above this priority will be provided only for projects which are affordable, meet overall transport objectives and deliver the best return in terms of economic recovery and job creation.

In the energy area, the Government Policy Statement on the Strategic Importance of Transmission and Other Energy Infrastructure underlines the importance of investment in energy infrastructure. The statement notes that our ability to rebuild the economy, deliver the regional development Deputy Kyne mentioned, create jobs and growth, ensure general well-being and realise the economic potential of our renewable energy resources requires such investment.

EirGrid has a major commitment to upgrading and putting in place new infrastructure all over the west of Ireland, which supports economic growth. The €240 million Grid West project consists of a new high-capacity power line linking the Bellacorick area in County Mayo to Flagford in County Roscommon and Cashla in County Galway. This project is part of EirGrid's GRID25 plan to upgrade the national transmission system between now and 2025. The Grid West project will connect the electricity generated by the region's major renewable energy resources and will facilitate significant job creation and investment as well as contributing to national recovery and growth.

Considerable public and private sector investment in telecommunications has already been made in the western arc region. Bord Gáis has installed fibre-optic cabling along the route of its gas pipeline from Cork to Galway via Ennis, Shannon and Limerick. ESB and larnród Éireann also provide backhaul services in the region. Project Kelvin provides direct international telecommunications connectivity to North America and Europe and links Letterkenny to Derry and Belfast. The national broadband scheme provides basic broadband services. I am delighted that all post primary schools in the region and in all of Ireland will be connected with 100 Mbps broadband by September 2014.

Metropolitan area fibre networks have been built in 47 towns in the western region, providing high-capacity services to telecommunications operators in these locations. Telecommunications operators are also investing in advanced broadband services. Deputy Kyne rightly pointed out the significant challenge we face in delivering a high-quality broadband service to the whole of Ireland, including the western seaboard. The Government's national broadband plan aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland by ensuring high-speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses through a combination of commercial investment and State intervention.

It is clear that despite the economic downturn, the Government and industry remain committed to investing in the western region. We are committed to building on the region's considerable potential for growth, particularly in the energy area, and by facilitating greater connectivity, the Government is focused on maximising the opportunities for development in the western arc region.

I thank the Minister of State for providing a response on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar. It is clear that there is significant activity and I am familiar with much of it. We are in a situation where over 50% of the population are in the Leinster region and to prevent further decline in the population outside that region, we need to ensure the western region will continue to receive investment. The investment outlined will provide for the provision of sustainable jobs in the region.

I am disappointed to hear that the petitions committee of the European Parliament wrote to the Government - the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in particular - asking why available EU funding for projects such as those comprising the western arc was not being drawn down. Everyone knows and appreciates the constraints on State expenditure and we remain in a vulnerable position in that regard. However, we must appreciate that investment of the type sought will produce multiple times the dividend produced by the initial State contribution. The letter from the petitions committee states that it regrets that the west and north-west region appear not to have benefited from ERDF funding and that no ex-ante public consultation was carried out.

This relates to funding as far back as 2007; therefore, the lack of investment does not just cover the period of office of the current Government. The petitions committee was referring to a lack of investment over a long period, particularly in transport. As the Minister of State is aware, the European Union has a transport infrastructural programme, the TEN-T programme, from which €26 billion is available from now for the next few years across Europe for regional infrastructural projects. I seek a response from the Government as to why the western region has not been included in a TEN-T programme funding proposal. I ask the Minister of State to liaise with the Minister on this issue so as to advance the concept and procure infrastructure under the TEN-T programme.

As I indicated, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has already informed the House that there is no policy or plan to develop the specific concept referred to by the Deputy, the so-called western arc. There is no plan to develop an eastern arc either. Following discussion of this issue in the public domain, I understand the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, organised for a deputation from the west to meet officials in the Department and there was a significant discussion of the concept. The investment suggested by the Deputy involves quite a complex process and is primarily designed to create inter-country rather than internal linkages. However, I will undertake to discuss the issue further with the Minister.

