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Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 22 Mar 2021

Vol. 275 No. 4

National Development Plan: Statements

I am delighted to be here in Seanad Éireann to discuss the review of the national development plan, NDP. I genuinely welcome the opportunity to update Members on the review of the NDP which is currently well under way.

For the past year, the world has grappled with the spread of Covid-19 which, as we all know, has not only presented unprecedented healthcare challenges but has taken its toll on all sectors of our society and indeed our economy. While maintaining the focus on addressing the health emergency, we must also look to the future and ensure we are sufficiently prepared for the transition to a post-Covid-19 world.

At a time of economic uncertainty, building confidence is crucial and we know a sustained commitment to public capital investment will act as an important economic stabiliser and stimulus as well a providing confidence, both nationally and internationally. OECD research indicates that infrastructure investments have a powerful multiplier effect which stimulates demand, creates jobs both indirectly and directly during our recovery, and increases economic activity. This is why the Government and I were eager to support our economy with the July stimulus package last year and why I allocated capital expenditure of €10.8 billion for this year. This represented an important shift from previous approaches to capital spending during tough economic conditions.

The Government remains strongly committed to Project Ireland 2040. The current NDP allocates €116 billion in capital investment for an ambitious pipeline of public investment projects aimed at upgrading Ireland's infrastructure, enhancing our economic capacity, and promoting balanced regional development. We have also brought forward the review of the NDP, which was originally planned for 2022. This was announced during our review to renew process on 3 November last year. It included a public and stakeholder engagement call which closed on 19 February. The review provides an opportunity to reassess investment plans, to update project costings, and to highlight any new issues which need to be taken into consideration, particularly in light of the ongoing impacts and recovery from Covid.

As part of the review the Government is steadfast in our ongoing commitment to align the NDP with the national planning framework as well as aligning with the priorities identified in the programme for Government, including climate action, housing policy, transport, broadband, the implementation of Sláintecare, and balanced regional development. We are very much aware rural Ireland must also be a central part of our national economic and social recovery. We need to be forward looking and ambitious and seek to realise opportunities for rural areas. Therefore, the review will reinforce the Government's plans to support rural Ireland over the coming years through compact growth in our rural towns and villages.

At this juncture, we also recognise it is an imperative that investment is steered towards productive, balanced and sustainable investment plans, which will be critical in setting out our environmental pathway and crucial for the realisation of our climate ambitions and targets.

In planning for the future, the Government is also committed to streamlining procedures to increase productivity and enhance overall quality. The majority of recent infrastructure projects have been delivered on time and on budget. However, complex projects can sometimes run into difficulties. We need to develop high levels of professional capacity right across the public and private sectors to deliver on the potential of Project Ireland 2040.

We have committed to setting out substantial reforms to the development and planning process for infrastructure projects, including the introduction of structural reforms and measures to increase capacity to ensure construction projects get delivered in a timely manner and on budget. Importantly, the review will also examine the capacity in the public sector to deliver major projects. While steady progress has been made in the implementation of Project Ireland 2040, the ongoing national development plan review means it is timely to enhance governance and assurance structures.

I am developing a new external review process for all major projects worth over €100 million which will form part of the evidence base for finalising the revised national development plan. There will be two new elements to strengthen the existing assurance process for major projects. First, a framework of external experts in major infrastructure delivery will be put in place to advise Departments at two key decision gates when the business case for the project has been developed and before it goes to tender. The reviews will focus on robustness of planned delivery, accuracy of cost forecasts, consideration of risk and procurement. Second, a major projects advisory group will be established to support the Department in managing the external expert framework and assimilating the outputs from the reviews.

I am also reforming the composition and role of the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. The delivery board was established in 2018. It meets regularly to ensure effective leadership of the implementation of Project Ireland 2040 which includes both the national development plan and national planning framework. I have secured the Government's agreement to have up to five external members appointed to the board to bring additional expert knowledge, independent and regional perspectives and enhanced challenge function. These members would be in addition to the Secretaries General of the main capital spending Departments.

The domestic and international evidence on major projects shows that better analysis of cost and risk at the upfront stage results in improved outcomes. Taken together, the framework of external experts and the major projects advisory group will mean that when the Government is making decisions on these projects, it will have as full a picture as possible regarding expenditure, risks and benefits. This will help mitigate the risk of positivity bias when it comes to major capital projects and, in turn, reduce the possibility of delays and cost overruns.

As such, the Government is cognisant that it must secure the skills pipeline over the coming years to meet current and future needs. The review of the national development plan involves the consideration of five broad elements. It will examine the level of public investment as to whether it needs to be adjusted. The share of capital expenditure across Departments will be assessed to see if it needs to be adjusted. Consideration will be given to how Project Ireland 2040 can be changed to deliver on the policy priorities in the programme for Government such as housing, health, transport, job creation, enterprise development and climate action. An assessment will be carried out on whether our plans are ensuring regional balance in line with the national planning framework strategy of compact growth. We will look at governance and where any structures and rules can be improved. Taken together, all of these strands of work will provide a strong evidence base to allow the Government to make informed decisions.

The first phase of the review is nearing completion and will result in the publication of a report in the coming weeks. The report will draw upon several pieces of research, policy papers and consultations, including the public consultation, which have been carried out over the past number of months.

In terms of next steps, my Department will lead a strategic dialogue with other Departments over the coming months with the primary aim of agreeing the new five-year rolling departmental capital allocations and overall ten-year capital ceilings to 2030. I have also asked my ministerial colleagues to rigorously assess the costs of existing planned projects to ensure that those costs are up to date and realistic.

I intend to publish the new and revised national development plan this summer. It will detail a vision for public investment in the period 2021 to 2030.

It will ensure the implementation of the national planning framework, NPF, through investment levels which will be among the highest in the European Union, with the clearly stated strategic outcome of transitioning to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society. I look forward to the contributions of Members and to responding in the wrap-up stage later on.

I thank the Minister. I am delighted to hear the focus on balanced regional development, particularly on broadband. It will be really important.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, to the Seanad - we are sitting today in the Dáil Chamber and the Minister is well used to being here - and all the good work he is doing in his portfolio. It is a challenging portfolio at present where there are massive infrastructural projects ongoing. I certainly welcome the brave steps the Minister has taken with some very brave infrastructure projects.

One area the Minister alluded to was rural Ireland. It is something close to the Minister's heart which we have talked about on many occasions, and certainly close to my own and those of many of my constituents. It is okay to window dress and talk about the semantics. There are the development plan and the local and regional development plans and where they fall into place under the national framework. I have seen, while following events in counties Westmeath, Meath, Offaly and Longford where quite a lot of the local authorities are going through their development plans at present, that councillors make recommendations to the executive, the executive comes up with its plan and the councillors look to have certain parts of the plan varied. This falls in line with what they have been hearing from local people on the ground and their voters. Unfortunately, I have seen so far, particularly in Meath, Westmeath and Offaly, instances where the regulator has totally ignored what the councillors have said. That is not correct. That is not right. That is not fair. I have a serious issue with that. If the regulator thinks that in the middle of a housing crisis, he will merely roll in behind the executives and give them carte blanche, it will not happen without being aired anyway. I have a serious problem with that. There are many projects that would not be deemed to be worth looking at or implementing or which should not get a second hearing but there are many that would. These projects are not getting a fair hearing. I am aware of one case in County Westmeath where a chap is ready to develop a site. I am only talking about a small site in a town. It is a two-acre site. Three quarters of it is zoned and one quarter of it is not. The local authority has no space to allow any more zoning. The executive said it did not think it would be a correct decision. The councillors opted to vary it and put it into the plan but the regulator did not even consider it. There are simple cases such as that, which could be put into plans, even if they then would have to go back to councillors and the executive would have to work a bit harder with them by seeking a part in the same town to be taken out of the plan and that would not be built on over the next ten years. That is a simple thing that could be done to develop plans in local villages and towns. That would be a case of everybody - the people, the councillors and the regulator - working together. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be happening. There is far too much bureaucracy in the process at present.

A tool that some of the executives use is to tell councillors that they do not have the expertise, perhaps, with regard to particular planning or whatever. If that is the case, why not provide the councillors with some expertise, be it town planners or engineers or even if they need some legal expertise in that respect? It is chastising them, more or less, instead of supporting them. They are there to do a job, so let us support them. That is not happening. It is a fundamental fault in our planning process. The councillors are there to be lobbied by the people and the voters. Then, when they make a decision, unelected representatives are telling them: "Sorry, guys, it is unfortunate, but that is the way it is. You do not have the expertise in that and our advice is such and such". Let the councillors get independent advice and see if that is the advice or if they are just telling them what they want to hear. We have serious problems. I am not being the devil's advocate. Our system is good. There has to be a process of checks and balances, but it is very much loaded in favour of unelected people at present. I believe the balance has tipped too far to the other direction. It is causing a problem. There are practical solutions to some of these questions. I am sure that are some proposals that are off the wall and nobody has a problem with them, but there are many practical ones that are not happening. In that regard, councillors should certainly be allowed to get some expertise.

