National planning framework: Big picture must prevail over localism

The Cabinet meets in “a special session” today to review the evolving national planning framework (NPF) and the 10-year capital investment programme. 

This process will consider the nuts and bolts of how the country’s infrastructure will be developed over the coming decade — and, thankfully, the economic recovery offers this administration an opportunity to plan on a scale its predecessors must envy.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s government and, hopefully, its successor’s, will have billions to spend. 

As ever in these situations, it is not always possible to hold the line between national, regional, and local interests. 

Our often-shabby culture of political patronage may, again, dilute the wine in a way that undermines coherent development and the impact concentrated ambitions might have — just as Charlie McCreevy’s bizarre solo run on decentralisation did in 2003.

The NPF aims to prioritise development in Cork, Galway, Waterford, and Limerick. 

But, predictably, public representatives from other parts of the country are beating the war drums to have their particular area — constituency — caressed by central funding. 

Already a group of opposition TDs, having had sight of an early draft of the plan, harrumphed that it will “ignore rural Ireland”. 

The old issues return and, as with hospitals and the struggle to develop centres of excellence at the cost of some small hospitals, the old war cries reverberate.

Today’s cabinet meeting may revisit last week’s announcement that Eir had withdrawn from the procurement process for bringing high-speed broadband to 542,000 ‘rural’ homes or businesses. 

This setback — it is one, no matter what Communications Minister, Denis Naughten, might suggest — shows how very hard it can be to develop 21st-century infrastructure on a 20th-century foundation. 

Denis Naughten

It also feeds the “ignoring rural Ireland” narrative and underlines the vulnerability of public and private sector partnerships. This is one of the most pressing infrastructure issues facing the country.

The NPF must consider the battle to secure international investment and how infrastructure needs to be developed to attract the kind of investment our exchequer has become dangerously reliant on. 

Today, we report on projects that once looked promising, but did not materialise. 

One was the anticipated, €1bn investment by pharma giant Amgen, which, it was hoped, would bring 1,100 jobs to East Cork. 

The company decided in 2007 that it would not proceed. That this announcement was preceded by repeated assurances from politicians, who must have known better, tinged the inevitable disappointment with more than a hint of bitter delusion. 

The 133-acre IDA site designated for Amgen has lain fallow since. There are, sadly, too many others like it. 

The IDA has an impressive record in supporting job creation: Just last month, the agency pointed out that foreign companies employ 210,443 people in Ireland and that they have met a five-year jobs target two years ahead of schedule. 

The NPF may help revive some empty sites, but maybe not all — especially those that possibly opened to satisfy political, rather than commercial, needs.

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