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.