There are two other matters, in brief. Urban and town renewals should be prioritised. I am aware different projects in Limerick and in other cities have been rolled out, but the scheme should be rolled out nationwide now. The other matter is planning permissions that run out in 2020 and 2021. They should be extended by at least two years because there has been very little development. It has been a stop-start timeframe. Even where people had timeframes, they should be extended by two years. These are all very practical solutions that might be a help.

I warmly welcome the Minister. First, I thank him for his concise contribution. It is a measure of him. I have been following him and reading about him in the months since he took office and it is clear that he has a concise way and great clarity in what he does and says. In the short, concise, five-page document he presented to us there is a recurring theme, which I am delighted to see, of enhanced governance and new assurance structures. He will add five people to the board, over and above the Secretaries General. That is very good. It is all about governance, accountability and value for money.

We have had this debate previously in the Seanad and the Dáil when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were in government, but some of it fell on deaf ears. Clearly, the Minister has had a second thought, and I welcome that. It is worth saying it. He has taken cognisance of the submissions that have been made as part of the review, he has talked to other people and he has seen what has happened to date. That is extremely important. Stronger governance is proposed in all this. We talk about ministerial colleagues and rigorously assessing the costs of the existing projects. That is good and I thank the Minister. I had prepared some notes and most of my focus was going to be on governance, delivery and the realisation of the vision and the plan. One can have all the plans one wishes, but if one does not have the finances in place as well as key indicators and somebody driving the project, one will not deliver.

What did we collectively set about in the NDP? There were national strategic objectives, which included growth. I do not like the concept of compact growth. Not all growth is compact. I do not like that word and I choose not to use it. The Minister's document refers to compact growth, but I prefer to use the word "growth". There is also reference to enhanced regional accessibility in its broadest sense, strengthening rural communities and economies, quality healthcare, childcare, education and training, stronger economic support for enterprise, innovation and skills and connectivity. Again, I use the word "connectivity" in its broader sense, which is connectivity in respect of IT, mobility and the like. There is also sustainability in terms of our use of environmental resources and protecting our environmental resources, enhancing our amenities and our heritage and, of course, the important issue which the Acting Chairperson referred to, and for which he is a great champion in this House, balanced regional development. All that is good, positive and important.

I took some time to read IBEC's submission to the review and some of the interesting comments it made. Chronic underinvestment in the west of Ireland is underestimated and undermines prospects for economic recovery. That is what IBEC says. Some people might ask who IBEC is. I value IBEC, its contribution and what it has to say, as I value many other contributions. IBEC went on to say in its submission to the mid-term review of the national development plan that the west region needs sustainability and an enhanced and more ambitious roadmap for its future. The Minister knows, I know and everyone else in this House knows that major investment is needed to make the west more resilient and more competitive. Sectors such as tourism, leisure and hospitality are particularly exposed in the west of Ireland. The Minister mentioned Brexit and Covid. We talked about Covid in the short term a few months ago. I am looking over at Senator Casey, who will know more than anyone else in this House about leisure and the impact not only of Brexit, in terms of people travelling to this country and trade between this country and Europe, but also now of this dreadful pandemic that has put an end to so many businesses in this country. We have the Covid downturn and the impact of Brexit on our economy. While we talk about it being short term, let us wake up, folks. This is not short term. It is not necessarily medium term. It is possibly long term. Certainly, its effects will be felt long term. That is important.

We also have the added problem of the downgrading of the western region by the EU to a region of transition. That is challenging in itself.

What needs to be done? We know we need transport. We know all the other issues. I will not talk in great detail about them. Part of the national development plan recent review of Government plans was to extend the plan to 2030, as the Minister said. That is very substantial and is very good news, but with that comes additional funding, additional resources and additional capacity, and that is something I want to hear more about today.

I also want to hear more about the public private partnerships. Why have we got a hang-up as to who builds houses, be they public, private or a synergy between both? Bring on public money and public investment but bring on private investment and private contributions too.

We need absolute clarity on the national development plan. If we are to bring on international financiers and bring inward investment into the country, we need to tap into our major international diaspora and people who want to come back and give back something. We need to ensure that all Departments and all agencies are tasked with the vision and the challenge to roll out what is an exciting national development plan. Senator Davitt talked earlier about local authorities. We have local plans and regional plans and this is our national development plan. Instil in us a pride. Let us be ambassadors for this plan.

There is the importance of governance, the roll-out of this plan and communication - local, regional, national and, for that matter, international. We have a vision. We have a plan. We will not agree with all of it but we will agree with most of it. Let us therefore unite, articulate and seek investment in that plan for our future. It is important we come on board. I thank the Minister, particularly for his sharing today the focus of delivery and of governance.

Yes, it is important to mention region and transition and the regional spatial economic strategy as well as investment in the west.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I always like to see senior Ministers attending the Seanad so I welcome his presence. I made a submission to the Review to Renew process and I wish to put some of that on the record. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the review of the national development plan, Ireland 2040. I believe the plan gives Ireland a long-term focus and direction and drives us to invest strategically and regionally. For too long we have had a developer-driven approach to planning which leads to lopsided growth and short-termism in thought and investment. A modern economy must continue to invest in capital projects in order to maintain competitive advantage, give its citizens the infrastructure required and create an environment in which research, innovation and thought can prosper. The present scale of capital spending in Ireland is just about adequate and certainly should not drop below present levels. We need to transition to a green economy, which involves significant capital spending. The present spending on current measures relating to Covid-19 are extremely important but will reduce over the next 12 to 18 months, and we should not allow short-term commitments, though large, to impact long-term investment plans. A consistent guaranteed level of capital spend creates a sustainable construction sector which can plan for the future in terms of capacity and expertise.

For too long we had a capital spending model which turned on and off the tap depending on the fiscal climate, resulting in peaks and troughs in capacity and knowledge in the sector. This was inefficient and led to an inability to ramp up capacity in the short term. As others have expressed, I have a concern about the loss of people from the construction sector in the short term, particularly to the UK. Obviously, the pandemic unemployment payment was enough for many people during the winter period, but now with bills to pay, longer days and more opportunities to earn money, some of them are leaving for the UK. I have a concern that that will ramp up and could impact on the delivery of the NDP and the projects that we want to see being completed for our communities.

The number one priority must be the provision of affordable homes throughout the country. This, combined with the provision of sustainable transport across all modes, will go a long way towards developing a better quality of life and a better work-life balance. I welcome some of the commitments in the urban regeneration and development fund announcement made last week.

Prosperity depends on jobs, and investment in rural development, enterprise, skills, innovation and research is key to continued growth in the regions and should be a high priority in the NDP. There is a countrywide spread of top quality educational institutions, and there should be further and closer links with communities and industry to derive innovation and investment. However, we should also nurture frontier research, which is crucial in empowering our researchers to explore and make discoveries of global importance.

The provision of water and wastewater investment is an absolute necessity. The funding issues around the creation of Irish Water cannot be allowed to restrict investment in this area. No development can happen without adequate capacity for water services. It is the one absolute prerequisite for development and, by its nature, can be slow in respect of its construction and delivery. Focus should be placed on towns and villages with poor or no wastewater treatment capacity.

There are a number of key road projects that will solve the identified inadequacy in the road network and which should also be progressed.

It is vital that projects that are costed, managed and delivered with an emphasis on the value to the public. This can be in terms of long-term strategic investment which may involve a high spend originally but will deliver a project which can give a return over generations and facilitate knock-on investments. Typically these will be in transport, water and health services. I welcome the changes that the Minister has proposed and announced in his contribution here today.

I would support the establishment of an independent unit or agency to oversee and deliver large projects. This would be a step further than the proposed external review by the Department. This unit would not decide on the desirability of projects but would draw up tenders and contracts and manage delivery etc. in conjunction with the parent Department. This unit would have expertise in all areas of procurement and project delivery, and the ability to identify problem areas and troubleshoot at the early stage in projects.

The inclusion of individual projects in the NDP has given it, and these projects, credibility, and has provided an acknowledgement that it is worthwhile. A number of projects in the west which have been included in the NDP have progressed through the planning process and delivery will soon begin. A number of the schemes in the urban renewal and rural development areas have been very worthwhile and have funded projects which would otherwise find it difficult to get support.

Even in its early phase, the NDP has had a positive effect on the west and I expect that positivity to grow as more projects and innovations come on line. There are a number of key projects, for example, in housing. There are a number of private and public sites that are ready to go, and indeed private sites on which there is no movement. We must ask why this is happening. Is it the funding stream or the ability to get equity that is the cause of these projects not moving?

