There is no doubt that the level of growth we have experienced in recent years and the maintenance of our competitive edge will be substantially influenced for the better if we are able to achieve a more dispersed pattern of growth than we have seen in recent years. There should be a better spread of economic and social growth across the State and a more even spread of infrastructural provisions. It is vital that there should be a clear plan in place to take care of this. In saying that I welcome the Fine Gael plan for the nation, with its vision of Ireland in 2010.
It is necessary to have a plan to manage economic growth. The Fine Gael plan tackles six key national tasks: the planning and development of housing and transport infrastructure; the provision of a health system which looks after all people; the well-being and education of children from birth to adulthood; the structure and volume of taxation; the preservation of the environment; the provision recreational living facilities for people and the foreseeable physical needs of the nation.
Already twice as many new houses per head of population are being built here as in other EU member states. This places immense strain on roads, schools, buses, recreational amenities and waste disposal facilities. It has been estimated that we will have to build 38,000 new houses a year between now and 2006 and 40,000 new houses per year between 2006 and 2011.
To qualify its housing need, the Government will also have to decide on its immigration policy. According to the ESRI, if we want to maintain current rates of economic growth, we will have to actively encourage immigration. If current rates of economic growth are to be maintained, immigration must be actively encouraged and that is a conscious choice which we must make. Without immigration, labour shortage will slow growth rates. The ESRI stated that "The exceptionally high growth rates are not sustainable without a permanent inflow of immigrants". Consequently, immigrants must be housed. For every 10,000 immigrants, the demand for housing increases by 3,000 dwellings. The Government should, therefore, estimate and provide for a specified level of immigration during the period 2000-10.
If 40,000 houses per year are to be built over the next ten years, it is likely that two thirds will be built on land that is not yet serviced. A total of 27,000 acres will need to be serviced at a cost of £10,000 per acre. As much as possible of this servicing should be done early in the ten year plan to increase house supply and reduce house prices. The Government must set out to increase supply so dramatically that it forces back the current escalating trend in house prices.
These services cannot be provided willy nilly when pressure is put on. A conscious plan is needed to build up certain nodes of development that are alternative to centres like Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford, where road networks are already so much over capacity that commuting times to work almost invariably exceed 30 minutes. The ESRI identified a number of developable centres to which drive times to work are less than 30 minutes – Letterkenny, Sligo, Castlebar, Athlone, Tralee, Kilkenny, Portlaoise and Dundalk. Other towns may make a case to be considered as nodes of development. There should be a deliberate plan to provide serviced land, recreational and educational facilities, and radial transport to these towns so that they can develop a new centre alternative to the already overcrowded centres mentioned. This is a political choice which must be made at the outset of the plan. There is no point leaving such a national decision to the vagaries of the market and the preferences of property developers.
Fine Gael believes that the sense of community must be strengthened because it is being lost in urban Ireland. Many do not know their neighbours, of if they do, they feel no sense of responsibility for their neighbours' lives. Yet neighbourhoods were and are the loci for most of Ireland's voluntary effort in the sporting, charitable, social and religious fields. There is an increasing disjunction between the community of work and that of home. As people are forced to commute 50 or 60 miles or up to three hours per day to and from work, they have no time left to develop neighbourhood activities. The work community, therefore, is the only one that they have and if they lose their job that is gone. The Government has a role to require the distribution of homes and jobs in close conjunction with one another throughout the country in a way that will allow natural local communities to grow and prosper. We need to breathe life into the neighbourhoods and the civil parishes in our cities.
Fine Gael will draw up a spatial residential plan for Ireland. Such a plan designating the places where facilities should be provided for people to live and work to integrate both and provide the best services with the least environmental damage is needed. The plan should outline where and how waste is to be disposed of and our national water supplies are to be protected. The space in which we live is too precious to be left to vagaries of random planning applications to a multiplicity of local authorities. Unless there is a national residential plan we will have houses that are not homes because they lack the surrounding facilities.
A village environment is normally associated with a rural setting but such a community can also develop and be encouraged in cities. The need to allow people to associate naturally with their neighbours should be a key element of the physical redesign of urban areas and existing villages. Villages are one of the basic building blocks of our community with 40 per cent of the population living in a rural environment. The number of towns with a population between 1,500 and 5,000 should be doubled between now and 2010 as part of this process of natural community development.
Such a plan could be financed by Irish housing bonds floated at a fixed rate over a 30 year term which would be attractive to global institutions and reduce the risk to public finance of short-term market fluctuations. The plan should outline where and how the State will assist the growth of regional centres, by deliberately assisting the development of recreational, sporting and lifestyle enhancing facilities in those centres to which it wishes to attract people to live. If we are not proactive in spreading these facilities around the country, our great capital city, Dublin, will simply choke to death.
Currently the planning system works on the basis of planning authorities refusing some applications and granting others. It is a negative process and is developer-led. The Government gives no lead because it has no national vision of the pattern of settlement it wants for the country. As a result there are areas close to Dublin, upon which no houses have been built, while people commute 60 miles or more to work there. This is foolish.
Fine Gael believes the railway system should be deliberately chosen by the Government as the primary artery of national development and, as far as possible, houses and businesses should be built close to the rail network to put the maximum amount of traffic into that network and off the roads. It must be upgraded to halve rail journey times. For example, the journey time from Waterford to Dublin should be cut to 90 minutes from the current two hours and 40 minutes. This should be a deliberate national policy and the zoning decisions of councils should follow this priority. Councils should not be allowed to demand improved rail and transport links unless they are willing to provide for high density housing close to those links, especially near railway stations and this must be managed centrally.
Services provided by Government should be decentralised along the railway lines and priority should be given to the concentration of top grade broad band telecommunication facilities in conjunction with railway lines so that houses and offices built nearby can have maximum IT efficiency. As part of this process, entire Departments should be moved from Dublin. For example, there is no reason the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and its Minister should not operate from one of the nodes of development identified earlier. While Dáil Éireann should continue to meet in Dublin there is no reason the Constitution should not provide that Seanad Éireann should meet in a location outside Dublin, such as Galway, Athlone, Dundalk or Limerick.
Cities need to be turned inside out. If more offices are built in the suburbs and more high rise or high density homes built in the city centre there will be much better use of our transport links, with buses and trains filled as they travel in both directions in the morning and evening. Park and ride facilities will work only if there are parking spaces. The Government has failed to provide suburban parking to complement quality bus corridors and this is a betrayal of commuters. The Minister for Public Enterprise procrastinated on Luas and then produced a compromise between the underground and overground options. Many believe that she will eventually have to abandon that grossly expensive and time wasting compromise. She will spend £400 million extra in taxpayers' money and it will not carry one extra passenger. It is critically urgent to reduce the damage done to health and lifestyles by excessive commuting.