The Deputy is aware that we are on the cusp of developing the final section of the M17-M18 motorway. I am hopeful the project will proceed to construction next year. This will provide a significant arterial transport corridor, stretching from Limerick to Sligo and linking some of the significant towns and cities mentioned. There is major and ongoing investment in the west. The Government is committed to achieving balanced regional development and the investment we are making reflects this. We want to leverage private sector investment, particularly in the roll-out of broadband, and are confident we can do this. We already see the tangible results of that policy on investment in the west and I hope we will see further results in the future.

School Inspection Reports

Last Monday the chief inspector's report for the period 2010 to 2012 was published. As Fianna Fáil's spokesperson on education, I was happy to see that the report was predominantly positive. I compliment the chief inspector, Mr. Harold Hislop, on the report which contains significant detail and is based on the findings of announced and unannounced inspections. I also compliment the inspectorate on increasing the frequency of inspections in recent years.

The report includes assessments after announced and unannounced inspections by staff from the Department of Education and Skills. It found that standards of teaching and learning were satisfactory or better in the majority of lessons; parental surveys showed high levels of satisfaction - 97% - with primary schools; and standards of teaching and learning were satisfactory or better in the majority of lessons inspected. Some 86% of lessons inspected in unannounced inspections were satisfactory or better in primary schools.

In complimenting the inspectorate on this report it is clear the findings mean that we must also compliment those who work at the coalface in schools and teaching staff and I am happy to do so. However - I suppose there is always a "however" - the report points to unsatisfactory quality standards in the teaching of Irish and maths in schools. In regard to the teaching of Irish in primary schools, the findings are significantly less positive than those for the teaching of English or mathematics. During the years 2010 to 2012 inspectors reported that the quality of Irish teaching was problematic in one fifth of the lessons inspected during incidental inspections and that the quality of pupils' learning of the language was problematic in approximately one quarter of lessons.

While many inspectors involved in whole-school evaluations commended the commitment and efforts of teachers to teach Irish, they also found that learning outcomes were disappointing. Inspectors judged that the teaching of Irish was satisfactory or better in 80% of lessons observed during incidental inspections. They also reported that the quality of pupils' learning outcomes was satisfactory in 76% of the lessons evaluated. Inspectors noted that assessment practices were not satisfactory in more than one third of Irish lessons evaluated between 2010 and 2012. These findings point to the need for critical numbers of primary schools to make planned, systematic provision for assessing pupils' learning of the main Irish language skills. At post-primary level, things were less satisfactory, with approximately one third of Irish lessons ranked as unsatisfactory.

With regard to the teaching of maths, findings from 124 subject inspection reports in secondary schools between 2010 and 2012 indicated that while schools generally strove to engender a positive attitude towards mathematics among their students, in a considerable number of schools there were problems with the teaching, learning, assessment of and planning for maths classes. In a significant minority of schools, 20%, deficiencies in planning and preparation in the teaching of mathematics were evident, particularly with regard to planning for the use of resources in lessons and planning for the assessment of students' learning. Inspectors found that student learning was inadequate in more than one quarter of the lessons they had observed during subject inspections.

While there is much that is positive in the inspector's report and much to be commended, weaknesses were highlighted in these two specific areas, Irish at primary and post-primary level and mathematics at post-primary level. What actions does the Minister intend to take to deal with the shortcomings identified in the report?

I too welcome the publication of the chief inspector's report for the years 2010 to 2012 and thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to discuss its publication. The report gives an objective, honest account of the quality of education in primary schools, second-level schools and centres for education. It found that the standards of teaching and learning were satisfactory or better in the majority of lessons inspected. The chief inspector noted there was room for improvement in a significant minority of lessons.

