ICBAN is a local authority-led cross-Border development partnership which works in the area of the island known as the central Border region. The eight council members of the partnership are Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Monaghan and Sligo, Armagh city, Banbridge and Craigavon, Fermanagh and Omagh, and Mid-Ulster.
The partnership has been advocating for common solutions to common cross-Border problems since 1995. The region, though largely rural, contains some larger urban centres. It is remote from national or regional capitals and, as a consequence, the area and its communities are regularly overlooked in terms of investment.
ICBAN's area of focus is on promoting and developing co-operation between member councils and their communities on matters of cross-Border and regional development. There has been a positive history of collaboration between the local authorities and their communities. This has been delivered in spite of often historic back-to-back development shortcomings. Instead, the ICBAN partnership works against this in joining up planning. A recent example has been a joint submission to the regional spatial and economic strategy of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly.
I will explain some of the challenges and issues being faced in the region. The need to foster cross-Border co-operation is now even more acute, given the challenges of Brexit. As a by-product of the Brexit process, the Border has been front and centre in discussions and media coverage. Indeed, the questions of the Border and co-operation have been elevated to levels not seen for many years.
With the implications of the UK referendum decision to exit the EU still to be finally determined, it is considered that the area of these islands likely to be most significantly impacted will be the central Border region. Even though the Border areas could eventually see some communities within the EU adjoining what will become areas then not within the EU, the issues in maintaining co-operation across the Border will remain. The central Border region councils have reaffirmed their commitment to co-operation despite what happens.
One notable issue is the important role that local authorities must play in the continued delivery of local services. While national governments and political attention will likely continue to be focused on Brexit for some time yet, the delivery of local services to citizens must continue. In the vacuum of a Northern Ireland Executive, local authorities in Northern Ireland continue to play a key role in the democratic functioning of government. Through engagements and joint delivery in community planning, for example, and its focus on the economic and social elements of well-being, the impact on local services could be minimised. Cross-government support to this developing key role would be welcomed.
In more than 20 years, the partnership has helped lever significant investment into the region and cross-Border projects between local authorities have had a positive impact on local communities. The significance of these investments on both sides of the Border cannot be underestimated and given the importance of the challenges in the times ahead, the continuation or replacement for such co-operation funds must be a key priority. It is vital that a high-level strategic focus is prioritised for the wider Border region by both Governments and involving the EU, where appropriate. It would be considered that while important EU programmes can only marginally make a difference to lives and the economy of the area, a much more intensive and encompassing intervention over and above any such EU cohesion funds will be necessary to help resolve long-standing issues which still challenge the fabric of Border life.
It is hereby recommended that consideration is given to developing an island-wide territorial cohesion policy, which would include a cross-Border infrastructure and investment plan or fund to replace any loss of common INTERREG and PEACE funds. However, there is little evidence yet of such a debate or consideration on either side of the Border, which is concerning.
Brexit is not the only significant challenge facing the area. There are pre-existing infrastructure deficits which existed before Brexit and still remain. There has been a lack of attention to the central Border region and in the national planning framework, NPF, which highlights supports for other regions including adjoining Border areas by comparison.
Brexit reinforces the importance of giving recognition to the central Border region. We hereby ask that the committee explicitly identifies and promotes the region as an area of national importance. We can explain the untapped potential of the area as an economic driver later. Such designation must be reinforced by a national commitment to address the identified strategic infrastructural shortcomings and redress historic under-investment. That would enable economic growth and help mitigate the impacts of any negative Brexit outworkings.
Component areas of such a policy have precedents for exploration. For example, in 2014, the Centre for Cross Border Studies published a scoping study into the creation of a cross-Border development zone, an initiative actively supported by our partnership. The objective would be to promote the economic development of the cross-Border zone on a co-ordinated basis, maximising the use of national resources and stimulating the use of local resources and expertise. There would be three component parts: spatial, structural and institutional. The spatial part examines three spatially defined areas, one being the central Border region.
Businesses need a modern, effective transport infrastructure through which they can get goods to market. While there have been improvements across the region, there remains important strategic projects which have not been sufficiently advanced and thus hinder regional growth and regeneration. The ways and means must be found to accelerate their delivery.
