Regional development is a key objective for my Department and the enterprise support agencies each have specific operational activities designed to encourage a redirection of employment and economic development away from Dublin. To ensure there is coherence in our aims, these new regional commitments align with the Government's national strategic objectives as detailed in the national spatial strategy.
In order to give effect to the national spatial strategy at regional level, the Dublin and mid-east regional authorities have prepared draft regional planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area. The draft guidelines indicate policy priorities for economic development including regional employment and job creation. The settlement strategy in the draft guidelines emphasises the need to reinforce the development of the major hinterland towns, and this will contribute to maintaining or improving the jobs ratio for the local authority areas in which they are created. The closing date for submissions on the draft guidelines is 5 March 2004.
Increased residential zoning by Meath County Council, especially adjacent to the county boundary and transport corridors has helped the county population grow by about 24,000 since the 1996 census. This has facilitated people live in the county and work in Dublin.
The spatial contrasts between parts of Meath close to Dublin and north Meath are acknowledged in the national spatial strategy. Rural areas that have experienced decline relative to rural settlements will have that trend reversed through a focus on boosting the development capacity of smaller villages and rural towns and supporting the housing needs of the rural community.
Last July I set up the enterprise strategy group. In developing a vision for enterprise policy and employment, I asked its chairman, Eoin O'Driscoll, to take into account an appropriate balance between the regions as set out in the national spatial strategy. Notwithstanding these activities, our commitment to balanced regional development involves working with local communities and authorities to reinforce regional strengths and use them as a catalyst to further skilled employment, to buttress the sustainability of existing employment and to accelerate the necessary and growing trend towards higher value output.
Distinctive county attributes are an important aspect of this development work and the enterprise support agencies under my Department have a strong commitment, at county level, to meet demanding targets for company support, development and growth. This involves a determined interaction with county authorities to spur necessary improvement in both infrastructure and the environment for business in Meath. These agencies are represented on the Meath County Development Board and associated teams.
New initiatives have arisen from this involvement including a special Navan-based, pilot FÁS traineeship scheme to service insurance administration. This commenced in February 2003 and was developed at the request of the IDA, Navan Chamber of Commerce and the Meath county development team to support important investors in this sector who are expanding employment. For example, in September 2003 the IDA board approved a 57-job expansion project from Generali International at the Navan Business Park. This expansion will see employment grow to 92 in Generali's financial services project. Meanwhile, Europ Assistance has engaged in an extensive recruitment programme which will see an additional 50 staff added to the current workforce.
Due to the closure of some foreign enterprises at Navan Business Park last year, the IDA has accelerated the level of itinerary visits there and is hopeful this will result in securing replacement projects for the park. The IDA is actively working with Meath County Council's new investment manager, in marketing these facilities and securing the provision of all required infrastructure facilities in the county.
Furthermore, there are three advance office buildings at planning permission stage and one advance technology building, while planning permission and IDA agreement have been received for the conversion of Athlumney House in Navan to provide 29,000 sq. ft. of office space. The location has been included in several itinerary visits. A new 60 acre business park is under infrastructural development within the county and adjacent to Drogheda. This will bring expanded opportunities for both employment and local authority funding, through rates, to County Meath.
There are 180 Enterprise Ireland client companies in Meath employing 4,241 people. Enterprise Ireland will continue its policy of encouraging growth and development in those companies as well as encouraging new high potential start-ups in the county.
Over the past ten years projects in County Meath have received over €4.4 million in grant aid from the Meath County Enterprise Board. The board has assisted projects that created 872 full time jobs and 211 part-time jobs. During 2003, 110 people attended start your own business courses and a further 130 entrepreneurs attended management development, IT and marketing courses. A further 216 individuals availed of business advice and counselling while 18 businesses received individual mentoring. The board is encouraging entrepreneurship and self employment in the county to build an enterprise climate that will encourage more new and creative business start-ups.
The board has been instrumental in developing and operating the Navan Enterprise Centre, containing 75,000 square feet of enterprise and office space and where in excess of 150 people are currently working. The board, in conjunction with Kells Town Council, is also working on the development of a 25,000 sq. ft. enterprise centre. Construction is anticipated to commence in October 2004. These are further indicators of State support to improve the employment potential and enterprise infrastructure for County Meath.