For the first time, the report includes surveys from parents and students which show high levels of satisfaction with primary and post-primary schools. Some 97% of primary parents were very satisfied with schools, while 87% of post-primary parents expressed the same view. The report acknowledges all the good practice that takes place on a daily basis in schools in terms of quality leadership, management, teaching and learning. It also reveals some weaknesses and points schools firmly in the direction of improvement.

The Minister for Education and Skills has made it a priority to strive for a top-class education system. The Deputy is fully aware of the many reforms introduced since the Minister took office, including his support for the reform of school inspections, follow-up inspections and a remodelling of whole-school evaluation. All of these changes have a common purpose, to improve the life chances of all young people through improving fundamentally the education we provide for them. In these challenging times no country can afford to rest on its laurels or bask in past glories. For years we heard that we had one of the best education systems in the world and tended to accept that accolade uncritically. We are now developing a more nuanced and realistic picture of the education system, which is welcome.

This is not to say that we have a bad system. It has many strengths, thanks in large measure to the efforts of so many dedicated teachers and school leaders, but there has been a marked reluctance to acknowledge its failings and tackle its shortcomings. Quality assurance is a core element in guaranteeing the sort of educational experience we want. It is only through reflection on the strengths and weaknesses in our system and in our individual schools and centres for education that we can truly improve.

This quality assurance has to have both internal and external elements. For this reason, the Minister has introduced school self-evaluation into our system. The inspectorate has led this development and continues to support schools in their engagement with this important process of self-improvement. The chief inspector's report documents the ambitious programme of reform of the inspection of schools that has taken place in the past three to four years. These changes have been informed by best national and international practice. We now have a range of new models of inspection at primary and post-primary level, including incidental inspections, follow-through inspections and a remodelling of whole-school evaluation. The inspectorate has also developed systems to gather the voices and opinions of parents and learners and these very important voices are reflected in the chief inspector's report. The report gives us the information we need to allow us to see the strengths and weaknesses in teaching and learning, educational provision and the management and leadership in our schools. However, it does not do this in a vacuum. It describes the complex demographic, financial and organisational challenges that all of us in the political and educational system have faced in the past three years. This is the context in which schools, inspectors and the Department of Education and Skills had to work in the 2010 to 2012 period.

The Deputy raised two issues in particular, one with regard to the teaching of Irish. As he pointed out, the inspectors found there were some concerns with Irish at primary and post-primary level. We are tackling the issues highlighted in the report. The Minister has asked the Teaching Council to work with teacher education institutions to raise standards generally among Irish teachers which will certainly help in this regard. He has also asked the NCCA to revise the Irish curriculum at primary and post-primary level and he has located COGG and the NCCA together so the development of materials to support the curriculum will take place at the same time as the development of the curriculum itself.

The Deputy also raised the weaknesses in maths, which confirm the real need for fundamental change in the curriculum and in the teaching of the subject. These changes are under way in project maths, as the Deputy is aware. The Minister has also made available postgraduate courses for teachers to enable them to upskill in their understanding of maths and its teaching in the future.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The good points and the many positive aspects of the chief inspector's report must be welcome, particularly in light of the fact it has become more difficult for teachers in recent times. In smaller schools at primary level it has become more difficult with the Government's increase in the pupil-teacher ratio. At second level we have seen the withdrawal of career guidance posts, which have led to larger class sizes, a squeeze on subject choice and more pressure on teachers as a result.

Will the Minister of State comment on whether, following the findings of the chief inspector's report, he and the Minister for Education and Skills intend to increase the number of inspections and appraisals and widen their scope? Earlier this year the chief schools inspector raised the prospect of annual reviews of the performance of teachers and principals. Harold Hislop pointed out that, unlike some countries, Ireland has no system of regular evaluation of school staff. He also pointed out the purpose of regular performance reviews is not for hard accountability but to foster genuine improvement for the individual and the school. Mr. Hislop stated in Ireland, teachers on probation are subject to assessment and there is also a formal process for dealing with under-performing teachers, but otherwise there is no procedure under which the competence or standards of an individual teacher's work are regularly and systematically evaluated within the school. I ask the Minister of State to comment on whether the Government has any plans in this regard.

