I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to outline the background, rationale and content of the draft national spatial strategy update and outlook report 2010 which was prepared by my Department. I will also briefly update the committee on the draft national planning guidelines for spatial policy and national roads. The Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Ciarán Cuffe, has asked me to pass on his apologies for not being able to attend this session due to other pressing commitments.
As the committee will be aware, the national spatial strategy was published in November 2002 as a high-level 20 year national planning framework to guide balanced regional development through long-term planning and infrastructure investment. Implementation of the NSS takes place nationally by informing and influencing other national plans and strategies such as the National Development Plan 2007-2013; regionally by setting the strategic planning context for regional planning guidelines, which in turn integrate and co-ordinate city and county development plans; and locally through city and county development plans, local area plans and the actions of local authorities, Departments and agencies at the local level.
In the early years of implementing the NSS, Ireland developed rapidly in terms of economic growth, population change and physical development. The strategy helped to set Ireland on a new development path that is more strategically focused and plan-led than in the past. Since 2002, implementation of the NSS has helped to guide and co-ordinate investment in the gateways, hub towns and other strategic locations identified through the activities of the economic development agencies. It has helped to improve the stock of physical infrastructure through the NDP, including the ongoing transformation of Ireland's transport system, improved water services infrastructure, information and communication technology and broadband infrastructure and knowledge development and innovation systems. It contributed to improved physical planning at regional and local levels alongside the monitoring and review of regions' performance and the implementation of the NSS.
However, since late 2007 and in line with a wider global economic downturn, Ireland has faced serious economic challenges. The economy is now operating within tough budgetary and fiscal constraints. The Government's strategy for economic recovery outlined in the document, Building Ireland's Smart Economy — a Framework for Sustainable Economic Renewal, identifies the fundamental importance of returning to export-led growth. Addressing Ireland's overall cost competitiveness relative to competitor countries is of critical importance in achieving this aim. At the same time, prioritised and strategic investments to pump-prime the potential of the regions will be vital in positioning them as key contributors to Ireland's national growth when the current difficult economic cycle ends. In challenging economic times, spatial planning frameworks such as the NSS are even more relevant in maximising the long-term value of increasingly scarce public funds. Regions are critical to creating a good place to live and to do business and spatial planning plays a key role in setting the framework for delivery of competitive and attractive locations.
Taking account of the fact that implementation of the NSS is approaching its midway point and the changed economic and other circumstances since its publication eight years ago, the Department has prepared a NSS update and outlook report for 2010. The report examines what has been achieved and what can be learned from implementation to date. It sets out a revised implementation framework aimed at maximising the spatial and regional contribution to economic recovery and long-term national competitiveness and sustainability. The report is a critical appraisal of progress to date and an implementation roadmap for the near to medium term future. It is not, however, a review of the policy rationale or structure of the NSS.
In preparing the report, the Department has undertaken an extensive analysis of relevant national and regional demographic and economic data, as well as data and reports from central and local government, regional authorities, State agencies and academia. Throughout the drafting, we consulted with key stakeholders and policy informers, including the Departments of the Taoiseach, Finance, Transport and Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs; regional and local authorities; the enterprise agencies including Forfás, IDA and Enterprise Ireland; the National Competitiveness Council; the Economic and Social Research Institute; Shannon Development; the Western Development Commission; academia; Northern Ireland's Department of Regional Development; and other relevant cross-Border bodies. We have also consulted extensively with other relevant sections within our own Department, including water services and local government policy. In light of these extensive internal and external consultations, we are satisfied that the analysis and recommendations in the report are robust and realistic.
An overview of the economic, demographic and social trends which have emerged since the NSS was published indicates at a very broad level that the economic outlook for Ireland is stabilising and that while there are ongoing challenges in putting the public finances and the banking system on a secure footing, the economy is forecast to return to growth by the end of 2010. In the construction sector, activity remains low with 25,000 new housing completions for 2009, or a decline of over 60% compared to 2008, and an expected 10,000 to 15,000 starts this year. Notwithstanding the challenges for the economy, however, it is expected that capital investment in infrastructure will be maintained at the relatively high level of 4% of gross national product over the period to 2014.
Ireland's economic recovery will depend on growing our international trade, which in turn is dependent on restoring Ireland's overall cost competitiveness to support exporting sectors and enhancing our attractiveness for inward investment so that Ireland can take advantage of the global recovery when it happens. There is little evidence of a dramatic divergence either in growth rates or living standards between the greater Dublin area and other regions from 1997 to 2006. The extent to which growth in economic activity and population has occurred in every region is worth noting. The greater Dublin area remains a critical national economic driver, accounting for 48% of gross value added and accommodating 40% of the country's population.
Nonetheless, despite being a key element of the national spatial strategy policy framework, many of the larger gateway cities experienced lower than average population growth between 2002 and 2006, while growth in the remaining gateways and hub towns was only marginally above the State average of 2% per annum. However, strong growth, averaging 3.8% per annum, took place in the towns, villages and rural areas within commuting distance of the gateways. This resulted in a more dispersed and less sustainable settlement pattern, involving both longer journeys to work or school and college and greater use of the car as opposed to more sustainable modes of transport. Such a settlement pattern also runs counter to the national spatial strategy objective of building up critical mass within the gateways and hubs.