The wider area includes subregional pockets. Key industries include engineering, manufacturing, tourism and agrifood. In planning terms, it should be recognised that it is not just about connecting large urban areas. It is also about connecting centres of production with customers, workers and the supply chain. The spatial approaches we take must be reconsidered in terms of development.
There is a high dependency on travel by road in the region. In the absence of a rail network, strategic road corridors are key for access and movement. Both Governments must formally recommit to the long-planned A5-N2 Dublin to Derry dualling project, highlighting its priority nature and re-pledging what was originally agreed. Elsewhere, upgrades are needed to the N16-A4 from Sligo to Ballygawley, the east-west link to Dundalk, the N4 from Sligo to Carrick-on-Shannon, with an extension of the M3 to Cavan town. The A29 from Coleraine to Monaghan must also be highlighted as a key road corridor for North-South freight movement in agrifood, minerals, engineering and quarry products. We can explore later the challenges of these freight movements, the impacts they have and the challenges for the area.
There is evidence to suggest that the Border area has not received its fair share of infrastructure investment compared to other regions. For example, a review of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, investment in road schemes suggests that spending per head on transport infrastructure is only approximately 45% that of other regions. If this disproportionate spending pattern continues, the Border area will fall further behind economically, amplifying the issue of a three-speed economy.
The lack of broadband connectivity is one of the most pressing and concerning issues for the councils. Improvements are critical to help maintain competitiveness and to realise economic and social ambitions. It is vital that the peripheral rural areas are not left until the end.
There are concerns about the pace of delivery of the national broadband plan, NBP. The ambitions were first promoted in 2012 and the delays will see that the latest delivery targets of 2022 will not be achieved.
Related to this, equally ambitious programmes must ensure that mobile telecommunications coverage is also effectively delivered.
There would not, however, appear to be any effective joint planning of these two platforms, and mobile connectivity is not even referenced in the NBP. Our small towns and villages could flourish again, because they would be effectively future-proofed. Such connectivity would enable many businesses to operate in rural areas instead. This would reduce congestion in Dublin, which is just one hour away. It would also offer the added attractiveness of idyllic locations, leisure and recreation, cheaper living and less crime.
Delivering on the NBP is critical. The communities and businesses in the Border region cannot wait another seven years. If the plan cannot be advanced further to delivery in its current format, as interested commentators we would encourage that an alternative solution is quickly realised. It is not too late for considerations to be given to North-South alignments given that the need and stage of development to enhance broadband is at a similar stage in Northern Ireland. It could be timely to examine potential all-Island solutions and synergies, in the same context as strategic approaches to all-island energy.
There is collective local authority support for opportunities to promote slow tourism markets, such as cycling and walking, and for utilising interlinked greenways across the Border area. A business case was developed by four councils for the Sligo to Enniskillen greenway. These are prospective areas of growth and aided by the requisite Government investment they can increase overnight occupancies and visitor spending.
The business case for the Ulster Canal highlights the many positive outcomes. It has been regularly referenced in cross-government agreements, including Project Ireland 2040. It could be delivered on a phased basis to minimise short-term demands on public funds. All the cross-Border councils directly involved promote the canal’s regeneration. This committee's highlighting of support for the phased development of the Ulster Canal and associated tourist amenities would be welcomed.
We have set out the key needs and challenges facing the central Border area. We appreciate the committee taking the interest and welcome representation and support within Government. It is a critical time for the area. There are new arising challenges but it could be argued that the Border area's weaknesses should have been more strategically addressed in the advent of peace and the end of conflict. Now is the time to address them.
As can be seen through our sizeable delegation today, this is a collective issue for all of the area's eight councils. We are not here asking for Government to solely resolve the issues but we seek overarching high-level interest and assistance to help us - the local authorities - to tackle these, through cross-government, cross-sectoral, cross-Border and cross-community engagement. We, for our part as a partnership of local authorities, are ready to play our role. When we engage government, we are often challenged that co-operation must happen locally first. There are many examples such as the UNESCO Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark between Cavan, Fermanagh and Omagh, and the referenced statement of common good on planning between four local authorities. This collective attendance today is also proof of the commitment by local government. Our local authorities bring resources and energies and we genuinely need the recognition and the support of central government to help realise the area's untapped potential.