In the context of the significant financial pressures in which we have found ourselves over the lifetime of the Government, it is important to point out current expenditure on education has increased from €3.218 billion to €3.263 billion at primary level and from €3.07 billion to €3.147 billion at post-primary level. This means annual public expenditure per student in Ireland on early childhood, primary and post-primary education is above the average for OECD countries.

Teacher evaluation and inspection is a very complex and sometimes challenging subject and we need to be very careful in this regard. Recently I attended a conference which had a two day discussion on the subject. We must trust our teachers. They are highly trained professionals and in the vast majority of cases they are highly motivated individuals. Deputy McConalogue is correct to point out the model of inspection proposed by Harold Hislop would be very supportive and would identify weaknesses in teaching practices and assist individuals and whole schools to work to increase the quality of teaching.

The report Mr. Hislop has just published provides us with a very balanced and factual description of the challenging times we all face because of the current economic situation. It also provides us with an honest objective analysis of our education system. As the Deputy mentioned, it shows a well and properly functioning inspectorate is a key driver of educational change and school improvement and it highlights where there is good practice and where there is a need for improvement. It also indicates the very strong evidence the DEIS programme is tackling educational disadvantage very effectively. We have also seen evidence the literacy and numeracy strategy is working. There is also evidence in the report that the junior cycle reform recently introduced by the Minister, Deputy Quinn, is needed, and evidence of the need for a stronger voice for parents and students in school matters. This was determined by interacting with parents and students during the compiling of the report.

The report also provides us with data to show in the main parents and students are happy with their chosen school and the quality of teaching, learning and management within the schools. It also highlights, as I mentioned earlier, that we cannot be complacent. There is a need for continued reform in the education system, and the improvement of students' educational experiences in schools will be among the Minister's priorities in the coming years.

Job Losses

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue which follows the announcement on Monday of 80 job losses at Homecare Medical Supplies in County Mayo. This results from the ending, on 31 January, of a contract it has had with the HSE for recycling aids and appliances. The first thoughts of all of us in a situation like this are with the workers themselves and their families coming up to Christmas. Of the 80 jobs lost, 50 are in Kiltimagh and 15 are in Ballyhaunis, which is a huge number in an area which has suffered difficult times and unemployment over the years. It would be similar to the loss of 500 jobs in a large urban area. This part of County Mayo has a number of small towns which have suffered the closing of banks and district courts, such as Swinford and Charlestown.

I welcome the fact Homecare Medical Supplies has stated the 70 remaining jobs are safe. The company operates to the highest standards and these jobs will be unaffected. With regard to the contract which has been lost, has a new contract been put in place or is there a new tendering process? Is it possible that Homecare Medical Supplies could win a new tender and that these jobs could be saved? Will the Minister ensure every support possible is put in place for the workers and their families so they can access their entitlements immediately? Will opportunities be put in place, such as training and upskilling, for these workers? This is a huge issue in the area.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us raise this issue. As Deputy O'Mahony stated, Homecare Medical Supplies has, since 1988, been an excellent home-grown company, very well run by the McGuinness family. It will maintain 70 positions, but 50 will be lost in Kiltimagh and 15 will be lost in Ballyhaunis.

It is a massive blow to those areas. This is a company with a very proud and rooted tradition in east Mayo and one that has really grown with the community there.

For some time I have been raising my concern that companies such as this, whose interests are purely domestic and which may not be in the export market, are getting lost in the infrastructure of job support. I believe more support needs to be given to such companies. This relates specifically to a contract it has lost, and Deputy O'Mahony has also raised queries in this regard. We have to look at the way in which we do contracts in this country. While I know this is not an issue that comes under the Minister's specific remit, the Government is spending billions of euro and we have to look at how we are spending that money, if we are parcelling those contracts, in order that small Irish companies such as Homecare Medical can have the opportunity to create employment.