I know there is a whole debate on the issue of road and rail projects, but I believe that projects such as bypasses are as much about improving the quality of life and safety in town centres. Motorways, wherever they are built, are replacing national roads to a degree, and therefore making those national roads safer for all road users. That is important, whether it is drivers, pedestrians or cyclists.

On the cycling and greenway projects, a lot of funding has been delivered to date to get these projects moving. That is welcome. Land availability, that is to say, getting landowners on board to deliver them, is the stumbling block in these projects. We have seen that the projects which have been delivered have been on State-owned lands or a voluntary model has been followed, for example, with the Westport greenway project. Therefore, there are challenges in that area.

On wastewater, in east Galway, specifically the area to the east of Galway city, including Oranmore and Athenry, is an area that is crying out for development. It is mentioned in the NDP. It is absolutely vital that those projects are pushed in order for Galway to meet its national planning framework targets. I am sure the Minister will be hearing from constituents about the Inisheer Pier project, which is ready to go.

In respect of projects, I find it hard to advise groups seeking to build community centres. I am referring to larger projects in urban areas that could be valued in the order of €3 million to €5 million.

There is no Department to which that group can be sent to get a large chunk of funding to provide a community centre. These are in large urban areas. If the county council or the city council does not have the requisite funding, there is no Department that will do that. I ask that the Minister would consider a community centre fund in the NDP.

It is very important to represent the needs of the west, particularly the east Galway wastewater treatment plant. I call Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, who is also from the west.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Like others, I have given my personal submission on the NDP and, indeed, we have collectively contributed through the different committees, such as the climate action, disability and public expenditure committees. It is a very important review and a very important opportunity to think in a deep way about how we shape the places and the services within Ireland in the future. I am not going to repeat all of the points in my submission and I will just go to the five areas that the Minister has signalled are going to be important to her and her Department in the review.

I believe the level of public investment will need to be adjusted upwards. The signals from the IMF are telling us we need to spend more and the aim is to have borrowing of 1% of GDP, if needed. The EU is talking about stimulus and a general recognition that we are at a moment when stimulus is needed, advised and also very possible. There are opportunities at the moment which are somewhat unique. For example, in the temporary suspension of the EU fiscal compact rules, we have an opportunity to front-load some projects off-balance sheet in a new and different way to deliver very ambitious and early projects in terms of our public services and capital infrastructure. There are dedicated recovery and resilience, just transition and Brexit funds. Indeed, I would encourage the potential use of a multi-fund approach because I know that is working well in other countries where there is a multi-fund approach to different projects that seek to secure funding. In addition, of course, borrowing is more available and available at a lower rate than previously.

I say this in a way that is thought through and careful, but it is around the responsibility to make sure we make the best of the opportunities that are there now to create things that will pay dividends for many decades to come. This is still about investment, but about investment in a way that we perhaps could not do previously, and it is important that we are ambitious about that.

The second and third points concern the share of capital expenditure across Departments and the delivery of policy priorities in the programme for Government. The share will need to be adjusted if we are to meet commitments, for example, the commitments on the ratio of public transport to private transport. That might require a serious increase in what we spend on public transport so that we look to more and new opportunities. In terms of other policy opportunities, it is important with climate action that we have a joined-up approach and that we make use of the tools that are available such as the environmental impact assessment mechanisms and EU directives in an effective way to make sure not only that we have projects to deliver climate action but that all of our development projects are taking us forward in terms of climate action, not backwards. That thought-through approach is important.

In terms of retrofitting, we want to raise our level of ambition, and I think that is an opportunity in terms of employment as well. Other issues have emerged during the past year of Covid, where we have seen, for example, the need for better care infrastructure in Ireland. As Senator Kyne said, there is the issue of community spaces, indoor and outdoor, and the importance of access to that kind of shared public space in communities across Ireland.

The fourth area concerns regional balance and compact growth. Regional balance is crucial. I hope we have ambitious public transport in rural Ireland, as well as in urban Ireland. In terms of compact growth, it is important that is liveable compact growth and that we look to the issues of liveability and make sure families can live in our city centres. That is important in terms of the sustainable development goals, in particular SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities. I feel there are very useful tools and examples there. It is very important that the NDP interacts in a constructive way with local development plans and local representatives.

Finally, we come to governance.

Governance is absolutely the key. I really welcome hearing about the major projects advisory group and that recognition that more thought earlier in the process leads to better outcomes. I suggest, however, that we need to follow through by making sure we empower all the decision makers along the way to put in more thought earlier in the process. The major projects advisory group is a really positive step but we must make sure that procurement officers and contracting officers are thinking about quality.

That is why I hope the Government will support my legislation and will send a signal by supporting my Quality in Public Procurement (Contract Preparation and Award Criteria) Bill 2021 this Friday, which will make it clear that when we think about public spending, we think about quality and price. That has happened successfully in the Netherlands, where they have seen their capital infrastructure being delivered on time, to a higher quality and without significant additional costs because they ask for all the information up front and at the beginning level. My Bill will also ask the Minister, and I will really make this important, to make sure that we set a minimum target of 50% quality on projects over the EU public works threshold of €5.35 million. We have seen what happens when we let lowball bids win or when we deal with supplementary claims after the fact. The national children's hospital was 75% price and only 25% quality. I am hoping the Minister will support my Bill as part of the reform and as a signal of commitment to the reform of governance to make sure we get more from our public spending, do more with our public money and get better capital infrastructure for all our citizens across this country.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I thank the Minister for taking the time to come into the Chamber today. I acknowledge the supreme extra challenge he faces as a Minister at this time. I thank him for committing to a review of the national development plan as a result.

The existing national development plan is not fit for purpose on climate. There is no strategic environmental assessment and it did not provide any numbers for specific emissions reductions. It does not recognise the climate impacts of new infrastructure. That is why this review of the plan must update it to include climate proofing. On that issue, for example, look at flooding and the amount we spend on hard engineering as a short-term localised solution when catchment area-based solutions cost a fraction of the amount. Instead of just solving the problem in one place and shoving in on to the next place, catchment-based solutions are fantastic. They cost less, effect change on a large scale and improve biodiversity and prevent farmers having to worry about flooding. As a rural dweller, I see farms, half of which flood regularly now as a result of our changing weather patterns. We really need to take seriously proper investment in catchment area solutions.

From a Green Party perspective, rural transport infrastructure is key. We have done well so far this year. I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government that the updated national development plan will prioritise public transport projects that enhance regional and rural connectivity in line with the national planning framework for additional funding. The programme for Government committed to a transformation in transport funding with 10% of the capital transport budget for walking, 10% for cycling and the remainder allocated in favour of public transport over road building and maintenance by a factor of 2:1. It is crucial that this is reflected in the updated national development plan. We need all of it and, unfortunately, the Minister has to deliver on it.

We must support, improve and expand public transport options in rural areas and so far, I am really grateful for the extra services Local Link now provides. It is providing services in places where we never had them or where we had them once a week, if we were lucky. Personally, I try to use public transport all the time coming up and down to Dublin. However, the last train to Ennis, County Clare, is at 5 p.m. Unfortunately, the last bus from Limerick to Ennis leaves five minutes before the last train. We also need, therefore, to have that joined-up thinking. We need to now get Irish Rail and Bus Éireann on board in order that they link up with each other. A person could, therefore, get the train to the bus and then link up with his or her Local Link service. We are a small country. We could get this right if we put energy into it. We must embed the principles of balanced regional development clusters and compact growth, as Senator Higgins mentioned, and improved connectivity to deliver a just transition.

On the point of greenways, with which everybody is now on board, I wrote the farmers first policy as an amendment to our strategy on greenways in the Green Party policy on rural development. I urge the Minister to look at that because before we decide where greenways are going, we must engage with the landowners.

Best practice is not sticking to the old railway line or trails and sometimes it can involve moving to the edge of the land. We need to consider that because once we have the landowners onboard we can progress instead of spending many years trying to get these things off the ground. We must put farmers first and I urge the Minister to read the Farmers First policy document that I authored.

We must shift to active transport. Expenditure wherever there is walking and cycling is crucial as it will give people options and make the roads safe for everybody. The Minister must engage with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. We have roads narrower than the path in the Chamber yet there are speed limits of 80 km or 100 km, which is absolutely insane. Some lad on a computer in Dublin came up with these speed limits and it is absolute madness. Old people are afraid to walk on these rural roads, kids cannot cycle on them and dogs get killed on them. There is a huge issue with ridiculous high speeds being allowed on rural roads.

At present, a quarter of all nine year olds are overweight. A big part of that is because they cannot physically move safely around the place. If we could give children independent travel and freedom to move again then that will be a huge step. It will also save us having to spend huge amounts of money on health services. Such an initiative makes economic sense and health sense.

