Ensuring value for taxpayers money should be priority

There is something inherent in Ireland’s institutional and political structure that renders it nigh on impossible to devise and deliver policy, particularly in the sphere of capital investment.

The delivery of the children’s hospital has turned into a total and very damaging fiasco. This is not least due to the fact that its location makes very little sense, but the manner in which it was originally costed has turned it into a PR nightmare at the very least for Government.

In the area of housing, it is quite incredible that we cannot provide adequate housing that is affordable for what is a relatively small population.

The same can be said for health. The two-tier health system that results in massive waiting lists for those unfortunate enough not to have adequate private health insurance is a clear manifestation of failure, as is the fact that the South-East does not have adequate cardiac care, and it has a hospital where bodies are left to decay on trolleys.

Ireland is quite simply failing to deliver a health service befitting a so-called wealthy developed economy.

For those of us unfortunate enough to have to travel on the M7 on a frequent basis, the valuable hours in people’s lives that are lost sitting in traffic and the 16,000-plus traffic fines that have been issued to people who travel over 60km/h is a contemptible way to treat the citizens of the country.

It is noteworthy that the roadworks generally ceases at night and at weekends. Surely it would have been possible to deliver the much-needed upgrade in half the time if it operated on a 24-7 basis? As is the case with most infrastructure delivery in this country, there appears to be a strong appetite to make people suffer for as long as possible.

The latest debacle concerns the broadband offering.

For reasons that have not been adequately explained, we have ended up in a situation where we are left with one bidder for the contract, and surprise surprise, that bidder has been given the contract.

The plan agreed by Government this week envisages the provision of a broadband service to the approximately 25% of the population that does not have access to high-speed broadband from a commercial operator. 

By definition, most of those are in remote areas and hence the laying of the fibre cable will be expensive. The cost estimate envisages a €3bn bill for the taxpayer.

Having high-speed broadband in rural areas is a necessary but not sufficient condition for stronger and more balanced regional economic growth and development. 

It would allow people engage in remote working; reduce commuting significantly, helping boost an inadequate strategy to address climate change; would promote economic and social vibrancy in rural areas; and would of course enhance the quality of life.

What is not to like about all of this?

Well, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has strong concerns on costs and affordability. The concerns include the effects on parts of the National Development Plan; the unprecedented risk for the exchequer; and compatibility with the spatial objectives of Project Ireland 2040. Instead, the department recommends incremental improvements in the broadband offering to tap cheaper emerging technologies over time.

I am personally a bit conflicted here. At the time of the development of Luas and Dart, there were those who argued that those investments would represent a waste of taxpayers’ money. They have turned out to be incredibly successful. 

Indeed, it is a pity that we were not more ambitious at the time. The economic payback from providing broadband to remote rural areas would be a lot less compelling but the social benefits would be enormous. It does strike me as very strange that at the end of the process, the private operator would own the network. 

We are still paying the price for handing over the telecoms infrastructure to private interests with a short-term profit motive back in 1999. Arguably, this is the root cause of the dismal broadband offering we have today. That mistake should not be repeated.

Ahead of elections, the rushed agreement on the broadband plan does not look sensible. Ensuring value for taxpayers money should now become the priority.

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