We need a very focused training initiative to move into east Mayo to assist the workers. While there are employment opportunities, workers may not have the skills to match those opportunities. If we move very quickly with the various new operations that are there, we can match up those people who have been made redundant. There are just over 12,000 people on the live register in County Mayo and we need to offer those people who want to work the chance to do so within the opportunities that exist.

I have spoken before about the work Mayo County Council is doing through the economic investment unit that has been established by the county manager within the county council. This has the potential to be the blueprint for local authority involvement nationwide. This is its first big challenge. I hope the Minister will give that unit the support that is necessary in order to support the communities of Kiltimagh, in particular, and Ballyhaunis, which have taken more than their fair share of the impact of the downturn in recent years.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I absolutely agree that at this point our sympathy is clearly with the workers who have received this very unwelcome announcement. I understand 80 people were advised on 1 November that they would lose their jobs at the company by 31 January 2014. As Deputies have acknowledged, the company is retaining 70 jobs. This is a rationalisation plan, which is obviously a commercial matter for the company itself.

As the Deputies have said, Homecare Medical Supplies is run by the McGuinness family. The company supplies health care equipment, disposables and daily living and mobile aids to the HSE, hospitals, nursing homes and the community care, pharmacy and retail sectors, so it has contracts other than with the HSE. Its head office is in Ballyhaunis, with a service centre in Kiltimagh and retail stores in a number of towns, including Ballyhaunis, Castlebar, Cavan, Cork, Galway and Dundalk. The company confirmed that 50 jobs will go in Kiltimagh service centre, 15 in Ballyhaunis and a further 15 in Clonee, County Meath. The company stressed that this is only part of its business and the remaining 70 jobs will be unaffected.

The company is a client of Enterprise Ireland, so it is not a company that is falling through the crevices, as Deputy Calleary fears. Enterprise Ireland stands ready to support the company through its full range of services. To take up Deputy O'Mahony's point, the HSE has a new tendering process and the date for the closure of tender applications is in about a week's time. As I understand it, the decision has been made by the company that it will not be entering a tender into that process. Clearly, if Enterprise Ireland can assist the company in any way it will stand ready to do so, but the company appears to have made a decision in this matter on commercial grounds.

I assure the House there will be every support for workers through the Department of Social Protection and other services, whether it be our own employment rights support services or the various services of the training and support agencies, which will be available to the workers. On the wider question of procurement which was raised by the Deputy, this remains an important issue. We need to have good protocols in regard to public procurement, which, while achieving value for money, must also allow innovative SMEs to have an opportunity to tender. Enterprise Ireland is seeking to develop expertise in that field, and it has worked with many companies and facilitated joint tendering and other approaches. I am heartened by the fact that the new procurement officer, Mr. Paul Quinn, has become involved explicitly with SME access to the procurement structure. That is a good omen for the future, although it continues to be a concern of businesses as they tender for projects. Clearly, I cannot comment on the individual case that is involved here as I am not privy to the details of it. However, I assure the Deputies that all of our agencies will work with both the workers and the broader community to find alternatives and a way out for people.

On the wider issue, it is encouraging to see that employment in the west, as recently published by the CSO, is up by 4,200 in the last 12 months, so there are clearly signs of some positive job movement within the region, on which we can hope to build.

I thank the Minister for his extensive reply, which dealt with some of the specific questions we put. On the wider issue, I understand that certain commercial issues cannot be discussed here. However, the kernel of the matter seems to be procurement. If, as the Minister said, the company has made a commercial decision not to tender, there is an issue in that regard.

I welcome many of the pro-business and pro-jobs provisions of the recent budget but I believe there is a case, as mentioned by Deputy Calleary, for positive discrimination to benefit smaller towns and rural areas within whatever policies can be formulated to allow them to compete on a level playing field. That will be important for the future.