Another big issue for me is that it is very difficult for people to live above shops in villages and towns. As a result, the lifeline and lifeblood have been drained from villages and towns. People now live in a suburbia-type scenario and that is not just in cities but in villages and towns. We need to simplify the bureaucracy and the costs around having a dual purpose for shops. Many of my friends have attempted to do this work but got caught up with huge expense yet still cannot live above the shop due to the rigmarole that exists at the moment. I urge the Minister to consider this matter. We need to take a town centres first approach and get as many people as possible living in towns and living above the shop instead of having the dispersed settlement patterns that have occurred over the last few decades. One can see this pattern in Dublin since Covid arrived because only the people who live in Dublin city centre are visible. One sees nobody because nobody lives in cities any more as they have all moved to the suburbs. If one wants to learn from the mistakes that were made in America where they just threw everybody out to suburbia and made them all car dependent, a move which they now regret, then one must watch a brilliant film called "The End of Suburbia". It is one of the best films ever made on how to get it wrong and how we can learn from the mistakes made in America.

In terms of water infrastructure, as I said earlier today on the plinth when the Green Party launched a motion on water, we cannot build any houses until we have water infrastructure. In Broadford and Miltown Malbay in County Clare, we have all of the money, the sites, and the houses have been designed and are shovel-ready, but without water infrastructure there will be nothing built. Therefore, we must take water infrastructure seriously and invest in it.

Infrastructure deficits in Ireland impact on the provision of safe and secure drinking water. They lead to pollution and environmental damage. They present a challenge to achieving sustainable development across urban and rural Ireland. Water supply must be put before housing need because one cannot have people moving into houses if there is no running water. Continued investment in infrastructure coupled with innovative and modern approaches is absolutely necessary and fast becoming an emergency.

Of course we need the national broadband plan to be rolled out as soon as possible and people are always saying so. We have had some good successes in County Clare because people can now avail of ten Wi-Fi hubs at a very low cost. I welcome more of that investment and let us see the plan rolled out as soon as possible. We can borrow money cheaper than ever before so if we do not invest now then we will never do so. Now is the time and I wish the Minister the best of luck with the review.

I thank the Senator for making great points. It is also very important to increase LocalLink transport services. I call Senator Gavan and he has six minutes.

I thank the Acting Chairperson and it is nice to see her in the Chair.

I welcome the Minister. The speech has been interesting and I want to address it as much as I can in the few minutes that I have got. Let us start with the first point. It is good that he is examining the level of public investment and whether it needs to be adjusted. Sinn Féin is clearly of the view that investment needs to be significantly adjusted. It needs to be adjusted because the current targets are just not strong or ambitious enough. As has been said earlier, we are in a unique time in terms of being able to borrow at extremely low levels of interest, at zero and minus interest rates, and there is so much to be done. As the Minister will know, historically we have had very poor levels of infrastructure and very poor levels of investment over decades so now is the opportunity and the time to change that.

I would reference housing. At the minute, our target is 10,000 social housing units but that is not enough. The Minister knows that 10,000 units will not solve the crisis so we need to up our expenditure significantly. I would also cite healthcare because we know that the Sláintecare report, which all parties agreed on, is not going to be achieved within the initial ten-year timeframe because of underinvestment. So the good news is that it is in the Minister's power to address that and I sincerely hope he does so.

I want to hone in on what Senator Higgins said, and I welcome her Bill which will be introduced on Friday. She will have Sinn Féin's full support because when we are talking about the national development plan a key point is how we use public procurement. Unfortunately, it has been used in far too narrow a way for far too long. The Netherlands is an excellent example. Last Friday, Sinn Féin launched our own community wealth building policy, which is very much based around the issue of public procurement also but where we do public procurement differently and get anchor institutions working locally and nationally to work together to ensure that more of the wealth is retained within communities. It is a different way of doing public procurement. It also actively encourages the development of co-operatives, particularly worker co-operatives. This has been tried and tested and shown to work in Preston, Ayrshire and in parts of the United States. It is a new way of looking at spending public money in a way that benefits people as opposed to the money being vacuumed out of the local economy. I urge the Minister to look at our policy document, which was launched last Friday. It is a new way of doing business. It is practical, is tested and it works.

I need to talk to the Minister about regional balance and, in particular, about Limerick, where I am from. When this initial development plan was launched the Chamber of Commerce in Limerick said it was a huge missed opportunity and one that would be regretted for generations to come. It particularly cited the failure to look at Shannon Airport as a means of rebalancing our economy. The Minister will know that Dublin currently accounts for 43% of our GDP so we know that current policies in terms of regional balance have failed. We know that policies right up to the Government that the Minister's party supported until last year did not address the issue. Now is the Minister's opportunity to address it. It will not be addressed without a substantial shift in funding. It will not be addressed without ambition and in Limerick, we are crying out for ambition. It is interesting that the head of Irish Rail told us that Limerick is uniquely placed for a light urban rail system because all the tracks are still owned by Irish Rail. That is not the case in most cities but we still have them. Sinn Féin has been championing light rail in Limerick for ten years. No one else has bought into that proposal. I ask the Minister to look at it again. We know that the number of cars in Limerick are projected to double between now and 2050. That will create chaos but not if we invest properly in public transport. The opportunity is there. To date, unfortunately, the political will or the ambition have not been there. It lies again in the hands of the Minister and I ask him to actively look at that opportunity.

I would like an update on the Foynes rail project. It is good that it is in the plan. It was due to be completed by 2022 but clearly that will not be the case. I ask the Minister for an update on when that rail link is likely to be completed. It is a very ambitious rail link that will be good for our communities, not just in terms of the port but in terms of potential commuter lines working their way back into the city also.

I call on the Minister to be ambitious. My concern is that there are two very conservative parties at the heart of this Government. Already, we heard the Tánaiste last week reference the worries about inflation. There is no inflation. Economists are telling us this is the best time to be ambitious, to borrow and to address that lack of investment that has gone on for decades in terms of capital and public infrastructure. The Minister has only one opportunity to get this right. What we are looking for, as he reviews this plan, is a huge leap in ambition and investment. That regional balance is key.

I will cite one other issue that I have heard others mention in this Chamber mention previously, namely, a rail spur to Shannon Airport, which was mentioned back in the 1990s. I believe the Minister's colleague, Mary O'Rourke, initially looked at it in the 1990s. If we are serious about changing the fact that nine out of ten planes fly from Dublin - thankfully, they will start flying again - we have to build the infrastructure across the west of Ireland. One of the best ways to enhance Shannon is to build that rail spur, which has been discussed for decades. It needs to be done.

I am disappointed that, to date, there has been a lack of detail around the way that investment in public transport will be rolled out over the coming years. I hope that in the revamped national development plan we will see that detail, ambition and a sea change in terms of the current projected investment because there is not enough at the moment. As it stands, it will not address housing. It will not address the need to build a national health service. It is in the Minister's hands. I call on him to do that, come back with ambition, look at that regional balance in particular and give us the ambition we deserve in Limerick city in terms of public transport, infrastructure and investment.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber.

I also welcome the review of the national development plan. Senator Gavan mentioned that he was looking for a link to Shannon Airport. He may get it more quickly than the one to Dublin Airport at the rate we are going for that particular link.

He made another point about now being the cheapest time to get money. For someone who is in business and is being asked to borrow more money, it always has to be paid back at some stage and we must remind ourselves of that, even though when it is the State's money, one might not be quite as concerned.

The review of the national development plan was warranted and indeed necessary. The plan was framed at a time where we did not think we would be living with Covid-19 nine months on. The review was agreed prior to our knowing what the impact Covid-19 would have on how we live our lives into the future. There is an element missing in this review, which is the impact Covid-19 will have on how we as a society live into the future because the NDP is aligned and fully linked to the national planning framework. We must admit that Covid-19 has changed some clear policies in the national planning framework. People are talking about primary legislation whereby employers will have to give every employee an opportunity to work to work at home, which will change the whole dynamic of society and how we look at it. When we look at capital investment, if that is the way in which society is moving, such investment should move in that direction, rather than where the national planning framework specifies at present. Even in the area of public transport, if we are all going to start working from home, if that is a figure of 20%, that will change the dynamics as to where the investment in public transport should be.

We also need to look at the impact Covid-19 has had on the city centres, which probably have experienced an impact worse than any of the rural areas. How do we re-vision our cities of the future as a result of Covid-19? The national planning framework does not take account of that. Although I appreciate the review, my concern is whether there is a way in which we can Covid-19-proof it. How can we take the Covid-19 policies we are talking about here, bring them into the national development plan and align these with the policy of the national planning framework?

