Wednesday, 4 February 2004

Ceisteanna (40)

Paddy McHugh


132 Mr. McHugh asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the way in which he proposes to use the Western Development Commission report, Jobs for Towns, to bring about the stated aim of balanced regional development; his views on the report; and ifhe will make a statement on the matter. [3280/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (3 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

In July 2003, when I launched the 2002 annual report of the Western Development Commission, I asked the commission to co-ordinate a strategy to develop towns on radial routes in the seven counties that comprise the western region. A critical objective is to maximise the benefit to the west of the national spatial strategy, major roads investment, the strategic rail review and decentralisation. At that time I said that it was vital that infrastructure and development go together — that each should make the other happen — and I felt that the commission was ideally placed to spearhead such an initiative. The overriding objective has been to enable local and regional authorities in these counties to plan a co-ordinated approach to maximise the development potential of the region.

I view the Jobs for Towns report as a detailed and valuable report in such a relatively short time. The commission consulted the various local and regional authorities to compile and assemble this report. It has identified 20 towns with populations in excess of 1,500 and analysed their potential for development by reference to a wide range of criteria such as road, rail and air access, remoteness and physical and social infrastructure. I was especially pleased that account was also taken of towns' proximity to a CLÁR area. The need for an emphasis on smaller towns as part of the strategic development of the western region has been consistently pointed out in commission reports.

In addition to the findings of the recent report, the commission intends to continue research into the development of small towns in the region. The national spatial strategy also reiterated the Government's commitment to balanced regional development, including the development of towns outside gateways and hubs, and rural regeneration. It will be noted that many of the findings of this report are relevant to the recent Government decision on decentralisation, the implementation of which will be greatly assisted by the data and analysis contained in the report.

The report also deals with the issue of rail links and infrastructural development. I am aware the commission wrote to the four local authorities on the route of the western rail corridor to establish if towns in each county have been prioritised for growth, in part because of their positioning on the western rail corridor. Each local authority responded that it has made reference to this in its draft or current development plan.

I have not doubt that the research undertaken for this report will be immensely valuable not only to local and regional authorities but also to national organisations, including Departments such as mine. I intend to use the findings in promoting development in the west in co-operation with my colleagues in Government. In this context, the decentralisation programme, coupled with infrastructural development, will contribute significantly to enhancing economic and social activity across towns in the west.

I thank the Minister for his reply and acknowledge his interest in and knowledge of rural Ireland. Does he agree that the Western Development Commission report is one of a series of reports, strategies and reviews which have been produced with the express aim of achieving balanced regional development?

I was in Knock Airport on the day the Minister requested the commission to prepare this report. My reaction at the time was to wonder why we needed another report, because we all knew the problems and ought to have been resolving them. Does the Minister agree that, at the time, he also said the report would inform thinking on the locations in the western region suitable for decentralisation?

My scepticism was confirmed when the decentralisation programme was announced before the official launch of the commission report. It was further confirmed when a town designated in the national spatial strategy and also included in the Western Development Commission report did not qualify for decentralisation. The Minister knows that town is Tuam. Does the Minister agree that we have had enough reports? We should co-ordinate and dovetail them to move forward. The rejuvenation of the western region is dependent on the reopening of the western rail corridor. As the Minister will be aware, the Minister for Transport has said that for this to happen it is necessary to create a critical mass. Local authorities should take that into account in the development of their policies. What are we to make of the fact that on the one occasion the Government had to contribute directly to the creation of this critical mass in Tuam, it ignored its own national spatial strategy? The Government also ignored the public pronouncements of Ministers. When decisions are made on the final IT and health sector jobs to be decentralised, will the Minister ensure that some are moved to Tuam in support of the statements and policies in which we have been asked to believe?

The Deputy should be clear that there was a set purpose behind the request to the Western Development Commission to prepare this report. Decentralisation, the western rail corridor and development in the west are all linked and we wish to position ourselves on them. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, made clear in the statement he made following publication of the report that we could create the circumstances in the west which would ensure the western rail corridor was opened. I discussed the matter with him and we agreed it would be a good idea to ask the Western Development Commission to produce a report in conjunction with local authorities, which would push the process forward.

The report is useful. It promotes the concept that local authorities should prioritise for development towns along the western rail corridor and outlines the strengths and possibilities of each urban centre. The decentralisation model developed in the report was overtaken by a decision which was made faster than anybody in this House expected. I welcome that. There were a great many issues which had to be taken into account in the selection of towns. One of the problems with previous decentralisation programmes was that above principal officer level, a civil servant could not pursue a career without returning to Dublin. Therefore, the creation in the regions of a critical mass of Civil Service jobs is very important.

Deputy McHugh spoke about Tuam and I understand that we all have to look after the home patch. However, the idea that if one places an industry in a town everyone working there will live in the immediate vicinity is incorrect. They will live in any town within a 15 to 20 mile radius. If a Department were situated in Claremorris, Tuam would benefit hugely. When the new road is completed, the distance between the two towns will be very short. My Department has used the Western Development Commission report to outline for people considering decentralisation the travel times between various locations in the west. In the case of my Department's decentralisation to Knock, travel times to Ballina, Tuam and Claremorris are outlined. That is what people consider when they are examining decentralisation. They ask what their choices are if they decide to live 20 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour from work. The report in question has proved its worth in the creation of an atmosphere in which we can move forward.