Homecare Medical is an example of an innovative SME. If it is having a problem with this process, my suggestion is genuinely that the problem is with the process. This company is not afraid of business or of hard work. If it could have met the demands of that process, it would have. We have to examine this.

I am encouraged to hear that Enterprise Ireland is working with the company. I ask the Minister to ensure that Enterprise Ireland works at the highest level with the company to try to identify other opportunities because, unfortunately, there are no other employment alternatives in Ballyhaunis or Kiltimagh. Employment in that part of the country is not growing and the only option for many is emigration. We have to try to keep as many people as possible in our small towns despite the fact that they are feeling utterly frustrated at the moment. There is a recovery taking place in some parts of the country but there are many others who are not seeing it, and they are feeling this frustration. This is one part of the country that is not seeing it. To lose 50 jobs and 15 jobs in areas that already have high rates of unemployment means that frustration is going to grow.

I ask that, first, Enterprise Ireland work at the very highest level with the national procurement service and with Homecare Medical to try to resolve whatever issues exist ahead of next week's deadline. Second, we need an all-of-government approach to assist smaller towns and more dispersed communities to be ready to gain from the upturn that may come next year.

I am conscious that a tender is out and that it will have to be conducted in a way that is fair to everyone who submits a tender. I recognise that this is a very innovative company which has developed software packages that allow the management of a process in a way that was not possible heretofore. Clearly, I will seek to learn from what has happened here, see what lessons can be drawn from it and see whether there is action that could be considered. As I understand it, this is a decision the company has made and it has gone through a process in reaching this decision. As I said, Enterprise Ireland stands ready to support the company. We will seek ways in which an innovative company such as this can be assisted in developing new markets, which we are clearly anxious to do.

Tourism Promotion

We in the mid north-east region are blessed with one of the most significant and internationally recognised tourism resources in the country. Along its 110 km length, the Boyne Valley is littered with internationally recognised historic heritage sites. I refer to Drogheda, the high crosses of Monasterboice, the world heritage site at Brú na Bóinne, which comprises Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, the Battle of the Boyne site at Oldbridge, Slane Hill, Slane Castle, Navan, Ardmulchan, Ardbraccan House, Dunmoe Castle, the Hill of Tara, which has currency internationally, the monastery at Bective, the 12th century cathedral at Newtown Trim, and the largest Norman castle in the country, which is located in Trim. The Boyne Valley also contains the River Blackwater, on which the monastery of Kells is located. In future I would like a volume of the Book of Kells to be located in the town. There is also Loughcrew in the northwest of the county, which is the location of a 5,000 year old grave. Hundreds of other bridges, raths, wells, castles etc. are scattered throughout this scenic valley.

The value potential of this tourism product is recognised by Fáilte Ireland and is part of that organisation's strategic plan. Unfortunately, however, the Boyne Valley has not been properly exploited. In fact, it is completely under-exploited as a resource. Most of the tourism relating to the valley involves people staying in Dublin hotels taking day trips by bus to Trim or Newgrange and then travelling back to the capital in time for dinner. We are not utilising the resource in any meaningful way. A complete Boyne Valley greenway would radically alter the nature of tourism in the region. Such an amenity would bring tens of thousands of people into the area. Such individuals would stay for five or ten days and either walk or cycle along the route. A Boyne Valley greenway would provide a boost to hotels, restaurants, bed and breakfast establishments, bars, shops and activity centres. It would also give rise to job creation, increase the amount of money in circulation and improve people's living standards.

A great deal of good work has already been done and much of the route has already been paved. For example, some four miles north of Navan, three miles adjacent to Trim and a further section at Slane have already been paved. It is just a matter of filling the gaps at this stage. Great work, funded by the Minister of State's Department, has also been done between Mornington and Oldbridge. I welcome that investment and I believe it is a sign that the Department is taking the product seriously. Much feasibility and scoping work has been carried out. All of the stakeholders I have spoken to, namely, Meath Partnership, Meath County Council, Meath Tourism, Fáilte Ireland, the National Transport Authority, NTA, the National Roads Authority, NRA, and the Department, are in favour of the development.

