The Irish Central Border Area Network, 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 County Councils, and Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and Mid Ulster District Council. 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 capitals and, as a consequence, the area and its communities have been regularly overlooked in terms of investment.
The joint committee has sought evidence on the opportunities for our cross-Border region through the new strategy initiative known as the framework of regional priorities, which I will refer to as the framework or the FRP hereafter. This is our second related meeting with the joint committee, having previously submitted evidence on Valentine's Day, 2019. The joint committee’s follow-up report, Communities and Cross-Border Cooperation: Challenges and Opportunities, stated that: “The Committee endorses the role of Local Authorities along the border in developing a bottom-up needs-based strategy for the Border Corridor to offset the challenges and identify any opportunities associated with Brexit.”
Since that meeting in February 2019, we have been working on developing the FRP strategy document, which was launched in March of this year. It is a strategic cross-Border and regional response to the three key challenges of our time; Brexit, the pandemic and climate change. I am aware that the committee has been provided with a link to the FRP document and I will outline some of its key messages. This is an agreed strategic response on behalf of the eight member councils that make up the area known as the central Border region. It draws upon the unique needs, strengths, assets and characteristics of our rural region. It is an area with a population of more than 870,000 and is recognised as an area of outstanding natural beauty, with a coastline, mountain ranges, loughs and rivers etc. Most of the area's population live outside the main towns and our industry is driven by local entrepreneurial flair, serviced by some of the best educational and training institutions.
The most significant employment bases in the region are agriculture, advanced manufacturing, food processing, retail-wholesale and hospitality. Local authorities and other key stakeholders are keen to widen our industrial base by targeting the potential in agri-food, green energy and the bio-economy, and further into advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence, robotics and cobotics. However, we recognise that one of our key assets is our landscape and natural environment and we focus on responsible use of this through the United Nations sustainable development goals planning framework, which is the basis of our developmental approach. We are keen to promote the quality of life and natural landscape of our region to both Governments, as they grapple with finding solutions and ways forward out of the public health crisis.
In promoting our regional priorities, we make the case for balanced regional development across five interlocking pillars or themes - economic development; greening our region; liveable communities; education, skills and training; and infrastructure and connectivity. The regional priorities are considered as key accelerators that will help grow the population, improve connections and create jobs within the three areas of core, natural and enabling infrastructure.
On core infrastructure, businesses need a modern effective transport infrastructure through which they can get their goods to market. There is a high dependency on travel by road in our region. In the absence of a rail network, strategic road corridors are key for access and movement. While there have been improvements across the region, important strategic projects remain, which have not been sufficiently advanced and are hindering regional growth and regeneration. We draw the committee's attention to two key arterial corridors that link and service the region and are critical to unlocking the potential of what is the wider north-west quadrant of the island. One is the completion of the long-planned N2 to A5 Dublin to Donegal dual carriageway project, which is key to the longer-term development of the area. Another is the key arterial route, the N16-A4, which runs from Sligo to Ballygawley and onwards, linking the west to the city of Belfast, as well as the ports there and in Larne. Our region has the greatest flows of freight of any of the cross-Border regions, according to evidence from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, which also suggests that spending per head on transport infrastructure in the Border area is only approximately 45% of that in other regions. The ways and means must therefore be found to accelerate its delivery.
The business case for the Ulster Canal highlights many positive outcomes that can come from this scheme. While we welcome support for phase 2 works, and the planning and development supports for phase 3, we wish to underline the need to achieve the high-level vision for the Ulster Canal of linking the Erne system to Lough Neagh. All the cross-border councils directly involved in that area promote the canal’s regeneration.
Timely and much-needed improvements in broadband provision are also critical. 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, which offer the added attractiveness of idyllic locations, leisure and recreation, cheaper living and less crime etc. We all know of the vital importance of broadband in enabling remote working and access to education, health and other key services during this pandemic and these lockdowns.
On natural infrastructure, there is collective local authority support for opportunities to promote slow tourism markets, such as cycling and walking, local artisan food experiences, literary tourism etc. The FRP strategy promotes a focus on the responsible utilisation of natural assets. This includes a greenway vision from Sligo to Lough Neagh, linking the Sligo Leitrim Northern Counties Railway, SLNCR, Sligo to Enniskillen greenway plans with those for the Ulster Canal, connecting to Lisburn and Belfast and with linkages to the Wild Atlantic Way. Developments in blueways across the area, along with river catchments and water quality improvements, can also regenerate communities and stop cross-Border pollution. Other key elements of what we could term our natural infrastructure have already been touched on, such as developments to promote agri-food, new growth opportunities in the bio-economy, and of course the Ulster Canal’s key vision.
On enabling infrastructure, over the past 30 years and more there have been significant developments in supply chain linkages, particularly in the agri-food industry, between towns and communities on both sides of the Border. There is now a need to build on these linkages and to harness the commercial connections between key towns on both sides of the Border through creating economic corridors. These would connect subregional pockets and inter-firm collaborations where key industries, including engineering, manufacturing, tourism and agri-food etc., are flourishing.
In planning terms, it should be recognised that it is not just about connecting urban areas, but also about connecting centres of production with their customers, workers and supply chains. An important development opportunity to note has been driven by three Northern Ireland councils, the mid, south and western councils. They want to develop this region as an economic growth engine. The councils have been applying for city growth deal supports through the UK treasury. If supported, these plans will help drive productivity and infrastructure improvements on the Northern side of the Border. Reciprocal supports need to be considered for the adjoining Border counties of Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal. Together, these could then help accelerate growth in the entire central Border region.
Other key elements of enabling infrastructure include promoting linkages between industry, education and training providers on various matters, including industry needs, new product development processes, patenting and joint marketing. Our region also needs government-backed industrial spaces and technology parks to promote opportunities, particularly when the market fails to invest in these.
We bring these key issues to the attention of the joint committee because we seek its help and guidance in promoting opportunity for investments in the central Border region, across government. Our emphasis has been on the positive and on the potential of the area. Our region has developed much, despite receiving lesser investment than other areas on the island. Therefore, supports for hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure and key quality-of-life factors could help transform the area to the benefit of both jurisdictions. What could not be achieved if our area received a level of investment comparable with other similar regions?
We would welcome the committee’s support in promoting the region as an area of national importance. Such a designation must be reinforced by a national commitment to support the ambitions of the framework of regional priorities strategy and the regional priorities set out therein. We appreciate the committee taking an interest. We would welcome advocacy across government. As can be seen through the FRP, this is a collective issue for all the area’s councils. We do not ask for government to solely resolve the issues, but we seek overarching, high-level interest and assistance to help tackle them.