Many people have spoken about Irish Water and our water infrastructure. This is the one critical piece of infrastructure needed everywhere, regardless of whether one is in a city or small village. Given the remit under which Irish Water was set up and the horizon within which it was trying to operate as to commercial viability, the small towns and rural villages were never going to get a say in respect of that capital funding. While I accept that each local authority has been asked for its three priority projects and I hear that another scheme may be announced during the summer, that is not good enough. I have always said that a percentage of the funding that is given to Irish Water every year should be ring-fenced for villages and towns with a population under 5,000 persons. That would mean there would be a continuous fund available to villages and towns under that population size, which would allow them to grow at a sustainable level. Two dynamics in respect of housing are happening at present and these play into this debate. There is great demand in our cities and urban areas while there is no demand in the rural areas. There are staggering prices in urban areas, whereas builders will not build houses in rural areas because it is not viable to do so. There are two competing actions needed to address both situations. A key part of that is there is no infrastructure in our villages to attract developers into them.

Town and village renewal is also critical as we move forward, with the over-shop living initiative also being mentioned. When we looked at this issue in the housing committee, we found many of the problems concerned regulations and standards because one is dealing with older properties. The question is how, when one goes to renovate them, does one convert them to the standards of today, as opposed to the previous standards. There are issues around ventilation and fire specifications, which may prevent this. We need to look at how we can overcome that.

We need to revitalise our towns and make them into living spaces where people can raise their families in a nice environment. From a local authority point of view, we are aware that the commercial side of towns is much too big. We need to make that side more compact and enable people to live outside it.

In the few minutes I have left it would be remiss of me not to mention Wicklow, which lost out on public transport in the previous national development plan. Specifically, rail was never mentioned and the Government just maintained the existing level of services. The cost of the Arklow wastewater treatment plant has increased to over €100 million. That project will be presented to the Minister's Department. People in Arklow have waited over 30 years for a wastewater treatment plant and Irish Water is currently being fined on a daily basis.

We can invest all we like in housing and I agree that we should do so. However, the bottleneck occurs in the process of delivering housing. It is the planning process and the process in the Department that are causing the bottlenecks in delivering housing.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. This is the first opportunity I have had to speak with him here and I wish him well in his role. I listened to his statement at the start of the debate. I welcome the review and his comments regarding the need to review costs. This year, we have spent more money than we have ever spent in any calendar year. When putting together a plan for going forward, like the national development plan, we need to make sure that what we are investing in is cost-proof.

One of the main things that jumps out at me, given the area I am from in Tipperary, is broadband. The Department has supported Tipperary with €118 million to invest in broadband and it is important that we welcome that. Just under 26,000 premises in Tipperary are within the intervention area, out of about 77,000. When investing this money in communities like those in Tipperary and around the country, we must do it as quickly as possible, because the more we talk about broadband coming to areas and what percentage of the population now have high-speed broadband, the more we remind the people who do not have broadband that they do not have it. This morning, I got a call from a father who, like most people at the moment due to Covid, is working at home. His wife is also working from home and their kids, who would normally be in school, have been doing their schooling from home for months. There are five people in their house trying to work or attend school with poor broadband service. Broadband is being delivered in an area only 500 m down the road from them, while they are waiting for their broadband. If we have learned anything this year, it is that we need to invest in broadband.

We must recognise the growth in population that will happen over the next number of years. This plan sets out where we see ourselves in 2040, with the population growing to roughly 6 million. Not everyone can live in Dublin so we need to invest in areas outside of it. The investment provided by the Department of Rural and Community Development has been very successful. In Tipperary, just over €35 million has been invested in a range of schemes, from town and village renewal schemes to other schemes to rejuvenate towns, give them an extra lease of life and encourage people to come back into urban areas within rural settings. That is important. Another round of the rural regeneration fund will be coming through soon and areas of Tipperary have made applications for that funding. An application of €3.3 million has been made for Cashel town park. This project would develop a town park right at the bottom of the Rock of Cashel, creating a beautiful setting that would connect the town centre of Cashel to the Rock of Cashel. For a town like Cashel, the last year has been detrimental as regards tourism. Cashel is obviously very well known outside of Ireland and it has been hampered in the last year due to a lack of tourism.

I have been working with a local councillor, Declan Burgess, who has been very active on the town park project. It is a project that exemplifies everything we are trying to do through investing in rural areas and I hope we will be able to do it.

I was reading the national development plan that was published a couple of years ago. One of the very first lines in it states the fundamental objectives of the national development framework is to reinforce accessibility between key urban centres of population and the regions. One of the biggest issues we have, and one of my biggest concerns, is the N24 between Limerick and Waterford. It is the worst regional road in the country. Under the national development plan it is to go to design stage, but I have serious concerns that it is not high on the list of priorities of the Department of Transport or the Minister. Will the Minister see fit to continue the N24 to design stage? The contracts are out for the Cahir to Limerick section and then the Cahir to Waterford section. It is the worst primary road in the country. The average speed between Waterford and Limerick is 65 km/h. The average speed that people should be doing on such a primary route is 90 km/h. They are the only two cities not joined by a decent road. At the very least, design stage of the project needs to remain in the national development plan and I ask the Minister to do this. The Minister is familiar with the road that goes to Carrigaline. This is just as bad with regard to traffic congestion.

I concur with what Senator Davitt said about planning applications. It is important we extend them by two years. Many developers and people have planning permission that is due to expire, and if they have to start the whole process over again, it will delay everything, including the building of houses, and this is not good for anyone. Something should be done about this.

A number of people spoke about Irish Water and I have spoken about this a number of times. We need to invest in Irish Water. We need to align the priorities of Irish Water to the priorities of the local development plans of local authorities because they are not aligned at present. I thank the Minister for coming to the House.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I feel a bit bad standing up here today because the Minister has had so many demands made to him for funding and we are €239 billion in debt since Covid-19 hit the country. I am not sure how quickly the economy can bounce back. Certainly some parts can but others will not bounce back that quickly.

With respect to the national broadband roll-out, I welcome the progress to date but I have some concerns. In particular, I am concerned about the ambition of National Broadband Ireland to grow from 900 to 2,000 staff, given the shortage of skills in the country in fibre optics. The Government should have seen this coming and laid on courses in further education and third level to take care of it. I believe the Government is now doing so and I would like the Minister to confirm this.

I taught courses in IT for more than 25 years before I came to the House. The one thing I learned during those 25 years is that technology moves forward at a pace that can be quite fast. This brings me to my concern that we are in the middle of spending a small fortune on fibre-optic connectivity, which we expect to last ten or 15 years. If I know nothing else, I know that ten to 15 years in IT is an awfully long time. Has the Department or the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications considered the plan B outlined by Brian Flanagan with respect to the use of low-earth orbit satellites? Recently, the EU prioritised the delivery of high-speed broadband by satellite and has launched a major programme to establish a European-led low-earth orbit satellite service by between 2025 and 2027. I believe 11 companies already operating in this country are capable of delivering satellite broadband. I know people will say the upload and download speeds do not compare with fibre optic but over time they will improve. It certainly would bring connectivity to the darkest corners of this country. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of fast reliable broadband to ensure people of all parts of the country can avail of remote working, education and essential online services.

The previous speaker mentioned families with a number of members trying to access the Internet in a home at the same time.

Currently, 40% of households and businesses in Mayo are without adequate broadband services. National Broadband Ireland's timeline indicates approximately 18 months for the national broadband plan to be delivered in the Ballina and Castlebar areas but it has admitted that areas further out in the county will have a longer wait for the service. Deputy Michael McNamara has stated that rural Clare will remain a broadband black hole right through 2021 and nearly a third of Kerry homes and businesses do not have a quality broadband service, with some people paying for two services monthly in the hope of having a usable signal. Mr. Elon Musk's corporation approached the Department of Rural and Community Development last year and the Starlink product will initially involve just a single household. There has been progress but Covid-related delays have set us back.

In an interview with the Irish Farmers' Journal, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, explained that delays are down to people being unable to install the infrastructure and we cannot get people from England. This is why I speak about the training that should have taken place. Given how critical broadband is to the functioning of every area in the economy, what plans are in place to make up for the lost time and will the Minister now consider looking at satellite services for more remote areas?

I constantly hear the term "balanced regional development" but such a concept does not exist and is not possible. The centralised approach of government is probably wrong and we should focus more on regional stakeholders who have the drive to maximise growth and development in a region. The top-down system of driving regional economies limits the capacity of a region to exploit its unique strengths. For example, we must move away from stripping local authorities of their powers. Before anybody says that does not happen, I should say that it does. Councillors who recently made submissions were told the submissions they were making to local authorities would be overturned by a Minister or a Minister would have the final say. Surely local people should have the final say.

My colleague from Sinn Féin mentioned traffic congestion in Limerick and it is now a feature of Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, Dublin and several other large towns in the country. With respect to Cork, Limerick and Galway, is it not time for us to look at financing light rail systems? A number of different systems are available in the world other than the Luas-type system, which is heavy rail and not good enough. I know some people in Galway are exploring very light rail systems with Coventry City Council, and it is something we should consider, along with the development of park-and-ride facilities. In Galway it can take two hours to get across what is a relatively small city. Cork can be a nightmare, as the Minister will be aware. I see time is running out but we must look at light rail as an alternative with decent park-and-ride facilities.