My only concern is that the rate of progress is far too slow. The work currently being done to link Drogheda and the Oldbridge section of the route only involves the development of 1.8 km. A further section measuring 2 km or 3 km is due to be submitted for planning permission shortly. At this rate of development, the Boyne Valley project would take over 20 years to complete. I honestly believe that what is required is for ministerial priority to be afforded to this issue. We must ensure that the project will be completed in a much shorter period and that it will bring value to the region and give rise to employment opportunities to the people who live there.

I thank Deputy Tóibín for raising this issue and I can inform him that he is speaking to the converted. I will read the official reply in a moment.

I come from a county in which the Great Western Greenway was established. The latter led to the creation of badly needed jobs in a region which does not attract major infrastructure projects. In light of the small amount of money invested, it is amazing what the greenway has done in the context of promoting tourism and revitalising the towns of Newport, Mulranny, Achill and Westport. Perhaps Deputy Tóibín could bring some interested individuals from his area down to visit the Great Western Greenway. Those on the local town councils and the county council and everyone involved with the greenway would be delighted to assist them in any way. People from throughout the country and across the globe now visit the area to see what has been done. At this point, I will revert to the official reply.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the development of cycle greenways in the House, particularly as these represent a really new and exciting aspect of tourism and recreational development in Ireland. There is huge interest across the country in this area. Cycle projects are well received because that they can deliver great benefits to local communities from the perspective of recreation, health, transport and tourism. For these reasons, the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, the other Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Kelly, and I actively support such developments. The programme for Government gave a commitment to the effect that this Administration would continue to invest in Ireland's national cycle policy. This commitment is being realised, for the most part, through funding programmes administered by my Department and the NTA. In 2011 over €10 million was allocated by the Department to local authorities for cycling infrastructure, such as cycle lanes, bike parking and cycle greenways. Flagship projects completed by local authorities to date include schemes for commuter cyclists, such as the Grand Canal cycle way in Dublin, cycle ways for leisure cyclists and the Great Western Greenway which links Westport to Achill.

In February 2012 the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport announced a five-year budget of €65 million for sustainable travel. Cycling is a key component of the sustainable travel agenda and infrastructure is being delivered under various programmes, most notably the national cycle network, NCN, programme. Under this programme, approximately €13.5 million will be allocated during the period 2012 to 2016 in order to advance routes that will provide valuable transport and recreational infrastructure, with the added potential to enhance tourism activity for the areas concerned. As part of this programme, my Department recently announced the provision of €6.5 million under a second round of funding for the years to 2014 to 2016. It is hoped that during this period two to three projects or phases of projects can be funded from the allocation. This funding will be allocated to local authorities through a competitive process and, as I explained already, interest in this area is intense and the standard of application is expected to be very high. Nonetheless, this is an ideal opportunity for a project such as the Boyne greenway and it will be a matter for Meath County Council to advance any proposals it has and if funding is required, to submit an application to the Department by 15 November next. It is hoped that the successful projects will be announced by end of this year or early next year.

I wish to advise the House that my Department's role in respect of tourism relates primarily to the area of national policy. I do not have responsibility for the provision of funding to individual tourism investment projects. Responsibility for such matters is devolved to Fáilte Ireland under section 8(1) of the National Tourism Development Authority Act 2003. In carrying out this devolved function, Fáilte Ireland operates the tourism capital investment programme, which provides support for investment in certain categories of visitor attractions and activities and tourism infrastructure. The Great Western Greenway project to which I referred received support under this programme. It is a real success story for green, accessible, adventure tourism in Ireland and has set the standard for cycling projects in Ireland. In such circumstances, I fully recognise the potential benefits of greenways for tourism. In 2014, €16.2 million will be allocated to Fáilte Ireland to continue the implementation of the programme. A specific allocation of €8 million has also been made in Budget 2014 in respect of the development of the Wild Atlantic Way project. Unfortunately, due to the high level of existing commitments to projects already approved under the Fáilte Ireland tourism capital investment programme, virtually all of the available funding up to 2016 has already been committed. Should funding become available under the tourism capital investment programme, Fáilte Ireland may then be in a position to consider applications from the relevant local authorities in respect of greenway tourism projects.