The strongest growth between 2002 and 2006 took place within the commuter catchment areas of Dublin, at 5.2% per annum, Galway, at 3.6% per annum, and Cork, at 3.5% per annum. The map provided illustrates the catchment areas for the gateways and hubs, calculated from 2006 census data. This pattern is highlighted by the fact that 46% of total population growth during the four year period in question was located within these three catchment areas, whereas the three gateway cities only accounted for 4% of total growth. In fact, the central areas of Cork and Sligo lost population during the years in question. On the other hand, the population growth which occurred in the commuter catchments of Limerick-Shannon, Athlone-Tullamore-Mullingar and Dundalk was below the 2% national average.
In rural areas, during the 1990s and in the past decade, contraction of agricultural and natural resource related employment was countered by increases in construction related employment, as well as employment in the tourism sector. This, in turn, drove wider population and economic growth in many smaller towns. Rising car ownership, relatively cheap fuel prices, improving accessibility and a strong supply of development land in rural areas also drove strong population growth in the rural and commuting catchments of the main cities and towns. Contraction of the construction sector has meant that many rural areas have unemployment rates above the national average, with western counties such as Roscommon and Leitrim being hardest hit in this regard.
The national spatial strategy is a 20-year strategy and, notwithstanding the changed economic circumstances, its principles remain robust and valid. Moreover, in its first eight years a good deal has been achieved. The Department recognises, however, that there needs to be a renewed focus over the next five years to improve national spatial strategy implementation. This is to be achieved through strengthening the spatial policy dimension to all public and private investment co-ordination to enhance Ireland's competitiveness and facilitate overall economic recovery; supporting the emergence of strong governance models to drive the overall economic and physical development of the national spatial strategy gateways especially and their wider regions; and encouraging the emergence of much more sustainable patterns of development by tackling the drivers of urban sprawl, maximising the opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions while adapting to the emerging effects of climate change and protecting the qualities of our rivers, habitats and heritage.
In terms of implementation arrangements, the report highlights a package of measures in three priority areas of action. These are: improving existing arrangements for investment co-ordination and prioritisation between the capital investment activities of Departments and agencies and the planning and development activities of regional and local authorities; delivering effective governance under the White Paper on Local Government, focusing especially on the gateways and regional authorities; and reforming planning legislation and policy and implementation arrangements under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 to bring about a tighter and more evidence-based fit between where future development occurs and how the necessary public infrastructure can be provided in such developing areas.
The research and consultation that has informed the preparation of the national spatial strategy report has already been very useful to the Department in framing the context for the reform of planning legislation under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, supporting the update of the 2010 regional planning guidelines, considering options under the White Paper on Local Government Reform, and shaping investment under the Water Services Investment Programme 2010-2013. More widely, the report will be particularly useful across other Departments and agencies in the context of ensuring more co-ordinated and prioritised spending under capital programmes taking account of tight resource constraints.
The next step is to submit the national spatial strategy report to Government for its consideration and endorsement. Publication will follow and copies will be made available to the joint committee immediately upon publication.
I propose to discuss briefly the draft guidelines on spatial policy and national roads under preparation in the Department. The national spatial strategy is complemented by a range of national planning guidelines on specific topics. I understand the joint committee would like to learn of the status of the proposed planning guidelines on spatial policy and national roads.
A working group led by my Department, with the participation of the Department of Transport, the National Roads Authority and representatives from local authorities with both an urban and rural planning perspective, has prepared new draft guidelines which are aimed at ensuring that national roads planning and policy and development planning and development management processes are appropriately and effectively aligned to help guide development to the most suitable locations to maximise the investment in the national roads network, while also, in overall terms, encouraging a shift towards more sustainable forms of travel and transport. These guidelines primarily apply to the national roads network and set out policy with regard to planning considerations relating to development affecting national roads outside the 50 km/h speed limit zones for cities, towns and villages.
The draft guidelines encourage a collaborative approach and early engagement, in line with international best practice, between planning authorities and the NRA, with the aim of ensuring that transport and land use planning considerations are taken into account at the early stages of both development planning and development management processes. This is to ensure future development at locations on or in the vicinity of national roads is guided to the most suitable location and work on Ireland's national road network is planned for and managed in a complementary and integrated manner.
The draft guidelines will shortly issue for full public consultation to allow all stakeholders and interested parties make relevant comments and submissions. It is expected that they will be finalised before the end of the year and, once finalised, they will issue as statutory guidelines under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000. When finalised the guidelines will also replace the document, Policy and Planning Framework for Roads, published by the Department in 1985 and the NRA policy statement on national roads published in May 2006.
I thank the joint committee for the opportunity to brief members on these developments and my colleague, Mr. Niall Cussen, and I are happy to answer any questions members may have.