I have some comments on Brexit, the ports and airports. Dublin and Rosslare ports have done much work to counter the effects of Brexit but we need to see lo-lo facilities developed more in Waterford because ro-ro is not available in that neck of the woods. The ports at Cork and Foynes must also be developed. We should look at the airports and particularly Shannon for export and import facilities through the air.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber to discuss the NDP I am delighted to see him here. He has had very trying times over the past nine months since taking office and it has certainly been a baptism of fire. That fire is far from being put out. Recovery and getting enough vaccines into the country is now to the fore but the consideration of where we go for the next 20 years is vital.

The timing of the NDP review is good. Since the onset of Covid-19, there has been a great opportunity for reset in considering how businesses and workers operate in this country.

There needs to be a new approach from Government and a change of policy in relation to that. The national development plan 2020 to 2040 gives a real chance to put right the whole concept of balanced regional development. As the Minister knows, I come from the north-west. This affects not just county Donegal, but the whole general area of Donegal, Derry, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Sligo and Leitrim. This is an area of roughly 500,000 people. There has been neglect there, in my own county in particular, since the Troubles and we have been playing catch-up ever since. Now there is an opportunity to put that right. It needs to be grasped within the national development plan.

Since 2000, the early days of my political life, I battled hard with the Taoiseach at the time, Bertie Ahern, to have the N2-A5 upgraded to motorway status like other routes across the country. I made the argument at the time that traffic figures on the N2-A5 were over and above what they were on the Limerick route. Halfway through the Waterford route and even the Galway route, figures were no bigger at that stage in 2000. While that route was planned to go ahead, following the protracted negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement afterwards, it was shelved by the southern Government. People in the west are happy since then as they received a motorway to Wexford. Fair play to them for achieving that. It was back on the cards again but then the Stormont Assembly was taken down. That set the project back another three or fours years. It is vitally important the A5 project is driven from here because there is no interest from politicians in Northern Ireland to drive this project. There never was from day one. It is important we drive it because the hinterland on either side of the Border is neglected as a result of that. It is only by this Government driving the project that it can be delivered. I want the Minister to ensure this happens.

There are other opportunities that can come about as a result of the national development plan. A good friend of mine, Hugh Friel, is a Fanadian from the parish where I come from. He was once CEO and financial head of the Kerry Group and later was head of Tourism Ireland. He has been living for many years in Kerry. We often have conversations about tourism and how things can develop because we have lost out so much tourism-wise in Donegal. We are not at the table at all. We have not realised the same things as have the likes of the hotels in Killarney. While a lot of that was driven by the people themselves, there were also incentives provided over the years. Donegal has been cut off because of the Troubles. We believe there is an opportunity to level the playing field. There needs to be incentives provided. I come from an area called Fanad. We have a beach that has been voted the second most beautiful in the world. We have a lighthouse that was also voted the second most beautiful in the world. We have many other attractions but there are no beds and no hotels. Areas like that need to be looked at and given an incentive. Those pockets around the country need to be identified and separated and given tax incentives to bring proper tourism facilities to those areas.

Hugh Friel put one thing into my mind and it was in relation to marinas. He took me to a few in Kerry. Anywhere those marinas were built, the rest of the infrastructure followed afterwards. We know from the Volvo Ocean Race in Galway that there is tourism potential which we are not tapping into. Through the 20 year period of the national development plan, there is an opportunity to start building these around our coast so people can use out coastlines. There is hopping potential. There are opportunities within our waterways to provide smaller marinas. There is an opportunity to incentivise those small start-ups. There are many which are starting up.

In areas that have not started up, these are some small incentives to encourage people to take up the cudgels and provide tourism services in locations that are attracting numbers but that do not have the requisite facilities in place.

I welcome the Minister. This is the first time that I think I have got an opportunity to congratulate him and wish him well in his role. I served with him for approximately four years on the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. I know only too well how good an operator he is and I have no doubt that he will be an excellent Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Having said that, I do not envy him because he is facing into difficult years, especially in light of the amount of money that had to be put aside for the pandemic payments, etc.

To continue on from Senator Blaney's contribution on marinas around the west coast, anyone who has a boat that he or she wants to moor along the west coast for the winter would have to go to Kilrush in County Clare. I do not think there are any marinas north of Kilrush. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Blaney in that regard.

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the review of the capital expenditure plan. Things have changed greatly since the plan was first put in place several years ago. Several speakers have alluded to the situation where many people are now working remotely from home and more people, we presume, will be able to work from remote areas in the future, especially as broadband infrastructure is put in place. That will be an objective and there is much to be gained from it. We all like to see the GAA progressing in counties, but several counties are winning everything in both codes at present. Having people working remotely, however, will help many counties because it will bring people into places where they were not before.

As several Senators stated, we have great problems at local authority level with one-off rural housing. This matter must be examined because there is a great need in this regard. I ask that the Minister consider giving some sort of powers to local authority members to allow them to raise planning issues at local authority level. It has gone beyond the ridiculous when a councillor cannot raise an issue concerning planning at a council meeting. Where does accountability come into things? Where does transparency come in? If councillors have put a planning framework in place, then surely they should be able to ask questions about the transparency and accountability of that plan. It would be only right and fitting for councillors at certain times of the year to be able to raise issues regarding how such a plan is progressing and where it currently stands.

There is a great need to look after our town centres and to put incentives in place to do that. There is no other way to achieve that objective. The Minister is aware that such financial incentives and grants were put in place several years previously and money was spent when such schemes existed. I remember in former Minister Pádraig Flynn's time that there was an incentive to look after our towns. I forget the name of the scheme now. A resort initiative was then put in place by former Taoiseach Enda Kenny and I think there was also another scheme in this context. We saw, however, when those schemes were created that money was targeted and put into those locations concerned. The only problem I saw with those initiatives was that proper plans were not put in place first. There was no overall planning. It was all ad hoc activity done piecemeal, which was not to the best advantage of those schemes.

The schemes in question allowed hotels to be built where there would otherwise have been none.

Multi-storey car parks were built. Housing was built; perhaps some of it was built in the wrong areas. Those schemes built those pieces of infrastructure throughout the country. Therefore, while some people might say that they do not work, they certainly work when it comes to targeting investment into some areas. While the urban renewal schemes are great with regard to putting up or doing up public buildings or putting in place public areas, they alone will not bring private and capital investment into areas. I believe it will have to be incentivised. The Minister should look at that with regard to this plan. It will and does work. An overall plan should be put in place, however. It was the one piece missing out of all the other schemes that were put in place previously. Much could be learned from them. It will work, however, and I hope the Minister will look at it.

The Minister is very welcome. We appreciate his taking the time to come and discuss with us the review of the national development plan. It is good that the Minister is looking to the future to ensure we are sufficiently prepared for transition to a post-Covid-19 world. That is certainly something we are all looking forward to.

In his few words at the start, the Minister emphasised that he wanted to see a national development plan that was forward looking and ambitious, and to realise opportunities in rural Ireland. I am taking rural Ireland to mean outside Dublin. All too often, counties like my county of Kildare suffer because they are not seen as part of rural Ireland but as part of the Dublin's commuter belt. Yet, we have many challenges in which we need to have direct investment, not least broadband and public transport.

When one talks about the national development plan being an important economic developer and stimulus, as well as providing confidence, it also gives hope to people. While we face this pandemic and can only travel within 5 km radius, except for essential purposes, it gives a sense of renewed purpose when our citizens recognise that Government understands what we are all going through and that good thought and investment is being put into what will make our world a better place post Covid-19.

Important also in what the Minister said is that there will be a thorough assessment regarding projects and assessment of costs in making sure they are realistic and absolutely up to date. All too often in the past, we have gotten weary of projects overrunning both on budget and time. The tweaks the Minister is bringing into the national development are very welcome.

There is no doubt that investing in infrastructure is at the heart of providing a better quality of life for all our people and ensuring they have the opportunity to live sustainably within all our communities. There are lessons to be learned from what we have undergone over the last 12 months in terms of investment in our recreational facilities to ensure we all have appropriate parks and green space and, of course, children's playgrounds, which are always necessary in society but particularly so now.

Well-targeted investment has the power to be transformational for all of society. Again, it is essential we get value for money and go back to the tweaks the Minister is bringing in to ensure the record budget of more than €10 billion he has committed to over 2021, which is quite incredible, is well-invested. It is not just about the number of euro that are invested, but it is about making sure we get absolute value for money.

I thank the Minister for giving the public the opportunity to have its say on the NDP by way of the consultation process. I understand he will bring forward the results of that consultation in the spring. I took the opportunity to make a submission because, as I mentioned, we have many challenges in County Kildare, particularly in the town in which I live. Newbridge is the commercial heart of south Kildare and there has been a steady pace of development in regard to housing, etc. However, that has led to rapid development and congestion in some places and underdevelopment in others. We must ensure that services are maintained and we also need to encourage continuous investment and growth. Newbridge had an overall increase in population of 5.5% from 2011 to 2016, yet we have had absolutely no investment in our infrastructure.