I visited the west on three occasions with my family in order to visit the Great Western Greenway. It is such an attractive amenity and it is important that we should try to replicate it to the greatest degree possible throughout the State. The business case for the Boyne Valley greenway has already been made. It is just a matter of making the investment and reaping the return. I understand that finances are tight. For that reason, I am of the view that we must adopt a different strategy in respect of the development of projects of this nature. I am not suggesting that we should build a Gucci-style pathway along the route of the River Boyne. Hikers want permission to walk. They want firm ground underfoot and perhaps a bridge or two to enable them to ford streams. They also want safety from animals.

In the coming months, the community group in which I am involved, the Gleann na Bóinne Greenway Development Group, will seek permission from landowners for walkers to enter their lands. This initiative may allow the Boyne greenway to be opened within two or three years, with a low level of investment and at low risk to the Government. If we have people walking the greenway with only minimal investment, we will prove there is demand and ensure that an upgrade of the route at a later date will be viewed as a profitable proposition by the Government.

One of the reasons the Minister should prioritise this project is the proposal to have a spur to Trim from the Dublin to Galway greenway which is being developed by the National Roads Authority along the Royal Canal. Such a spur could easily traverse the southern reaches of the River Boyne, thereby fulfilling the objectives set for the Boyne Valley and Dublin to Galway greenways. Clearly, therefore, joined-up thinking is needed and this will require a stamp of priority from the Minister of State.

Next Monday, I will meet some of the key stakeholders to discuss the need to prioritise this project and engage in joined-up thinking. I ask the Minister of State to attend this meeting or, failing that, to have a senior member of his staff attend and give the meeting his imprimatur. This will be key if we are to reduce the timescale for the project from 20 years in order that it will benefit the current generation.

I hope the group to which the Deputy refers will submit an application under the national cycle network scheme. Meath County Council has until 15 November to forward submissions under the scheme.

As the Deputy correctly noted, certain areas are not having the same success as the west in developing greenways. The most important stakeholder is the farming community. If it does not play ball with the country councils or other authorities involved, it creates a problem. Much of the greenway infrastructure in the west was established at very low cost. I thank farmers for their co-operation in this matter. While some of them will have received small benefits-in-kind, for example, having walls repaired and so forth, none of them received payment for accommodating the greenways. Notwithstanding their safety concerns arising from people using their land, they chose to play their part.

The Government is committed to greenways because we have seen the success of the greenway in County Mayo. A further 200,000 people will walk or cycle the greenway before the end of the year. The numbers are being monitored daily to produce statistics on those using the facility. The Mayo greenway has been a major success. Much of the money allocated for capital projects elsewhere in the country did not deliver a sufficient rate of return, whereas the small investment in the Mayo greenway delivered a significant return.

While I would welcome as decision by the National Roads Authority to develop a spur from the Dublin to Galway greenway into the Deputy's area, that is a matter for Meath County Council as it would need to submit an application. Any such application would receive the full support of my Department. My officials are not in a position to attend every meeting or meet every group. A professional team will assess applications and deliver its judgment. My Department is committed to funding projects of this nature in future.

Activity tourism is one of our greatest success stories. We have the necessary infrastructure in place as we do not have to buy the wind or countryside. We should utilise and sell our natural resources. Those engaged in activity tourism spend more money than any other type of tourist.

My Department will not be able to support every greenway scheme but it wants to develop as many greenways as possible. A mechanism is in place to make applications for funding.