I wish to raise an issue concerning the national planning framework. Given the spatial imbalance of the national planning framework and its failure to include measures to address rural decline, I would like details on the specific metrics, processes and methodologies that were used to rural-proof the plan throughout all stages of development. I would also like to know which stakeholders contributed to that process.
This Government claims to have strong rural credentials. It claims that it is committed to ensuring that the interests of rural communities and businesses are equitably accounted for in planning, policies and programmes. However, that is not evident in Project Ireland 2040. There is little or no evidence that this plan was subjected to a robust process of rural-proofing. There is absolutely no trace of any rural-proofing having taken place. Rural counties and rural regions like the midlands have been left behind. There is a 9.3% unemployment rate in the midlands. It is one of the poorest regions in this State and yet it is left behind in this planning framework. I know that there has been criticism across the parties about this very issue. Towns in the midlands like Tullamore, Portlaoise and Mullingar have been overlooked. We have seen stroke politics in action in this planning framework and that is not good enough. It is not fair. We need accountability, transparency and fairness to all regions.
Rural-proofing is not an abstract idea. It is a systematic process of stress-testing proposals to ascertain whether or not they will achieve critical targeted outcomes in rural areas. The rural-proofing of policy and its implementation are important in ensuring that Government policies show an understanding of and take into account the specific characteristics that exist in rural areas. This systematic impact assessment approach is informed by statistical data and analysis from a range of sources as well as qualitative and quantitative processes of inquiry carried out with key rural stakeholders in the public, non-governmental organisation, NGO, private and community sectors.
The process of rural-proofing should be started at an early stage. Policymakers and analysts should work collaboratively to identify intended or unintended impacts and how policies differ from their application in the urban context. In summary, it is an evidence-based process which robustly provides the foundation for rural investment decisions and the suitability of solutions which affect the rural economy, agriculture, small and medium-sized enterprises, employment creation, demographic trends, access to rural services and infrastructure. Rural Ireland is not a homogenous non-urban hinterland and solutions for coastal and island regions will vary substantially from those in the Border area. They will differ again from those in the midlands region.
Rural-proofing is therefore a sophisticated process which tests proposals in a diverse range of geographical scenarios and differing socio-economic contexts. This plan should have been rural-proofed at all stages of development and it should have been reflective of the issues that need to be addressed. As I have said before, the midlands is left behind. Recent figures from the Central Statistics Office show that my county of Offaly has the third lowest disposable income in the State. It is not good enough that we are being left behind again and I speak for the regions. Looking at investment driven by the Industrial Development Authority, IDA, there has been a net loss of 198 jobs in Longford. Laois has gained four additional jobs and Offaly 26. I have raised this issue a number of times. What I seek from the Minister of State is this: I want to know what rural-proofing was done and what he intends to do, because for job creation to have reached 12% of the target of 135,000 jobs is not good enough or acceptable.