We were very disappointed last week when the application for the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, funding for a second bridge in Newbridge was turned down. There is only one bridge in the town, as the Minister knows from his visits there with me. There are six schools in Newbridge, with more than 4,000 students, and most of them are located very close to the bridge. This causes huge congestion at certain points during the day. It is absolutely essential that we get funding for a second bridge and then a third bridge. We also need to have safe walkways and cycleways for all the students coming to school. I include the small village of Athgarvan. There is no secondary school there and the young people living in the village have to come to Newbridge for school. There is no footpath between the two centres.

Newbridge has no community centre, which is something that should be accessible to everybody in every town. There is a monastery for sale in Newbridge and I hope we will have the opportunity to secure funding that would support the purchase of that building for a community centre. The continued funding for blueway and greenway facilities is very important. An extension of the sewerage schemes in Rathangan, Kilcullen and Allenwood South is hugely important.

Education provision also comes under the NDP. In this regard, I draw the Minister's attention to the need for a new secondary school in Newbridge and a replacement for Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington.

It is lovely to see the Minister in the House again. Even though the cost of the Covid crisis, financially, economically and socially, has been monumental, I am still optimistic about the future. We have the same raw ingredients that pulled us out of the last recession, including one of the most educated workforces in the world and the youngest population in Europe. Our cost of borrowing is low and our reputation for financial management is high. In the recent past, we had full employment and the fastest-growing economy in the eurozone. Despite all the ongoing sensitivities around Brexit, we are a valued member of the EU-27 team and the Single Market, and we are committed to the growth of an all-island economy.

At the same time, the problems we faced only 18 months ago are still fresh in my mind and are a warning to us for the future. Our economic recovery took off after the last recession but we did not have the public infrastructure to support it following the lack of investment in certain areas over the years. We must try to avoid that fate again. We have been held back by our lack of social and public infrastructure but we have seen through the Covid crisis that we can do things differently. The rule book has been thrown out when it comes to work practices and the naysayers have been proved wrong. We have shown that we can meet the challenges and do things differently. We need to rebuild our culture and infrastructure around the learnings of the past year. It is clear to me that quality of life, equal opportunities, regional balance, work-life balance and sustainable lifestyles are key.

One of the greatest trends during the Covid period has been the flourishing of mixed-purpose or mixed-use communities and the decline of single-purpose communities. We have seen how people working from home have flourished in places such as Castleknock and Blanchardstown, which I represent. People have been upping sticks and moving to different parts of rural Ireland.

We are concerned about city centres. I take issue with anyone who suggests that city centres are dying. It is areas where offices or retail have dominated that have suffered the most, not city centres per se. It just so happens that our city centres are dominated by single-purpose uses. Surely it is an opportunity for us to make cities more liveable, to be more like European cities where families can live. Perhaps it is not working from home that will hollow out cities but an over-dependence on single-purpose areas. It is a much more sustainable way to live. The 15-minute city is based on hyperproximity principles, mixing residential areas with office and employment opportunities and social infrastructure made accessible by active transport and all accessible to each other.

I speak as someone who is from a suburban area, who has seen how main streets have suffered and who can see the potential that is in front of us now. I am a great advocate for the town centre first strategy. I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, that we need a joined-up strategy with supports for people in rural areas, suburban Dublin and city centres for local businesses, families and quality of life. We need investment if we want to change the way we live and work as well as in traditional areas such as schools and community centres. I agree with Senator Kyne that we desperately need a fund for community centres. That is the case in Dublin West. However, we must also encourage new types of investment in services such as community childcare and community co-working spaces. It does not have to involve new buildings. One of my ideas is that some of the closed Bank of Ireland branches, which are key buildings in towns, could be used for co-working spaces.

The Minister is aware of the 300 hubs we have in Ireland and how they are mostly enterprise hubs rather than co-working hubs. Running a co-working hub can be difficult to sustain financially without anchor tenancies. I suggest that the Minister would consider giving individuals the €3.20 per day tax relief companies can get. I ask him to consider its application to hubs, so that it could be used to provide a stipend to an employee using a hub. That would also help sustain hubs in the long term.

A design-and-build approach could also be considered, so that instead of communities themselves investing in hubs across the country, we could have a design-and-build approach based on preferred suppliers that could kit them out to a high standard for a better return on the investment. All of these measures must be taken strategically. We can line up investment in multipurpose centres that are co-working hubs and provide community childcare with Project Ireland 2040. We do not want hubs to be developed randomly around the country. We should invest in them strategically. Local authorities are really interested in this but they require funding, as they do not have specific funds and they have not been updated. I have lots of other ideas. We have started talking about remote working, but we have not started to talk about making communities ready for it. We talk about broadband, but we need to go further than that.

I thank the Minister for coming in for the debate on the national development plan. A review of the plan will be crucial as we emerge from this difficult period. I encourage him to be ambitious, imaginative and creative. I wish to refer to six general themes under the plan that I think the Minister must consider. There is the post-pandemic social and economic recovery, the question of climate change, to which colleagues have referred, the rapid pace of technological developments and an ageing population. It is a fact that we are getting older as a country. We must also look at Ireland's place in a post-Brexit world and in an increasingly globalised society. The NDP should also contribute in some way towards the development of a shared island.

I noticed that the Minister mentioned that the post-pandemic recovery must be in line with the national planning framework.

I agree, however, with a number of my colleagues, including Senator Casey, that we need to review the planning framework in light of changes we have seen in work practices because of Covid. I also agree with Senators Kyne, Higgins and O'Loughlin about the importance of community spaces. That is not just about open spaces, it also has to be about our theatres, sports facilities and other amenities that are part of our community and that make us who we are. Those things are often put aside in the big projects but it is crucial that they be part of this national development plan. It also means that we need to look at the creative industries and how we can support them through the development of studio space, infrastructure and skills in order that they can continue to grow. Colleagues have already mentioned climate change and that means looking at how we invest in our infrastructure, particularly when it comes to coastal protection.

Senator Craughwell made reference to the rapid pace of technological development and I am concerned that, as a country, we are not geared up sufficiently to look at that. The Senator spoke about fibre and we are talking about 5G technologies but we should be preparing for the possibilities to which 6G technology will give rise in the next decade. We also have to look at a situation whereby most of the forms of employment in which we are engaged will be dramatically changed. Blockchain technology will revolutionise banking, finance and public administration. I have to ask the Minister the extent to which Government is ready for all of that and is prepared to invest in further and higher education to upskill all of our citizens?

I mention the creation of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The Minister knows that it was a passion for Fianna Fáil to create that Department but if its work is simply administrative in nature, it will have failed. The Department needs to prepare people for the changes that are coming down the line as a result of developments in technology and ensure that all of our citizens can be upskilled and reskilled to be able to avail of that. Under this national development plan, that requires significant investment in our further and higher education institutions and particularly in the new technological university sector. The national development plan has to make a major investment in the upskilling and reskilling of all of our citizens.

We are going to have an ageing population. We have learned lessons from Covid but we have to look at how we will redesign our towns, cities and rural communities to ensure that as all of us are getting older, we are able to live as independently as we possibly can, and that the infrastructure is able to meet the needs of an ageing population. I have always been struck by the statistic that one in five teenagers will live to the age of 100 and that one in three babies born this year will live to the age of 100. Are we prepared to create a society that will be able to cope with that form of an ageing population?

This is a post-Brexit world and Senator Currie mentioned the fact that Ireland is an active and proud member of the European Union. We should always have that outward-looking aspect to our policy. That means we have to ensure the national development plan supports that. It means our ports and airports are equipped to be able to deal with that and infrastructure is crucial in that. I will make one local point about Rosslare Europort. It needs to be developed as a tier 1 port and we need to see the M11 motorway completed all the way to Rosslare. I do not just mean that from the point of view of its importance to Wexford. It has a national importance in a post-Brexit scenario.

In the context of the national development plan, we need to look at how we can support the development of a shared island. That is not just about infrastructure routes or new roads. It is about co-operation in areas of education and research to make sure that as an island we can face all of those challenges together. I set the Minister the challenge that he would be ambitious, imaginative and creative. I know he has the ability to be all of those things and in the context of the review, I look forward to seeing that it can be measured against those goals.

Is it agreed that Senators Cummins, Murphy and Crowe will share a six minute speaking slot? Agreed.

I will try to make six minutes into two minutes. I thank the Minister. I will try to be brief and confine my points. The national development plan in the context of the national planning framework is very important for areas such as County Waterford, which is identified as one of the strategic areas in the national planning framework for population growth of 30,000 to 35,000 between now and 2040. I have said it before and I will say it again that I believe the litmus test for the national planning framework and the national development plan will be the successful development of Waterford and the growth plans set out in the national planning framework. This development can be in connectivity, health, education, housing and regeneration. The Government has made the significant investment of €110 million in the North Quays project and last week an investment was announced of €27.6 million from the urban regeneration and development fund for the city centre. There are many development plans for brownfield sites and concentric city centre development.

My colleague, Senator Ahearn, mentioned the development of the N24 between Waterford and Limerick. It connects the mid-west to the south east and goes onwards to Rosslare Europort. Exports via Rosslare Europort are particularly important in the context of Brexit. Piecemeal development of bypasses around towns will not cut it. They will not reduce the travel times on interurban routes and the national planning framework aims for an average speed of 90 km/h. Bypasses around small sections will not cut it. The N24 is critical in this context, as is the development of the Waterford campus of the technological university of the south east and the further development of University Hospital Waterford's campus. I have a lot more to say but I will leave it at that.

I started with six minutes and I am down to one and a half minutes and if I do not start now I will lose that. I thank the Minister for being here and say well done on his stewardship of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I will have to condense my speech. The purpose of a national development plan should be to make Ireland a better place for us all. Perhaps in the past we did not speak as much about communities and places of leisure but they have become crucial. Like everybody else, I want to be a bit parochial and speak about County Roscommon and all it has to offer. I have already spoken in the House about coming here in 2016 and meeting a person from Dublin in the bar one evening. I was asked where I came from and when I said Roscommon the reply was that the person passed through it on the way to Westport. I want people to stop in Roscommon. I want people to look at the beauty of that county and study its history, and infrastructure is important for this. I thank the Minister for his support for the N5 project, which we are trying to get finished. The N4 runs through the county and there is a bypass at Carrick-on-Shannon. We also need a just transition in our locality. This is very important given the demise of the ESB and Bord na Móna. For 70 years they were the economic lifeline of our region and it has badly hit north-east Roscommon. I know the Minister is well aware of this. When we speak about a national development plan we must ensure the creation of extra jobs in the area is a priority in the plan. I know through the investment being made at present it is happening and I hope it will continue.

I welcome the Minister. The good news for the House is that he is a great friend of Galway and a regular visitor to our city. He is well familiar with the issues I want to raise in the 90 seconds that I have. To state the obvious, unlike Limerick and Cork the ring road is essential as is its funding.

We have committed to it in the programme for Government and I welcome that. As alluded to earlier, the development and upgrade of Galway Harbour and the docks has huge potential. The outlying of the western rail corridor and the connection across the western seaboard is vital. As mentioned a number of times this afternoon, the silver bullet highlighted by Covid-19 and the pandemic is broadband. It can revitalise rural Ireland and the western seaboard. It is essential that we continue to invest in broadband.

The Minister will be well aware that the city of the tribes is choked. It is paramount that the funding for the outer ring road committed to in the programme for Government is delivered. I welcome the Minister's co-operation in that regard and his continuous assistance to the people of our city.

I welcome the Minister and I wish him well in his brief. His stewardship of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will be judged not on his current actions, but his future actions. The majority of us in this Chamber today are not from Dublin. There is an over-reliance on Dublin in this country that needs to be addressed. That would be the Minister's legacy, in part. The national development plan is, as stated by IBEC, a growth enabler for the regions, be that Cork, Roscommon, Limerick, Galway or Waterford. We must ensure that the regions prosper. The Minister and I come from Cork, which is projected to be the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country. Building on the announcements of the urban regeneration development fund last weekend, we must ensure that the building blocks are put in place. Central to that work is the airport in Cork in terms of connectivity and the enhancement and attraction of foreign direct investment. Also, provision must be made for multiannual funding for the airport and we must collectively support the development of the new runway.

Many of us approach the Minister with the begging bowl in terms of projects north, south, east and west. If money is to be cornerstone of what we are at, then it is all for nothing. We must ensure that we build sustainable communities for people. Developing on the trend of Senator Byrne, never before has a national development plan been so important. It is not about being ambitious; it is about the necessity of the plan for our people. In a post-Brexit, post-Covid-19 world there must be new synergies developed and new partnerships created with local government at the centre. I ask the Minister to challenge and reclaim government for the politicians at urban, local, rural, central level. Let Government reclaim from the civil servants the role of Ministers and parliamentarians, delivering for our local authority members. We must develop a new country, as already articulated.

Today, councillors are working on city and county development plans. I appeal to the Minister and to all members of Government to give them the pay rise. Let us give them the proper remuneration for the job they do. The Minister was previously a member of a local authority, as were many of us in this Chamber. We must not allow politics at local or national level to be for the chosen few. It must be open to everybody. The Minister is a person of incredible sincerity and integrity. We can make a lasting impression on the next generation in what we do today. I wish the Minister well. He has my full support.

This is the most important debate we will have in the Seanad, in my opinion. I accept this is not the fault of the Acting Chairperson, Senator McGahon, but to shoehorn it into a two-hour debate such that what many of us have to say must be condensed into six minutes is not acceptable. It is important to make that point.

I thank all the Senators for their contributions to the debate. It is really tough when one has only one or two minutes to cover such an important issue.

Anyway, it is clear to me from the contributions made that there is broad support in this House for the ongoing work in respect of the review of the NDP. The importance of public capital investment is recognised by Members. An ambitious public capital investment programme will be at the heart of the recovery of the economy. We are fortunate to be in a position where we can access funding. We now have a record level of public investment with an envelope this year of €10.8 billion, representing more than 5% of GNI* and we compare well in European terms. This is in stark contrast to what had to be done a decade ago when public capital investment was cut because funding was simply not available.

At the end of this process we will reach what will be a much reformed but exciting and ambitious new national development plan. There has been fantastic engagement by the public and by all stakeholders as part of the public consultation process. We received in excess of 560 submissions, which is many multiples of the number we had during the previous review of the plan. That is a measure of the appetite that exists to get this right. There is recognition of how central this will be to the development of our country over the next decade and beyond.

It is not only about economic recovery; it is about social recovery as well. This point has been well made by several colleagues. The country will have to undergo a journey when we come through the Covid-19 pandemic. We have a renewed appreciation of many of the facilities that are in our communities and, in some cases, the lack of facilities elsewhere has been underlined during the pandemic. I am determined to ensure that many of the facilities touched on by colleagues today form part of the new NDP that will be unveiled in the coming months.

Reform will be at the heart of this process because it needs to be. We need to do some things better. That is why I am determined that we improve the governance and oversight of the delivery of major projects. We need to learn from the mistakes that have been made in the past. We will have a new major projects advisory group. External members will be appointed to the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. The positions on both of these bodies will be filled following an open competitive process that will be advertised by the Public Appointments Service shortly. That is the right way to do this.

In the coming months we will finalise what will essentially be a new NDP for the coming decade to 2030. We will give line Departments the certainty of a rolling capital ceiling for the next five years. We will have the overall envelope for public capital investment to 2030 to allow us to develop the country in a planned, targeted and co-ordinated way. We need to get the most out of what is a record level of public investment.

I wish to give colleagues an assurance of our absolute commitment to the national broadband plan. The Government is engaging with National Broadband Ireland with a view to trying to bring that forward in any way that it can be done to examine the potential for acceleration.

Climate will be at the heart of the new NDP because it needs to be. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications will bring forward a new climate Bill shortly. It will go to Government tomorrow with amendments. This will have to be a key driver in the new NDP and we all have to recognise that.

Capital is not only about the hard infrastructure that we often think about. A new and modern Ireland is emerging. That is why we set up the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. That will be an important part of the new NDP, as will the digitalisation agenda. An extraordinary volume of work is going on across government to drive innovation in this area. We need to consider what role the NDP can play in driving the new economy and the upskilling that will be required.

We will take account of the impact of Covid-19 in respect of the changes it has brought about in society. Project Ireland 2040, even as currently structured, provides for three quarters of the growth to be outside of Dublin, with the main centres for growth being Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

The shared island unit and the priority that we are affording to investment in the Border counties in the NDP and also in PEACE + will be very much at the core of what we are proposing.

Finally, we should acknowledge that there are bottlenecks in the system. Money is not always the constraint in delivering public capital projects and we are determined to reform the way in which we deliver them. That is why there will be a new planning and environmental court and why we will examine the scope and the grounds on which judicial reviews can be taken because sometimes they are used simply to stall projects. We need to make sure that projects that are in the national interest can continue to be developed as part of the NDP. I stress that the role of line Departments is absolutely central here in that they will determine the core projects they wish to prioritise as part of the review of the NDP. The role of my Department is to pull it together, to co-ordinate and lead the review and to sign off on the final document.

I thank colleagues for their contributions. The debate was short but I am happy to come back to the House again to engage further on this as we move towards the finalisation of the new NDP later this summer. I thank everyone for their contributions. I listened carefully to the debate and heard some really good contributions.

Sitting suspended at 5.46 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.